Letter to Bill

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,