Saturday 20 April 2024

The Folly Of Impermanence.

You talking about me?  The neoliberal denigration of the past was nowhere more unrelenting than in its depiction of the public service. The Post Office and the Railways were held up as being both irremediably inefficient and scandalously over-manned. Playwright Roger Hall’s “Glide Time” caricatures were presented as accurate depictions of a public service that contributed nothing useful or worthwhile to the nation.

THE ABSENCE of anything resembling a fightback from the public servants currently losing their jobs is interesting. State-sector workers’ collective fatalism in the face of Coalition cutbacks indicates a surprisingly broad acceptance of impermanence in the workplace. Fifty years ago, lay-offs in the thousands would have engendered a much more aggressive response from the state-sector unions. The bonds of solidarity were a lot stronger then than they are now.

So, too, was the idea that public servants should not be laid-off in the same way as private sector workers. Offering workers in the state-sector a job for life was seen as critical to preserving both the Public Service’s effectiveness, and its integrity. It was also a way of paying workers in the state sector wages and salaries well below the “going rate” in the private sector. The state’s guarantee of permanence – job security – was an important part of retaining its workers’ loyalty, and preserving their bureaucratic efficiency.

Even in the depths of the Great Depression, it was considered more prudent to apply an across-the-board reduction in public servants’ wages and salaries than it was to engage in mass lay-offs. When the right-wing Coalition Government of 1932 announced a 10 percent cut in Postal and Telegraph workers’ wages, their protest meeting in the Auckland Town Hall, from which the unemployed were excluded (the venue being full-to-overflowing) became the catalyst for the Queen Street Riot that shook conservative Auckland to its core.

How many of today’s public servants are aware of their own history? Judging by their reaction to the loss of so many of their colleagues’ jobs – not many. A more likely proposition is that a clear majority of them would regard the idea of a job for life as just another of those absurd practices condoned by the protectionist regimes swept away by the reforming governments of the 1980s and 90s. For younger workers, in particular, impermanence of employment is a fact of life: a reflection of the economic “rationalism” to which all employees are subject; including public servants.

This tearing away of citizens from their nation’s past is the most important confirmation of the neoliberal ideology’s cult-like practices. Among the very first things that a cult seeks to do is engineer a complete break with the individual follower’s past. More than that, the cult leaders will go to extraordinary lengths to characterise everything that has come before as evil and destructive. The follower’s old reality is blamed for everything that has gone wrong with their lives; it has no redeeming features; and must be abandoned completely.

Anyone old enough to recall the transition from New Zealand’s formerly social-democratic society, to the market-driven neoliberal society ushered in by Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson, will also remember the way in which everything that came before 1984 was cast in the worst possible light.

This neoliberal denigration of the past was nowhere more unrelenting than in its depiction of the public service. The Post Office and the Railways were held up as being both irremediably inefficient and scandalously over-manned. Playwright Roger Hall’s “Glide Time” endearing caricatures were presented as accurate depictions of a public service that contributed nothing useful or worthwhile to the nation.

This invalidation of New Zealand’s past, operating relentlessly for forty years, has come at the price of growing cultural discontinuity. In the words of the distinguished American sociologist, Daniel Bell:

Today, each new generation, starting off at the benchmarks attained by the adversary culture of its cultural parents, declares in sweeping fashion that the status quo represents backward conservatism or repression, so that, in a widening gyre, new and fresh assaults on the social structure are mounted.

Compounding the culturally disintegrative effects of neoliberalism’s hatred of history, has been the parallel growth of the universities’ disparagement of Western culture in general. The extraordinary achievements of Western art, science, and politics have been reconfigured as expressions of White Supremacy. In a cultural pincer movement of remarkable social malignancy, the young Westerners of the early Twenty-First Century find themselves prevented from drawing anything but shame from the past, while moving into a future belonging to everyone but themselves.

The historical contrast presented by the current bureaucratic milieu, and that of the culture enveloping the public servants of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries is stark. Drawing immense pride from their past, and comfortable in the cultural certainties of their present, they confronted the future of their country with enviable confidence. Christian or atheist, New Zealand’s public servants’ determination to bring “God’s Own Country” ever closer to its maker was manifested in the impressive cultural, social and physical infrastructure they bequeathed to future generations. Built to serve generations its creators would never meet, “Old” New Zealand’s infrastructure proved strong enough to withstand every challenge – except neoliberal hostility and neglect.

It is possible that the quietude of the 2024 Public Service: it’s apparent willingness to mount the scaffold without protest; is explicable not only in terms of its incapacity to draw strength from New Zealand’s past, but also on account of its lamentable failure to make the slightest impact on its present. Could it be persuaded that the charges levelled against public servants by the Coalition Government (and plenty of other New Zealanders besides!) are justified? Is the Public Service pleading “Guilty, as charged”.

After all, those public servants who had been given jobs for life seemed remarkably proficient at getting things done. They created an industrial relations system, an education system, a health system, and an accident compensation system, that ranked among the world’s finest. It designed and helped to construct a national network of roads and railways, as well as a hydro-electric power grid that allowed New Zealand to become a modern economy.

The public servants who rejected the very idea of jobs for life have very little to show for their market-inspired governance. Industrial relations in New Zealand would make America’s Nineteenth Century Robber Barons blush. Education and Health, post-1984, have steadily declined to their present parlous states. New Zealand’s rail network is a joke, and its roads are an obstacle course of potholes and plastic cones. The previous government, briefly seized by the future focus of its Labour predecessors, could not rely upon public servants to get its “transformative” plans off the ground. Labour’s successors – National, Act and NZ First – seem content to leave New Zealand’s future to their private-sector mates.

Impermanence, it would seem, is a guarantee of very little else but failure, and the inability to even envisage success. Denigrating the past has proved to be the most effective way of ensuring that the future never moves beyond the failures of the present. Disinheriting the owners of a culture, while demonising its creators, merely confirms Bell’s insight (following W. B. Yeats) that “in the widening gyre”, where “the falcon cannot hear the falconer”, the future will, indeed, belong to one “rough beast” after another.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 15 April 2024.


BlisteringAttack said...

I worked for about 5 years in the public sector.

And observed low talent, low energy types mainly walking around aimlessly in circles.

And if you asked any of these types what value they were delivering to the tax-payer, you would be met with a mute blank stare.


Archduke Piccolo said...

As a state sector bureaucrat about 35 or so years back getting into conversation with the boss of a private sector outfit in a forestry line of business. This was during the early stages of the Fourth Labour administration, and before the Roger Douglas 'reforms' set in. This guy mentioned to me his gratitude towards the State Sector. Why? Because it trained his people. The State Sector trained his people before they became his people.

That State Sector funded building of expertise fed into the private sector at little discernable cost to the private sector. This disappeared with the dismemberment of the Ministries of Forestry, Works and Development, and, if memory serves, Agriculture and Fisheries. Meanwhile the privatisation of the Post office Savings Bank and Government Life unloaded upon the private sector a whole swodge of clients that the private sector didn't really want. The like of Douglas and his acolytes not only have absolute no idea why the POSB and GL Insurance were brought into being, let alone the possibility that not enough had changed to make their clientele attractive to private sector banks and insurance companies. And of course, the banks (can't say much about the insurance companies) gouged their customer cruelly.

As did the bank that took over the Housing Corporation's home buying clientele. Absent a State Sector organisation like the old Housing Corp, any government housing assistance that purport to help home buyers, actually helps the sellers.

And let us not forget the fate of NZ Rail and Telecom. Flogged off to oversea interests, Telecom exploited its monopoly position (to which it clung like a leech for even longer than it decently could) and gouged its captive market for years, and invested almost nothing to modernise the network. And of course, the owners of NZR milked the asset so unmercifully, the government had to buy it back.

... And does anyone recall how much the NZ Government had to pay, in effect, that New Zealand Steel get taken off its hands?

Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson butchered this country, and it has been bleeding to death pretty much ever since. The Trades Union and the State Sector Service Organisations betrayed their paying members into the hands of the corporates. 'We're here to preserve jobs,' they said - and couldn't even achieve that pusillanimous objective. Does anyone know what happened to John Key's programme to 'catch up with Australia'?

Ion A. Dowman

The Barron said...

This is not a government that believes in either service or civil society. It is hardly surprising that it has an objective in the destruction of the civil service.

Liz Truss has said "the problem for me was there were no experts on our side". This was as a criticism of the civil service.

Call me old fashioned, but surely what a government should do is look what service delivery is needed for a decent society, examine what is required to expand that society and to meet future needs, and what should be available and used to draw the potential of those within the society. It is at that point you look at current resources and give direction to the civil service. Until then, there is no argument for what capacity we should have.

If you take the Thatcherite position that there is no such thing as society, the dismantle of state delivery suits a dogma without the need for data. We should remember that Luxon went to a right-wing coven in London July 2022 (called NZ business 'soft'), where he accepted the same advice that allowed Truss to crash the UK economy within 49 days, which should have been the death throes of the Thatcher economic ideology only to have the long debunked theories quickly resurface with this government in NZ.

A civil society requires a civil service for service delivery. The fact that repeated ministers have misused and misguided the state sector is no reason for the attack upon it. The state sector is answerable, and despite the attacks, ethical. The consultants that will follow will just be a corporate money grab.

David George said...

"The absence of anything resembling a fightback from the public servants currently losing their jobs is interesting"

Perhaps they have a guilty conscience?

Despite your nostalgic fondness for the public service, Chris, the current lot do seem very wasteful and inefficient and in thrall to Maori wonderfulness and gender woo-woo. Spending less time with the waiatas and trying to figure out their pronouns for the day would be good.

David George said...

Sorry, not sorry, Chris. This is the sort of BS we are paying for: Have 308 People in the Education Ministry's Curriculum Development Team spent over $100m on a 60 page document of nothingness?

"As for the document called The NZ Curriculum, it contains the flimsiest, shallowest, lightest-of-weight 60 pages of silly blurbs & patronizing cliches, mostly contained in bullet points, mixed with general waffle, with just 30 pages dedicated to specific subject-directed aims. Even those are full of comical lines like, "Key Competencies - Thinking, Managing Self ..". The entire shambles is introduced with the line, "It is my pleasure to introduce this revision of the NZ Curriculum" by the Secretary of Education. But when you have finished reading it, you are left wondering, "So where is the NZ Curriculum? Did I miss something?".

CXH said...

Perhaps the answer is rather simple. Those public servants that are good at their jobs and deliver as expected are not guilty, they are embarrassed. They know that their ballooning numbers have do nothing to improve delivery. That much of the increase is soil between external spin to cover failures, plus an internal police service to root out and remove those without the correct groupthink.

Why would the good ones try and stop the culling? Although we may find it is all the good ones that are sent packing and the self-important dross get to stay.

LittleKeith said...

There more than a few issues going on here, but it may be that a once apolitical professional career in the public service has long gone. Those skills gone. That neutrality gone.

It's been replaced by a very politicised ideological generation of public servants who see doing a powhiri to start a meeting more important than the meetings topic on something life and death as a child's welfare or whatever theyare really there for.

Labour had plenty of like minded allies in the bureaucracy so I'd be loathed to blame them fir non delivery of Labour's transformational aspirations, because when given an impossible sum to add then balance, such was the barely, if not ill thought out never ending policy announcements that confronted them, what could they really do with it?

Think Michael Wood's horrendously grandiose bottomless pit of money - single route light rail system in Auckland. Think mental health. Think Wood's bike bridge. Think Te Whatu Ora. Think 3 Waters. Think Road to Zero.

Labour on the other hand were transforming plenty with hidden co-governance seeping into our endangered democracy at every level. Public servants did exactly as instructed with the jail emptying policy that created a new justice policy, the police with Labour's hand appointed commissioner went full woke until crime hit the afterburners and yet still wouldn't do their jobs properly,  likewise for Kainga Ora's no eviction abomination, the no responsibility welfare system,  knee capping immigration staff ability to enforce laws parliament set and bringing the Treaty into every job application for the public service and government contract, no matter how stupid. They did as they were told.

"Transformation", as it turned out, was a disaster on so many levels, with practicality everything it touched! A bloated Ministry of Education saw education standards go backwards!  Waka Kotahi lowering speed limits whilst simultaneously not maintaining roads saw the road toll rise. Those contradictory outcomes are typical and delivered, as requested,  by our public service, renamed in Te Reo, of course.

Which comes back to the cuts. Many positions I've seen revolved around diversity, the Treaty and other woke ideological causes, none of which did anything positive for delivery of services or reason for being. And as the new government found out, loose cannon opinionated CEO's and sneaky public servants leaking cabinet papers to a paid off media have undermined the public service. I'm picking Willis wants the public service cut, not because it's going to do much for the economy in pure dollar terms,  rather it's become the antipathy of a neutral public service that is just a blatant waste of money hindering New Zealand's prospects.

new view said...

There is a lot to pick apart here Chris. I suspect there are others like myself reading your essay, old enough to give their opinion on the time period of the fifties through to the eighties, and all will see it a little differently than you.
Your vision of the state being the secure anchor that gave us security culture and jobs has it's truth. Blue collar workers for the most part got work and long time employment on the roads railways, wharfs and health departments. The state looked after you on the condition you kept out of trouble and did as you were told. There was little crime because of high employment for long periods, and also the social stigma of venturing outside the law. What caused the neoliberal change was not Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. They filled the vacuum. The fact was, we were failing to compete in the real world. NZ had been totally reliant on sheep meat and wool. Britain had paid us well for our produce but were now pulling the plug. Anything we manufactured here couldn't compete with cheaper more efficiently produced goods from overseas. On the other side of the coin Our State run enterprises had become bloated wasteful and inefficient. It was the perfect storm. You might argue that an inefficiently run state machine that employs the masses and holds the fabric of our society together, is preferable to the social disengagement we have now. You would be right if we could afford it, but can we.
The other huge influence has been the complete liberalisation of our lives in work, economics and play, by the internet. Whether you are rich or poor you still have a mobile phone. The good side is the ability to do business and have digital social contact. The bad side is our social disintegration through social media, hell why meet and talk to our friends and relatives when we can just TxT them. The loss of the good parts of Big State has to seen in context. NZ is hanging on in this world economically by it's fingernails. We need money and lots of it to retain the lifestyle we think we deserve. Big cuddly State works if there is plenty of money to sustain it. The last government wanted big state but were clueless as to administer it and pay for it. Big State seems to work better in large countries with large populations and large pockets. Even in those countries like China and Russia it's capitalism that has and is leading their progress. Other Scandinavian countries have good living standards high employment and social policies because they, unlike us, are prepared to use their resources. If you want a Big State you have to earn it and pay for it.

Sam said...

I worked for the Post Office for a couple of years in the 60s and they seemed to be a pretty dedicated group. I believe we lost a massive amount in the 1984 restructuring.

Tom Hunter said...

Playwright Roger Hall’s “Glide Time” endearing caricatures were presented as accurate depictions of a public service that contributed nothing useful or worthwhile to the nation.

I'm glad your photo is of "Jim", because it is he at the end of the play who gives a resigned, mournful, but impassioned monologue about how when he joined the Public Service during the Slump he was grateful for the job, did it diligently, they all felt they were contributing something to the nation and the public appreciated what they did - compared to "now" where the younger ones who've joined don't seem to care about their jobs, work as little as possible, achieve nothing beyond shuffling paper, and the public despises them (the last is what hurts Jim the most).

And that's important because...

This neoliberal denigration of the past was nowhere more unrelenting than in its depiction of the public service. The Post Office and the Railways were held up as being both irremediably inefficient and scandalously over-manned.

The play was written in 1976 and set in 1975 and I don't recall any "neo-liberal" ideology even as an undercurrent. And the PO and Railways were overmanned and not very good (esp the latter), plus many other parts of the government that hadn't changed in thirty years.

Sure the mindset that underpinned Rogernomics was obvious but in the mid-1970's that was just ordinary common sense applied to the bureaucracy and annoyance that the bureaucracy didn't seem to care - and the play captured that feeling, which is why it was such a hit.

And that was the Boomers and the previous generation. My lot, Gen-X, was even harsher. The thought of joining the Public Service and its permanent employment was not viewed with Jim's sense of thankfulness but actually with horror. As just one example, a couple of management students I knew in the late 1980's got summer jobs with Railways, who were always looking for bright young things, and returned at start of the varsity year spitting tacks about how useless and awful the place was and how they'd slash their wrists rather than work there.

This tearing away of citizens from their nation’s past is the most important confirmation of the neoliberal ideology’s cult-like practices.
As a Righty who thus supported Rogernomics I'll stick my hand up and accept that side of tearing us away from our nation's past.

But all the rest of that tearing history asunder, across the area of our culture? That's all on you of the Left, of whatever shade. And you're still at it.

When the right-wing Coalition Government of 1932 announced a 10 percent cut in Postal and Telegraph workers’ wages, their protest meeting in the Auckland Town Hall... became the catalyst for the Queen Street Riot that shook conservative Auckland to its core.

Funny but true story which seems very appropriate here. In 1984 Glide Time was revived for a nation-wide tour with the original cast, and I saw it with a date in Auckland. As the play progressed we could hear what sounded like thundering feet and occasional shouts from outside but ignored it. However, at the end of the show a man came back on stage to tell us we needed to use different exits to leave and to be careful outside. I got back to my flat to find my Dad had been calling during the evening (no cellphones and not even an answering machine) as he watched the mayhem live on TV.

It was, as you must have guessed by now, the night of the 1984 Queen Street riots, and since it happened before the neo-liberal reforms had really hit home (mainly just financial de-regulation to that point), it was clear that they arose more from the society bequeathed to us by my parent's generation, including Muldoon.

Anonymous said...

Same. And I was one of those low talent, low energy types. Luckily I made the move to the private sector and became much more productive, and doing more for the country than I was when I was nominally serving it.

Jonzie said...

Back then, how many of our public employees were actual public servants and workers and how many were highly contracted Consultants and Professional Managerial Class leeches? That might give us a few clews...? Back then, did one study a political science or psychology masters degree with the prospect of being a highly paid state employee, as opposed to serving the public?

adam said...

Nice piece Chris

Reminded me Neo-liberalism has it's roots in Marxist Leninism as well as harder right thinking. It's like all the ideological shit fuckery of the 19th century banged and got us this truly awful mollycoddled mess.The evil mutant of laziness and waste.

My problem with the civil service as it stands are quite specific - disability:. The way they treat staff with disabilities. The way they treat taxpayers with disabilities. The total disrespect for the people, their children and our ancestors.

Mark Simpson said...

Prior to Rogernomics, I lived in a small, isolated Hawkes Bay town which had a large, thriving tomato growing glasshouse business started by a Dutchman who came to NZ in 1952 with nothing. He used the New Zealand Railways to get his produce to the Napier markets. However, he had to abandon NZR because the train would stop at pokey little stations wherein boxes of tomatoes would be pilfered out of the wagons. Eventually, he trucked the boxes himself daily to Napier - two hours there; two hours back.
Each year, we would be told how many millions of pounds/dollars the railways lost and had to be subsidised by the taxpayers. Such inefficiencies were the norm and I celebrated Rogernomics as the way forward to make our country more efficient and prosperous.
IT NEVER HAPPENED. Pre and post Rogernomics were/are failures. We seem to be living in an economic and social miasma which no-one, least of all, any political party, has the answers.