Today’s Vicars of Bray

The ease with which independents in the policy networks switch their allegiance when governments or ministers change tells us something about how New Zealand’s wider government system in works.

            And this be law, that I'll maintain until my dying day, sir

            That whatsoever king may reign, Still I'll be the Vicar of Bray, sir.

The ‘Vicar of Bray’ is a satirical song about a cleric in an English village who hung onto his position despite changes in religion and monarchs. The original sixteenth century vicar navigated his way past Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I so he was first a Papist, then a Protestant, then a Papist again, then a Protestant again. The song updates him to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries where again a series of monarchs – Charles II, James II, William III, Anne and George I – had differing religious views. The last verse concludes:

            The illustrious House of Hanover and Protestant succession

            To these I do allegiance swear – while they can hold possession.

            For in my faith and loyalty I never more will falter,

            And George my lawful king shall be – until the times do alter.

Today, ‘Vicars of Bray’ has become a term for those who change their politics to align themselves with the current administration. It is not applied to public servants for their constitutional position is to advise their ministers; inevitably they have to adapt their advice as ministers change – strictly they have no overt political position. Rather, the term is applied to those outside government who profess to be independent but who change their (public) political positions as politics changes. (A phrase occasionally used suggests that if they go into a revolving door last, they will come out first.)

Normally this occurs so smoothly that the transformation is barely perceptible. However, last year’s abrupt and unexpected change from the National-led to the Labour-led government exposed the vicars scrambling around to change their vestments.

Most evident has been the sudden outburst of criticism of National’s policies and funding by those who had been very quiet before the change of government. Had they made the same criticisms before the election, it is probable that Labour would have had a larger majority, but their temporary loyalty to the incumbents ruled that out.

Their fealty gets rewarded with preferment. It is all very cosy but it has its downsides. Vicar-advisers tend to tell their ministers what they want to hear. Few ministers think far ahead, so the advice tends to be short term; it is a very skilled outside adviser who prepares the minister for the next problem but one. (Officials are much better because it is harder to sack them.) This was particularly true with the Key administration with its very short term outlook; hence the large number of issues piled up in front of the current Labour Government.

Strange, is it not, how not so long ago the public criticisms of a number of education and health service policies, for example, were dismissed as moaning by uninformed pressure groups (such as unions) but now are suddenly seen as valid and insightful – even by the Vicars of Bray?

The vicars can be frustratingly obsequious by supporting rotten policies in public. One would like to think they privately advised the Clark-Cullen Government that the Working For Families package was badly designed but some went public defending it. As a consequence some Labour supporters told us that it was the best thing their government did. (Would it not be awful if they were correct?)

A particular concern is that having spent nine years advising a government with a particular economic framework – call it ‘neoliberal’, if you wish – which they will unconsciously carry it forward in their advice to the new government.

Sometimes ministers have a good idea which is not particularly practical. The vicars rush in to support the minister, often without much knowledge. The last government’s social investment approach is a good example. Great term; recall how we all fell over ourselves a couple of decades ago praising ‘social capital’ but nobody had the foggiest idea how to turn it into practical social policy. Labour is less enamoured with the previous government’s approach to social investment although as the long-term guardians of it in a richer sense they are hardly going to reject the term. But we can expect considerable revision of the approach with the vicars scrambling around to bring their positions in line with the new political masters.

I assume that the original Vicar of Bray wanted to support his parishioners irrespective of theological niceties and did not care who knew. Today’s vicars, courtiers to the ‘monarch’, need to be more discreet. Hence it is inappropriate to name them (nor is there the space to name them all).

Curiously, the ministers seem to buy into the arrangement. Given they are rejecting the policies of their predecessors, you might expect them to reject the independent advisers who promoted the policies. But that is not the way Wellington works. It is not simply a matter of ins and outs who change sides after an election. Some are always ins, some outs never become ins. The change of the effective guard can be quite small.

It is not a matter of competence but how they operate. I have never been clear whether the politicians are gullible about the Vicars of Bray – ‘we were really on your side, sir, even when we were working for the other’, whether they are cynical about them, or whether that is just the way things are.