THE NATIONAL PARTY has demonstrated considerable political skill in funding its new “FamilyBoost” policy by savagely pruning the consultancy money-tree. I’m sure I’m not the only New Zealander who has scratched his head at the shocking figure of $1.7 billion spent on consultants by this Labour Government. Why would they do that?
New Zealand’s present over-reliance on consultants raises all sorts of questions about the quality of its public service. Is it really so bereft of talent and expertise that outside advisers must be brought in to show them what to do? And, if that is the case, then why hasn’t the government recruited the talent and expertise its short of, rather than renting it for a few months at exorbitant expense?
All those additional public servants Labour has hired since 2017 – roughly 14,000 of them – surely they should have reduced the need for expensive consultants? And yet, the government goes on injecting them into the body politic with all the desperation of a drug addict.
Small wonder, then, that the National Party has chosen the massive government spend on consultants as its most promising source of savings. Ceasing to pay these parasitic characters $9,000 per week, and then applying the money saved to something as wholesome as reducing child-care costs for Kiwi families battling inflation, must have struck Christopher Luxon as an absolutely crackerjack idea.
There will be some who dismiss National’s latest policy as crude populism. As if giving people what they need is a bad thing? But what is so bad about delivering the greatest good to the greatest number? Isn’t that what democracy is supposed to be all about? Who could possibly object to that?
Except, anyone posing that question seriously clearly hasn’t been paying attention to the way this country has been run for past 40 years. Responding to public needs; delivering the greatest good to the greatest number; that’s what New Zealand politics used to be about. Political parties might squabble about the best way to do these things, but very few politicians disputed the idea that they had to be done.
The problem which eventually grew large enough to make politicians question their most basic democratic assumptions was: How to meet public needs that never seem to grow smaller? Or, to put it more crudely: At what point does the cost of delivering the greatest good to the greatest number become fiscally unsustainable?
Forty years ago, this was the question keeping New Zealand politicians awake at night. The top tax-rate was already at 66 percent, inflation seemed untameable, and “fiscal drag” was causing even relatively low-paid workers to squint hard at their pay-slips. Business leaders complained that the country was unnecessarily swaddled in controls and regulations. Workers complained that their unions couldn’t keep pace with the constantly rising cost of living.
Labour’s new leader, David Lange, thundered: “You can’t run a country like a Polish shipyard!” His finance spokesperson, Roger Douglas, had written a book called There’s Got To Be A Better Way. There were many who agreed with both sentiments.
Those Kiwis who voted out Rob Muldoon’s National Party Government in 1984 weren’t to know that Roger Douglas’s cure for what ailed New Zealand would be much, much worse than the complaint. Too few of them thought through the consequences of not responding to public need, or of ceasing to deliver the greatest good to the greatest number, but to a handful of obscenely wealthy businesspeople instead. Even fewer grasped the disturbing truth that if democracy is, indeed, about responding to the people’s needs and wants, then it is politically incompatible with lower taxes, less regulation, weaker unions, and fewer public servants.
Which brings us back to those expensive consultants – the most costly of whom are employed by giant multinational accountancy and investment firms. They are brought in by governments not because our public servants are bad at their jobs, but to prevent our public servants from doing their jobs.
If the medieval Catholic Church was a transnational institution dedicated to preserving the Christian faith, then so, too, are these massive global consultancies. They are contracted to ensure that no heretical policy initiatives are ever permitted to disturb the orthodoxy of the Neoliberal Church.
Christopher Luxon may cut back on some consultants, but not the ones that cost – and count – the most.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 10 March 2023.