Saturday, March 31, 2012

Karl du Fresne: Four months in and National's looking wobbly

It would be overstating things to say the wheels have fallen off the National government four months into its second term, but they’re looking decidedly wobbly.

Pumped up by its resounding election victory and freed from the constraints it imposed on itself with its ultra-cautious first-term agenda, National has been far more ambitious this time around. There’s a new toughness in its approach, though it still shrinks from tackling some of the big issues such as Working for Families, national superannuation and interest-free student loans.

You have to wonder, however, about the government’s ability to drive through the changes it is pursuing – and perhaps even more crucially, to carry the public with it.

The partial privatisation of state assets, a defining policy initiative, has been poorly handled. The electorate has been given confused and unconvincing messages about why the partial selloff is so important and what the benefits will be. In the vacuum that has opened up, public scepticism has taken root and the government has ceded the initiative to its opponents.

Things are looking messy elsewhere too. Budget stringencies have left an already weakened Defence Force bleeding, adding to a long record of inept and erratic decision-making in that portfolio. (Defence, once a senior Cabinet appointment, has been steadily downgraded since the Vietnam War protest generation came to power and is now in the hands of one of the government’s least impressive ministers.)

In Foreign Affairs, National is frantically back-pedalling after the diplomatic establishment, famously change-averse at the best of times, staged a spirited revolt against a proposed shakeup. Minister Murray McCully’s main concern now seems to be to distance himself from changes that he initially appeared to endorse.

On the industrial front, the government has to deal with a troublesome national union leader, Helen Kelly, who combines her late father Pat’s fiery combativeness with sharp political instincts and communication skills. Union disruption may never again become the issue that it was in the 1970s, but it has the potential to be a continuing distraction and irritant.

Add to all that the Crafar farms imbroglio, suggestions of conflict between Mr Key and his deputy Bill English, allegations of crony capitalism arising from sweetheart deals such as the one with casino operator Sky City, and now the fiasco surrounding Nick Smith’s resignation, and any report card for the government at this stage of its term would have to read: “A much better effort needed.”

Perhaps the most disquieting aspect of National’s second-term performance so far is that its programme seems scattergun and ad hoc. There is little sense of a consistent, over-arching philosophy. Despite Mr Key’s protestations to the contrary, his much-touted “Super Thursday” speech amounted to little more than a wish list, and a rather disjointed one at that.

Of course there’s still Steven Joyce, who will preside over a new super ministry to be formed by the hasty merging of four departments. He’s touted as some sort of secret weapon, but it seems a lot to ask of one minister.

In the meantime it’s hard not to be sceptical. The government talks of achieving 120 key targets but that’s a hopelessly unwieldy goal, and according to Mr Key the list isn’t even complete yet. It reminds me of those brainstorming sessions government departments hold where expensive consultants are brought in to “facilitate” ideas which, at the end of the day, fill several whiteboards but are promptly forgotten once everyone goes back to work.

ONE TARGET the government has already ticked off, but which may come back to bite it once the full implications become apparent, is the elaborate new regulatory regime governing the building industry.

Legislative changes like this can sneak up on people. Unlike the new give way laws, they don’t get a million-dollar publicity campaign. It’s not until they take effect that people start to squeal.

Under the new regime, builders have to become “licensed building practitioners”, complete with shiny plastic cards and photo IDs. The new rules also impose restrictions on traditional Kiwi do-it-yourselfers, who are about to learn that some jobs they were previously allowed to tackle must now be done by an LBP.

The licensing of builders is the regulators’ response to the leaky homes catastrophe. It’s a classic kneejerk reaction to the perception that something must be done.

The irony is that it not only lets some of the people who created the leaky homes mess, such as architects, off the hook, but enhances the power of the bureaucracy that presided over the leaky buildings epidemic.

What are we to make of all this? Simply that once again, the mug citizen ends up being penalised for the failings of others – and is expected to be grateful for the costly and cumbersome regime now in place, because after all it’s for our own good.

Karl blogs at www.karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz. Article first published in The Dominion Post, March 27

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