Tuesday 4 June 2019

Who Is The Best Judge Of The People’s “Wellbeing”?

Happiness Relocated: The revelation that the model, and her young daughter, whose smiling faces adorned the cover of Grant Robertson's "Wellbeing Budget" had departed New Zealand in search of a better life on Australia's Gold Coast, provided a powerful symbol of the disconnect between the  experts' top-down approach to wellbeing, and the practical judgements of real people, on the ground, about their wellbeing - or the lack of it.

“THE WELLBEING BUDGET.” What a fantastic public relations confection this year’s budgeting exercise has turned out to be! Who could possibly raise a reasonable objection to the idea of gearing all the Government’s revenue-gathering and spending efforts towards securing the “wellbeing” of the New Zealand people?

Not Simon Bridges, that’s for sure. The Opposition’s case seems to rest on the assertion that they thought of it first. That “wellbeing” is just another name for former National Party leader Bill English’s programme of “social investment”.

And that’s a worry. Because the thinking behind both the “Wellbeing Budget”, as well as English’s “social investment” programme, runs counter to the most fundamental tenet of parliamentary democracy. Namely: that before money can be appropriated from the people in the form of taxes, their consent must first be obtained; and that such consent must be renewed annually, on the people’s behalf, by their freely elected representatives.

The entire Westminster System rests on the notion that there can be “no taxation without representation”. For breaching this fundamental principle, King Charles I lost his head, and King George III lost his 13 American colonies.

These grim precedents notwithstanding, the “wellbeing” principle enunciated by the Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, in yesterday’s Budget Speech, involves shifting the responsibility for signing-off on how the people’s money is to be spent from their elected representatives to their supposed servants in the Public Service.

Apparently, the whole notion of Members of Parliament determining and overseeing how the people’s taxes are spent has become woefully outdated. How much more efficient to simply vote money to a collection of government agencies and allow them to spend it as they see fit over the next four or five years. Annual appropriations, voted by the House of Representatives, is such an archaic way of operating what has become a fearsomely complex state machine. Much better to leave matters to the “experts”. They will keep their Minister informed, and s/he will tell Parliament when it’s time to wield its rubber stamp.

“Experts.” Aye, there’s the rub. For at least a century, the notion of government by experts (also known as “technocracy”) has enjoyed a solid following among … well … experts. Indeed, in the years following the First World War, a whole new approach to “manufacturing” the consent of the masses was developed by an arcane combination of journalists, psychologists and political scientists. It was the most accomplished of these manipulators, Edward Bernays, who refined the process into what we today recognise as the profession of “public relations”.

From a democratic perspective, the only true experts are the people themselves. That MPs need their votes to enter the House of Representatives means that, in theory at least, they enter that august institution with a pretty good idea of what a substantial number of voters regard as important and unimportant. It is on the basis of this knowledge that they appropriate money and frame legislation. To further inform and refine their thinking, MPs invite the people to make submissions to parliamentary select committees. At this point in the process, the contributions of experts are welcomed.

Political parties, once again in theory, are supposed to amplify the expression of the people’s needs and wants by organising them into a coherent package of proposed reforms. This is referred to as the party’s “manifesto”. It represents a kind of political contract with the electors, and the parliamentary representatives of the party, or parties, commanding a majority in the House of Representatives are expected to honour their manifesto’s “mandate” by conscientiously fulfilling its promises. The funding of these promises, via the elected government’s annual Budget, is the people’s most effective guarantee for securing their wellbeing democratically.

The only legitimate role for public servants in this process is to advise the elected Government on how best to implement its manifesto promises. The Public Service is not there to substitute its own judgement for that of the people’s – as expressed through the electoral process. Nor is it the business of elected politicians to ask bureaucrats to do the job they were chosen to do. All the “working groups” and “expert committees” in the world cannot relieve the people’s representatives of their sacred duty to – represent the people.

If the wellbeing of the people can only be secured by “experts”, then democracy is a lie.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 31 May 2019.


Kat said...

So Chris by that rant you obviously don't support MMP and list MP's. Thats interesting. Shall we have only elected representatives in parliament, we could call it, oh lets see....first past the post or FPP. Now that could be real progress eh.

Tauhei Notts said...

Great to see you back in form.
Your posts are appreciated.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Spot on. The neoliberals used to talk about "capture". This is capture by the upper echelons of the bureaucracy. But let's face it, the idea of public service is long gone from those people. They are now CEOs and expected to act like it. And don't they just love it.

The Wiley Trout said...

Chris, thanks for the very apposite reminder of the meaning of democracy. How do we emerge from this unrepresentative mess?

Kal, no to FPP but yes to a system where the tail doesn’t wag the dog.

Geoff Fischer said...

It is not by accident that Labour has abdicated power to un-elected officials. This process has been underway for the past thirty five years, and for politicians like Jacinda Ardern it is a godsend.
She can disclaim responsibility for any and all actions or omissions of state - the Huawei ban "Nothing to do with me", the secret Commission of inquiry into the Al Noor massacre "Nothing to do with me" - and so it will go on.
Jacinda will be there as the local franchisee of the British royal family for the photo ops, the meet and greet with foreign heads of government, and the anodyne words of comfort to all victims of her government's policies, as in the aftermath of the Al Noor massacre. This role she fills very well indeed. But it will not be enough to save either her or the regime which she serves.

Michael Johnston said...

In response to Kat:

Contrary to your rhetoric, FFP is not the only alternative to the extant list system. I read recently about another approach - in a source that I unfortunately don't recall - under which there is no 'list' prior to an election. Instead, the list for each party is formed after the election, by placing unsuccessful electorate candidates in order according the proportion of the vote each attracted in the electorate they contested.

This approach would give voters more say about who is in parliament without sacrificing the broad principle of MMP. It might also have an additional advantage of associating every MP with an electorate, so that some electorates would effectively have two competing representatives. That might help to ensure that they were maximally responsive to their constituents' concerns.

Wiley Trout said...

Reply to Michael Johnston

Now that’s an idea I could support. More responsibility to the electorate and more incentive to the elected to perform.

Plugger said...

I suspect many cabinet ministers in this govt are owned by top level bureaucrats.

Full and frank advice in this context is mind control.

Geoff Fischer said...

It is good to see serious constitutional concerns being raised alongside the more ephemeral political issues.
I have written at some length (on www.republican.co.nz) on how the Westminster model of representative democracy has become unfit for purpose in a social and technical environment which is vastly different to that of seventeenth century England.
Things that most of us have taken for granted over the past two centuries - territorial electorates with more or less equal numbers of constituents and periodic general elections which deliver "all or nothing" outcomes - are no longer necessary to a genuine functional democracy and have in fact become a positive hindrance.
We know that the current system is no longer truly representative and democratic processes are easily perverted by vested interests exploiting the power of mainstream and social media.
Now it is time to stop complaining about the demonstrable failure of the present regime and time to do something towards putting in place a better, more just, effective, representative and genuinely democratic system of popular governance.

Jack Scrivano said...

Funnily enough, Chris, I had a similar discussion to this last weekend with a third-year medical student.

For much of our discussion, she just frowned. And then, when I thought that I had made my argument and shut up, she said: ‘Interesting. I had never thought of democracy like that. I’ve always thought that it was the job of politicians to take the best possible advice. And the best possible advice doesn’t come from voters, it comes from experts. It’s probably why I have never bothered to vote.’

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"And the best possible advice doesn’t come from voters, it comes from experts."

Bureaucrats are not necessarily experts in anything except bureaucracy.

John Hurley said...

All that jazz about "white supremacists" Chris Trotter: the "white supremacists" are the white working class who saw themselves as a unique people; part of a national family (such things were taken for granted). The cosmopolitans are the well to do's who like to think they can compete with anyone and are marked as being a higher caste than the knucledraggers. No wonder the elites fear the "white supremacists", it is they themselves who were once the hung, drawn and quartered?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

To conflate white supremacists with the white working class is pure bullshit. Most of the white working class are nowhere near that, particularly the young. The white supremacists are those eejit's who have been taken in by people like Nigel Farage – the guy who is always pictured with a pint in his hand but never seems to drink one, and Tommy Robinson the guy who changed his name because Yaxley – Lennon seemed a little bit too middle-class, or maybe Milo whatshisface, who is about as working-class as Donald Trump. And all those brexiteers who are now busy arranging EU citizenship for their kids and shifting their head offices to Singapore and the like.
They are the people who have grown up with privilege, and see equality as discrimination. Or who haven't bothered getting education, and see brown people taking "their jobs". They have inchoate and general resentment that's come to the surface because people like that have been abandoned by the neoliberal elite – not the cosmopolitans as such. The neoliberals don't care about cosmopolitanism, just cheap labour, and useful idiots.

BlisteringAttack said...

'Bureaucrats are not necessarily experts in anything except bureaucracy'.


John Hurley said...


If the public only realised the Labour Party, journalists, academics (humanities) and government bureaucrats adhere to your intersectionality b.s they would be aghast.

John Hurley said...

The white supremacists are the white working class in the sense that the white supremacists are largely a state myth to counter a hard truth and that is that “The breakup of the traditional authority structures and the previous affective social units—historically nation and class...make the ethnic attachment more salient’. According to Research NZ (RNZ) we are equally divided on the benefits of diversity.

The benefits of immigration are concentrated; the costs dispersed while it diminishes the status of the white working class as “just another subaltern”. While Paul Spoonley @ RNZ sings it's praises others (who don't work for real estate tycoons) say “it is a national disaster lowering the present and future living standards of New Zealanders” (Kerry McDonald). You can't convince people it is hot when their skin tells them differently.

There are credible arguments that attitudes to immigration/diversity mark out one's class and status in society. On the other hand placing Hispanic speakers in suburban liberal heartland has shown a significant change in attitude.

A nation is formed through 1. a common external threat. 2. "a shared cultural repertoire: a common language, common traditions and values, a general sense of cultural sameness within a population. 3. Being thought of as prosperous and strong. Its citizens will identify with it because people like being associated with success. Rock star economy - media smoke screen (could explain why trendy-poos still come to Queenstown?)

John Hurley said...

In Australia the ABC tries to shoot down Imam Mohammad Tawhidi - the next best thing to a Martin Luther - because of his islamophobia (I presume)

Guerilla Surgeon said...

John Hurley. If only the public understood all those pejorative words you keep throwing around without really knowing what they mean or anything about them they'd probably be just as aghast. Intersectionality indeed, that's just an alt-right trendy poo word. If only you guys weren't so afraid of the femoids and TPTB and stopped whining about wrongthink and cosmopolitans you could settle down in a totally white place ruled by GEOTUS where never a bad word was said about white men except for cucks.
See? Anyone can spout this sort of Bullshit.

"A nation is formed through 1. a common external threat. 2. "a shared cultural repertoire: a common language, common traditions and values, a general sense of cultural sameness within a population."
Then why was the US so successful? 'E pluribus unum'? Since supplanted by 'in God we trust' of course, courtesy of old white men again..

John Hurley said...

"A nation is formed through 1. a common external threat. 2. "a shared cultural repertoire: a common language, common traditions and values, a general sense of cultural sameness within a population."
Then why was the US so successful? 'E pluribus unum'? Since supplanted by 'in God we trust' of course, courtesy of old white men again..
Putnam said it took 50 years but anyway the first migrants were European.

John Hurley said...

Dear Dr Williamson,

[ wage round ]
I heard you on RNZ you said:

The reality is that my Phd showed that real hourly wages in the tourism and hospitality sector have fallen 24.5% between 1979 and 2006. So you’re seeing a real drop off in the wages coming into that sector.



This fits with Ian Harrison's

A conventional economic analysis of large -scale immigration impacts

The distinctive feature of the New Zealand economy is that land is an important input into the productive process. This is obvious with the agricultural, fishing and forestry sectors but it also applies to international tourism. In a simple model of the New Zealand economy where the supply of land is fixed, and New Zealand’s isolation means it is not a ‘natural’ location for the production of a broad range of internationally traded goods and services, then an increase in the labour supply through large scale immigration will reduce the marginal product of labour. As a result:

 Real wages will fall

 Owners of land will benefit

 There will be an outflow of ‘native’ labour in search of higher wages in Australia

 The economy will be bigger, but average incomes will fall

 Resources will flow into low value service production.


and Ha Joon-Changs 23 Things They Don't tell You about Capitalism

A bus driver in New Delhi gets paid around 18 rupees an hour. His equivalent in Stockholm gets paid around 130 kronas, which was, as of summer 2009, around 870 rupees. In other words, the Swedish driver gets paid nearly fifty times that of his Indian equivalent.


Our story of bus drivers reveals the existence of the proverbial elephant in the room. It shows that the living standards of the huge majority of people in rich countries critically depend on the existence of the most draconian control over their labour markets – immigration control. Despite this, immigration control is invisible to many and deliberately ignored by others, when they talk about the virtues of the free market. I have already argued (see Thing 1) that there really is no such thing as a free market, but the example of immigration control reveals the sheer extent of market regulation that we have in supposedly free-market economies but fail to see.

Can you provide a reference for your statement (24.5% reduction in real wages)? [ ]

Hi John, thanks for your email. The figures I quote are from my PhD thesis, they were sourced from Stats NZ year books and data over that period. You can access the thesis through the AUT website, I would send you the link but I am in Croatia and don't have access to my regular computer. I will send you the link when I get home in 4 weeks. Yes this is a long term trend that not many people in NZ want to talk about, it affects all but the elite workforce and it's a result of the neo- liberal revolution in the 1980s, we have gained considerable economic growth and consumer choice, but the rewards of that growth are increasingly concentrated into the hands of the ones with established capital, wages earners are losing year after year.
TVNZ "the benefits of immigration are a no-brainer" RNZ "the arguments against immigration are unsustainable". MBIE "a critical economic enabler.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Putnam said it took 50 years but anyway the first migrants were European."
A gross oversimplification. There were also a million or so Africans. People from southern Europe, who were Catholics are not regarded as white. FFS, JFK had to swear blind to keep his Catholic religion out of politics when he was running the country. Protestants never were. And the US annexed millions of Hispanics and Native Americans of one sort or another. Not to mention the Chinese, who helped build the railroads who were also regarded as less than human.

John Hurley said...

Dear Dr Williamson letter is "propaganda" according to the rep from the Amalgamated Workers Union. AWU aren't a union as such but do negotiations so don't want their brand to look bad.

John Hurley said...

Richard Dawkins say we perceive race in the same way we perceive colour. Italians etc were one shade away from Anglo-Saxons. Anti-communism bought catholics and jews together as "whites".

John Hurley said...

I recommend Dr Edward Dutton, Chris - The Jolly Heretic. He believes the most interesting topics are those which we are not supposed to look at.

John Hurley said...

Big difference between RNZ and Quillette

Her goal is to expose the lie at racism's core: that inequality is a result of genetics rather than political power, that race is a biological characteristic instead of a social construct.