I’ll be tough and miserable says National’s Andrew Bayly but never boring

It’s not easy to work out who the alternative finance minister is– and that’s just within the National Party.

Labour, of course, likes to talk up the credentials of Act leader David Seymour to irritate National.

Michael Woodhouse is National’s finance spokesman and responsible for spending issues but he is not the direct opposite to the Finance Minister, Grant Robertson.

The seemingly mellow Andrew Bayly is No 3 in National and under a Judith Collins-led Government, as shadow Treasurer, would deliver the Budget.

Bayly, a wealthy former merchant banker and adventurer, has had just six months in the role while Robertson is preparing to deliver his fourth Budget next week.

But he is clear what a Finance Minister needs to be.

“You have to be miserable and tough if you have to be because everyone wants to spend money,” he tells the Herald.

“It’s the same in business,” he says alluding to his banking career, his startup companies, and former work in which he helped turn British council water operations into companies, and then to list on the stock exchange.

“The easiest thing you can do in business is spend money. It makes you feel good but the hardest thing is to say no.”

A good finance minister had to be open to new ideas but be tough when necessary.

He cited former National finance ministers Bill English as someone who was open to new ideas, and Bill Birch as tough.

Both, of course, were often called boring, a label that neither objected to on the grounds that finance ministers had to be predictable.

But Bayly bristles at a suggestion that the label would fit him.

“I don’t think many people think I’m boring, actually,” he says.

“Running your own merchant bank, I had to go and get clients so you can’t go and get all that and be a boring fart,” he said. “You need to be able to engage with people and excite them and I’ve done that for many, many years.”

Plus there is his other exciting active life, to offset the sedentary work.

He has been a territorial in the New Zealand Army and in the British Parachute Regiment when he worked in the UK, jumping out of planes at 800 feet (yes, 800 feet – 250m), he used to race in Ironman, marathon and Coast to Coast events, he has pulled a sled 112km to the South Pole, climbed four peaks in the Antarctic, and pulled a sled 120km to the North Pole.

In January 2019 he trekked 500km on a camel through Jordan, retracing the route taken by Lawrence of Arabia before the battle of Aqaba in World War I. Quite a feat for a man likely to be in his late 50s – he won’t give his age.

“I always want to be of the view that when I go to a dinner party, I am not boring actually,” says Bayly. “I’m lucky that I’ve been able to do these things but I’ve done it quite deliberately, very deliberately.

“There are very few people who call me boring.”

Bayly has had a low-key start to the role, partly because he places more importance on working through the boardrooms of the country than building a public profile, and partly because of the depleted numbers in National’s ranks.

With 33 MPs, the party gets about four questions a day, and with the leader always having one, and Covid-19 issues always demanding one, to have expected a finance question every day would have left only one more to be shared among 30 MPs.

So he and Woodhouse ask a couple between them each week.

So is he politically fit enough to foot it in the parliamentary bear-pit with Robertson, Labour’s best performing minister?

“Well I think I’m doing alright,” he says. “I’m being careful about what I do.”

He says his questions are designed to test Robertson and to avoid giving him a platform.

One issue Bayly is making some headway on is the lack of delivery of infrastructure projects.

“The shine is already starting to go off and I think we’ll see more and more shine go off particularly around what the Government has done economically.

“I’ve got time to burn. It’s a slow burner. You don’t win overnight, do you?”

Bayly accepts that he may have some improvement in his retail political skills but he says the first and most important question is whether he had “the intellectual grunt” to be a finance minister and solve complex problems.

“I’ve spent 30 years trying to do that for businesses.”

He said it would take some time for the public to realise despite the economy doing better than anticipated that the debt pile would become an albatross.

The interest cost this year was $2.5 billion, just under what it cost to run the police force and debt was forecast to double.

“We have borrowed truckloads of money. With an improving situation, we have borrowed slightly less than a truckload of money. Today we are borrowing $110 million. Yesterday we borrowed $110 million, tomorrow we are borrowing $110 million.”

So what is National’s answer?

Not through tax increases, he says. He would cut wasteful spending and focus on policies that improved growth.

“Where we need to go over the next couple of years is invest where we need to invest,” he says.

“That means vulnerable people and supporting businesses because the only way out of this quagmire is an economic growth story.

“It’s the only way.”

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