In praise of Bryce Wilkinson

By Eric Crampton 20/08/2015


Chris Trotter provides an excellent tribute to my colleague, Bryce Wilkinson.

DR BRYCE WILKINSON can make a reasonable claim to have written the book that launched neoliberalism in New Zealand. The name of that book was Economic Management, and although its official author was the New Zealand Treasury, most historians agree that the book’s guiding intellect was Dr Wilkinson’s.

Economic Management knitted together, into what amounted to a detailed manifesto, a raft of radical economic measures that had been worked out in “Economics II” – described by Te Ara, The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, as: “a think tank in the Treasury in the late 1970s and earlyof a 1980s.”

Economics II was staffed by young economists who had studied at universities in the United States where the monetarist theories of Milton Friedman, and the ideas of neo-classical economics generally, were already well-entrenched. Along with Dr Wilkinson, Treasury’s “think tank” included Graeme Scott, Rod Deane and Roger Kerr – individuals who would go on to play pivotal roles in the execution and consolidation of the neoliberal order in New Zealand.

I’m rather sure that Bryce was Canterbury trained: one of the Gnomes.

It would be Dr Wilkinson’s Economic Management which set the course for what would later be called “Rogernomics”.

Readers of Bowalley Road born after those heady days in 1984, and thus played no part in the great struggle for Labour’s heart and soul that raged from July 1984 until the ejection of Mike Moore from – and the elevation of Helen Clark to – the leadership of the Labour Party in 1993, have been supplied with this brief sketch of the role Dr Wilkinson has played in New Zealand’s recent history, so that they can put his statement on foreign investment and racism, released earlier today (17/8/15) into some kind of context.

Commenting on the KPMG report showing China to be only the second-largest foreign investor (after Canada) in New Zealand (excluding residential property) Dr Wilkinson is reported as saying that “the report tackled many New Zealanders’ fears that China was buying up land, farms and businesses.” Anxiety about China was producing a “silly defensiveness” he said, adding that “racist attitudes and red tape were making New Zealand one of the most restrictive regimes in the world”. According to Dr Wilkinson: “We should be much freer and more open to the rest of the world and that helps New Zealanders get a better price for their assets which means they can invest more in the rest of the world themselves.”

More free and open! Such is the prescription of the man who, along with his colleagues from Economics II, persuaded the fourth Labour government to transform New Zealand into the most “free” and “open” economy on Earth. The man who urged on the sale of public assets to “foreign investors”, who were then free to repatriate the billions of dollars of profits extracted from them to their new owners offshore. The man who now calls those attempting to keep what remains of New Zealand’s assets out of foreign hands “racist”, but whose policy of preparing state-owned entities for privatisation saw tens-of-thousands of Maori forestry workers, railway workers and construction workers thrown out of their state jobs – leading to the disintegration of whole communities and the fracturing of whanau.

Small and unprepossessing, smiling his grandfatherly smile in the group photos of the New Zealand Initiative (successor to the now defunct Business Roundtable, which for many years was run by another alumnus from Economics II, Roger Kerr) Dr Wilkinson would be passed, unrecognised, in the street by 999 out of 1,000 New Zealanders. And yet, unelected, and largely unknown outside the neoliberal elite, this little man has left a very big impression on our country.

I’ll leave it for you, the reader, to decide whether it has been for good or ill.

I cannot imagine having been willing to move to New Zealand had Bryce and his 80s colleagues not achieved the changes they then made. I’m very proud to have him as a colleague.