Think national, act local — change is coming

Australia grows bananas (and is a republic in all but form). That might help explain its Monty-Pythonesque federal government and very high dissatisfaction ratings for the alternative Prime Minister. Contrast banana-less New Zealand’s in-gear government: green growth, asset selldowns, welfare, public service, local government.

The government is acting as if it really believes this is its defining year.

There is a risk: first, that ministers will do, or be thought to be doing, too much that Joe and Jo Middle don’t like; and second, that they will fail to context it in longer-sighted and potentially positive outcomes.

Green growth is in neither category. The green growth report is essentially business-not-threateningly-different-from-usual. The accent is on “voluntary” and “greening GDP growth”, to enlist business: even Steven Joyce is onside. The “brand” is assumed to be secure enough to have three-yearly reports on indicators. The Bluegreens policy paper mostly talks up existing policy.

Asset selldowns have veered into risk territory with injudicious comments and unconvincing rationales but should in the end upset only the already very upset.

The political risks are bigger in welfare, the public service and local government. Ministers have yet to make the public case that the aim is longer-term reshaping, not just “cuts”.

While John Key and Paul Bennett talked up “investment” in welfare, the message the public got was of “savings”: people pushed into work when jobs are scarce. Actually, later this year a move is due on very early childhood, where “investment” is far more likely to get people eventually in work than intervening at age 15 or later, long after the damage has been done.

On public service changes, Key talked only of “efficiency” at a press conference last month. In the public and media minds “efficiency” equals “cuts”.

To be consistent with the research and aims of the “better public services” advisory group’s website papers, Key needed to talk up “effectiveness”: an “efficient” public service, sure, but, far more, one reshaped to deliver results people can see, measure and want in modern ways.

Key’s presentational difficulty is that the “effective” dimension could take up to a decade. Big-bang revolutions were for the 1980s and function was expected to follow form. This time organic evolution is more logical and practical than radical redesign of the organism, bottom-up much more useful than top-down, function following form.

There is bottom-up innovation in corners of the state, according to observers such as Victoria University’s Bill Ryan. The trick for ministers is to encourage and enable it, not extinguish it with “cuts”.

How do Key and Co inject voter appeal into that deeper message? The populist message of public service sloth and inefficiency is simpler.

The same long term versus short term goes for local body reform. Debt and rises in rates and staff (much driven by costs, shocks and unfunded central government mandates) are easier media fodder.

There are issues around debt. If it climbs to too high a share of rate revenue, that risks a council’s viability. Higher debt is unavoidable to fund critical infrastructure but are some capital items, like stadiums, “nice-to-have”, not vital? Of course, ratepayers are free to vote for rate rises.

But that is only one part of the story, the bit most cabinet ministers understand. How much more the cabinet will agree to Smith announcing next month, on the back of a report from the Internal Affairs Department review, is not yet clear. It rejected his paper last week.

One possibility is a Rodney Hide legacy: a bigger role for the mayor (separately elected?) to match the effective power between mayor and chief executive.

And big pressures for a decade-long reshaping of councils are building:

* the Environmental Protection Authority’s eventual role (its statement of intent says it is ready for a wider mandate that could, if assigned, siphon off councils more decision-making on environmental and resource management issues);

* the new unitary plans proposed to replace the plethora of council plans will draw regions and districts closer in planning; spatial planning, pioneered in Auckland, might go nationwide;

* the implications for fragmented and disputatious Wellington of super-Auckland and the Upper North Island Strategic Alliance of councils and of a possible unitary authority for government-run Christchurch and Canterbury;

* iwi-council co-management of the Waikato River and the Land and Water Forum’s idea of a water council;

* cooperation among councils on plans, roads, back-office functions and purchasing.

The logic is for fewer, bigger councils, though the government will likely limit itself this year to simplifying amalgamation processes. Beyond that, the complicated, confusing boundary between the Resource Management and Local Government Acts needs first-principles reworking.

Cuts? The agenda is a far longer and more complex.