Monday 13 November 2017

Democratic Engineers, Or Neoliberal Mechanics?

Storming The "Engine Room" of Government: As the product of a “top-down” economic and social revolution, New Zealand Neoliberalism – far from needing to rein-in the powers of the civil-service mandarinate – was determined to re-fashion the state bureaucracy in such a way that it would be able to resist any and all attempts by elected politicians – and their parties – to dismantle the neoliberal machinery of "governance".

“THEY’RE THE ENGINE ROOM where ministerial decisions are put through the mill by officials.” In that single sentence, the very worst aspects of neoliberalism are laid bare. It’s author, political journalist Stacey Kirk, like so many of her generation, have been taught to regard politicians as, at best, necessary evils. Accordingly, Cabinet Committees – the “engine rooms” of government – are held up as the necessary correctives to poorly conceived “ministerial decisions”. Places where the ideas of elected politicians get knocked into a shape acceptable to their unelected “officials” – New Zealand’s only trustworthy wielders of political power.

Kirk’s story, inspired by Opposition criticism of the new government’s apparent willingness to be guided by – and act on – its own advice, plays directly to the crucial neoliberal concept of “governance”. At its core, governance represents the idea that the policies of both local and national government, if they are to meet the fundamental test of effective and efficient public administration, must be professionally crafted and implemented. By this reckoning, the ill-informed amateurism of elected politicians poses a constant threat to the delivery of “good” governance. Which is why “officials” putting “ministerial decisions” through “the mill” is presented not as an affront to democracy, but a very good idea.

Essentially, Kirk ranges herself alongside the Sir Humphrey Appleby character from the celebrated British television series, Yes Minister. Sir Humphrey represents the haughty mandarinate of the Civil Service: the ones who regard themselves as the guardians of the State’s permanent interests. Ever on the alert against the obsessions and enthusiasms of reforming politicians, Sir Humphrey and his colleagues are constantly manoeuvring to thwart the pet projects of their ministers.

In its day, Yes Minister was conceived of – and certainly became – a primer for the “free market” reforms of Margaret Thatcher. The senior civil service of 1980s Britain was depicted as dangerously protective of the fast-decaying post-World War II Keynesian settlement. Yes Minister’s key message was, therefore, that the British people needed to elect ideologically-driven politicians who knew their own minds, and could not be swayed by the blandishments of Machiavellian bureaucrats like Sir Humphrey.

In the case of New Zealand, however, the neoliberal revolution was not carried through by ideologically-driven politicians (as happened in the UK and the USA) but by ideologically-driven bureaucrats in the New Zealand Treasury and, to a lesser extent, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand. It was these civil servants who radicalised the political leadership of the Labour Party and placed in the hands of David Lange’s government the carefully prepared economic reform package that would later become known as “Rogernomics”. (The book-sized briefing document, dubbed ‘Economic Management’, can still be found on the shelves of your local public library.)

As the product of a “top-down” economic and social revolution, New Zealand Neoliberalism – far from needing to rein-in the powers of the civil-service mandarinate – was determined to re-fashion the state bureaucracy in such a way that it would be able to resist any and all attempts by elected politicians – and their parties – to dismantle the neoliberal system.

In this regard, the concept of “governance” was crucial. Policy had to become the more-or-less exclusive province of highly-trained professionals. Men and women, thoroughly schooled in the neoliberal ideology, who could intercept and demolish any attempt by politicians – especially those of the Left – to advance an alternative economic and social agenda.

In effect, the whole idea of a democratically-elected government, empowered by the electorate to implement its party’s – or parties’ – manifesto/s, is presented as a dangerous threat to the effective and efficient management of public affairs. Lip-service has to be paid to democratic principles, of course, but all governance-oriented politicians understand that Steve Maharey’s infamous formula: “That’s just the sort of thing you say in Opposition, and then forget about in Government”, continues to describe the true condition of our democracy.

None of which should be construed as an argument for doing away with the civil service. Highly-educated and experienced civil servants will always be needed to provide the policies of elected politicians with effective and efficient delivery mechanisms. Free and frank advice to ministers will always constitute a vital aspect of testing and refining policy ideas. What is most definitely not needed, however, is a civil service comprised of neoliberal cadres: bureaucrats who are, first and foremost, loyal to an ideological system which is absolutely antithetical to the whole notion of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” New Zealand urgently needs to get rid of this neoliberal priesthood.

Rather than question Jacinda Ardern’s government for spending too little time in the “engine rooms”, Stacey Kirk should, perhaps, cast a critical eye over the legislative mechanisms which preserve the neoliberal ascendancy in New Zealand’s civil service. The State Sector Act, the Public Finance Act and the Reserve Bank Act: all provide the statutory obstacles that render effective, politician-led change so exceedingly difficult in this country.

If our new Cabinet Ministers are working independently of their “officials”, then that is not, automatically, a bad thing. On the contrary, in a democracy: the spectacle of officials working for politicians, who are, in their turn, working for the people; offers welcome proof that the system is working exactly as it should!

Surely, the “engine room” of any government is the place where the policies promised to the people by their elected leaders are connected to the machinery of the state by its loyal civil servants – and set in motion.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 11 November 2017.


peteswriteplace said...

So we have to reform democracy and governance? So lets do this!

Suet said...

I recall joining a major govt dept and on the first day being 'sized up' by ordinary and senior collegues. Usually by asking me of my 'position' on a matter.

Essentually to find out if I was one of them.

As it happened I wasn't a neo liberal lunatic.

Over time my life at work became very very very difficult in a range of ways.

And they got what they wanted - me out of the picture.

Polly. said...

Chris, well done by your piece,
this crowd are neither Democratic Engineers, nor Neoliberal Mechanics they are simply a mess of crap and unless the real left, those who care for a vibrant and successful society come to the fore, then we will be singing for our supper for bread alone.
At least the Right offers bread and water.

Jack Scrivano said...

Although I grew up in a farming family, both the paternal and maternal sides of my family were very involved in the military. One grandfather was a decorated cavalryman in Egypt, at Gallipoli, and in Palestine; the other was decorated for his efforts at The Battle of Jutland.

Both of my parents spent time in the Royal Navy – my father as a pilot, my mother as a chef. Both were Petty Officers. And four of my mother’s brothers were Warrant Officers (First Class). (One was an RSM who took a field commission and went on to retire as a half colonel.)

When I was about ten or so, my half-colonel uncle arranged for me and a couple of my schoolmates to interview a recently-retired General for a school project. To get the conversation going, I said something about how it must be a great honour to run the Army.

‘Oh, gosh no,’ the General said. ‘The Warrant Officers run the Army. And the Navy. And the Air Force. We’re more like politicians.’

countryboy said...

I’m speaking as, and for, the common man/woman. I’m common. I’m common as brushed polyester. I’m more common than mud on a boot. I’m common as a manual gear box on a Toyota Starlet. The one with the wind up windows.
Neoliberalism is to me a polite word to describe an impolite cadre of swine, no disrespect to actual, and one would hope free range, swine.
‘Neoliberalism’ is a way to describe criminals being criminals.
If someone punches you in the mouth and knocks out a tooth? Do you call them a dentist? If someone kicks you up the arse? Is that person then a proctologist?
Neoliberalism is the reverse of that logic, yet, isn’t...
Kiwi-As Criminals have labelled themselves ‘neoliberals’ to avoid any uncomfortable questions from those who, instead, sit and wait for you and me to speed by in a vehicle designed to speed with. Otherwise...? Horse. Cart.
While the real crooks steal from us, thus making us feel a bit shit, then we take it out on each other while the cops are all “ I dunno... I really dunno...? “
Let me put it another way.
What’s a ‘law’? A ‘law’ is a thing written by an ‘expert’ expressing what might seem like a good idea. A political consensus is needed, usually, to place that written thing into ‘law’ then we must all adhere to [it] or else.
Our Kiwi-As criminals tumbled on to a great scam and simply wrote up a bunch of stuff, called them ‘laws’ and then we acquiesced because laws, then waved goodbye to our stuff and things without so much as a “Wait a fucking minute! ? “
It’s entirely typical, and expected, to have our politicians bury their true intentions under layer upon layer of bullshit. I.E. ‘Laws’.
You do know? That the ONLY way we can rescue ourselves from the warped and criminalistic head-fuck that is ‘ neoliberalism’ is to find the perps and, by their own logic, go all dentist and proctologist on them.
The deviancy of the well educated criminal class got us into this and the might of the Masses is the only thing that can get us out of it.
Engage the masses... That’s the answer. But God help you if you try.

Alan Ivory said...

I think this the PDF version of Economic Management referred to by you in your post:-

BlisteringAttack said...

The real danger and power is not visible audible politicians.

But invisible silent bureaucrats working in darkness - unelected.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Roger Douglas and Jim Bolger set the precedent if my memory serves, of getting advice from outside the civil service, though I may be wrong as I didn't take a huge amount of interest in politics before them. If they can't make the Treasury more representative, perhaps they could just go to outside agencies. The advice they get from civil servants is meant to be free and frank – yet honest. I've no doubt that some of the civil servants honestly believe their own advice, but I suspect it's a belief that comes from ideology rather than actual research. Mind you, what minister hasn't said "I want to do so and so – find me some research that supports it." That attitude should be rooted out as well.

Nick J said...

It is rather depressing to watch successive governments fail to lead. Legislation results from leadership; leaders take us toward the known, great leaders toward the possible. That means having the bravery to take charge and overturn / replace legislation, and as ministers to demand adherence. With the Public Service the vast majority are unversed in dogma. The dogmatic can be identified and subdued. The best method is the Admiral Byng principle. Shoot one very publicly on their own quarterdeck to "encourage the others."

sumsuch said...

Countryboy, so glad to see you away from the dairy-cow turds. Poesy is truier.

The friends of the rich have changed us in their 30 years. Venom and force is needed. And immense unafraid understanding, instead of playing the game. Can't see it in any parts of this govt but hope for the whole (strangely).

sumsuch said...

Venom, I think, must always be deeply subjective, born in the muck of birth. Nothing to do with reason, which otherwise is the firm support of the people's point of view. Gunpowder. Most of the 35ists had it. The side-effect: the ludicrous level of batty beliefs among socialists observed by Orwell. Objective reason and subjective explosion is where we have it over the pure subjectivists who are trying to take over the absolute perspective of reality from the, very, fertile lea of 70 years of comfort.