How’s the Government Doing?

The term of the 52nd New Zealand Parliament is a quarter of the way through. We ought to be getting some impression of the government by now.

Coming to office a month after the election, the new Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promised ‘transformative’ rather than incremental government. The promise contrasted with the record of the predecessor Key-English government which had some wins but I doubt that even the most fervent National supporters of the future will remember it as one of their party’s great governments. You even get a smidgen of this when the Simon Bridges-led National Opposition criticises the Ardern-led government for how well it is managing rather than for its general direction.

The sad fact is that the previous government too often deferred policy challenges, leaving its successors to clean up the messes. The most prominent ones are in health and housing. Minister David Clark says, shrewdly, that it will take him three parliamentary terms to get the health system back on track. Yes, it takes time.

I was struck that when a housing statistic was recently published the government’s critics jumped on it as evidence of Minister Phil Twyford’s policy failure. The statistic was actually for March 2018 and, unless you think Twyford can work instant miracles, the indicator was evidence of the previous ministers’ failure. (I’ll come back to the public commentary at the end of this.)

Another example is the view that our surveillance of overseas trusts is that we have first world legislation and third world enforcement. That has applied in other areas. Perhaps it is from an unwillingness to provide the resources for enforcement, but I cant help hearing echoes of the neoliberal position that public enforcement is unnecessary because businesses will self-enforced to maintain their reputations.

The steady progress that Clark, Twyford and some of the other ministers promise does not amount to a transformation – more a catching up to back on track. So after nine months what evidence do we have that this will really be a transformational government?

Let me confine this column to economic issues. There may be other areas; recently a friend argued it was happening in the justice area but despite Andrew Little doing a commonsensical job, the possibilities are promises not deliveries. (Would it not be terrific if we could really get the prison population down?)

There are an awful lot of consultative committees; one wag claims there will eventually be enough for every New Zealander to be on one. However committees which promise transformative approaches – like the Woodhouse Commission which proposed our accident compensation scheme – are rare. The usual government committee is deeply conservative, offering a few platitudes and a rebalancing of pressure group interests. Some are consultative, some look at the implementation strategies the government has already decided upon. There are a handful which may come up with genuinely transformative proposals: I’ll hold my shot on the ones I suspect (and hope to be surprised by some others).

I’ve argued that the Child Poverty Reduction Bill is transformational – if they get it right. But it only sets a framework of accountability. How the government will reduce poverty is a greater challenge; there are not many hints that it has much under way (the tax cuts aside).

Perhaps in a decade or so environmentalists will look back and see that this year was the point where the country stopped dithering – as it did under the Key-English Government – and grasped some of the sustainability challenges. (This is not simply a matter of the Greens; there are some keen environmentalists in Labour.)

I am not sure whether the NZ First regional development policies will make a real difference or even whether they can make one. Let us give them the benefit of the doubt and put them into the potentially transformative basket.

What about economic policy generally? I have written that the jury is out. It might be a change of direction but I am to be persuaded.

This is not to argue that the government’s economic strategy is ‘National-lite’, a clever slogan proposed by a journalist immediately after the budget. Fair enough as a hurried summary but I was unnerved by how many commentators, with more time to reflect, slavishly repeated the sentiment. That led to me to follow more closely the state of commentary on the government.

It is largely shallow and ill-informed. (But what can we expect?) What struck me, though, is how pro-National (or if you wish backward looking and yet ahistorical) it is. There is a surprising imbalance of National Party fellow travellers in the commentariat.

The New Zealand Herald is particularly imbalanced; I accept its orientation towards the Auckland business community, but even they deserve a more comprehensive approach so that they have some idea of what the government is actually doing. Some of the commentators fantasise about the government’s intentions; ministers must read them and wonder if they are on the same planet.

More-independent journalists also align more with the National Party vision than is justified. It is partly because they are influenced by the pro-National commentators but also that nine years commenting on the previous government frames the way they think.

For instance, the Ardern-led government is a true coalition (though not the first) in contrast to the recent National one, which had a unified cabinet and support parties. Even so, it had to do deals. Did anyone mention in their discussions on NZF vetoing the proposed repeal of the three-strikes law that Peter Dunn (we will not dignify his nominal party by mentioning it) vetoed some proposed changes to the Resource Management Act only a few  years ago? (It is indicative of just how short memories are.) Clearly the politics of vetoing the repeal was managed badly but the commentary  also presented it as a defect of coalition government. Time and time again, single-party government is presented as a superior norm (political polls are regularly interpreted this way). The lazy default suits the National Party.

Similarly, it is too common for the commentariat to echo the complaints which emphasise the downside of a new policy and not mention any gains. Are there no benefits from the proposed levy on tourists?

Perhaps it is not entirely the commentariat’s fault. Labour seems to have been lamentable at telling its own story (it is not even clear it has one, slogans aside). There has been a long-time tendency for the left to think that all that is necessary to be politically powerful is to seize the heights of power. But the New Zealand political power structure is no longer that centralised.

In fairness the Clark-Cullen Government did reach out to rebalance power below to some extent (and that did not really begin – as far as I know – until after the first nine months). But it depended too much on acolytes who tended to support it uncritically (most evidently in the case of the clumsy Working For Families package); I see some of them are back.

What the government needs is people who maintain a degree of critical independence, but try to nut out what the government is actually doing and explain it to the public in an informed way. There are a few. But if there are not more, the government will continue to be misunderstood and its achievements largely ignored, even if they are transformative.