John Armstrong on politics

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: More public sector cuts? Quelle surprise

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Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell

No surprises here. Just more of the same, it seems. National has told public servants they can expect more cuts in departmental funding and more restructuring.

In other words, more cuts in jobs above the 5 per cent reduction in positions achieved since National came to power in 2008.

Yesterday's Prime Minister's statement to Parliament reveals that National's not-so-quiet revolution - the reorganisation of what it sees as a bloated state sector - proceeds apace even in election year.

But how much longer can National keep stripping money out of departmental budgets in real terms without serious consequences for the delivery and quality of services?

A lot longer, judging from the tone of yesterday's statement - the broad overview of Government policy for the year ahead which John Key is required to present on Parliament's opening day each year.

However, for the first time the document recognises that restructuring must be accompanied by real and easily understood measures of the impact on the quality of services.

As an example, it quotes performance targets which have been set for hospitals and health practices.

These are down-to-earth measures like ensuring the volume of elective surgery increases by a further 4000 patients a year, that 95 per cent of patients wait at an emergency department for no longer than six hours, and that cancer patients receive necessary radiation treatment within four weeks.

Such targets were introduced in the health sector in 2006. Until now, they have been given little prominence.

Yet they are the other half of the equation when it comes to state-sector cutbacks which now look like going much further than National flagged at the last election.

This approach - which is being followed overseas - is seen as putting the onus on state sector bosses to be innovative, while putting political pressure on ministers to ensure their departments meet their targets.

This year's statement is also notable for attempting to neutralise Labour's election-year lines of attack.

It devotes much attention to replicating Labour's plan to create a far more co-ordinated approach to stopping vulnerable at-risk children falling through the cracks.

Labour also intends to focus on the cost of living in the run-up to the election in the belief rising prices since the 2008 poll make National especially vulnerable on the economic front.

The statement's response is to try to turn the tables on Labour by claiming current monetary policy, which is driven by the Reserve Bank's focus on containing inflation, minimises price rises.

"We note that this is not the position of some other parties in this Parliament," it says, referring to Labour's plan to revise the Reserve Bank's targets to take in other economic indicators like the exchange rate. The implication is prices would rise even more under Labour.

While attacking Labour, the statement does not make the mistake of tipping off the Opposition where departmental cuts and mergers will occur. But then those looking for detail from the annual statement are always going to be disappointed given the document's function.

This year's effort is more informative than past ones, however, in signalling, for example, where National will put the emphasis when it comes to welfare reform. Even so, the Beehive was defensive about the lack of detail, stressing the statement was "directional". That sounds like a classic piece of bureaucratese created by public servants. They might have their uses after all.

- NZ Herald

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