What has it told us about the next three years?

I blame it all on FDR. Political commentators hark back to his first 100 days of office. They were a bit of a policy whirlwind, but the 100-day notion was an afterthought for he did not mention it until 43 days after the period ended on 11 June 1933. Moreover it is measured from his inauguration on 4 March He had been elected on 8 November in a landslide, so he had another 90 days to prepare for office.

Since then, other campaigns for office have promised policy innovations in their first hundred days, including that of the just-elected Labour-led Arden Government. But its 100 days are very different from FDR’s,

Some 54 days before the 23 September 2017 election, Labour had so few expectations of getting elected that it changed its leadership from Andrew Little to Jacinda Ardern. It did not even know it would be leading the government until 36 days after the election at which point the 100-day clock began ticking through to 3 February 2018.

My point is not just that it compressed Roosevelt’s 190 day period into 100 days (many of which were public holidays), but that Labour was less ready for office in 2017 than he was in 1933. That was evident in a number of parliamentary shambles in the session which immediately followed the confirmation of the new government. They arose because the government did not have enough policy to keep parliament ticking over.

We have yet to see just how unprepared they are. Some ministers seem to have a clear idea what they want to do; others have seemed more confused. It is the difference of being in opposition from being in office and the difference between being in office and being in power.

This was nicely illustrated by the new National Opposition. Some of their spokespersons had their cabinet portfolios rolled over; in their first weeks in opposition, still benefiting from the briefings they had received as minsters, they made telling points against the new government, Whether they will continue to do so as their memories fade and new issues arise will be worth watching.

There were also those given new portfolios who maintained their silence as they tried to get their head around their responsibilities, missing opportunities to score against the incoming government. The interesting ones were those who moved into opposition mode without previous ministerial experience of holding that portfolio.

The most notable example was Judith Collins, given the new-to-her transport portfolio. Her intervention on roading perhaps reflected a certain preparing for the next National Party leadership battle (she failed the last time). But it was very much in opposition mode, making extravagant demands without any indication as to how they would be funded. It is a rotten preparation for government because the one thing every minister faces is the budget constraint, which means he or she has to learn to prioritise.

So a very successful spokesperson in the opposition can prove to be an inept minister; sometimes a quiet member of the opposition turns out to be a good minister, leading policy and implementation and fending off silly criticisms. And of course there are those who are good opposition spokespeople and good ministers – not a lot, I am afraid.

It may be unfair to expect to separate the wheat from the chaff after 100 days, even if the promise invites us to. So I try.

First, the new government has reversed some of the stupid things that National was doing but felt it could not change because that would admit failure. The obvious one was to eliminate ‘vulnerable’ from the English name for Oranga Tamariki, the Ministry of Children. Whether this makes any significant difference will depend on ministerial leadership. (I regret that Nikki Kay was not Minister of Education for longer, since she seemed to be reversing some previous nonsense as fast as public imperception would allow.)

There are also some ministerial initiatives where the Ministers seem to be in charge and redirecting the ship. It will take longer than another 100 days to find out how successful their captaincy is.

On the other hand, there is a proliferation of short-term advisory committees. They have their role, but sometimes they are a signal that the government has not got a policy and hopes the advisers will find them one. It is the short term ones which are the concern.

Mental health policy is such a shambles that one understands the need for a high-power inquiry. Minister David Clark has indicated that the sufferers (which include their families) are going to be higher in the government’s health priorities – something which is hard to argue against. Even so, the inquiry is required to report back by the end of October 2018 in order to affect the 2019 Budget. In which case it will be a superficial inquiry. I do not mind the inquiry reporting some findings in October – there should be some easy pickings – but a longer more thoughtful review is required.

There is also the fear that some ministers, unprepared for government, have already been captured by their departments and are carrying over inadequate policies from the previous government. The obvious example may be the troubled notion of social investment; one would like to believe that policy development, like the swan, is being presented as smoothly going ahead while there is a lot of work going on out of sight.

Of course most ministers are eventually captured by their ministries as the grumbles they had in opposition are overwhelmed by the sheer difficulties of running a department of state. That is why governments look tired after a couple of terms. For instance, Working for Families seems to be the result of departmental capture, itself imitating faulty and failed US thinking on family income support.

The miracle is there are some ministers who continue to be creative. Kiwisaver was not introduced until Labour’s third term. The breaking of the Telecom monopoly was late too, but that was because of policy failure at the beginning of the Clark-Cullen Government’s term – they had a short term inquiry – so it was probably a failure of inadequate policy preparation when in opposition.

This column is not about assessing the new government’s first 100 days. It is setting out some points that should help think about the next 900.

Comments (6)

by James Green on February 05, 2018
James Green

Yep, get elected and then decide what to do, that's this government. Twyford with housing seems to be one of the few who had an idea of what he was going to do before he got his ministers office.

by Charlie on February 05, 2018
Charlie

"There is also the fear that some ministers, unprepared for government, have already been captured by their departments..."

Translated: Apolitical civil servants have sat ministers down and explained what they're doing and why (based on evidence, research and experienced of past failures) leaving the inexperienced and ideologiclly driven minister in confusion.

 

by James Green on February 05, 2018
James Green

Also, didn't Napoleon originate the 100 days concept? Albeit that turned out to be his last 100 days rather than his first.

Apolitical civil servants have sat ministers down and explained what they're doing and why (based on evidence, research and experienced of past failures) leaving the inexperienced and ideologiclly driven minister in confusion.

Alternative translation: Apolitical civil servants continue doing what they have "always done" and ministers lacking an ideology (or even a think tank) from which to derive substantial alternative goals with which to direct civil servants instead get swept along with the current of mediocrity.

Here's the insidious thing with mediocrity by the way, mediocrity isn't bad, it isn't an awful, wasteful destruction of lives, it just fails to be good. Mediocrity, left long enough (and it sure has been now), is simply the wasting of potential, the elusion of substantial improvement, the slow erosion of the future, because, do not be mistaken, mediocrity always ends in failure, it just takes a really, really long time to get there.

Successive governments have been mediocre for a long time now and to people like me, who see vast rivers of untapped improvements and reforms that could be made, it is just agonising to watch as so, so little is done.

Medocrity isn't the only possibility either, there have been bad governments (Muldoon, Bulger-Richardson) and good (Savage, Vogel).

by Charlie on February 05, 2018
Charlie

Or a mixture of both David?

by on February 05, 2018
Anonymous

So I jammed this "Or a mixture of both David?" into google translate:

 

Bullshit detector: 'one job, one pay check, one function' apolitico was asked what they did all day and they replied 'one job, one pay check, one function.

by Brian Easton on February 08, 2018
Brian Easton

Just a word in defence of public servants. Each agency has its own preoccupations (e.g. Treasury is the guardian of the fisc) and inertia (defending what they have decided in the past). That is understandable. In principle the role of the minister is to put the preoccupations into a wider context including a more up to date and in context one, and a good agency responds. Instead, ineffective ministers also get captured by the preoccupations. Ministerial governance is about leadership. 

I wish your claim, Charlie, that ‘apolitical civil servants ... explain ... what they're doing and why (based on evidence, research and experienced of past failures)’ was generally true.

You are correct, James, that Napoleon is said to have ruled for 100 days after he returned from Elba. Actually it was about 96. I don’t think he actually made the claim. I doubt FDR was echoing him – for the obvious reason

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