sign uplog in
Want to go ad-free? Find out how, here.

PSA National Secretary Erin Polaczuk calls for a commitment to universal basic services for all New Zealanders via the Aotearoa Wellbeing Commitment

PSA National Secretary Erin Polaczuk calls for a commitment to universal basic services for all New Zealanders via the Aotearoa Wellbeing Commitment

By Erin Polaczuk*

2020 has been a year of massive change. The previously unthinkable has become normal, and the status quo many took for granted is revealed to be paper thin.

We face a question and a choice. Is change something that happens to us, something beyond our control to influence? Or is now the right time for New Zealand to steer a new course and pursue bold, transformative change?

Just a few short months ago, we watched governments all around the world ban rent increases and evictions - at least temporarily. We saw governments pour billions into the welfare state to protect workers suffering reduced incomes or job loss as recession began to bite. Public transport became free for essential workers in cities across New Zealand. Victoria University began offering free study to people affected by the pandemic.

We saw state intervention into the economy on a level unparalleled for decades, with the express purpose of protecting citizen access to housing, healthcare, employment, liveable incomes, public education and public transport.

For years prior, we were told this was impossible. This is clearly not the case.

No doubt everyone breathed a sigh of relief when it became possible once again to eat at a restaurant, travel around the country or drink in a pub, but in our rush to embrace things being ‘back to normal’, do we risk forgetting how much things can change? And how much they should change?

Back to normal is not good news for everyone. This country is grossly unequal, with far too many people struggling to pay for education or dental care as they travel between a low paid job and a cold, damp, expensive house.

Public Service Association members don’t want things to just go back to the way they were. We want to live in a country that commits to the wellbeing of its citizens. We want universal basic services available to all Kiwis, free at the point of use, that allow all of us to participate and prosper in our country. 

We call this the Aotearoa Wellbeing Commitment, a collection of services that will allow all Kiwis to live a happy and healthy life. These include healthcare, education, housing, income support, public transport and internet, and together they form an essential social infrastructure on which we all depend.

These are services that should be freely accessible to everyone and paid for through progressive taxation. The terms of our access to them should not be set by the fickle whims of the private market, but should instead be democratically determined and publicly provided. They must be designed by those who use them and those who help deliver them.

The Aotearoa Wellbeing Commitment is a mechanism that will allow investment to overcome the inequalities that Māori, Pasefika and women face, and for us to take meaningful climate action.  

We have some of this already. Through our taxes we invest in education, health and so on, and can access many services for free. But if you scratch the surface, you encounter hidden costs. All too often these costs end up being paid for by those who can least afford it.

Let’s take housing. If you are constantly sick because you or your family can’t afford to move out of an unhealthy house, it takes a toll not only on your health but on your education, your career, your personal development.

The next big idea, the next technological breakthrough or medical innovation, could be lost forever if it fails to emerge from the mind of a sick or hungry person. We need to build state houses on an industrial scale and make them available to those in need.

We argue public goods are no longer just physical, but also digital. It is not possible to pursue opportunities in modern society if you can’t function effectively online, and as many as 100,000 Kiwi schoolkids don’t have the internet at home. Back in lockdown, what will those kids do?

The Aotearoa Wellbeing Commitment calls for fully funded public access to the internet, because a lottery of birth should not limit your options.

The PSA does not accept that providing free and universal basic services to all Kiwis carries a negative cost. The Aotearoa Wellbeing Commitment is an investment, and it’s time for investments in our country go beyond just roads and bridges.

We need the social infrastructure for our communities to flourish. Let’s do even better.

*Erin Polaczuk is National Secretary of the Public Service Association.

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.



If an organization has "Aotearoa" in its name, it's probably dedicated to fighting for social justice.

What's your point? Apart from a pointless comment.

It was Aotearoa long before you arrived.

No. The term "New Zealand" is far older than the term "Aotearoa" (which is a made-up word).
Possibly from ao (“cloud, daytime, world”) +‎ tea (“white”) +‎ roa (“long, tall”); often translated as “the land of the long white cloud”. Assuming this is probably a reference to the appearance of mountainous land when seen on the horizon from a canoe after an ocean voyage. Originally was in reference to the North Island only. The first recorded mention of Aotearoa as a name for New Zealand as a whole was in 1898 in The Long White Cloud Ao-tea-roa by William Pember Reeves.

Actually you may be correct, but we will never know. 1898 was the first recorded use, but that's not to say it wasn't used prior to that and there is record of Aotea being used with reference to navigation. It's almost certain Aotearoa evolved as name over time.

It will come as no surprise to many here, that I suscribe to a lot of what was said above.


All very altruitsic - this is from a person who heads an organisation that provides the bulk of the wellbeings she calls for - they are a protected species of sacred cows - how does she intend for her people to achieve excellence in what they do - they haven't shared in the pain so far

The public sector employed 403,000 people (headcount) in 2018, 18% of NZ's total workforce (2,238,000), as measured by Stats NZ . The majority (88%) work in the State sector (354,000) and 12% in local government (49,200).


Let me know when the wage cuts and job losses in the public sector catch up with the private sector. Or are we just going to have public servants who get five weeks of annual leave and wage increases for showing up dictating terms to those who have had a drop in real incomes, and are presumably going to be asked to dig deeper to fund this fantastical level of service, even though the public sector has been allowed to drop the ball for decades and blow some of our biggest inequities out to insane levels?

Thanks for your angry rant. FYI NZ's public sector was ranked as 7th most efficient by WEF in 2019.
What has the NZ private sector achieved on an international scale apart from trading in bulk commodities, be it dairy, horticulture or tourism?
I have worked extensively as a technical consultant for both private and public sector clients. Trust me, our largest Kiwi-owned corporations have an outdated management culture. No wonder only migrant from Asia tend to stick around with these employers.


"Trust me, our largest Kiwi-owned corporations have an outdated management culture."

I don't doubt it. But I'm not being compelled to fund those companies from whatever wages I'll actually get as a result of a lockdown, while I am forced to fund a government workforce that is getting paid whether they're working or not.

You're right and believe it or not, public sector orgs are under the pump on cutting operational spending. Most executives have issued a hiring freeze along with a clear narrative of reducing contractors and consultants budgets.
Lots of admin workers are being redeployed in client-facing roles, while performance metrics are being looked closely at in an effort to find new cost saving avenues.

Is it necessary to suffer to understand suffering?
And pain is relative.. nurses and teachers, for instance, work damn hard for less than they're worth. Not to mention the endless amount of reporting that goes with those jobs, because of so-called accountability.

Add to that shift work, high risk, low respect and short term renewable contracts/ casualisation.. and for that, they're sacred cows?? Yeah. Right.

Yes. I don’t believe one can truly have understanding unless they ‘have suffered’
Teachers are over-paid, unionised bunch of soft-lefty’s that pushout the strike card knowing damn well parents will quickly fall into line else bear the thought of having to take time off work and look after there own little terrors!


Everyone agrees with the sentiment, but this type of non-specific talk is exactly why we have the problems we do. This is a wish list, with no feasible plan.

It's all very well to state the bleeding obvious, about how people would like to feel, but the solutions offered either self perpetuate the problem in that you think the solution is just doing more of the present, ie more public transport, or free public transport, yet in a pandemic world, less not more public crowding is needed.

And the solution to the housing crisis is not to build more state housing, but to get rid of the inequalities in the systems that cause the need for state housing to be needed in the first place.

You state something as a fact: 'If State housing is available to all those who need it, over 16, 000 more households will be in warm, dry and secure homes.' The irony of this statement is obviously entirely missed by the public service, as it is Govt. policies, which the public service administer, that have recreated 16,000 plus people living in houses/garages/on the street etc. that are not warm, dry, secure or affordable to begin with.

You create the problem and then offer a solution that 'coincidently.' requires more public service input.

A real public service solution would result in less, not more public servants, and less, not more people becoming wards of the state? Less police because there is less crime, fewer nurses because there are fewer health issues etc. More of any public service is a red flag for a dysfunctional system doubling down on itself.

Here are two solutions that would not only solve the housing problem but since the cost of land/housing is the biggest ongoing drain on peoples finances, would leave people with a lot more discretionary income they can then spend themselves on the other issues on the wish list eg would have more money to spend on health and education.

1. Get rid of the non-value-added restrictions in the land zoning, infrastructure, and consenting laws that cause the price of housing land to be up to 7 or 8 times its valued-added cost. This would mean new housing/land could be built for half to 1/3 less than its present cost in NZ.

2. Govt. state that they will build all Govt. buildings going forward to Passive House level as a minimum, or with net-zero and climate change in mind could go to Passive House Plus or Premium. This does not need the Govt. to change the Building Code, but would send a massive signal and incentive to the whole building industry, in that any private individual in getting their new house built would want it at least as good as a State House.

If these two points were actioned, it would cause a huge uplift in housing quality right across the board in NZ, plus would reduce the price of the land, which would in turn free up extra money to allow the small extra cost of building Passive, plus solar. which also means cheaper heating costs (up to 90% less), which further gives people more money in the hand for the other things on the wishlist. A better house for the individual and the planet and a lower price.

Other jurisdictions are already doing this overseas, yet here in NZ, our biggest landlord, the Govt. has exempted themselves from the requirements of the healthy homes guarantees act.

This is why we do not have warm, dry, healthy, affordable homes in NZ.

Anecdote from the public health service. My team leader pointed out how much data we had to play with, systems capturing all sorts of stuff. But nowhere was there a flag for 'was the patient successfully treated' We know what they presented with from which source, what they were medicated with or what procedure was performed, what follow ups they had, which other service they were referred over to. But nowhere to capture if the treatment was successful.

And if you aren't measuring that one simple kpi?

Yes, this is where they seriously go off-piste.

The system ends up being set up for itself, ie they become their own client so measure the outcomes against there own internal KPI's which statistically look great, but then when they ask the real client eg a State Housing tenant and get the feedback that the tenant does not like living in cold, damp unhealthy housing, they are shocked that their measures say differently and rather conclude they are wrong, the reason must be an ungrateful tenant.

And the politicians are also responsible for this as they want figures to make them look good. The number of people tested is a bigger number than people treated successfully.

In fact, if the client gets any benefit out of some of these Govt. initiatives, then it is more by accident than design.

This stats. scam was used during the earthquake recovery where they went and saw the least damage properties first so they should show high numbers seen rather than the people most in need which would take longer to see.

And in defense of the PSA, they are given the task of getting results without the resources to achieve them so they learn how to 'massage' the data to get a result.

There was a classic case in the UK public hospitals were new politicians said they would get rid of some hospitals having to house patients in corridors because they were overfull. They demanded the hospitals take action to stop that practice but gave them no more money for rooms etc. The hospital was only responding to the clients that came in. They could have turned patients away but that was not an option, so they came up with the solution.

They just renamed the corridors 'wards', problem solved, and the politician got off their back so they should get on with the pressure they were already under.

In most places the extra cost in building a 'passive house' is far far higher than the few hundred dollars a year cost over the life of the house of employing more heating via a heat pump, and it is an up-front cost that most be borrowed for. That's bad economics

100% incorrect.

Yes to build a better quality of anything costs more and the only reason of any great disparity in cost is the very low base in housing quality countries like NZ start with. It would be like comparing living in a tent with a standard house. If Passive House became a standard then it would cost almost no more than the previous standard, just like it is now almost cheaper to buy double glazing once standard than the previous single glazing.

A passive house is whole-house heating, not just a limited number of rooms in the house, so for less energy cost, you have more benefits.

Fuel poverty where people cannot afford to heat their homes also leads to poor health outcomes, which is huge cost to the individual and the country.

Energy costs are rising in the operational costs are rising, and it makes sense to lock the capital cost in.

The worst economics is building to the NZ building code.

I think some sort of UBI has been needed for quite a while. We off-shored the manufacturing jobs and they ain't coming back.


Here's a novel idea: instead of taking money from people, feeding it into a costly redistributive system that is insulated from the economy that it's skimming from, just take less from our most vulnerable in the first place. Perhaps a public sector model that doesn't rely on the government making up 30% of the economy is the place to start. Fewer jobs in Wellington that way, so I can't see it ever catching on.

In the long run most sheeple will use it the leverage up more debt and then what next.
As much as I like the aim of this it will just be soaked up in rent increases/council rates etc.
The system will always reset in the end otherwise who will do the work needed to be done and what will motivate people to get ahead.

Well said Bec. The reset will come and quite possibly sooner rather than later. The status quo has been preserved to the extent that all energy and resources are being hugely misallocated. The longer it continues, the worse the pain will be.

"democratically determined and publicly provided".

How, exactly? Like the Gubmint has covered (covid?) itself in glory over the recent handling of the Border....add KB, the woeful state of the oh-so-many DHB's, and the debt being racked up by the second, and the impression is that the PSA is firmly into pixie dust and unicorn grease. That's Cultural Appropriation from the Greens, for Gaia's sake......

Good wishlist. No plan. Clearly no clue of how to achieve what is desired. Thus an incompetent article.
I am sure everybody in the public service works hard. But from bitter experience I know it's mostly internally interactive - and produces little.
Sort that out is my suggestion - and the redirected resource would assist greatly. Like building decent houses.