The art of political goal-setting

Dr Bryce Wilkinson
Insights Newsletter
10 September, 2021

The recent passing of Sir Michael Cullen, the former Minister of Finance, has been widely covered.

The Super Fund, KiwiSaver and “Working for Families” are among Sir Michael’s lasting contributions to New Zealand - whether we like them or not.

Well, I didn’t. However, I am still in awe of Sir Michael’s political and rhetorical skills.

Whatever your political viewpoints, Sir Michael had a sparkling sense of humour. He was admired and loved for his quick wit – and feared by those who got caught in its crosshairs.

Few politicians today are of Sir Michael’s calibre. That is a shame because today’s politicians now cannot even learn the art of political target setting from the great master himself.

Sir Michael was a wise and worldly politician. He knew the first rule of politics was to not set too tight a deadline for achieving your goals.

Following that rule would have kept Phil Twyford in office. Sir Michael would never have made such a rookie mistake as KiwiBuild’s ‘100,000 homes in 10 years’ pledge.

So how did Sir Michael set targets? And how did he accomplish them?

As an example, he promised to restore New Zealand’s per-capita income to the top half of the OECD, that club of the world’s richest nations.

New Zealand had long been in the bottom half of OECD countries when Sir Michael became Finance Minister in 1999. We were ahead of 17 OECD members – but behind 20 others.

Older New Zealanders felt insulted by that. As late as the 1950s, New Zealand had the third highest per capita income in the world.

With Helen Clark and Michael Cullen leading the Labour Party, they promised to get New Zealand back into the top half of the OECD.

Wisely, they did not set themselves a deadline. That would have been unnecessarily risky.

As of 2008, 22 of the 38 OECD countries were ahead of New Zealand, two more than in 1999.

But then the Global Financial Crisis and the Euro Crisis came to New Zealand’s rescue.

Greece, Spain, and Italy saw their real incomes plummet. Standing still, we could pass them.

In doing so, we moved into the top half of the OECD. Just. On current prices and purchasing power parity exchange rates, at least.

The outcome would have pleased Sir Michael. A goal achieved against the odds, and the naysayers confounded.

Sir Michael’s chortle still echoes in my ears. May he rest in peace.

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