Op-ed from Kerry Davies National Secretary Public Service Association
Published by Stuff on 30 November 2023
The Government’s approach to cuts in the public service needs a serious rethink or the results will spell disaster for New Zealand for generations to come.
The starting point of any incoming government should be a discussion with departments about the policies they want to implement in the interests of New Zealand, not a conversation about cutting the very people who are employed to support the Government’s work.
Our advice to Christopher Luxon is that his Ministers should front up to each of the departments they are targeting for cuts. Do it in a meaningful way and genuinely grasp what work our public servants are doing.
The stakes are too high not to. The new Ministers owe this to New Zealanders and to the public servants doing important work for all of us.
If Ministers do this, they will meet biosecurity officers watching for threats to our primary industry, conservation rangers protecting our precious birds and forests, case officers and social workers supporting the needs of many New Zealanders, labour inspectors keeping workplaces safe, not to mention the many public servants focused on how we reduce carbon emissions and adapt our lives to climate change.
They should also talk to the groups representing communities who rely on the work of public servants before making decisions. Groups like Salvation Army, Age Concern, Rural Women, Forest and Bird to name a few. If they respect these groups enough to ask them about potential cuts to public services, they will get a deeper insight in the value of our public service.
If they did all this, they would realise that the glowing international reputation of our public service and the high trust that New Zealanders have in the public service have not come about by chance.
It has been earned by the hard work of politically neutral public servants who work diligently every day to serve the Government of the day. This means giving free and frank advice to Ministers about their policy proposals and helping provide quality evidence-based advice to guide decision-making.
Once they have seen for themselves the important work that our public servants do, they should sit down and have a cup of tea. And over that cuppa, they should also ponder the rhetoric from the campaign trail.
We all heard the claims about taking the public service back to 2017 levels. That was not based on any evidence that the head count then was about right for New Zealand today. In fact, it can be argued that previous cuts to public services had produced a lag in capacity to meet the needs of New Zealanders back then. Our world has changed much since 2017, our population has grown by half a million people, and it is ageing. Climate change is here. Our infrastructure needs are growing, and society is changing. We argue the public service is right sized for New Zealand and is already a similar size per capita to countries we compare ourselves to, like the UK and Australia.
The coalition agreements make a point that “decisions will be based on data and evidence” and “sound public policy principles.” We welcome that, but so far, that is not happening.
The Government is not taking a calm and considered evidence-based approach which values the work of our public service. It seems hell bent on cuts, “as quickly as possible” said the new PM moments after being sworn in.
That means slashing 6.5% from budgets targeting a large group of Ministries and agencies – savings it needs to fund tax cuts. Critical programmes like Affordable Waters for much needed water infrastructure will be stopped, the Productivity Commission abolished, contractors will go, but the impact of that 6.5% goes much deeper for public servants and the public services they support. It may have to go even deeper following the CTU’s revelations about the ballooning costs of the tax breaks for landlords.
If cuts of this size go ahead, this will inevitably mean a big loss of experienced and talented people that we have invested in over the years, the ones that are doing the hard work of preparing us for our long term economic, social and environmental challenges, issues this Government says it cares about. We need a considered approach that takes account of both our current and long term needs as a country.
The good news is that there is no way the Government will be able to move fast.
The new Ministers are no doubt being briefed now on the proper process to be followed when it comes to making people redundant. Our employment laws and workplace collective agreements are there for a good reason. To ensure employers operate with good faith which means being communicative and constructive. Proper consultation with public servants through their union before decisions are made is a critical step.
Employers must set out the reasons for the proposed change, they must spell out how services will be impacted, they need to be genuinely open-minded about their proposals. Sufficient time needs to be given for feedback to be sought and considered.
So, our advice to Ministers is, think again and slow down. To slightly misquote National Party PM Keith Holyoake whose famous advice to new MPs in the 1960s was “breathe through their noses”. We say new Ministers should as well. Don’t rush, or the damage you do could take a generation to reverse.