I have received a series of challenging emails about the government from people who read the Tuesday Club notes. Many people are concerned that we have an over-committed government with too many irons in the fire. They made me think about what is being considered by government right now.
Rod Cameron wrote first:
When we consider what the government is undertaking with the replacement of CDHB (and the Health Board replacement initiative), Water (natural plus 3-waters), Housing, Immigration (yes, too!) etc. These are massive subjects and are hugely important.
From my perspective there are common factors applying through all these examples, which is a lack of the fundamentals:
- Lack of inclusiveness of all stakeholders and wider society.
- Inadequate governance structures (missing segments, not widely representational, not accountable) and inappropriate people in the governance roles.
- Lack of transparent vision and objectives of the entities (What are we here for? And aiming for what? And have we engaged with everyone?).
- Resulting inadequacies in management roles and accountabilities
- Lack of competencies in management and operations – which are a by-product of all the above, together with a societal indifference to experience and skills.
So how can this be addressed?
It seems to me that government (this one especially) doesn’t recognise the fundamentals.
This got me thinking. Then along came another email. Which stated:
The poet and playwright Robert Browning once wrote that ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.’ It’s advice that central government has giddily embraced.
Without any clear signal New Zealand has embarked upon the most ambitious government reforms in living memory. They will likely eclipse Rogernomics for their profound impact on Kiwi life. Education, transport, health, housing, resource management, Three Waters, local government, even tiddlers like Fish & Game are on the block. Some reforms – like the sweeping shifts to Three Waters – were never foreshadowed in election promises.
A tough question should have been posed at the outset, can any government, especially one struggling with delivery of core promises around issues like housing, deliver all these complex changes simultaneously?
It would have been a monumental challenge, but with the twin demands of climate change and COVID looming (almost) out of nowhere it’s starting to look sketchy. It’s one thing to rebuild the plane while you’re flying it. It’s quite another to stay stubbornly committed to both after you find a pair of escaped lions roaming the aircraft as well. Where is the prioritisation?
The average New Zealander is a sensible beast. Confronted with spiralling complexity, unstated risks, and unintended consequences, they know that focusing on the big stuff – and hitting pause on ideology that is now overtaken by events – is the smart thing to do.
Is it clever to radically restructure the nation’s health system in the middle of the biggest public health crisis in a century? No. It’s a failure to triage, to prioritise, to let go of dogma.
New Zealand’s reach should always exceed its grasp, but we need to choose what we’re reaching for. Flailing at everything usually means coming up with a fistful of nothing. The implications could echo for decades. As a country we just can’t afford that kind of mess.
It’s time for a community-led debate about what to get right – and what we need to put on hold.
We are in the middle of a pandemic which is challenging every aspect of our lives. At the same time, we have a government, which the comments above point out, that is committed to centralising as much as they can. Political focus is inevitably on Auckland our largest centre. This again reinforces large and centralised thinking. What place for the small places? Where does the island which produces enormous wealth, Te Wai Pounamu fit in government thinking?
Then I received this from Bruce White:
One of the most important things I’ve come to realise in recent years is that within each community lies a deep and diverse range of expertise, far beyond what can be imagined from within each ‘ivory tower’. The ‘public service’ has yet to learn how to harness that expertise, preferring instead to shun collaboration & co-design and instead rely solely on staff and consultants.
In the Press recently there was an article by Luke Malpass which also covered the above comments. He observed that the government has several very large reforms on its plate which include:
- The first is the Resource Management Act. Talk of reform has been around since its inception in the early 1990s. The current Government’s answer is to scrap it altogether and replace with three separate laws: the National and Build Environments Act (NBA), the Strategic Planning Act (SPA), and the Climate Change Adaptation Act (CAA
- The second is water. The Government is keen to consolidate the nation’s water assets, mostly owned by councils, into four big entities, which would achieve scale and mean higher levels of cross-subsidisation within those entities. The theory is that this would bring water management and quality up to a more uniform standard.
- The third is health. All 20 DHBs will be abolished and rolled into one big health entity called Health NZ. It will then be split into four “locality networks”. A Māori Health Authority will be set up to run alongside Health NZ, though its exact role is still unclear.
- The fourth is immigration Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi announced a widely welcomed visa category recently to keep about 165,000 migrants in New Zealand, but the overall direction of travel is clear even once the borders reopen. Labour has a fixation that the economy is propped up by too many low-skilled migrants, and that Kiwis can be trained to do the same jobs.
- The fifth, and perhaps most ambitious, is climate change. The Climate Commission has essentially recommended a centrally mandated plan for emissions cuts in different sectors, which would sit alongside the emissions trading scheme. It is so complicated and wide-ranging that virtually every minister with a major portfolio will have to be involved – many of whom are very busy getting stuck into some reforms listed above.
Luke Malpass concluded about these reforms:
The core organising principle of all these changes is centralisation. The intellectual tide of devolution has turned in Wellington, and the current Government is keen on directing more economic and bureaucratic activity.
The problem for the Government is that, with Covid constantly slowing things down, some of these things either won’t get done or won’t get done well. Many of them are also not things that will directly make people’s quality of life better. They might, but the effect is indirect and over a longer period.
Before Covid, the most potent attack weapon against Labour was its lack of delivery. Ticking off this many big changes, let alone actually making them work, will be a tough task. Plates can only keep spinning for so long.
Luke Malpass is dead right. What is happening is a doctrinaire driven centralisation of our economy, and public service. Anybody who questions the speed and ethics of these reforms is labelled as “right wing” or “Tory”. Slap a label on them and ignore the critics seems to be the modus operendi of the current administration.
I can honestly say I have never voted for a right-wing party in my life. My votes have either gone to Labour (I belonged to the Labour Party for 43 years and was a life member before ripping up my card a few years ago), or the Greens. However, I am increasingly finding this government distasteful because of their lack of commitment to serious consultation.
I believe in subsidiarity. That’s why, when I stood for public office, I stood in local government. Here is a definition of the principle of subsidiarity:
The principle of subsidiarity reminds us that larger institutions in society should not overwhelm or interfere with smaller or local institutions, yet larger institutions have essential responsibilities when the more local institutions cannot adequately protect human dignity, meet human needs and advance common good.
An example of central government erroneous thinking has got to be the 3 Waters reforms. During the supposed “consultation” with local government, it has become obvious that the Minister of Local Government is not entertaining anything other than small changes around the edges. Applying the test of subsidiarity to the setting the standard of water quality is definitely a central government responsibility. The delivery and management of water through infrastructure is for local government.
However, the fact that removing the assets from local control is a theft of local investment seems to have totally eluded her.
Central government, of every colour, has been passing legislation requiring local government to perform new tasks for decades with no way of funding them other than through rates. Then local funds are spread thinly and investment in assets are avoided. Now we have a situation where central government is interfering and saying “you aren’t running things properly” They just don’t get the fact that they, central politicians, have caused much of the financial challenges for their local government colleagues.
So, part way through the exercise of forcing the 3 Waters legislation, and the RMA reforms, the government belatedly announced a panel to review local government. This should have started first. The fact that it happened in this order is because the Department of Internal Affairs, the government’s advisors in local government, have little understanding of what happens in local government.
The local government review panel has released an interim report this week and I will analyse it in depth next week.
I am sure many of you sit wondering whether it is you or the government which is wrong. I stare at the Press, or my computer, and wonder what the hell is happening to the Labour caucus? Where are our local voices in parliament? In the Press on Thursday there was an article by Roderick Mulgan, a doctor, and a lawyer, an unusual combination! He wrote:
This upheaval is not about eliminating the problems it claims to eliminate, because it won’t. Like national pay awards and water reforms, it is happening because the politicians driving it are committed to centralism on principle; an end in itself. We are witnessing the rumbling re-emergence of ideology
He then concluded:
Ideology is different. The imperative is not what works but what is philosophically anointed. The Health and Disability System Review (implemented by this government) does not advocate abolishing the DHBs. It proposes collapsing some into larger ones and giving them more central direction about what they should be achieving. Which is all the postcode argument calls for: a tilt towards more centrally directed co-ordination, not a new monolith.
The review was a substantial sounding of opinion and experience, and contained numerous interesting initiatives, many centred around local solutions for local needs. It did not recommend the Government’s creed of central control.
It is far from obvious that monoliths deliver the best public services, and no rationale for having one arises from the process to date. If there is any rationale beyond socialistic worship of state health hegemony, the Government would do well to identify it. https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/126596269/labours-health-reforms-are-about-philosophy-not-better-service.