Strident remarks by Stephen Jennings, one of New Zealand’s wealthiest citizens, on housing, education and the economy suggest that the even the business community is tiring of the government’s endless softly-softly, writes Duncan Greive.
Over the past few days we’ve seen a startling insertion into the public discourse of Stephen Jennings, a relatively low profile businessperson with a deeply unpalatable message for the government. Startling because Jennings was one of the key backroom figures of our economic reforms of the 80s, bearing witness to our privatisation frenzy then taking those lessons to a far bigger big stage in the collapsing Soviet Union. A number of westerners wandered into the chaos of post-communist Russia. More came out in body bags than, like Jennings, as billionaires.
It’s fair to say that any outsider making that kind of money in that era could not have done so without tremendous reserves of will, guile and courage – in Russia then as now businesses were dispossessed of their owners by various means, murder was rampant, the political situation was something to be ridden, not relied upon.
Then he moved into Africa, a continent replete with opportunity but the match of 90s Russia as far as risk goes. All this tells you one thing: that Stephen Jennings is an arch capitalist – a man who knows how money is made, how it moves, what it requires to stay in motion.
So the fact he has chosen now to harshly critique this government’s economic management has a real sense of moment to it. He gave a speech to rightwing thinktank the New Zealand Initiative last Thursday, then repeated the comments to the Weekend Herald’s Christopher Adams and again to Corin Dann on Q&A on Sunday. Collectively they had they air of a calculated assault on the government’s narrative, from someone who might previously have been considered a reliable partisan.