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Naked politics blocks decent policy-making

By Alex Penk October 08, 2019

There’s been a lot of cynicism about the Provincial Growth Fund, and last week Minister Shane Jones went a long way to proving the critics right. Jones, the Minister for Regional Development, was accused of telling attendees at a forestry awards dinner that if they wanted to keep enjoying the Fund’s largesse, they had better vote for NZ First next year. Jones, the self-described “bold and brassy” “son of the north” accepted, justified, and deflected the criticism in more or less the same breath, mostly by asserting that he’s just a “retail politician”. Of course, politicians gonna politic, but Jones is risking not just his and his party’s reputation, but the reputation of the Fund itself.

Of course, politicians gonna politic

Of course politicians want to develop policy that appeals to voters and of course they want to promote that policy. But government policy should be aimed at serving the public interest, benefitting New Zealand as a whole. It shouldn’t be designed primarily to promote the politician’s narrow interest in gaining power. As others have said, Jones’ comments, which give the appearance of a self-interested ‘cash for votes’ trade, fail that test. 

What’s been less commented on is that Jones’ approach also jeopardises the legitimacy of the Provincial Growth Fund, the approach to regional development that it represents, and the livelihoods and opportunities of the people the Fund is meant to be helping. The Fund targets spending and investment to particular regions and initiatives, which means it has the potential to do good where it’s most needed by supporting local entrepreneurs and communities to meet their needs with funding tailored to their context. But with this potential comes a high risk of politically-motivated spending, designed to achieve electoral outcomes instead of economic and social goods.

Government policy should be aimed at serving the public interest

The Provincial Growth Fund already lacks some of the features that would protect against this risk—for example, there’s a distinct lack of evaluation which would help give the public confidence that the Fund is actually achieving results, whatever the rhetoric from politicians. Despite this need for improvement, the policy ideas behind the Fund are good and there’s a definite and pressing need for this kind of serious, long-term investment to help the regions prepare for the wave of economic and demographic change that’s on their horizons. That’s why it’s so problematic that Jones’ remarks confirm the impression many have that the Fund is merely a re-election tool for NZ First, a view that’s not helped by the Fund’s three year term coinciding with the electoral cycle. 

For the sake of people living in the regions who need this policy, the best thing Jones can do now is to pull his head in and try not to undermine it any further. If instead he keeps going in the same way, he will help ensure that the Provincial Growth Fund becomes a synonym for a cynical approach to politics, one that sets regional development policy back for a generation. It won’t be politicians, retail or otherwise, who bear the brunt of that mistake.

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