Fran OSullivan: Grant Robertson plays sheepdog to get things moving

OPINION:

As any big project manager knows, there comes a time when you have to act as the “sheepdog” — chase the stragglers, bite at their heels and get the whole show moving in the right direction.

Otherwise, you have a shambles on your hands.

Grant Robertson is now adopting that role in Jacinda Ardern’s Cabinet.

Robertson has embraced “deliverology” — a term coined by an adviser to former British PM Tony Blair — and is spurring government to get things done much faster.

It’s not yet a blitzkrieg. At least not of the kind implemented by the fourth Labour Government when it “liberalised” the New Zealand economy after the 1984 election.

That government set a cracking pace as it opened markets and steamrollered through economic reforms.

Treasury officials described that period as a “revolution”. Others called it “Rogernomics” after then-Finance MinisterRoger Douglas. Still others slated it as “crash or crash through”.

Today’s Treasury officials seem a more stolid lot compared with the 1980s revolutionaries. In fact, they warned the government it was progressing too quickly with its “three waters” reforms, suggesting the fast tempo of change meant there will be “a high level of uncertainty around the implementation of the reforms”.

That advice did not deter Robertson’s colleague, Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta, who simply declared that the government’s plan to amalgamate billions of dollars worth of council-owned drinking, waste and stormwater infrastructure and services into four regional bodies would go ahead.

Consultation? Basically a red herring for a decision that was made months ago.

Many local government leaders are bleating about the theft of their assets. Wellington Mayor Andy Foster is a case in point. But Foster should have been relieved to have government step in and take such “assets” off his council’s hands, given the scandalous spectacle of raw sewage running down the streets which has confronted Wellingtonians too many times. Other councils which have done a good job do have reason to be miffed.

But Mahuta has for years been staking out these reforms (based on a Scottish model) at successive infrastructure conferences. The time to get in her ear was then, not now.

There are three factors driving the Labour Government’s change of pace.

The first is Robertson himself, who has taken charge of an implementation wing in the Prime Minister’s department.

Ardern gave him more power to drive implementation at government level at the time of the last Budget.

This unit — modelled on one established by Blair — is focused on deliveringreforms, rather than just announcing them and expecting officials to deliver. It was sorely needed, particularly given the government’s failure to execute sufficient of its own policies in its first term. KiwiBuild? Anyone?

Its coalition government partner, New Zealand First (NZF), had stymied Labour from implementing many of its promises. As an NZF MP later gloated, Labour had made the classic mistake of codifying its junior partner’s pet policies within their coalition agreement but neglected to get their agreement in return to support some key Labour policies.

So there was Labour’s light rail — stymied by NZF as “too expensive” but now back on the table for a pre-Xmas tick-off. And still expensive. But when you are piling up huge debt to “fund” the Covid stimulus programme, the $10-$15 billion for Auckland light rail does not look so large.

Capital gains tax was also buried.

It still is. But it is obvious from Robertson’s recent comments that forecast economic growth and more careful spending will not be sufficient to get the debt track back to a sensible level in the medium term without additional revenue, aka taxation.

But the primary failure in the first term was the inability to execute.

The second factor is purely political.

The Finance Minister is conscious that when the Covid pandemic recedes and Labour has to face the next election, it needs to be able to demonstrate that it has done more than deal with Covid. People have short memories. We bank disasters and move on.

What Labour will have to demonstrate is policy progress and to have built confidence among voters that the Covid response is not the only thing they will have done.

Particularly given the loss of freedoms involved in fighting Covid.

It has done that, for example, with the forging of the UK-NZ free trade agreement.

There is much work to be done rebuilding the health system as well.

The third factor — and this is very much in Robertson’s corner — is the “catalytic role” he sees for the State. This extends much further than issuing the type of government edicts that have become commonplace during the pandemic.

There are plenty of critics who would argue that the Labour Government is taking on too much by endeavouring to run a reform agenda, which puts the State far closer to the centre in many economic activities and disempowers local authorities, DHBs and others from having control of their own destinies.

Robertson is on firm ground when he points to how only governments worldwide could have pooled resources to overcome the Covid-19 virus, save lives and limit economic damage.

The “build back better” mantra also has international currency.

The argument is that the State is having to step in to support a weakened private sector to get the economy on its feet. Climate change is the major issue.

Robertson will have to guard against Government over-reach. Not all businesses want to “partner” with government. Many want a regulatory regime that is not too prescriptive.

If he’s going to be the sheepdog, Robertson would be well advised to play in the “paddocks” that need attention first.

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