Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

< Columns

Labour and its out-of-control Bureaucracy


Remember after the 2017 election when Winston Peters, for no good reason, threw his support behind the smaller of the two main parties and brought Labour to office? That party had only slogans they called policy, and proceeded to establish more than 200 taxpayer-funded working groups to flesh out the detail. Then they set about employing more bureaucrats, 15,000 over the years, to assist with the implementation of the detail. Not content with that, Jacinda Ardern and now her successor, Chris Hipkins, hired consultants as well, paying them hundreds of thousands each day. The cash register was clinking furiously before anyone in government even started the implementation process. Hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, had gone out the door before there was anything tangible. Remember the hapless Phil Twyford and the 100,000 new Kiwi Build houses that weren't built?

I won't dwell on how it was that during nine years in opposition (2008-2017) Labour MPs had done so little thinking, and were policy-bereft, except to observe that the paucity of talent in Labour's caucus became painful to watch. Many can still recall that 2018 promise of $1.9 billion extra for mental health which produced absolutely nothing. Meantime, staff numbers in government departments continued to grow.

Yes, Jacinda's government encountered the Covid outbreak in 2020 and 2021. But no ministers dropped to it that it was a silly time for a massive restructuring of the health services. Neither Health Minister David Clark, nor Hipkins who followed him, nor Andrew Little called a halt to the endless chaos created over the last few years by the dismantling of district health boards and erecting in their place a centralized, racially divided structure with a wonky name, the Auckland initials for which are TWOTM. The inexorable growth in the number of civil servants deemed necessary to run the new structure kept on climbing. Serious shortages of medical expertise inside hospitals and in the community were scarcely considered. The new structure, we were advised, would fix them.

Gradually a system emerged that enabled a high level of Covid vaccinations to take place. But it was too good to last. Deciding early in 2023 that fully vaccinated people could get a top-up if it was more than six months since their last jab, and that this process could be combined with annual flu injections, no one in the Ministry of Health (is that what it's still called?) turned their minds to getting the central computers ready for the challenge that would occur on 1 April. Came the day, and there were queues as each customer took twenty minutes at the chemist shop counter while staff grappled with Wellington's centralized computer, trying to locate the patient's record and whether they were eligible. Whatever all those extra staff in Head Office had been doing, it wasn't streamlining TWOTM's computer system. Are they doing ANYTHING useful?

The current state of New Zealand's Public Service is cause for concern. When I was a minister in the 1980s it contained some absolutely top-flight minds. Names like Roger Kerr, Bryce Wilkinson, and Graham Scott (Treasury); George Salmond (Health); Peter Boag, John O'Sullivan, Dave Smith (Internal Affairs); and Roderick Deane (Reserve Bank and State Services Commission), Margaret Bazely (Transport and Social Welfare) spring to mind. Equipped with the minister's policy goals, they could think ahead, anticipate implementation problems, relate authoritatively to their staff, and ensure that policy roll-outs usually went smoothly.

Given that educational standards in schools and universities have fallen precipitously in recent years, maybe we shouldn't be surprised by the current inability to make decisions and move programmes forward. But today's lesser bureaucrats seem to expect higher salaries, and to be able to reach for expensive consultants if they can't do the job they themselves are paid for. Is Wellington the problem? Some sort of regional intellectual malfunction? Was the fact that they elected a Green mayor last year a pointer to the city's mental collapse?

Any fair balance sheet analyzing the record of this government would also show the disastrous price we have all paid for this so-called Labour government's incompetence. A likeable new prime ministerial face with a hopeless record as a minister, now shoving some policies into the cupboard, doesn't mean they won't be hauled out again later, at enormous cost to us all, and especially to racial harmony.

Remember to beware of any new set of Labour slogans for this election. For example the so-called "options" for a second harbour crossing in Auckland. Written on the back of an envelope last week for an announcement when Hipkins was in Auckland, they aren't worth anything. No sign that either the Prime Minister or the Transport Minister Michael Wood first checked with officials who in 2007-9 spent a lot of money exploring those very options. That's the way this ministry operates. Live for the minute: to hell with the long-term cost to the taxpayer.