Friday 15 May 2020

Is the New Zealand State Equal To Covid-19’s Economic Challenge?

Sufficient Leverage? Years of underfunding and down-scaling, and countless restructurings, have routinely wiped away decades of institutional memory. Grant Robertson's 2020 Budget has engaged the levers of government action - but do they still work?

THE FINANCE MINISTER would appear to have pulled hard on every economic lever he could find. The 2020 Budget is breath-taking in the sheer scale of its ambition. What we are all about to discover now, however, is how many of those levers are still attached to machinery that works. Can the Government’s orders be carried out, or, like Adolf Hitler in his Berlin bunker in April 1945, is it urging forward armies that no longer exist?

Think about the early stages of the fightback against Covid-19. How long it took for meaningful interventions against the virus to kick in. In the minimum possible time, the Ministry of Health was required to reach maximum effectiveness – and all from a standing start. Years of underfunding and down-scaling; countless restructurings during which decades of institutional memory had been routinely wiped away: all of these ideologically-inspired weaknesses had to be overcome not in months and years – but in days and weeks. They were, but the effort required from Ashley Bloomfield and his team to make sure everything worked was nothing short of heroic.

If the entire population of the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta could be awarded the George Cross for their stoicism and bravery under relentless German bombing in 1942, then I cannot see why our entire health service should not be similarly acknowledged in the next Honours List.

Now we shall see how well the other major ministries of the state meet the economic challenges of Covid-19. Impelled by the same sense of urgency; required to respond across a similar number of critical fronts; how will they perform? Will the massive amounts of financial and practical assistance that our failing businesses and vulnerable employees need arrive in time? Will the strategies required to haul the New Zealand economy out of the deep hole into which it has fallen be forthcoming? More importantly, will they – like the Ministry of Health’s responses – be subjected to the same searching examination and ruthless critique?

Frankly, I am sceptical of the chances of either of these crucial objectives being achieved. In the key state ministries: Treasury, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment; the Ministry of Social Development, the Ministry of Primary Industry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the record to date has been one of lethargy, procrastination and imaginative failure. Certainly, all of them have been subjected to the same spending cuts as the Ministry of Health (thankfully now remedied by Grant Robertson’s Budget) but the malaise in these ministries goes much deeper than a mere dearth of funds.

Since at least the fundamental reorganisation of the public sector in the late 1980s, the record of every successful state-sector CEO has demonstrated not how much he or she could make their ministry do, but how much he or she could make it do without. Under New Zealand’s all-conquering neoliberal ideology, the state is an institution whose ineffectiveness is accepted a priori: the less there is of it, the more efficiently our economy is predicted to perform. It was the far-right American ideologue, Grover Norquist, who recommended shrinking the state to the point where it could be drowned in a bathtub. For more than 30 years, New Zealand’s state-sector’s CEO’s (and the Ministers they advise) have made it their business to keep it on a crash diet.

The Ministers of the present government have learned to their political cost just how weak the New Zealand state’s starvation diet has left it. The unfortunate Phil Twyford tried pulling levers at Housing only to discover that, methodically, under governments of every hue, the wires connecting the political will to give New Zealanders affordable houses with the bureaucratic machinery needed of get them built had been cut. No matter how hard Twyford pulled Housing’s levers – nothing happened.

Yesterday, the Minister of Finance rolled out his blueprint for Responding, Recovering and Rebuilding New Zealand’s crisis-stricken economy. He is borrowing and spending billions to make it happen. Of necessity, a very large part of the work that lies ahead will be undertaken by the state. It is, however, far from certain that New Zealand’s core economic ministries will rise to the Covid-19 challenge as effectively as its Health Ministry.

There is, you see, a huge difference between the action mandated by science, and the inaction dictated by ideology. 

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 May 2020.


Wayne Mapp said...

There has been no restructuring of the health service since the very early 2000's, nearly 20 years ago. Same number of DHB's. Same management structures. Basically institutional stasis for nearly 20 years, virtually a whole generation.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Since at least the fundamental reorganisation of the public sector in the late 1980s, the record of every successful state-sector CEO has demonstrated not how much he or she could make their ministry do, but how much he or she could make it do without. "

You never said a truer word. Never! Efficiency has trumped effectiveness for many, many years now.

Jens Meder said...

Inaction may also be dictated by economic capacity, which ultimately limits also the creative capacity of borrowing.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Wayne Mapp.

Is the crafting of straw men a hobby of yours, Wayne?

My reference was not to DHBs but to the Ministry of Health - where constant internal restructuring has over many years severely eroded both morale and effectiveness.

It is our pure dumb luck that Dr Ashley Bloomfield - a medical professional - actually knew a great deal about public health. So many CEOs in the public service know next to nothing about the work they oversee. This is considered a good thing. Managers are deemed to be more effective when their work experience renders them impervious to "provider capture" - i.e. to taking advice from people who know of what they speak.

But then, you know all of this already - don't you Wayne?

Sam said...

Philosophically speaking, Jens, if it's not a universal experience then it's no better than a rock traveling for ever in space.

Corona virus has added a whole lot more to the economy and changing things with in public health and the economy that will echo for ever, and in my opinion for the better. A lot of which will depend on the precedents set during the 4 lock down phases and the legislation that will produce and it's resilience to be able to coup with nuclear war should that come.

Today though I want to mention something that happened in the early stages of the virus when woke social justice worriers mainly online denounced any and all responses to the virus as having racist and xenophobic under tones. Chris Trotter how ever reveals that he fully well knows that there is indeed issues with resource allocation with in DHBs. And in his comment above Wayne Mapp also reveals that he knows a whole lot more than he is letting on but maybe doesn't quite know everything thus changing a lot of right wing mythology because before this point it is never fully revealed how much anyone knows about mismanagement with in the DHBs.

And I know CEO's and DHB board members are not that dumb, I know they won't take things very far, as to be overtly racist I mean. All though I do know that power corrupts, that's not abnormal, that's very normal. First to Wayne Mapps relationship with the previous government and the problem I have with that is those attachments are going far far further than politics intended. This is interesting though where people should be compensated for there intellectual and physical labour where Wayne Mapp comes out and says he was fully aware of the relationship when he says and I quote:

"Same number of DHB's. Same management structures. Basically institutional stasis for nearly 20 years."

Although that statement is inconsequential it is a lesson for any Prime Minister that the turn anyone has to step on to fall into corruption and God forbid overt racism is the idea of disguising your attachments with good intentions and the pressures that that would put on management to comply with any Prime Ministers true intentions.

John said...

Hilarious! Why do you feel compelled to respond in similar vein to every one of these posts?

B'art Homme said...

Brilliant and very timely Chris.

One could add that with Bloomfield's effective zeal, the only possible blind spot in Grant Robertson's budget (however fiscally and socially deemed essential) is that which the climate crisis and C19 have collectively shown up...

The time, IMHO, isn't to prop up flailing tourism, and many other neo liberal industries, it's the very time to rip those threads right out of the sad, sick old market forced garment.

It is time for real vision to reshape life itself, post Covid 19 into much better, more humane, meaningful and intelligent fabric.

greywarbler said...

GS at 9.56
The worst enemy of life, freedom and the common decencies is total anarchy; their second worst enemy is total efficiency.

Aldous Huxley
Author Profession: Novelist
Nationality: English
Born: July 26, 1894
Died: November 22, 1963

(Second meaning of 'anarchy' on google:
'absence of government and absolute freedom of the individual, regarded as a political ideal'.)

David George said...

The real danger of safetyism:

"By all means, let us defer to technocratic competence in times of emergency. The suspicion, however, is that the leadership of “public health” (as opposed to actual doctors and nurses) doesn’t, in fact, take its bearings from the apolitical ideal of technocratic competence. Rather, they appear as party cadres labouring on behalf of the regime of liberal internationalism. Theirs appears to be the worldview expressed by John Lennon in his infantile song ‘Imagine’, or by Immanuel Kant in Perpetual Peace."

"Political correctness, on the other hand, seems to be an effort to avoid the pollution that comes from noticing reality. This is certainly the safer course, for anyone whose professional life takes place in an institution. It is easiest to maintain this diligence against reality if one remains insulated from those ugly causal chains that unfold in the real world — perhaps as a result of one’s own diktats, if one is highly placed."
this episode of government by emergency has further whetted an appetite for control that has been blossoming among the Good People in the West. Two law professors now declare in The Atlantic that “In the debate over freedom versus control of the global network, China was largely correct, and the U.S. was wrong.”

"The pandemic has revealed a growing affinity between Western institutional players and the authoritarian Chinese regime. It is easy to forget that the CCP was once a highly ideological organisation. Today it is basically a crime syndicate that looks upon the norms of “the international community” the way the Sinaloa Cartel might look upon the Girl Scouts.

So the question is, will our ruling apparatus follow a similar trajectory as the pandemic gives them a taste of extended emergency power? At what point do the ceremonies of political correctness become a mere façade, a set of dogmas that nobody actually believes, but which make a useful instrument of social control?"