Illustration: Toby Morris
Illustration: Toby Morris

PoliticsOctober 7, 2019

The great Spinoff working group stocktake

Illustration: Toby Morris
Illustration: Toby Morris

As we approach the end of what Jacinda Ardern called the ‘year of delivery’, and with the next election a year away, Max Rashbrooke examines the state of play with the government’s critical working groups.

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If the coalition government has seemed, in its first two years, to be extremely busy while sometimes achieving very little, it probably has something to do with its addiction to working groups. Seldom have so many reviews owed their existence to so few ministers. The full number of these reviews, working groups and external panels is disputed: 38 if you believe Jacinda Ardern; more than 150 if you believe Simon Bridges. Either way, it’s a lot.

It’s also a strikingly old-school way to do business for a government avowedly committed to transformation. The way of the future is surely deep engagement of citizens in bottom-up decision-making: citizens’ assemblies, online consensus-forming software, participatory budgeting, national public policy conventions. Instead we get a torrent of top-down reviews – staffed often by fantastic people, to be sure, but working in structures perfectly designed to deal with the problems of the 1970s.

What have the working groups achieved? One or two have made an immediate impact. Some may have a longer reach, especially if Labour is in a stronger position after the next election. But the clear conclusion from a deep dive into a few of these working groups – a review of the reviews, as it were – is that most have stumbled, whether from lack of time and resources, the wrong membership, or the fact that the government should simply have gone ahead and delivered rather than pursuing a false hope of getting political “cover” for their desired result. Future governments, take note.

The Tax Working Group

The biggest review, and the biggest debacle. The government’s decision not to implement its recommendation for a capital gains tax (CGT) has been well canvassed. So the main lesson here concerns when not to set up a working group. If ministers genuinely don’t know the answer to a problem, and need to canvass a broad sweep of opinions in a process deeper than anything the public service alone could run, then sure, establish a review. If you simply want someone to design you a capital gains tax, then put the Treasury to work on it. That way you don’t have to stay silent about your preferred proposal while a torrent of argument and misinformation pours into the gap. As it stands, the best thing to come out of the working group was probably the insightful and detailed background papers that officials prepared. Which is great for researchers like me; not so good for actually filling gaps in the tax system.

Progress to date: The government is considering a small number of the less significant recommendations, notably those to do with vacant land and international taxation.

An expert’s view of the review: Tax specialist Terry Baucher says the CGT stoush “derailed” valuable work the group was doing to highlight problems of wealth concentration, the inequity of GST, and environmental damage. “The biggest disappointment, for me, is that they took some really interesting steps forward [in] talking about environmental taxation issues, but a lot of that has been sidelined, for the moment.”

The working group pointed the way towards a tax system that would fully measure – and discourage – the damage people do to the environment. “The plan there was very much [that] we need to start moving in this space, [saying] ‘We can’t go cold turkey. This is about recycling [revenue] and easing the transition.’” And that conversation has only been postponed, Baucher says. “None of those issues is going to go away.”

The Welfare Expert Advisory Group

The 11-strong panel, led by Professor Cindy Kiro and including former business leader Phil O’Reilly, delivered an impressive and wide-ranging report in February this year. Then nothing much happened. What to make of all this? On the one hand, the review wasn’t given the time to deliver a complete blueprint for a 21st-century welfare system. Nonetheless it delivered an inspiring new mission for social security – whakamana tangata, or restoring dignity to citizens – and quite rightly recommended lifting benefit rates by up to 47%. Since then, though, the government has failed to fully implement a single one of its recommendations, and the group’s members are privately dismayed by the way the report seems to have disappeared from public life. Its ultimate fate remains unclear. The social development minister, Carmel Sepuloni, would clearly like to act on the recommendations – but generally the government has little appetite for trying to persuade the many middle-class New Zealanders who moan about dole bludgers.

Progress to date: The government has partially implemented three of the 42 recommendations: it has increased the amount beneficiaries can earn before payments are clawed back, removed one sanction, and linked some benefits to the average wage. A spokesperson says there is “work under way to address” 19 other recommendations, and “further advice” has been commissioned on another 10.

An expert’s view of the review: Former associate professor Mike O’Brien, a Child Poverty Action Group committee member, says the review was an important way to bring together the strands of reform needed after National’s “very punitive” changes. “It’s a thorough piece of work … We can have a debate about the details, but the broad parameters of the report, I think, are very solid.”

However, he adds: “I have been disappointed – that’s the most polite word – about the lack of urgency in the government’s response to it. The minister keeps saying they want to do something comprehensive rather than a piece-by-piece implementation. Well, this [year] would have been the time to have done that. I’m [now] anxious about it getting caught up in election-year politics, which won’t be helpful.” In short, he says, “The opportunity for change might have been let slide.”

Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora / The Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the group reviewing the criminal justice system, which saw two of its members resign in August before it had even delivered its final report. The support provided by Ministry of Justice officials also appears to have been lacking.

Nonetheless the group has delivered an interim report, He Waka Roimata: Transforming Our Criminal Justice System, which reveals impressive qualitative engagement with the public, if not much quantitative analysis of the data. The group’s members, which range from JustSpeak’s Julia Whaipooti to former Sensible Sentencing Trust spokesperson Ruth Money, have articulated people’s deep frustration with the current system and their emotional responses to it – mostly, as the report notes, feelings of grief. But whether the group can, before the year is up, produce a detailed and coherent alternative remains to be seen.

Progress to date: We await the final report, and the government’s response to it.

An expert’s view of the review: Roger Brooking, author of the book Flying Blind: How the Justice System Perpetuates Crime, fears that coalition realities will render the review “largely a PR exercise”. It’s good that it has enabled “a whole host of different groups around the country to be heard“, he says. “But I think the reason the government has gone ahead in this way is that they are fundamentally hamstrung by their alliance with New Zealand First. There is no mandate within the existing government to make any significant change to the way the justice system operates.”

Brooking adds: “The task they [the working group] have been asked to do, I think they have done very well. But whether that’s the right task is open to question. At the end of the day I suspect it will be another report that ends up on a dusty shelf somewhere, unless Labour wins the next election with a governable majority.”

Tomorrow’s Schools Independent Taskforce

Unlike the more sprawling working groups, which have had up to 23 members, the Tomorrow’s Schools taskforce’s five-strong team came from a consistent though not homogenous ideological background. Unsurprisingly, they produced a clear, coherent report driven by the need to improve equity – to do more, in crude terms, to help struggling students.

The centrepiece of their report was a proposal for Education Hubs, regional bodies that would help schools work better together, ensure good teaching practices were spread more quickly to other schools, and take pressure off overworked and often out-of-their-depth boards of trustees. This provoked a furious response by an alliance of schools such as Auckland Grammar, which spent tens of thousands of dollars taking out full-page newspaper ads against the proposals. Prominent lobbyist Matthew Hooton joined in, labelling the taskforce’s report “sinister”. As with the Tax Working Group, it was a stark demonstration of how hard some people will fight to protect their positions of privilege.

Progress to date: A spokesperson for education minister Chris Hipkins says an official response is still weeks away: “There’s a lot to consider in the taskforce’s report and the government wants to ensure it has a comprehensive response to ensure certainty.”

An expert’s view of the review: Writing online, University of Waikato academics Martin Thrupp and Katrina McChesney backed most of the proposals but worried that the strong focus on equity would turn many off. They felt the report could have focused more on widely shared concerns about “the impacts of managerialism, of a compliance culture and of inappropriate accountabilities … [These] can be used to establish a shared platform or rationale for change.”

It might be better if the Education Hubs offered to help schools with issues such as property management rather than definitively taking them over. And they sounded a final note of caution about the difficulties of implementing all the proposals of the various education working groups – of which the Tomorrow’s Schools taskforce is just one: “All of these reforms will be hungry on resources at a time when the system has become run down and faces shortages in many areas.”

Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction

One of the more successful working groups, the team led by professor Ron Paterson delivered its report, He Ara Oranga, in November last year. In retrospect, they faced near-ideal conditions – apart, perhaps, from a tight timeframe – for a review to be successful. There was widespread demand for both greater funding and new thinking in the mental health sector, but no clear consensus as to what exactly should be done.

The report’s recommendations helped answer the latter point: considered and thoughtful, they covered the need to redesign services but also tackle the wider social causes of poor mental health, including poverty and discrimination. A centrepiece of their recommendations was a new, independent Mental Health Commission.

Progress to date: The government massively boosted mental health funding in its first Wellbeing Budget, and this month appointed an initial Mental Health Commission.

An expert’s view of the review: “It continues to be a good news story, really,” says Kyle MacDonald, a psychotherapist, columnist and key figure in the earlier People’s Mental Health Review. Some wider problems remain in the funding and structure of the health sector. But the review itself was “largely very positive”, he says.

“When you look at the way the sector was going prior to the last election, I think there were too many disparate voices for the government to clearly forge a path. The review was necessary for giving a clear touchstone and a clear mandate, and I think it has done that.” Mental health, he adds, “too easily becomes politicised, and this, hopefully, as much as possible, has taken politics out of the equation.”

Fair Pay Agreement Working Group

The idea behind Fair Pay Agreements, a key plank in Labour’s last election manifesto, is that if staff in some firms enjoy good terms and conditions, they can get employers to the table to negotiate spreading those terms and conditions right across their industry. Like the Tax Working Group, however, the Fair Pay Agreement Working Group has found that its business members refused to endorse the overall conclusion, undermining rather than lending legitimacy to the whole process.

On the upside, the group’s report has led to an entertainingly uncivil stoush between unionists at the CTU, ardent defenders of the idea, and the New Zealand Initiative, which hates it. The working group, led by former National prime minister Jim Bolger, has at least done enough intellectual donkey work that the government now has something it could implement.

Progress to date: The government says it is “considering” the report.

An expert’s view of the review: Erling Rasmussen, a professor of work and employment at AUT, describes it as a “sober and sensible” report. It is, he adds, just one step in shifting New Zealand away from being a low-wage, low-skill, low-productivity economy. But it is also likely to be “very controversial”.

The business representatives’ decision to say Fair Pay Agreements should be voluntary “is basically a way of saying, ‘We don’t want this’ … Employers are very much against collective action. [On the one hand] we know most employers want to be compliant, and spend a lot of time on compliance. If this was put into legislation, most employers would grudgingly go along with it. But they would put pressure on their representatives to make sure this was one of the first things to go if there was a change of government.”

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Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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