This issue of Policy Quarterly focuses on some of the important policy issues facing New Zealand as it enters the 2017 general election campaign. There are ten invited contributions from researchers drawn from a range of disciplines and perspectives. The topics covered are mostly those of an enduring nature: ensuring good governance, improving the quality of regulation, enhancing productivity and managing the impacts of technological change, funding the welfare state (including education, health care and pensions) and protecting the environment. For various reasons, some of the topics addressed here – like poverty, housing and migration – are currently highly topical and politically salient. Over the coming weeks they will no doubt generate much commentary and debate. One of the aims of the analyses and proposals offered in this issue of Policy Quarterly is to help inform that debate.
While all of the contributions are independent and discrete, many of the issues discussed are interconnected. Housing affordability, for instance, has undoubtedly been affected (especially in Auckland) by strong inward migration over recent years; and declining housing affordability has, in turn, exacerbated income-based poverty and material deprivation, with evidence of greater homelessness and overcrowding.
In addition to the invited commentaries on specific election issues, four other contributions cover such topics as intergenerational governance, protecting heritage buildings, the setting of pension rates for individuals and couples, and the design of family assistance.
In many respects, New Zealand is fortunate. Compared with many other advanced democracies, our political landscape is marked by relative stability, continuity, tolerance and civility. We lack Australia’s revolving-door prime ministers. Populist movements of the kind which have marred domestic politics in Europe and the US are also largely absent. Nor is there much sign of the growing intolerance and illiberalism that is afflicting Eastern Europe, most notably Hungary and Poland.
Likewise, New Zealand lacks a political entrepreneur like Emmanuel Macron who can remake the political order; and we lack the conditions for such an entrepreneur to flourish. Equally, there are no egotistical figures like Donald Trump to demonise the Wellington establishment, exploit humanity’s negative propensities, challenge widely accepted political conventions or dispense with truth and decency.
Political stability and civility are, of course, never guaranteed. Indeed, many critics of the mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system introduced in the mid-1990s confidently expected governments to become less stable and less effective. Some commentators also predicted a transformation of the party system, and thereby the end of the long-standing dominance of National and Labour. Yet, more than two decades after the referendum decision favouring MMP, National and Labour remain resilient. Admittedly, their combined share of the party vote fell briefly to 62% in 1996, but for much of the MMP era it has been closer to 80%, which compares favourably to the late 1970s and early 1980s. On current polling, the combined support for Labour and National in September 2017 is likely to be close to 70%.
How might the relative resilience of the two major parties be explained? Electoral rules provide part of the answer. MMP requires parties to secure at least 5% of the party vote or win at least one electoral seat to secure parliamentary representation. These hurdles are demanding. Since 1996 only a few minor parties – ACT, the Alliance, the Greens, New Zealand First and United Future – have succeeded in crossing the 5% threshold. Of these, only the Greens have consistently secured at least 5% of the party vote. Many other parties, such as the Christian Coalition and the Conservatives, have consistently failed the test. Whether the Opportunities Party can surmount the hurdle is uncertain. But on current polling, it seems unlikely.
No doubt New Zealand’s relative political stability has deeper causes. By international standards the country is tolerably well-governed. Our elected officials and their advisers are broadly competent and effective. They are able to set priorities, initiate reforms and respond promptly to natural disasters. Public services are delivered with reasonable efficiency. Corruption, while not absent, is mercifully less severe than in many democracies. Recent decades have witnessed few serious political crises or destabilising governmental scandals. Thankfully, political violence is rare, and man-made disasters, like Pike River, are uncommon.
But there are certainly no grounds for complacency, as the contributors to this issue of Policy Quarterly demonstrate. New Zealand faces numerous governance and policy challenges. Aside from the enduring need for sound economic policies (including prudent fiscal management), various other long-term issues deserve particular mention.
First, New Zealand must confront at least four critical environmental challenges: achieving zero net greenhouse gas emissions (or something close), ideally by mid-century; adapting to the escalating impacts of climate change, not least sea level rise; significantly improving the management of its freshwater resources; and protecting its precious biodiversity. These challenges pose complex governance and technical issues. They will require astute political management, a significant reprioritisation of policy goals, and, in some cases, substantial public investment.
Second, New Zealand must confront its deep and debilitating problems of poverty (especially among children) and inequality, including gender and ethnic inequalities. Various policy options are available, as discussed by several contributors in this issue, but they all pose political and fiscal challenges.
Finally, New Zealand must continue to invest in enhancing its democratic institutions and improving the quality of its governance, including its public management system. As Bob Gregory highlights in his contribution, good governance requires honest debate, openness and transparency, constant vigilance and ongoing reform. This depends, in turn, on an informed, active and engaged citizenry – one that is passionately committed to the common good, safeguarding humanity’s long-term well-being, and upholding fundamental democratic values, such as truth, integrity, accountability, human dignity and equal rights.
I am very grateful to Girol Karacaoglu, the Head of the School of Government, for his advice and support in the preparation of this issue of Policy Quarterly. The articles published here provide thoughtful and timely perspectives on critical policy issues. They deserve careful reflection.
Jonathan Boston (editor)
NB: This is the entire issue of Policy Quarterly August 2017. Individual articles will be posted progressively.