This summer’s news “silly season” produced a series of shock-horror-probe stories about public servants’ bonuses. The Prime Minister, descending from the Andes, declared these an outrage.
To many public servants, who mostly vote Labour or Alliance, Helen Clark’s outrage was itself an outrage. Their pay scales have been frozen for a decade. How, without bonuses, are executives to keep good staff?
Clark’s riposte was that ministers slog their guts out weekends and nights and take umbrage at bonuses for their flunkies. Public servants should see their work as a “vocation”.
That translates as, they should expect their reward (or some of it, at least) in heaven, where presumably the selfless politicians get theirs. The politicians are even against pay for performance. Outstanding work should be rewarded with promotion, not cash. Otherwise, working longer or in difficult circumstances or even smarter is just public service.
Actually, the selfless politicians have annual wage increases and even backbenchers have far bigger total pay packets (perks and all) than all but the most senior public servants. In other words, politicians get part of their supposedly heavenly reward in the earthly reality of their monthly pay — and, of course, in the public sycophancy which they all crave.
Some public servants of high calibre do have a sense of vocation and trade off potentially higher salaries elsewhere. But most don’t and the brighter among them can command big salaries in the private sector or in Australia.
Good riddance, you might say. Except that mediocre policy analysis and sluggish work produces mediocre policy advice and so sub-optimal — that is, costly — government. High-quality government needs high-quality advice and high-quality advice comes on the back of high-quality salaries. The cost of poor advice is poorer pickings for us all.
Even at the business end of government, the provision of services, mediocrity will no longer do. The public has got used to better service in the private sector and is less and less willing to accept poor service just because it comes from the public sector. High-quality service requires high-quality wages.
But such real-world observations disappear into a black hole in Labour and Alliance thinking. MPs in leftist traditions are policy wonks. Policy is what they are in Parliament for.
They know they are right because they have sat in draughty halls and Kelburn lounges talking endlessly about policy. They have listened to their mates in the social services and complainers in the public arena.
In building these policy wonks’ new Jerusalem, public servants are mere factotums. In any case they have been perverted by 15 years of Rogernomics, so who needs their advice?
The answer lies in a little-noticed report just before Christmas. This was on the Ministry of Economic Development’s consultations on the Labour Party’s pre-election “nation-building” plan to re-impose bans on parallel importing. It also reported the government’s shamefaced backdown.
Labour policy wonks had collected before the election a raft of what now appear to have been misconceptions, unfounded assertions and even lies: that parallel importing, allowed in 1998 after an 85-year ban, would, among other things, discourage music and book publishing companies investing in local talent and promoting them overseas, force cinemas across the country to close because pre-release DVDs replace cinema-going, stop software companies investing in local development.
In fact, the ministry found no evidence substantiating these claims. Worse, most of the reasons advanced by stakeholders’ for advocating bans were “quite different from the government’s stated arts and culture-related rationale”.
The ministry has been sent off to hunt again for evidence but in effect the policy announced in December 1999 was pronounced dead in December 2000.
Bluntly, the politicians’ amateur policymaking was deeply flawed. If they had re-imposed the bans without first asking for some work by the despised public servants, they would simply have pushed prices to consumers back up — directly counter to Labour politicians’ competition policy aim of the lowest prices for consumers. For example, local internet retailers said they would lose business to foreign internet retailers if forced on to protected supply lines.
Moreover, two groups Labour politicians revere, libraries and universities, said affordability, accessibility and service improvements under parallel importing had increased the range of books they were able to stock.
So public servants can, and frequently do, save politicians from themselves — in this case, from a serious policy mistake. Is that worth paying for? Does it merit bonuses if pay scales have been frozen for yonks? Even politicians’ own self-interest points to a “yes”.