Gordon Campbell | Parliament TV | Parliament Today | Video | Questions Of the Day | Search 24 February 2006 24 February 2006

A Weekly Report from the Keyboard of Murray McCully
MP for East Coast Bays

Not a Razor Gang?????

So Trevor Mallard denies that the new Expenditure Control Cabinet Committee he chairs is a razor gang. The reviews are "not aimed at cost cutting," he said. It is, apparently, a mere coincidence, that the Ministries targeted for review initially just happen to be places where cash is sloshing around all over the place, with managers having little idea where it is going.

As far back as early 2005, the Treasury was telling the government that cash-soaked, bloated Ministries and departments were out of control, and wasting large amounts of cash on poor quality programmes. They urged a process for reigning in the wastrels, and restoring financial disciplines amongst departmental big-spenders. But all of this occurred at a time when our Government had on its mind something much more important than securing value for taxpayers’ money. As far as they were concerned, bureaucrats could waste as much money as they liked, and long as it helped Labour get re-elected.

Pivotal to Labour’s re-election strategy was a claim that a National government would fund tax cuts by cutting core public services. To maintain the fiction that there was no public sector waste for a new National government to trim, any process to target waste was strictly off the agenda. But now, with the election out of the way, the process long advocated by the Treasury is about to commence. But still the fiction must be retained: it is "not aimed at cost cutting," merely at "moving resources to where they have the greatest impact within the agency." Pity it’s too big for a Tui billboard.

The Wastrels

Because the new committee will not be cost-cutting, it is mere coincidence that the biggest wastrels in the public service are the first candidates for review. Just check out the list:

Business Assistance Programmes
Those wonderful schemes which have seen Mr Anderton give away about $250 million a year to outstanding investments like Sovereign Yachts and a host of equally unfocussed programmes.

The Health Sector

Nearly $10 billion a year is given to the Ministry of Health which, according to recent evidence, hasn’t got a blind clue what it does with it. Just read the Auditor-General’s report into the Allen and Clark contracting scandal.


Funding for Child Youth and Family has increased 50% in the past three years, but the same incompetent bungling carries merrily on.

And capital expenditure programmes in suspect departments will also come under scrutiny in areas like Corrections (where new prison costs were under-estimated by a cool $140 million) and Defence (who are spending $100 million on the Charles Upham Mark 2 - a multi-role vessel that will have to park up and wait for a calm day before it can load or unload troops and supplies).

Not on Mr Mallard’s initial list, because that would be just tooooo embarrassing, is the Education sector, over which he, until recently presided. When Mallard was appointed in 2000 the Ministry of Education employed 599 staff. By 2005 that had ballooned to a massive 2449, which, even after making allowance for the reintegration of Special Education into the Ministry, must put Mallard in contention for the Guinness Book of Records. And that’s without including the new Tertiary Education Commission, fulfilling functions previously undertaken by the Ministry, with a budget of around $43 million and a staff of over 300.

So the task for Mr Mallard is simple. If he wants to get some quick runs on the board, wiping out the most obvious waste, and the most useless bureaucracy he just needs to get his committee to work on the Ministry that used to be his, and unpick everything he has done in the past six years.

The Global Business Ripoff

More easy pickings for Trev. and his colleagues are sure to be found at today’s Global Business Forum in Auckland. For $2 700 a head, the participants from the business community get hot tips on business success from such luminaries as Michael Eisner (fired by Disney), Carly Fiorina (fired by Hewlett Packard), and Bill Clinton (whose relevance to the conference topic must surely lie in the fact that he was impeached by Congress for being on the business when he shouldn’t have been).

On past occasions, such events have attracted not just business leaders in search of a tax deductible outing, but a few undiscerning and unembarrassable public servants. And the worldwide headquarters is prepared to wager that a trawl through today’s attendance list will find more of the same.

So let’s get Trev. off to a head start. A Parliamentary question will be duly filed with all Ministers and the results forwarded to Mr Mallard who can then ensure that those public servants who attended today’s event may be re-prioritised or re-allocated by his committee.

The Sewell Factor

Quizzed in Parliament last week about emerging problems with the NCEA, Education Minister Slippery Steve Maharey had a simple answer: all the allegations had been investigated by Acting NZQA chief Karen Sewell, and she had pronounced everything in order.

“Karen Sewell has investigated every complaint that has been made.” She “went through every single one of them with the journalists”. “Karen Sewell has openly and transparently dealt with every problem, big or small, that has been raised.” “Karen Sewell has openly and transparently dealt with every issue.”

Could this perhaps be the same Karen Sewell who, as principal of Green Bay High School between 1985 and 1997, inherited a roll of 1038 (in 1984) and managed to shrink it down to 579 by 1996? So underwhelmed were the good parents of Green Bay that they voted against the leadership of the school with their feet. So now, of course, Messrs Mallard and Maharey have given her the whole country’s schools to practice on. How very very interesting.

More Voting With their Feet

Those privileged to have read this year’s Orewa speech by Dr Brash will be aware that in the past six years, the average New Zealand wage has fallen even further behind an average wage across the Tasman. The gap, which was 20% six years ago, is now 33% and rising. All of which helps explain the increasing numbers of New Zealanders departing these shores for Australia according to the Government Statistician’s figures for the year to December 2005.

Last calendar year, 34 766 New Zealanders moved to Australia – that’s 668 a week (up from 28 938, or 556 a week, the previous year).

Even taking the net figure (by deducting returning New Zealanders and Australians moving here) the loss was 21 377- or 411 a week. And the figures get worse with every month.

Speaker Struggles

The decision to appoint Margaret Wilson to the Speaker’s role was always a risky one for the Labour Party. Any Speaker light on House experience will find the position challenging. And in Wilson’s case, being appointed straight into the Cabinet, there was no grounding in the chemistry and culture of the Chamber. In the first two weeks of the 2006 sitting the chickens have started coming home to roost.

Prior to last week’s Prime Ministerial statement – the opening set piece debate for the year – parties were reminded through the Whips that leaders should receive a courteous hearing, free from sustained interjection. The instruction went out to National Members to observe the edict for the Prime Minister’s speech. And they did so. In reciprocation, they were told, the National Leader Dr Brash would receive a similar courtesy. But nothing could have been further from the truth. And there were reports in the NZ Herald of an informal delegation to the Speaker to ensure she got the message.

Tensions were not eased this week when Wilson ejected the mild-mannered and courteous Dr Brash for the smallest of technical breaches, while Messrs Mallard and Peters were granted licence to flagrantly abuse the Standing Orders. A Speaker of greater experience would have understood the effect on the chemistry of the Chamber.

It is blindingly obvious that the Labour Party has adopted a strategy of simply drowning Dr Brash with noise when he speaks in the House. And National backbenchers are starting to form the view that if the Speaker can’t deal with it, then they will. The result, of course, will reflect no credit on anyone. But the public can be very clear that the responsibility for the ensuing shambles must lie with the Government, and the Speaker of their choice.


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