It all sounds a lot like something Tony Blair might do, writes Danyl Mclauchlan.
There’s been this idea floating around leftwing political nerd circles for a while that the government should create – or rather, recreate – the Ministry of Works. This was a core component of the New Zealand public sector during the late 19th and most of the 20th century. It built power plants, railways, tanks and dams and tunnels and schools. It built New Zealand! It was shut down by the fourth Labour government, of course, because they believed that “government couldn’t build things”. But government did build things! It still can! So why not bring back the MoW? It would build stuff that both the current public service and the private sector seem incapable of delivering: affordable houses; light rail; a national EV infrastructure. Cycleways. Maybe it could legalise pot, somehow?
Sometime last year I asked a political operative close to the government what they thought of the MoW idea. They replied, “It’s the same mistake National made with MBIE. Let’s build a new entity to do the economic transformation the rest of the government can’t deliver. And how’d that work out? Imagine you’re a Labour minister and you decide to fund a Ministry of Works to deliver all these projects that NZTA and HUD and Kāinga Ora seem unable to do. You’re going to spend two years and, I dunno, a couple hundred million setting it up. You’re going to end up staffing it with people from NZTA and Kāinga Ora, because who else are you going to get? But once it’s built you’ve just replicated these same dysfunctional organisations. So it’s not going to build anything and your political career will be over.”
There’s a paradox at the heart of the Ardern administration: it genuinely believes in the transformational power of the state – but it struggles (and often fails) to get the state to do any of the things it wants it to do. The nadir of this was 2019, “the year of delivery”, in which it promised solutions to the housing crisis, child poverty, tax reform and carbon emissions, and spectacularly failed to deliver any of them. Since then it’s more hesitant about making promises or setting ambitious targets – Ardern and Robertson spent most of last year’s election campaign promising to be John Key and Bill English – but it’s still seen a series of embarrassing policy failures: house and rental hyperinflation, problems in emergency accommodation, repeated failures in managed isolation and the lack of delivery around mental health have been the real low points.
But now there’s a solution. Grant Robertson announced this week he’ll create an “Implementation Unit” inside the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. According to Stuff the unit will “ensure implementation of key government priorities” and step in to “facilitate appropriate interventions when implementation is at risk’”.
Which raises an awkward question. If policy is developed by ministerial staff and implemented by DPMC, what do all of Robertson’s ministerial colleagues and their thousands of highly paid advisers do all day? Because the description of the Implementation Unit sounds an awful lot like the current role of a ministerial office.
It’s not just the public service that has failed to deliver the government’s policies, some Labour Party insiders whisper. The quality of some of its ministers is disappointingly low compared to back in the Clark era. Government can still build stuff, they say – look at Steven Joyce: he pushed ultra-fast broadband through. You just need tough ministers to deliver. Or, perhaps, a unit to deliver for them. It’s hard to imagine Chris Hipkins, Andrew Little or Nanaia Mahuta stepping back and allowing a gaggle of DPMC staffers to deliver their policies on their behalf. Some ministers will surely be more implemented upon than others.
The centralisation of power is becoming a major theme of this government. The polytechnics, health boards and local government services are all being brought into the central government fold, and now the delivery of policy will happen through a single unit reporting to the finance minister. It’s easy to imagine how the unit could fail – become a source of bitterness, confusion and conflict; another node in the already confused decision making matrix of ministerial offices, the Prime Minister’s Office and Treasury. But it could be more dangerous if it succeeds. The Ministry of Works wasn’t really closed down because “government couldn’t build anything”. It was closed because Muldoon’s incompetent and delusional government borrowed staggering sums of money to build things the country didn’t need, and state power was too centralised to stop him.
The Implementation Unit is a Blairite idea, as the Stuff journalists point out. He called it “the Delivery Unit”, inventing it in his final years in Downing Street to try and overcome what he perceived as the failure of both the civil service and his junior ministers in achieving his policy ambitions. Blair’s critics disagreed, arguing that Blair’s tendency to grandstand in the media by announcing visionary, aspirational goals without figuring out how to deliver them was the deeper problem with his administration. Helpfully the Stuff article reminds us that Jacinda Ardern once worked for Tony Blair.