A Govt that’s found only half its mojo

The Press - - Opinion -

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.

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