Democratic Engineers, Or Neoliberal Mechanics?

By   /   November 11, 2017  /   7 Comments

TDB recommends Voyager - Unlimited internet @home as fast as you can get

If our new Cabinet Ministers are working independently of their “officials”, then that is not, automatically, a bad thing. On the contrary, in a democracy: the spectacle of officials working for politicians, who are, in their turn, working for the people; offers welcome proof that the system is working exactly as it should!

“THEY’RE THE ENGINE ROOM where ministerial decisions are put through the mill by officials.” In that single sentence, the very worst aspects of neoliberalism are laid bare. It’s author, political journalist Stacey Kirk, like so many of her generation, have been taught to regard politicians as, at best, necessary evils. Accordingly, Cabinet Committees – the “engine rooms” of government – are held up as the necessary correctives to poorly conceived “ministerial decisions”. Places where the ideas of elected politicians get knocked into a shape acceptable to their unelected “officials” – New Zealand’s only trustworthy wielders of political power.

Kirk’s story, inspired by Opposition criticism of the new government’s apparent willingness to be guided by – and act on – its own advice, plays directly to the crucial neoliberal concept of “governance”. At its core, governance represents the idea that the policies of both local and national government, if they are to meet the fundamental test of effective and efficient public administration, must be professionally crafted and implemented. By this reckoning, the ill-informed amateurism of elected politicians poses a constant threat to the delivery of “good” governance. Which is why “officials” putting “ministerial decisions” through “the mill” is presented not as an affront to democracy, but a very good idea.

Essentially, Kirk ranges herself alongside the Sir Humphrey Appleby character from the celebrated British television series, Yes Minister. Sir Humphrey represents the haughty mandarinate of the Civil Service: the ones who regard themselves as the guardians of the State’s permanent interests. Ever on the alert against the obsessions and enthusiasms of reforming politicians, Sir Humphrey and his colleagues are constantly manoeuvring to thwart the pet projects of their ministers.

In its day, Yes Minister was conceived of – and certainly became – a primer for the “free market” reforms of Margaret Thatcher. The senior civil service of 1980s Britain was depicted as dangerously protective of the fast-decaying post-World War II Keynesian settlement. Yes Minister’s key message was, therefore, that the British people needed to elect ideologically-driven politicians who knew their own minds, and could not be swayed by the blandishments of Machiavellian bureaucrats like Sir Humphrey.

In the case of New Zealand, however, the neoliberal revolution was not carried through by ideologically-driven politicians (as happened in the UK and the USA) but by ideologically-driven bureaucrats in the New Zealand Treasury and, to a lesser extent, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand. It was these civil servants who radicalised the political leadership of the Labour Party and placed in the hands of David Lange’s government the carefully prepared economic reform package that would later become known as “Rogernomics”. (The book-sized briefing document, dubbed ‘Economic Management’, can still be found on the shelves of your local public library.)

As the product of a “top-down” economic and social revolution, New Zealand Neoliberalism – far from needing to rein-in the powers of the civil-service mandarinate – was determined to re-fashion the state bureaucracy in such a way that it would be able to resist any and all attempts by elected politicians – and their parties – to dismantle the neoliberal system.

In this regard, the concept of “governance” was crucial. Policy had to become the more-or-less exclusive province of highly-trained professionals. Men and women, thoroughly schooled in the neoliberal ideology, who could intercept and demolish any attempt by politicians – especially those of the Left – to advance an alternative economic and social agenda.

In effect, the whole idea of a democratically-elected government, empowered by the electorate to implement its party’s – or parties’ – manifesto/s, is presented as a dangerous threat to the effective and efficient management of public affairs. Lip-service has to be paid to democratic principles, of course, but all governance-oriented politicians understand that Steve Maharey’s infamous formula: “That’s just the sort of thing you say in Opposition, and then forget about in Government”, continues to describe the true condition of our democracy.

None of which should be construed as an argument for doing away with the civil service. Highly-educated and experienced civil servants will always be needed to provide the policies of elected politicians with effective and efficient delivery mechanisms. Free and frank advice to ministers will always constitute a vital aspect of testing and refining policy ideas. What is most definitely not needed, however, is a civil service comprised of neoliberal cadres: bureaucrats who are, first and foremost, loyal to an ideological system which is absolutely antithetical to the whole notion of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” New Zealand urgently needs to get rid of this neoliberal priesthood.

Rather than question Jacinda Ardern’s government for spending too little time in the “engine rooms”, Stacey Kirk should, perhaps, cast a critical eye over the legislative mechanisms which preserve the neoliberal ascendancy in New Zealand’s civil service. The State Sector Act, the Public Finance Act and the Reserve Bank Act: all provide the statutory obstacles that render effective, politician-led change so exceedingly difficult in this country.

If our new Cabinet Ministers are working independently of their “officials”, then that is not, automatically, a bad thing. On the contrary, in a democracy: the spectacle of officials working for politicians, who are, in their turn, working for the people; offers welcome proof that the system is working exactly as it should!

Surely, the “engine room” of any government is the place where the policies promised to the people by their elected leaders are connected to the machinery of the state by its loyal civil servants – and set in motion.

Want to support this work? Donate today
Follow us on Twitter & Facebook


  1. cleangreen says:

    Very true chris;
    “Kirk should, perhaps, cast a critical eye over the legislative mechanisms which preserve the neoliberal ascendancy in New Zealand’s civil service. The State Sector Act, the Public Finance Act and the Reserve Bank Act: all provide the statutory obstacles that render effective, politician-led change so exceedingly difficult in this country.”

    Jacinda/Winston must deconstruct the national party cemmenting in of these agencies that act above government at this time.

    A case in point was when the “Treasury ” came out with their proposals to shut down all rail services and only have a freight service between Auckland to Christchurch?????

    See what we wrote about the issues of shutting down rail so far has done to the NI east coast.

    I do love Jacinda and have not lost my respect for her yet;

    Jacinda has sided with Winston; as he is undoubtedly the most knowledgeable of all leaders at the forum so far.

    So I believe Jacinda is learning fast from Winston how to negotiate the ‘minefield’ of countries who obviously are already ‘carving out their niche’ of what they want in any trade deal as much as ‘my Canada’ did clearly which was to protest it’s own interests firstly.

    Is that not what we expect from our now Government?

    I certainly hope so.

    Anyway I for one will give my support to Jacinda for her good intentions for our collective health & wellbeing and especially her ‘pledge’ to run a Government of “openness, fairness, kindness and transparency”.

    On that note Jacinda will you please now honour your Government pledge and allow us the full account of then wording changes within the ISDS you said you was satisfied made changes to the ISDS please as the whole NZ population is still awaiting your release of the whole document now known as the TPP 11?

    Please come home with Winston and begin the next pledge made to restore all regions rail infrastructure and manufacturing please?

    The HB/Gisborne communities are still patiently awaiting your assistance to re-open our rail line again that the first labour government built in 1942 to Gisborne that the last National Government tried to destroy that Phil Twyford blew the whistle on in 2013 (on the labour party news on scoop)
    Jacinda; so we can begin to get all those dirty polluting trucks off our truck gridlocked now very dangerous decaying roads and get our regions running our massive export potential rolling efficiently along our rail line with (rail’s low climate change CO2 emissions) again please.

    Please read our efforts on behalf our community’s in this letter we sent to the former Government on 3rd march 2013, clearly showing then our severe impacts now being levelled upon us all but the Government then never cared to meet us or assist to get our rail repaired then.
    (No replies ever were recieved following the letter we sent then)
    Letter 3/3/2013.
    In coordination with Local Governance, and other interested parties.
    Save the Gisborne rail campaign. 3rd March 2013.
    List of Ministers below.

    For personal review and response from all Ministers involved in the subjects discussed within this letter, which involves, Tourism, Health, Transport, Economy, & Environment. we request your personal reply to this letter.

    TO; P.M. John Key. Minister of Tourism,
    Hon’ Gerry Brownlee, Minister of Transport.
    Hon’ Steven Joyce. Minister of Economic Development.
    Hon’ Tony Ryall, Minister of health.
    Hon’ Nick Smith, Minister of Environment.

    Last week we sent you the first listed death attributed road only truck freight policy.

    This week we focus on the toxic poisonous air you are now exposing urban residents to all along the truck corridor between Gisborne & Napier.
    We have previously worked on this issue of air pollution to residents living alongside truck routes in urban zones in Napier, with the PCE, Ministry of Health, Environment, and with local councils.

    Our very task at our community (NGO is to protect the environment, & health of all who live within it.

    We advocate to Government when we see issues of concern, & public health, and we expect to receive a response from the Minister of Health on residents health now being affected by heavy truck air pollution all along the urban corridors from Gisborne/Napier and all towns along the east coast, who will face the extra volumes of trucks we are now identifying are rolling down the corridor from rail closure.

    The volume of road freight is now increasing by another 56 single trips 112 (both way) already since the rail was closed from Gisborne by the storm partly from March 25th 2012, and from Wairoa south 4th December 2012.

    This is now expected to grow by a further 86 trucks a day one way (172 both ways) in two years as the wall of wood begins to come on stream around Wairoa & Napier, and no shipping facilities are close by those areas, only a Government abandoned railway line???

    Gisborne Port cannot solve this air pollution issue. Consider;

    • Many of the trucks are picking up freight from locations outside of the Gisborne area and delivering to other locations.
    • To ship through Gisborne port the trucks would be forced to travel back through Gisborne urban community exposing them to toxic truck pollution.
    • Delivery of the Gisborne port freight to either Napier or Tauranga, will require multiple handling and truck delivery through those cities further exposing urban residents in either Napier or Tauranga also.

    Dr Nick Smith has shown strong concern about air pollution in his own Nelson electorate, about this issue, as demonstrated early this decade when heavy truck traffic was causing the same air pollution/public health threat to Nelson residents.

    A former National Government closed the rail service to nelson during the 1960s’ and relying only on heavy truck freight to the Nelson Port, & were learning of high levels of air pollution in Nelson, & further truck traffic was considered unacceptable.
    Because Government has clearly signalled no intention to reopen the Gisborne/Napier rail service for any reason whatsoever, our organisation is currently involved with others to produce a consortium with proposal to lease the Gisborne Napier line to restore rail freight operations, & tourism trains, and request your support.

    This hard decision was required partly to mitigate against the increasing truck pollution, residents are now facing, causing a public health issue, in Gisborne, Wairoa, & Napier, to name just three locations we have identified. PCE identified these measured were required when PCE completed a year long Napier study on this subject in 2005, in which our organisation was partly involved.
    Please review the following PCE site & recommendations to use rail to mitigate these health issues.

    Your written response from all Ministers involved in these issue of Health, Environment, Transport, Economy,& Tourism is requested.

    Phil Twyford’s whistle blowing media release 0n 14/2/2013 subject of Gisborne rail being damaged by the past National Government

    Thursday, 14 February 2013, 1:35 pm
    Press Release: New Zealand Labour Party
    Phil Twyford
    Transport Spokesperson
    14 February 2013
    Kiwi Rail admits lack of maintenance led to wash-out
    Kiwi Rail has admitted that its failure to maintain old and damaged culverts was behind the wash out that closed the Gisborne-Napier line, while cuts to its maintenance budget are putting the network at further risk, Labour’s Transport spokesperson Phil Twyford says.
    “Across the country Kiwi Rail missed its target of replacing 71 old culverts last year, and only replaced 49. This is cause for alarm.
    “The Gisborne-Napier wash-out shows what happens when essential maintenance work is not carried out.
    “Kiwi Rail cut and deferred $200 million of network maintenance last year. At the very time it needs to be upgrading its network and improving efficiency, the Government’s unrealistic ‘Turn Around Plan’ is putting enormous stress on the organisation and forcing it to cut maintenance.
    “Kiwi Rail has told Parliament’s transport committee it has 12,197 rail line culverts around the country and has done a risk assessment identifying 53 high priority culverts but ‘…in spite of every effort to mitigate risk, some incidents of wash out may still occur…’
    “National’s plan for rail is not workable. Kiwi Rail has missed its financial targets for two of the last three years. It is being forced to make cuts that are a false economy.
    “At a time when the Government is wasting billions of dollars on its ‘motorways of madness’, it makes no sense to cripple the national rail line.”

  2. Ed says:

    Stacey Kirk and Duncan Garner writing the same stuff.
    The puppet corporate msm have been given their orders and their talking points.–fair-play

    • cleangreen says:

      Looks as if jacinda has sold us out here, as this just came on the 3pm radio NZ news.


      Radio NZ News flash 3pm 11/11/17.

      The 11 nations involved have reconvened today to try to salvage the deal and have agreed to most of the deal but four provisions that have been ‘suspended’, the new agreement has been renamed “The comprehensive progressive pacific partnership agreement”.


      • Marc says:

        So, some here must feel a bit ‘conned’, I suppose. To be honest, despite of a bit of hope a couple of days ago, it all sounded a bit too good to be true, what we were told before and during the election.

        The same will apply to the bureaucracy and business environment we have. Some tweaks here and there and some fiddling around the edges, that is all we may get.

        Welcome back to reality, Jacinda will become part of the establishment, well, was she ever all that much something else?

  3. WILD KATIPO says:

    Good article , Chris , – bang on the money.

    Neo liberalism always was a con job brought in by these bureaucrats , – and conducted by stealth against the wishes of the public. Rogernomics was so unpopular that the public voted them out , hoping National would correct the situation , but as we all know they simply carried it on , and whats worse carried it out at a faster pace under Ruth Richardson.

    It was her that introduced the Employment Contracts Act 1991 , and the punitive ‘ welfare reforms’.

    But the real drivers were the likes of Roger Kerr ( Treasury ) who also was one of the Board of Directors of the London based Mont Pelerin Society (as was Ruth Richardson ), – with their local branch the ‘ Business Roundtable ‘. Now known as as the New Zealand Initiative.

    These were the un- elected , un-mandated ( barring Richardson ) and largely shady background characters who promoted and directed the new right economic ‘reforms’.

    They had no right whatsoever to thwart the wishes of the public and they knew it , so they largely worked in the background using stealth , out of the public’s view. And thus it has been for 33 years.

    These need to have their wings clipped.

    A purge , no less. And if not a complete ‘ purge’ , a very direct message given for them to fall in line with govt policy. We have been living for 3 decades under a bogus hollowed version of democracy , and its time that was rectified.

    New Right Fight – Who are the New Right?

  4. Frances Denz says:

    Back in the mid to late 80ies I was a member of the Labour Party, a member of the Labour Women”s Council and an in intern in the Labour Research Unit. The Labour Research Unit team used to gather together to watch Yes Minister, and one of the discussions after each episode was how well they had balanced the power of the Politician and the Bureaucrat. This episode was won by the Minister, and the following by the Bureaucrat. It was very even handed. So I disagree with some of the analysis above.