The road less travelled

With the election only three weeks ago, I have decided it is time to think a little more carefully about who I might vote for. And how better to do that, than try to write those thoughts down? An oddity of the MMP system is that for the most part you are voting not just for a party, but also for a coalition government. So it seems to me part of the voting equation is a comparison of the lead party’s policies. Which of the two large centrist parties is most deserving of my support, either directly or by way of a tick for one of their support parties? The usual way to do this is to break it into policy areas and put them head to head. The obvious problem is that for most of us, most of the time, we know very little of the nuts and bolts of any particular portfolio, and have to make do with ignoring the complexity, and attending instead to far simpler substitute problems (perhaps the rhetoric-soggy policy statements, or just a gut feeling about values, or, heaven forfend, the ‘seems like a nice enough person’ test.) It’s a fairly average form of democracy at this point, but it’s still far better than not engaging at all.

If I think about things I believe the government can have a positive influence on, and that I care about, I’d immediately nominate: health, education, the economy, poverty, the environment, housing, race relations and maybe justice.

I know almost nothing about our health system, apart from the fact that it’s one of the biggest areas of government spending, and that as technology moves on, lifestyle disease becomes more prevalent and our population ages, it’s going to get an awful lot bigger. So clearly, the smartest use of the money is what we’re after. It’s also an area, like the environment, where there’s a strong delineation between short term and long term interests. In the short term, the health imperative is to fix those who are ailing now. In the long term, the imperative is reduce the number of people ailing in the future. My largely uniformed guess is that it is in battling with this distinction that a government can do the most good. The immediate spending needs are urgent and compelling. Furthermore, they are the most amenable to political reward. Reduce a waiting list here, expand a hospital service there, approve a new drug for subsidy in that area, and you are seen to be making a real difference. The slower programmes, those that aim to get greater engagement with the health system from the most reluctant participants, those that encourage healthier lifestyles, or enable earlier intervention, are a much harder sell. First because they do not silence a crying need, and second because the benefits will accrue long after the responsible minister has left office, so where’s the upside for them? My tentative conclusion, then, is that our political system will crete a bias towards short term fixes, and preventative measures with better dollar for dollar outcomes will be overlooked.

If that’s true, then I ought to vote for whichever side seems most capable of taking a popularity hit in the name of future benefit. Listening to National and Labour on this, there’s a strong element of tweedle dum and tweedle dee. Neither seems to be promising to take the bull by the horns on this issue, let alone following up on such promises. There is an instinctive left/right divide in play, though. As a general rule prevention means social intervention, altering the conditions that lead to the undesirable behaviours. And, as a general rule, the right don’t much like intervening. Partly it’s a belief intervention just doesn’t work (which feels defeatist to me, it sure worked with smoking, and seatbelts in cars, it’s working with immunisation, and breastfeeding…) and partly it’s the spectacularly stupid idea that individuals, left to their own devices, will tend to make the best decisions. I certainly don’t behave like this, and nor have I ever met anybody who does. Environment makes a huge impact upon my decision making. One would have to be far removed from the social stream to believe otherwise (come to think of it, what social traits do these folk have in common – John Banks, Jamie Whyte, Don Brash… in education we would refer to them as ‘on the spectrum.’) We’ve seen hints of this tendency from National – a reluctance to embrace healthy food in schools policies, for example, and so health leads me to the left, but not by much. I don’t see a game changer here on either side.

Education is a little clearer, and as a teacher of twenty five years, I feel better informed, or at least closer to the action. National have put their money where their mouth is, and backed two major reforms The first is national standards in reading, writing and maths for primary, the second is the proposed new employment condition, wherein teachers and principals are paid extra to share their expertise within and across school groupings. I think both moves are well intentioned, but I have serious reservations about how smart they are. Seen in its most generous light, national standards is a system whereby we get better information about a school’s ability to add value. Presumably, under the system, there is an opportunity to identify schools that have found a way to make a difference. Take that information, and use it to share the successful school’s secrets, and maybe you’re on to something. Particularly when the point of focus is that subset of students we are struggling to educate well. The second change is presumably the mechanism by which the information can flow from the outstanding practitioners to the rest of us. As I say, good intentions, and ultimately they’re about addressing a real problem, which is the difficulty that exists internationally when it comes to educating the socially marginalised.

Nevertheless, they’re very average policies. National standards is very much about using a sledgehammer to crack an acorn, and exists much more because it appeases a paranoid middle class support base than because it does the job it sets out to do. A focus on testing, at the expense of education, is just plain bad practice, especially when the information regarding standout performance could already be gathered so easily. It’s made primary teachers grumpy and suspicious, and so undermined progress in the sector. And the new scheme is probably worse. Whoever thought that identifying the very best principals and teachers and then removing them from their jobs was the way forward has spent way too long inside an office. By all means keep exploring ways to more effectively transmit knowledge about best practice. But surely the easy way is to have people whose job it is to move through schools, observing, comparing and then mentoring. Like, I don’t know, the old inspectorate? The proposed system is ill thought out and deserves to be dropped. Against this. However, the left seem frustratingly wed to the idea that things are fine and all we need is more resources. So Labour are interested in more teachers, and the Greens want to address underachievement by addressing the root cause, namely poverty. This annoys me because it ignores the very great potential there is for changing practice within schools in ways that will lead to more meaningful engagement, particularly for those who are suffering the most. If the right have a slightly defeatist approach to health care, then at the moment the left could be similarly accused when it comes to education. So, well intentioned ideas that fail in the execution, versus no real ideas at all? It’s a difficult call. Maybe I’d give it to National, by a whisker.

The economy is another area where I feel at least vaguely qualified to have an opinion. I have a degree in economics although, in truth, I’m not anywhere near as familiar with the statistics as I’d need to be to put that skill set to much use. Still, that doesn’t stop one from forming an opinion. In general, I think New Zealand has been lucky with its finance ministers. Things got seriously wacky with Rob Muldoon and then Roger Douglas, and gave us a close up look at how badly it can all go wrong, but since then we’ve have a succession of fairly steady hands. History is likely to be kind to Michael Cullen and Bill English, both careful and pragmatic ministers, capable of informed diligence. We hit the financial crisis which much more room to move than most countries, thanks largely to the Cullen stewardship, and Bill English, despite representing a nominally right of centre government, was happy to spend up in order to flatten the downturn. We’ve had the good fortune of a trade bonanza with China, and the misfortune of a major earthquake, both of which have contributed greatly to growth. Unemployment is low by international standards, and jobs remain the surest way out of the poverty trap.

Against this, we remain very exposed internationally. Our current account deficit is high, and in this respect our exchange rate is overvalued, as capital inflows continue to indulge our overspending. There’s a sense that the rewards of growth are not being evenly shared, and like a great many world economies, we see a gap opening up between rich and poor (recent growth has seen this stabalise, but in big picture terms, the last three decades have seen poverty become entrenched.) There’s also a sense that our productive base is still too narrow, with the manufacturing base shrinking, and too little being done to utilise the potential of a highly educated workforce. Basically, we’re awfully good at finding ways to grow more grass and transform it, by way of cows, into milk products, but questions remain as to the long term growth capacity for this particular strategy. It’s not unfair, I think, to characterise National as good managers of the day to day stuff, they’ve provided a predictable, stable base environment, while wondering if they have what it takes to think smartly about the future.

In part this weakness is a reflection of another right-leaning instinct. Government’s, the right often opine, are simply no good at this stuff. Ask a government to think about how the future might look, and what we ought to do to get there, and they’ll get it wrong. That’s why they’re in parliament, and not in business. Personally I think that’s a little gutless, and also flies in the face of international experience. The one thing the great success stories, be they Singaporean, Korean, Japanese or Scandanavian, have had in common, is a government with a very clear sense of where it wanted its country to go. Labour, while not exactly visionary, have been using their time in opposition to put together a plan of sorts, and there’s a lot to like about it. I’ve written previously about how smart it is to be thinking more laterally when it comes to the reserve bank act, and they’re to be applauded for this. A capital gains tax makes sense, as does their more aggressive support for kiwisaver, and they’re talking the talk on research and development. In terms of personnel, there’s good reason to believe that David Parker will also be an excellent finance minister, and on this one the Labour coalition is more to my taste. National have worked hard to paint the Greens as loopy when it come sot economic management, and suggest Labour’s policy will be severely compromised. This though is bluster. As perhaps the last person left in the country who still thinks the Green’s quantitave easing approach was worth pursuing, I’m obviously not one to be spooked by an idea just because the self-appointed wise old men of NZ media commentary don’t approve, but the fact is that the Greens’ approach to the economy is, by international standards, mainstream economics, and the ease with which we’ve swallowed the right’s rhetoric on this is, frankly, embarrassing.

So, that’s me, halfway through my criteria, and this post is plenty long enough already. I’ll be back soonish with part two. Until then, it’s a very narrow lead to Labour and friends, which is reassuring given it’s who I habitually vote for.

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