We were promised the most transparent Government ever. We received the opposite. Now they’re gone.
I’ve been trying to recall what our perception of government was before 2017. While we all have differing political views, we’ve probably tended to think of governments as fair and, more importantly, representative of the people who put them there. Sure, not everything was out in the open. It never is. But whether it was Key, Clark or those before them, we felt our views were well represented.
When former PM Jacinda Ardern and her Labour Party-led coalition came to power in 2017, she promised the most transparent Government ever. Whether she knew it or not, she was implying that governments before her had been less than transparent.
I believe it’s now part of our history that her Government and that of her successor were the least transparent in our lifetimes.
Transparency in this sense is defined as being open and honest, without secrets. That’s probably a tall order for any politician. But it’s a great aspiration. If only the promise was well-meant.
The Ardern-Hipkins Government failed New Zealanders on several fronts. But the complete disdain for transparency and the impact of that on the country’s people is probably one of their greatest failures.
Along with her co-conspirators Grant Robertson, Chris Hipkins, David Parker and Nanaia Mahuta, Ardern presided over a Government that chose not to be completely open or honest. They misled us and manipulated the media in the process, while they conceived, crafted and delivered policies that in some cases bore no resemblance to what they had campaigned on. Furthermore, they set out on a pathway to racially divide and re-engineer us socially, while core services such as schools, hospitals, roads, police and even the judiciary failed us.
We should never forget the impact of a Government that claimed to be “the single source of the truth”. The worst part is that they seemed to believe that. During the Covid-19 pandemic, when many New Zealanders were genuinely fearful of their safety, our Government cruelly promised we were “in the front of the queue for vaccines” when the reality was that we were far from it.
The practice of misleading us continued right up to the outgoing prime minister’s concession speech on election night when he listed many of his Government’s “achievements”, a list that seemed to ignore reality.
They rode the Covid wave to be re-elected in 2020 with the first parliamentary majority of the MMP era. It was a monster victory. So much so that the new Government was able to roll out new policies at whim, including some they had been working on without the knowledge of voters or even their previous coalition partner.
That majority brought with it the previously unheard-of and divisive He Puapua report and the centralisation of our health service, further crippling outcomes for those on the sick list.
“As retailers lost their businesses, and in one case their life, fog cannons – the ultimate ambulance at the bottom of the cliff – were the best we could do.”
Along the way, they refused to acknowledge the unfolding disasters around them, whether inherited or of their own making. For example, the health service is in crisis despite the efforts of those working within it. And yet successive ministers including Hipkins, Andrew Little and Ayesha Verrall all refused to regard it as such.
And despite us seeing it with our own eyes on TV every evening, they refused to entertain the extent of the post-Covid crime wave. As retailers lost their businesses, and in one case their life, fog cannons – the ultimate ambulance at the bottom of the cliff – were the best we could do. Again the word “crisis” was avoided and the escalation of crime was merely “of concern”.
Their attempts at social engineering meant that, as our crime rates exploded, our prison population reduced. They seemed to think that was OK.
In our failing schools, we denied the importance of chemistry and physics while we started teaching 8-year-olds about their gender options. We have kids who are fearful of going to the toilet at school, for fear of being attacked, and we wonder why attendance and achievement are now at previously unimaginable levels.
And the flagship poverty-reduction policies were conveniently forgotten when the media stopped looking, despite more people than ever living in their cars or in government-funded motels.
As a result, we saw that previously unimaginable super-majority vanish in a single parliamentary term. Many people have been quick to say that Covid, which won Labour the 2020 election, lost them the 2023 version. But I’m sure there are many more reasons for losing so decisively than that one issue. There have been multiple failures on multiple fronts, all of which will have contributed to the largest one-term fall in our political history.
But perhaps, with all those failures and the constant and ongoing refusal to acknowledge the problems, the single issue of trust was the biggest cause of their defeat.
Trust is directly related to transparency. And somehow, both must be restored by our new Government in the difficult parliamentary term that is now ahead of us.
Rebuilding trust means we have to start on the right track. So it was refreshing this week to hear David Seymour express a willingness to have the coalition agreement made public. In response to the questions that followed, PM-elect Christopher Luxon then chimed in, commenting that he was also open to doing so.
The last time we had a coalition agreement was in 2017. The 2020 majority meant one wasn’t required. The 2017 agreement was never made public. Memories are short. So Seymour was right to highlight the desire for a new layer of transparency early on. Let’s hope it stays that way.
Over the next few weeks, our new Government will find its form and learn more about the challenges we face. For my money, I suspect our collective financial state will be worse than we are anticipating. And aside from the aforementioned education, health and policing, there are plenty of other issues that the new Government will have to deal with.
On the positive side, international dairy prices are recovering and our weak currency helps improve the impact of those prices on our economic outlook. But thereafter the list is bleak.
“The most important early job for the new Government is to tell us how bad it is … hard-working New Zealanders will be happy to do their bit.”
Near the top of the pile will be the cost of living. The inflationary battle is not yet won and the state of our currency means anything imported is going to continue to be expensive. That includes one of the commodities we all rely on – oil. From US$67 a barrel in June to US$85 today, it is a key driver of our inflationary concerns alongside the continued wage spiral. And with escalating tensions in the Middle East, it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.
The most important early job for the new Government is to tell us how bad it is. Then we can understand the challenge and, in doing so, hard-working New Zealanders will be happy to do their bit. But we have to understand how big the problems are, how they will affect us and how we expect to resolve them.
During wartime, governments have told people what was expected and asked them to help. When a business faces difficulty, a manager or leader might do the same.
I’d like to see the new Government tell us about its priorities and what it is setting out to achieve in each area. And if it’s bold enough, to ask the people for help. Ask those who can to sign up as police, nurses and teachers. Encourage people to start new businesses or innovate in existing ones. We can’t rely solely on our parliamentarians to carry the can. We need a collective effort to solve massive problems.
And it’s not just the big macro-economic issues that need focus and attention. How do we plan to get kids back into school? How do we make school a safe environment once again? What are we going to do about the rising crime rate and a judicial process that’s too slow? How do we get people out of their cars and motel rooms and back into housing that’s affordable and fit for purpose? What are we going to do about the crisis in our hospitals? Waiting lists, staffing, availability of medicines, improving facilities. The list of things to do is almost endless. What we know is that government can’t do it alone. So once they’re informed, Kiwis should be asking, how can we help?
Next up, if the Government can work out a way of monitoring progress and sharing that progress – the good and the bad – we will all be better off.
There will always be unforeseen problems and things we can’t control. But informing the populace should be an obligation of the Government and a right of the people. And once informed, perhaps we can become part of the solution.
Clear, honest and accurate communication from government will inspire confidence and business owners will make decisions to invest, employ and grow. Those considering a move overseas might decide to stay. Others with skills might return. That’s what confidence does.
And as we become more engaged, we will ultimately become more trusting. True transparency does that.
Releasing the coalition agreement would be a good start.
This article first appeared in The New Zealand Herald, Saturday 28th October, 2023.