28 Oct 2018

Few fireworks in Labour-NZ First marriage, but is govt delivering?

8:16 am on 28 October 2018

By Brigitte Morten Political Commentator

Opinion - Governments should be judged on what they deliver to their constituents, not on how well they get along.

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Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ Richard Tindiller

Unfortunately, most of the commentary after one year of the Labour-NZ First government seems focused on how well the political parties got on, rather than what they delivered to taxpayers.

There were two camps after the last election - those that thought the coalition between NZ First and Labour couldn't possibly last a year, and those that thought it would stay together because there was no alternative.

Neither camp expected the lack of fireworks.

There have been flashes of tension - the public rebuttal of the reversal of the three strikes law for repeat offenders, and the public disagreement over refugee numbers.

But as the prime minister recently stated, more than 50 decisions are made in government in a week and most of these have happened without disagreement - or at least public disagreement.

Of course, the coalition working well doesn't mean that good policy decisions have been made.

Early on, in their eagerness to demonstrate that they were a government of action they made a series of decisions that will continue to haunt them - namely spending $2.8 billion to give tertiary students their fees free in the first year, and an uncanvassed decision to ban further oil and gas exploration.

The $2.8 billion is being held up against every other spending decision that the government makes - most prominently teachers' pay rises that are setting off another round of strikes.

Furthermore, analysis by Statistics NZ shows that this policy has largely benefited higher income families, and that there hasn't been a marked difference in the number of students studying.

The decision on oil and gas seems to guarantee that business confidence in this government will remain permanently low with many citing this decision, along with potential changes on industrial relations, as the reason why they don't trust this government.

Another of the first acts of this government, that received less attention but has ongoing impact, was to remove targets and measurement across a lot of the government. The Better Public Service targets, along with a number of measures in health and education, demonstrated to the public how well the government was actually doing on delivering to taxpayers.

Measurements tend to keep governments transparent and accountable. Without them constituents have little objective measure on the performance of their government.

For the Coalition government however the bigger issues lie ahead. The cascade of findings from the over 150 working groups and reviews set up in the last year will start to hit. Along with the high expectations of those that they were set up to satisfy.

Managing the financial implications will be just one factor to manage. The co-dependencies between the reviews and how to implement them in a coherent manner will be difficult. Juggling the legislative calendar and budget cycle to implement them before the election year hits will be tricky.

The aspirational nature of this government, and most prominently of Ardern's Prime Ministership is yet to be realized but it is difficult to have real impact in one year. On issues like child poverty, the ground work is beginning and has positively attracted a bipartisan approach from National. But whether actual children's lives have benefitted during this year is difficult to see.

After one year of coalition government we have three political parties largely getting along, and some good intentions from all three to implement change, but taxpayers are yet to see the actual realization of much of the rhetoric.

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