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Upton-On-Line: Hobb[e]sian Musings

Upton-on-line April 26th

Upton-on-line has always had a bit of a penchant for Thomas Hobbes - that grimmest of seventeenth century political philosophers immortalised by his characterisation of life in the state of nature as 'nasty, brutish and short'. There's nothing like a bit of hard-wired pessimism about human nature to expose the gushing sentiments of social democracy on the rampage.

Premonitory rumblings in the environment portfolio this last week have left upton-on-line wondering whether Helen Clark too indulges a Hobbesian inclination. If so, then the Marian specimen of the same name should beware since her illustrious namesake (give or take an 'e') is quite clear that [s]he who holds sovereign power has not only the right to appoint all "Councellours [sic], Ministers, Magistrates and Officers, both in Peace and War" but the power of "Rewarding with riches, or honour ... and of Punishing with corporal [sic], or pecuniary punishment, or with ignominy" those in her thrall. (Leviathan: Part II, Ch XVIII, Par10-11).

Given that corporal punishment is a bit hard to imagine in the circumstances and fines probably in breach of the Cabinet Office Manual, ignominy would seem to be the chastisement of choice for Prime Ministers less than enthralled by the performance of Ministers down the pecking order. Or, worse still, there is the option of returning the Minister in question to a state of nature every bit as nasty and brutish as that to which upton-on-line has been consigned by voters!

Those, at least, are the terms in which journalists have chosen to describe news that the Prime Minister wants a gatekeeper in Marian Hobbs' office. The Minister is reported to be crestfallen and the cartoonists have had a particularly unkind field day.

But that all seems unfair to the Minister in question. The Prime Minister's proposal is perfectly sensible - indeed there are probably a number of Ministers who could do with independent advice. Hobbs has no prior background in environment issues. No Prime Minister will ever have exactly the right mix of skills to match with the portfolios on offer. Independent expert advice is a very sensible counterweight to the otherwise overwhelming asymmetry of fire-power in the hands of professional public servants.

(Marian famously told the Prime Minister, when informed of her job, that she was an arachnophobe. Clark was able to reassure her that spiders fell to the tender attentions of the DOC minister, Sandra Lee.)

Hobbs has no reason to be miffed (if indeed she is). If she's not on top of the material, she needs someone who is - at least for the first year or so. It's unfair to public servants to be placed in the position of having to educate a minister and then turn round and seek their considered judgment. (Contrary to popular mythology, scheming Sir Humphreys are the exception not the rule).

If there's a warning shot to be fired here, it's about the way independently advised Ministers then treat public servants. They have to implement policies for which Ministers carry the responsibility. It is vital that Ministers ask those implementers to advise on the consequences that will flow from their decisions. That way, cock-ups of execution aren't confused with cock-ups of implementation.

As a former State Services Minister, upton-on-line knows that there's nothing politicians like better than blaming bureaucrats for policies that go down in flames while stepping up to the rostrum for plaudits when something vaguely resembling a success is in the offing. It is grossly unfair to deny civil servants the chance to provide free and frank advice so that political masters and their servants alike go into policy implementation with their eyes open and the risks clearly stated.

There are signs that some Ministers are a bit shy about that sort of exposure. Upton-on-line wonders how much hard commentary Michael Cullen has sought from the Treasury on his grandiose superannuation fund; or how much Jim Anderton has asked for on his People's Bank. The word is that some Ministers are pretty sparing with their calls for assistance. One can only hope the same Ministers will be unstinting in taking personal responsibility for things that go off the rails.

As upton-on-line has stated before, Marian Hobbs has the gumption and personality to be a very effective Minister. She is not a bland, simpering type who bores people to tears. That's why, by all accounts, she was an inspirational school principal. I have some sympathy for her exasperation with being pilloried on the basis of verbal slips rather than bad decisions. But that's the world - and the media - and she just has to thicken her hide and go on the front foot.

Furthermore, she hasn't been helped by being saddled with Phillida Bunkle as an associate minister. Bunkle is not overly bright but has the ability to stone-wall almost indefinitely (witness the Royal Commission into GMOs) in a way that must be driving Hobbs to a level of distraction that coalition etiquette demands she can't give vent to.

The substance is what she should be judged by. And as the first stand-alone Biosecurity Minister I can say with some feeling that the portfolio is a time bomb waiting to explode. In fact I'd nominate it as second only to Health in its capacity for generating major crises without notice.

Hobbs is lucky to have the environment portfolio as well - she should be able to do some pretty constructive and far-reaching things with the dual mandate. But she hasn't much time. Warning lights have been flashing in this portfolio for some time and it is already almost too late to blame the previous government (the usual gambit for newly appointed Ministers).

It's a portfolio that really matters. It intersects with the key productive sector portfolios and the trade portfolio. She has precious little time left to master it and lay out her vision for it. She should take all the advice she can lay her hands on - including that provided without fear or favour by her officials.

Remember: From the Plains of the Serengeti returns next week as the animals return to the Valley from places as far away as Gore and Gallipoli. What has Bill English been doing in Dipton? What fresh carcasses has Richard Prebble unearthed? Will Margaret Wilson have read her Treasury briefing papers? Will Michael Cullen have requested any? And will Phillida Bunkle beat Sue Kedgley to the next sow's pen? All this and more as the autumn migration gathers pace next week.

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