What Should the Government Be Doing?

I was asked to nominate ‘the three big things [the current government] should be tackling and is not’. Here is my answer.

I am going to eschew the usual response of various specific policies (such as a capital gains tax, resolving the Working for Families mess, spending more on the arts or establishing something like Australia's National Disability Insurance Scheme) and instead identify three strategic issues. But first a background.

It strikes me that there is little genuine strategic thinking in the current government, although that is not unusual among New Zealand governments. It presents itself as tackling a raft of pressing issues which the previous (Key-English Government) avoided or fumbled. The list includes child poverty, health, housing, repression in the welfare system, a rundown public service and transport problems. I think that is true and say hooray! (I am not so uncritical as to fail to notice that the government is avoiding others and that, arguably, its green wing is thinking more about the future.)

What will it say at the next election? Perhaps that National had made a mess, the Labour-led government has done a lot to clean it up, and it deserves an endorsement. That is what happened with the Clark-Cullen Government. It came to office determined to reverse various policies left over from the neoliberals (Rogernomics). It did, and then ran out of ideas, so by its third term it seemed largely to be promising good government while it battled problems (sometime well, sometimes badly) which blew up while it was in office. (Some were there before it took office.)

About this stage a Labour government begins to look like a tired version of the previous National government whose successor opposition looks fresh and attractive to the electorate. You could argue that the reverse happened in 2017.

There is no certainty that the current government will get a three-term mandate. Twice Labour governments have lasted only one term; one lasted only two. In contrast all the National governments have been three-term governments.

Labour’s problem is that there is not a simple symmetry between the two parties. People expect National government to be a party of good government (and can be astonished when they have been genuinely innovative). As Jacinda Ardern says, people expect Labour and its allies to be (positively) transformative.

So what ‘transformative’ record will the current government offer the electorate in 2020? Since it is just over a quarter of the way through its first term, it is too soon to tell; my guess is that in 2020 it will be able to cobble together some successes into a sort of near transformative record. But National will be able to campaign on ‘look at the still unaddressed messes – elect us for good government’, which will be attractive to the electorate with its short-term memory – already evident in so much public discussion.

So the key things that the current government has to tackle are strategic – to look as though they are in charge at the time of the 2020 election and not just battling the rising pressures. Here is what I would do immediately.

First, there is a need for a strategic policy group, probably in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and separate from the already existent policy advisory group which deals with the short-term crises. Given the daily turmoil, I have no problems with the Prime Minister having such a short-term group. But within government there is no overarching medium and long term policy thinking.

Should I say something about the quality of people in the strategic policy group? Is it necessary to say that while they need to be sympathetic to a transformative government, the emphasis has to be on competence rather than political correctness? Perhaps I have to, for the government’s record thus far has to scatter an awful lot of politically correct incompetents through its advisory committees (but no more than predecessor governments).

The second big change is that it needs to organise both its thinking and strategic planning around a handful of themes. I cant tell you what they should be; they need to be chosen by the ministers. But to indicate what they could be, here are five with some notes about them

            - prosperity and wellbeing (a bit platitudinous but any theme is better than GDP);

            - sustainability (the green dimension but also fiscal and social sustainability)

            - nationhood (for NZF; it needs to recognise the increasing diversity within the nation)

            - social cohesiveness (which also covers inequality)

            - getting a better balance between the public and private sectors, for National was too anti-government and the public sector lost capacity to contribute to the nation’s welfare. I would go for more decentralisation rather than privatisation and I would prioritise reducing the influence of wealth in politics.

The danger is that everyone will want to add their own pet concerns to the list. If it blows out, it becomes useless, and will emphasise that the government looks all over the place.

The point about a short list is that the government should expect every ministerial statement to emphasise one or more of the themes, refocusing the public perception. Most people cannot yet say what the current government stands for. If asked, they would nominate a number of specific policies. (I wonder how many would get to five.) By the end of 2020 these themes should generate the enthusiasm they might today, and give an indication of where they might be going.

It is usual to set up an ineffective cabinet committee concerned with each theme. Far more important is to ensure each minister adheres to them in their thinking.

The third big change is a strategy to alter the public dialogue to one which is more sympathetic to what the government is doing. Currently it is losing hands down. (For example, the government was widely criticised for abolishing the previous one’s health targets; I dont think anybody pointed out how distorting the neoliberal fetish is.)

Exactly how to gain the public initiative requires a lot of careful thinking; I shant go into detail here. Public commentary has to be rebalance away from neoliberals, National party supporters and those whose frame is still the National Government’s. It is not a matter of the number of times there is an appearance on the front cover of the Women’s Weekly or the Listener; nor is it the cacophony of politically correct supporters (although some are needed to offset the cacophony from the other side). What is needed is a public discussion led by independent competents who will not always agree with the government but will give a thoughtful response to its proposals, underpinned by an understanding of what the government thinks it is doing.

One could have given similar advice to the Key-English National Government at the same time in its cycle (July 2009): strategic thinking around themes. (It was better placed in regard to the public dialogue because the Clark-Cullen Government hardly tackled the issue.) The themes might have been different, reflecting its different political perspective. But whatever the strategising, unexpected events, like the Canterbury earthquakes and the infighting in the Labour Opposition, were as important.