Opinion: Setting up a threesome obviously has its challenges. Especially, one imagines, if it is driven more by convenience than mutual passion. But the establishment issues (again one can only imagine) pale into insignificance alongside the ongoing management issues.

And so it is with a political threesome with the complexities leveraged massively by the multiple personalities of each of the participants.

But let’s just imagine, for these purposes, the relationship is “strong and stable” at the core senior level. (In my long commercial governance experience, the strongest multiple partner relationships are not those painstakingly negotiated and documented but those based on such strong mutual interest and respect that a handshake is all that is needed. Once one partner reaches for a document to resolve any problem, the relationship is stuffed whatever the outcome.)

The senior core people involved cannot overlook that there will be many others whose personal aspirations have been thwarted by the ménage. Some will meekly accept hoping they will indeed inherit in due course. Others will flounce and posture and inveigle away to undermine. The second group will not be short of external support and encouragement. But let’s just assume that this aspect too does not destabilise this three-way domestic bliss.

The real problem is far deeper.

Readers will not yet have forgotten that the last Government had no such complexity and yet were still unable to act effectively to such an extent that one of – if not the most – damaging criticisms was that of an inability to deliver.

This is not a criticism of the many skilled and motivated people across the public service. It is a criticism of the structure within which they work. It is an administrative structure not a change structure

There were a number of reasons for this including:

A lack of intellectual clarity, commitment and consistency across the policy programme from the highest level;

Poor choice of process, advice and participation in designing and implementing change; and,

Lack of integration with multiple community organisations and views.

But very prominent were significant shortcomings in the structure, leadership and resources of key public services. This was important in itself but it also drove the other problems. Most importantly it remains a problem for the incoming government of course. They will find, from the moment they open their “Briefings to the Incoming Minister”, that though there is plenty of self-belief and self-satisfaction, the ability to deliver change is challenged to say the least.

This is not a criticism of the many skilled and motivated people across the public service. It is a criticism of the structure within which they work. It is an administrative structure not a change structure – it is exactly what it was designed to be. It may very well be fit for that purpose, but not for effecting substantive change.

There are three aspects to this structure which matter for this purpose:

* It operates within a worldview that sees very limited options to what is realistic, comprising a largely corporatist outlook. We, in common with other similar countries, have accepted this view which is not about more or less state but rather about what interests the state should serve;

* This is coupled with a consistent, centralised and hierarchical view of how organisations should operate and be governed and managed. With so many checks and balances that nothing is really balanced or checked (for example, the Electoral Commission);

* An ideology of meritocracy in its leadership which is based on an associated but limited concept of merit within such organisations. This has some high-minded but narrow ideals of public service and neutrality which again reinforce administration and stasis not change.

It is not obvious on the surface, but this structure is a manifestation of neoliberalism not its antithesis as political parties of that persuasion like to think. This was very well explained by Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Fisher points out that in this structure “work becomes geared towards the generation and massaging of representations rather than to the official goals of the work itself”.

The appearance is of working for a minister or a policy but in fact the structure is in service of a broader and insidious but unrecognised reality which limits and directs actions, and in which responsibility is so diffuse as to be meaningless at an individual level. Anyone who looks objectively at current practice will see that and see how it limits potential for change.

Now, as it happens, this might suit those of us who wish to see more radical change. My guess is this structure will hinder, limit and distort a great deal of what the ménage a trois might like to do. But it will eventually become our problem too if we do not recognise and adjust policies and practices for it.

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  1. Besides the structural limitations to change, it needs to be pointed out that the previous Labour government was not actually dedicated to change. After the 2020 election PM Ardern said she would be the “PM for everyone”. This sounded like, and proved to be exactly, a warning that nothing would be done. Quite by choice, not by limitation.

    Have there not been other governments where significant change was implemented? Perhaps when the neo-liberal coup occurred in the 80s (Labour) and 90’s (National)?

  2. Aside from its tax rebate policy National’s only agenda is to roll back labour’s reform. Presumably they dont like the idea of being forced to accept ACT-NZF policies as their only default option.

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