Making major policy in 20 hours!

Eric Crampton writes:

Just before 3pm on a Sunday afternoon, about a dozen New Zealand Transport Agency and of Transport officials received a weekend-ruining email. Subject: “Cabinet paper: Urgent.”

It provides a depressing insight into how policy gets made.

The agency that would have to administer a fuel tax and Road User Charge (RUC) holiday had less than a day’s notice that the change was coming.

Important detail had to be filled in after the policy was announced, which also may have prevented improvements that ran counter to what had already been announced.

The scheme was obviously fraught with complexity and potential for gaming.

I expected that the NZTA may have provided a few warnings about the messes that the Government would encounter, so I put in a request for any advice that NZTA provided in advance of the scheme’s announcement, and correspondence about it.

The very first email in that trail was an urgent email from an NZTA senior manager in Investment and Finance to a collection of NZTA and of Transport officials at 2.53pm Sunday, March 13. An urgent cabinet paper was due to the minister at 11am the next day.

Officials were told to calculate how much it would cost to reverse the increases in RUCs and Fuel Excise that had occurred since 2018, assuming normal use volumes. They had 20 hours, less any amount of time spent sleeping.

This shows you how panicked were by their falling poll numbers. They were desperate to do something, anything, on the cost of living front so they gave officials 20 hours to work out a policy on cutting road user and fuel charges.

It would make Mickey Mouse look like Michael Bloomberg.

NZTA did an admirable job, under circumstances that should not be faced except under real emergency.

There was no emergency that required inventing policy on less than 24 hours’ notice to officials, forcing them to work past 11pm on a Sunday night.

There was only a political emergency caused by ’s drop in the polls, resulting in a ruined weekend for officials, extensive and imperfect backfilling of details afterwards, and theft from the Covid fund to cover road costs.  

It is a terrible way to run a country.

They say you get the Government you deserve, but I think we deserve better.

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