Think Big Data: In many ways Muldoon’s Think Big and Bill English’s Social Investment policies are alike. Both feature ideas more associated with the left than the right, and both, if sensibly implemented, could be of immense benefit to New Zealand. Unfortunately for Muldoon and, almost certainly, for English, the essentially left-wing character of the programmes they are advocating makes it practically impossible for the National Party to implement them in a sensible fashion.
“SOCIAL INVESTMENT”, as promoted by Prime Minister, Bill English, is one of those policies that can make or break political parties. “Social Security”, for example, was the policy principally responsible for lifting the Labour Party’s share of the popular vote from 46.1 percent in 1935 to 55.8 percent in 1938. The “Cradle to Grave” welfare state it established kept Labour in office until 1949 and remained the foundation of New Zealand social policy for the next 50 years.
By contrast, National’s “Think Big” economic development programme of the late-1970s and early-1980s, very rapidly turned into an albatross around the neck of Rob Muldoon’s government. By the mid-1980s, the very expression, “Think Big”, had become political shorthand for the unwisdom of large-scale state intervention.
It was in the context of Muldoon’s increasingly costly and strike-plagued Think Big projects that the Leader of the Labour Opposition, David Lange, delivered his devastating put-down: “You can’t run a country like a Polish shipyard!”
With the benefit of hindsight, however, Muldoon’s alleged political folly looks more and more like economic and environmental prescience. Conceived as a means of escaping New Zealand’s dependence on foreign oil (which had skyrocketed in price during the 1970s) and of substituting domestically produced agricultural and industrial inputs (such as electricity, fertiliser and steel) to improve New Zealand’s precarious balance of payments, Think Big bore a startling resemblance to the industrial development programme pitched to Walter Nash’s Labour Party in the late-1950s by the left-wing New Zealand economist, W.B. Sutch.
The electrification of the North Island main trunk railway line, for example, was one of Muldoon’s Think Big projects. Had it been completed we would not now be witnessing the environmentally retrograde replacement of KiwiRail’s fleet of electric locomotives with carbon-dioxide-belching diesels. Indeed, a mischievous commentator might predict that if the Greens ever come up with a comprehensive industrial development programme, it will look more than a little like Think Big!
In many ways Muldoon’s Think Big and Bill English’s Social Investment policies are alike. Both feature ideas more associated with the left than the right, and both, if sensibly implemented, could be of immense benefit to New Zealand. Unfortunately for Muldoon and, almost certainly, for English, the essentially left-wing character of the programmes they are advocating makes it practically impossible for the National Party to implement them in a sensible fashion.
One of the reasons Think Big became such a gift to National’s opponents was the Economic Development Minister, Bill Birch’s, unwillingness to assign the job of building the energy and industrial projects solely to the New Zealand State. Rather than expand the public sector’s capacity, Birch entered into a succession of largely secret contract negotiations with an assortment of multinational construction firms. Not only did this substantially increase the projects’ costs, but it supplied the Government’s opponents with a smorgasbord of extremely tasty political meals.
English’s Social Investment policy will very likely suffer the same fate as Think Big.
On its face, the idea of using the government’s dramatically improved capacity to gather and cross-match critical data streams from the Social Development, Vulnerable Children, Justice, Corrections, Health and Education ministries, in order to improve the targeting of public services to those individuals and families most in need, is a good one. If additional resources and assistance can be channelled to these vulnerable citizens before they become the state’s permanent, eye-wateringly expensive and essentially intractable “clients”, then Bill English’s claim that Social Investment, introduced now, will save the taxpayers billions of dollars, later, is entirely justified.
English’s problem is that the implementation of Social Investment policies will require a substantial increase in spending on the people National most loves to hate: the poor, the brown, and the “welfare-dependent” working-class. The only way English will be able to “sell” his Social Investment policy to the National caucus, therefore, is by showering resources on the tiny number of people fingered by the State’s data-crunching algorithms, while simultaneously reducing assistance to all the other beneficiaries on its books.
English’s problem is Labour’s problem, too. Ever since David Shearer waxed eloquent about his (apparently apocryphal) “beneficiary on the roof”, it’s been clear that most Labour MPs are extremely wary of identifying their party too closely with the despised “underclass”. So, rather than embracing the principles of Social Investment, Andrew Little and his colleagues, like the Lange-led Labour Party, will focus public attention on the inevitable stuff-ups associated with the application of the prime minister’s pet project.
Social Investment: a policy offering potentially huge improvements in the delivery and effectiveness of social services; will thus go the way of Think Big. A good idea undermined by the ideological hostility of those responsible for its implementation and politically demonised by a Labour Opposition much more interested in breaking the right than in making its policies work.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 17 January 2017.