Friday, 29 November 2019

The good old days. Not

Marilyn Waring's interesting memoir The Political Years is an eye-opener on New Zealand in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While she has a particular perspective to emphasise, there's no doubt that the casual sexism, racism and conservatism of the day that she recalls do not square with the "we've always been progressive since women got the vote in 1893" story we like to tell ourselves.

From an economic policy point of view, it's also a reminder to those who put 'Rogernomics' and 'Ruthanasia' in the 'awful neoliberalism experiment' basket that reform was needed. Even Waring, down the left end of the political spectrum, concludes (p46) that
Within just a few months [of first being elected in 1975], I was getting a picture of incredible inefficiencies. Tariff structures were a nightmare, and were still in hangover mode from the Second World War. Licensing was a mess: those who had import and transport licences ran small fiefdoms. Transportation regulations intended to protect the railways restricted truck movements without a special licence, adding significant costs. Vast amounts of primary production were subsidised. Far too much discretionary power rested in the hands of ministers. Certainly, that meant I might lobby for gains for my constituents, but the process needed a wholesale clean-out.
She gives examples (pp45-6) of the kind of lobbying involved: letters to ministers with "requests for relief of import duty on a sports cup for presentation at the local high school and for a licence to import woven woolen fabric for the Te Awamutu and District Pipe Band".

Mercifully most of that nonsense went overboard after trade liberalisations, but it's doubtful whether our chronic propensity for micromanagement is permanently buried at a crossroads with a stake through its heart. It's not that long ago that a government minister's approval was required for a Tourette's Syndrome sufferer to have access to a medical cannabis product. And in my own narrow neck of the woods, the Commerce Commission's "cease and desist" powers - designed to provide a timely interim stop to anti-competitive conduct until the substantive issues got litigated later - were so hedged about with preconditions and provisos that they were eventually abandoned as useless.

Another bad habit not fully kicked is unnecessary secrecy. In Waring's day, Robert Muldoon would not even share Treasury's analyses with his own MPs: on p256 she recounts how
Ruth Richardson, one of six new MPs in caucus [after the 1981 election], wasted no time in asking to see the Treasury reports on the state of the economy. Muldoon replied they were confidential, amd Hugh Templeton added that the secrecy gave Treasury the 'freedom to report'. The PM noted that the reports referred to high interest rates, devaluation, running down cash balances and internal liquidity under pressure. There was no cause for alarm, he said.
You can see why the Labour government of 1984-90 brought in the Public Finance Act to require a step change in transparency.

The same dubious "freedom to report" rationale was invoked to keep the proceedings of the Public Expenditure Committee secret. The Committee - which I'd guess was a forerunner of today's Finance and Expenditure Select Committee - was charged with "examining the Annual Reports and Accounts, and the Estimates of Expenditure, for every government ministry, department and agency" (p56), a highly important accountability role, especially given the limited other avenues at the time for scrutiny of the executive. Waring, appointed to the Committee and later its chair, questioned the secrecy and was told by the Clerk of the House (p56) that
Official papers prepared at the request of the Committee have always been regarded as confidential, and the assurance of confidentiality has been fundamental to the willingness of departments to supply frank and detailed examination.
We have, thankfully, largely moved on. But even today s9(2)(f)(iv) of our Official Information Act includes, as a valid reason for withholding information, "the withholding of the information is necessary to ... maintain the constitutional conventions for the time being which protect ... the confidentiality of advice tendered by Ministers of the Crown and officials" or under s9(2)(g)(i) to "maintain the effective conduct of public affairs through — (i) the free and frank expression of opinions by or between or to Ministers of the Crown or members of an organisation or officers and employees of any department or organisation in the course of their duty".

There may be genuine occasions when these confidentiality provisions need to apply, but a few minutes on Twitter will tell you that some entirely responsible and proper 'citizen journalists' will be wondering, after bumping heads with the OIA, exactly how far we've progressed from the Sir Humphrey Applebys of Waring's day.

1 comment:

  1. When the critics of rogernomics are tested, they end up Rogernomics light. They never want to give Telecom its monopoly back or bring back the import licensing or much else of what was swept away.

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