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Dunne's Weekly: When Ideological Fervour Overtakes Purpose And Focus

Purpose and focus in a government are virtues, until they are taken over by an all-compassing zeal that allows no deviation. Governments with clear agendas usually succeed, whereas those more inclined to drift along with the flow look leaderless and directionless. Arguably over its last year or so in office the last Labour government slipped into the latter category.

In contrast, the new National-led coalition has started its tenure decisively, using its 100 days plan to put many of Labour’s pet policies to the sword, and stamp its own authority on the machinery of government. So far, apparently so good. Voters seem to have accepted the government’s argument that it has a mess to clean up, even if the details of how it will do so are still a little unclear. The few opinion polls since the election show overall support for the coalition is unchanged, with support for National at its highest in almost four years.

The drop in inflation to 4.7%, unemployment falling to 3.9% and the prospect of the Reserve Bank loosening its iron grip on interest rates later this year are all encouraging signs for the future, which will fuel the government’s belief that it is on the right policy lines.

But there are already small worrying signs the early decisive focus the government has shown may yet slip into dogmatic obsession where adherence to “principles and core values” outweighs the pragmatism and subtlety governments often need to keep the public onside.

It was dogmatic obsession that only it knew how to deal with the Covid19 pandemic that saw the previous government suspend sittings of Parliament altogether during the early stages, to prevent its actions being subject to political scrutiny. Such a restriction on the operation of democracy had never occurred before, not even in the darkest days of World War II. The government quickly came to its senses and Parliamentary scrutiny was restored through virtual means. But the notion that a government could see fit to suspend Parliament in such circumstances remains an uncomfortable one.

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In a similar vein, Parliament’s Clerk, the principal non-elected officer responsible for the running of Parliament, was reported last week to have expressed concern to Parliamentary staff about the new government’s requirement that his office cut its expenditure by 6.5% in line with every other government department. He said the move was “constitutionally concerning”, leaving him “very concerned that the executive can effectively limit the work of the legislature by reducing its funding.”

The amount of funding in question is $1.6 million per annum, a very small amount in the overall context of the government’s Budget, but one with far more profound implications for the operation of our democracy. As was the case in 2020, any restrictions on the operation of Parliament limit MPs’ ability to hold the government to account for its actions, thus strengthening the power of the Executive (Ministers) and the government of the day to govern without restraint.

For the sake of the small amount of funding involved, it would be prudent for Finance Minister Willis to pull back on this issue. Parliament is the apex of our democracy, and any moves which stifle its ability to operate freely and hold the government to full account should be strongly resisted.

The issue of Wellington’s water woes is more complex but the testy relationship that Local Government Minister Brown has already developed with Wellington’s Mayors is concerning. The Mayors are certainly a disparate, highly sensitive, individual local patch-protecting group, as difficult to herd together as cats at the best of times, but Minister Brown’s early approach of treating them like errant students to be issued with “please explain” notices was entirely the wrong way to go about things. It smacked of an arrogance that usually comes after several years in office, not just a few weeks as in Brown’s case.

Meanwhile, Wellington’s water problems carry on. A solution to the crisis which is seeing about 40% of Wellington’s water lost to leaking pipes remains as distant as ever. Wellington residents continue to live with the threat of more severe water restrictions which no local authority will have the capacity to enforce. The lack of leadership at the regional and national levels remains as great as ever, and last week’s exchanges between the Minister and the Mayors make an early resolution even more unlikely.

Rather than issue more “please explain” edicts to local Mayors – and then release them to the media when they have barely hit the Mayors’ inboxes – the Minister needs to start listening, and working towards practical solutions that work, rather than just fit his ideological prism.

The government’s relentless determination to “get New Zealand back on track” is admirable in many ways. But the biggest risk to its succeeding is when ideological blindness is allowed to overrule commonsense, leading to a fervent belief that only it is right. Last week showed early signs of this risk.

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