Saturday, 28 February 2009

Cheerleading the cuts

The Government is cutting civil service jobs - and John Armstrong doesn't seem to care.

John Armstrong’s political column in today’s NZ Herald makes for depressing reading. Not simply on account of the grim news it contains for this country’s civil servants, but because of the way Armstrong conveys it.

The whole column positively vibrates with the writer’s barely suppressed disdain for the civil service. The Government’s retrenchment plans are assessed quite uncritically by Armstrong, who is clearly working from the assumption that National’s characterisation of the "problem", as well as its preferred "solution", are both indisputable.

There is an almost gleeful quality to Armstrong’s reporting of the sneaky way the Government is going about putting his fellow New Zealanders out of work. This utter lack of sympathy is, of course, assisted by his constant objectification (or is it demonisation?) of civil servants as "bureaucrats".

Nowhere in his piece does Armstrong question the accuracy of the Government’s rhetorical division of the civil service into heroic "front-line" deliverers, dispensing much needed public services, and evil "back-room" bureaucrats, apparently hell-bent flushing taxpayer dollars down the toilet.

After decades of down-sizing and cost-cutting, is it really credible to suggest that the State Service chiefs are happy to acquiesce in this wanton waste of scarce public resources? Isn’t it more credible to suggest that the real drain on public resources has been from government departments and ministries into the pockets of private contractors? Wasn’t that what lay behind the Labour-led Government’s decision to expand the capacity of the core civil service in the first place? To staunch the outflow of funds from the public to the private sector?

None of these questions are examined by Armstrong. Instead he praises the State Services Minister, Tony Ryall, for sacking Richard Thompson from the Chair of the Otago District Health Board.

This was quite despicable journalism. I have known Thompson for many years, and a more honest and upright individual you would go a long way to find. Ryall’s decision to sack Thompson was made in the face of the latter’s strenuous – and successful – efforts to bring the perpetrators of the $17 million fraud against the Otago DHB to justice. Even Thompson’s hand-picked successor has publicly admitted that, faced with the same set of circumstances as Thompson, he would have behaved in exactly the same way. The alternative explanation for Ryall’s decision to sack Thompson – that the Minister was determined to remove a highly effective and popular Labour Party member from one of Dunedin’s most important public posts – was not even mentioned in Armstrong’s article.

This sort of journalism: uncritical, intellectually lazy, and morally inert; is what undermines the public’s faith in the Fourth Estate. John Armstrong used to be (and I’m pretty sure still is) a much better political journalist than this latest piece (and a distressingly large percentage of his more recent writing) would suggest.

Here’s hoping that the old John Armstrong makes a hasty return to duty.

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