Finance Minister Grant Robertson has had a good run this year, with the economy performing well and the government’s books in excellent shape.
Despite ministers splashing out cash in every direction, the half-year economic and fiscal update (out this week) may even offer the Finance Minister scope for a bit more spending in the years ahead, without endangering his self-imposed goal of sustainable surpluses .
But a shadow may be beginning to emerge from this apparently cloudless sky. It lies in the reports from all those reviews the government called for in its first months of office.
Two of them have already landed with a political thud and there could be even greater reverberations when Sir Michael Cullen hands in the Tax Working Group’s recommendations on how to implement a capital gains tax — a report which may not be unanimous but will have Sir Michaels’ carefully calibrated political fingerprints all over it.
What seemed like relatively simple tasks for the various review panels and working groups may land the government with the kind of political headache none of the ministers could have foreseen.
Remember the “crisis” in mental health, which Labour said the previous government had created by its nine years of “neglect” of the health services?
Well, it turns out the government will let the “crisis” run a little longer.
After making mental health an election issue, it will be half-way through the parliamentary term before it is ready even to give a few signals on how it plans to deal with the “crisis”.
The heavily stretched mental health services which have been looking for some urgent relief or reinforcement will just have to carry on, as they have been during those nine years of neglect. Health Minister David Clark could find himself with a battle on his hands to line up his reform proposals in time to get new spending commitments written into next year’s budget.
Even though the taskforce handed in its conclusions at the end of November, the minister says the full report won’t be released until the end of the year.
Not surprisingly the Opposition says that in the time that the inquiry has been running, the government could have made meaningful changes by increasing access to services for people in need.
If formulating a reformative policy for mental health services and implementing it is likely to prove a challenge for the government, it faces a similar challenge – perhaps a sharper one – in the education field.
There the government is confronted with a call for such radical changes that it could create a backlash from parents. In effect, the education reform proposed would turn the clock back on Tomorrow’s Schools, the programme implemented under David Lange’s stewardship.
The panel headed by Bali Haque recommends the creation of a network of Crown agencies to oversee the work of groups of schools and take back many of the responsibilities of schools’ boards of trustees.
The report said the organisations would be called Education Hubs, would be run by a government-appointed director and would take over responsibility for schools’ property, funding and student achievement and hire schools’ principals in consultation with their boards.
The big reform of Labour under Lange was to remove schools from the direct control of the education bureaucracy and allow parents to govern the schools their children attend.
National says it has “serious concerns” about the creation of the 20 new Crown entities, which would transfer more responsibilities from parents to bureaucrats. It says it will fight to ensure parents continue to have a strong role in the education of their children.
While the report is short on detail on how the hubs would work, it’s clear they would see a major reduction in the power and duties of Boards of Trustees and parents in the education system, including taking responsibility for expulsions and exclusions, final decision making rights on enrolments and zoning, and the employment of principals.
Around 19,000 parents and trustees who currently sit on boards could be relegated to the role of advisors with little ability to influence the education of children.
The problem for Labour with this report is that it will not only invite a battle with parents who really care about the education of their children, but also potentially with its coalition partner, NZ First.
Still, a contest Education Minister Chris Hipkins versus Winston Peters will be worth watching.