Thursday 29 February 2024

The rush to push legislation through Parliament under Urgency to abolish the Māori Health Authority, Te Aka Whai Ora, has been unseemly. No matter that the Authority’s abolition was an election commitment of all three government coalition partners, and was thus inevitable, the process by which it has been done was messy.

The actual abolition of the Authority will not occur until the middle of the year, but the government moved now to prevent a hearing by the Waitangi Tribunal – due to get underway this week – on whether the move was a breach of the Treaty.

That action of itself raises questions about the role of the Waitangi Tribunal and where it fits in our constitutional framework. Its origins go back to 1975 when the then Labour Government passed legislation to give legal recognition to the Treaty of Waitangi for the first time. Part of that legislation established the Waitangi Tribunal with the authority “to make recommendations on claims relating to the practical application of the Treaty and to determine whether certain matters are inconsistent with the principles of the Treaty”.

The Tribunal was not established as a Court, but as a permanent Commission of Inquiry on the actions or omissions of the Crown regarding the Treaty. As with all Commissions of Inquiry, its findings were not intended to be legally binding. Although the Tribunal has the power to consider proposed legislation which has been referred to it by Parliament, it can also look at any “policy or practice proposed to be adopted by or on behalf of the Crown” referred to it by “any group” of Māori who “claim” they might be prejudicially affected.

Those provisions are at the core of the government’s actions this week. Moving to abolish Te Aka Whai Ora now removes any question of the legislation being considered by the Tribunal because it cannot look at legislation that is currently before Parliament. However, the Tribunal can still consider whether Te Aka Whai Ora’s abolition will prejudicially affect “any group” of Māori, but the government obviously considers that a potential adverse finding from the Tribunal at some future time will be less significant, once Te Aka Whai Ora has been abolished.

This awkward situation raises questions about the current role and purpose of the Waitangi Tribunal. Although it is obviously not the “Māori Court” as Labour MP Willie Jackson typically ignorantly and divisively asserts, it is unclear what the Tribunal’s proper, precise function is. In that regard, it is questionable whether the Tribunal’s traditional role as a permanent Commission of Inquiry with the power to make only non-legally binding recommendations on matters relating to the Treaty is still appropriate, or whether greater clarification is needed.

It seems nonsensical that the Tribunal’s ability to hold a hearing on whether a proposed government action breaches the Treaty can be shut down by the government introducing legislation to Parliament. On the other hand, there is no tradition, nor desire, in New Zealand to give the Courts or tribunals the power to strike down legislation the way the United States Supreme Court can.

Any move – and none has been seriously suggested so far – to invest such a power in the Waitangi Tribunal regarding the Treaty would be a huge constitutional step. It would immediately raise the question of the same approach being applied by the Supreme Court of New Zealand regarding the general law. Any move in this direction, be it on the Treaty or any other matter, would be untenable. It would override the principle of the supremacy of Parliament on which our democratic system of government is based and open up the much wider question of broader constitutional reform, something successive governments have run a mile from.

Nevertheless, the position of the Tribunal remains ambiguous, and in need of clarification. This will be especially so if ACT’s proposed Treaty Principles legislation ever proceeds beyond the select committee stage in Parliament. At present, Māori could be forgiven for seeing the Tribunal as ineffectual in that its recommendations lack any legal standing. At the same time, governments often view the Tribunal as an awkward hindrance, especially when it makes findings adverse to their policies. That is unsatisfactory from just about every point of view.

The concept of a specialist Tribunal as proposed in the 1975 legislation remains a sound one, especially as debate around the principles of the Treaty intensifies. But that Tribunal needs to be structured in a way that enables it to have some meaningful impact when issues of significance arise. Therefore, a considered and structured review of the Waitangi Tribunal, nearly fifty years on, to better define its functions and purpose is in order. This is a constructive response, far preferable to the potentially divisive and protracted debate about legislatively defining the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, from which there will be no winners.

Otherwise, more messy situations like the rushed legislation to abolish Te Aka Whai Ora will arise. These dishonour both the government and Māori alike. In an environment where half of all New Zealanders, according to a recent TVNZ Kantar poll, say they do not understand the principles of the Treaty, the founding document of our country, that would be the least desirable of all outcomes.


Thursday 22 February 2024

Here we go again. Another National-led government, and another round of cracking down on beneficiaries. That was the reaction of the parties of the left to the coalition government's announcement it was returning to applying sanctions to beneficiaries who fail to meet their job seeking obligations. 


Both the government's announcement and the Opposition's reaction were entirely predictable. In different ways, beneficiaries and how they are treated define the divide between the left and the right. National's announcement this week and Labour's reaction are as much about playing to their respective audiences as anything else, with beneficiaries once again being the unfortunate ones caught in the crossfire.


The Greens' reaction that the government was "quickly building a legacy of cruelty ... to penalise the poorest people" was over the top, even for them. But again, it was more about political positioning than concern for those who might be affected. It was a further opportunity for the Greens to push their claim that they, not Labour, are now the party fighting for the poor and dispossessed. Despite Labour stagnating, recent polls show the Greens still have a long way to go to make their claim stick.


Nevertheless, once the fog of politics has been cut through, there are some important issues to be considered. There has always been a benefit sanctions regime, even under previous Labour-led governments, for beneficiaries who fail to meet their various obligations. Ministry of Social Development figures show that from the end of 2017, when Labour came to power, through to the start of the pandemic in 2020, benefit sanctions were being applied at the rate of around 12,000 per quarter. But this figure slumped dramatically during the pandemic when the government not unreasonably softened its approach. But, tellingly, when the pandemic crisis passed, Labour did not return to its earlier approach, so now, the quarterly rate of benefit sanctions is only about half what it was in Labour’s earlier days.


The Prime Minister says that all National is doing with its latest announcement is "just making sure the existing set of sanctions is applied", something Labour had clearly given up on doing during its last three years in office.  He added that current modelling showed a young person who spent almost their entire working life on a benefit would end up costing nearly $1 million in taxpayer funding. He said the government's moves would ensure those people who could work, did, but there needed to be consequences for those who did not meet their benefit conditions.

In similarly soothing tones, Social Development Minister Louise Upston added, “It is right that our welfare system acts as a safety net for those who need it. But that support comes with certain responsibilities." At the heart of her concern is the Job Seeker allowance, currently being paid to about 190,000 people, but where numbers have grown by more than 70,000 since 2017, with over 40,000 more of those receiving the allowance for longer than a year.  So, she has announced that a “ramping up” of benefit sanctions will begin from June - particularly for young people. She said this would be the first step towards additional monitoring of the benefit system, and would apply to about 2,500 people a month at a cost of about $1.2m a year. At present, only about a third of Job Seeker recipients are being actively monitored by MSD, leaving many questions about what is going on.

Issues relating to the level and duration of benefits are always touchy politically, even more so in the straitened times of the last election campaign. Beneficiaries argue benefit levels are never enough, while others feel the system is too soft and offers people a lifestyle choice, rather than helps those in need through difficult times. The absence of good data about the extent to which beneficiaries are complying with their benefit obligations is regrettable and gives rise to a lot of speculation, much of which could be malicious and unfounded, about what is happening to beneficiaries.

This appalling lack of data makes effective controls on benefit expenditure difficult to achieve. National knows full well the political and social costs of going too far to control – or even cut – benefit levels, as it found out after the 1991 “Mother of All Budgets”, so will not repeat that mistake again. But its supporters will be expecting it to do something, hence the move on young people and the Job Seeker allowance which is likely to be popular with its “personal responsibility” focused supporters. Labour’s softness on sanctions after 2020 makes it easier for National to do not very much to appear more rigorous, and look as though it is applying the Prime Minister’s “tough love” to solving the country’s problems.

If it can present its changes as being in line with what “reasonable” people would expect, while Labour hand-wring that they are too tough, and the Greens take a much harder opposition line, the government will win the argument. They hope their supporters and middle New Zealand will conclude that while tough but fair, their actions are the dose of reality needed to help get the country “back on track”. But getting that balance right is likely to be an ongoing challenge.

The one bit missing in this enduring debate, though, seems to be what those on the Job Seeker allowance think, including why so many remain on it for so long, and how they feel about that. With changes afoot to “tidy up” the system someone might think to ask those involved for their views and solutions.

They might provide better answers than all the figures the various parties are currently throwing around.  

Wednesday 14 February 2024

There was a hole in a quiet road near me recently. It was about three metres long. A repair crew came to fix it. 

That crew consisted of six people - a digger operator, someone directing the digger's movements, two stop-go sign holders and their two supervisors. And at least 150 ubiquitous orange cones. The road was down to a single lane for most of its length.


This scene was not unusual. It is familiar to most of us and is being replicated frequently in cities and towns across the country. It is a further example of how the system of "traffic management" we now have has become well and truly over the top.


Traffic management requirements are imposing substantial costs on taxpayers and ratepayers throughout the country, for questionable public benefit. Already, the oppressive nature and high costs of traffic management requirements have killed off many local community events like Christmas parades or other local street events.


No-one argues against safety in the workplace – in this instance for roadworkers, motorists, and the public. Everyone has the right to a safe work environment. But the traffic management requirements now in place have become too onerous. It is doubtful they have made any significant addition to road safety levels beyond what was already in place. Moreover, traffic management service providers seem to be a law unto themselves, accountable to nobody for their impositions and the inconvenience they cause.


Regulations Minister David Seymour says there is far too much red tape in New Zealand. He says it is stifling productivity and imposing far too many unnecessary costs. According to Seymour, regulation is now out of control. His mission is to ensure regulations are imposed only when they are necessary, and at reasonable cost. Unnecessary regulations should go, he says.


Restoring a sensible approach to traffic management, cutting back on the stream of orange cones choking our highways and byways, and the army of stop-go people and the hangers-on that go with them would be a good place for Seymour to start. A saner and more streamlined approach to traffic management would save beleaguered taxpayers and ratepayers millions of dollars that could be put to more productive purposes elsewhere. And it would undoubtedly reduce the levels of road rage road workers are now reporting more and more frequently.


While he is at it, Seymour might also look to another regulatory intervention that is frustrating more and more New Zealanders – domestic aviation security at major airports. Again, no-one argues there should be no security, but the extent of it and the way it is administered is getting out of hand. There was even the recent case of a senior pilot beginning a full strip at an airport in protest at what he saw as the increasing level of security being imposed on flight crew.


And, like traffic management, aviation security also seems to be very much a law itself, with no external accountability. There are increasing instances of flights being delayed because of the time it is taking people to get through security. (I even had the case recently of my bag being pulled aside for no other reason than the officer was a medals collector who was curious to see what the medal was in my bag!) Yet when decisions made by aviation security officials are raised with government officials or even Ministers as being too intrusive or excessive, the response is always the same – these are operational matters which are the sole responsibility of aviation security. Like traffic management, they seem to be able to do what they like, when and how they like, to whom they like, and all for little clear public benefit.


In both traffic management and aviation security, the broader picture has been lost sight of. The context of necessary actions occurring in a way to assist, not inconvenience, the public has been long forgotten – rather, the provision of the services has become the end in itself. This is not the fault of those on the front line, but of those who decide the scope of their responsibilities. The cost to the public purse has escalated significantly, with little to no evidence being produced to show it is justified.


Nevertheless, there is no question that some form of road traffic management and aviation security systems are required, but they need to be appropriate, transparent, and accountable. It is not good enough for the people running these systems to rely on the “we’re just doing our job” line as their stock response. They need to be accountable for what they do, especially when they are operating under a public regulatory framework, and with public funding.


Bringing them to heel, or at the very least making them explain and justify their behaviour to the public would be a popular step the Regulations Minister could take to ensure that unnecessary regulatory power is being curbed and that taxpayers and ratepayers are getting proper value for their money.


Thursday 8 February 2024

The debate about the Treaty of Waitangi is running away from the government because ACT is on a mission about its Treaty Principles Bill. Nothing, it seems, is likely to deter it from proceeding, with every attack or criticism appearing to provide more grist to David Seymour’s mill.

National’s reply that it has only agreed to support the Bill as far as its select committee stage looks increasingly plaintive and meaningless. For a start, most people are insufficiently aware of the Parliamentary process to know what that means in practice. All they hear is National’s somewhat confusing message that while it does not agree with the Bill, it will still vote for it being introduced to Parliament.

At present, the focus on ACT’s Bill and National’s limp response are creating the impression that that is all the government is focused on. National desperately needs to break out of the straitjacket it has been trapped in by its coalition partner and start to focus on its own agenda. Otherwise, it will continue to be sidetracked and upstaged by ACT.

Educational achievement could be the circuit breaker National needs. It has already promised to require primary and intermediate schools to teach an hour of reading, writing and maths a day in the belief that will help boost literacy and numeracy levels. But before that policy can have any effect there is a more basic issue that needs to be addressed.

Children need to be at school to learn – and right now, they are not. Figures released by the Ministry of Education show that only 45.9% of students were attending school or kura regularly in Term 3 of 2023. That figure was down marginally from 46% for the same period in 2022, and well down from the 62.3% recorded at the height of the pandemic in 2020. There is surely something seriously wrong with our education system, and the value we place upon it, when most children are not going to school on a regular basis. The highest attendance rate in recent years was a mere 63.1% in 2021, but even that figure is unacceptably low by any reasonable standards.

There is no getting away from the fact that standards of educational achievement for young people in New Zealand will not improve while so many seem to have opted out from the educational system. The reasons for this may be many and varied, but they are essentially all just excuses. Parents are simply failing their children big-time by not insisting and ensuring that they are at school far more regularly. And educators just seem resigned to accepting this as the new reality. The excuse that the drop-off in recent years has been a consequence of the pandemic is no longer relevant and is now simply a cop-out for parental irresponsibility and government lethargy.

Last week, Prime Minister Luxon drew attention to low Māori school attendance rates at a meeting with iwi leaders. He said it was the responsibility of both iwi leaders and the government to do something about that.  But unfortunately, it appeared that he was singling out just Māori children for attention when the low school attendance crisis is widespread across the whole population. And that means the solution must be a whole-of-society one, even if elements of it will need to be targeted to specific areas of need.

Nevertheless, there are clearly special issues affecting Māori children. Just 33.7% of Māori students regularly attended school or kura in Term 3 in 2023, up slightly on the comparable figure for 2022. The government needs to work actively alongside parents and iwi leaders to address those.

Education Minister Erica Stanford says she is “relentlessly focused” on lifting achievement and that tackling truancy and improving attendance rates are high on her list of priorities, including potential changes to reporting and enforcement action. These pledges should be largely welcomed by parents and teachers, but the crisis is urgent, as the latest figures show. The Minister will therefore need to have definitive plans ready to put in place sooner rather than later.

The overwhelming majority of New Zealand parents want the best for their children. Getting more of them going to school more often is a win-win for all concerned. Better education is good for both children and their families and benefits all of society. It is an ambition all can unite around.

At a time when social divisions are at risk of becoming deeper, unity of purpose regarding our children’s educational futures, regardless of their current circumstances, has the potential to bridge some of the gaps now appearing. An active and comprehensive government-led campaign to get the kids back to school to boost their achievement might also help get National off the ACT-baited hook it is currently wriggling on.  

Thursday 1 February 2024

If success in politics is measured by practical achievements rather than the volume of noise made, James Shaw has been the Greens’ most successful politician yet.

His unchallengeable legacy will be the zero-carbon legislation. Shaw knew that the key to that progressing was not only persuading the then major party of government, Labour, but far more importantly, the National Opposition, to support his plans to ensure the policy momentum was maintained when a change of government occurred. Shaw also understood that he needed at least tacit, if not more active, support from the business community, and major greenhouse gas producers like industry and agriculturalists.

To that end, he skilfully steered New Zealand to a position where, following the passage of the Climate Change Act in 2020 and the establishment of the Climate Change Commission, the future direction of New Zealand’s climate change response was broadly settled. Although there will be inevitable modifications under future governments and as international circumstances change, the approach established by Shaw will remain, at least for the foreseeable future.

In a Newsroom Column in July 2022 – when Shaw’s co-leadership of the Greens was under challenge – I speculated that he could decide to leave Parliament at the 2023 election (or shortly afterwards, if the government was defeated) and that either a re-elected Labour-led government or an incoming National-led coalition might see fit to appoint him as the next Climate Change Commissioner when that position becomes vacant later this year. While Shaw had given no hint yet of his next career moves, that appointment remains an open possibility. It would certainly be an astute move by the new government, were it to happen, and would lock-in the climate change response that Shaw oversaw over the last six years.

Shaw’s departure – and hints from co-leader Marama Davidson that her position should not be taken for granted after the end of this year – raise serious leadership issues for the Greens. However, the party is not without talented people who could step into vacant leadership positions. Auckland Central MP Chloe Swarbrick is the obvious contender to replace Shaw. She has long featured in opinion poll preferred Prime Minister ratings (ahead of both Shaw and Davidson) and has clear popular appeal, as her wins in Auckland Central in 2020 and 2023 show. The only outstanding question to be resolved is whether she wants the role, otherwise it seems hers for the taking.

Rongotai MP and former Minister Julie Anne Genter is another contender, either now or post-Davidson. Significantly, both Swarbrick and Genter have won well-off, well-educated electorates, so are clearly able to appeal to the middle ground of New Zealand politics, where elections are usually decided.

However, the bigger question arising from Shaw’s departure is what it means for the future policy direction of the Greens. Despite his ability to build support across political lines for his issues, Shaw was criticised by many within the Greens for his moderation and pragmatism. Whatever future leadership combination emerges within the party is unlikely to be as moderate and pragmatic as Shaw. That means that potentially the Greens could be less influential in the future.

While some will lament the loss of Shaw’s style, others will see opportunity. Given their best-ever election result in 2023 and the disarray evident within the heavily depleted Labour Party, the Greens are well-positioned to challenge for the role of the major Opposition party at the next election. A more sharply defined position on environmental and social justice issues, that resonates with “teal” voters in middle class electorates – like Auckland Central, Rongotai, Wellington Central and more – is an important next step the Greens need to take.

Recent events within the Labour Party are also relevant. The steady exodus of former Labour Ministers – three have gone since the election – is part of the process of renewal (well, sort of – the replacement MPs were all ones defeated at the election). That was not unexpected. More significant has been the election of a new Labour Policy Council which now includes economic left-wingers like former Minister Michael Wood and CTU economist Craig Renney (who reportedly aspires to be Minister of Finance in a future Labour-led government). Labour looks set for a time of significant internal debate – no bad thing in itself – but one that has the capacity to widen further the divisions already evident within the party. All of which creates new opportunities for the Greens.

James Shaw may well say he is leaving because his “work is done”. Not only has his legacy been secured through his climate change achievements, but he has also created the conditions which now allow the Greens to challenge seriously to be the major party of opposition. Not bad for someone who always seemed to be an outsider within the Greens’ movement!


Thursday 25 January 2024

Purpose and focus in a government are virtues, until they are taken over by an all-compassing zeal that allows no deviation. Governments with clear agendas usually succeed, whereas those more inclined to drift along with the flow look leaderless and directionless. Arguably over its last year or so in office the last Labour government slipped into the latter category. 

In contrast, the new National-led coalition has started its tenure decisively, using its 100 days plan to put many of Labour’s pet policies to the sword, and stamp its own authority on the machinery of government. So far, apparently so good. Voters seem to have accepted the government’s argument that it has a mess to clean up, even if the details of how it will do so are still a little unclear. The few opinion polls since the election show overall support for the coalition is unchanged, with support for National at its highest in almost four years.


The drop in inflation to 4.7%, unemployment falling to 3.9% and the prospect of the Reserve Bank loosening its iron grip on interest rates later this year are all encouraging signs for the future, which will fuel the government’s belief that it is on the right policy lines.


But there are already small worrying signs the early decisive focus the government has shown may yet slip into dogmatic obsession where adherence to “principles and core values” outweighs the pragmatism and subtlety governments often need to keep the public onside.


It was dogmatic obsession that only it knew how to deal with the Covid19 pandemic that saw the previous government suspend sittings of Parliament altogether during the early stages, to prevent its actions being subject to political scrutiny. Such a restriction on the operation of democracy had never occurred before, not even in the darkest days of World War II. The government quickly came to its senses and Parliamentary scrutiny was restored through virtual means. But the notion that a government could see fit to suspend Parliament in such circumstances remains an uncomfortable one.


In a similar vein, Parliament’s Clerk, the principal non-elected officer responsible for the running of Parliament, was reported last week to have expressed concern to Parliamentary staff about the new government’s requirement that his office cut its expenditure by 6.5% in line with every other government department. He said the move was “constitutionally concerning”, leaving him “very concerned that the executive can effectively limit the work of the legislature by reducing its funding.”


The amount of funding in question is $1.6 million per annum, a very small amount in the overall context of the government’s Budget, but one with far more profound implications for the operation of our democracy. As was the case in 2020, any restrictions on the operation of Parliament limit MPs’ ability to hold the government to account for its actions, thus strengthening the power of the Executive (Ministers) and the government of the day to govern without restraint.


For the sake of the small amount of funding involved, it would be prudent for Finance Minister Willis to pull back on this issue. Parliament is the apex of our democracy, and any moves which stifle its ability to operate freely and hold the government to full account should be strongly resisted.


The issue of Wellington’s water woes is more complex but the testy relationship that Local Government Minister Brown has already developed with Wellington’s Mayors is concerning. The Mayors are certainly a disparate, highly sensitive, individual local patch-protecting group, as difficult to herd together as cats at the best of times, but Minister Brown’s early approach of treating them like errant students to be issued with “please explain” notices was entirely the wrong way to go about things. It smacked of an arrogance that usually comes after several years in office, not just a few weeks as in Brown’s case.


Meanwhile, Wellington’s water problems carry on. A solution to the crisis which is seeing about 40% of Wellington’s water lost to leaking pipes remains as distant as ever. Wellington residents continue to live with the threat of more severe water restrictions which no local authority will have the capacity to enforce. The lack of leadership at the regional and national levels remains as great as ever, and last week’s exchanges between the Minister and the Mayors make an early resolution even more unlikely.


Rather than issue more “please explain” edicts to local Mayors – and then release them to the media when they have barely hit the Mayors’ inboxes – the Minister needs to start listening, and working towards practical solutions that work, rather than just fit his ideological prism.


The government’s relentless determination to “get New Zealand back on track” is admirable in many ways. But the biggest risk to its succeeding is when ideological blindness is allowed to overrule commonsense, leading to a fervent belief that only it is right. Last week showed early signs of this risk.   

Thursday 14 December 2023

It is a time-honoured ploy for a new government to paint its predecessor as fiscally incompetent and irresponsible. This is often done to allow a new government some leeway in implementing its promises, on the grounds that first cleaning up the mess it has inherited was a more important priority. There have been times when it has been used as a reason for abandoning new and not particularly well thought out policies altogether. And, occasionally, there is even a measure of truth in a new government’s claims.

Over the last week the new Minister of Finance has repeatedly attacked her predecessor for various unfunded fiscal liabilities the new government has discovered on taking office. Other Ministers have been hinting at similar issues within their own portfolios. However, the previous government has denied all the allegations, saying that all the so-called unfunded risks were accounted for in this year’s Budget. The previous Minister of Finance has gone so far as to say the real problem is that the new Minister does not know how to read the Budget documents properly.

This political argument will likely continue for some while yet, potentially even after the release of next week’s Half Year Economic and Fiscal Update (HYEFU), and the government’s mini-Budget to follow.

In the meantime, there have been two important pieces of broader economic information this week which have added some fuel to the already smouldering fire.

The first was an extremely negative report from the Auditor-General on the former government’s huge post-pandemic $15 billion national infrastructure programme to kick start the economy. He found that government had been warned frequently of the risks to value for money associated with many of the specific infrastructure projects. These warnings included advice from the National Infrastructure Commission that “large scale infrastructure projects are not effective mechanisms for economic stimulus due to the time needed for planning, design and procurement.” Treasury had advised it had “low confidence” the projects could be implemented quickly. The Auditor-General said that a lack of both due process for the authorisation of spending, and providing information to Parliament and the public, meant it was difficult to see whether the government was getting value for money from the projects.

But Ministers in the former government had chosen to ignore the advice and the warnings, and to proceed regardless, leaving the Auditor-General to express his concern “that significant spending of public money continues to occur without appropriate processes for ensuring value for money and transparent decision-making.”

A similar picture of fiscal laxity emerges regarding Kiwirail’s proposals to upgrade Cook Strait ferry services. In 2018 the previous government had approved a $1 billion programme for new ferries to replace the current ageing fleet, as well as associated port terminal upgrades. It had subsequently been advised that the cost of the project was likely to be nearer to $3 billion and had agreed in principle to meet at least part of this cost blow-out. Kiwirail sought additional funding of nearly $1.5 billion from the new government to meet the increased costs. Almost 80% of them were to do with building new terminals in Wellington and Picton, rather than the new ships themselves. Unsurprisingly, the new government has declined to meet the additional funding request. For its part, Kiwirail has said it will now wind down the ferry replacement project and review its Cook Strait operations.

While both the national infrastructure programme projects and the upgrading of the Cook Strait ferries are complex matters, relying on commercial and engineering judgements beyond the capability of any government, their management requires a level of overall government financial supervision and accountability that was apparently lacking in both instances.

As it tries to rectify the problems it has inherited in these cases, the new government will obviously take every opportunity it can heap blame and pour scorn on the credibility of its predecessor. That is the nature of politics. But at the same time, it will also need to take steps to avoid repetitions in the future. The Auditor-General’s report recommended that there should be “regular public reporting on the progress of all significant investments that have had or that require Cabinet-level consideration”.

Such a move would be a useful step forward, but to be truly effective, it will need to be supported by an early-warning system that alerts Parliament, not just the Cabinet, to emerging risks, so they can be scrutinised and potentially mitigated. Otherwise, there is no guarantee similar situations will not occur in the future. 

That brings Dunne’s Weekly to a close for 2023. It will return in the New Year. But, in the meantime, best wishes to all readers for the Christmas period, and for a happy and successful New Year.