Taking risks and safe government don't mix

Much of politics and government is about managing and minimising risk. Failure invites a media roasting.

Take politics: a big risk for National is that on election day voters will not see a government-in-waiting.

To get Peter Dunne alongside, National needs, he says, more votes than Labour. Right now National is trailing Labour by 10 per cent in the polls.

Its only other realistic ally, ACT, has taken to hurling abuse.

David Carter joined battle at National’s Canterbury-Westland regional conference on Saturday. ACT was in its death-throes, he scoffed. “When it starts to beg for our assistance, I say, ‘Forget it.’ It takes our votes. It takes our money. We will be better off when we don’t have to put up with its sniping and destructive criticism.”

Leader Don Brash was less graphic but also unmistakable: National “could work with some of the minor parties if we had to”.

Labour warred with the Alliance in 1996 and got 28 per cent. In 1998 the pair formed a coalition-in-waiting and won in 1999.

Most voters set out to elect a government. If there is no visible government-in-waiting, they are that much more likely to stick with the government they have, perhaps, as in 2002, trying to modify it through minor parties.

So by warring, National risks a third term in opposition and ACT risks oblivion. All for tactical points: National wants its party vote up and ACT wants to widen space in the spectrum for its message. But if they take too long to bury the hatchet, voters may just turn off.

Mixed-messages don’t help. Take ACT’s attack on Te Waananga o Aotearoa.

ACT stands for choice in education. ACT also stands for proper use of taxpayers’ money. The waananga passed the first test, according to Ken Shirley, and failed the second.

To pass the second test requires tough reporting rules and close scrutiny. But they stifle enterprise and initiative, another of ACT’s dearly held tenets. Heather Roy, ACT’s effective health spokeswoman, made that point to ACT’s conference about health delivery initiatives.

Even the centrists who run the current government recognise private people outside the state can bring added value in ideas and in effective delivery.

That was behind Steve Maharey’s ill-fated social entrepreneurs scheme. People with new ideas and energy were backed with government money. But some money paid for a hip-hop tour, National and ACT made hay out of that in the media and the scheme was killed.

If you were a state servant, what would be your reaction when next tempted to do something a bit risky? Put temptation behind you, most likely.

This is not really a bother for the left parties since they strongly believe in the goodness of the centralised state. Their one real tolerator of risk is Jim Anderton who insists his assistance to business will not be working if there are no risks and no failures and has stood firm even when ACT and National have attacked the failures.

Risk and failure are, after all, are endemic to capitalism: lots of successes but also some failures, as the thousands of firms going bust each year attest. It is called in the jargon creative destruction.

The parties of the right fervently believe in creative destruction. That is how we get richer.

So for parties of the right the failure of agencies doing some of the state’s work poses a conundrum.�

Logically, the state would work better if only a parallel process to capitalism’s creative destruction could be invented, for social as well as business assistance. But it can’t be if politicians of those same parties of the right jump all over every failure, regardless of the successes. Their message to state servants is: don’t take risks.

So ACT and National have set up a self-negating circular logic: the state should rely much more on private people to deliver the services the public wants funded through the state and should not squelch their initiative with intrusive, time-consuming monitoring; but the state should also ensure there are no failures — failures prove the monitoring has been too soft.

In the middle is State Services Commissioner Mark Prebble. His job is to get more from state servants. On Friday, in the wake of last year’s extension of his mandate to cover Crown entities in addition to the core departments, he issued a set of goals for this wider state sector: to be a good employer, excellent, well-networked, coordinated, accessible and trusted.

Prebble insists state servants need not creep into their shells in the wake of recent towellings. Provided ministers are told of the risks and kept informed in the event of failures, he says, they do take the heat and back their servants.

Maybe. In some recent cases they have bagged the state servants or the wayward non-state agency. That doesn’t look very tolerant of risk. And ACT and National have shown there is no reason to expect better of a government of the right.

Unless, of course, those parties’ willingness to risk defeat to sledge each other indicates a change of heart.