Some lessons about the value of long-term policy

One bit of good news from last week’s earthquake was from Parliament.

Opposition MPs on Tuesday, the first sitting day after the earthquake, asked real questions seeking real information and ministers from John Key down gave real answers with real information. It was a model of politeness and fact-focus.

Leader of the House and acting Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee was moved to note that a “regular observer” of question time might have been found it “a little overly constructive”. Questions had been “asked from a genuine point of view and do express the widest support that this House gives to those who are facing difficult times at the moment”.

Question time is usually a disgraceful cacophony of loud interjections as opposition MPs try to score political points against ministers, who respond with half-answers or less and, taking their cue from Key, spout nasty putdowns of questioners. Health Minister Jonathan Coleman is a standout.

This is a disgrace to MPs, to Parliament and to the country. Don’t expect improvement. Disasters are an interlude, not a corrective.

Other good news from the earthquake was a lesson about long-term thinking.

In Wellington, which was not on any fault which ruptured, many office buildings were closed to be checked for structural damage and as the week wore on others were added, some declared uninhabitable for up to a year and some pronounced terminal.

The Molesworth street arterial access to the motorway north is closed while a building is demolished. Central core Featherston street was cut to one lane in one block. Public spaces were patrolled and people got yelled at for crossing unmarked lines.

That suggests that a 7.8 rupture of the Wairarapa fault (8.2 in 1855) or of the Wellington fault on the west side of the harbour and CBD would do wide, serious damage, cut water, electricity, roads and the port, cut short many lives (depending on the time of day and any resultant tsunami) and shut the capital down for a time.

One lesson: more pointers for government and council action and provision for alternative delivery of services and faster pre-earthquake action on dodgy buildings.

Another lesson: the Earthquake Commission’s value as a secure place for public money. That gives fiscal resilience for big bad events.

Fiscal resilience was the long-term value of Michael Cullen’s Superannuation Fund to pre-fund 2020s universal pensions (it also kept money out of spendthrift ministers’ reach) and of his KiwiSaver personal saving vehicle for retirement.

The Key government stopped funding the first in 2009 and has let the second be raided by for pre-retirement purposes.

That highlights today’s long-term fiscal statement by the Treasury, delayed by the earthquake from last Tuesday.

The detail is under wraps but the statement will scan trends and underlying changes in society, including ageing, health and education at a time when “work” is changing, and in the environment, including climate change.

It will project out 40 years the fiscal implications of no policy change and changes like raising GST or the pension qualifying age or inflation-indexing income tax thresholds.

It will set the projections more firmly in its “living standards framework” which assesses human, social and environmental capital as well as economic capital. Natural resources get more attention from the Treasury now.

Which were the natural focus of the National party’s Bluegreens’ consultation with environmental and other lobbies on Friday.

The BlueGreens are a political rarity: a party-based ginger group which draws on outside expertise and writes reports and strategic documents (one is due early in 2017) aiming to guide MPs and ministers. (The nearest to an equivalent is Labour’s “future of work commission”.)

Friday’s discussion was not always longsighted but did cover some deeper and longer-timed issues, including environmental limits and good environmental stewardship’s value to the national brand, under threat from unrestrained tourism.

Does the Key cabinet demonstrate that long view? Generally not, notably on climate change, though it might if Paula Bennett and Simon Bridges can translate some of their rhetoric into consistent and rising action.

Certainly, business’s message to the BlueGreens was to broaden agreement to avert a policy jolt on a change of government. That reflects a developing theme of global companies.

Earthquakes, pensions, climate change and much else: can politicians build in long-term thinking when they face frequent elections and seldom face their policies’ long-term consequences? Cullen’s inventions and Bill English’s social investment and infrastructure planning are exceptions, not the rule.

For exceptions to become the rule needs long-term strategic capability in the public service which transcends elections. Over 15 years ministers have made that, too, more the exception than the rule.

The long-term fiscal statement is a base. Kaikoura is a timely encouragement.