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.