Politicians and the country generally are understandably keen to return to more normal times, and politics the way they used to be. But politics as usual is unlikely to deliver the responses we will need in this new environment. 

Opinion: When Jacinda Ardern became Prime Minister in October 2017 she promised she would lead the most open and transparent government New Zealand had ever seen. In the Speech from the Throne that year, the governor-general (on behalf of the Prime Minister who traditionally writes the speech) said the Ardern government would be one of transformation and aspiration. In her own opening speech to Parliament shortly after that, Ardern promised that “this government will foster a more open and democratic society. It will strengthen transparency around official information”.

Fine words but none of it has come to pass. Less than a year after taking office, the Prime Minister had dropped “transformation” from her lexicon, preferring instead the more amorphous description “foundational change”. However, over the past four and a bit years her government has not proven to be transformative, aspirational, or even a promoter of “foundational change”.

This is New Zealand’s most conservative government of recent times. Not so much in terms of its political ideology, but more in the way it does things. Its policy prescription, admittedly constrained by New Zealand First’s negativism in the first term, and the persistence of the pandemic so far in the second, has not been at all radical or innovative. And, with half the current Parliamentary term almost over, the prospects of its being able to devise and introduce radical and innovative solutions before the next election seem very slim. Wherever possible the current government has harkened back to earlier solutions belonging to governments of the past to deal with the issues it confronts today.

Last week’s long-awaited broadcasting announcement is a good example. Rather than a bold and innovative strategy to position the state’s assets in radio and television for the demands of the future, it looks like 1962 all over again, when the old New Zealand Broadcasting Service gave way to the infamous New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, or the NZBC as it is not so fondly remembered. In today’s dynamic digital environment, putting Humpty Dumpty back together again seems a barely adequate solution, especially when it was the third Labour government and Broadcasting Minister Roger Douglas that dismantled the old NZBC in the first place.

A better option for this government might have been to carve out a public broadcasting television and radio service, with its own charter, and fully fund that, while letting television’s commercial assets go free in the competitive market to stand or fall alongside other larger, better-resourced content providers. But instead, Labour prefers to go back to a structure it abolished as no longer fit for purpose, nearly half a century ago.

It is a similar story with health. Labour’s solution to the poor performance of the District Health Board structure it created when last in office is to go back to the system that preceded it. Labour had set up the District Health Boards in 2000 to replace National’s centralised Health Funding Agency and four Regional Health Authorities. It said then it wanted to restore local democracy to health service delivery and get away from centralised decision-making. But now this Labour government is proposing to replace the elected District Health Boards with its own centralised, unelected Health New Zealand entity, supported by a Māori Health Authority and four local commissioning authorities, in a model that, but for the name changes, is virtually the same as the system it got rid of over 20 years ago.

Housing was the area where Labour’s commitment to transformation and aspiration was supposed to be most obvious, but where it has failed most spectacularly. Invoking the memory of the first Labour government’s state housing programme in the late 1930s, this government committed to building 100,000 affordable homes over 10 years, under its KiwiBuild programme. That has been a spectacular failure with the government’s home-building programme adding but a fraction of the new homes promised; far, far short of the tens of thousands of new government-built homes that were to be coming on the market by now.

And yet more progress could have been achieved had Labour involved private-sector construction companies in its plans from the outset, as the first Labour government had done with Sir James Fletcher. But the current government was too focused on KiwiBuild houses being seen as government-built, and therefore solely to its credit, to do so. It was an early sign that the promise of transformation really meant a return to the big central government of the 1960s and 1970s.

When it comes to the Covid-19 response, for which the government won plaudits initially, even if that is waning now, the response has been traditional, rather than innovative. It has followed closely the example of the Key government after the Global Financial Crisis and the Christchurch earthquakes. Like then, it has focused on trying to keep businesses operating and jobs going, even if the quality and targeting of some of its expenditure can be questioned.

However, the scale of borrowing to do so has been far more substantial and riskier, especially at a time of rising inflation and interest rates worldwide. Yet the government has seemed content to rely on the tactics of the Muldoon government and its predecessors and pass the repayment of the debt – about $60 billion so far – to future generations to repay. More innovative solutions could have been expected from a government committed to foundational change, let alone transformation.

As for being the most transparent government ever, since taking office this government has been constantly criticised by journalists and commentators for the increasingly secretive way in which it operates and for the new tardiness it has introduced into what was already a tortuous and obfuscating process regarding requests for information under the Official Information Act. It has got so bad that the editor of The Dominion Post has started publishing on a weekly basis the list of requests for information her journalists have submitted to government agencies that week, and the non-answers or delayed responses they have received. Throughout the pandemic delays of several months in obtaining information from the government and the Ministry of Health about various aspects of the response – the vaccine roll-out, for example – have become standard.

The overall impression is of a very conservative and cautious government, risk averse, wary, and unwilling to devolve any responsibility to local communities or the private sector. It is determined to govern from the centre in the benign “we know best” way governments half a century ago and earlier did, overlooking that New Zealand has changed considerably since then. We are a far more pluralistic and diverse society today, unlikely to take comfortably to a return of stifling, all knowing, big central government.

The problem this has created for Labour, which the polls are starting to reflect, is among those of its supporters who genuinely believed in or were enthused by the prospect of a government of aspiration and transformation. They are now becoming disillusioned that while its rhetoric may be bold, in practice this government is no different from those that went before it. Moreover, by centralising everything again it has put itself in the position where only it can be blamed when things go wrong, or do not live up to what was promised. All that means is many of its erstwhile supporters may not be as nearly as inclined to vote for it again in 2023, as they were in 2017 and 2020.

Back-to-the-future thinking is not just the province of the Labour Party. National’s recent tax cuts announcement had a similar ring to it. Many of the phrases spouted in support of that plan have been heard many times before. It all looked a little passé, and a wistful throwback to earlier years. The rising cost of living was the right issue to focus on, but it is questionable whether relying on the solutions of the past will have quite the same voter appeal any more.

Now that we seem to be coming out of the worst of the pandemic, politicians and the country generally are understandably keen to return to more normal times, and politics the way they used to be. The only problem is that, after two years of upheaval that has caused unprecedented social and economic change, politics as usual are unlikely to deliver the responses New Zealand will need in this new environment. Yet the politicians on both sides so far seem unwilling to face up to the new post-pandemic challenges. Rather, they all look too keen to step back into the more familiar and comfortable political space of pre-Covid times.

That is hardly aspirational, and certainly not transformative.

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