A Govt that’s found only half its mojo
There’s been much debate about whether our new Government is a radical or an incremental one – a break with the past or more of the same. Grant Robertson’s first Budget is firmly in the latter camp.
To achieve its vision – for a kinder, fairer, greener country – the Government needs to do at least three things – spend more money, where it is clearly needed – but also find ways of spending that money, and doing politics, differently. And it needs to rediscover its confidence in the idea of active government.
On the first point, the Budget makes a good start. According to figures released by Victoria University and economic consultants NZIER, public spending under National had slowly been squeezed from the
$16,500 per person per year in
2008-09 to $15,600 in 2016-17, albeit with an uptick in its last Budget.
It’s no wonder some public services were creaking under the pressure, and Robertson has partially addressed that. Overall spending is up to $16,400 per person. Most notably, an extra
$3.2 billion a year for health will make a big diference. There’s more money for housing, too, and – on a much smaller scale – for conservation, at-risk families and labour inspectors.
But even so, plenty of reasonable demands for funding are not being met. While an extra 7000 state houses sounds good, the waiting list is already at 8000 and growing. Hardpressed mental health services could surely have received a bigger injection. And although its cost of borrowing is low by historical standards, the Government is not investing big in infrastructure.
It has been constrained in part by its Budget Responsibility Rules, which require it to keep spending to around 30 per cent of GDP and cut debt to less than 20 per cent of GDP. There is no objective need for these targets.
In the long term it belies a lack of confidence.
In a country with higher trust in government, parties wouldn’t have to pledge to keep spending so low to win power. So the Government’s vision, which ultimately relies on its doing more, is likely to be frustrated unless it can change those fundamental attitudes.
But then to deserve greater trust, it also has to show it can innovate. To meet modern expectations, solve new problems and ward off the darker forms of populism, governments will need to be much more profoundly responsive to the public.
That will involve engaging the public in deeper discussion and devolving power as much as possible to citizens. It will also involve finding new ways to deliver public services and embracing new forms of active government.
Yet there are few signs of that. The health sector is getting more money – but will it use the funds to transform delivery methods, work more closely with communities, and make the big shift to preventive health care? Not on the face of it.
We also need to be rebuilding our democratic infrastructure. Just like hospitals and roads, the institutions of our democracy – the ways we share information, discuss public issues and allocate power – must be invested in. But the Budget does not take us there.
No government can do everything at once, and this one at least has ambition. But to match action to vision, it will need more radicalism than it has shown so far.