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The state sector revisited

Posted by on February 2nd, 2014

This is an oped piece I wrote last week which was published in the Nelson Mail on Friday 31 January under the headline “It’s time to reassess and rebuild”. All constructive, forward-looking comments welcomed!

The role and functions of the state services have come under increased pressure in the last five years. The culture and performance of the wider state sector, in which I include all public services, has altered markedly under the current government.

The National-led government vowed to strip back the state sector, undertaking to get rid of the “back room” functionaries and place more people on the “front line”. It undertook to improve public service delivery with a programme called Better Public Services (now, inevitably reduced to “BPS”), with key performance indicators (KPIs) and targets to make sure the improvements were happening.

It was as if a new owner had taken over the company and decided to do the usual Stage 1 managerial reforms such as sacking the old guard simply because they were the old guard and giving people new goals and targets to meet so that they could demonstrate their efficiency.

Nelson felt it keenly for a small town, with 28 real jobs lost in IRD and 22 or more out of DoC, and that was just for starters. The Department of Labour and Housing New Zealand came next. But Nelson was not alone. Public services were stripped out of all smaller towns around New Zealand and centralised into Wellington.

But all of this was done without any real reflection on the role and purpose of the state sector. What does it do? What role does it perform in our democracy? What needs to be done differently? How might things be done better? And fundamentally, what is the difference between running a company and running a country?

Well, there is a substantial difference, actually.

There is no doubt that the public service is responsible for the implementation of the programme of the duly elected government of the day. That is a basic democratic expectation.

But the public service does a lot more than that. It also acts as a buffer between the exercise of the comprehensive executive power of the Cabinet, and the people. It is the repository of political neutrality and the upholder of our country’s constitutional integrity. It is the part of our democratic apparatus which provides the transparency and accountability which citizens in a sophisticated democracy require of their leaders and their leaders’ decisions. It is the place where innovative ideas can be tested and policy development can occur amongst some of the cleverest brains in the country.

It is also responsible for giving free and frank advice to Ministers in order that Ministers might fully understand the impact of their policies on the real people they purport to represent and whose votes put them there. In performing this function, it also protects Ministers, if only they would see it.

It is that tradition of free and frank advice which has been eroded the most under this government.
There are numerous examples, from Conservation to Health to Education and other departments and ministries besides, to back this up. It has got to the point where senior officials vet a report to a Minister before it even gets to him or her because the officials have had some clear indication or pressure from that Minister about the nature of the “advice” they require.

And so we have a DoC policy adviser resigning her position because her 32-page report on the environmental consequences of the proposed Ruataniwha dam in Hawke’s Bay gets reduced to a a single paragraph printed twice in the brief advice given up to Minister Nick Smith. He can say he didn’t even see the 32-page report because he didn’t. He didn’t see it, because senior officials knew that this was not the kind of free and frank advice the Minister wanted and so they didn’t give it to him.

This is a perversion of the public service.

The public service must advise the Minister on the best method and consequences of the implementation of a policy. The advice must be free and frank, without fear of retribution. That advice should be publicly available, and mostly it is, under the Official Information Act.

The ability of the public service to give free and frank advice on the basis of years of experience, research and policy development, is one of the things which contributes to New Zealand’s enviable reputation for a lack of corruption. The most recent Transparency International report on the Perception of Corruption last year, held New Zealand as first (the perceived cleanest) in the world, largely because of the effort and reputation of its public service. But they also expressed concern about the silencing of advice, inadequate or questionable appointment processes, rushed legislation which took away people’s rights such as the GCSB legislation, and poor contracting processes evidenced in the Auditor-General’s criticism of the Sky City deal.

If the government realised it was running a country and not a company, it might value more highly such things as due process, transparency, accountability and the best public service possible. It is time to take a more fundamental look at the role and functions of our state sector. Of course we should always strive for better public services. Every government should – they owe that to their people. But instead of performing a corporate restructuring exercise, they should reflect on what a capable and competent state sector brings to the lives of New Zealanders. It is time for such reflection and the rebuilding of our state sector.

Government must break stalemate with plumbers

Posted by on July 3rd, 2013

Labour will this evening introduce an amendment to the Plumbers, Gasfitters, and Drainlayers Amendment Bill to help break a stalemate between the National-Act Government and a large number of tradespeople in the industry.

The Plumbers, Gasfitters and Drainlayers Board, which was appointed by the Minster for Building and Construction Maurice Williamson, has been found to have illegally collected fees and levies from the industry.

The Bill, which is currently being pushed through Parliament under urgency, seeks to retrospectively validate the significant amount of money the Board collected unlawfully.

The Government’s failure to break the industry stalemate is a two-fingered salute to committed and qualified tradesmen just trying to get a fair deal.

The Ombudsman upheld Wellington plumber Wal Gordon’s complaints and recommended that the Board should negotiate an arrangement “whereby the excess levies paid could in whole or in part be refunded over a period or some credit could be given in respect of future fee or levy payments in compensation.”

But Maurice Williamson has openly snubbed the Ombudsman’s recommendations and instead adopted a closed and defensive approach and tried to fast-track the legislation. The National-Act Government is ignoring the industry’s valid concerns.

Labour’s Supplementary Order Paper implements the Ombudsman’s recommendations.

“A five-year licence configured around the Board’s regime costs $10,000 in New Zealand – according to the Plumbers Federation. The same five-year licence in Australia costs only $330. It’s no wonder we are losing quality tradespeople to Australia.

We agree to the sector that this Bill is about more than the payment of money, it’s about unlawful activities. It is about the trust New Zealanders place in the Accountability Agreement between the Minister and his Board, and more importantly, in their Government and Parliamentary systems”.

Labour’s SOP seeks to find a midway but it is only the first step. We are encouraging a culture that is open and engaged with the changing needs of the sector. We acknowledge the problem with the Board’s activities are deep seated and we must get to the root of the problem from all aspects.

The Board has been subject to complaints to the Office of the Auditor-General, Parliament’s Regulations Review Committee, the Office of Ombudsman, the Charities Commission and the Inland Revenue Department.

The Campbell Live show, the Politics of Plumbing, featuring particularly the “Minister Williamson artwork” is not a good look for his National-Act Government. Actually, it is a bad look for all politicians. I feel sorry for the Minister.


Lockwood raises the bar, again

Posted by on January 22nd, 2013

At some stage over the next few weeks, possibly as early as next Thursday, parliament will elect a new Speaker. As an opposition MP I never thought I’d find myself saying this, but we’ll be sad to see Lockwood Smith go. As Speaker, he has raised the bar in terms of ministerial accountability in the House. His most significant ruling, that when asked a straight question ministers should give straight answers, has changed the whole nature of Question Time. That ruling will remain in place long after his departure, although whether the new Speaker has the ability to implement it with the same precision and diligence is yet to be seen.

Just before Christmas, Lockwood raised the bar again, this time relating to ministerial accountability outside the Debating Chamber. Under parliament’s rules MPs are also allowed to ask written questions of ministers. There are a lot more of these and they don’t always receive the same level of attention questions in the House do. But they’re a vital information channel for the opposition, and they’re another way we can hold ministers to account for their performance and the performance of their departments.

Late last year Labour asked a series of written questions about the Novopay fiasco. The Minister in charge Craig Foss tried to brush them off by saying they were ‘operational matters for the Chief Executive’. This reply has been used by successive governments to sidestep bad news. However, the days when Ministers could duck for cover in this way seem to be over. In replying to Labour’s complaint on the matter, Lockwood Smith ruled:

“I note that there is no convention that Ministers are not answerable for operational matters, but that a Minster is not prevented from replying in those terms. These rulings related to a minister being questioned on operational matters for which a crown entity had responsibility. I expect a higher standard for answering questions relating to a department for which the Minister is responsible. A minister should be able to give informative replies about the actions of such a department.”

“As you have noted, the record shows that the Associate Minister has provided the House with information on this matter in response to questions for oral answer. Ministers are no less accountable to give informative replies to questions for written answer.”

Craig Foss subsequently provided more fulsome answers to our Novopay questions. But the effect of this ruling will extend well beyond this one instance. If the new Speaker maintains this new high standard, the improved level of accountability we’ve seen at Question Time will extend beyond the walls of the Debating Chamber. That’s a good thing.

The new Speaker will have big shoes to fill. All the more reason for the government to nominate a candidate who will have the respect of all sides of the House.

Utterly hopeless, Minister

Posted by on October 3rd, 2012

I’ve laid off Minister Kate Wilkinson recently. I’ve even said nice things about her, because the less she gets done on her government’s employment law changes, the better.

But the flip flop around the Mike Tyson visa can’t go unmentioned. The issue has been in the media for weeks. Immigration NZ had made it clear that he would need an special direction from the Minister to be able to apply for a visa.

The Minister duly granted Mike Tyson an exemption, despite his conviction for rape and other violent incidents because he supposedly had the support of the Life Education Trust.  Turns out that she didn’t check the validity of that support, which had come from a volunteer, not the agency’s board.

What’s even worse, the Prime Minister and the Minister didn’t talk to each other about it, so were contradicting each other in public.

It didn’t take long for a member of the public to check out whether the Life Education Trust was really supporting Mike Tyson’s application and find they weren’t.  Why the Minister couldn’t do that, I have no idea.

This is shoddy politicial management.  It demonstrates a government that has taken its eye off the ball and the fiascos just keep rolling on.


Posted by on April 2nd, 2012

One of the jobs of an opposition MP is to ask questions.  It’s in the public interest to find out what our government is planning, but that’s not how the Minister of Labour sees it.  So I thought you should see just how transparent and accountable our Ministers are with the latest series of non-answers from Kate Wilkinson :

Question: Does the Minister intend to implement the National Party policy allowing employers to opt out of negotiations for a multi-employer collective agreement; if so, when will she introduce legislation to implement that change?

Answer Text: I intend to implement all policies in National’s Employment Relations manifesto in due course.

Question: Does the Minister intend to implement the National Party policy enabling employers to apply partial pay reductions for partial strikes or situations of low-level industrial action; if so, when will she introduce legislation to implement that change?

Answer Text: I intend to implement all policies in National’s Employment Relations manifesto in due course.

Question : Does the Minister intend to implement the National Party policy removing the requirement that non-union members are employed under a collective agreement for their first 30-days; if so, when will she introduce legislation to implement that change?

Answer Text: I intend to implement all policies in National’s Employment Relations manifesto in due course.

Question: Does the Minister intend to implement the National Party policy removing the requirement to conclude collective bargaining; if so, when will she introduce legislation to implement that change?

Answer Text: Guess what ? (To the tune of “Altogether Now) : I intend to implement all policies in National’s Employment Relations manifesto in due course.

Well, I guess we know that the Minister intends to implement all policies in National’s Employment Relations manifesto in due course. I’m sure the 1000 plus locked out workers at Talleys AFFCO will be comforted by these answers, along with the Oceania workers who are still taking action to get something resembling a cost of living increase. I know Kate Wilkinson’s under threat by the takeover of her department by the “business facing” ambitions of Steven Joyce, so I thought she might be asserting herself at the moment.

So please. Can I have a little more?

Shhhh – that wasn’t the real BIM

Posted by on March 5th, 2012

National is planning a raft of changes around immigration that somehow seem to have been ‘left out’ of last month’s Briefing to the Incoming Minister of Immigration (BIM).

There’s a post-BIM BIM – a secret Briefing titled Issues and decisions for the first 100 days, which was prepared for new Immigration Minister Nathan Guy and Associate Minister Kate Wilkinson.

It reveals, among other things, Government plans to tighten up requirements for family members seeking residency in New Zealand, with preference to be given to the better off. Parents seeking residency in New Zealand to be with their children will face tougher tests according to the income levels of both themselves and their children. Parents whose families have higher incomes will go straight to the front of the queue in a  ‘Tier One’ category and face less stringent eligibility tests, while those less well off will be ranked ‘Tier Two’ and will face tougher conditions and longer waiting times.

There are already tough measures around the parent category.  They have to be sponsored and supported for at least five years. There’s a waiting list and defined numbers.  National made it even harder last year with its new “Parent Retirement Categories” which allows rich people to retire in New Zealand and be given preference over others.

The Adult Child and Sibling Category will be abolished altogether. These changes were signed off by Cabinet in May 2011, yet there was no mention of them in the publicly released Briefing to the Incoming Minister.

It  seems that only those with pot loads of money are welcome in our country.  We roll out the red carpet for people for them, to the extent we are prepared to change our laws and sell off our land.

There’s much more required for family reunification and good settlement outcomes than money, but that’s becoming the only criteria that matters.

But shhhh, it’s a secret, and you will only be told when the Minister decides you should be.

McCully takes charge … again

Posted by on September 13th, 2011

McCully doesn’t need to apologise, yes he micro-managed the RWC, but everyone it seems screwed up except him. So in his mind it’s perfectly logical he takes charge. A question: did McCully inform Key before he invoked the emergency legislation that cut the Auckland Council off at the knees – or did he just go it alone?

McCully didn’t see the need to let Len Brown know before telling the world he was taking over, not even a courtesy call – and if Key did know, neither did he. Is that a touch arrogant?

Probably, I imagine that he decided the Council deserved it for spoiling his world cup. But rather than pushing the blame on to the Council, it’s more an admission of wider failure. And for the world’s media, McCully has given the story new legs.

And maybe I missed it, but unlike the PM and Mayor, I didn’t hear the Minister for the Rugby World Cup say sorry. But I guess he’s been too busy being more in charge.

NZ Herald on the lack of depth in Cabinet

Posted by on August 25th, 2011

The Herald editorial today comments on two recent Ministerial stuff-ups and raises concerns about the calibre of the Cabinet beyond the front bench.

They give as examples the decisions on the social welfare scheme to supervise young unemployed and control their spending and to increase the inspectors in coal mines.

“The reason for concern is that not long before the announcements, the ministers in charge of each portfolio had been following a different line.

Social Welfare Minister Paula Bennett had told a correspondent who suggested closer benefit supervision that “such oversight by the Crown would be highly intrusive and rob individuals of their freedom of choice”.

And Ms Wilkinson had rejected repeated calls for more mines inspectors, saying she would wait for the conclusions of the Pike River inquiry.

Yes, that’s right. Saw that unfold in the House.

The position of the portfolio holders sounded like advice of officials. It was standard procedure to wait for the Pike River inquiry, to be wary of intrusive welfare reforms ……………. But politicians are elected to bring common sense to an issue when institutional advice is unduly cautious.

Ms Bennett is now so unnerved that she declines to say whether she can rule out an extension of the new, “intrusive” youth unemployment reforms to all beneficiaries. Clearly she is wary lest Mr Key and the others decide to expand the idea. Clearly she is not in that loop.

The editorial suggests that the government is relying too much on John Key and his popularity and only a handful of Ministers, Power, Joyce and Ryall are really up to the job.

Mr Key’s popularity is of course its greatest asset but it is becoming hard to see anyone behind him. His political instincts are well honed to neutralise controversy and pick issues he can win. Perhaps he does not trust many in his ministry to tread as carefully.

Filed under: Ministers