Just Do It

Policy announcements do not always reflect careful analysis. Too often the unstated political considerations have too much influence.

I was once involved with a ministry under pressure over the failure as the result of a very unusual accident of a piece of equipment for which it had a vague responsibility. The public wanted something done. The calls were for actions that were onerous, intrusive and would have had little effect. But the Minister had to be seen to do something, and the ministry advice was an action which looked impressive but would not do much damage.

It was not the ministry’s preferred advice which was to do nothing except put a warning on the equipment. However, loyal to the Minister, they understood the task was not the impossible one of stopping an eccentric accident repeating itself, but that the Minister to be seen to do something which gave the impression that it would not happen again. It hasn’t. In any case the Minister moved on to other things.

I was reminded of this incident when the Minister for the Environment announced changes to the RMA. Exactly what he is proposing is unclear – probably to him too – but it seemed to give the public the sense that there was a problem which was being tackled. Hooray.

One got no sense that the problem was well defined or understood. There is apparently a problem of housing in Auckland (beaten up by the local media it would seem). It is not a problem anywhere else in the country (Christchurch’s circumstances are quite different). So why does one have to change the RMA for everywhere? As far as I can gather, the peculiarity of the geography of the Auckland isthmus, with its pressure on infrastructure, means it needs to build ‘up’ rather than ‘out’. Additionally demand has been accentuated by people investing in housing for capital gains so that a house becomes a speculative investment was well as a shelter (although government policy seems unwilling to address speculative bubbles).

Perhaps there are other factors, but I doubt that they will become transparent. The Minister has taken a course of action and it will be duly shoved through. We will argue over the details, but it is unlikely that the legislators will insist on having a comprehensive analysis of the problem. That is not our way.

It may even be that amendments to the RMA may address some of the problems. (It occurs to me it may not be designed for high-density high-rise housing.) But we won’t know or, when we do, the Minister will have moved on.

We have the same problem with the government’s proposal to privatise state housing by transferring some to community institutions. The Prime Minister was so busy telling us what he was doing he forgot to tell us why he was doing it. What is unnerving is that it is being done with only the minimum of consultation, ever so reminiscent of the Rogernomics strategy of ‘crash through or crash’. (The Rogernomes managed to do both – often to the same policy.)

I suppose one might have a vision of greater community involvement in welfare provision – the British PM David Cameron had one for a while – but such a transformation requires a long-term strategy of strengthening the community sector first. It says it is not ready, but the promise to crash through remains.

So why the hurry? Is there a need for a firesale? The usual fiscally prudent reason for a fire sale of public assets is a severe deterioration in the government accounts. I have heard no hint there is a significant problem there, but does the Prime Minister know something that he has not told us?

The cynical will say that this analysis in all too rational. The RMA changes are a payoff to developers who helped fund the government’s election campaign; the housing privatisation is a payoff to the dealers who did the same. Recall the mysterious partial privatisation of the energy companies carried out without any justification, while observing the substantial fees paid to those who did the deals.

Unless the government is more open about its rational reasons it pursuing its policies, the public will conclude they do not exist and that their purpose is to support certain friends – what one person in a comment to an earlier blog described as ‘crony capitalism’. Surely not?