Steven Joyce and policy-by-Twitter

It would be a perfect episode of The Thick of It, but it’s real: today, the Minister of Fixing Things Steven Joyce fundamentally altered government policy by trying to get snarky with the Opposition on Twitter:

Enter the fourth estate:

This may be news to the Minister of Finance.

And voila:

This isn’t just a case of “casually pretend that’s what we were going to do all along”. It’s a literally-radical shift in the government’s approach to public services, away from treating them like cash cows, put under greater and greater strain to deliver dividends (which just so happen to help Bill English reach that all-important surplus.) It opens the door to the idea that public organisations aren’t businesses run for a profit – they’re services run for the people of this country.

That is a conversation which terrifies National. But thanks to Mr Fix It trying to be clever in under 140 characters, it’s now one they cannot escape.

How we got here

When I saw this article about the Takapuna Kathmandu store deliberately destroying clothing, sleeping bags and tents before disposing of them, I started thinking about how the hell we got into this situation.

To give full credit to Kathmandu, they responded quickly on social media saying they would look into the practice and disavowing that it was company policy. But someone, somewhere along the line decided this was an OK thing to do. And as the story spread, people talked about other incidents – shoe stores slashing apart unwanted items, supermarkets discarding perfectly edible food and pouring bleach on it to stop desperate, hungry people from raiding their rubbish bins.

Right now, New Zealand is a country where families are living in cars and kids are going to school hungry. To have retailers destroying perfectly good, but “unsaleable” stock, especially food or clothing, is just unconscionable.

On the other side of things we have organisations like Kaibosh and Te Puea marae providing amazing, inspiring care and support for people in need – but it shouldn’t be necessary in the first place. And it didn’t used to be.

A long time ago in New Zealand we all, through public services run by the government, ensured every family had enough money to feed their kids and a safe house to live in. We used to make people’s jobs secure and support people who weren’t able to work.

We knew some things were too important to leave in the hands of private companies whose first priority was profit. We knew together, as people who are part of a community, we could help each other. And the government, or the state, was the best instrument of that – because it wasn’t driven by making a quick buck, because it was accountable to the people.

We lost that. But we didn’t lose it by accident. It was by design.

Blame whoever you want, the point is that we were told, and began to believe, that the private sector was more efficient that the government. That the motivation of monety – the very reason we had taken these essential services off the market in the first place – would deliver “efficiencies” and “better targeted services” and “more responsive organisations.”

We have case after case showing how untrue this is. Serco. Compass. Telecom. Tranz Rail. Bank of New Zealand. New Zealanders end up paying more and more, either directly or through goverment bonuses, for less and less.

Yet it’s still the received wisdom, ingrained further and further as the National Party undermine the public services we have left, deliberately underfunding and straining them to breaking point so they can triumphantly declare, “See? The government can’t provide these services! Best sell them off.”

The end result? Someone overseas is making a lot of money, and children here in Aotearoa are living in cars, going to school not with empty lunchboxes – with no lunchboxes at all.

And because New Zealanders are caring, compassionate people, we step up. We open our doors and put our hands in our pockets

Imagine if we could pool all those resources across the country and had a single organisation with the knowledge and leverage to ensure every kid gets breakfast and every family has a home. An organisation motivated by providing good lives for people, not payouts for shareholders.

We could call the organisation, “government”. We could call those resources we all chip in, “tax”. We used to know what those things meant, before we got to where we are now. Together, we can decide to go somewhere else.


Related reading: Simon Louisson at The Spinoff on why the left has to stop being apologetic about taxes.

How we talk about industrial action

There’s a problem with the way we talk about working people who take industrial action. The problem is we don’t talk about them at all.

Check out the framing of industrial action on the front page of Radio NZ – hardly NZ’s equivalent of Fox News – a couple of weeks ago.

rnz strike

“Auckland hit by bus strike” – as though a strike is a natural weather event which comes out of nowhere, and definitely isn’t about people taking action. Where are the people? “Auckland commuters left stranded” – there they are. Stranded! Because this strike came out of nowhere, and definitely didn’t involve any warning or notice. Much like a tornado.

There’s another interesting conversation to have about flexible working arrangements and how for many people working from home isn’t an option – usually people in lower-paid jobs, doing service work, providing “essential services” which aren’t compensated as such. But that’s not really what we’re saying when we talk about “commuters left stranded”, is it?

The blurb does get around to mentioning the people taking action – “bus drivers walked off the job.” As though a strike is just about a bunch of layabouts getting bored and wandering away, for no good reason at all!

It’s fair to point out that this is just the headline, and that the article behind it may well go into more detail – about the fact that the people who take responsibility for operating large, complex machines which transport hundreds of other human beings are overworked, underpaid, and being bullied when they dare to stand together in union.

But … it’s also the headline. This is the side of the story which gets the attention. Not the very real concerns faced by the people who drive buses full of other people and who are asking for totally unreasonable things like not driving for 5.5 hours straight without a break.

And so it is reinforced that strikes are random and unfair, that people who take strike action are doing it for no good reason, and that the real victims here are the white-collar workers who got inconvenienced on the way to work.

Which might be how we end up in situations like this:

Because we’ve lost sight of the people in the story and let the conversation about public transport, like so many other vital public services, become about money.

Speaking of which, here’s how yesterday’s announced industrial action was reported:

auckland dhb strike

loki sigh

There are real issues here. Our health system is missing at least $1.7 billion thanks to eight years of penny-pinching public-service-eroding National government. People who do absolutely vital work like managing pharmacies, providing occupational therapy and mental health support, and much less vital work like administering anaesthesia during surgery have been expected to keep on keeping on while their wages and work conditions have been eroded and outright cut.

The government has chosen to starve our health system, and DHBs have chosen – perhaps with little choice given their squeezed finances, but some nevertheless – to put pay and conditions for staff last on the list of priorities (except possibly for their chief executives.)

They’re not storming off in a huff because Daddy won’t buy them another pony. They are people being pushed to the limits who see no other way to get the message through.

Let’s remember that next time we see headlines about Cyclone Industrial Action Strikes Innocent Commuters as Faceless Robots Walk Off The Job.

Escaping the beartrap: good policy costs money

I wrote a while back about Metiria Turei’s 2016 state of the nation address, and my reservations about the idea of an “independent” policy costings unit. I said:

I want to like the idea of a policy costing unit. But we have to let go of the myth Treasury is an independent, non-ideological body. Look at the endless arguments about how we measure unemployment, poverty, economic growth. “Objective truth” doesn’t exist in politics.

What this means – even if you could get half-a-dozen economists in a room who could actually agree on a simple numerical breakdown of policy cost, even if money were the only thing that matters in policy – is that a central policy costings unit would have zero real effect on political debate. And as long as we’re bringing “my facts are the best facts” to a “my leader is the coolest leader you’d have a beer with” fight, we’re going to lose.

But there’s another fundamental issue at stake (which is why I’m not feeling too awkward raising this weeks later, when the policy has already made its ripples and been drowned out by the TPPA, Waitangi Day, and yes, that novelty cock-and-balls.)

This is the great millstone around the neck of the left: we keep buying into the idea that money is the most important thing in the political debate. So we keep making reassuring noises about balancing the books and delivering a surplus and careful management of the economy.

How’s that working for us so far?

Labour’s tertiary education policy is “fiscally neutral”. That was emphasised in its announcement. Did that stop the first question, from every journalist, being “what will it cost?” No. Does it mean that we would only be getting two years’ free tertiary education if the numbers didn’t add up? I hope not.

We’re trying to avoid the bear-trap of being labelled profligate spendy lefties without realising it’s already got our legs, it’s had them for thirty years, and it’s not letting go. And yet we drag it along, agreeing with National that public spending must be reasonable and public servants mustn’t be allowed nice things like a bit of pounamu or a hair straightener in the bathroom.

When we attack any “overspend” – staff gifts or Christmas parties, new fixtures in the bathrooms – we may grab headlines, but we also reinforce in the public mind that government spending is wasteful.

People don’t hang around to get to the second part of the argument – this spending is ridiculous because of the context in which so many public services are being ground away into nothing.

They’ll accept that letting health funding stagnate is a bad thing. Everyone knows we need more doctors and nurses. Everyone has a hospital horror story. But as long as we’re waving hair straighteners in their faces, all we’re saying is: the rest of it is rubbish. We’re not showing that what’s needed is a massive increase in public spending – on health, on education, on social support, on infrastructure.

“Just take away the hair straighteners”, they’ll say. And the Tories will cackle into their merlot as we make it even easier for them to say “right, public servants don’t get pay rises or hot water, gotta tighten those belts some more” next time they’re in power. (Shortly followed by, “we told you the public service was useless; better privatise the police force!”)

But it’s not sustainable. You can’t keep slapping duct tape on the broken waterpipe forever. It might hold for a while, it might save you in the costs of a replacement for now, but eventually the whole thing has to be properly fixed, and it only costs more the longer you wait and the more damage you let happen.

So we have an difficult decision to make. We can smash the beartrap. We can start making the argument that public spending is a public good. That the only downside of massively increasing our health and education budgets is that Kiwi kids will be a healthy little pack of nerds and the accountants will get sulky. That we might put the books in the red, but that’s because we have to repair the foundations to rebuild the New Zealand we all dream about.

Or we can keep doing the same thing. We can try to reason with the beartrap, telling ourselves that if only we show it enough graphs about Labour government surpluses it’ll change its mind and let us go, and the nation’s political editors will stop yelling “tax and spend!!!” every time we blink.

You know what I’d pick. I’m all about bold, unapologetically leftwing politics. How ’bout you?

The myth of focusing on front line services

I saw a shocking thing on Twitter yesterday:

A National Party minister admitting that the state has responsibility for something? Ridiculous!

Of course there’s a sting: the way “frontline” services are specifically mentioned.

This is another of the great National Party myths: that frontline services are vital, important, definitely necessary – but of course we can’t just throw money at them or they’ll end up bloated and wasteful and inefficient, like all those back office services we slashed to the bone.

key on public services

It’s fairly smart marketing. Very few people want to see a massive reduction in the public services they use – no one wants to see DOC scrapped or higher teacher:student ratios or longer hospital waiting lists. So when DOC faces cuts, it’s “office-based jobs” that are going. When they’re mashing agencies together willy-nilly it’s “[reducing] duplication of roles and back office functions“. When they decide to focus on preventative healthcare, it’s literally because “back-office cuts will no longer produce the savings required“.

We’re all just meant to accept that “frontline” workers like social workers, police and nurses aren’t just important – they’re all that’s important. We’re meant to buy the idea that anything which isn’t “frontline” – dealing directly with troubled kids, arresting bad people, treating hurt people – is a waste of time and money. Like so many of National’s successful memes, it just feels natural to accept that we should focus on the “core business” and get rid of anything which isn’t “core”.

The problem is that the work doesn’t go away. The notes have to get typed. The paperwork has to get filed. The timesheet reports have to get run. The roster has to be set. Someone has to fix the damn printer. And when there’s no one left in “the back office” to do it, somebody working on “core business” has to stop, find the phone number for the bloody technician, and explain to their boss why they had to pay for a call-out when the only problem was the yellow toner had run out.

That is a waste of time and money. That is a drain on frontline services. And the downstream effects are serious. How can the government tell if targets are being met when the data isn’t being recorded the same way or stored in the same place? How can supervisors measure people’s performance or oversee their workloads when everyone’s so busy the record-keeping is mostly taking place in their heads? How can people access services if their case manager is off sick and literally no one else can find or read their file?

How often do I see journalists or activists complaining that this Department or that Ministry has refused to fill an OIA request because either they don’t have the resources to collate the information, or they don’t even know how to find it? At that point, cutting the back office isn’t just counter-productive, it’s undermining our democracy.

We’ve taken a baby-step forward with Tolley’s admission that at least some CYF work can’t be outsourced to operators like Serco. We have to keep challenging the idea that the rest of the public service is up for grabs, challenging the false economy of splitting “back office” functions away from “frontline” work, and challenging the government’s deliberate strategy of running down public services until the point they can say “look, the state sector can’t deliver. Bring on privatisation!”