Editorial: Tuning into the needs of public service

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At last the National Party is giving some hints of its intentions should it come to power in a few months. Three policies have been indicated recently: a review of sports funding, a liberalisation of probationary employment and the removal of TVNZ's charter. All three possibly represent different larger thrusts of a National-led government.

Sports funding was cited by leader John Key, perhaps unfairly, for administrative waste. He also said the Government's funding body, Sparc, was one of at least eight state agencies receiving funds to fight obesity. The public service has expanded massively under Labour.

National would be bound to tackle that sort of obesity, not just to balance the Budget after tax cuts but, far more important, to reduce the proportion of the economy that depends on taxation of profitable activity.

National's plans for 90 days' probationary employment are also a taste of a larger likely project. The ability of employers to hire a person for a trial period is such a sound policy that even current labour law allows it. National simply promises to reduce the rights of those on trial hire to take personal grievance claims for dismissal within the period.

The change would be less significant than what it may signal for employment law generally.

Employers have been loaded with so many extra costs, restrictions and obligations during Labour's term that hiring staff has become a fearful prospect for small business. National will need to tackle that impediment to growth too.

Then there is TVNZ's sorry charter, a Labour initiative that even its creators would probably like to ditch quietly if they could. The charter was a halfway house to public service television, requiring the broadcaster to both compromise its profitability and continue to act commercially. It was a typical product of the "third way" thinking briefly in vogue before Labour came to power. It left TVNZ as confused as its diminishing audience.

The company has managed to fail on both fronts, screening few programmes that could not be profitable yet showing a loss in its latest year despite receiving $20 million from the taxpayer. National will give that charter money instead to NZ on Air, the public programme commissioning agency, so that all television makers might bid for it.

Again, the policy may be a taste of a more general return to competitive provision of public services. National is almost certain to reverse Labour's blind faith in state services in health, education and social welfare. National will probably put public patients in private hospitals when public wards are full, remove restrictions on the growth of independent schools and force state schools to compete for pupils again. It might allow private firms to manage prisons. It will certainly invite private investment in roads and public infrastructure.

Nobody will point out these possibilities more keenly than the Labour Party, ever alert to policies it can call "privatisation". The P-word has never been popular as a general rule, though the public takes a pragmatic view of particular proposals. If private television channels are awarded charter money for programmes clearly worthy of it, the audience will not mind.

TVNZ has been so weakened by the charter, by poor appointments and the talent they discarded, that it is no longer the dominating force it was when Labour took power. Yet National must keep it in state ownership in line with its disavowal of asset sales during a first term.

Within the bounds of that commitment, National has room to bring more competition and private enterprise back into public services. It will not venture very far in this direction before the election but voters ought to be alert to the direction. With a sophisticated electorate and a Government of sufficient courage, sheltered parts of the economy could be competitively improved.

- NZ Herald

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