When Labour governments run out of ideas they have usually resorted to centralisation and more controls. In its final term, Peter Fraser’s ministry that had been one of the most creative in New Zealand’s history, centralised as tired ministers hoped their trusted bureaucrats would keep Labour’s faltering show on the road. The ministries of Walter Nash, Norman Kirk and Bill Rowling followed similar paths. Jacinda Ardern’s government, you’ll recall, had very little policy to start with. So little in fact that when it came to office in 2017 it had to set up more than two hundred committees and inquiries to tell it what to think and do. The results were pitiful. Almost no Kiwibuild houses were constructed, homeless numbers increased, poverty figures rose rather than declined, educational achievement standards kept slipping against other countries, and major infrastructure construction fell well behind schedule. Whenever criticised, rookie ministers blamed the previous government, and then Covid. Message? Centralising everything can’t compensate for the absence of carefully-thought-through policy.
One of the things I came to appreciate as a Minister was the old adage that if it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it. Unfortunately, this is an alien approach to Jacinda’s ministers. Despite their lack of specific policies, they had ever-so-itchy fingers. They engaged across a wide front tinkering with everything in sight, thinking some ancient Labour dogma overlaid with a big dose of special privilege for Maori would fix things. The public hospital structure had been set in place by Helen Clark’s ministry. It is only twenty years old, but it is now being turned on its head for no good reason except that a more centralized system makes it easier to favour Maori. Health Department officials who have been under huge stress coping with Covid are also having to restructure a hospital system that wasn’t broken. Nor is there anything so wrong with water and drainage services nationally that they require Nanaia Mahuta’s Three Waters in the form set out in her current proposals. Her centralizing scheme seems to have only one over-arching purpose: control by Maori. Meanwhile, the school history curriculum is being restructured with one special purpose in mind: teaching a bogus version of New Zealand history to school kids about the Treaty of Waitangi. Making Labour’s centralisation work certainly keeps officials busy. Wellington has become a gigantic Lego-fest.
The urge to centralise is reaching into far corners of our social services. Journalist Natalie Akoorie recently wrote about Christchurch’s Family Law Advice Clinic that was providing a service for women who are physically endangered by abusive partners. The clinic ran on the smell of an oily rag but saved several low-income women from harm. Instead of slipping it a little more money, the Minister of Justice, without consulting existing services, decided to spend $25 million per annum on an elaborate national structure to help parents and children navigate the Family Court. Armed with newly-coined Maori titles dreamt up, no doubt, by the ever-so-inventive Maori Language Commission, 50 “Kaiarahi” will force the local Christchurch operation into a costly bureaucratic alternative, destroying a functional scheme as it goes. Similar self-funding pilot programmes in other parts of the country will be gobbled up. Money, won’t be a problem; this ministry is convinced it grows on trees, or can be printed. With huge debt run up over the last two years any sudden Labour impulses can be added to the Budget.
Auckland’s rapid rail to the Airport is an example of a centrally directed idea in search of a rationale. There is no audible demand for it. Planning a $15 billion scheme (more likely double that) at a time when Covid has altered work patterns is reckless in the extreme. There’s no guarantee that commuting to downtown Auckland will ever fully recover. These days offices are steadily shifting away from Queen Street, and government departments are encouraging staff to work from home. Zoom is an acceptable substitute for most face-to-face meetings and it’s unlikely there’ll be a rush back to the central city once Covid is finally over. But we, the taxpayers, will be left with monstrously expensive holes in the ground in which boys can literally play trains. If rapid rail was left to Aucklanders themselves to fund, designs wouldn’t get off the drawing board, just as they never have in the past. They might well prefer a second harbour crossing.
Over the years, the best ideas behind successful government schemes have always taken time to germinate. If they are specific to places or regions there has to be buy-in from locals who will benefit. And the best way to test the extent of that buy-in is to expect the same locals to own the project and pay the lion’s share. Centralizing everything always means bureaucracy and waste. But then, Jacinda’s ministry is so other worldly that they don’t know these stark realities. Her government is too expensive to indulge any further.