Week in Review

A Govt that keeps falling into the overselling abyss

The Government needed a precise understanding of what can realistically be achieved in a three-year term, but instead it went about tackling the problems it inherited in a naive and hopelessly optimistic way, says Peter Dunne.

In a three-year electoral cycle like ours it is often very difficult for a government to commence a major reform programme and advance it to the extent that demonstrable progress is obvious by the time of the next election.

That is why, for example, KiwiBuild was never likely to be successful, even if it had been overseen from the outset by an at all competent minister who knew what he was doing.

The initial aspirations and targets around it were simply too bold and grandiose to have ever been capable of being achieved, even those for the initial three years of the ten-year proposed life for the project.

And it is why the proposed light rail link from Auckland city to the airport looks like meeting a similar fate. Far from being substantially completed by 2020 as per the Prime Minister's original 2017 promise, the project now looks like at best it might just be underway by 2020, but even that is uncertain.

Its fury and frustration at what it saw as the inaction of the past meant that ministers had little trust in the officials advising them, preferring instead to rely on their own untested hunches and uniformed prejudices.

Leave aside for the time being the fact that both botched projects were the responsibility of the same minister (although it is a marvel that he still retains ministerial rank and the Prime Minister's apparent confidence after the embarrassment his failures have caused the Government). The real message to emerge from these two chaotic bumbles is that any government needs to be far more precise in its understanding of what can be achieved in a three-year term. And then it needs to plan the implementation of its policies accordingly, so that at regular intervals voters can see tangible progress has been made towards achieving the overall goal.

Otherwise, there is the real risk, now becoming reality in these two cases, of muddled planning degenerating into policy chaos and disjointed action. The political consequence is stark - the Government ends up looking out of its depth and simply incompetent – and voters draw their own conclusions.

To be fair, though, part of this Government's problem arises from its legitimate perception that housing and transport problems in Auckland had become so pressing that dramatic and urgent actions were required.

But merely identifying the problem does not resolve the issue. In both these instances, there is little argument that action was required, rather it is more a sense of incredulity at the rather naive and hopelessly optimistic way in which the Government has gone about it.

Its fury and frustration at what it saw as the inaction of the past meant that ministers had little trust in the officials advising them, preferring instead to rely on their own untested hunches and uninformed prejudices. Now, when those have not delivered the outcome they were seeking in the time frames they wish, Ministers have gone full circle and blamed those same officials they were so wary of involving initially for letting them down now. Understandable, perhaps yes, when coming out of a long period in opposition somewhat unexpectedly into government, but not really forgivable all the same.

... as the months have gone by, more frustration is becoming obvious within the mental health and addiction sectors at the slow pace of change.

In the wider scheme of things, the hope would be that the Government has learnt a thing or two from these failures, but the signs are not encouraging. The mental health issue that the Government has made so much noise about looks like going down the same path. In the lead-up to the last election, there was mounting public concern that mental health was becoming a policy vacuum, with little evidence that the previous government had put anything much in place to replace the existing mental health strategy which had expired in 2016. Labour was able to successfully exploit this deficiency and offer the promise of a much better deal for mental health patients and their families.

Shortly after taking office, the Government began a wide-ranging inquiry into mental health and addiction services. That inquiry reported back at the end of 2018, but in an early sign of the indecision that has followed, the Government deferred a substantive response to the inquiry’s findings, which of themselves were predictable and unsurprising, until March this year, and then pushed that out to May. Even then, the response was cautious, because all was to be revealed in the “wellness” Budget due to be delivered the following day, as it happened. When it was released, the Budget allocated significant additional spending of $1.9 billion over the next four years to the mental health and addiction fields, however it was very light on the details of how this money was to be spent. 

In what was becoming an almost familiar refrain for the Government, that was to be worked out over the next little while. There were some whispers of impatience at that point from some mental health advocates that surely after the inquiry and the Government’s own campaign commitments, the Budget could have been a little bit more forthcoming, but they were very much a minority view at that stage.

However, as the months have gone by, more frustration is becoming obvious within the mental health and addictions sectors at the slow pace of change, notwithstanding the significant additional future funding that has been pledged.

What is saddest about all this is that with some carefully set, staged and measurable targets ... the Government could have been in a strong position on each of these matters to be able to demonstrate well managed progress by the time of the next election.

And herein lies the lesson for the Government. Once again, it seems to have fallen into the abyss of overselling what it can do in the short term – this three-year Parliamentary term, to be precise – to address what it has correctly identified as a major issue.

Because it placed such a focus on mental health before the last election and in its early days in government, like it did with housing and Auckland transport, voters expected it to have a clear plan of what it wanted to achieve in its first three years, as a prelude to more substantive achievements in the years to come, which is why they would need to be re-elected.

As it is, with KiwiBuild and Auckland transport, and increasingly it looks like mental health will be similar, the Government appears to have many bold plans for action over the longer term, but precious little in the way of specific achievements it will be able to point to before the next election. Voters, however, are more canny, and too wary of taking any government on trust to be likely to buy that approach. They usually like to see some concrete evidence a government can achieve what it wants to do, rather than just hearing it talk about what it will be like in the future, before they vote for it a second time.

The three-year Parliamentary term is a practical constraint in many ways, but until and unless it is changed to four years – as it should be – that is the reality a government needs to work within. And that means in areas of major policy change, the details need to be locked in place and starting to deliver results by about July of election year at the latest. The government has already surrendered that possibility for the KiwiBuild targets; it looks increasingly as though Auckland’s light rail to the airport will be lucky to be even a hole in the ground by election time; and it is daily becoming harder to see the mental health strategy amounting to much by then.

What is saddest about all this is that with some carefully-set, staged and measurable targets (but remember this was the Government that abolished targets), the Government could have been in a strong position on each of these matters to be able to demonstrate well managed progress by the time of the next election. Instead, it looks it will be left defending bold over-promises it could never have hoped to meet, with a significant hit to its credibility as a consequence.     

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