New Zealanders quite like tinkering with things. Pulling things apart and putting them back together is just as Kiwi as hokey pokey ice cream. Visiting hardware stores is a weekend occasion for many of us, and throughout the summer you are just as likely to hear a drill buzzing or a hammer hammering as you are the cicadas that are now starting to wake up and make their presence known.
While tinkering around the house is an enjoyable pastime that can also yield some improvements, it is not a productive approach to government policy-making, and rarely leads to the best of outcomes.
A quite bizarre event occurred this past week, and you would be forgiven for missing it. Parliament went into urgency – which suspends the normal business of our MPs, and allows our legislators to pass law at a rapid pace and often without public scrutiny. This is not unusual by any means when there is legislation that urgently needs to pass, such as implementing a lockdown in response to a pandemic, or implementing a public holiday to commemorate the death of the Queen, as just but two examples.
It is unusual, as was the case last week, to go into urgency to progress a gargantuan amount of 24 pieces of legislation, few of which are urgent by any definition of the word, and many which are minor, inconsequential amendments. One of them was a piece of legislation that establishes the four entities that will take charge of our water. You do have to ask, why such a rush?
And why so many pieces of legislation that, in reality, are unlikely to have any meaningful impact on New Zealanders – and certainly not on the pressing issues that many of us are facing. Not one of those 24 pieces of legislation was remotely related to crime, which is spirally out of control in the Canterbury region. Not one was related to supporting businesses to address the continuing challenges of labour market shortages or to increase access to capital. Not one was related to education, to get our youngsters back into school, and to prepare them for the future of work.
New Zealand’s political environment seems to be stuck in an unfortunate position, because of the three-year election cycle, where we tend not to bother on the big things, and we instead focus on tinkering with the little things-- the quick wins and the headline grabbers. And when we do focus on the big things, we do it in a way that is rushed, and often not with a long-term view in mind. We’ve digressed from a Parliament that is solely focused on creating better outcomes for New Zealanders, and identifying problems before we attempt to fix them.
And sometimes we just change things for the sake of changing them. One of the big pieces of legislation that has been plaguing the business community this year is Fair Pay Agreements. In my previous column, I wrote about these in more depth, and I will repeat the point we hear from Canterbury businesses ad nauseam. Why has a complicated and convoluted piece of legislation that will make it more difficult for businesses to operate been introduced to solve a problem that does not exist? New Zealand enjoys some of the best employment relations in the developed world, with flexibility and agility that we cannot lose. So what are we fixing?
One of the pieces of legislation that was introduced in urgency last week was one that will require all businesses in New Zealand to elect a health and safety representative, including the small business that might employ three people, which now has to invest in training for their staff, at a time where the economy is under significant pressure. Previously, small businesses did not need to worry about this unless they were a high-risk industry, such as forestry or mining, so, again, what is the problem we are trying to solve? Are small businesses really that unsafe?
The business community is losing faith in our policymakers’ ability to define problems and create meaningful and fair solutions. We are stuck in a Catch-22 type situation, because the complex problems that need to be addressed – rising levels of crime, investment in infrastructure, reforming aspects of our public system that are not delivering successful outcomes – all require a long-term approach. And the level and extent of reform needed to fix them, is prohibited by election cycles.
Think of a new Government coming into the Beehive. Let’s be generous and say it takes a year to warm up, to clear the muck out of the cupboards and start to establish a good legislative programme. Now let’s fast forward to the third year, it’s election time and the focus is on winning votes. That leaves just one year in the middle to actually get things done, and make decisions which might not be vote winners, but they might be the best decisions to create long-term outcomes that result in a better New Zealand.
One year is not a very long time. Perhaps, given the outcomes delivered since the adoption of our MMP system, it’s time to consider extending the term. Five years, would give our incoming Governments a solid three years to implement changes. Because at the moment, in my view, the first year and the third year may as well not exist. With a longer term, perhaps, we might see some bold and visionary reform, with a longer range view, that our country so desperately needs.
Reform is a word that has lost its true meaning. Reform is bold. Reform is about pulling things apart and reassembling something that is faster, better and more efficient than it was originally. The reform we have seen of late has not fit that definition at all.
Let’s consider the reform of the health system. A new name and a restructure is not a reform. It is a new name and a restructure. The same entity still exists, and it is still delivering the same outcomes and, in some cases, maybe worse than before. The components might look different, or be slotted in a slightly different place, but it is still the same. It hasn’t gained anything new, or lost anything clunky that is preventing it from delivering better outcomes for New Zealanders. As has been the case in Christchurch this year, cancelling all non-urgent appointments because the system is about to collapse under pressure is just not acceptable. A new name is not going to fix that.
One of the concerns at the back of minds within the business community is the reform of our tertiary education sector. At a time when we desperately need to be investing and focusing our attention on equipping the future workforce, we are seeing the merger of entities – some of which are performing quite well on their own. The headlines, instead, indicate it is fraught with scandals, resignations, and our future workforce, and our younger generation, are no better off because of it.
That’s not to mention the changes in almost every other aspect of the public sector that are occurring, including Three Waters. Is changing everything, all the time, all at once, really the best method? Should we not be focusing on the most pressing issues first and doing it properly, with a view of creating better outcomes over the long term rather than quick wins?
Take a look at investment in infrastructure. Christchurch aside, where new infrastructure was required immediately due to the earthquakes, elsewhere in New Zealand we seem to take the approach that it is not until a road is constantly congested, and motorists (read: voters) are unhappy, that we make decisions to invest and expand. We should be starting projects decades before they are needed. Not after they’re needed. But that doesn’t win votes.
There is a growing and quite compelling case that our current electoral system is limiting the ability for successive Governments to be bold and to engage in actual reform, and not just tinker with minor alterations and the headline-grabbing policy wins that sound great on paper and are good for the polls, rather than the tough actions that solve problems, and leave New Zealand in a better position.
As we head into the barbeque season before an election year and the inevitable political debates amongst family and friends occur, maybe it’s time to focus on the system and not the political personalities, and consider, whether it may not necessarily be the political parties alone that are not delivering to their best extent, but rather a political system that is not hindering the ability to deliver long term outcomes – and a public service as a whole that would benefit from a new operating model that enables agility, innovation, a growth mindset and is focused on execution versus tinkering.
Food for thought.
Leeann Watson is the chief executive of the Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce, the leading and largest business association in the South Island.