The ability of the new Labour-led coalition government to deliver its extensive programme of policy changes will depend greatly on the administrative capacity of the country’s “very run down” public service, says a Senior Lecturer of Public Policy at Victoria University of Wellington.

Public servants are “in the engine room” of supporting the government to achieve its ambitions, Dr Verna Smith told the packed audience for a post-election panel discussion organised by Victoria’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies.

The discussion, focused on the political and policy implications of the new government, heard: “It’s the policy analysts and the departmental business managers of the New Zealand public service who will be crucial to the success of this coalition. Not only will public servants need quickly to form constructive relationships with their new minister, but they will need to maintain cross-party and cross-departmental working relationships where the policy arenas all intersect.

“But New Zealand’s public service has been very run down over time. And there is proposed restructuring in key ministries such as MBIE [the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment], taking it apart. That restructuring temporarily erodes capacity. They need, to succeed, realistic timelines and in all likelihood increased administrative capacity.”

Managing these issues, and managing expectations about what change is possible over three years, will be a key factor if the coalition is to be re-elected, said Smith.

All of which will be taking place in the face of “a highly charged opposition party with deep knowledge of current policy settings and the ups and downs of policy-making processes, waiting to spot and exploit weaknesses”, she said.

Meanwhile, the media will be looking for policy failure, said Smith. “The media love policy failure; they’re not so fussed about policy success.”

She thought it would be as a coalition that Labour, New Zealand First and the Green Party seek re-election in 2020.

They must now stay together, said Smith. “Not just for three years but into the next election and beyond that. If they are genuinely interested in achieving their programmes then the days of striving [against each other] for the biggest party vote surely are over.”

She described this as “a fundamental shift in proportional representation” and a “dramatic new phase for New Zealand”.

Others on the panel — which included Paul Dalziel, Professor of Economics at Lincoln University, and Fairfax Media political reporter Stacey Kirk — were less sure that New Zealand First “being kingmaker in a whimsical way, in an unpredicted way” was finished.

Also, there might be a different leader, adding to the “question mark over whether they want to go in as a triumvirate to receive a second term”, said forum chair Jonathan Boston, Professor of Public Policy at Victoria.

Smith warned that the election result was “incredibly finely balanced”, with only a little over 50 percent supporting change.

“So my contention is that the drama of the change we’re being offered — an end to austerity; an end to neoliberalism; that phrase, reform capitalism so New Zealanders see it as a friend not a foe (a very, very powerful phrase) — I’m not sure that there is an overwhelming majority for that and the management of that […] has to be very delicately handled by this administration. Otherwise it could feel a little bit like the old First Past the Post system in disguise.”

Earlier during the discussion, Laura O’Connell Rapira, Director of Campaigns at ActionStation and co-founder of RockEnrol, spoke of the need to strengthen and protect the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system, including reducing the five percent threshold to four percent and supporting robust citizenship education in schools.

“It is a Labour policy to put civics education in schools but civics education is boring — I’m just going to say that! Because RockEnrol does citizenship education workshops in schools and I can tell you that young people aren’t excited by the mechanics of MMP. What they’re excited about is how they can unlock their agency and power as citizens and voters in our country to create the kind of world they want to see. So when we talk about civics we need to expand that to citizenship education.”

O’Connell Rapira also warned about the dangers of thinking of young non-voters as a single entity.

“We have to recognise the fact that the people that don’t participate in the highest numbers are of Māori, Pasifika, Asian descent, they’re from low income and low education backgrounds, and all of those different groups, when we homogenise them into this meta label of ‘young people’, we do them a disservice, because all of those groups require different strategies to unlock their political power and thus unlock better policies that represent them.”

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