Back Room Player: Craig Renney, the person behind the person controlling New Zealand’s purse-strings:
VERY FEW NEW ZEALANDERS would have the slightest idea who Doug Andrew was or is. And yet, in his role as an economic advisor to the then Leader of the Opposition, David Lange, Andrew was one of the people who helped prepare the way for “Rogernomics” – the introduction of neoliberalism to New Zealand. Seconded in the early 1980s from Treasury – then a hotbed of “Chicago School” free market economics – Andrew was one of the principal conduits through which the economic ideas animating the governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan found their way into the policy-making forums of the New Zealand Labour Party.
Thirty-four years later, another economist, also with a Treasury (and Reserve Bank!) background, is proffering policy advice to another Labour Finance Minister. Craig Renney, identified by Stuff’s Vernon Small as one of the key “back room players” in Jacinda Ardern’s new Labour-NZ First-Green Government, has become Grant Robertson’s “economics adviser”; “the man who did the grunt-work on the Alternative Budget – and disproved National’s claim of a ‘fiscal hole’.”
And, that’s it. To find out any more about the person behind the person controlling New Zealand’s purse-strings, it is necessary to go hunting in the forests of the Internet.
Fortunately, Mr Renney is a pretty easy quarry to track down.
He appears to be a citizen of the United Kingdom, aged in his late 30s, who embarked on his professional career by enrolling in the University of Stirling as a student of Economics and Politics in 1997. After an intriguing stint in Prague (2000-2001) Renney undertook post-graduate study at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle, from which he received a Masters in Urban Policy and Sustainable Regeneration, and another, in Public Administration.
Upon leaving university, Renney worked, variously, in local government, the UK Audit Commission, and as a public-sector consultant. In 2012 he emigrated to New Zealand to take up an analyst’s position in the NZ Treasury. Between 2014 and 2016 he was a Senior Policy Adviser in Steven Joyce’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment – from whence he was seconded to the Reserve Bank. In January of last year, he took on the job of Senior Economic Advisor in the Office of the Leader of the Opposition.
It’s an impressive CV. But, it tells us virtually nothing about the political leanings of its subject. The north-east of England, where Renney spent his university years, is generally regarded as the British Labour Party’s heartland. So, it is tempting to paint the advisor to our new Minister of Finance as a Geordie with traditional Labour sympathies. Certainly, the work he undertook for local governments in the north-east has the whiff of progressivism about it. On the other hand, Renney’s student years coincide with those of Tony Blair’s “New Labour” Government. So, it’s just as easy to see him as an eager follower of Anthony Gidden’s “Third Way” economic and social project.
The point is, we don’t know anything like enough about Craig Renney, let alone the direction in which he is steering our new Minister of Finance. And, dammit, we should know! Thirty-four years ago, advice was being tended to Roger Douglas that led directly to the radical restructuring of the entire economy and society of New Zealand – and we knew nothing about it!
This is what the New Zealand historian, Hugh Oliver, had to say about what was happening to Roger Douglas all those years ago:
Clearly an enormous shift had taken place in Douglas’s positions on economic policy and it appears that most of this shift occurred in the latter half of 1983. It is also apparent that the shift was towards the kind of free market economics that were espoused by the Treasury. It cannot be proved that the shift in ideas resulted from the influence of Treasury officials; however, it can be shown that it coincided in time with the presence in the Opposition Leader’s Office of Doug Andrew, a Treasury adviser with whom Douglas developed close links … During his time with the Labour Opposition Andrew produced papers on a range of economic policy topics and debated with existing opinions in the Caucus Economic Committee. Andrew argued for lower levels of trade protection as the key economic policy instrument. He argued for floating the currency as a matter of course.
Similarly, it is possible to show that Labour’s adoption of its radically self-limiting “Budget Responsibility Rules” coincided in time with the presence in the Leader of the Opposition’s Office of an economic adviser from the UK called Craig Renney. The same Craig Renney identified by Vernon Small as the person who did the “grunt work” on Labour’s Alternative Budget.
But what, exactly, does that mean? Is Craig merely putting flesh on the bones of Grant’s, and the Labour Policy Council’s, ideas? Or, are Grant and Labour merely repeating ideas and policy positions fed to them by Craig? And, if it’s the latter, then what are the ideas and policies our new government is being asked to swallow?
It is a question that has always intrigued me: “Who is more powerful? The person with a loaded rifle? Or the person who supplies the ammunition, places the rifle in another’s hands – and tells them who to shoot?”
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 31 October 2017.