Monday, January 30, 2017
True, Berejiklian, like Baird before her, came to public office from a job in banking, rather than a post-uni career as a political apparatchik, though she did spend time as a ministerial staffer. Baird didn't even have that.
Politics is becoming a priesthood – a lifetime calling, culminating in elected office – with ever fewer politicians having spent most of their lives working in a normal job with normal people.
I doubt we're better governed under this development.
One thing making NSW different from other states is that, until Baird's resignation, it was a state governed by former bankers: premier, treasurer and Treasury secretary Rob Whitfield, shipped in after a 29-year career as a deal maker at Westpac.
With Baird gone, NSW may seem one banker down. Except that Berejiklian's successor as Treasurer, Dominic Perrottet, was a solicitor specialising in "banking restructuring".
I suppose one good thing about having a government dominated by bankers is they can be relied on to keep the budget shipshape. They'd be the last pollies to send us bankrupt.
Indeed, Berejiklian's proudest boast is that the NSW government (narrowly defined) is now debt free.
But is that the highest achievement of a government? You'd expect bankers to know better than to regard an institution like NSW without any debt as a joy to behold.
What about all the infrastructure the state still needs? Why boast about having no debt at time when debt is exceptionally cheap and governments' size and taxing powers make them ideally placed to borrow?
Though the fashionable fatwa against debt is atypical of bankers, what it does reveal is a weak grasp on the tenets of economics.
It's a mistake to imagine bankers and economists think alike. That's been my greatest reservation about the financially virtuous Baird government and my greatest fear about its Berejiklian successor.
Its only leading light who can be counted on to have a better grasp on the ways the powers and obligations of governments differ from those of a business is the secretary of the Premier's Department, Blair Comley, a former top federal Treasury officer.
Historically, state governments have had responsibility for owning a lot of profitable businesses, which have been government-owned only because they're natural monopoly networks – electricity, gas and water – as well as managing huge service-delivery organisations: public transport, roads, hospitals, schools and prisons.
This has led to the common notion that running a state government is pretty much about running a collection of businesses. The main thing you need is efficiency.
First, where governments deliver services with "public good" characteristics – services whose supply would be insufficient if customers had to pay market prices – the quality of the service, reflecting the multiple objectives in supplying it, is just as important as the cost of supplying it.
Second, when you're owning – or selling – a profitable business, profit should never be maximised at the expense of the wider community. You have to take an "economy-wide" perspective.
I fear a banker-dominated government is too likely to adopt a simple, business approach towards an endeavour that that has much wider objectives and obligations; to see the state budget as akin to a business's profit and loss account – as an end in itself rather than just a means to an end; to imagine that maximum benefit to the state's finances equals maximum benefit to people of the state and their economy.
Every instinct of a deal-making banker tells them the object of the exercise is to privatise a business for the highest price possible, this being in the best interests of taxpayers.
You do this by packaging the business up with government-conferred competitive advantages.
But this comes at the disadvantage of taxpayers-as-customers of the business, any present or potential private competitors, and business customers of the privatised business.
Rod Sims, boss of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, has been highly critical of the NSW government's privatisation of its ports which, of course, enjoy a degree of geographic monopoly.
I supported privatisation of NSW's electricity "poles and wires" mainly because ownership of a key natural monopoly presented the government with too much temptation to look the other way while its trading enterprises fattened their profits by gouging their customers.
Damaging the state's economy in the interests of improving the state government's finances is something only an ill-educated banker could think was a good idea.