John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Ministers risk seeming uncaring as jobs culled

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The Key Government does not seem to care about people losing their jobs, writes John Armstrong. Photo / Martin Sykes
The Key Government does not seem to care about people losing their jobs, writes John Armstrong. Photo / Martin Sykes

Streamlining may point to public services being outsourced

The pattern is familiar by now. But that does not make it any easier for those affected. Or the process any less cynical.

First, the staff hear rumours that their ministry is to be restructured. This is eventually confirmed by a memo that demands they attend hastily called meetings at which they are presented with the inevitable "consultation" document outlining which positions might be for the chop.

Except everyone knows that any consultation is not going to make a blind bit of difference when the "final" decisions are made as to who stays and who goes.

The staff know this because they have discovered by now that the job cuts follow months of secret planning by senior managers.

The staff are instead fed some blather about how the changes are a "constructive attempt" to create a ministry "that can meet New Zealand's current and future needs".

Thus was the pattern repeated at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs this week with the axing of more than 300 positions.

Funny how meeting New Zealand's needs was also the argument used four years ago to justify an increase of more than 100 in the ministry's diplomatic and support staff overseas.

The then Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, argued the increase was necessary because small countries such as New Zealand risked having their interests pushed aside unless they were able to make themselves heard.

Presumably nothing has changed in that regard - bar one thing. Strangely, funding for more jobs is announced by the portfolio minister, while job cuts are left to the department's chief executive to reveal.

In Peters' case, however, the extra funding was widely seen as part of the price Labour had to pay to keep New Zealand First's backing on confidence votes.

This week's job cuts also had a domestically driven political rationale. They are the price staff have to pay to help National's ever more quixotic attempt to reach Budget surplus by the end of the 2014-15 financial year.

Given National was destroying his legacy, Peters' slamming of the ministry's "orgy" of cost-cutting as "insane" was hardly surprising.

Peters has also attacked the job cuts at Te Puni Kokiri as an "appalling trade-off" between National and the Maori Party to fund the latter party's flagship Whanau Ora programme.

Whanau Ora, however, is a soft target of the kind that has always been in Peters' sights since the 1980s when he started campaigning against what he saw as government-funded exercises in Maori separatism.

What will be interesting to watch is what stance Peters adopts to forthcoming "reviews" in other ministries and government departments.

If he starts going into bat for the Wellington-based public service generally, it may be a sign that the public mood is souring towards National's slimming of the capital's bureaucratic elite.

Cuts in frontline staff in the Defence Force are the first sign that the freeze on departmental budgets is starting to compromise the delivery of services despite National's constant assurances that would not happen and redundancies would be confined to back-room employees.

The reduction in personnel reflects the mammoth savings being asked of the Defence establishment.

Far more worrying for National should be warnings of possible lay-offs at the Hawkes Bay, Waikato and Wanganui district health boards.

The Government might well stress that hospitals, unlike most of the public service, are getting annual increases in their budgets and for that reason need to make more effort to live within their means.

But such tough talk is adding ballast to the fast-growing impression that the Key Government does not seem to care.

It does not seem to care about people losing their jobs. It does not seem to care about New Zealand farms ending up in foreign hands. So consumed is it with selling off chunks of the three state-owned electricity generating companies that the recent hike in power prices passed it by, while the likelihood of further rises post-privatisation simply does not seem to be on National's political radar.

In fact, National seems unaware of how hard-edged it is starting to look with its noticeable drift to the right. The contrast with the soft pragmatism of its first term is starting to become pronounced.

It will become even more marked when the Prime Minister delivers a speech early next month flagging what is being dubbed as a revolution in the delivery of public services.

So far John Key has steered attention towards the role digital technology - smartphones and other such devices - will play in enabling people to access government services.

There is little argument that such change is necessary, not least because it is inevitable. Moreover, work has been under way for some time within the state sector to make it happen. But this leaves one big question: to what degree should existing methods of delivery - be they street-front offices or 0800 numbers - be reduced?

Overseas trials have suggested there would be a high take-up rate for digital access to such things as job vacancies, driver licence renewals, passport applications and so forth.

But the "geek" factor is at work here. The people participating in the trials do so because they are comfortable with the technology.

Opinion polls, however, reveal that while many people are happy to use the technology, they still want person-to-person contact via phone or office appointment.

Even more risky in political terms, however, is that National's several-pronged approach to public service reform includes the P-word - privatisation.

National has yet to reveal the degree to which taxpayer-funded services will be outsourced to the private sector, but the hints being dropped by Bill English suggest it might be quite serious.

This may take some selling to voters. Public service agencies have long shed their Gliding On reputation and now perform to private enterprise standards. They are also accountable when there is failure, whereas private providers will be one step removed.

National will also find itself having to fight off claims that privatisation will be the harbinger of user-pays.

All this will be grist to the Peters mill. National keeps adding to what is for him a sumptuous smorgasbord of issues of extreme salience to New Zealand First. He probably cannot believe his luck.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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