Guest Post: How to improve “For the People” in NZ

A guest post by Alwyn Poole:

I know it is from Gettysburg but “government for the people” is surely a recognised democratic principle.

Near the beginning of the second term of this government – as we see through the Covid-response fog – people are slowly waking up to the significant societal problems that the government is making little or no progress on (and in some cases making worse).

A few of the issues and the people in charge:

1) The complete mess that Oranga Tamariki appears to be in with regards to early help and intervention for vulnerable children.

For OT the last three years had NZ First’s (the 2.6% party in 2020) list MP Tracey Martin as Minister for Children. Martin rated 2.6/5 (that 2.6 again) in the 2020 Mood of the Boardroom and came 5th in the Ōhāriu electorate . Very little progress seems to have been made – or worse – the Chief Executive has now resigned. Martin is out of the House but apparently straight into a Ministry of Education contract and the children are now in the hands of Kelvin Davis – who the Mood of the Boardroom had last out of 25 Ministers.

2) The growing divide in education results between the rest of the developed world and the sliding NZ system. Add to that the stark and growing outcome deficits for children with learning difficulties, low decile, Maori and Pasifika that are prevalent right through all education levels.

Education is a huge portfolio and oversees a bureaucracy of over 3,000. Chris Hipkins may well be capable but simply has too many roles that have big daily commitments – Covid-Response, Public Sector, Leader of the House – on top of education.

3) The ineffective response to issues of child poverty.

Child Poverty reduction remains with the Prime Minister.

4) The fact that we cannot effectively house those that cannot house themselves – but get so caught up in the media and politics of those who can.

Phil Twyford managed to do worse with this than could have been conceived after talking a good game in opposition. Mood of the Boardroom had him sneaking into 24th spot ahead of Davis. Now in the hands of Megan Woods and it seems to be becoming the Ministry of Announcements and Re-announcements. There is a huge inability to let the market be the market and deal effectively with where it fails or people get/find themselves in a bad spot.

5) The very mixed results around crime, prison (and the strong evidence for lack of education and rehabilitation within them).

Poto Williams and Kelvin Davis share roles around these issues. Davis seems to be a byword for mediocrity and non-involvement and it is a big promotion for Williams who was ranked 21/25 in her previous roles.

6) The complete mess around transport infrastructure development and the effects on business.

Michael Wood who did not feature as a Minister in the last government but has taken over from the hapless Twyford.

Assuming Positive Intent

To make the world (or their part of it) a better place is what I would think all politicians would have as a major part of their initial desire to go into this arena. Ardern has stated that her primary motivation for going into politics was to solve child poverty in NZ. Some clearly take in harmful, even if sincerely held, ideologies, that if fully let loose would cause far more harm than good.

What seems to go wrong? Is it the quality of the people and/or a lack of accountability?

I do not know the full answer re the quality of the people but it does seems to me that the nature of our political system is highly rebuffing for genuinely effective change agents, people successful in the private sector and mavericks who just get stuff done.

Douglas Adams may also have a point about those who seem to have an innate desire to lead (or control):

“The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.
To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.
To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

Clearly this could apply to MPs but also to the massively paid heads of our bureaucracies who also largely escape scrutiny – with the possible exception of Grainne Moss. That situation may serve to have New Zealander’s look more closely at the leaders in our other problematic bureaucracies.

Accountability for genuinely bringing about improvement seems low and there are all kinds of spin and mechanisms to protect Ministers and others in leadership roles. We were once told by a senior Ministry of Education official that they considered their primary role was to “protect the Minister” – and that was under National.

I am not sure that our media (of all forms) genuinely dig for results and improvement for New Zealanders but seem more interested in scandal and too easily distracted by the issues that the government want front and centre.

Whoever is in power; a strong, intelligent, unified opposition has the role of holding the government to account. With this term barely started it will be of high interest to observe this. At least ACT will have more than one question a week – which will annoy the Speaker no end.

And – despite the positive attempt at the beginning of their time it appears from a distance that some MPs simply lose the plot and get caught up in the contest and personality bluster. Frankly – I think that they forget what they went there for in the first place and/or get consumed with the retention of power (and baubles) as opposed to doing the good they thought they were going to do. Wellington becomes their bubble and the rest of NZ and the non-political class can wait until the next election. Maybe one thing that could change is that all politicians be limited to three terms and then have to take a term out of the State sector entirely before seeking re-election.

What to do?

If it is to truly be “government for the people” then the “the people” have to more active than just voting (or not) every three years. The MPs and the Public Servants rank below the population as a hierarchy. People have to be active and challenge for change. When I was asked by a group of New York educators why the down-trodden groups in NZ accept the education results of their children without taking to the streets in protest … I had no answer.

Parliamentary opposition and media need to do their job superbly and when they do need to be applauded and supported. Work hard to keep politicians on the real problems. Stay off the click-bait and send the market signals that true journalism is needed. Journalists respond to readership – when they do high quality work we must let them know. Surely the system must change in some form to make being an MP, being in government or being in Public Sector leadership more attractive to highly effective and private sector proven people.  The way many things are run now – including the stodgy traditions and petty nonsense of the House you would find few who would bother. People who get things done generally have very low thresh-holds for boredom, don’t suffer fools lightly and kick against control for control sake.

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