Bruce Bisset: Govt mustn't downsize readiness

By Bruce Bisset

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Seems to me it often takes violent and disastrous events - such as Hurricane Sandy or the Pike River Mine explosion - to wake people up to the realities of what's happening in the world and how their governments are dealing with it.

And while these two examples were very different tragedies in nature and scale, one thing they underline is that less government does not equal better government, particularly in a changing environment where natural disasters are increasing in frequency.

See, it's easy to call for cutbacks in government spending as some sort of "answer" to economic woes, but the reality of cuts is a loss of civil service jobs and regulatory performance.

And when people speak of "government", they often overlook that police, fire, and medical personnel, among others, are part of that definition. In other words, the people you'd rely on to respond to disaster.

Similarly the regulations that are set - and how "tight" or otherwise those are - and the monitoring and inspection processes to enforce those regulations, are directly impacted by the amount of money spent on that regime; which in turn helps define the "culture" of performance, for good or ill.

Pike River is a clear case of abysmally slipshod performance arising from ill-conceived "cost-saving" regulation coupled with staff and budget cuts. Bad government, in short.

That Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson fell on her departmental sword over it is only fitting, though her resignation was merely symbolic given she retains other Cabinet posts.

Even so, she has shown far more integrity than fellow ministers Paula Bennett, Hekia Parata and Judith Collins, who have refused to even countenance such a course despite massive and repeated failings in their respective departments - failings all arguably caused, at root, by cost-cutting.

I'm not saying government departments should throw money around for the sake of it, nor that sometimes less isn't more in terms of efficiency.

But the difference between good and bad government is not simply how large or small the workforce or the budget is; it's how wisely it's spent and how well it performs - and knowing what makes the difference.

That difference, for a government, is in essence based on need. But while governments must juggle the many often-competing needs of their citizens, those that look to abrogate their responsibilities in matters of health and safety (by farming out such "services" to the private sector) are in my humble opinion the worst.

This lesson from Pike River was repeated in its way by Hurricane Sandy, especially as the push from Mitt Romney's Republicans has been stridently "less government" in the past few years - a push that specifically included privatising disaster relief.

Sandy provided a timely reminder to US voters that a strong well co-ordinated federal response is the only practicable way to deal with large-scale events; and while it's too early to be sure, that seems to have been provided - on the back of the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Arguably the solid response to Sandy influenced the US election enough to see Barack Obama returned. Something the Nats might want to bear in mind, given the critical pasting the under-prepared emergency response teams are now getting for their confused reaction to the Christchurch earthquake.

Bottom line is that health-and-safety issues, including emergency response, are too important to be downsized or otherwise marginalised simply for the sake of saving money - especially as a poor response costs far more than might ever have been saved.

From my experience in co-ordinating the production of a health-and-safety guide for New Zealand's film industry, I'm aware that while workers see comprehensive workplace safety as a rightful necessity, employers tend to see it only in terms of immediate (read, unnecessary) cost.

This head-in-the-sand attitude must change - in government and in business.

For as Sandy also pointedly reminded, extreme events are becoming more frequent and more severe. As one of Wall St's leading analyst services, Bloomberg, rather surprisingly but succinctly bannered on their magazine's front page this week: "It's climate change, stupid."

The onus is on politicians to make an attitudinal change and ensure our response systems are adequate to that challenge.

Small thinking won't cut it.

That's the right of it.

Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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