“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.