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Winston Peters and Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Getty Images

Bill Ralston: Why the Govt is failing to achieve genuine reform

Compared to the reformist governments of the past, the current coalition appears hamstrung by their differences.

Over the years, I have observed, at relatively close quarters, a number of governments come and go. We may not have always agreed with what they did, but every one of them – from Muldoon’s and Lange’s to those of Jim Bolger, Helen Clark and John Key – seemed to have a coherent plan to advance the country.

The current three-cornered administration of Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens seems to lack any kind of plan. We’ve seen first-year university students get a year’s free tuition, but nothing else to improve access to tertiary education other than a plan to combine all the country’s technical institutes into one giant administrative conglomerate. Good luck with that, too.

To save the planet from global warming, the Government has banned new offshore oil and gas exploration, but there is no real initiative to promote any alternative fuels.

Acknowledging the appallingly disproportionate rate of imprisonment of Māori, the Government proposes to allow inmates more phone calls and visits with whānau, and a kaupapa programme will roll out in all prisons, but there is no serious attempt to address the root cause of the problem: Māori economic deprivation. In the 1920s, prisons listed inmates by religion and the majority were found to be Roman Catholic. This was because, in those times, Catholics were suffering economic deprivation similar to what Māori face today. As Catholics’ incomes rose, so their rate of offending dropped. Poverty is one of the main drivers of criminal offending; eliminate poverty and you will reduce rates of offending.

The Government recently acknowledged the parlous state of the country’s mental-health system and voted $1.9 billion to address the issue, yet there seems to be no clear plan as to how that great wad of cash should be spent. Shane Jones wanders the country with $3 billion in his wallet to fund regional development initiatives, but most of that is unspent and he appears to have trouble finding suitable recipients.

Anyone driving long distance will tell you our nation’s roading system is poor and a big contributor to a shocking death toll, but the Government appears to be pulling back on major road-construction projects, presumably because those new roads would carry evil gas-guzzling and polluting cars.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the lack of planning and joined-up thinking is a result of the fact that the three political parties in charge have wildly disparate views on what should be done, and, in many cases, nothing is done to genuinely address a problem because one or more of them will block the others’ programme.

The only part of Government that seems to be working in high gear is its publicity machine. Press conferences are held, photo opportunities delivered, media releases pumped out and the appearance of action is created. However, when you look closely, too often you see the scheme just announced is largely cosmetic and does not address the core of the problem. Worse, public money is devoted to a cause but there is no advance planning as to how it should be put to best use.

It seems to me that the Government is making it up as it goes along, occasionally content to be seen to be doing something about problems but not really addressing the causes, because the coalition parties cannot agree on policies.

It is as if New Zealand has a caretaker administration while it waits for a truly reformist government to come along. That will be a very long wait.

This article was first published in the August 31, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.