As some may remember, I have been in NZ on a mix of research and personal business (truth be told, I am in NZ accompanying my partner on herÂ research leave. The title of this post is her idea, with a hat tip to Brian Easton).Â As part of my project on the security politics of peripheral democracies (which has NZ as a case study), I have been interviewing a cross-section of people involved in political lifeÂ both in and outside the Wellington beltway: politicians, journalists, academicians, policy analysts, community and political activists, opinion-makers, bloggers (!) and a few very smart friends. Oh, and Lew (albeit informally, over a veryÂ enjoyable lunch). Some of those conversations were illuminating, some were lucid, some wereÂ disappointing and some, well, forgotten in the haze ofÂ a very goodÂ time.
Notwithstanding the fogginess of my recollection ofÂ a fewÂ of those conversations, one coherent theme has emerged. NZ’s so-called “number 8 wire attitude,” supposedly evidence of Kiwi pragmatism and resourcefulness, is actually the logical result of a chronic and perpetual lack of planning andÂ an ex post, ad hoc approach to policy-making. One interlocutor phrased it as “policy by anecdote,” where politicians relate stories they have been told as proof that similar approaches elsewhere can work just fine in NZ (such as the repeated mention of Singapore as a developmental model for NZ because it is a small island economy, ignoring the obvious fact that it is authoritarian, stratified and in fact a state capitalist welfare state rather than a true market economy). Others simply noted a lack of vision, or aÂ lack of reward for innovation. Some blamed the NZ character, others colonialism and imperialism, partisans blamed their opponents, analysts blamed theÂ politicians, politicians blamed the analysts, journalists blamed the tabloidisation of newsÂ ….the range of explanations ran the gamut.
Be they onÂ the political Left or Right, time and time again these keen observers of and participants in NZ politics and policy-making, some with storied histories of commentary and involvement in the debates of the last 25 years, noted that NZ political elites continually re-invent the wheel, adopt quick fix or knee-jerk responses andÂ plaster solutions toÂ concrete problems, and generally go with the cheapest option regardless of the complexities and repercussive consequences involved. There appears to be no full appreciation of the consequences of any given policy decision (including the shift to market economics and adoption of a nuclear-free status), and whatever sucess NZ has in the global arena is more a product of luck and chance (fortuna) rather than strategic planning and foresight (virtu).Â The current government is no exception and in fact is considered by this select crowd to be one of theÂ shining examples of the syndrome.
In the view of these participant/observers, the situation is compounded by the lack of political and policy talent available. Beyond those who move overseas, theÂ problem is generally seen as a product of the dunmbing down of political and historical knowledge in schools, media disinterest in anything other than scandal, risk-adverse cultures and abject mediocrity within the public bureaucracy, a gross lack of intellectualÂ acuity and political nous on the parliamentary backbenches, and a general attitude of the part of both policy bureaucrats and politicians that “she’ll be right” regardless of what they do. That, and a loss of ethics, principle and integrity amongst the NZ elite in general.
I invite readers toÂ ponder and comment onÂ this. Given the range of people I have spoken to, this is not just the comments of a small group of disgruntled personalities. At another time I will reflect on what was specifically said about those people and agencies involved in security policy–that the MoD is less than useless, that the NZDF is a bastion of short-sightedness and political ignorance, that the NZSIS is a politicised, vengeful, incompetentÂ cesspit, that the EAB is worthless and deservedly ignored, that the Police are as much a problem as they are a solution to domestic security issues, that the advice of all of these agencies and others are routinely ignored by the politicians in government at the moment–the list of grievances is long but the consensus amongst the consiglieri is strong: NZ needs a serious change in political and policy-makingÂ culture if it is going to really “punch above its weight” rather than simply muddle along–or be relegatedÂ to the lower tiers of democratic capitalist development within the next ten years.