Peter Dunne argues the Wellington bureaucracy will be a good gauge of whether the Government is likely to be re-elected next year

Winston Peters, Jacinda Ardern & James Shaw by Jacky Carpenter.

The Wellington public service bureaucracy still maintains an aura of political neutrality about its operations. Public servants are, as tradition expects, generally loyal to their Ministers and the government of the day, and do not seek to cause them any embarrassment, if that can be avoided.

Successive governments have been able to rely on the tact, discretion and continuity of the public service to guide and advise them on their policies as appropriate. All that is as it should be. Indeed, the neutrality of the public service is a core feature of our system of government. The government of the day has to be able to rely on the public sector to make its policies work, and deliver them to the public, as well as offering free and frank advice to Ministers on the real likely impact of their policies and how difficult or otherwise they might be to implement.

It cannot do so, or becomes severely limited in its ability to do so, without the support of the public service, or if there is any hint that the public sector is not in step with the government's agenda. 

However, none of this overlooks the reality that public servants are individuals like the rest of us, with the same prejudices and viewpoints. And, like the rest of us, they express these informally from time to time - to colleagues, friends, family and other associates, sometimes discreetly, other times less so. (Intelligence sector agents have long said that the best source to find out information about what is really going on in government is the loud conversations in the Koru Lounge on a Friday evening!)

The present government's term is approaching its midpoint, and government officials will be starting to assess whether or not it is likely to re-elected, not so much from a party political perspective, but more from the perspective of future policy development and implementation, and its likely longevity. After all, why dedicate too many resources to a government policy project that may well not survive a change of government, if that seems on the cards?

Much of that consideration will be based on an informal assessment by the public sector and its leaders of the performance of individual Ministers as they see them interacting with the various government departments on a day to day basis. After the initial flurry following the change of government in 2017 when bureaucrats had to get used to, and then house-train, a bunch of inexperienced new Ministers, many of whom appeared somewhat shocked to be in the role at all, there has been a settling down period where the worth of their political masters can be assessed more dispassionately.

As always, there have been surprises - some Ministers have performed far better than expected, and others less so. Soundings around the public service suggest that the current government sits very much on the cusp at present. The initial view that this government was likely to be in office for a minimum of two terms has waned somewhat, although it has not yet evaporated. Now, the coalition government's re-election prospects are rated about 50/50, a position not too out of step with public opinion polls, and probably not too bad at this stage of the electoral cycle, but one from which it cannot afford any slippage. 

Nevertheless, with half its term nearly over, and no significant policy runs on the board as yet, the government is facing a significant, although not yet insurmountable challenge, to make the Prime Minister's "year of delivery" a reality. If doubts about the government's re-election prospects remain, or even intensify, the enthusiasm for implementing new policies will diminish, especially if it is felt those policies could have only a brief life-span. 

Much of the view about the government's longer term chances hinges upon the perception of the performance and competence of individual Ministers. While most still seem to be considered in the nonentity category, two names crop up constantly as just not up to the job - Housing Minister Twyford and Health Minister Clark. The worrying thing for the government is that both are in high-profile areas, which the government has identified as central to its agenda.

And here is the rub: officials are generally unlikely to go the extra mile for Ministers and policies that do not inspire their confidence, so things are likely to get worse in these areas before they get better, and all the while the electoral clock will be ticking. Amongst other Ministers, Foreign Minister Peters is now seen as increasingly harmless; Police Minister Nash brittle and erratic, and Defence Minister Mark still too strutting.

On the other hand, Education Minister Hipkins seems highly regarded, but overworked; Finance Minster Robertson is seen as a safe pair of hands; Trade Minister Parker and Justice Minister Little generally on top of things. There is growing admiration for Energy and Technology Minister Woods, and increasing puzzlement that Civil Defence Minister Faafoi remains so underutilised. 

At the same time, there does not appear to be much enthusiasm for the National Party, more a sense of resignation that its return to office still remains a possibility. This should hardly be too much of a surprise - Wellington is after all a Labour city, and public servants form a large component of its voting population. Their professionalism means they usually separate their personal political preferences from their official roles.

However, a good yardstick of a government on the way out is when the number of leaks from the public service to the media or the Opposition increases. That does not appear to be happening as yet. Of course, the Wellington bureaucracy gossip will not determine the outcome of the next election, but it is worth noting nonetheless. It is after all a gathering of the views of those who work most closely on a regular basis with Ministers. And it will all be being passed on to others, innocently and in casual conversation. Although it is informal, and unscientific, a wise government would be foolish to ignore it. 


*Peter Dunne is the former leader of UnitedFuture, an ex-Labour Party MP, and a former cabinet minister. This article first ran here and is used with permission.

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

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50 Comments

i agree its 50/50 CGT will tip them out unless it gets watered down to investment properties only for now,
as for national they still have a big problem, no partners

Their shadow minister of stats gives the Nationals over a billion uncritical partners. Get rid of him very publically and they might have a chance at the next election.

Yep even at his popular peak John Key could not get National there on its own. It is equally hard to see the electorate accepting a coalition of only Labour/Greens. So again NZF becomes a choice by default. But if WP is not leading, or it is obvious he won’t see out the term, NZF will not feature. 2020 is shaping up as being an ungainly affair to say the least. What sort of government will emerge? God defend New Zealand.

Probably an FPP one, I'd imagine. A lurch to the left or the right is on the cards.

I think the coalition are better than 50/50 to win the next election. Not because they are doing a great job, but because of the weakness of the opposition.
Twyford should be replaced by Faafoi. The man was always going to be a liability, and has frankly been hopeless.
Ardern needs to act on this now. They need to fess up that it hasn't gone as well as it should, and recalibrate and set realistic targets. The longer the status quo goes on, the more egg they will have on their face as election looms.
This is a real test of Ardern's leadership. Does she have what it takes?

I don't think so. Just a show pony.

And.........? After all, people seemed to be happy for 3 elections with the last show pony.

How the Government handles the 2018 Census debacle will be important.

There are going to be major negative flow-on effects from the 2018 Census - not the least being electoral boundaries - with the potential to cause an explosive political situation.

TTP

I think there is a reasonably good chance Winston only lets them increase the bright line test to 10 years. And even then, I think he would struggle to get 5% at the next election.

Labour & the COL will obviously be re-elected in 2020.
Despite their large scale changes they are starting to fund the public sector after 9 years of underfunding of schools, hospitals, universities, public service wages, etc by National. With the student vote, public sector vote, Union vote, & Maori vote that will be enough.
National still has another leadership change coming up, & the current leadership has low public appeal.
NZers have no options other than Socialism on one hand or Globalisation/China/Corporation Governments on the other. . NZ for NZers?, policy for citizens? We have sold our heritage out.

Is this sarcasm? It's hard to imagine a more predictable and played out attempt to excuse the total failure of the Ardern Government to achieve any of their key promised policies, other than abolishing health sector targets and making university free for people who were always going to go to university.

Just a prediction not an endorsement.
Politics is about personalities, chemistry, & personable leaders - as well as riding current public trends/moods.
So winning elections is not so much about a rational analysis of concrete achievements.
Also Jacinda is still newish in the public eye, so the public are not sick & tired yet of ‘this lot’.

Can not see this Coalition of Losers getting back in at all!
Firstly if Winston sells out on CGT the oldies will not vote for him as he will be seen as a total hypocrite.
Secondly, All,the promises that Labour campaigned on will not be fulfilled!
KiwiBore a flop
Pike River a flop.
Reduce child poverty! The lines are getting longer by the day
Business failures due to higher wages etc.
Immigration reduced hugely! Failed
Etc.etc.etc.
This tax tax tax is going to haunt this Govt. As they have not got any business acumen or commonsense.
They just spout without any thought for any consequences!

TM2, do you think National can win the election outright on their own or alternatively who do you see as a likely coalition partner to join them in power? Can’t see either myself, at the moment, but interested in your take on it, ie what National will need to do and/or change to get across the line?

They can win the election outright if the Greens and NZ First are so tainted by this term that they fail to hit 5%. Then all they have to do out is outpoll Labour.

Hmm. Interesting scenario. Can only imagine, if Labour saw that coming, they might just resort to doing an “Epsom” and have a Green candidate coat tail in whatever the percentage that the die hard Greens can elect. Sure is going to be an interesting one isn’t it.

The problem is when you spend decades attacking the Nats for doing something you then have to do to save your own bacon, it starts to become very easy to be labeled massive hypocrites. The centre is where the election is won and lost; doing this would drive people to National just to prove a point.

Like you, I am worried. This a tax happy government like the last Clark & Cullen lot. If they achieve CGT, in any form, then next is a return to death duties, under a suitable euphemism, of course. It must not be forgotten that Labour introduced & increased GST & then, under the captaincy of the above two demigods ratcheted up income tax again, over the top of it. With a CGT, they will repeat that neat little nicety given half a chance. National increased GST without warning and in their last term were lippy and lax. They let themselves down and with it a lot of good people. Had they gained a fourth term at least Clark & Cullen might then have been out of the mix at the end of it. Personally, as you can can probably tell, I can hardly see at the moment, anybody or party worth voting for, and in a democracy, that simply sucks!

You’ve been reading too much national propaganda mate. The truth is I don’t think they even need to increase tax, they are currently pretty flush. They might try and change the tax system so less of the burden falls on employees - I guess whether you consider that a good or bad thing depends on how you make your money.

Mate. Now, not only is that presumptuous , it is rude.

Death duties isn’t being presumptuous?

In truth, I was querying being called mate. But never mind.

Or...whether you know anything about business or tax, like the three people who happened to disagree with the unionists, academics and economists on the TWG. But what would an ex-Deputy IRD Commissioner know about tax, right.

So long as National are polling 4-5% points behind Labour + Greens, and NZFirst are polling over 4% (and they always do better in election year once they start campaigning), I think enough National voters will hold their nose and vote NZFirst so they act as a handbreak for Labour, ensuring that NZFirst get in and we get another Labour + NZFirst coalition and not Labour + Greens.

That is a very real option. It would still be a Kakistocracy and I’d have to really hold my nose but unfettered lefties would be a tax payers nightmare.

Now the joint leader of the Greens has come out and said that CGT is just the beginning of tax’s for the so-called rich.
This COL is just a bunch of socialist envious nillers that are going to make the people who voted them in, wish that they never voted for them!
They will not last as they have no ability to run a Country successfully!

well we're screwed then, If team Red, Blue and Green all suck (and they do, for various different reasons) where do we go?

Once upon a long time ago, we had a White Knight (or perhaps more off white) enter the fray, by the name of Bob Jones. That saw the end of Muldoonism and ushered in the Lange/Douglas government, which for all the acknowledged faults, was one of the most dynamic and innovative governments, the western world has ever seen. Perhaps the Top party might have gained a whole lot more traction if they had kept their powder dry and kept the lid on the unpalatable reforms until they had at least a foothold in parliament ament?

who got 12.3% of the vote and never got a seat of the table, and the election before social credit got 20%
and so that was the seed for MMP BUT most small MMP parties disappear especially when they are seen to accomplish very little but prop up the major party,
the greens and NZ first seem to be running a smarter campaign this time, the greens have a coleader coming out with statements to gee up the supporters but which the government does not have to act on
and NZ first using its fund to get votes in the region and pulling labour back to the middle (if they vote against CGT)

The problem for the Greens is they are now part of the Govt by way of confidence and supply. If they feel passionately enough about something to attack the Govt on it, then it begs the question why they didn't ask it to be included in the agreement. Otherwise it's just pissing into the wind.

Yes they all suck, I'm not voting next elections with the current crop of leaders. I would say their chances of getting back in are pretty good if National don't get rid of Simon Bridges.Don't see any changes on the horizon, National will loose then Bridges will go.

So you'll go down as "too lazy to vote". Better to vote for a joke party or draw a big egg plant emoji on the ballot.

Pragmatist, where do we go? The only country that runs a Red, Blue and Green ensemble by way of a flag is Aberbaijan. That sort of sums it up.

Try living in another country and tell me our parties suck! We are really lucky our two main parties are so central and normal. They both want to pay down government debt while the rest of the world are stupidly ratcheting it up, there aren’t any religious or extremist nut bars, and the ‘worst case scenario ‘ is a revenue neutral CGT. Be thankful people, most countries would love to have our politicians.

This si true.. ours are ho-hum, ineffective and weak.. but at least we dodn't have the religious nutbars or a dictatorship. Still, Is there something wrong with hoping that we somehow find some that aren't ho-hum and ineffective and get them into parliament?

They are already running the country successfully. The biggest worry for many people is providing housing for themselves and their children. In places like Auckland and Christchurch it is getting more affordable. Something National seemed to not want to happen. It was a serious factor why National lost the last election. The Coalition will reign for another seven and a half years. Many people are already benefiting from their sensible and caring policies.

Your comment is a Tui AD right. Yeah Right

Your comment is a Tui AD right. Yeah Right

KiwiBuild will probably need to be taken into the woods and put in an unmarked grave. It's too politically embarrassing to defend.

Nah, with 10,000+ homes worth of signed contracts they are stuck with the rotting body in the basement, and every now and then somebody is going to open that door and we'll get a noseful. Its going to take years to before we stop paying for it.

Phil is just going to order 9,909 of these in the 10th year: https://www.alibaba.com/product-detail/Duplex-Luxury-Cold-Formed-Steel-F...

The people who hate the idea of CGT always vote, and not for Labour. Who do you think the people who never vote, but are motivated by the cannabis legalisation referendum, will vote for?

Labour/Greens by a landslide in 2020.

Yip, that's my thinking too. I think that force will become obvious in the MSM discussions next year once the election looms.

Remember 2011? When Labour first floated the CGT? How did that work out? Did they just import another ten percent of the voting population base or is it possible the centre is far more fluid than people think?

thats why i think it will be watered down to investment properties, i think they will not touch kiwisaver, national have that handed to them on a plate to push for more votes.

Yup that's my take on it as well. Rebrand the brightline test, which is for all intents and purposes CGT, extend it out for the life time of investment properties. They won't go near kiwisaver or business..

But after hitting the bong they are going to be lying on the couch with a bag or rashuns.. not running out to the voting booth.

It is early days, and anyone would be very brave to enter a prediction at this time. However I see the problem as being a communication one. I, and i believe most if not all those who regularly visit this site, can discern what this government is trying to achieve, however missteps, and policy failures combined with a failure to regularly and clearly explain both in an overarching way and in detail what and how they want to achieve those goals pose the biggest risk to their electoral chances next time around. In other words they lack sufficient transparency to enable the public to properly guage their performance. this could be deliberate or a miscalculation.

Having said that, the NZ public have a track record of running with incumbents unless they are irretrievably bad, and JA's popularity may be all they need, if there are no major screw-ups.

I have heard that there is a new true Green Party that will likely replace the “Green” (only cause weed is green) party. Odds are they will take over from Winston as kingmaker.

Forget about Kiwibuild ....... quite apart from Government being unable to build them ....... Kiwis are not buying them .

The whole thing is a spectacular cock-up , and should be canned completely.

Its a cornerstone policy of Labour that has failed to deliver the numbers ............... and now is failing to deliver what people actually want or can afford .