by Denise Roche
There were no big surprises in yesterday’s Budget Policy Statement. Throughout its first term, National campaigned on an agenda of tax cuts, public sector cuts, and welfare reforms. This budget year, and for the next three years, things will be no different. In fact for the public sector, just as for welfare beneficiaries, things are about to get even worse.
The Budget Policy Statement sets out the government’s vision for what it plans to do this electoral term. In it we are told that the government’s main priorities are:
- responsibly managing its finances;
- building a more productive economy;
- delivering better public services within tight fiscal constraints; and
- rebuilding Christchurch.
Let’s hit the pause button on number 3. It sounds reasonable. But it’s really a dog-whistle for more and deeper public service cuts.
New Zealand’s public services have already taken a substantial hit. According to the Public Service Association, National has over seen the loss of over 5,500 public sector jobs during its watch. It promised to cap public sector job losses at 38,859, but it then let the lid sink further until public sector numbers fell to 36,475, and adopted this as its new ‘cap’. Contrary to popular opinion, when National came into power in 2008, public sector staffing levels were still recovering from the cuts of the 90s – so they were already starting from a low base.
Why should we, the public, care about this?
We all moan at times about the quality of our public services – about the services we don’t get. But New Zealand has some of the best, more trustworthy public services in the world. In fact Transparency International last year ranked New Zealand as having the most transparent public services in the world. Just imagine, for a moment, where we would be without them. We are surrounded and supported 24-7 by public services. They provide us with clean, safe drinking water, they protect our borders and our crops, keep us safe on the roads, provide health and education and so much more.
Public services should be there when we need them. The principle of universal provision ensures they serve us all. But they also help to make New Zealand a fairer place, by redistributing our taxes to those who need the most support. When public service jobs are cut, we inevitably lose public services. This affects the poorest the most – and with the Salvation Army’s State of the Nation scorecard out today reporting no noticeable improvement in child poverty, we should be worrying about this.
And, they’re there for us when disasters strike. Not many people know that when the February 22 earthquake occurred, the Palmerston North local council’s call centre became, in effect, Christchurch City Council. Public services provide a safety net – one we can’t always see, but one that, despite its faults, serves us well.
The logic for these ongoing public sector cuts doesn’t even stack up. Sacking public service workers won’t help us address our ballooning private debt problem. It will simply push more public sector workers onto the dole queues. The experience in Greece and the UK has shown us that mindless cuts just serve to further contract the economy – at a time when investment in jobs is needed.
Technological fixes won’t help either. What exactly would a ‘virtual’ public service look like anyway? We have all become more technologically savvy. Even me! But many public service users still do not have access to a decent internet connection, let alone a smartphone. Many public services deal with complex, cross-cutting issues that can’t be solved by calling an 0800 number.
In a few weeks the government’s Better Public Service advisory group will report back. The Prime Minister has signalled that it will involve sweeping reforms of the public service. Not all of these will necessarily be bad – more joined up services that cross across departments would be a welcome thing. The Green Party has long campaigned for less competition and greater cooperation between departments. But public sector reform should be driven by genuine need, not merely used as a covert means of cutting further into the services we all need.