Your In-tray is piled high.

Dear Bill,

I recall when you first entered Parliament 26 years ago, it was widely thought you were prime-ministerial material. You’ve made it. Congratulations.

National was going through the extremist phase of Ruthanasia and Jennicide at the time. You were marked as someone who came from the great National progressive center-right tradition of Harry Atkinson, Bill Massey, Gordon Coates, Keith Holyoake and Jim Bolger.

Now that you have made it, you are going to be sitting at the premier’s desk with a stacked in-tray. Your predecessor had a lot of merits but dealing with looming problems was not one of them.

Take the issue of an inquiry into historical abuse of children in state care. The current government position is that an inquiry is not going to resolve anything. (I think; things do slip and slide around.) It is, of course absurd. We’d never have murder trials if we believed that.

It has been true for bigger things too. Your predecessor said in 2007 there was a housing crisis, failed to do anything for seven years, announced there was no crisis, and then instituted a series of panic measures.

Incidentally, Bill, I have no idea why you are keen to offload state houses onto the community sector. Not that it has been successful, although you have spent an awful lot of money pursuing the failure. I’d have thought that if you wanted the central government to get out of housing supply the obvious alternative was local government. Many local authorities would do a far better job at managing the housing stock for, in truth, central government has been a bit of a failure. Locally each would be under pressure to perform, there would be competition between local authorities, while central government would act as a regulator.

The current policy seems to have come from David Cameron’s English initiatives. (Who he? A failed British prime minister.) But circumstances are different here (as you have found).

We have this bad habit of copying overseas fashions, providing the countries they come from speak a form of English, without allowing for fundamental local differences.

True in the education sector where we try to imitate the Americans, oblivious to the fact that theirs is a failing system while ours is not. Even if their initiatives work, they would only get their students up to the standard we think of as normal.

There is considerable doubt that they do work; the evidence is all over the place but it is not, in sum, compelling. Come to think of it, Bill, if you really wanted to transform New Zealand public policy, insist on evidence-based policy. That would eliminate a lot of nutty fashionable policies that do not work. Save a lot of money too.

Pursuing fashionable policies developed in different circumstances also applies to our penal policies – taking them from America. (Did you know the inmates of New York prisons are black but the warders are white?) Again the evidence points to private supply not working, other than by lowering standards. You’ve said our approach is a ‘fiscal and moral failure’. True, but imitating even greater failures is not going to solve it.

Your baptism of parliamentary fire was the Americanised health redisorganisation. When you became Minister of Health in 1997 you said that many of the changes had been reversed so that the health system was developing the way it would have before the crazies took over. (Well, not entirely.)

The country is facing difficulties in the public health system because the National Government has been restraining spending in order to pay for tax cuts. Some estimates suggest you may be under-funding by $1.7 billion a year. Some people are being forced to go into the private sector, some are living in pain and distress while critical services are being inadequately supplied. You will remember from your time as minister in the late 1990s the accumulating backlog of health problems caused by the under-funding of the early 1990s.

The aging sector seems to be under particular health pressures with lengthening waiting lists and inadequate residential care. How about incrementally raising the age of eligibility for New Zealand Superannuation (say by three months every year, as we did in the 1990s) and using the savings for better healthcare for the elderly in need? Do you realise that life expectation has increased by about five years, since the age of eligibility was established by the Accord in 1993? (Your predecessor was an ostrich with his head in the sand.)

I would not worry too much about the income inequality problem as it is usually portrayed, although certainly you do not want to exacerbate it with further tax cuts. The priority has to be increasing the incomes of families with children (which will reduce the inequality rather effectively).

I have been a bit puzzled by the ‘investment approach’ to social policy that you endorse. The current approach is about improving the ambulance services at the bottom of the cliff. Why not invest in families, which your political tradition puts great emphasis on? Far too many families need is a decent fence at the top; that is a good financial foundation which discourages household cost cutting with its consequences of poor health, poor educational attainment and, in many cases, subsequent interfacing with the criminal justice system.

Actually, Bill, you hiked family finances after you first became Minister of Finance in 1998 (I recall getting a rocket from your office for underestimating the impact). You gave them another boost this year. Not enough, but your heart was in the right place. Centre-right, I think; hope it still is.

This list is getting long. There is much more to be listed, like climate change policies. I agree that there is little New Zealand can do to reduce global warming – although many would argue that we have a moral duty to take effective measures. But we also need to think about policies to mitigate the effect of the inevitably rising sea levels.

Nor should we forget that the economic boom of recent years is the result of heavy overseas borrowing, much of which has been for consumption via housing speculation rather than for investment. When it all turns to custard, Macavity wont be there. New Zealand is really going to have to save more.

I had better stop. I’ve made the point that the prime minister’s in-tray is piled high – so high you will not be able to see everyone in a delegation which comes into your room. It has become a ‘too-hard’ basket; your predecessor must be please to be escaping it.

There is a curious feature of many of the papers in the in-tray/too-hard basket. They are signed ‘Bill English; Minister of Finance’. Now it is up to ‘Bill English; Prime Minster’ to address them.

            Best wishes, the country needs a bit of policy development rather than stasis,





Comments (21)

by Rich on December 12, 2016

Bill Massey

The one who organised a militia to shoot strikers?

by Nick Gibbs on December 12, 2016
Nick Gibbs

Another interesting and thought provoking post. Cheers

by Tim Watkin on December 12, 2016
Tim Watkin

What Nick said.

I'd add infrastructure to that list. I'm still struck by his comments earlier this year that Auckland's infrastructure is Auckland's responsibility and the rail loop was it from his government. We could do with an 'investment approach' there.

by Dennis Frank on December 12, 2016
Dennis Frank

I thought it appropriate that he signalled an increase in infrastructure spending.  We don't need that as badly as the USA, but after the Bolger govt failed to do the necessary it implies he's learnt the lesson.

His instinct will be to do the minimum in accord with legendary kiwi complacency (`she'll be right') but whereas Key got away with that stance, English may not.  Being pro-active with the Pike River families would be a good way to signal that he doesn't want to be a mere manager of the status quo.  They are a problem requiring a solution.  Our PM ought to be a leader who solves problems that loom into the national consciousness.  His predecessor wimped out & hid behind the law.  It's a chance for English to prove that he's capable of enhancing kiwi pride.  He ought to engage the challenge & engineer a resolution.  Know how, can do:  it's in our collective psyche.  His chance to prove he knows how to get the job done, and has the political nous to do it successfully.

by Dennis Horne on December 13, 2016
Dennis Horne

Always assuming there is an answer.

I wonder what other animals would gave thought as they faced scarcityof food, resources and habitat -- extinction even -- had they been able to think.

To Homo sapiens deniers and ideologues are born... 

by Antoine on December 13, 2016


Some thoughtful comments here

I suspect Bill would immediately dismiss some of the concerns above as "can't afford", but would ruefully acknowledge others...



by Brian Easton on December 13, 2016
Brian Easton

National has a not discreditable record on (physical) infrastructure, Tim, depending on how you define it. It has vigorously pursued the broadband rollout and contributed to Auckland’s roading. Both of these were in the planning stage under Labour, of course. The Christchurch rebuild was not, although I do not think National has done it well.

On the downside, its housing record is disappointing (some would use harsher terms) while it is stalling on the water resource, the public transport infrastructure and coastal protection for rising sea levels. Perhaps we should be making faster progress on renewable energy. In the really-too-hard basket is the rail system.

The current situation over infrastructure is that the government is planning to provide more, probably running a fiscal deficit to fund it. The case for the deficit funding of infrastructure is that future generations will have its benefit as well as the costs of servicing the debt. It is, of course, more complicated than that; I’ll write about it when the government’s intentions become clearer.

by Murray Grimwood on December 13, 2016
Murray Grimwood

Future generations have no chance of maintaining it. Brian.

They will be starved of fossil energy, irrespective of climate change.

So the 'debt' will be defaulted on.

I find it interesting :) that you and Tim seem incapable of leaving the 'future cost' phrase behind. It's 'future ability' that counts. The numerical tracking-system you both seem to believe in - comma - will haemorrage - comma -  but the problem is physical ability. When will the two of you get it right?

The more Bill English demands built, the more will be decaying. That's how it goes. If he can't point to an energy-source capable of both maintaining that which we have, plus that which we dream of, the media should ask him the hard question.

by Alan Johnstone on December 13, 2016
Alan Johnstone

Murray, does absolutely everything need to be viewed through the lens of resource scarcity?

by Antoine on December 14, 2016

@Alan, I guess Murray's position is internally consistent - if you accepted the premise that we're going to have massive resource scarcity real soon, then I suppose you should factor it into pretty much every serious discussion about politics or economics?



by Antoine on December 14, 2016

Just as, if you were a devout Christian, you should factor God into pretty much every discussion about human relations...?

by Dennis Horne on December 14, 2016
Dennis Horne

I don't want to brag, but I am not an economist. 

The future is not going to be anything like the past. And it's not going to be better. For us.

US annual per capita emission of CO2 is ~20t. Qatar >40t.

In some countries <0.1t. China ~6t. Are these billions of people aiming for more or will Americans aim for less?

Has the penny dropped yet?

by Murray Grimwood on December 14, 2016
Murray Grimwood

It also makes sense of other political appointments.

Like Tillerson.

The precedent being Cheney.

The Tillerson appointment is interesting from a 'great game' perspective - perhaps America thinks it needs Russia on-side rather than off-side vs China. Sort of the oil version of a Litvinov. Wonder if Renda is as interesting as Ivy was?

Has English the understanding of what is happening? Can a six-child philosophy be adapted? Has it? Do we have the nous in the back-rooms to have him briefed properly?

by mudfish on December 14, 2016

@Alan Um, yes, otherwise it's liable to be unsustainable, and will be so if it has an underlying assumption of never ending growth. 

by Dennis Frank on December 14, 2016
Dennis Frank

Not so much America thinking that as Trump thinking that, Murray.  Seems sensible geopolitics (even if only as theatre).  "Tillerson stated in 2009 that he favors a carbon tax as "the most efficient means of reflecting the cost of carbon in all economic decisions—from investments made by companies to fuel their requirements to the product choices made by consumers.""  (his wiki)

Rick Perry will make a fool of himself again. Hard to imagine someone less suitable in his role but Nixon & Reagan did the same as Trump so it's deja vu all over again, again.  Not that Obama provided a positive alternative (nor Bill Clinton).

Our PM doesn't really need geopolitical expertise.  McCully may have enough nous to be helpful, if he continues to survive the generational shifts in the Nat hierarchy. Always hard to imagine Nats with nous, but obscure contenders may emerge.

by Murray Grimwood on December 14, 2016
Murray Grimwood

Chuckle. Well said.

'Faced with a choice of hard truths or easy lies, politicians and their supporters in the media will discover that foreign aggression is among the few options for political survival. I now believe that we will see war between the major powers within my lifetime'.

'Today’s governments, whether they are run by Trump or Obama or May or Merkel, lack the courage and imagination even to open this conversation. It is left to others to conceive of a more plausible vision than trying to magic back the good old days'.

Which is why I harp on...........

by Dennis Frank on December 14, 2016
Dennis Frank

Dunno, Monbiot's young & I've seen no evidence he learns from history.  States tend to avoid war with trading partners.  The accounts of chimp warfare are instructive, also those that report how a couple of beta males sometimes work together to eliminate the current alpha male in their tribe.

That psychodynamic seems to be underlying the Trump/Putin axial alignment.  My guess is that they are forming a common front to manage China.  I'd be interested to hear Brian's take on how the ownership of all that US debt factors into this geopolitical triangle, but I suppose the extent of any Russian debt to China is a state secret.  Does China effectively own the US economy?  Commentators have been suggesting so for years.  You can see why nationalists like Trump resent it.

by Antoine on December 15, 2016

So if we're going to talk about unsustainable things, then 'every comments thread on Pundit turning into a rant about resource depletion' seems like one of them.


by Charlie on December 17, 2016

1. Health

The health system will always be underfunded and require rationing. Thanks to the miracle of modern science there are always new and vastly more expensive drugs and procedures arriving. So there will always be people on the fringes who aren't getting the very latest and best care, and media ready to publicize this with tear jerking articles.

2. Abuse in government care

Socialists should have worked out by now that the government is a poor father and no substitute for the real thing.

First prize in this sector is to discourage 'at risk' parents from reproducing because no matter how much money the taxpayer throws at the problem they will still neglect and abuse their offspring with the state providing an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.

3. Tax

You're 100% wrong here. Reducing tax rates actually reduces inequality. This is because the NZ elite don't pay much income tax. Most of their income is via capital gains on property. Income tax cuts generally favour the low and middle income wage slaves who have no means to avoid paying it. 


by Brian Easton on December 18, 2016
Brian Easton

Dear Charlie,

1. Health. Yes, new and expensive technologies (including drugs) cause tear jerking. My concern is routine surgeries and care seem underfunded. The basic issue is the amount available is ultimately determined by public pressure. My judgement is the public wants more than the Key government provides.

2. Abuse in government care. There are a number of issues like this (another currently prominent is Pike River) which the government has been unwilling or unable to tidy up.

3. Tax. I am surprised at your analysis, because the research I have seen points in exactly the opposite direction. Have you some I have not seen?


by Charlie on December 24, 2016

Hi Brian

Happy Christmas to you and all the other Punditers. A few responses:

Health. Of course the public wants more than the government delivers. No matter how much is delivered, they naturally always will and should. On the whole our health service does a fairly efficient job of delivering. Your point about "routine surgeries" underlines my point: You mean like hip and knee replacements? Which were science fiction 20 years ago and not funded. See my point?

Tax. First lets look at the 'Gini index'. This is the most widely used measure of inequality. Look at this chart:

You can see that inequality as measured by this index is pretty much unchanged since the early 90's. That's right through, the Bolger, Shipley, Clark and Key governments.

Here's another index. The P80/P20 index:

This shows inequality is even from the mid 80's.

So despite what the left of centre parties will have you believe plus some left wing advocates in the media (e.g. John Campbell). There is no "crisis of inequality". It's all BS.

Meanwhile back at the rich list - They're all heavily into land:

This is the driver behind Gareth Morgan's new political offensive. There is no capital gains tax here, so land ownership is the best way to protect your assets and to make speculative tax free profits.

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