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Dr Muriel Newman

Election About More Than Trust

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On Saturday November 8th Helen Clark will be asking voters for their support as she attempts to win an election that would elevate her to the rarefied ranks of four-term New Zealand Prime Ministers alongside Richard Seddon, William Massey and Keith Holyoake. During the address in which she announced the election date, Helen Clark explained that the 2008 general election will be about “trust” – whether the public can trust a Labour Government led by her, or a National Government led by John Key.

The reality is, of course, that an election should be about more important issues than trust alone. The fact that Helen Clark wants to fight an election on “trust” shows how little opportunity there is for Labour to mount a credible campaign. After nine years in power, one would have thought that Labour would have campaigned on its record. Clearly their internal polling is showing that their record is a weakness in the eyes of the electorate, not a strength. The reality is that Labour has now become an unpopular government and voters have grown tired of state intervention without any visible benefits.

Labour’s decision to ask the electorate to judge it on trust must have delighted the National Party, given that Helen Clark is now so closely associated with New Zealand’s most distrusted politician – Winston Peters. Unfortunately that means we must expect Labour’s campaign to be vicious and dirty, typical of failed regimes that are only able to remain in power by convincing the electorate that the alternative is worse than they are. In such a vitriolic campaign, the issues that are really important to the future wellbeing of the country will be lost.

Such an issue is whether bigger government really is the answer to society’s ills? Those who believe that more money, more bureaucrats and more laws is the only solution to such critical social problems as educational failure, rising crime and intergenerational welfare dependency, must surely see that as a result of nine years of an ever-expanding government, the problems have grown bigger not smaller!

This expansion of government has created other problems that are rarely mentioned, including the damage to our social fabric caused by excessive regulation. The taxes needed to pay the salaries, buy the cars and build the offices for the additional 15,000 public servants hired since Labour took office, is only a part of the problem. A bigger cost is the waste of time, energy and money spent on the mountain of compliance including the endless form filling, inspections, assessments, reports and other deadweight costs of red tape associated with each new wave of regulation.

But even more harmful is the damage to the Kiwi spirit as personal responsibility, creativity and optimism are crushed by big government. While hard working New Zealanders who desperately want to get ahead are forced to shelve their hopes and dreams – because the struggle has become just too difficult – big government’s ruling elite have, for example, been able to hold a book launch extravaganza at which guests were served muttonbirds and oysters, washed down with glasses of bubbly, reported to have cost taxpayers $75,000! [1]

The point is that unfettered big government creates its own life force. It grows like topsy and wastes money like it is going out of fashion. In his book The Economic State of the Nation, Professor Roger Bowden describes the growth of bureaucracy in this way: “Once started, managerial bureaucracy becomes a self-perpetuating virus, to the point where it eventually gets out of control altogether. Like some swelling flood, it gathers momentum as it sweeps common sense from its path, and it becomes overlain with empire building, careerism and other supplementary agendas. By now the organization is being run by the wrong people, and their mistakes are no longer micro, they are mega”.

Universities, in particular, have become hotbeds of bureaucracy with administrators now outnumbering coalface staff – who do the teaching and research – by two to one. To make matters worse, a new administrative system devised by the Labour Government, is seriously increasing the bureaucracy, threatening academic freedom and demoralising staff.

The Performance Based Research Funding (PBRF) process uses arbitrary criteria to rank the research outputs of university staff. The problem is that it encourages the production of formulaic publications favoured by the assessors, rather than unfashionable but potentially groundbreaking original research. In fact, under the PBRF system it has been estimated that much of the research produced by both Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein would have been graded as failures. As a result of this system, New Zealand is in grave danger of losing high calibre staff fed up with research assessments being ranked lower than they believe they should be.

This weeks NZCPR Guest Commentator is Dr Ron Smith, the Director of International Relations and Security Studies at the University of Waikato, whose article The Tyranny of Fadism: PBRF and other stories, soundly condemns the system: “Performance Based Research Funding fails on all counts. It fails to adequately or equitably evaluate performance and it produces no (net) funding. In part it fails to achieve its objectives because it is conceptually flawed and badly administered”.

Dr Smith has also prepared a more comprehensive Research Report for the New Zealand Centre for Political Research. In this research report he explains the “corrupting” affects of the PBRF: “We now have a whole apparatus of ‘portfolio managers’, standing ready to advise staff on how to present their efforts to best advantage, how to garner expressions of ‘esteem’, and, above all, how to appeal to the prejudices of those who will sit in judgement. In the political context we would talk of ‘spin-doctors’, or ‘sexing-up’, or simply of deceit”.

Dr Smith concludes with the advice that university staff should view the PBRF “rather as national defence forces would view the appearance of a hostile submarine. Keep an eye on it and, if it gets too close, sink it”.

Clearly, the affects of “big government” have spread through every public institution in the country. In the public health system it has got so bad that if all the managers were to get sick, there wouldn’t be enough hospital beds to put them in! And with this massively expanded bureaucracy absorbing scarce resources that could otherwise be going into service delivery, these are surely the sorts of issues that definitely need addressing during an election campaign.

As much as Helen Clark may wish to dictate what the election issues are, the electorate is likely to take a more considered view.

[1]. Dominion Post, Horomia defends dictionary party