Public Enemies: Why an incoming progressive government should be wary of its senior bureaucrats.



MARTYN BRADBURY IS RIGHT. A victory for the Left on 20 September will by no means signal the end of its troubles. In fact, they will only be the beginning. By the “Left” I am, of course, referring to Labour, the Greens and Internet-Mana. And, once again, Comrade Bradbury is correct when he says that such a combination would constitute one of the most progressive governments this country’s history. Certainly New Zealanders would have to go back 40 years to find the progressive equal of Labour’s, the Greens’ and Internet-Mana’s proposed economic and environmental reforms. And that, precisely, is Martyn’s point: the enemies of such a progressive government would be legion.

The particular group of potential enemies I wish to focus upon in this posting are those that could await the new government in the state sector bureaucracy. The whole point of the State Sector Act (1988) was to destroy the civil service ethic that had, for three-quarters of a century, defined the public sector in New Zealand and replace it with a system modelled on the most “effective” and “efficient” aspects of the private sector. In this regard the Fourth Labour Government’s reforms were remarkably successful. Ideologically-speaking, the new state sector CEOs were more devoted to the values of laissez-faire capitalism than the capitalists themselves.

From the moment the writs are returned, therefore, a genuinely progressive government should expect the heads of its ministries and departments to mount an unrelenting and spirited rear guard action in defence of the status quo. In the vanguard of this rear guard (so to speak) will be the Treasury, backed up by those other great organs of the New Zealand State, the Reserve Bank, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Ministry of Primary Industries. Their briefing papers to the incoming government would all stress the need for “caution”, “continuity” and “stability”. There would be strong warnings against incurring the wrath of the international credit rating agencies and pleas for a measured and responsible approach to the fulfilment of the coalition’s more radical election promises.

Rather than outright opposition, the overall strategy of the state sector CEOs would almost certainly be one of delay, delay, delay. Their greatest concern would be that the new government had plans to implement its reforms quickly – quite literally in the first 100 days. Were the Left to use the political momentum of its election victory in this way the new government’s enemies in both the public and private sectors would have insufficient time to organise effective and efficient resistance.

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Just how successful the strategy of delay, delay, delay can be is powerfully demonstrated in Alister Barry’s latest documentary, Hot Air.  Any chance of New Zealand developing a credible and effective legislative framework for countering global warming was lost the moment the promoters of “consultation” (with all their labyrinthine connections to private sector think-tanks and media “opinion formers”) displaced those advocating immediate and decisive action.

Not that the state sector bureaucracy is without alternative means of stymieing progressive government reform. If the newly elected coalition was determined to proceed with all speed the bureaucracy is perfectly placed to use democracy against democracy. Just cast your mind back to the sweeping reforms that Foreign Minister Murray McCully and his hand-picked CEO, John Allen, had planned for MFAT. Were they able to implement them? Or, were they prevented from doing so by a series of extraordinarily damaging leaks to the news media?

Precisely because ministers of the Crown are absolutely dependent on the loyalty and discretion of their senior public servants when formulating and implementing government policy, they are practically powerless to protect themselves against the machinations of those same public servants should the decision be made to frustrate and undermine policy changes of which the senior bureaucracy disapproves. New Zealand’s and Australia’s three year parliamentary term makes it pathetically simple for public servants to organise and execute the comprehensive subversion of democratically elected governments’ policy agendas. Anyone who doubts this should simply acquaint themselves with the history of the governments of New Zealand’s Norman Kirk and Australia’s Gough Whitlam.

Moreover, as the fate of those two Labour governments makes clear, progressive politicians cannot rely upon either the Police of the security services to protect them from enemies – foreign or domestic. To provide a new and progressive government with the protection it needs would necessitate the complete abolition of the old security services and the creation of an brand new agency.

That is something any incoming Labour/Green/Internet-Mana Government would do well to consider if it wishes to ensure that the mandate it has received from the people is not thwarted by unelected mandarins who believe themselves exempt from the political and ethical constraints of democratic government.


  1. Excellent Post Chris Trotter . And I would agree entirely .
    If roger douglas is still infecting his own bastard child , the ACT party , then you can bet your boots his minions are in the greater bureaucracy to do him and his ilk’s bidding .
    I still think [ it ] has a lot to do with the crimes committed during the Post War years and up to today . Of swindling off farmer money into private pockets . ( Eye roll and deep sigh anyone ? )
    I understand that my allegation is of a sweeping nature but I simply see our evolving political situation as not much more than money grubbing and power brokering , for yet more money and to protect those funds ( our funds ) already salted away . And that in itself has it’s roots embedded in our history .
    Personally ? I’m hugely excited about the up coming months and just a bit anxious for the next year .

  2. Your use of the word “Comrade” immediately brings to mind an image- either of a dirty filthy commie (for a right-winger) or a revolutionary beret-wearing activist (left winger).

    Perhaps it is timely for progressives to discard terms that have baggage associated with them as these tend to distract from the argument being made.
    Otherwise I agree with your well written article.

    • Nah, I get it, it’s a semi-humorous reference to earlier times. The sort of thing you say amongst friends who understand you well.

      Of course, this is the internet – not exactly a closed circle – so your comments still stand.

  3. The first thing to do if the Left wins is an immediate purge of all the National cronies who have been installed over the past six years, especially ejecting the heads of Radio NZ and Television New Zealand.

    • They are Joyce clones storm troopers that march to his tune every day as enemies of our state. Our Government agencies are all poisoned this way.
      Big purge needed there. Been done before quickly.

      Remember when Lange government came in in 1984, they purged the same way all what they called “the Great Quango hunt”.

  4. I’m in full agreement Chris.
    I’ve said it a thousand times, but I’ll say it again anyway having worked in the public service both pre and post ‘reform’ (I.e. corporatisation)

    The NZ public service now operates as a series of CEO’s feifdoms where
    the vast majority of public servants work in spite of their CEO and Snr Managment,; where they’re regularly blamed for failures but also where CEO’s take responsibility for any successes; where morale is often low and some operate in a climate of fear.
    It is a far cry from what was promised – that “efficiency & effectiveness” we were promised, but also supposed de-politicisation and independence. As we’ve just seen, the opposite has occurred.

    Any incoming government needs to prepare themselves for major reform. (I’ve known Snr Managers who were not even aware of Code of Conduct; and who annually asked their staff to breach Acts of Parliament in order to make the books look good – incidentally, for which they could be held personally responsible for). That is the true nature of our public service, and it ISN’T the majority of low level public servants who are at fault even if they do allow themselves to be bullied.

    • This brings us to how the neo liberal revolution took place. All those right wing think tanks had theories and strategies ready to go as soon as the new-right party got into power. What do we have?

      Is there such a thing as a left wing think tank – or is that what this comments board is? Is this the nearest thing we have?

      I don’t really know but how would you Once Were Tim, go about fixing this problem?

      Draft legislation to change the State Services Act by the end of the day would be helpful 🙂

      • +1 your last line.
        The State Services Commission is an abomination that’s been captured by the neo-lib agenda (and in itself one of those little feifdoms).
        Some mechanism for ensuring cross party-political approval for appointments to government departments/agencies/SOEs etc.

        It’s not going to be easy – that’s the point.

        I’ll ponder further but right now I’m contemplating how we get back public service media – and one thing’s for sure – it doesn’t involve the need for a ‘commercial return’ at the expense of everything else.

        Btw democracy is cumbersome – it’s meant to be. It’s often also expensive but I doubt no more so than a raft of overpaid (often incompetent) CEO’s and troughers running their little ‘shows’

        • Actually Aaron – I won’t ever be giving the NZ Labour Party my PARTY vote again until they show a commitment to just that repeal.
          David Cunliffe has come out and said that neo-liberalism hasn’t worked and that it’s failed ideology – all that’s needed now is for the Labour Party to put its money where its mouth is …. it’ll need to be demonstrated to me and most members of the extended family. So maybe 2017? Meantime they’ll get qualified support.

    • …and may I encourage those who are a little confused about what we have lost, constitutionally, from the Public Service to search YouTube for a BBC series by Michael Cockerell called “The Secret World of Whitehall.” There, in all its frightening detail, is the British model for Public Service deconstruction in New Zealand.

      Further, Hager’s new book confirms – perhaps unnecessarily – that the current methods of retaining power have been imported from the extraordinarily corrupt USA model.

      We have adopted the worst of all western models without a general understanding of what we have done (or why it was done to us) and without informed consent or consensus.

      Please, let’s create an opportunity to change things.

      • +1 !.
        Sad to say that Auntie BBC is going through some of the same problems at the moment with the right phalanx trying to dismantle that inconvenient institution (and it appears to be working thus far).
        Fucking sight easier to resurrect it there tho’ than here. We’ll probably need the disestablishment of the majority of middle and senior management positions (in places like TVNZ) at the minimum

    • And it’s pervaded many other sectors including, sadly, NGOs. What were honest grass-roots organisations with admirable aims have become nasty cesspits of power, fear and hatred where, as you say, individuals are blamed for failure and CEOs take credit for success. I can think of one national disability organisation that’s gone down this road and is now toxic to the core, with low morale, high staff turnover, completely at odds with its original purpose, run by nasty people. If this is our civil society what hope have we got?

  5. Excellent advice Chris. The nats have stacked up everything from MoE to ACC with ‘their people’ and if dirty politics in one form is due for a clean out on the 20th as many as possible of these “Yes Minister” types can pack their bags too asap.

    A left block majority would allow quick action. Hagers book will be a vote changer for a significant minority. Every left vote for Labour, Green or Internet Mana grows the bloc, not wastes votes.

  6. Not new and happens in local govt as well. What could Tim Shadbolt have achieved in Manukau and Invercargill with more like minded councillors instead of ‘the old guard’ and less conservative minded staff?

  7. Attempting to establish a truly progressive government would incur the wrath of the international money-lenders and corporations (and the 0.1% who own/control them ) and would invite ‘regime change’, brought about ‘economic hit men’, and if that doesn’t work by the US military, the ‘policemen’ of the bankers and corporations.

    Any nation that steps out of line gets ‘bombed into the stone age’. That’s the system. It’s been that way for over a century.

    Manipulative, deceitful bureaucrats are nothing compared to ‘regime change’, brought to a nation like yours under the banner of ‘Freedom and Democracy’.

    • You may be right, AFKTT – it certainly looks that way at times. But within that framework, it must be possible to make use of whatever leeway you can get hold of, so as to enact reforms really do help the citizens of your country, but still fall short of the “regime change” criteria. This must be the case, because the nations under the same umbrella are not uniformly obedient to corporate/banking demands. Australia, for example, tends to be more obedient than we are militarily, but less obedient economically.

      New Zealand suffers a bit, I think, from having transferred its loyalty straight from the British Empire to the Washington Consensus. The British Empire was awful enough to consider sacrificing Australia so as to keep its soldiers in Europe, but with them there was at least some sense of family ties. Our relationship with US corporatism is not so close, and should be more tactical and less slavish.

  8. The obvious way to manage the “public servants” is to immediately repeal the State Sector Act, and threaten to do the same with the Reserve Bank Act. By doing that you keep them off balance, sort of a Roger in reverse. The whole thrust would be to reintroduce the “public service” in the format it was for the half century before Roger.

    • good one Ennui, the world for most of us is not going to end if the Reserve Bank Act and State Sector Act were drastically changed or repealed. To keep the corporates and top bureaucrats in line–they will be told behave or don’t even think about any more tax payer bailouts or “too big to fails” boys.

      After all the current account deficit is largely repatriated profits and dividends to offshore owners.

  9. Before the big left wing purge comes that is just the opposite of what the right has done. Lets consider getting some neutrality into our civil service. It could be done quite easily.

    Parliament enacts a law that requires the Speaker of the House be appointed by unanimous vote (Like the Catholic Bishops voting for the Pope, MPs could be locked in Parliament without recess until they decide).

    Give the responsibility to appoint senior civil servants, judges and recommendations for knighthood to the Speaker.

    Instantly this changes the culture of civil society. Wind vane a… licking morally dubious tactics for promotional success are replaced by hard work, merit and ‘fairness’ moral standards.

    To me this is what Hager’s book is about. Democracy is our biggest asset, not grass or water or whatever. If we lose it we are buggered.

  10. One or two serving-at-the-pleasure dismissals pour encourager les autres should bring most into line. Most people want an easy life rather than go to war. Those who want to fight will be very few. You will be amazed at the number of closet reformers there are once the writing goes on the wall. The key is for the new government to keep its eyes on the prize. Remember Norm Kirk’s instructions to his new Ministers all those decades ago. “Tell me how you can achieve something, not why you can’t”. (Or words to that effect).

    On the other hand it is also good policy to do something once and do it right. The mad scramble of the incoming Lange government to introduce endless reforms blinded more than one on the Left to the consequences of many of the changes.

  11. Labour’s decision to keep the machinery of government on National Party settings after the 1999 election undid it, as the bureaucrats kept on running things the way their real masters wanted. If Labour forms a government again (still a very big “IF”, despite Hager’s revelations), it must change the State Sector Act to bring the bureaucracy under Ministerial control and make it democratically accountable. Sadly, Labour’s policy for the state sector this year is all about protecting bureaucrats, not making them perform for the public good.

  12. In the US, when a new party or president wins an election – all the higher ranking public servants immediately start looking for new jobs as they will probably get the boot. US governments make sure their servants are loyal to them, not the previous administration. Maybe the Americans have got it right (for once) on this one! If Labour do win this election, do you honestly think they can trust the numerous National party hacks that have been shoulder-tapped for appointment to various committees, trusts, commissions, boards and embassies?

  13. This will be the perfect opportunity for the enactment of the dictatorship of the multi-party proletariat.

  14. Were not some of the changes to the state sector also bought about by an attempt to make sure that the Muldoon effect across bureaucrats was never able to be replicated?

  15. The incoming progressive government should be wary of msm and the first order on the books should be to clean it up, they are the real threat to democracy, and to NZers, as seen in the last 6 years in particular under national.

  16. ‘ Unelected mandarins who believe themselves exempt from the political and ethical constraints of democratically elected government ‘ .

    Yes…….yes…how very convenient for them…..

    I notice how though ,….. how very quickly they moved to endorse the new neo liberal initiatives …..once it was realised that would mean huge increases in many of their salaries…and thusly ensuring they could then ingratiate themselves accordingly….

    Well Im sure…a little reverse ‘psychology ‘ could be applied here , … for any non compliant CEO’s found deliberately dragging their feet and frustrating a democratically elected governments new initiatives….

    Im sure they would very quickly ‘ see ‘ the light and become almost embarrassingly ‘ compliant ‘ rather suddenly….. after all…large salaries being their main reason for their sense of purpose in life…

    How many years has it been for them to start talking about a living wage for their workers and contractors?…what 30?……yet 30 years is a long time to enjoy their own fat salary increases, is it not?…..

    It would only take one or two…these people are mercenary golddiggers , …and a drop in personal gold will soon have them opening doors and bowing low to the new Progressive Left Government.

    There are ways ….to do things.

    To get things done.

    To ‘encourage’ the malingerers.

  17. Restructure treasury and see how THEY like it! Seriously their advice is so slanted it’s no wonder the last Labour government often used their own advisors in place of treasury hacks. Legislate to require a balance of views and output, anyone who generates ‘idealogical belches’ gets the boot.

  18. The public service will be the least of the worries of the 6th Labour Government.

    The biggest fight is going to be from the farmers, landlords, business owners and employers.

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