Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

< Columns

Challenges Facing Christopher Luxon's Government


Unless you were present to hear the Prime Minister deliver his State of the Nation speech on 18 February it was difficult to get the full speech. Chris Luxon mailed out only a few bullet points. TV One promised to give viewers a good look at it on the 6pm news that night, but that low-level reporter, Maiki Sherman, introduced her story with a whole lot of irrelevant stuff from the Big Gay Out before providing unrelated snippets of Luxon's speech. The Herald left reporting the speech to Sam Hurley who interspersed a few of Luxon's comments with only partially relevant counter arguments from the Leader of the Opposition, while failing to remind readers that the appalling educational and welfare statistics occurred under Chris Hipkins' government. Make no mistake about it: the Main Stream Media are hard at work trying to undermine the new government.

In the end, I found the full speech. Clearly, it was no oratorical triumph; Chris Luxon has none of the charisma of John Key or the intellect of Helen Clark. But the tone of the speech was correct. Times are tough, and a more rigorous approach to welfare is urgently needed. Carmel Sepuloni left behind 70,000 more people on so-called "Jobseeker" unemployment benefits than were there in 2017 when she came to office. Luxon's statistic that 2,000 young people receiving a youth payment or young parent payment are now expected to spend an average of 24 years of their working lives on a benefit is frightening. But as Lindsay Mitchell has pointed out on our site, the situation is much worse. More than one in five of all new babies being born today comes into a household dependent on a benefit. None of those children will grow up in a family that knows anything about self-reliance or working for a living.

Luxon's speech was short of solutions. In that sense, National seems little better than Labour which, you'll recall, came to office in 2017 after nine years in Opposition, with so little policy they needed more than 200 committees to advise them on what to do. Luxon points in the right direction, for the most part, but more than eighty days after coming to office he is still shy about specifics.

This is serious. Labour's incompetent ministers became so reliant on their officials that the bureaucracy eventually came to feel that it owned the policies that emerged after 2017. And right now, those same people are being asked to reverse or unscramble their own work. A fight back is underway. Already there have been at least two serious leaks from bureaucrats to journalists designed to embarrass the new Government: one a cabinet paper warning ministers about the political dangers in relation to their approach to Treaty issues, the other about financing build-to-rent housing. Several friends of mine who interface with departments working on the development of new policies tell me they have encountered what they sense are deliberate efforts by Wellington bureaucrats to ensure they won't deliver what ministers have instructed. Wellington, as we all know, is now in the hands of the Greens, many of them harbouring ideology that would have survived comfortably in Bolshevik Russia.

Moreover, there are nearly 16,000 surplus civil servants who were casually popped on the public payroll by Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins. A major exercise in patch protection is now underway by those whose jobs are threatened. Every RNZ news broadcast seems to contain a union threat about collapsing services if civil service jobs are pruned. But taxpayers were promised a reduction in staff numbers. And budgetary restraint in the current economic climate is fundamental.

Worse for the government, in the absence of Luxon's clear indication of nuts and bolts solutions to the problems he outlined in his speech, ministers are dependent on the advice of many of the very people most hostile to their policies. I cannot recall a time when any government's plans have been so threatened. Certainly, the basic public service ethos of employees needing to deliver the policies the public voted for is being challenged.

The Minister for the Public Service, Nicola Willis, ironically, is the very minister who under her other hat as Minister of Finance, has the most direct interest in the implementation of the new government's policies. It's certainly time for a new State Services head, and it might be time for a full-scale inquiry into the bureaucracy so that civil servants are told in no uncertain terms of the responsibilities that accompany the rather lavish salaries they enjoy. And any inquiry should include TVOne and RNZ that have been over-indulging the political whims of their employees ever since last October.