Thursday, March 02, 2006

Garth George: State of the public service reflects a nation sold short

The more I read the newspaper these days the more I become convinced that those whom we have triennially elected, both nationally and locally, to guide the nation's affairs have for decades sold us citizens seriously short.

If that were not so, why is it that almost daily we are confronted with evidence of the inefficiency, the inability to cope, in some cases the disarray of our public affairs - from infrastructure to social services?

Surely that indicates a large degree of incompetence, short-sightedness, prodigality, lack of focus and indecisiveness - in short an almost total absence of vision - on the part of parliamentary and local politicians stretching back over numerous electoral cycles.

Not to mention, of course, the lackadaisical attitude of civil servants, who seem always to take months to achieve what equivalent managers in private business would have done in days. And who seem far more interested in what they can't do for those whom they serve than in getting on with what they can.

Why is it that over two decades of unprecedented national economic growth and prosperity so many things - from roads to health services, to education, to prisons, to police and armed services, to the justice system, to accident compensation, to welfare services - have not kept pace with public needs?

And that in spite, too, of whopping increases in income and other Government taxes and duties, in local body rates and in both local and national user-pays charges, all of which were inflicted upon us purportedly to deal with those needs. Yet they remain unmet.

Meanwhile, private business, largely freed from the shackles of state control, has grown and prospered, albeit that much of the prosperity has bypassed us into the pockets of overseas shareholders.

Nevertheless, if private business - including service and utilities industries - has been able to keep up with, and even lead, the increasing requirements of its more demanding customers, why have not public services been able to do the same?

That question almost answers itself, doesn't it? And it has begun to make me wonder - at the risk of causing John Roughan and Fran O'Sullivan to choke on their morning coffee - whether, in fact, those who supported the privatisation policies of the likes of Sir Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson weren't right after all.

Would our prison system be the fiasco it is today if the privatisation process had been extended rather than canned? My recollection is that the private contractor who was chased out by this Labour Administration was doing a good job.

Would our education system be in the state it is in if the freedoms of choice given to parents and school administrators under bulk-funding hadn't been revoked by the control-freak socialists among Helen Clark's loyalists?

The same goes for our health services. Bulk-funding of those services would revolutionise our general practices, hospitals and their ancillary services overnight. Getting rid of the lay bureaucrats and returning governance to the medical professions would push it along nicely.

Would we be paying inflated and unfair accident compensation premiums if competition still reigned and elements of the insurance industry continued to compete for employer and worker business?

Would a private insurer charge me a substantial sum every year as both employer and employee, if you please - because I spend a few hours each week at my computer in my study at home writing this column - and the chance of an accident is nil?

It seems to me that the more services the Government can unload to private operators, the more cheaply and efficiently they will be carried out.

But it won't, because losing control of anything is for those who today "run" the country looked on with the same horror that they would contemplate losing an arm or a leg. Politics, by my definition, is simply the exercise of power and the retention thereof.

Which is another reason our Government and local body-run services are in such a parlous state: rarely is anything planned more than three years ahead and the planning is aimed, first and foremost, at getting whoever is in power re-elected.

That's sad but true, for there must still be some who enter Parliament with a desire to serve their fellow man who must find it galling that politics comes first, second and third and the welfare of the country a distant fourth.

Consider a longer term (Britain's five or the four of the United States) for Parliament and local government? Gives you the heebie-jeebies just to think about it, eh?

Some of the blame, of course, must fall on us as electors, for it seems to me that we pay far too little attention to the quality of the candidates and too much to the parties they represent.

But even if we did, there is a real sense in which we have no say at all in who represents us in Parliament, for it is the apparatchiks of parties who select candidates for electorates (as in Dunedin South), and the parties themselves who appoint those on their lists.

So what do we do about all this? How do we get local and national governments that will fulfil their fundamental obligations to the populace, that will keep up with the play and always do what is best for the people?

The short answer is that I'm damned if I know. But there has to be a better system than the one we have.

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