John Key’s government is just two years old but it is already clearly bereft of ideas. His lacklustre speech yesterday showed no innovative thinking. There was just his usual bile directed at Labour and the same old failed National formula: asset sales, welfare cuts, and public service cuts masked by restructuring to fund tax cuts for the rich elite.
We knew the spending cuts were coming. National has set an aggressive target to get us back into surplus in four years having created most of the deficit through passing nearly $5 billion a year in tax cuts, the lion’s share of which goes to the wealthy. Having strategically created the hole in the government books, spending cuts will now be called for to fill it.
Don’t kid yourself that this will be paid for by sacking a few board members and policy advisers in Wellington. The departments cost just $1.6 billion, or 2.3% of total government expenditure. And it’s not like these people are sitting around doing nothing: their jobs are to design and monitor the policies, and distribute the funds, that make the over $69 billion of spending efficient. These people are the MFAT diplomats, the CYFS lawyers, the Customs policy designers, the Defence accountants, the (unwilling) National Standards architects, the Crown Law legislation drafters, the DoC planners, the Justice legal aid distributors, the Treasury economic modelers. These aren’t do nothing jobs – they are jobs that need to be done for the public services we rely on to work. The tasks they do don’t disappear if the workers do, instead the burden is passed to the ‘front-line’ and eventually on to us through worse public services.
Merging a few departments (reserving the decentralisation National carried out in the 1990s) won’t really cut spending. Even sacking the who core public service wouldn’t be enough. To fill the hole the tax cuts have created as fast as National wants, the cuts will have to come from the ‘front-line’ as well as from the government’s Kiwisaver contributions. And from benefits, it seems.
Key hinted ominously that welfare ‘reform’ was on its way.
Key’s ruled out changes to superannuation, so that’s half the welfare budget cordoned off. And, despite his call that people who can work should be working, without jobs to go into he won’t get benefit numbers down by beneficiaries going into work.
That leaves cuts to payments and denying people in need access to benefits in the first place, further impoverishing the poorest New Zealanders.
Main benefit levels are already horrifically low, so I don’t think we’ll see a frontal assault. I pick we’ll see an attack on the accommodation supplement and payments for income-related rents. Maybe no extra DPB after the X number kid (‘let the kids starve, it’s their fault they were born to a mother who couldn’t control herself’). And an attack on Working for Families by reducing the Family Tax Credit.
What are we going to do about it? We’re going to spread the word against these cuts to the public services we all use and the benefits that are (barely) supporting the country’s poorest families who are suffering from a recession they did nothing to create. We’re going to fight every cut tooth and nail. And we’re going to make sure we elect a Left government that will make the rich elite pay their share and won’t use the recession as an opportunity to beat up on the rest of us.
I also want to reassure people – and this is my second point – that a new National Government is not going to radically reorganise the structure of the public sector.Our focus is squarely on delivering services, not on changing the wiring diagram of the state sector to get a tidier conceptual model.
Few problems are solved by significant reorganisations – in fact, many more tend to be created. It is easy to underestimate the amount of energy and inspiration soaked up by institutional change, as well as the loss of personal and institutional knowledge.
Just as Labour has done, we will take opportunities to make changes to some agencies as part of the usual business of government. However, there will be no wholesale reorganisation or restructuring across the public sector.