The shape of our new government

So here’s what our new government promises, as reported by Stuff:

Some key points from the NZF deal:
– $1b per annum Regional Development Fund,
​- Re-establish the New Zealand Forestry Service
​- Review and reform of the Reserve Bank Act
​- Progressively increase the Minimum Wage to $20 per hour by 2020
​- Comprehensive register of foreign-owned land and housing
​- Free doctors’ visits for all under 14s
​- Free driver training for all secondary students
​- A new generation SuperGold smartcard containing entitlements and concessions
​- A royalty on exports of bottled water
​- Commit to re-entry to Pike River
​- A full-scale review into retail power pricing
​- MPs allowed to vote on a potential referendum on euthanasia

Some of the big parts of the Green Party/Labour confidence and supply agreement include:

– Introduce a Zero Carbon Act with a goal of net zero emissions by 2050
– A referendum on personal cannabis use by 2020
– Establish and independent Climate Commission. This would have the power to bring agricultural emissions in but would not do this immediately
– All new legislation to have a climate impact assessment analysis
– Investigate a Green Transport Card to reduce public transport costs
– Reprioritise spending towards rail and cycle infrastructure
– Stop the Auckland East-West link
– Begin work on light rail to the airport in Auckland
– “Significantly increase” the Department of Conservation’s funding
– Remove “excessive” benefit sanctions
– Make progress on eliminating the gender pay gap within the core public sector
– A rent-to-own scheme as part of KiwiBuild
– Re-establish the Mental Health Commission
– A wind-down on the government-subsidised irrigation

That’s some damn fine government.

We’re still to see who’s going to be taking which ministerial roles (Stuff also has a handy list of which portfolios have gone to NZ First and the Greens), but that list right there promises some genuine change and progress for New Zealand over the next three years.

There’s also a broader message, and a distinct step away from the government of the past nine years: the state has an important role to play in our lives. It can create jobs. It can share out the wealth of the nation fairly. It can and it should ensure that every single person in our country lives a decent life.

Which was already pretty obvious to those of us on the left end of the spectrum, but was anathema to the government of John Key and Bill English, who were happy to take the credit for good things happening but were missing in action as more and more wealth was taken out of workers’ hands by a greedy few, as corporate neglect literally killed people, as multinationals grabbed everything they could get and expected us to carry the consequences and ensure them ever-greater profits.

This is the change of direction we needed, and a more significant one than I’d hoped for, honestly. It’s not perfect, and many things can happen over a parliamentary term – three years is an eternity in politics when you’re at the beginning of them. But it is a start.

And it must be a start. As I’ve said before, to avoid cruising toward defeat in a term or two there needs to be a plan; a strategy, if you’ll forgive the horrific public sector management speak, of continuous improvement. A minimum wage of $20 by 2020 (perhaps sooner, if political capital allows?) is great, combined possibly with introducing the Living Wage for the core public service, for a first term government. But we need to be thinking about term two ($25 minimum wage? Living Wage for all central and local government employees, including contractors?) and term three (Living Wage = minimum wage?) and treating each milestone as a step, not a finish line. Free doctors’ visits for under 14s is a start: the goal must be free doctors’ visits for all. “Progress” to eliminate sexist pay structures in the public service is a start; the goal must be ending sexist discrimination in pay.

I know the temptation is to sit back and look at the amazing things this Labour-led government will deliver over the next three years. But one thought keeps popping into my head this week: the work is never done. There is always more to do, and we cannot lose sight of that. We cannot rest on the achievements of the past; that’s how you get third-term arrogance and stagnation.

This government can achieve huge things, and shift politics in New Zealand so that greedy, self-interested, narrow-minded right wing bullshit never gains sway again. But it will take work. And I think we’re ready for it.

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?

Our kids are still getting sick in unhealthy homes

Andrew Little put the hard word on John Key over housing in Question Time yesterday:

Prime Minister John Key implied that mould problems in some Housing New Zealand homes could be caused by tenants not ventilating them enough, something his widowed mother was vigilant about in their Christchurch state house.

He also rejected claims by Labour that the Government was making “a profit” from Housing New Zealand because it took a dividend.

This is one of those issues where John Key’s argument only makes sense if you haven’t seen what his government has done to SOE after SOE: put immense pressure on to deliver increased dividends – on the basis that they should “run like businesses” and not waste “taxpayers’ money” on fripperies like reinvestment and value-add.

The chairman of Solid Energy cited this pressure for dividends as a reason for his company’s financial issues.

And what’s been the anthem of this government since 2008? Surplus, surplus, surplus, even if it means making really bad short-term money decisions which will cost our country hugely in the future.

Meanwhile, we’ve found out that apparently Housing New Zealand doesn’t even do pre-emptive repairs and maintenance on vacant houses before offering them to new tenants.

A woman whose son’s severe health problems are being partly attributed to the mould in her state house says she has been offered a different house – but that’s mouldy too.

Health professionals said the mould in Te Ao Marama Wensor’s Glen Innes home was a contributing factor to her seven-year old’s faulty heart valve and holes in his lungs.

In a statement, Housing New Zealand said the recently offered house would have undergone a full maintenance and repair check, as would happen to all properties before a new tenant moved in, to make sure it was suitable.

Because there are some poor families for whom black mould actually conveys health benefits!

But I’m sure that inspection would have happened in a timely and thorough fashion. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been delayed, put off, rescheduled, or ultimately found to be too expensive. I’m sure that on some planet it makes perfect sense not to immediately check properties as soon as the previous tenants have moved out.

And I’m sure that getting people off the waiting list into any home available ASAP is not at all motivated by the only metric that matters: Nick Smith’s numbers.

juking the stats

Given how this government runs things, I have a really dispiriting suspicion that someone at HNZ figured out it was a lot cheaper to wait for tenants (who are hardly in a position of power and who definitely don’t want to be stuck back on that waiting list) to complain before fixing things.

And the result of that is that our kids are getting sick and even dying.

But hey, if Bill from Dipton gets the books into the black, everything must be going ok!

Costly government

I wrote yesterday about our heartless, penny-pinching government, which emphasises Getting To Surplus at all costs even if that means kids dying in cold state houses.

This is the true irony of National governments. Their entire platform is one of “fiscal responsibility” and “good economic management” yet time and time again they spend money the way I did when I was a teenager: false economies and short-term wish fulfilment which meant at the end of the week I was calling home collect and begging for rides which cost our household a lot more than if I’d just made sure I had enough money for the bus.

Fifteen-year-old-me was pretty stellar at externalising the losses, but I don’t think anyone, especially my parents or me, would relish the idea of her running the country.

National are, on the surface, all about cracking down on unnecessary spending and bureaucratic bloat, delivering value for money, getting proper returns on investment.

And yet, they don’t save us money.

A 2013 report of the National Health Committee on respiratory diseases puts the cost of lower respiratory tract infections like pneumonia at:

The average length of stay was about 3.5 days and the average price per hospitalised individual was $4,700.

According to the coroner’s report, Emma-Lita Bourne was admitted to hospital on 6 August and died on 8 August. Three days; and probably higher than average costs given the complications she suffered.

Making sure her family could afford to heat their home and throw some carpet on the floor wouldn’t have cost $5,000 – and could not only have saved her life in 2014 but prevented any number of future illnesses for her and her siblings.

A 2014 report from UNICEF states:

Every year, taxpayers face a bill of $6-8 billion for additional health needs, remedial education and reduced productivity that result from 260,000 children living in poverty.  This cost is largely due to the fact that children most likely to be in poverty are very young, when the most important physical, mental and social development is occurring.  Furthermore, a large group of children live in poverty for a long time – 7 years – and about ten per cent of Kiwi Kids live in severe poverty.

Six to eight billion. What was the estimated cost of Hone Harawira’s Feed the Kids bill again? $100 million. Estimated cost of Sue Moroney’s extension to paid parental leave? $276 million over three years. Drops in a bucket.

The Greens-initiated housing insulation policy had, as of May 2012, cost $347 million and returned estimated benefits – in reduced healthcare costs – of $1.68 billion. That’s some good fiscal management right there.

And as the fabulous Dr Liz Craig put it a couple of years ago:

… a housing warrant of fitness could improve the condition of rental properties, and although it could increase rents, at the moment all taxpayers are covering the costs of substandard housing through the health system and it’s a conversation the country needs to have.

Emphasis mine.

It’s almost like the radical notion that prevention is better than cure stacks up – ethically and financially. Maybe not on a single year’s balance sheet; but when we’re talking about caring for people from cradle to grave, a single year’s balance sheet is irrelevant.

So if National were truly interested in efficiencies and return on investment – instead of just using those buzzwords to sell their latest erosion of the public service – every state house would be warm and dry. Every kid would get breakfast and lunch. Every parent could give their kids the best start in life with mum or dad at home for those crucial early months.

Sometimes people on the left object to putting things in monetary terms – when the Public Service Association put the cost of domestic violence to business in numbers ($368 million a year) there was criticism: surely we’re motivated to stop domestic violence because it’s a bad thing which should never happen to anyone!

They’re right. They’re also wrong. This is a heartless government. They don’t do things “just because” it’s the right thing to do. Their focus is always on the money: they balance the books, they do the practical stuff, not the wasteful airy-fairy lefty stuff.

So we must, and can, argue this on both fronts. Of course every Kiwi kid should get breakfast and lunch because food is a fundamental part of being healthy and happy. But it’s also not just feelgood. It saves a huge amount of money in the long run, in education, in healthcare, in law enforcement.

It doesn’t mean we accept the frame that everything is about money. We just show very clearly how doing the right thing morally also means doing the right thing financially. The National Party isn’t selling our soul to save dollars; it’s selling our soul and costing us money at the same time.

That can’t be anyone’s definition of “good government.”