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Starving the beast

Written By: - Date published: 10:34 am, March 17th, 2009 - 60 comments
Categories: national/act government, public services - Tags: , ,

Before the election National promised that the public service would be capped, not cut. That promise was betrayed a long time ago, but what hasn’t been known up til now is the extent to which they are cutting it.

You’ll recall a month back Consumer Affairs Minister Heather Roy let slip that across-the-board cuts of 10 per cent were on the table. Her office quickly backed away from the claims and Bill English assured us no across-the-board figure had been applied.

As is becoming increasingly routine with this government, it turns out they were lying.

Documents obtained by the Dominion Post under the OIA confirm that National is in fact looking for across-the-board cuts, at a level of – you guessed it – 10%. Here’s what Bill English told public sector heads:

“Using your detailed knowledge of both the department and sector … can you identify the spending that delivers the lowest value for money, say, the bottom 5 per cent and 10 per cent.”

The paper said chief executives should look at whether a programme was in the public interest and was still relevant “given changing needs, priorities and governments”.

They’ll spin this as being a response to the recession. But to use English’s own words, these public service cuts are “part of a long game, not just a quick hunt for savings”.

That “long game” is to run down the public sector and divert that money into the pockets of the rich. It’s been the right-wing project since Thatcher and Reagan – to “starve the beast” and redistribute the wealth upwards. How else do you think National are going to afford to bring the top tax rate down to 30 per cent?

60 comments on “Starving the beast ”

  1. BLiP 1

    Anything and everything John Key and his gang of villains say and have said in the past cannot be trusted.

    • Tane 1.1


      Careful there BLiP, you’ll start sounding like those crazy conspiracy theorists in the Labour Party who warned us before the election that John Key’s centrism was a facade and that National had some kind of secret right-wing agenda they weren’t telling us about.

      Oh, how we laughed at them.

      • r0b 1.1.1

        Oh, how we laughed at them.

        Told ya so! Told ya so! Nyah Nyah!

        Nope, that didn’t help. It’s still a bloody tragedy for the working people of this country. As I lamented in some other recent comment – why must we always learn the hard way?

        • Tane

          Yeah, it’s a hollow kind of vindication, I’ll give you that.

          • r0b

            Hollow in the short term. In the long term it adds to the growing narrative that National can’t be trusted to be honest about its plans and to keep its word in office. Long term the predictions and their coming to pass might cost National dearly (fancy another 9 years in opposition?). There ya go, I’m trying to find some silver linings in the wreckage…

          • Travellerev

            Let’s be perfectly clear here.

            Our leaders do not conspire.
            They may lie, they may hint at things they want to do and then deny that they are going to do them while they are doing them but they do not conspire. AND, and they never talk about what they are going to do in advance amongst each other. No sir, that’s all conspiracy theory and that is just nuts. LOL.

      • BLiP 1.1.2

        The mocking still stings yet I derive no salve from being correct.

        • r0b

          No need for sting. Work hard for what is right because its right, and don’t take the abuse personally.

    • Chess Player 1.2

      “Anything and everything John Key and his gang of villains say and have said in the past cannot be trusted.”

      How can that be, given they spent the first 100 days doing what they said they would do?

      • lprent 1.2.1

        And so much more – a whole pile of things that they didn’t say they were going to do.

        • r0b

          It’s called lying by omission. And it was a whole pile of things – so much so that they had to do away with democratic process to get through it all:


          • Daveski

            What short sweet memories we have around here. If anything, National’s crime is following up on what they said they would do.

          • r0b

            Daveski, in what speech or campaign material (apart from one page on their website) did National say they were going to bring in their fire at will bill? When exactly did they say they were going to suspend the democratic process to rush through so much legislation without public input or debate?

        • BLiP

          Where did they say they were going to cancel the Fast Forward fund?

          Do you want more examples?

      • BLiP 1.2.2

        Where did they say they were going to take responsibility for funding public transport off the regions and then consolidate the cash in a common contestable fund?

      • BLiP 1.2.3

        Where did they say they were going to remove the consideration of ethics when assessing and monitoring genetic experiments?

  2. Alex 2

    “routine with this government”

    Lying is routine with all governments I would have thought.

  3. I fail to see where the problem is Tane, we should all be tightening our belts. And inheriting a decade of deficits after Cullen spunked all our money away makes identifying waste a vote winner.
    Remember the furore over hip hop tours? You can bet they offer up examples of profligate waste alongside every announcement of savings made. This will only increase the new governments popularity.

    • IrishBill 3.1

      Bill, you’re an idiot. If the government tightens its belt the country goes deeper into recession. Your problem is you lack the imagination required to realise you are not immune to the coming misfortune.

  4. Ahh a decade of decifits, love the alieration, I but Key, English and Farrar would have been gutted if treasury had only predicted 9 years of deficits huh.

    But really, what gets me here is the whole 10% thing, sure there’s some money to be saved, send out the people in charge to do that, but saying they all have to cut 10% is arbitrary and stupid.

    Then again, maybe they could start with some of the non cost effective health funding, like subsidized year long courses of perception. In the face of a decade of deficits, can we really afford such election bribes?

    And what about Farrars pre election carry on about X many million dollars more funding for health resulting in no greater level of outcomes, surely that would be ripe for cutting also, if it really didn’t do anything to help?

    • Tane 4.1

      He tended to choose not to mention population growth and the high level of inflation in the health industry. You can’t do that when you’re in government or people start noticing the health system falling apart.

    • George Darroch 4.2

      I would love it if any government could successfully fund year long courses of perception. There are quite a few who could do with it.

  5. r0b 5

    I fail to see where the problem is Tane, we should all be tightening our belts

    Why Bill, how far you have come from the Good Old Days: “The good news (for me anyway) is that key is likely to steal less money from me in the form of tax. And that my friend is the only thing that matters to me and many like me.” And now we should all be tightening our belts eh? Well well well.

    And inheriting a decade of deficits after Cullen spunked all our money away

    Cullen saved and reduced debt and left the economy in strong shape to weather this crisis, as admitted even by Key and English. The projected deficits arise from the effects on NZ of a deteriorating international economy.

  6. Mike Collins 6

    “…..and redistribute the wealth upwards”

    Well without focusing on the intent of the post – believe me I would love too, but alas have other things on – I find the above statement quite funny. It is very much a contortionists’ attempt at reframing the debate. Rather than redistribute wealth upwards wouldn’t it be more correct to say “not redistribute in the first place”? The way you have put that statement, it conjures up images of taking from Peter, giving to Paul, then snatching back off Paul to give back to Peter. The reality is the theft doesn’t occur in the first place.

    But then, you may have been aiming to give that impression all along…?

    • Tane 6.1

      All governments distribute and redistribute wealth. Even your libertarian utopia distributes citizens rights to private property in resources, limited liability, the fiction of legal persons, and the right to command other people in exchange for payment (employment). That’s why it only makes sense to talk about redistribution from the status quo.

      If you want to go way back to first principles then we can, but you’ll have to get used to the idea that the wealth you derive from state-mandated property rights can be taken away just as easily as it’s granted.

    • Quoth the Raven 6.2

      Mike – What do you think the 9 day fortnight is? Taxpayer money going to large businesses. Robbing poor Peter and giving to rich Paul. Or how about PPPs more interference in the market and more corporate welfare. The theft certainly does occur.

  7. Bill 7

    Consolidation of the Capitalist Class by any and all means necessary? Destruction of social provisions? The bulk of humanity being bled to serve a destructive concept and those that preside over it?

    No, surely not!

    Feeding the Beast would probably have been the name of the post in that case, so I’m obviously way off the mark.

  8. TightyRighty 8

    I love it

    “It’s been the right-wing project since Thatcher and Reagan – to “starve the beast’ ”

    does how the above sentence finishes confirm my long held theory that the left use the public service employment as the means to redistribute wealth? i think it does. and if that is the case thats a massive fail. what an inefficient and unimaginative method. so dull and grey. at least with the capitalist way everyone gets a crack, not just those with their noses in the public trough.

    • Tane 8.1

      Public services are a social wage, paid to everyone in the form of goods and services they would otherwise have to pay for themselves.

      The Right doesn’t like this, as that’s money that could be better used cutting taxes for the rich. It’s why National opposed every single measure Labour brought in to improve the lives of ordinary New Zealanders – Kiwisaver, the cullen fund, increased health spending, environmental protections, wff, you name it.

      Hence the tendency for the Right to undermine the public sector at every opportunity while aggressively cutting taxes for the most wealthy.

      • Tim Ellis 8.1.1

        I disagree Tane. I agree that efficient and effective public services are the right of every citizen. Simply ramping up public service numbers because maintaining responsible costs is too hard is a waste of taxpayers’ money.

        • r0b

          I agree that efficient and effective public services are the right of every citizen.

          Presumably you also agree that an underfunded and understaffed service cannot be efficient and effective?

          The danger in reducing funding too far is that then the service breaks, and every citizen is deprived of their rights…

          • Matthew Pilott

            Mmm, would be nice if John Key hed argued that point Tim makes, eh r0b, instead of his divisive attack against people who have often dedicated their careers to making the country a better place. How many times did he baselessly attack the ‘Wellington bureaucracy’ during the election campaign?

          • r0b

            How many times did he baselessly attack the ‘Wellington bureaucracy’ during the election campaign?

            Shameless wasn’t it. But he was allowed to get away with it.

          • Tim Ellis

            Presumably you also agree that an underfunded and understaffed service cannot be efficient and effective?

            Yes I do agree with that r0b. However I don’t believe that reducing staffing levels within for example the Environment Ministry when they were previously working on programmes that are no longer current government priorities will lead to services breaking.

            I haven’t seen any evidence of services breaking so far.

          • r0b

            Did you read the original post at all Tim? “Documents obtained by the Dominion Post under the OIA confirm that National is in fact looking for across-the-board cuts, at a level of – you guessed it – 10%”.

            I haven’t seen any evidence of services breaking so far.

            It won’t happen over night, but it will happen…

            • lprent

              Yeah, I remember what happened in the 90’s with whatever the Nats called it that time. Sinking lid?

              It was essentially the same thing – an arbitrary cut across the board in public services by people who lack the skills or the imagination to enhance and improve efficiency. As usual it appears that the Nats never throw a bad idea – their general philosophy is that if it failed last time, we should try it again. It is the management strategy of the extremely simple.

              You see dickheads like this in the private sector all of the time. The worst type of manager because they fiddle without strategy because it shows that they are ‘doing something’. Tony Ryall appears to be the worst offender in this government. Looks like he is doing change for changes sake. Just like McCully who did this last time and seems to be doing it this time as well.

              What it did was to take out the capacity for exceptional events first – the ones that happen several times per year. Consequently when there was a problem, the staff and system got overwhelmed because there wasn’t the staff or funding to handle it. To get through that people put in a lot of effort. After several rounds of this, the burnout factors get severe, and staff stop making an effort. Then the system starts to fail. Typically the moron manager who screwed up has moved to a different job on the basis of their ‘success’. There seem to be a lot of these idiots in the NACT ministers.

      • TightyRighty 8.1.2

        you missed the point Tane, as usual. creating public service employment as a method to redistribute wealth is an inefficient and rather galling way of doing it. mainly because it does not increase productivity in areas where it is needed most. it also neglects to recognise that more productive members of society are paying more than they need to to subsidise this kind of behaviour. it’s unimaginative, dull and counter productive.

        and you have gone off on a tangent. we are talking about a ten percent reduction, all the programs you have listed if reversed by national would bring about a much larger than (and much prayed for) ten percent reduction.

        • Tane

          I never said the Left creates public service employment to redistribute wealth. You’ve missed the point entirely. I said decent public services redistribute wealth more evenly by providing a social wage. Obviously you need some people to staff them, but that’s by the by.

        • Ag

          You must not understand what is meant by “efficiency”, if you are criticizing public sector employment.

          The whole point is paying people to do things and provide goods that we need that the market won’t provide efficiently. You can learn that in Economics 101. Redistributing wealth is one way in which this is accomplished.

          Apparently, the entire New Zealand right does not understand this simple idea, which is why they have nothing of value to contribute to political debate.

          You guys have absolutely no clue. It’s comical.

    • Quoth the Raven 8.2

      TightlyRightly – Seeming as government spending increased under both Reagan and Thatcher and the poor got less services from the government and in some cases higher taxes, poll tax anyone? I think we can safely say that wealth was redistributed.

      • TightyRighty 8.2.1

        whats that got to do with it? im not comparing paring the public service here to what happened under thatcher and reagan. you can, im not. im sticking to the reasoning that using public sector employment as a method of redistributing wealth is dull, ineffective and wasteful.

  9. vto 9

    this post refers it seems to financial cuts of 5-10% ya? during the election the reference re capping not cutting was to bureaucrat numbers as I recall. Different things. But nice spinnage.

    Anyway, I would like to know how come the Ministry of Environment and TVNZ aren’t doing the nine day fortnight things. Seems like double standards to me. How come nobody has pushed Key on this?

    • Matthew Pilott 9.1

      National didn’t see fit to help public servants keep their jobs – the public service was specifically excluded from the 9-day plan. As I was referring to above, they are people to be abused and degraded (a la “wellington bureaucrats, bureacurat bonfire, bloated bureaucracy etc) if you’re in the National Party, and not worth such consideration.

      vto – TVNZ was forced to pay out a full dividend, and to cut costs. The direct result is 90 staff losing their jobs. That is at odds with Key’s comments before the election. Maybe if they’d meant it they would have said that cost savings aren’t to come via job losses but it clearly isn’t on the agenda any more.

      • vto 9.1.1

        Why has the public service been specifically excluded? IB the other day said no reason has been give. Surely Key must explain the rationale? Whats good for the goose is good for the gander and all that? Lead by example and all that too?

        It seems MP that you are part of the bureacracy if I may read between the lines. What is the general feel in there at the mo if so?

        • Matthew Pilott

          vto, please don’t try and ‘read between the lines’ or you’ll come up with flawed conclusions such as “if someone doesn’t like people attacking the public service, they must be part of the public service.” For example, I’m quite a fan of the Warriors, but as it turns out, I don’t play for them and couldn’t tell you how they’re feeling after winning in the weekend.

          I remember Key giving some reason as to why they were excluded, but it was as vapid and senseless as most of Key’s lines. E.g. on TVNZ firing staff instead of the govt reducing the required dividend – “it would be subsidising them”. Well, by golly, there’s not a single business in the world reducing their dividend these days.

          Key also said that 84% of people drive to work, so we need to build roads at the expense of far more sensible alternatives. It’s not like we say “84% or murders are carried out with a knife, so we need to give people more knives”, is it. Just because something is, isn’t an excuse or valid reasoning.

          Frankly, vto, you don’t need to know what his publicly stated reason is & it’s not worth your time asking. You won’t get a response that means anything, beyond a carefully cultured and vapid C/T style ‘line’.

      • BLiP 9.1.2

        Exactly – the 9 day fortnight is another John Key inspired piece of corporate welfare not available to the state sector.

        • Chess Player

          But presumably it’s in all our best interests to keep the productive sector (commercial) growing and the unproductive sector (state) as small as possible.

          After all, one of those sectors creates the revenue and the other one spends it….

  10. vto 10

    MP, yes I know a straight answer from upper level politicians is an impossibility. I just thought it may be an angle of attack for the left to zero in on in order to illuminate plans for the public service.

    I can sense the frustration of you ‘lefties’ at the moment. What with Nick Smith going all nutty and others slanting off all over the place.. Reminds me of the frustration of the ‘right’ in getting straight answers from Clark etc the last few years to establish their own true intents.

    Re the bureacracy etc, you seem very defensive whenever it comes up. Wasn’t trying to pry. When folk get continually defensive it generally indicates some level of personal involvement.

    And wtf is up with demanding greater dividends etc from SOE’s? We all know that WILL equal higher prices and costs to us. Fuck it must be great to own a monopoly. I read some of Christine Fernyhough’s book ‘The Road to Castle Hill’ in the weekend and she described how exasperated her husband got in having to deal with slippery politicians and their manipulation of SOEs, of all hues. Sounds like Key et al are continuing the tradition and it sucks.

    • Matthew Pilott 10.1

      I never thought Labour gave such bad answers, but I would think that! Clark was often considered quite straightforward and forthright actually, and I can’t imagie anyone saying that about Key.

      I dislike villification of a sector for political gain or for ideology – and this continual attack on the public sector is particularly gratuitous; I don’t think I’m being ‘defensive’ as such, perhaps that’s just the wrong word…

      Demanding more of SOEs does two things for National – reduces the number of employees, and increases costs to make them less popular. It’s a fair bit to stomach for someone else’s ideology when there’s no tangible benefit.

    • lprent 10.2

      I think that the general idea is to raise the ‘profit’ level. That makes a near monopoly easier to steal sell by giving it away for pittance to your mates. They are meant to make it more efficient and drop the prices.

      Of course that is what always happens-YEAH RIGHT…

      What actually happens is that after the steal sale is the prices go up.

  11. rebelrocker 11

    The quote says nothing about cuts – it says identify savings. Whether those savings are made is different to identifying them. The figures are given as indications of likely levels of savings to be identified not absolutes.

    If low value ineffective and/or inefficient programmes are identified, are you seriously suggesting they should be continued with? Are you seriously saying that within the billions the government spends everything is effective, efficient, and high value?

    It may interest you to know, in some Votes Labour kicked off a round of “savings” before the election as they realised there is no free lunch when you are faced with declining tax revenues and structural constraints around excessive Government borrowing. But hey it seems that most of the Lefties here are addicted to accumulating debt on their credit cards which their children can pay off one day since why tighten your belt when you can consume consume consume – gimme gimme gimme!

  12. Pascal's bookie 12

    Geez rebel. If ya gonna give us the ‘read the quote’ lecture it would pay not to git it all wrong y’self y’know.

    T’save ye scrollin’ upwards here tis:

    “Using your detailed knowledge of both the department and sector can you identify the spending that delivers the lowest value for money, say, the bottom 5 per cent and 10 per cent.’

    The paper said chief executives should look at whether a programme was in the public interest and was still relevant “given changing needs, priorities and governments’.

    It doesn’t mention savings at all. Not even a teeny bit. It says identify the lowest value for money spends. That’s quite a bit different from what you are hinting at isn’t it now? Y’see, even the most efficient organisation in the world has a lowest value 5 or ten percent.

    So, the question is, what would the Minister be doing with that list of the lowest value spends, (which if you’ve been paying attention to basic logic, does not necessarily equal wasteful or bad spends)? Here is where your helpful insertion of that word ‘savings’ comes in.

    See, through the magic of misrepresentation, goal post shifting and the selling of pigs in pokes, “lowest value for money spends” has become “shit we should cut, even the CEO says it’s not valuable”.


    Are you seriously saying that within the billions the government spends everything is effective, efficient, and high value?

    is not even worth calling straw,

    while this:

    But hey it seems that most of the Lefties here are addicted to accumulating debt on their credit cards which their children can pay off one day since why tighten your belt when you can consume consume consume – gimme gimme gimme!

    is made of funny. What was Cullen criticised most for as minister of finance during his tenure, was it:

    a) running up heaps of debt that would have to be paid for by our kids, or
    b) paying off too much debt just to avoid cutting taxes.

    ( Hint: the answer is “b”. Brash and the nats thought Cullen was thief and was letting the damn kids off too lightly. They wanted cuts to the top personal tax rates so we could collectively run a little higher govt debt and spend the inheritance on property) .

  13. Matthew Pilott 13

    vto, if you’re genuinely interested, someone I was speaking to over the weekend has been informed that he has no chance of a bonus or pay rise this year. You probably don’t need to to tell you what the ‘general feeling’ is. No matter how hard you work, no matter what you do – your efforts will not be recognised; have a nice year.

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