Michael Cullen: Labour tackles big issues while National in disarray


The National Party recently lost two MPs: one through fake news and one through a confession to a non-crime, usually a feature of ideologically driven dictatorships.

Nick Smith was panicked into leaving early by being told the release was imminent of a report on a set-to he had some time ago with a staffer. No such report has yet been released. But Judith Collins benefitted from the departure of an MP who has been an embarrassment for some years.

His replacement off the list, Harete Hipango, had already embarrassed her leader in the previous Parliament by making wild accusations about the effect of changes to the abortion laws.

A number of National MPS, in conversation with journalists and others, expressed strong reservations about her return. But only Todd Muller confessed.Collins picked on this as proof of a breach of caucus rules about leaking, when it was no such thing.

Muller has been forced to indicate his retirement from Parliament, but not until the next general election, thus staying around for at least two years of possible mischief-making.

This is all part of the general disarray in National’s ranks at the present time.

One of its abiding problems is that it suffers from a bad case of the dog barking at the passing car syndrome. This can come back to haunt you in politics.

A good example is Chris Bishop’s call in March for a travel bubble with Fiji. That no longer looks like a winner. The transtasman situation is such that the Labour Government’s caution over bubbles looks wiser than ever. Snap, crackle, pop does not make a convincing tourism slogan.

Which brings me to the need forcoherent long-term thinking about how we are going to deal with the difficult issues of exiting to a better future from the current uncertainty.

The Labour Government has racked up an impressively long list of achievements in less than four years. There are so many to refute the charge of failing to deliver. But it is fair to say that these achievements have largely been legislative (e.g., the Zero Carbon Act) or in areas where the levers of power are relatively easy to pull (e.g., minimum wages, the winter energy payment, or making apprenticeships free, to name just three in a very long list).

Our lives over the past year have been more normal than in any other developed economy.

Where problems have occurred, sometimes it was because there were flaws in the policy in the first place (KiwiBuild was the worst example, with its lack of understanding of a whole range of supply issues). The Government has recognised that. The housing sector, including social housing, is operating at levels not seen for decades.

More crucial has been a lack of capacity in the bureaucracy. This can fairly be blamed in part on the previous National Government’s underfunding in key areas but doing so does not help solve current problems.

The most obvious failings have been from the Ministry of Health. There have been a range of implementation problems, which underlines the need for the kind of reforms Andrew Little is proposing.

Without a centralised delivery and operational arm, the Government is in a weak position to ensure consistent implementation of intended policy at the local level, as we have seen with vaccination (though everybody I have spoken to in my area, the Eastern Bay of Plenty, is very happy with the local rollout).

The structural reform of the health system is just one of the challenges that the Government has decided to take on.

Apart from the obvious issue of climate change, there is the monstrously complex matter of replacing the Resource Management Act, as well as local government reform.

Dealing with any one of those is not a journey to be undertaken by the faint-hearted or by those without a clear capacity to force decisions to be made.

Delay is the bureaucracy’s great defence weapon.

National’s health changes in 1991, which were based onthe idea of greater commercialisation and competition, came unstuck under the weight of their complexity and sheer silliness. Luckily, we only had to suffer for a few years the weirdness of going for a colonoscopy at a Crown Health Enterprise.

Now we are embarked on creating something akin to the British National Health Service, but in a New Zealand-specific context. Getting the details right will require considerable wisdom and close consultation with many different groups. In particular, fears that there might be a wholesale closure of smaller local hospitals, fears that National will surely encourage, must be clearly allayed.

With respect to the replacement of the Resource Management Act, the release of an exposure draft of the main part of the proposed legislation on Tuesday is a significant step forward on what will be a long process.

Wisely, the Government has decided to have two rounds of select committee hearings. The first will be on the exposure draft, the second on the full draft law to be introduced in 2022.

These are changes that, got right, could greatly improve the planning processes, givingbetter protection for the environment and quicker and more certain outcomes for those seeking consents. But there is also a serious risk of perverse outcomes that are the opposite of those desirable objectives.

Reform of the RMA is probably linked in some ways to reform of local government. It is now 20years since the last major local government reforms (other than the creation of the Auckland single authority). It is yet another minefield where local loyalties can conflict with rational policy.

Minister Nanaia Mahuta will have her hands full threading a safe path for New Zealand between the quarrelling giants of the US and China and dealing with the multitude of problems of local government.

Many reforms will not be complete by the time of the next election but doing the hard yards should continue to contrast with National’s continued chaotic indolence.

– Sir Michael Cullen is a former Labour MP and Minister of Finance.

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