Reeling in the recent past, John R Martin

The Whimpering of the State: Policy after MMP
Brian Easton
Auckland University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1 86940 218 9

Brian Easton’s continuing commentary on New Zealand public policy does not fall on deaf ears. Not all those who take note of what he has to say are without criticism. There are those who claim that he writes too much, and that some of his judgements could benefit from deeper research, while others feel that he should confine his commentary to economic matters. Certainly Easton is a prolific writer: “nearly 30 books and monographs as author, co-author or editor” the flyer for his latest book tells us. And his reach is broad: from social policy, through cultural affairs, to administrative history.

Standing behind this large output is a commitment to a fundamental belief about New Zealand democracy: that citizens have a right to be informed. Associated with this belief is the view that if citizens are provided with the facts and the options, the subsequent public debate will lead to sustainable policy options. Over the past three decades, various initiatives built on a degree of faith in this process have come and gone. The New Zealand Planning Council was an institution publicly-funded to contribute to discussion of policy issues; the Institute of Policy Studies at Victoria University now carries on that mission at a somewhat greater distance from the Government; and such individuals as Sir Frank Holmes and the late Henry Lang and John Roberts (and many others) have invested considerable efforts in the cause of better-informed policy debate outside the arena of party politics. In the 1970s, reasoning about public policy made little headway when confronted by naked displays of power, for example by unions controlling strategic areas of the economy, or by a government which knew “the one best way”. Another self-confident government in the 1980s made effective use of “blitzkrieg” tactics (in Easton’s phrase). The 1990s have brought us proportional representation as a reaction.

Mostly as an independent research economist, Brian Easton has been at the battle-front throughout this time. His Listener column, quirky as it sometimes is, has contributed valuably for some 20 years to a wider public understanding of economics. In this latest book, he charts his audience as “both university students … and the general reader of contemporary studies” and believes that it will be of use to candidates for public office as “a background to the policy environment in which they seek to participate”. Easton, therefore, needs to ensure that his discussion of various policy domains will satisfy the specialist scholars and be attractive to the practitioners.

MMP provides the setting for The Whimpering of the State. Easton begins with the thesis that “the new parliamentary structure is the cause of all the changing policy outcomes”. This is modified by the proposition that some policies have been changing during the 1996-99 Parliament because they have failed in their own terms, as stated by their originators whom Easton dubs “the commercialisers”, a reference to his The Commercialisation of New Zealand (1996).

Part 1, “The Politics”, discusses the impact of MMP on the policy process. The crucial factor is that the single party government (SPG) of “winner-takes-all” (WTA) is for practical purposes replaced by multi-party government (MPG). (While this is a matter of individual taste, I find the use of acronyms throughout somewhat irritating despite the provision of a three-page glossary.) The policy process, Easton assumes (not surprisingly), is now more influenced by Parliament than before 1996; he also assumes (less demonstrably) that an MMP-elected Parliament will better reflect the electorate’s desires. From these two assumptions, he draws a series of propositions about policy-making under MMP. These, he argues, were matched by experience between late 1996 and early 1999. If the policy process did not change overnight, that was to be expected because of two “sources of inertia”; viz the parliamentary leadership, which “still thought in terms of policy blitzkrieg”, and “the policy bureaucracy”, which had learned and flourished under the old regime.

This theme is developed in discussion of the 1996 electoral results; Peters in Coalition; “the economic failure” (except in holding inflation); public sector reform; and “the social basis for an economy”. The notion of “social capital” (given currency in New Zealand by Jim Bolger, albeit in a “woolly definition”) is counterpointed against “what went wrong with New Zealand, where the commercialisers were also deliberately destroying social institutions.”

In Part 2, Easton offers “case studies” of recent policy on health, “core education”, tertiary education, science, the arts, the ownership, management and regulation of water, roading, and telecommunications. These vary in length and, in the evaluation of “the experts”, no doubt, in depth, but they do alert the reader to important issues.

Part 3 looks to the future. There are comments on political questions such as the party make-up of future parliaments. (Easton speculates that there may be “a couple of main parties disputing the centre of the political spectrum and sharing perhaps two-thirds of the vote, and a number of minor parties among the other third” but that a centre party is unlikely.) He argues further that “NZF (New Zealand First) was an accident, a glorious attempt to break an old mould, which would almost inevitably fail.” Constitutional issues – a four-year term, MMP itself, the number of MPs, a republic, local government – are addressed.

“[W]ith a certain reluctance”, Easton also proffers in the penultimate chapter “a new microeconomic policy paradigm”. This “is grounded in standard economic theory, and treats the market mechanism as a powerful means of coordinating many social decisions, usually signalling the social value of the resources used.” Such a paradigm accepts the need for the more market reforms of the past 15 years but rejects their “extreme commercialisation”. The new paradigm is applied for illustrative purposes to the Employment Contracts Act and the Resource Management Act.

In this book, Brian Easton has set himself a tough challenge. Its very range lays him open to the charge that he has neglected important elements of the specialist literature. For example, there is little reference to European experience with proportional representation nor, nearer home, does Easton draw on the work of the New Zealand Political Change Project (Boston et al). Others in his target audience will, no doubt, take issue with some of the contemporary history. The tone is, in my view, unnecessarily combative when looking back; but it is encouraging when looking forward. The last words in a thoughtful Epilogue, “Culture and Reform”, are “In a post MMP world more positive outcomes are possible.”

However, The Whimpering of the State is a work of political economy. And that is its overriding virtue. To roam across the field is to expose oneself to fire from all angles. Economists are sometimes accused of ignoring what can be pejoratively called “the politics industry”. Political scientists equally are asked for “the numbers”. The two disciplines can easily talk past each other. For their part, practitioners – politicians, their advisers, and electors – have to form judgements across the field. This book will provide them with some timely insights.

John R Martin teaches in the Department of Public Policy at Victoria University of Wellington.

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