Camryn Brown: Labour’s prescription is always more Wellington

Camryn Brown: Labour’s prescription is always more Wellington


Labour is the party of Wellington and its solution to everything is always more Wellington

The core public service has grown by 220% since the turn of the century. Our overall population has increased by only 30% in the same period. That’s pretty astonishing.

Here is another way of looking at it. In the year 2000, the core public service was a Timaru (30,000 souls). Today, it is nearly a Napier (63,000). So if the core public sector had its own city, it would be our ninth biggest.

As it is, it mostly nestled inside our third largest city – Wellington.

It is true as far as it goes that National and Labour have both overseen public sector growth. But it does not go all that far. Of the increase above, less than 10% occurred under a National government.

When all Labour has is a hammer, everything looks like a nail

How do you tackle rising healthcare costs due to ageing hospitals, costly medical advances, and an older population? Labour’s answer is more centralised bureaucracy. More Wellington.

What about crumbling water infrastructure due local government scopes getting broader but not their access to capital? Sounds like a job for a centralised bureaucracy. More paperwork and committees and bureaucrats will fix it.

A post-secondary education system struggling to deliver against critical skills shortages? Sounds like a job for a centralised bureaucracy. If that won’t get young people learning, nothing will.

A significant global pandemic threatening our health and our economy? Sounds like a job for a centralised bureaucracy. What else?

There’s no team of five million – they’re a team of less than 100k and we’re the 4.9m they rule over

It’s not that the public service cannot or should not have a big role in providing coordination, consistency, and scale when responding to big challenges. An effective bureaucracy is a pre-condition of a modern state. But the issue is the government’s reflexive instinct to take problems away from community organisations, local governments, and business groups rather than solving those problems (their problems!) with them.

Labour’s instinct for ever more centralisation draws an unnecessary line between problem sufferers and problem solvers. Communities are framed as victims or supplicants rather than empowered entities capable of helping themselves. The public service is framed as their saviour.

Civil society is continually diminished – its energy and resources untapped and its agency and capacity for self-determination withering. The public service is expanded in a vain attempt to make up the deficit but it just ends up colonising the social capital that still exists.

Turning public servants into public masters

Lest anyone mistake these outcomes as the unintended side effects of a quest for efficiency, look at how Labour chooses to operate its enlarged Wellington cadre. It could use those extra pairs of hands to oversee meaningful community and stakeholder consultation.

It doesn’t do that.

Instead, it makes changes unannounced and unilaterally (the oil and gas exploration ban) or it uses its resources to enact a propaganda exercise in consultation’s clothing (three waters).

It could use those extra pairs of hands to implement devolution to community providers and community-led solutions.

It doesn’t do that.

Instead, it prefers to go it alone (Kiwibuild, mental health) or pushes communities out altogether (tertiary education reform).

Under Labour, it is all about using the public service to dictate to and manage New Zealand rather than to work alongside it.

Wellington just doesn’t get us anymore

Our public service is becoming more physically distant from its people through centralisation. It is working more with itself and less with communities and individuals.

Those developments are negative enough on their own. There’s more, however. In important ways, our public service is also becoming more culturally distant.

As Labour has developed a larger and more Wellington-based ruling class, it has become more insular and self-focused. It has different pay, different employment conditions, and different life experiences from the people it governs. Despite all that, it uses itself as the benchmark of success for its work.

For example, Wellington-developed vaccination messaging worked brilliantly for Wellington (81.1% vaccinated and boosted as of 14 March 2022) but less well for Northland (69.9%).

And as its salaries continue to race ahead of those in the real economy despite few productivity gains to show for it, Wellington becomes more and more of an oasis of oblivious privilege at a time of increasing hardship. A pseudo-aristocracy.

A party and its public service in mirror image

All too often, Labour MPs communicate their party line to their communities much more than they take messages from their communities back to their party hierarchy. Too many Labour MPs work their communities for Labour rather than work for their communities. They are the government’s representative to the people when it’s meant to be the other way around.

Can we blame the public service for following their lead?

A case study in obliviousness

Consider the TV ad for the new “Road to Zero” campaign. What does that ad want you to do? A typical road safety ad wants you to slow down, be sober, or wear a seatbelt. This ad has nothing for a road user to act on, it simply promotes the idea of an all-of-system approach to road safety. It tells you that road safety depends on coordinated work across enforcement, road design, regulation, and so on.

It shares this big idea that has excited the bureaucrats so you may see how clever they are and so that you may appreciate them more.

That’s what the ad wants you to do – it wants you to know what the bureaucracy is doing to do and it wants you to think better of them for it. The beneficiary of the ad is the public service, not the public.

But isn’t co-governance Labour’s big thing? Isn’t that devolution not centralisation?

Governance partnerships with Māori are a big focus for Labour. Regrettably, they do not represent meaningful devolution. Labour’s approach to co-governance is top down: it’s all about growing a parallel bureaucracy.

The MHA and the other co-governance entities will be no closer to the people they rule over than a Mojo-swilling Wellington bureaucrat is to a rousey in a Tinui woolshed. It’s an expansion of Wellington’s grasp and control – not a sharing of it.

Not just where they are but how they work and how they think

They say governments fall when they lose touch. Labour isn’t losing touch, it’s actively distancing itself from touch.

It is deliberately surrounding itself with ever-growing and ever-thickening layers of lanyards so that it may better rule over us from the splendid isolation of central Wellington rather than govern for and with its people.

The coming correction

More than any single decision or policy, this is what is driving Ardern’s Labour towards an unceremonious departure from power. When a government puts ever more barriers between it and the people, the people become more sceptical. We’ve been seeing that play out for a while now, even if more urgent events hold our attention from day-to-day.

And when it happens, Wellington will be as shocked and surprised as the courtiers of the French Crown.


This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.