• Picking Up the Pieces

    The news that the government is to find $80 million to repair Middlemore Hospital should come as no surprise. This is just the latest instance of the new government having to pick up the tab to make good something neglected by its predecessor.

    It s not just a matter of restoring to an acceptable condition a single long neglected rotting and crumbling hospital. There are, in the health sector alone, other buildings with identical problems, and right across the public sector, wherever one looks, there is evidence of the spending now needed to remedy the failings and omissions of the last National government.

    We are told, for example, that our drinking water is hardly safe to drink – a shocking state of affairs for a supposedly developed country – and that it needs substantial investment if it is to be brought up to standard – and that is to say nothing of the condition of our rivers and waterways. And there are other major parts of our essential infrastructure that are in similarly urgent need of attention and improvement.

    The new government, we learn, has also been able to find the millions needed (but hitherto not made available) to step up the effort to save our native flora from kauri die-back and myrtle rust – problems that were barely addressed by the previous government who seem to have learnt little from the PSA debacle in the kiwifruit industry under their watch.

    At the same time as these infrastructure and environmental issues are demanding attention, our schools are struggling to find enough qualified teachers, carrying an obvious threat to the standard of education enjoyed by our new generation; if that situation is to be remedied we need to find the resources to train the necessary recruits. And teaching is not the only occupation where we have neglected to look to the future; in the construction industry, we have failed to provide the apprenticeships that are needed, and business as a whole identifies the shortage of skilled workers as the greatest impediment to their progress.

    In the public sector, we find that even those who have been trained and are currently working, especially in essential occupations – teachers, nurses, midwives, court staff, civil servants more generally, and many others – have seen their salaries fall in real and comparative terms, all victims of the drive to cut costs by a government giving priority to “producing a surplus”. The current rash of strikes is a direct result of earlier neglect and irresponsibility by those holding the purse strings.

    When spending is cut in this way for ideological purposes, the consequences are all too predictable. The standards we expect in our public administration (and for which New Zealand is renowned worldwide) begin to slip and we find that we can no longer rely on public agencies to do their jobs properly. These consequences are not limited to the big-ticket items, such as health care and education. So, for example, inspections of articulated vehicles are not properly carried out so that potentially dangerous vehicles are let loose on our roads, and warrants of fitness are issued without any real inspection, with possibly fatal consequences for some drivers.

    Services starved of resources become vulnerable to cutting corners, turning blind eyes, and accepting inducements for doing so, so that even our hard-earned reputation as the least corrupt society in the world is placed at risk.

    We have done ourselves an enormous injury in allowing cost-cutting to take priority over maintaining reliably high standards. And, sadly, by the time the day of reckoning has arrived, those responsible have long gone and it is left to others to carry the can.

    It is the successors to the “cut at all costs” brigade who must pick up the tab for past neglect. They have the task of somehow finding the resources that are needed – and they must endure the complaints of those who, in the aftermath of the cuts, now find themselves under-paid and under-resourced, and – in some cases – not employed at all.

    There is of course a lesson to be learned from this sad saga. It is that a government that is hostile to the public sector and to public spending can do enormous damage to our economy and to our country as a whole. Voters, however, are often surprisingly reluctant to cut any slack for a successor government that tries to pick up the pieces and put them together again.
    Bryan Gould
    22 November 2018

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