The “Yeah, Nah” Government

By Kieran Madden May 14, 2019

That gutting feeling of unfulfilled expectations is hard to shake, and the bigger the promise, the bigger the disappointment. The Government’s response to the Welfare Expert Advisory Group’s Report is the latest in a series of policy disappointments. Issue by issue, over-promising and under-delivering is sadly becoming the norm—the Yeah, Nah Government. Yeah, an exciting policy! Nah, let’s not do this.

While the capital gains tax proposal fell flat due to the Government’s inability to “find a consensus,” there was at least unity at the Welfare report release. Unity in timidity, that is. In a relatively hush-hush affair on a quiet Friday afternoon in West Auckland, MPs Carmel Sepuloni, Marama Davidson, and Tracey Martin stood together as they announced they would implement just three of the 42 recommendations.

Issue by issue, over-promising and under-delivering is sadly becoming the norm

The three chosen recommendations—lifting abatement rates in line with minimum wage increases, employing up to 263 more frontline staff to help people into work, and removing sanctions for not naming a child’s father—are far from transformational, and won’t fix the system that all three parties decry as busted. The rest of the policies will be looked at “over the coming years.” The Greens included “overhauling the welfare system” in their confidence and supply agreement, but instead of pushing back like NZ First did over the CGT, they’re echoing Labour’s talking points.

Why aren’t they walking the talk? Ardern staked her leadership on reducing child poverty after all. The five billion dollar a year price tag attached to the other more significant welfare reforms is a fair stumbling block, but they’ve previously argued that the costs to society for doing nothing are greater. Part of the problem is that Ardern painted her Government into a corner, constrained by both the Budget Responsibility Rules and a promise not to introduce any new taxes before the next election.

Part of the problem is that Ardern painted her Government into a corner

Transforming welfare is a tall order, and Sepuloni’s approach of a “staged implementation” actually makes sense. Compare this to rushed-through policies like free tertiary education that benefits those already destined to do well or the three-billion dollar Provincial Growth “spend-money-at-all-costs” Fund, and it’s fair to say that considered, slower policy tends to be better policy. Under-delivery isn’t so bad if what was promised was of questionable value in the first place.

It’s a shame because there’s a bunch of decent policies in the Report: indexing benefits to wages, supercharging the active employment system, and committing to a system where people are treated with dignity to name a few, but I wonder whether this Government will be around to implement them as they hope.

Throwing big money at untested, politically-driven schemes while responding to “crises” with impotent working groups is a good way to break voters’ trust. Instead of a series of big transformative policy bangs, they got a series of disappointing whimpers. Even with an uninspiring Opposition, if this continues, it will be the way the Government will meet its end.

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