Thursday, 23 July 2009

NOT PJ: Whitehead's Lines Write Headlines

This week Bernard Darnton lets out an ideological burp while digesting the latest speech from Treasury.

_BernardDarnton The “government employee of the week” award – despite its name – doesn’t get awarded every week. On Monday this week, in a speech to the Victoria University School of Government, Treasury Secretary John Whitehead told the country’s public servants to pull their fingers out.

“Friends, bureaucrats, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury the public sector, not to praise it. The evil that men do lives after them.” For all the media bluster, it was nothing like that. In fact, he praised the public sector, not buried it. Nonetheless, he seems to have irritated a lot of people by speaking the truth, and for that he receives the award. The bar isn’t high.

His speech points out that for years the public sector has sown the wind with very little to show for the billions tipped in. Whitehead warns that unless they start showing results they will reap the whirlwind. Indeed, the speech was more about how to save the public sector than how to slash it.

His greatest fear may be that unless they sort themselves out on their own terms the public will start to realise that we libertarians were right – that the cuts should start with ACC and end with Youth Development, pausing only to gut 400-odd other departments, ministries, offices, commissions, councils, panels, inspectorates, boards, bureaus, agencies, authorities, and “services.”

Mr Whitehead’s advice hasn’t been universally welcomed, however. National Secretary of the Public Slackers Association, Brenda Pilott, contested claims that his proposed changes would lift productivity. I thought about this paradox for a bit but gave up because, as an Irish friend used to say, “it wrecks yer head”: if someone’s employed to get in the way of people who are producing something and they get in the way more – or get in their way the same amount but at a lower cost – has productivity increased or decreased? Answers on a stamped, addressed tax return please.

The solution is not to make state servants do the stuff they do more efficiently. It’s to get them to do much, much less in the first place.

Labour’s state services spokesman Grant Robertson said that contracting out services will do nothing to help New Zealand overall. He’s right. If a job’s not worth doing, it’s not worth doing well.

Sadly, Finance Minister Bill English hasn’t quite grasped how things work yet. On National Radio he said that the government had less money and so there would be less increase in government spending. “Less increase”? You don’t need a degree in differential calculus to know that that arrow’s pointing in the wrong direction and that, once again, the poor bloody taxpayer will be impaled on the end of it.

On the other hand, I was excited to hear him say that the government would cap state sector workers. I would have thought that just making them redundant was enough. Perhaps setting an example with a few gangland executions will encourage others into the “natural attrition” programmes that some departments have announced.

* * Read Bernard Darnton’s column every Thursday here at NOT PC * *

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