Gilbert on English

interviews Bill English:

Earlier in the day I attended the Institute of Public Administration New Zealand presentation where English had launched data that identified youth who are at-risk.

With his back as straight as a headmaster’s rod, he addressed the bureaucrats in a humming monotone. The thing most at risk in that particular room was consciousness.

But if the delivery was dull, the content was important. Using the new Integrated Data Infrastructure, which stores multi-government-agency information, Treasury had identified four risk factors linked to poor social outcomes: CYF reporting abuse or neglect; reliance on a benefit since birth; having a parent in prison or on a corrective sentence; and having a mother without formal qualifications.

For example, only 50 per cent of kids who experience all four factors will go on to gain school qualifications compared to 78 per cent who have no risks. Twenty per cent of children with all the risk factors will end up as a sole parent on a benefit, whereas just 2 per cent of luckier kids will.

One of the first targets were the families in and around gangs. English wanted to reach into these families in an effort to steer young people away from crime.

One of the reasons he was keen to target youth was because it has proved hard to fix adults. Since 2011, reoffending by released prisoners has reduced by 8 per cent, a long way off the target of 25 per cent that Corrections hoped to reach next year.

English finished his presentation. The first hand in the air belonged to one of those people who makes a series of statements and never asks a question.

She rambled on and then chided English for using the terms “at risk” and “broken” to describe families.

English was polite but unapologetic: “Some families are broken.”

And he is right.

Some are very very broken.

English has reached his political ceiling. He has no desire to have another shot at the leadership. He is as high up the ladder as he wishes to go. He doesn’t have to make a fuss to make his mark.

And more than that, the complex social policies he favours can be easily derailed by the passions and politics that surround debates on crime.

One reason the “lock ’em up” message became so successful was the ease with which it could be understood. To explain the approach favoured by English will require more than a news soundbite. The Government’s new direction has to be carefully managed.

At first blush, reaching into families and fixing them may sound a bit too Labour-like for many of the National Party faithful, but English makes it sound a conservative manifesto. “In a sense what you’re trying to do is make the basic unit more functional and less dependent on government and in the long run that’s how you get smaller government – I’m a fan of smaller government.”

And government spending as a percentage of GDP has fallen a fair bit under English. He hasn’t shrunk government, but he has restrained its growth so the economy is growing faster than the government. That’s how you shrink ir proportionally over time.

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