by Brian Easton

Reproduced from The Pundit with permission from Brian Easton.

Geoffrey Palmer has said that the public service has been so run down since 1984 that it could not today implement changes of the magnitude that the Lange-Douglas Government did.

Not that we may want to, but here are some troubling examples of bureaucratic inadequacy.

Take the National Library disposing of 600,000 books. It may seem a trivial issue although there are some very angry people. Why it is doing it is unclear. It says it is making room for shelving future New Zealand publications. That cannot be true. New Zealand publishes about 2000 books annually. Even if it shelves two of each it will take 150 years to fill the emptied space.

Moreover, the National Library has given up space, including for the Treaty Room. It is obvious that the room should be in Parliament and sometime in the next 150 years it will move there. Additionally Ngā Taonga (the New Zealand Archive of Film, Television and Sound) is also housed in the National Library Building. Surely that is a temporary arrangement too.

I cannot tell you the actual story because the National Library has not told us. It may be that the Department of Internal Affairs – the agency in charge of it – saving accommodation expenses by raiding library space for its other activities; it has done so in the past.

The logical solution would be to separate the National Library out making it a crown agency like Te Papa under the Ministry of Cultural and Heritage umbrella. Boy, did the DIA resist this change when it was proposed, putting up some mickey mouse accounting figures which persuaded the government that the logical change was too expensive; it is not. The progressive case was not helped by a weak minister – the fate of the DIA for many years. A strong minister would block the disposing of the books.

Even the disposal is odd. The current proposal involves an American company which has been described as ‘pirates’ (by the very sober lawyer, Hugh Rennie). Certainly there are a number of respected New Zealand authors who think the company has infringed their copyrights and royalties. Presumably the effect will be to cut back the profitability of book publishing, reduce the number of books published and there will be space for more than 150 years. (I wonder if the Library consulted MFAT. American copyright rules are one of the severe hurdles any trade deal with the US faces.)

The DIA is a very odd department, collecting together a miscellany of activities with little coherence between them. So it has both the agency concerned with censorship as well as the National Library and Archives New Zealand with exactly the opposite remit of getting information out to the public. The DIA has such a tin ear that it may well be contemplating housing the Office of Film and Literature Classification in the Library’s space released by disposing those books. It could be there for 150 years.

(There are other reasons to expect the alienation, including the rural unrest and the government abolishing local representation on District Health Board. It will be easy to campaign on the theme that the out-of-touch central government is undermining local democracy.)

The local government minister’s claim that the restructure will reduce local body rates is nonsensical. There will be charges – big ones for there is a lot that has to be done. She seems to be saying that the public wont grumble because they will be paying to a different agency – especially if it is one which is hundreds of kilometres from where they live.

It is possible that the intention is to move closer to a user-charge regime (which I support, but I know that water meters will not be popular). Another possibility is that they envisage privatisation; I know they say not, but recall the promises of the Lange-Douglas Government that corporatisation of State Owned Enterprises was not a step on the way to selling off the assets.

Combining a government agency with imperial ambitions and a compliant minister who follows rather than leads is not confined to the DIA.

For example, the labour market management is scattered around the Ministry of Industry, Business and Employment – another miscellaneous department. What is needed is a Ministry of Labour Markets which would, for instance, get an effective interface between immigration and the demand and supply of domestic labour. You would have thought that would be obvious to a Labour Government but they apparently take the neoliberal view that the labour market is much the same as any other market – such as for baked beans. (To be fair, the government realised that the housing market was not the same as the market for baked beans and they separated out the Ministry of Housing.)

Another example of a weirdo proposal was to merge Radio New Zealand with Television New Zealand. Since they have quite different funding regimes and hence different cultures, it was going to be a train crash (unless they replaced TVNZ’s advertising revenue with public monies). Apparently it has been decided, at much expense, that commonsense is correct. The merger between the two wont work. The current proposal seems to be to have a board to which the two entities report. That does not resolve the cultural clash from the funding differences, unless the top board is totally ineffective. New Zealand Governments have a track record for making such appointments.

Next time you hear someone grumbling about some government failure, ask how much it is a failure of the government agency involved. It commonly is, but the bureaucracy’s failure is compounded by weak and ineffective ministers.

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