Elected governments are temporary

The most important post-election documents are not coalition and supply agreements. They’re the Briefings to incoming Ministers that each government department prepares for whomever has been appointed responsible Minister for their department. That’s obviously just my opinion.

Elected governments are temporary, bureaucracies are permanent. The structural reforms in the New Zealand public sector over the past 30 years have lead to a high level of corporate-like behaviour, but there is still a major lack of understanding around how power is actually distributed in Wellington.

The shenanigans the Labour Party is currently going through around David Cunliffe are a sideshow. The election was a sideshow. Democracy itself is a side show. Every day, thousands of people go to work and open up Word documents that detail policies, regulations, interpretations and draft legislation. They do this under the nominal control of the government of the day, but no one is dictating every single word to them.

For some, this isn’t a big deal. I’m not that concerned about the public service – almost every public servant has the public’s best interests at heart. They’re not evil conspiratorial creatures, they’re just people. New Zealand has a highly competent public sector relative to almost all the others. The attacks on the public sector by the right is something I don’t understand. The changes in policy and move towards more intervention in our day to day lives didn’t just happen through legislation – it happened through substantial changes in the people who start with blank Word documents.

In Wellington Central, there is a bubble. And this bubble doesn’t much like the National government, but it is immaterial if National or Labour form the government. If Grant Robertson is the new Labour leader this afternoon, and the National party doesn’t win the next election, the bubble will be very pleased. It makes things easier if the temporary government is very much aligned with the permanent government.

Public Service Survival From A Few Week’s Ago On RNZ Insight

One of the things I like to write about is the difference between how people think power is distributed in New Zealand as opposed to how it actually is distributed.

The common narrative places politicians – elected every 3 years – at the top of the pyramid in terms of political power. The more realistic situation is that for every policy, someone in Wellington starts with a blank Word document.

Every so often, the genuine political power base speaks out when something offends them. This Radio New Zealand Insight program is a direct “insight” into what public servants think “free and frank” advice means and how the National government is apparently “harming democracy” by creating an environment where senior public officials supposedly are scared of speaking their minds to Ministers.

There is also a really good meta explanation of the public service – it “protects the public from politicians” (to roughly paraphrase) and it “serves democracy”. This is lofty stuff.

I can’t believe I missed this. Sometimes the evidence is hiding in plain sight. The election this year is a distraction, the real election was the incoming crop of policy analysts across all departments and agencies.  Have a listen:

The Election

This is an election year. But the election that really matters for the future of New Zealand hasn’t been discussed at length in any New Zealand media outlet. In fact, the actual election is never discussed in the media.

It doesn’t matter who comes in and out of Parliament every 3 years. While politicians exercise a lot of power during their time in office – particularly if they’re a cabinet minister – it really is temporary power.

The permanent power still resides in the bureaucracy and its associated organs even after decades of structural reform. The best insight into what this segment of Wellington is thinking is simply to listen to National Radio.

The election that really matters is the fresh crop of policy analysts, the people who could conceivably work in the same area for the next 20-30 years.

In each department, for any potential policy, someone in Wellington opens up a blank Word document and starts typing.

This power is enormous – but the people who do this use phrases like “political neutrality” and “professional public service” to make any mention of any possible agenda when power is at stake seem ridiculous or conspiratorial.

In terms of economics, there is asymmetric information between politicians and their officials. Public choice economics is quite cynical – in fact, many dismiss some of its conclusions because “people couldn’t possibly be that ruthless”. It’s a shame that cynicism ends up being a valid strategy to examine some potential policy changes or legislative changes.

Why Wellington Won’t Become A Backwater

Wellington has a unique position within New Zealand. It’s the transit point between the North and South Islands, but most importantly it’s the nation’s capital.

Because of this, Wellington won’t become a backwater. It’s simply impossible for that to happen because of the money being made by people connected to the public sector.

The technology industry and creative industries also have a strong foothold. Whether it’s a craft brewery or technology start-up, Wellington is the place to be if you don’t want to live in Auckland.

And there’s the rub – as Wellington’s economy adds more high skill jobs and formerly secure middle income roles are automated or outsourced, the income inequality already evident will increase even further.

I think Wellington will do just fine over the coming decades. But only if you are a high skill worker, or connected to the public sector in some way, shape or form.

For the masses of people not fortunate enough to benefit from this, Wellington will become a very tough place to live and raise a family. The baby boomer elite have pulled the ladder up after themselves.

One day, enough people will become angry enough to make some changes. Until then, don’t expect anything to change. The permanent government will always think of itself before it thinks of others. And that’s their greatest flaw.