Bryce Edwards: Government struck down by review-itis

A proliferation of reviews, inquiries, and independent panels have been launched by the new government. Victoria University’s Dr Bryce Edwards argues this government is in danger of being struck down by “review-itis”, and this isn’t good for democracy.

One of the most alarming similarities between the start of Jacinda Ardern’s Labour-led Government and John Key’s National administration nine years ago, is an over-reliance on technocratic working groups and reviews to advance a policy agenda. Both governments moved fast once they got into office, keen to show how active they were in the early days – which provided a sense of momentum and confidence. Yet, those administrations achieved much less in their first bursts of activity than might initially appear. Much of the check-list of activities involved simply launching talk-shops rather than implementing policies.

According to RNZ, in its first five months in power the new Labour-led government has launched 39 new inquiries, working groups, reviews, and agencies – see Zac Fleming’s story on Checkpoint yesterday: Govt announces 39 reviews, groups, investigations in 5 months. This means that, on average, there’s been a new review, or similar initiative, announced every four days.

In this RNZ story I am reported as arguing that modern politics is obsessed with taking the safe approach and political parties never want to go out on a limb, preferring to “kick for touch” on controversial issues. I explain that the phenomenon of such working groups is a “disease that is spreading to all governments”. Partly, the shift is explained by the fact that increasingly, our politicians and political parties don’t have their own visions, strong ideologies and principles – or, at least, they are afraid to voice them – and so they turn to technocrats to solve problems, and generally pass the buck.

There are a number of problems with this approach. There is a political culture in New Zealand in which voters expect political parties to first campaign on manifesto promises and, secondly, implement them once in government. This “mandate model” of governing allows voters to be involved in the policy process, providing greater legitimacy to what is then implemented.

This doesn’t mean reviews are never necessary. Many of the inquiries and reviews are, of course, entirely legitimate – a new government should always be willing to establish some independent examinations that would be difficult or impossible to carry out while in opposition. For example, the Royal Commission on state care abuse, and even the mental health review, need to be carried out by people outside of the Labour Party. And, these particular reviews were well signalled in advance of the election.

But many other reviews appear necessary simply because Labour hadn’t prepared itself for government during its lengthy spell in opposition. Taxation policy, which will now be developed in the Tax Working Group, should have been worked out prior to the election. These issues are deeply ideological, and could have been presented to the electorate in 2017. Instead, it simply appears that they were swept under the carpet by a party that was not bold enough to have a public debate, nor risk the public giving a negative verdict on their plans.

The Labour Party has pleaded poverty, saying they needed to wait until they won power so they could use the institutions of the state to develop policy. And that’s partly genuine, because, by and large, modern political parties and their activists aren’t used to developing fully fledged policy. Whereas in the past, parties used their members, branches, and conferences to come up with solutions to the problems of society, now these institutions are mere fodder for campaigning. The public don’t join political parties in any great numbers and, when they do, they find out that they don’t have much influence over policy-making.

This is why the politicians have voted themselves large parliamentary budgets. The multi-million dollar “Leaders’ Funds” paid for by the taxpayer are supposed to be used to develop policy and help MPs consult and communicate about policy issues with constituents. Hence, the parties now have large research units and numerous staff who might be expected to help develop tax policies and other solutions to the ills of society.

In theory, then, parties in opposition are now better able to do their policy reviews than ever before. In reality, these staff and budgets are used more for the “permanent campaigns” of the parties. They’re essentially electioneering throughout the parliamentary cycle, and trying to find ways to score points against the party’s opponents. The new mindset seems to be that “policy development can be done once we get into power”.

Therefore, once in government, the trend is to outsource policy development to experts and independent economists and advisers. This is part of the “cult of independence” beloved of politicians – who feign that they are putting policy develop “above party politics” by bringing in rational experts.

The problem is that experts are now increasingly unfashionable amongst the public around the world. So-called “experts” are often derided and distrusted by the public as being part of an elite that is divorced from the realities of life. And even more suspicious for many voters, a lot of these experts aren’t even traditional public servants. Instead, governments are increasingly by-passing the government department officials and going to those in the private sector and other elements of the “political class” connected to the politicians. The working groups and review panels can be seen as a cosy club of cronies, businesspeople, and former politicians.

Around the world, populists and anti-establishment politicians are riding a wave of discontent about these elites. While this still hasn’t happened much here, if Labour and National governments continue down this path of post-election “review-itis”, then there’s a possibility of public trust heading further south, and rightly so.

In terms of the current government, all of this hesitancy and technocracy doesn’t bode well for those wanting to see a government of deep change and reform. Instead it suggests that we are in line for yet another John Key-style administration of caution and pragmatism.

It’s worth noting that the Key Government’s similar obsession with setting up reviews and working groups led the then deputy leader of the Opposition, Annette King, to complain that “The National-led government has become a government of endless meetings, reviews, taskforces, action groups and pilot studies”. King’s diagnosis back in 2010 was that the “Government is struck down by reviewitis”. It seems that the same prognosis can be made in 2018.