How to be a lazy politician

Written By: - Date published: 3:00 pm, August 17th, 2010 - 6 comments
Categories: accountability, bill english, democracy under attack, Economy, john key, national/act government, Politics, same old national - Tags:

When John Steinbeck said ‘No one wants advice – only corroboration’ he could well have been describing the numerous working groups the Government has established in many areas of significant economic and social policy.

Rather than spending its nine years in opposition developing a detailed policy prescription for fixing the countries ills, John Key’s National Party is spending much of its time in government taking the ‘advice’ of handpicked working groups.

Here are a few reasons I think this approach is both wrong and should be exposed for the political tactic it is.

  1. The Government is using the working groups to implement policies more radical than they have an electoral mandate for. The areas the working groups are investigating are areas where National has existing policy but would like to go further. This allows National to present itself as policy moderate while adopting a more radical agenda based on the recommendations of the working groups. Take the tax working group for example. Would National have done so well in the 2008 election had it sought an electoral mandate for increasing GST in order to give a disproportionately large tax cut to the wealthiest? Such a policy would have played out very differently in the heat of an election campaign than it did in the slow build up of leaks prior to the budget.
  2. The working groups ignore the real problems facing New Zealand. Where is the working group on job creation or on delivering higher wages? Even on issues which the Government does have a policy prescription, they have picked and chosen which ones to use this mechanism for. Why didn’t the Government set up a working group on industrial relations? Maybe because the credible experts on employment law and industrial relations appreciate the inherent power imbalance between bosses and workers and would have come up with a more balanced approach.
  3. The working groups represent a form of policy privitisation. Private sector contractors like are making a killing running massive reviews and restructuring which not surprisingly recommend more work for the private sector!
  4. Despite the working groups having the veneer of being expert or neutral, most often they are not. The groups have been carefully selected to ensure no member dissents from the established view and so far, with the exception of the Brash 2025 productivity report and only because it was so totally outrageous, they have not strayed too far from the corroboration the Government has sought for them to provide. Catherine Issac on the welfare working group is a former president of the ACT party, former politicians Don Brash and David Caygill on the 2025 taskforce are unabashed neo-liberal ideologues. Most members come from the world of business. The end users of government services are woefully under represented and are by and large voiceless in the process.
  5. The working groups remove a key part of the job of Ministers; developing, promoting and implementing policy. National Party Ministers must have scant all to do all day as their policy work is removed from them.
  6. The working groups allow National to get advice on issues in isolation which ignores the important analysis and collaboration which goes on in the public service. For example Te Puni Kokiri and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs would normally provide an analysis of the impact of policy options on Maori and women respectively. The Government is deliberately shutting out these important perspectives in the development of policy.
  7. The working groups represent a fundamental attack on the role of a neutral public service fundamental to the Westminster system. It is no surprise that the rise of politically motivated working groups correlates with the demise and attacks on non-partisan policy advisors in the public service. Policy development includes understanding how policy will work, how it will be implemented, any unintended consequences and a rational analysis of what will and won’t work.

I believe it is important the working groups are revealed for what they are, tools of the government to advance a more radical agenda than the poll sensitive politicians are prepared to risk themselves. In which case maybe we don’t actually need the National Government. Could it too be replaced by a working group? Maybe such a working group would recommend a little more honesty than we are currently getting from them.

Andrew Campbell

6 comments on “How to be a lazy politician”

  1. Blighty 1

    It does look a lot like this is an attempt to undermine the public service. What English and others promoting these committees as an alternative to public servant policy advisors are missing, however, is that the public service is still doing all the heavy lifting behind the scenes.

    Look at the Tax Working Group – most of the material it used came from Treasury and IRD

  2. r0b 2

    Excellent post. And:

    8. Cost. What is the cost of these working groups? (What a great way of paying off the old “boys” network eh.) Why are we paying a separate system to replace the advice which should be coming from the regular mechanisms of parties, Treasury, parliamentary researchers and select committees?

  3. Julie 3

    Thanks Andrew this is a great post.

    I am particularly concerned by the lack of diversity on the working groups, in particular, as you point out, the absence of anyone actually working at the sharp end of each policy area. They also seem to fulfill a role of political patronage which is worrying.

    The Jobs Summit was how long? Two, three days iirc. And the work that came out of it has long drifted away. Yet these working groups keep going and going.

  4. BLiP 4

    I’ve been having second thoughts about a Tracy Watkins column in relation to this. I may have been quite wrong to assert that she was defending National Ltdâ„¢ – instead, it would appear she was actually explaining how all this works. Sorry Tracey, and thanks.

    In a revealing speech this week, Mr English spelled out the Government’s thinking: instead of relying exclusively on the public service for policy advice, he said, the Government used a mix of officials and people who were experts in their fields, either from the private sector or academia.

    This had meant a more open process after a decade of very tight discipline in the public service where policy formation took place behind closed doors, Mr English said.
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    What was revealing in his speech was not the process that is well known but that Mr English so openly acknowledged its usefulness to the Government as a way of avoiding any backlash.

    Full article here.

  5. Bored 5

    Nice article Andrew, the key points are that working groups represent a form of policy privitisation and that working groups represent a fundamental attack on the role of a neutral public service

    I will print a copy and fold it into my copy of Tony Judt “Ill fares the land”. He makes the telling point that the more we privatise the more we detach the public interest in the political process and its outcomes. My observation is that whilst Nact can be accused quite rightly of this malaise Labour are no angels either, we saw 9 years of manageralism and “expert” advise. As they say about experts they become more and more informed about less and less until they know everything about nothing in particular.

  6. Good work Andrew!
    There is nothing quite so formidable as a committee (or work group)
    I do however have a question. Does the Public Service still exist?? I am not trying to be ironic or flippant. Sometime in my first 2-3 years as a principal my collegues and I were informed by an Education Ministry apparatchik that they were no longer Civil Servants or Public Servants, the law had been changed, and they were now all servants of their Ministers. From a practical perspective that is certainly the approach that the Ministry of Education took for the next 20 years or so. Hence my question, Does NZ still have a Public Service or are all Publ;ic Servants now Ministerial Servants? A fairly significant question as your comment relies to a certain extent on a dispassionate, independant, non partisan Public Service concept.
    Bill Verrall

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