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Winston Peters and Simon Bridges are the architects of their own misfortunes

Australia first: Winston Peters. Photo/Getty Images/Listener illustration

Cliché Class 101 for those in public life includes the rule that before asking a question, be sure what the answer will be – or at least its general postcode.

The Government and Opposition have each committed the folly of allowing themselves to be unpleasantly surprised after making a chest-beatingly big deal of an issue: the state of the racing industry, and the source of a leak against National leader Simon Bridges.

A racing fan, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters scored a Budget tax break for bloodstock breeders and envisaged at least one all-weather course among further props for the long-ailing industry. So, more racing, not less.

Inconveniently, the report he commissioned into racing’s optimal future has just aimed a dagger at his New Zealand First party’s electoral heartland. It advises closing 20 racetracks, most of which lie in the party’s provincial voter pool, and outsourcing the TAB’s commercial activities, probably to Australia, which is the sort of thing Peters made his name denouncing as “selling the family silver” to foreigners.

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As a sort of karmic accumulator, the police this week laid charges of devastating seriousness after a long investigation into suspected corruption in the harness-racing industry.

Peters is right to say, “It’s reform or die, there’s no off-course substitute,” for a painful restructuring. But the proposed scratchings – beloved old courses such as Omakau in Central Otago – and acknowledgement that foreigners would run our industry better than us are dangerous territory for a party hoping to grow its vote by currying favour in long-neglected backwaters. People might notice that the party crying blue murder when air routes, rail links and bank branches are closed is the same one mothballing their local track, which is often a community hub.

If the ensuing Cabinet decisions bounce the wrong way with the industry’s surviving moneybagses, NZ First will also find itself shy of a major donor.

Peters faces what on Yes, Minister is sorrowfully termed “a courageous decision”.

Cartoon/Chris Slane

Road to nowhere

For Bridges, it’s not clear where the better part of valour lies now he has embarked on his own inquiry into who broke the embargo on his Crown limo spending. It was a pathetic leak, intended to undermine him for running up what was more of an accounting entry than a genuine bill. The ministerial fleet is charged out so as even to include a ticket-clip for Internal Affairs’ general overheads. Only the fuel bill was “real” spending, and what rational person would object to a new Opposition leader getting out and talking to voters?

Bridges’ best response would have been to deplore the leak, but make the obvious point that such a feeble bit of gamesmanship, even if from within his ranks, was hardly going to destabilise his leadership. Instead, he played up the dastardly conspiracy against him, and the subsequent stop-go series of inquiries have made Bridges and everyone else concerned look ridiculously oversensitive about a trivial matter. He now has a tiger by the tail that started as a mere tabby.

Sure, this leaker was no Scarlet Pimpernel, as the police have had his/her personal – but confidential – confession after tracing phone data. But in general, trying to unmask leakers is a mug’s game. The only one to have been exposed in recent years was the ministerial messenger who slipped a Telecom document to a cycling buddy in 2006. Thousands of forensic boffins’ billable hours have failed to nab any other leaker since.

Bookending this debacle was a media paddy over whether Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was profligate to incur an extra $80,000-odd in travel to the Pacific Islands Forum to fit around her breastfeeding schedule. Do citizens really expect her to choose between leaving her infant daughter and snubbing Pacific leaders?

One board to rule them all

If we really are going to snivel over these sorts of spending items, there’s a perennial field day to be had about the enormous bill for consultants and review teams that governments hire. It’s a constant policy see-saw: politicians cut departments in lean times, losing valuable expertise, then, embarrassed at the consultancy bill, embark on a “capacity-building” binge in later years. Departments are alternately “devolved” – broken up and told to stick to their knitting – and mushed into super-ministries and told to work together. If only they could be left in peace to have a go at either option. The multihulled Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has had so many staff restructurings since its creation in 2012, it should really be called the Ministry for Musical Chairs. A primary “output” of its staff is applying for their own and one another’s jobs.

So, it’s with a groan that many public servants will likely greet yet another round – billed as the biggest state-services restructuring in 30 years. The Government proposes going further down the merger route by superimposing a “board of boards” of senior chief executives on departments to enforce better co-ordination between them. Departments will be expected to take joint responsibility for “outcomes”, not just “outputs”.

For instance, reducing crime will be the joint responsibility of police, welfare, health, housing and education officials. Cynicism may be doused somewhat by the fact that pilot programmes, such as a much-admired one in the Wairarapa, have shown that joining up agency casework on the ground can turn our worst social statistics around. And this is broadly what the previous Government was trying to achieve, too, via its use of better-targeted data and its Better Public Services programme. Not that either side would admit this. But for once, perhaps “restructuring” won’t be a synonym for reinventing the same wobbly wheel. There’s also work on how to amplify traditional indices such as GDP and household income to more meaningful stats about how people are really faring – as in, do they have enough food, heating, life options and access to a local racecourse?

A tip for public servants in the dismal event all this will entail further job-go-rounds: it will help to know the correct usage in any sentence of the new buzzwords. The Treasury, for one, is full tilt designing “dashboards” to illustrate their “conversations” around “well-being” – even if, to us mere mortals, these still look just like more big, fat reports.

This article was first published in the September 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.