Wednesday, 2 June 2021

 

The recent story that the Cashmere Lounge, a popular, high quality local restaurant in my neighbourhood may be forced to close for at least a few weeks highlights a serious issue. In this instance, the restaurant’s head chef is going on parental leave shortly, and local labour shortages mean that the restaurant has not been able to secure a suitable replacement. 

This is occurring against the backdrop of an overall 93% nett drop in immigration since the outbreak of Covid19 which has hit the hospitality industry especially hard. To make matters worse, as the industry now looks to join the road to recovery, higher wages across the Tasman look that much more attractive, even for New Zealanders who have traditionally not seen the hospitality industry as attractive. Cashmere Lounge is not the only restaurant caught this way, nor will it be the last. 

But the issue runs deeper than that. Immigration New Zealand’s approach to the hospitality sector’s needs over the years has been largely dismissive. It remains convinced that there is a large pool of New Zealand chefs and hospitality workers ready and willing to work in the sector, if only given the opportunity. This is despite the constant warning from industry groups about how hard it has become to recruit suitably qualified local staff, and that businesses are suffering as a consequence. 

There were many occasions during my time as an MP when I had to make representations to Immigration New Zealand on behalf of local ethnic or specialty restaurants seeking to hire trained staff from overseas, because no-one suitable was available locally. While often ultimately persuadable of the merit my constituents’ cases, Immigration’s doggedly persistent view that the restaurants’ needs could be met from within New Zealand was as infuriating as it was downright ignorant. There was a consistent failure to recognise that being chef in a restaurant often demanded a professional skill level and management expertise way beyond being a “cook”. 

Immigration was consistently incapable of understanding this point, opting instead for the more simplistic Plod-like view that cooking was just cooking after all, which anybody could do after a bit of training. They also believed that ethnic chefs or waiting staff were really just using their role as a back-door way of getting their families permanent residence in New Zealand. It was not only ignorance but also arrogance in the extreme, bordering in many cases on downright racism. 

This is not to decry the skills and capabilities of those professionally trained local chefs and hospitality staff. They are as good as any in their jobs and should be acknowledged for their expertise. But there are never likely to be enough of them to meet either the existing requirements of the hospitality sector, let alone the considerable new growth potential likely to occur as the country recovers from Covid19. 

However, the situation is likely to get worse in the future, directly because of new government policy. In its immigration policy reset announced a few weeks ago the government made clear that there will be a dramatic reduction in the levels of immigration compared to what was happening before Covid19. Moreover, the previous emphasis on skills-based migration is to be replaced by a new emphasis on whether New Zealanders can do the jobs required. 

The upshot will be that Immigration’s hitherto tunnel-vision approach will continue and probably intensify, most likely leading to the temporary or permanent closure of more restaurants around the country. A parallel situation is also likely to occur in other key industry sectors – like aged care, and horticulture – where chronic shortages over the years have been filled by short- or long-term migration, and where New Zealanders so far have shown little to no interest in becoming involved. 

Putting New Zealanders first when it comes to local employment is all very well. But it has to be based on more than wishful thinking. It needs to be properly evidence-based that the goal can be achieved. Despite the government’s optimistic rhetoric, there is no substantive evidence of a large number of New Zealanders showing any interest in doing the necessary work that migrants currently carry out. 

As for the hospitality sector, the prospects look grim. Wellington’s annual “Wellington On a Plate” festival celebrating the quality and diversity of the city’s many bars, cafes and fine restaurants gets underway shortly. In a city often described as having more restaurants per head of population than New York, this annual event is a popular showcase of the Wellington restaurant scene. But when the government’s recent policy changes are added to the staffing difficulties top restaurants like the Cashmere Lounge are facing right now, it could well be the last time such an event takes place at its current level. 

The message from all this is clear. The government’s well-meaning but impractical immigration policy will not help our hospitality sector recover from Covid19.

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

 

The unravelling of Britain’s Royal Family being brought about by the continuing revelations from Prince Harry about his upbringing and the way the “firm” reacted to his new wife and son continue to attract attention around the world. It seems to matter not whether one is a monarchist or republican – natural prurience is keeping enough people lapping up the stories for media outlets to keep seeking more and more from the disgruntled but seemingly eagerly obliging Prince to keep the gossip alive.  

Whatever else one may think about it, the issue raises the interesting question of the extent of the public’s right to know personal details about the lives of those in prominent public positions. The general rule-of-thumb so far has been that the public right to know extends only as far as those details impact upon the person’s ability to carry out the functions required by their position. 

Short of that, as Prince Harry’s case demonstrates, the public is often subjected to all manner of trivial and silly details about a public figure’s private life, their likes and dislikes and much other nonsense via magazines and soft media stories in some strange act of national titillation. Over the last year or so, this ritual has reached new heights, or probably more accurately, plumbed new depths. For many it is just harmless, trivial fun, to be taken with a grain of salt, scoffed at over morning coffee, and then put aside. 

But, aside from the coffee table diversions, there is a more serious and concerning point about all this banality. New research by international media monitoring firm Isentia based on thousands of media reports about leaders and leadership in the past year shows that what the media say about leaders and their leadership is not only critical to their popularity, but more importantly, their perceived trustworthiness and effectiveness. In other words, perception rather than performance has now become the key to evaluating effectiveness. 

To make things even more bizarre, many other surveys are currently recording declining trust in news media credibility. So, we have this extraordinary situation where the public seems to lap up every detail about our public figures’ private lives, however trivial, fatuous or salacious, as solid fact that the news media they distrust dishes up. Yet, weirdly, they then base their assessments of these public figures’ trustworthiness and effectiveness on this information! 

It is a situation ripe for political exploitation and manipulation, whereby “soft and nice” stories about community and national political and other leaders are offered by their media managers to media outlets, with the dual expectation in return that not only will the stories be published, but also that their warmth will influence the way the media portrays their person in other more challenging situations. We have seen many examples of this over the last couple of years. 

There is another more worrying aspect to all this. Given declining trust in media credibility, what confidence can we have that the media will look beyond the froth when it comes to serious stories about the way our leaders are doing their jobs. Does the false intimacy all the soft stories engender mean that the media is no longer willing to probe more deeply than the superficial when harder issues arise about what our leaders have been up to? 

We are often told a fearless and unfettered news media is an important democratic safeguard. Although the relationship between politicians and the media has always been symbiotic, for obvious reasons, it has generally been considered that each should hold to its own corner. But is that still true, given the Isentia findings, or has the media now become the politicians’ captive plaything, incapable of running critical stories that might negatively impact on public perception? If so, what implications does that have for an open society’s right to know the evidence, as well as to be critically informed? 

As recent events in New Zealand and elsewhere confirm, the obsession with soft and trivial stories is becoming too overwhelming – in an age of so many other choices people are increasingly turning to media that run the stories they like. Those stories, rather than the facts behind them, often become the new truth that contorts public perception and opinion accordingly. The distinction between hard news, which can sometimes be unpleasant and challenging, and soft stories presenting people in the best light to shape favourable public impressions of them is becoming significantly blurred. 

However, a properly informed electorate remains the key to a functioning democracy. The news media still has a vital role in ensuring that people have full, meaningful and accurate information on which to base their political preferences, especially at election time, or even at times of great national crisis. For that reason alone, countering the increasing focus on trivia at the expense of what matters and the media pliancy that can give rise to, is posing a serious challenge all open and democratic societies need to confront.

 

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

 

As he brought this year’s Budget together Finance Minister Grant Robertson would have been mindful of three factors.

First, the Budget should set out significant steps towards reducing inequality, child poverty especially. This, after all, had been a pillar of Labour’s campaign prior to coming to office in 2017. So far, partly because of previous Coalition constraints and more latterly the onset of Covid19, alongside its own innate caution, Labour’s record on this front had been rather dismal, with most indicators showing little to no positive movement, and some even going backwards. Now, as a majority government unconstrained by Coalition partners, there would be little excuse for the government not being able to make the progress it promised on this front.

Second, the management of the ongoing response to Covid19, both in terms of the economic readjustment in certain key sectors, and the delivery of the vaccination programme during this year, would continue to be a major focus of the Budget. At the same time, given the extraordinarily high levels of borrowing set out in last year’s Budget to meet the costs of the pandemic, some focus on the future debt repayment programme would be expected, alongside some assurance that the borrowings that had already occurred were being used prudently.

Thirdly, Grant Robertson’s earlier Budgets (with the exception of last year’s Covid19 Budget) had been criticised for a lack of strategic direction. This was undoubtedly largely due to uncomfortable Coalition arrangements which no longer apply. Consequently, this year’s Budget provided an opportunity for the government to at last set out a clear strategic pathway, not just for the year ahead, but for the next three to five years.

And, underlying each of these factors, was the Finance Minister’s ongoing stated commitment to maintaining a prudent approach to fiscal management.

Against that background today’s Budget was very much a Curate’s Egg Budget – good, even very good, in parts, but quite lacking elsewhere.

As far as inequality is concerned, the Budget borders on the dramatic. Only the most mean-spirited of people will begrudge the $3.3 billion increase in benefit spending over the next two years. Lifting all benefits by $20 a week from 1 July this year, and $55 a week from 1 April 2022, as recommended by the Welfare Expert Advisory Group, could see up to 33,000 children lifted out of poverty. Sitting alongside the $380 million allocation to build up to 1,000 new homes for Maori and repair 750 others, it is a significant step towards what the Finance Minister described as the government’s “quest to reduce inequality.” However, it is discounted to some extent by the lack of additional funding for Whanau Ora and general accommodation assistance for families struggling now with high housing costs.

The Budget also scores highly on the management of the Covid19 response. Its economic projections are substantially more encouraging than those produced at the time of last year’s Budget. Unemployment projections of just 4.3%, the creation of 221,000 new jobs over the next four years and wage growth of 3% are far more positive than those set out a year ago, even though they have still to be achieved. Projected debt as a result of last year’s substantial borrowing programme remains high by our recent historical standards, but with a new estimated peak of 48% of GDP in 2023, is lower than forecast twelve months ago. And it is still way below the debt levels of countries like Australia and Britain.

So, the Budget scores well in terms of reducing inequality and sound economic management but is more disappointing when it comes to overall direction.

Labour seems to have passed up the opportunity of being the first government in a generation to be able to present a Budget untrammelled by having to meet Coalition or support partner concerns. This year’s effort is just as directionless as the two far more constrained pre-Covid19 Budgets this Minister has been responsible for. It is certainly not the “strong and confident plan” he proclaimed it to be in his Budget speech.

Instead, it is very much a maintenance Budget – addressing those areas that could no longer be overlooked, like rising inequality, and making sure the housekeeping is kept under good control. Beyond that, there was very little to cause excitement or flurry. Increasing PHARMAC’s budget by $200 million looks positive, but as the agency itself acknowledges, will not be enough to enable to fund all the new medicines queuing up. $700 million for new hospitals again looks good but will not go far. Likewise, with the additional $761 million for school buildings. A new allocation of $1.3 billion for rail upgrades also looks promising but in need of more detail, while the $300 million allocated to the transition to a low carbon economy is probably on the low side of what is required to achieve full carbon neutrality.

While businesses and New Zealanders generally will feel a little relieved that the country’s medium-term prospects look far less bleak than they did at Budget time last year, and that the plight of the most vulnerable households is being addressed, they still have no clear picture of how the government views the journey ahead or where our future opportunities might lie. The Budget’s failure to step into this territory is not only puzzling but also extremely concerning, raising questions about whether the government is far more focused on redistributing the economy, rather than growing it.

Reducing inequality and getting “the balance right” in economic management are worthy goals in themselves, consistent with the government’s “Wellness” approach. But focusing on “Wellness” alone without a similar emphasis on “Prosperity” will not be enough to secure New Zealanders’ future wellbeing. Early in his Budget speech the Minister said the three Budgets he will present during this Parliamentary should be viewed as integrated package. On the evidence of this year’s Budget that means the next two will need to project a much stronger focus on achieving growth and prosperity than has been the case to date. Other countries are already moving ahead in this space and New Zealand cannot afford to be left standing still as the world moves on from Covid19.

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

 

There has been a desperate and palpably false rumour circulating in recent weeks that the resignation of the Prime Minister is imminent. Meanwhile, Jacinda Ardern remains just as firmly ensconced in office as she ever was. However, it does raise the intriguing question of just who might take over as leader of the Labour Party in the most unlikely event the Prime Minister decides to move on any time soon.

The general view has been that Finance Minister Grant Robertson would be best placed to become the next Labour leader. After all, he is the current Deputy Prime Minister, although not the deputy leader of the Labour Party, a role he has held previously, and has gained respect as a competent Finance Minister. He is a close friend of the Prime Minister and is one of the most recognisable faces in the current government.

However, he has tried and failed twice before to become leader of the Labour Party – first in 2013 following the resignation of David Shearer, and again in 2014 when David Cunliffe stood aside after that year’s election debacle. After his second defeat he appeared to rule out future leadership bids, although that has not stopped other political leaders from changing their minds as the political circumstances shift. Although still only 49 years old, Robertson’s bigger problem in any future leadership bid could be that in this era where the value of experience seems heavily discounted, he might be considered too much of the old guard to be Labour’s face of the future.

In any case, he now has a clear rival for the status of heir apparent. The star of Chris Hipkins has been rising over the last couple of years. Although he has been in Parliament the same length of time as Robertson, he is seven years younger, and looks more youthful. Like Robertson, he is affable and a fluent communicator, but with more of a twinkle in his eye.
Whereas Robertson is so laid back he can sometimes appear a little languid, Hipkins, while no less relaxed, comes across as more energetic. However, unlike Robertson, he is starting to reveal some of the smugness of Ministers who know that they are on top of their portfolios develop, which may count against him.

Both Robertson and Hipkins have been tested in tough government portfolios and have not flinched. Hipkins, though, seems to have become the Prime Minister’s “go to” Minister in crises. He added Health to his already busy roles as Education Minister, Public Service Minister and Leader of the House, after the David Clark debacle. Now, he has swapped Health for the no less demanding role of Covid19 Response Minister, in addition to all his other responsibilities, and is increasingly becoming the government’s face on Covid19 matters, surpassing even the Prime Minister. He comes across as no less soothing or assured than the Prime Minister, but crisper and more precise in his presentation.

His big current negative, which he can easily curb, is that his enthusiasm for the Labour cause is so blind that there are times when he sounds like New Zealand’s version of Comical Ali. (Comical Ali was the nickname given to Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, the Iraqi Information Minister who became infamous during the Iraq War for his repeated colourful assurances that all remained well in Bagdad, right until the bitter end.)

Hipkins’ assertion that the government’s recent disastrous public sector pay-freeze, which it has now backed down from, was actually “the opposite of that” and really about enabling “the people on the lowest incomes to do disproportionately better than those on the highest incomes” was sufficiently incredible it could have been a straight lift from the Comical Ali playbook. Similarly ludicrous is his claim that the Covid19 vaccine rollout is going so well and quickly that we are actually now in danger of exhausting our vaccine supplies before the next shipment arrives at the end of June. It hardly fits the repeated reports of confusion and delays at vaccination centres or the reality that around 120 other countries have already achieved far higher vaccination levels than New Zealand – which, according to his colleague Megan Woods last year, would be at the head of the vaccination queue because of the way the government had responded.

The biggest obstacle Robertson and Hipkins, and anyone else for that matter, would have to overcome in any post-Ardern leadership contest is Labour’s convoluted leadership selection process. The Caucus, which best knows the strengths and weaknesses of potential candidates as it works alongside them day in and day out, has only a limited say in this process, with the shadowy, unelected trade union bosses who seek to control so much of what the modern Labour does and is about, having an influential role in the selection of the party leader.

Robertson has already come up against this barrier twice before and has lost both times. Hipkins, on the other hand, is not yet so tarnished or scarred. Perhaps that, and an eye to the future, explain his desperation to present to the state sector unions with the best possible explanation of the state sector pay freeze Robertson had announced.     

 

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

 It is time for Speaker Trevor Mallard to go. His extraordinary conduct in Parliament this week in defence of false rape allegations he made against a Parliamentary staffer not only further demean himself, but also Parliament as a whole. For the sake of Parliament’s reputation, if not his own rapidly diminishing credibility, he needs to go, and quickly. 

The role of Parliament’s Speaker is a crucial one within our Parliamentary system. It is normally held by a senior Member of Parliament, more often than not from the government party, who has a measure of respect from all sides of the House. Because of the nature of the role, the Speaker needs to demonstrate impartiality, good judgement, and fairness, topped off by a calm temperament, and an extraordinary level of patience and good humour. The Speaker also needs to maintain the confidence of the House as a whole, not just the government majority, to be able to operate effectively, and gain the co-operation of Members. 

Few Speakers achieve all of these requirements. But most have enough of the skill-set to be able to operate constructively, albeit on occasions with the most grudging support of the non-government side of the House. 

Mr Mallard is the exception. Despite being a very long-serving Member of the House, he possesses none of the tact and sensitivity good Speakers need to gain the respect and co-operation of all parties in the House. Mr Mallard’s political style has always been brutal, confrontational and uncompromisingly partisan, useful attributes for the cut and thrust of normal government/opposition politics, but never desirable qualities in a person chosen to be Speaker of the House of Representatives. 

The manifestations to date of Mr Mallard’s temperamental unsuitability to be Speaker have focused around his management of the House, particularly Question Time. While there has been an edge to them, they have, by and large, been the standard complaints all Oppositions have from time to time, that they are not getting what they would regard as a fair deal from the Speaker. Although Mr Mallard’s irascibility and rudeness has been causing this traditional friction to be more tense than usual, the situation, although increasingly difficult, was not out of control – until this week’s events. 

The controversy surrounding Mr Mallard’s handling of sexual abuse allegations, including his false rape claim, has been around for some time. It was brought closer to a head recently with the revelations of the substantial legal bills the taxpayer has already met as a consequence of his remarks. Mr Mallard had always said he would answer his critics and offer a full explanation at the appropriate time in Parliament. That time was this week. 

Those who may have expected the Speaker to have provided a reasoned, factual and possibly contrite explanation of his conduct and the reasons for his claims were completely off the mark. True to form, Mr Mallard’s response was defiant, aggressive, belligerent and intolerant of any criticism. His remarks were highly personalised towards those National MPs who had been raising the issue in recent months, and went way beyond what anyone might have imagined the reasonable response of a Speaker would be in such circumstances. 

But herein lies the problem and the reason why Mr Mallard can no longer continue as Speaker. The Opposition has been expressing “no confidence” in the Speaker for some time, but given the Prime Minister’s unwavering support of him and the government’s strong majority in the House, it has been comparatively easy to date to brush that criticism aside as just another disgruntled Opposition grizzling. 

However, the visceral and highly personal nature of Mr Mallard’s response changes all that. Now, there can be no doubt that, having showed his true colours so clearly, the Speaker lacks the capacity to deal with the Opposition impartially and fairly that his position requires. In turn, that creates a significant problem for the government and the Prime Minister in particular. To date, her position – correctly – has been that the choice of Speaker is a matter for Parliament, not her, to resolve, since the Speaker is elected by Parliament, not appointed by the Prime Minister. 

Mr Mallard’s behaviour this week puts both the government and the Prime Minister in a bind. If they do nothing and continue to stand by him, they will be effectively condoning his conduct. But it would be an unprecedented step for the government to support a vote of no-confidence in the Speaker. At the same time, given her long and frequently professed commitment to a kinder, gentler style of politics, the Prime Minister will be aware of the potential long-term cost to her own reputation of continuing to be seen remaining so closely tied to a Speaker who is so clearly neither of those things. 

Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House have now spoken out against the Speaker’s conduct after this week’s Parliamentary events, although both say still they have confidence in the Speaker. These are at best holding statements. They sound remarkably like the start of the time-honoured political tactic of slowly but firmly pulling the rug out from under someone. It is the way you withdraw confidence in someone, without formally doing so. You cannot credibly carry on indefinitely being critical of a person’s conduct on the one hand, while continuing to express confidence in them on the other. Once the Prime Minister expressed “serious concerns” about his conduct, Mr Mallard was effectively left with nowhere else to go. It is not just a matter of Mr Mallard’s credibility any more – the Prime Minister has now placed hers on the line as well. Mr Mallard cannot win against that. 

In such situations, the person concerned is usually allowed a quiet time of reflection before announcing they have decided, as they always intended, that it is now time for them to move on to pursue those other interests they really have always wanted to. For the sake of Parliament, and the credibility of the Prime Minister he has served so loyally, Mr Mallard must now come to that realisation quickly – and resign.

 

 

    

 

 

 

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

 

The government is right to resist attempts to turn the Five Eyes Intelligence sharing agreement into a wider political alliance. However, given the growing disposition of some its partners, it is going to become increasingly difficult for it to continue to do so. 

The United States, Britain and their ever-trusty pet Australia are becoming more and more focused on what a rapidly developing China is likely to mean for future Pacific and ultimately global security. More benign Five Eyes partners like New Zealand and Canada are being pressured to join their increasingly activist stance against the resurgent China, and to make the Five Eyes agreement more of an alliance than an intelligence sharing arrangement. 

The significant extension of the role of the Five Eyes agreement such a move would entail goes beyond the scope of the original UKUSA agreement for the sharing of joint signals intelligence that gave rise to it in the first place. That agreement had its origins in the Allied Second World War code-breaking operations at the now famous Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire. When it was formalised in the Cold War environment of the early 1950s it was effectively the intelligence component of the regional collective security agreements like NATO, SEATO and ANZUS. Other parties to the original UKUSA agreement included Norway, Denmark and West Germany, but they did not become members of the Five Eyes “club”. 

Over the years New Zealand has been a valuable provider of signals intelligence to the Five Eyes partners. Our geographic location assists our interception capabilities considerably, which explains our value to the other partners. It is also the reason why, despite the somewhat bullying talk being directed our way at present, New Zealand is unlikely to be expelled from the arrangement, even if we do not comply with the current demands to broaden its scope. 

But that does not make the issue of China and how to deal with it any less difficult for us. The prevailing Western view, heightened considerably during the Trump years, that China is now less a force for stability than a potential enemy poses real problems for a country like ours, now so dependent on China for our economic prosperity. Since the conclusion of the China-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement in 2008 China has become our largest trading partner in goods and second largest trading partner overall. No New Zealand government is going to deliberately put that arrangement at risk, given the wider implications for our way of life. 

It was easier for New Zealand to resist the “for us or against us” stance on China during the belligerence of the Trump Administration, because it was so extreme. However, it is likely to become more difficult if, as the early signs suggest, the more benign Biden Administration maintains the same broad stance. 

Unfortunately, the government’s current attempts to explain its position look clumsy and inept. Telling other countries to treat China with more respect, as the Trade Minister has done, makes us look like grovelling sycophants. Using similes like the taniwha and the dragon to characterise the current relationship between New Zealand and China as our Foreign Minister did recently, looks like meaningless waffle, even to those skilled in the art of diplomatic double-speak. 

As an independent nation, New Zealand has every right to form its own views about its relationship with China, and to progress those as best we see fit. We do need to be careful though that in doing so we do not turn a blind eye to everything China does. Its treatment of its Uighur minority is a case in point. There appear to be obvious breaches of human rights occurring here, and New Zealand’s continued silence, given our overall approach to upholding international human rights is simply not credible. Similarly with Taiwan – another important New Zealand trade partner. As a fellow small nation in the shadow of a big neighbour, New Zealand could be expected to uphold the rights of small nations to self-determination, in the event of any moves by China to invade Taiwan at a future point. 

The current anxiety amongst other Five Eyes partners about New Zealand is not so much that we are pursuing our own national interests in respect of China – most countries understand that and do likewise – but that we are allowing ourselves to become seen as a vocal, uncritical supporter of China. Every statement the government makes on the relationship seems to be supportive of China’s position and unaccepting of any criticism of it. Na├»ve, inexperienced, foolish – call it what you may – that is not helping to advance New Zealand’s position in any way in the eyes of other longer-term friends and allies. 

New Zealand can still continue to play its part as a member of the Five Eyes agreement and progress its wider relationship with China, if it wants, but it just needs to stop appearing so loudly partisan about it. There will inevitably be challenges to our position – that is the nature of the course of international relations – but our primary role should be working to reduce those challenges, not aggravating them by continually drawing attention to our increasing dependence on China the way we are at present. Quiet diplomacy rather than loud-hailer virtue signalling is the far preferable course to follow here. 

Right now, New Zealand should just be getting on with pursuing its interests quietly, determinedly, and unobtrusively. The resort to finger-wagging warnings about international conduct, and obfuscating references to ancient symbols we have seen of late are not signs of independence. They simply make our government look like international “babes in arms”, that much easier to laugh at and discount.

 

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

 

At first glance, there is a strong back to the future flavour to the government’s just announced health sector reforms. National in the 1990s abolished elected area health boards and replaced them with a single national Health Funding Authority, supported by four Regional Health Authorities, reporting to the Minister of Health through the Ministry of Health. Labour in turn in the early 2000s abolished that structure and returned to elected district health boards. Now, Labour plans to overturn its own model in favour of a new national health authority, Health New Zealand, with four regional divisions, reporting to the Minister of Health through the Ministry of Health.

The irony of this will not be lost on long-term observers of the New Zealand health system. It goes deeper than just the structural changes. When Labour upended the previous model in the early 2000s, amongst the primary officials driving change were Heather Simpson, the then Prime Minister’s chief of staff, and Stephen McKernan, Director-General of Health from the mid-2000s. The latest health changes which unwind the system they set up emerge from a task force led by Heather Simpson, with Stephen McKernan leading the implementation unit responding to the taskforce’s recommendations.

However, this is not to say that the new reforms are merely a carbon copy of the system in place over 20 years ago. While the structures look broadly identical, there are some significant changes to take note of.
Whereas National’s 1990s changes were about driving better efficiency through controlling costs, the current changes seem more about removing duplication and inefficiency and driving policy more directly from the centre than has been the case in recent years.

There is also the added dimension of the independent Maori Health Authority. Conceptually a good idea, its challenge will be, like Whanau Ora has faced in social services provision, to maintain the freedom to promote “by Maori, for Maori” solutions without heavy-handed bureaucratic intervention concerned that it might be going “too far”.

The re-establishment of a new separate Public Health Agency has been long signalled. However, some aspects of it raise concern and are probably worthy of further consideration before final decisions are made. For example, while it is perfectly understandable that in the wake of the pandemic a group be established to oversee current and future pandemic preparedness plans, it is questionable whether that should be within the narrower focus of the Public Health Agency or more broadly based. One of the criticisms of the current pandemic approach, especially as we begin to move to a post-pandemic phase, is that continued sole focus on a public health approach is too narrow and inflexible. It may therefore be more prudent to establish a dedicated multidisciplinary separate pandemic response team outside the Public Health Agency, but able to work across the full health sector and the machinery of government as a whole.

Similarly, the plan to absorb the Health Promotion Agency within the new Public Health Agency is problematic. When the Health Promotion Agency was established to replace previous stand-alone agencies like the Alcohol Advisory Council and Smokefree NZ, there was criticism that this could impact upon the credibility of the public health messages being promoted. Public health messages coming from an overtly government agency always look far more authoritarian than when promoted by stand-alone bodies. The complete absorption of the Health Promotion Agency that was just starting to find its own feet after several years, into the Public Health Agency might lead to a very Orwellian, counter-productive approach to future public health promotion.

The government may well point to the response to the “official government announcements” we have been subject to on Covid19 over the last year in defence of this move. However, that would overlook the fact those messages have become more easily discounted as time has gone by. More worryingly, they have become less about purveying information and more about pushing propaganda. While that may have been fine for the Covid19 response, it is unlikely to work over the longer term on more broad public health themes like healthy living, diet and exercise. The last thing people will take kindly to or treat seriously is government dictums about what they should eat and when they should exercise!

There is plenty of time over the next two to three years to iron out some of these wrinkles as the new system is put in place, and the government should seek to work closely with affected communities accordingly.

However, there is one over-arching aspect to this reform which it is difficult to escape. This is fundamentally a statement of Labour philosophy about the role of government in the delivery of health and social services. At its heart, Labour believes that the primary responsibility here lies with central government, and that community initiative, let alone personal responsibility and self-management, come a distant second. The health reforms are a clear statement of that belief.

It is no coincidence that the heavy centralisation inherent within them mirrors similar recent moves in the education sector to centralise more control in central agencies like the Ministry of Education, at the expense of school boards of trustees. Likewise, performance failures in aspects of local government as well as new emerging responsibilities in water management, and forthcoming changes to resource management legislation make it virtually inevitable that major local government reforms, including perhaps a streamlining and further reduction of local authorities, lies ahead.

While the health reforms are being promoted as a necessary response to a system that is failing they are also a strong reminder that this is probably the most fiercely ideologically flavoured Labour government since the 1970s. That alone will make for an interesting public response.