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Dr Oliver Hartwich - Even mediocre would be easier to bear: how NZ lost its mojo

“We have lost clarity of how we add value, why we are here, what we exist for.”

That was among the findings in an internal review prepared by the New Zealand Transport Authority (NZTA), obtained by Radio New Zealand (RNZ).

But that statement could equally apply to New Zealand as a whole. The country has lost its mojo after a decade of feeling good about itself.

For many years, pollsters Roy Morgan and Curia have been asking New Zealanders whether the country is heading in the right direction. Apart from a few months around the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, large majorities of Kiwis have always responded “Yes”.

During the first Covid lockdown, in April 2020, the highest positive value was 77 per cent for ‘right direction’. This figure has now dropped to 36 per cent, while 50 per cent of New Zealanders believe their country is going in the wrong direction.

That is quite a mood swing, and there are reasons for it.

The biggest contributor to New Zealanders’ grumpiness is the discrepancy between political promises and reality. Without constant promises of world-class performance, even mediocre results would be easier to bear.

The aforementioned NZTA review is a good example. With a depressingly high road toll, the government has embarked on a “Road to Zero” campaign. Its ambitious goal: no more deaths or serious injuries by 2050. The promotional awareness campaign will cost $15 million over three years.

Yet, as RNZ found out, since 2018 NZTA has installed less than a fifth of the road-safety barriers due by 2024.

On these numbers, the “Road to Zero” could be a long one.

But it will also be a costly one because the transport bureaucracy has mushroomed in recent years.

As of June 2021, NZTA employed about 2,081 staff. That figure was 1,372 only four years earlier.

Staff growth at NZTA did not mainly take place on the frontline. HR workers went from 57 to 122 full-time equivalents; managers from 214 to 456; accountants from 44 to 66; admin staff from 307 to 485; and communications officers from 32 to 88. None of those mentioned above will ever install a bollard, put up a road sign, or fix a pothole.

NZTA is symptomatic of a much wider problem in New Zealand, even though it is only a small puzzle piece. Faced with a serious problem, the government sets an ambitious long-term goal. It then launches massive public relations campaigns. Following that, it blows up the bureaucracy but fails on deliverables.

It is the same story in practically every major policy area.

Housing was one of the big issues in the 2017 election campaign. At the time, Labour promised to fix the housing market, reduce homelessness, and build 100,000 affordable KiwiBuild homes over the next decade.

The results after five years? New Zealand house prices have grown by almost 8.7 per annum on average. Emergency Housing Grants, which were below $10 million per quarter in 2017, now exceed $100 million. And KiwiBuild, so far, has delivered just over 1,300 homes – with only 98,700 to go.

New Zealanders used to be proud of their education system, which was considered world-class.

Today, the only measure by which New Zealand schools lead the world is in declining standards.

Reading and literacy have dropped dramatically in the OECD’s PISA rankings. The mathematics skills of New Zealand’s 15-year-olds are only as good as those of 13.5-year-olds 20 years ago. Despite an increase in education spending per student, more than 40 per cent of school leavers are functionally illiterate or innumerate.

Aside from such big policy failures, New Zealanders are bombarded with worrying news daily. There are GPs reportedly seeing more than 60 patients per day. Patients are treated in corridors at some hospitals’ A & E departments, where waiting times now often exceed ten hours.

As gang numbers have grown, gun crime has also become a regular feature in news headlines. Ram raids, where youths steal cars and crash them into small shops, have become common.

Rather than dealing with these and many other issues, the government appears determined to add new challenges to doing business. It is about to introduce collective bargaining in the labour market and an extra tax on income to fund unemployment insurance.

And these are just the big-ticket items. Practically every industry can tell its own stories about new complex regulations, usually rushed through with minimal consultation, if any.

Furthermore, there is growing unease about the government’s move towards co-governance. It sounds harmless but it would radically alter how democracy operates in New Zealand and undermine basic principles of democratic participation.

All in all, the picture that emerges is that of a country in precipitous decline. That would be alarming enough. What makes it even more so is a perception that the core private and public institutions lack the understanding of the severity of the crisis or the ability to counteract it.

Some notable exceptions aside, the New Zealand media is underfunded and not performing the functions of the Fourth Estate properly.

Despite the vast expansion in public service numbers, it lacks quality and focuses on trendy issues rather than its core functions. In particular, the Reserve Bank and the Productivity Commission need a reset. And across the political spectrum, again with notable exceptions, the political parties lack parliamentarians with the qualifications and experience necessary for a turnaround job.

New Zealand needs to be careful not to turn into a failed state. That does not mean it should expect civil unrest, but a period of prolonged and seemingly unstoppable decline across all areas of public life.

The only way to reverse this process would be for New Zealand to regain its mojo: its mojo for serious economic and social reform. It has happened before. And it must happen again.

Dr Oliver Hartwich is the Executive Director of The New Zealand Initiative

4,580 views91 comments


Robert Anderson
Robert Anderson
Jul 04, 2022

My memory is obviously a lot older then Oliver's and I would say without a doubt that our decline started the day Jim Bolger the supposed great helmsman got to be influential in politics. the only bright par of his ministry was driven bu bill birch who trashed the socialists and the unions.

Ruth Richardson trashed those that needed help and in the process drained NZ of its businesses and people.

Shipley, with the assistance of Clark dismantled our people safety system with the result that now we have all the mental heath issues we have.

Key was just another appeaser and that's why you have co governance rearing its ugly head courtesy of his henchmen.

Have a read of…

Replying to

I do not agree with your sentiments on Ruth Richardson and to some extent Bill Birch but you are spot on with Bolger, a man who has shown his true colours as soon as ardern opened our chequebook.

However, it is "chicken and egg" as we have a semi literate populous who will vote for whichever party offers the most goodies.

Our "welfare tribe" are doing very well at the moment because we see and hear no sob stories of living in cars or selling their children, unlike 2017. Our maori elite are doing better than ever so obviously the country is doing well indeed.

Our main problem is the lack of genuine education of our children. Unless parents hav…


It is a shit of a situation that has been slowly creeping up, like shit through the floor boards, we have all been guilty of looking the other way and keeping quite, silence means we approve, now the noise may come to late, the door is open who will dare make the first move to close it, none that I see, they are all to busy wanting to get into power or stay in power, at the cost of truth and our country.


Picker N Grin
Picker N Grin
Jul 04, 2022

MMP has to go, we can no longer let political parties choose half the govt

Replying to

ardern is the MP for Mt Albert.

You have the choice to look at the list prior to the election.

You have the option to make a noise about those on the list before the election.

You have the choice to not make a party vote.

I suggest you employ your demcratic right and exercise some of those choices, while you still have those choices.

You can despise Luxon and National as much as you like but until you have an alternative to suggest all you are doing is assisting ardern.

Please don't offer Seymour as a viable alternative, he is not.


Trevor Hughes
Trevor Hughes
Jul 04, 2022

We are in a tailspin now, with negative indicators coming thick and fast. This cabal of ideologically driven, intellectually mediocre student politicians and their tribalist temporary friends will be unable to cope, except by repression using the full resources of the State. I fear what may be coming.

Replying to

"I fear what may be coming."

We have already seen the future with the suppression of the demonstration at Parliament this year.

Our current politicians, in particular labour, are nimbys. Happy to see protests whenever they support ardern and their political beliefs but no opposition to them allowed near them to upset their delicate sensibilities.


Octavian Augustus
Octavian Augustus
Jul 04, 2022

It is wrong to assume that a National government could and would to any significant degree abate or reverse New Zealand's slide into becoming a failed state. Rather than being a five year decline, this has been coming for 30 or more years, during which time National has been in government for 18 years (i.e. more than half of the time). While National governments haven't been as radically destructive and negatively transformative as their Labour counterparts have been, they have consistently stood for nothing and as a consequence have let the ossification set in. They are not conservatives but are liberals with nicer suits. John Key is the poster child for a very capable manager who was nevertheless devoid of…

Replying to

Of course you have a choice so choose the party or candidate that is the least distasteful for you.

You seek something that has never existed, perfection in a candidate or political party. Since democracy has been around we have had to choose to vote for someone who is the best candidate, not the best person in the world or even in the city but the best candidate.

A polarised media and social media has changed the way we see the world with their unending focus on negativity against candidates or political parties they do not like. Our perception of reality has changed but you have the ability to look for yourself rather than rely on the words of others.

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