Is the Government all talk, no action?

by The Listener / 20 September, 2018
Winston Peters, James Shaw and Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Getty Images

Winston Peters, James Shaw and Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Getty Images

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It’s about time the Government moved beyond Labour’s campaign slogan of “Let’s Do This” and adopted Nike’s rather more urgent one: “Just Do It.” Yet, instead, it’s sliding into “To-Do List Limbo”.

The growing perception that Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens are hopelessly mired in internal bickering and ministerial dithering isn’t entirely fair. But after several intra-coalition skirmishes, it’s now urgent for this administration to reveal more than “12 priorities”. Voters want to see action with immediate and tangible benefits. The Government has already spent almost a year putting up new goal posts. It’s time to take some goal kicks.

Instead, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern crystallised the all-talk-no-action trope when she led a rally of the faithful last weekend, announcing still more goals. National Party leader Simon Bridges quipped that it was like “an iPhone launch without the iPhone”.

Ardern has impressed far beyond these shores with her style of communication. Yet there are problems emerging in her Government. One is inexperience, with only five ministers having previously served in a Cabinet. Another is the obvious issue of some ministers not following internal consultation processes. But above all, Ardern’s Cabinet may have straitjacketed itself with the sheer breadth of pre-policy-decision reports, taskforces and discussion papers.

Rather than fixing things, precious time and effort are being poured into “scoping”, including new indices to measure poverty and well-being. Consultation and risk-assessment are vital, but there’s such a thing as too much homework.

Our urgent problems are neither novel nor mysterious. We face exactly the same long-standing issues as many nations: insufficient housing and infrastructure, water pollution, dismaying levels of educational failure, persistent levels of drug abuse, labour market-workforce mismatches, inequitable health services and a distortionary house-price bubble. There’s already a wealth of global experience of how to begin tackling such problems – plus experience of what doesn’t work.

Every new Government comes in with a sense of what it wants to achieve. This one could have picked a few key areas for urgent reform. Instead, practically all the issues that hit people hardest have been put on a giant wish list, pending multiple reports. With the Government already looking worryingly dysfunctional over the handful of the issues it is progressing, the need for momentum has become urgent. Yet it now faces the major problem that it can’t act without pre-empting a slew of reports that have yet to grind their way to completion.

Yes, the Government has made headway in getting new housing planned and built. But this is progress on a delay button, subject to land and workforce availability. Similarly, the Provincial Growth Fund grants will take years to yield benefits. Measures that could help people now appear stranded in limbo.

One example of that is shared-equity home ownership, where a lender – say, the state or a bank – retains a share of a property and only lends on the remaining part, making the mortgage more affordable.

Worse, the Government’s tax review, which is to dribble out reports and eventually recommendations for reforms next term, may be a factor in the persistent business confidence slump. Business fears the unknown, and this is three years’ worth of tax mystery.

It’s especially hard to comprehend why any Government, alerted to a serious and deepening teacher crisis, would embark upon time-consuming and polarising reviews of education at the very time those working in the sector are exhausted by the increasingly herculean task of upholding the current system.

And although there’s no doubt that steering this administration is unusually difficult, given the governing parties’ significant differences, NZ First leader Winston Peters seems to deliberately exacerbate the perception of instability. His 11th-hour querulousness over the Government’s labour-market reforms looks bloody-minded and unreasonable, since NZ First had already approved the legislation through Cabinet and a select committee. Peters is either belatedly currying favour with potential wealthy donors who don’t want the multi-employer negotiation clause or is flexing political muscles to try to improve NZ First’s poll rating.

In the absence of Government action much beyond regulating rodeos and restricting car clamping, such gamesmanship will depress support for all the governing parties. They may well lose the next election having gone into it with elaborate plans but few achievements.

This editorial was first published in the September 29, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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