One of the virtues of New Zealand government has long been that we avoid US-style pork barrel politics. The Government sets the direction of policy and priorities but doesn’t interfere with specific projects. The principle is that the experts, not the elected officials, should decide the details of specific projects. For instance, the Government might decide it wants more investment in roads or roads in a particular region, but it is the independent New Zealand Transport Agency that decides on which project to construct, in which order, and with which details in order to meet the Government’s objectives. No ‘bridge to nowhere’ for us.
Not only is is just a plain good idea to have the experts making the decisions, it also removes an avenue for political corruption.
So, it is very worrying to see National making pork-barrel promises. The Nats are going around promising specific road projects will be built, meaning they may have to override the NZTA. They are even editing the details of these projects – adding a tunnel to one. I think we can all agree that its better to have engineers, not politicians, deciding if a tunnel is needed on a road project.
The promise to fund Plunketline means overriding the transparent and independent contracting process by which Plunket and other organisations compete for funding. I always thought the Tories were against the Government choosing winners but, more seriously, when the politicians decide which charities get the limited pool of money it is an invitation to cronyism and corruption.
This disturbing willingness to over-ride independent bodies and experts for petty political gain doesn’t end at roads. National is promising to fund 52 weeks treatment of the breast cancer drug Herceptin, which is currently funded for nine weeks. In doing so, they would have to change the legislation that makes PHARMAC independent and ignore the medical experts. PHARMAC said that is they were given the $40 million it would take to fund Herceptin they would use it fund other drugs, which would be able to deliver greater health benefits to more people at the same cost. Given limited resources, PHARMAC wants to get the best bang for the public buck. National would override that decision because Herceptin is a good populist issue (as you would expect, breast cancer has a lobby group that sufferers of other conditions can’t match).
National sees votes and, so, is willing to sacrifice quality and independent decision-making in the use of public money. That would lead to bad decisions being made and more wasteful government spending. It is something people on all sides should oppose.