Tuesday 6 April 2021

Insufficiently Qualified To Object: Why Labour Ministers Can Be Lied To With Impunity.

Qualified To Give - And Take - Advice: Most Labour MPs are self-conscious members of the meritocracy, meaning they have succeeded where the vast majority of their fellow citizens have failed. The primary political obligation, understood by all members of the First Labour Government, was to listen to the people. Eighty years on, the direction of that obligation has reversed. Now it is the duty of the people to listen to – and heed – the instructions of political leaders better qualified than themselves. 

DAILY BLOG EDITOR, Martyn Bradbury, has lambasted the state bureaucracy for its failure to tell its political “masters” the truth. While entirely justified, his criticism does not go far enough. There’s an old saying: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” When, as has happened on multiple occasions since 2017, public servants have been caught out lying to their ministers, why haven’t the individuals responsible (and their superiors) been sacked? What is it that prevents Labour politicians from taking steps to ensure both the transparency and accountability of the public service? A coherent answer to this question would not only explain much, it would allow even more to be improved.

The most obvious answer to these questions lies in the deliberate legislative separation of the political from the operational. The State Sector Act (1988) restricted politicians to the formulation of policy. The implementation of that policy was the responsibility of the CEO of the relevant ministry or department. Hiring and firing, and holding his or her underlings accountable for their mistakes – was the CEO’s job – not the Minister’s. Politicians had no role to play in “operational matters”.

That this arrangement constituted a drastic reduction in the power of government ministers to “make things happen” was (and remains) entirely deliberate. That it also profoundly disempowers the people’s representatives, working through the Executive, to give practical expression to the people’s will is, likewise, completely intentional. The neoliberal revolution has always been about limiting the effectiveness of democratic institutions. The State Sector Act fulfils this revolutionary function admirably. (Astonishingly, the SSA’s replacement legislation, of which the current government is the ostensible author, shifts even more power from elected MPs and ministers to unelected state bureaucrats!)

The arguments in favour of this legislation, like just about all the other laws associated with “Rogernomics”, go back to the era of the National Party prime minister, Rob Muldoon. By combining the powers of the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister in his own person, and using the enormous powers available to him under the Economic Stabilisation Act (1948) Muldoon amassed sufficient authority to both overawe his bureaucratic advisers and execute a series of constitutionally dubious end-runs around Parliament itself.

This was the “unbridled power” that the former law professor, Geoffrey Palmer, then Labour’s deputy-leader, railed against in the run-up to the 1984 general election. He and his colleagues in the Labour caucus were not only determined to put an end to “Muldoonism”, they were equally determined to put a bridle on all future “Muldoonist” politicians – lest they make a similar bid for political and economic omnipotence.

Palmer’s constitutional lawyer’s outrage at Muldoonism was skilfully interwoven with the neoliberal programme of the Fourth Labour Government’s economic string-pullers – sorry, “advisers” – at Treasury and the Reserve Bank. What began as a perfectly reasonable effort to prevent the rise of another Muldoonist “economic dictator”, ended with more and more economic and administrative decisions being removed from the hands of elected politicians and placed in the hands of appointed officials. New Zealand had escaped from the clutches of a democratically elected (and unelected, let’s not forget) economic dictator, only to find itself, four years later, in the hands of a clutch of non-elected neoliberal administrators – with quasi-dictatorial powers.

Labour MPs at the time – and ever since – have found it almost impossible to conceptualise the profound redistribution of power and influence that Rogernomics made possible. They still see the period as one of shaking-off shackles and opening up New Zealand to the bracing winds of free markets and free trade. They simply cannot place themselves in a drama which has at its heart a deadly attack at the democratic right of the people to shape not only their political future, but their economic and social futures as well. They came to view the economic controls imposed upon capitalism by the likes of Michael Joseph Savage, Peter Fraser, Walter Nash and Norman Kirk as well-meaning, but wrong. They believed that Muldoon’s over-regulated society was where even “good” countries like New Zealand ended up when politicians were permitted to lead them down what the neoliberal guru Friedrich von Hayek (1899-1992) called “the road to serfdom”.

It’s not quite enough, though, is it? What remains to be explained is why Labour leader after Labour leader – from David Lange to Helen Clark to Jacinda Ardern – has been unable to see neoliberalism for what it so self-evidently is – an ideological excuse for transferring more-and-more power from the poor to the rich. Ironically, the answer has everything to do with the astonishing success of Labour, and social-democratic parties like it, in the years following the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The success of the economic and social reforms of the post-war period transformed society into what its citizens were encouraged to believe was a “meritocracy”. Public health systems brought a large measure of physical equality, while, for the first time in human history, public education made equality of opportunity possible. Welfare states, it was argued, brought everyone up to the same line: after that, how far you went was a matter of individual merit.

This wasn’t just political rhetoric, either. By the 1960s and 70s, thousands of working-class children, whose working-class parents had voted the welfare state into existence, were becoming the first person in their family’s history to study at a university. They emerged from the experience much changed. Not only did they possess a brand new professional qualification, but also a brand new way of looking at themselves and the society they lived in.

In the past people had been respected for reasons over which they exercised little or no control. Who their parents were. The colour of their skin. Their religion. Where they had come from. How much wealth their family possessed. Now it was different. What mattered more than anything else in the new meritocracies was what you were qualified to do. Crucially, a qualification was something achieved individually, through personal talent and hard work. Professional qualifications conferred status and enhanced earning power, but they also conferred something else: the right to offer advice; the right to be consulted; the right to be heeded.

It was one of the distinguishing features of the Fourth Labour Government – how many of its MPs possessed professional qualifications. They were successful members of the meritocracy, which meant they had succeeded where the vast majority of their fellow citizens had failed. The primary political obligation, understood by all members of the First Labour Government, was to listen to the people. Fifty years on, however, the direction of that obligation was reversed. Now it was the duty of the people to listen to – and heed – the instructions of political leaders better qualified than themselves. Moreover, what was good for “the punters out in punterland” was also good for the politicians.

Advised by impressively credentialled and highly experienced public servants, today’s Labour MPs feel obliged – by the meritocratic principles central to their personal identities – to do exactly what they’re told. And if they discover subsequently their advisers have lied to them, well, they must have had a very good reason for doing so. A reason they simply aren’t qualified to understand – or challenge. Not when the only alternative is allowing the people to decide. Because, seriously, what do they know?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 6 April 2021.


Mike Grimshaw said...

As Michael Young, the sociologist and politician and author of the satire 'The Rise of Meritocracy warned in 1959, meritocracy makes people falsely believe they have succeeded on their own singular abilities. The rise and celebration of meritocracy is demonstrated and enabled by a collapse in belief in society and by a further collapse in a social contract. Ironically, the Left has latched on to identity politics rather than class, for identity politics tends to be claimed as that which is holding back the meritocratic middle class from expressing their true worth and identity. It is the self-obsession of those who have already gained- and pulled up the ladders after them. Having believed that 'class' no longer matters- or that can be easily overcome by individual talent and effort, they (ironically) now focus on other limitations within their new environment that limits their singular progress towards their esteemed place in a utopian soft dictatorship of the meritocracy.

your_friend said...

Would you be able to write a blog post or explanation of what precisely you mean by 'neoliberal'? I really enjoy your writing but I only have a vague sense of what you mean by this; you often seem to use it in an inconsistent way. What does 'neoliberal' mean to you? What does it not mean? What does it look like? What does it not look like?

As an example, I've usually seen 'neoliberal' used to refer to a more free market oriented economy as opposed to a more centrally planned one. Here you say that Government ministers ceding power to bureaucrats is an example of neoliberalism, but I'm really not sure what you mean by that and I've never seen it used in a similar way before. It does a lot of work in your post however which makes it difficult for me to understand the full thrust of your argument.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Simonch.

I use the term to denote, in general terms, the ideological system deployed to smash the post-war social-democratic consensus based on Keynesian economics and strong trade unions.

The neoliberal ideology is laced through with irony, since, on the one hand, it champions free markets and free trade; while, on the other, it reconfigures the state in the most authoritarian fashion to protect free markets and free trade from any and all attempts to modify their malign impacts upon those lacking the resources to benefit from them.

In other words: in order to keep markets "free", everybody else's freedom must be tightly constrained.

If you seek further detail, may I recommend "Neoliberalism" by David Harvey.

Chris Morris said...

Are the Ministers really being lied to? Or is there just the usual misunderstandings that always occur? A lie is a deliberate untruth. Many circumstances are just people saying or writing the wrong thing because they mis-remembered or did understand the question.
And the Labour Ministers are significant sinners themselves. In the KFC case, even when she knew the facts, the PM doubled down and didn't apologise. She could easily have said "I got it wrong as I was given the wrong information by the Ministry" Simple as that. No loss of face and she would have gained kudos. As for the other cases, I believe the Departments were acting within the law and had Court orders. One could say the law was wrong, but that is for politicians to correct.

Sam said...

Officials can't lie or be deliberately misleading that's just asking to get fired so they just don't say everything. An example would be NZDF handling of the Afghan crimes against humanity.

There's the over importance of trade and business confidence that's delivered to MPs. It's not technically but basically every economic theory before the Pandemic has been debunked by Corona. We need new models to fit the new data. That's not technically lying but it is beyond the remit of unelected official to imagine new models, take it to the electorate.

But of course you wouldn't exactly ask front line staff if there jobs are worthwhile or if whole departments should be disbanded. An example of that are the intelligence services inability to burn all the incomplete away and fire them.

Again it's not technically lying. It's just a pile of pure bullshit.

Kat said...

Good post Chris, the bureaucrats power certainly need reigning in, and ministers need to roll up their sleeves and flex some muscle. From the many comments made about the govt "never doing anything" and Jacinda Ardern not waving her "magic wand" and make things happen last week, I would suggest The State Sector Act (1988)is one of the best kept secrets in Godzone.

greywarbler said...

Sam But is it 100% Pure? And that banner we have waved so high for so long is a lie as well, which we all know. When the country's leaders in government and business have the effrontery to lie to us and the world, we become complicit in it. Where does ethical behaviour get to show itself? The rule is - 'It's what the market can stand'. What people choose to believe without reliable verification, or because it is convenient.

There is an interesting trial in Israel against the long-lasting leader Netanyahu*. It is alleged that he paid big Israeli quids to a couple who had control of their television station to put over anything he wanted - fibs, scuttlebutt about opponents etc. We will see the same sort of thing if RadioNZ is merged with TVNZ. Television is such a powerful media because 'Seeing is believing' and the mouthpieces become truth-tellers in people's minds - if the public can be fed the right stories to encourage interest and partisanship.
* https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-55949391 Feb.2021 Israel's Netanyahu enters plea in court in corruption trial
* and Apr.2021 https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/world/439875/netanyahu-trial-editor-told-to-drop-negative-stories-about-israel-pm - Former Walla chief executive Ilan Yeshua alleged he was also ordered by the news website's owner, Shaul Elovitch, to post content that attacked Netanyahu's rivals.
(Founded in 1995 as Israel's first online website directory and part of Teletel Communications Ltd., Walla! Communications...)

Does anyone else hear a bell ringing? Our own Whaleoil-that-was enjoyed a trip to Israel. Our own popular leader used Whaleoil to manage information satisfactorily for his purposes. Business there has cranked up again under a different name; thinks, does a leopard change its spots? Does a bear sh.. in the woods?

AB said...

Chris - thanks for the reminder. It is only in retrospect and with your help that I came to see how the liberal left's loathing of Muldoon was ruthlessly used against us by our worst enemies - people far more hostile than Muldoon to everything we believed in. It should have been clearer to me at the time - it was after all Bob Jones's "New Zullin Party" who acted as spoiler on the right and threw the 1984 election to Lange and co.

greywarbler said...

Rumania is in the process of changing its political path, increasingly following the right-wing one which they seems to imagine will bring stability, the cost of which is likely to be poor services for the hoi polloi and monumental emoluments for those at top. I found the doco The Collective about a keen bunch digging to find how a night club could burn down - with no fire exits - and then 3o or so people who were hospitalised after died. They found a scam where sanitation and disinfectant was being sold to multi hospitals presumably on low cost - because it was diluted almost to homeopathy levels, usually to 10% strenth. After all their hard work and a new medical director ready to step out of the money onga, what happened. Try and see it.
Here's a full summary if you can't: https://www.13thfloor.co.nz/film-review-collective-director-alexander-nanau/

I also went to see the doco Gaza. Rather a hard take to see the two end on end. My thoughts are with the Palestinians. It's getting harder for them to keep their heads up the Israelis will be pleased to hear.

Sam said...

We are going through great change.

A fighter in a movie doesn't just announce they're going to learn a new move they just do it.

And so politics being laid back has to develop a new language from there.

Political terms like Marxism meant one thing in the 40s evolved and we are also hearing knew political words often mocking our differences rather than embracing them.

What is a cis?

What's a lone wolf?

I think we need to come to grips with this new political language.

How is the bureaucracy supposed to come to grips with referring to pregnant woman as pregnant people?

Do they role there eyes, wink, mumble something under there breath?

What then do they do when intelligence officers are being lead by these same people. Is there mutual respect?

It's all bizarre how ever I wanted to ask the questions objectively. From John Key to Jacinda they are extremely popular but when it comes to the more nuanced and subtle arguments they are pitiful, They've struggled for years with the baruacracy in truth because they were never truly trained for this new 21st century language.

The Prime Minister needs to understand but also dominate the mysteries of the baruacracy to use then to destroy or to create.

Something that always comes back to me is a Prime Minister never draws there sword instead choosing to gain power through manipulation and dominating and understanding there enemies. These are perhaps attributes that Jacinda lacks.

What I mean is Jacinda maybe able to surpass John Keys popularity but never in full control and dominate the baruacracy.

I will point out that I have over exageratted political speak before. I say stuff like Willie Jackson is the man - a statement that is obviously manipulation. If the maori party hadn't been such a soft target I think Jacinda would have cast the combative nature of politics aside for something more woke, something more bizarre and ultimately difficult for a 20th century baruacracy to follow.

greywarbler said...

Thinking about films - The Dissident was also on but I thought that I'd need triage after viewing three disturbing tales. It is important but I'm not 'robust' enough to watch it, but for those made of sterner stuff here are details showing how.
The Dissident M
When Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappears in Istanbul, his fiancée and dissidents around the world piece together the clues to a murder and expose a global cover up.
The Dissident - Rialto Cinemas

It is supposed to be on demand so -
From Academy Award-Winning director Bryan Fogel (ICARUS), The Dissident is a ... Rentals include 30 days to start watching this video and 48 hours to finish ...

Kat said...

Footnote: https://oag.parliament.nz/media/2018/submissions/state-sector-act