You are subscribed as | Unsubscribe | View online version | Forward to a friend

Insights 46: 9 December 2022
The Australian: Oliver Hartwich on the government's lack of honesty and transparency
Podcast: Democracy, online content regulation, smoking and pirates
TodayFM: Roger Partridge on the Royal Commission of Inquiry into NZ’s management of COVID-19

Enquiring into Covid Inquiries
Dr Eric Crampton | Chief Economist |
The Royal Commission announced this week will not help voters provide better-informed brickbats or bouquets in 2023.

The inquiry will focus instead on lessons for future pandemics and will report back well after the election.

In a better world, the Inquiry’s work would have already begun. An interim report would help inform voters’ decisions. And a final report would draw necessary lessons for the ongoing pandemic response and any future ones.

But a government expecting a report shortly ahead of an election would be sorely tempted to restrict the terms of reference to prevent discovery of failures – and consequently limit the Commission’s ability to learn from those failures.

Even with a 2024 deadline, the Inquiry’s terms of reference may constrain.

The Inquiry’s scope allows it to assess whether overall strategies were effective in limiting the spread of the virus. But whether those strategies would pass a broader cost-benefit assessment seems not in-scope.

Our organisation strongly supported elimination when vaccines were not yet available. On 17 March 2020, this newsletter urged that “we must stamp out the virus at all cost”.

But elimination approaches were not uncontested and became more contested over time. They can and should be more rigorously tested to better inform future strategies.

If some future variant or new virus warrants reimposing border controls and lockdowns, the kind of widespread support evident in March 2020 will again be needed.

Robust support for the strategy, with benefit of hindsight, would make it easier.

And whether a strategy makes sense also depends on the government’s capacity for execution.

Over the past years, the Initiative explained how MIQ could safely scale up, how borders could open to countries that had achieved elimination, how vaccines elsewhere approved could be quickly authorised, and how testing systems could be improved.

The Commission will have much to examine. How it might interpret terms of reference exclusions of how strategies and measures “were implemented or applied in particular situations” is far from clear.

Unfortunately, opposition parties were not consulted on the Inquiry’s terms of reference or membership. Governments facing future pandemics and needing to trust in the Inquiry’s report may well include parties other than Labour.

New Zealand’s successes in early 2020 came, in part, from a cross-party approach bringing widespread agreement. That same approach would have provided stronger foundations for an Inquiry whose report is meant to guide the country through pandemics yet to come.

Three cheers for the Auditor-General
Dr Bryce Wilkinson | Senior Fellow |
The Auditor-General is deeply concerned “about a lack of transparency and accountability over the spending of public money”.
On 14 November, he took the extraordinary step of writing to Parliament's Speaker, Adrian Rurawhe and the chairs of two select committees about the problem.
His letter warned that “the links between spending of public money and the difference being made through that spending are too often tenuous, lack transparency, and are focused on the short term.”
He also cited a recent report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton. Its central theme is the need for greater public accountability for the outcomes of government environmental decisions.
The Commissioner pointed out that “spending more money on a problem [does not] mean we are fixing it”. That he felt compelled to say so shows the scale of the problem.
Upton made another self-evident point: “for there to be accountability, there has to be clarity and transparency about what it is we are trying to achieve.” (“We” is official speak for “the government”.)
I cannot think of any senior ex-Treasury person who would disagree with these laments.
Certainly not me. In 2004 I reviewed the first decade of government spending under the Fiscal Responsibility Act 1993. Chronic fiscal deficits had been turned into sustained surpluses. Public debt was under control at last.
The weak point even then was the increasing quantum of ill-justified spending.
Taxpayers fund government spending, so giving them more voice seemed the best hope for improving spending quality. I proposed a Taxpayer Bill of Rights for New Zealand for this reason.
The problem with this was that greater spending discipline was not likely to be in the interests of either the public service or an incumbent government. ACT took up this proposal, but not National.
Taxation by stealth through ongoing inflation and progressive income tax rates proved to be a more attractive option politically.
In 2013, the New Zealand Initiative proposed an institutional option – a Fiscal Council reporting to Parliament.  That Council would use independent cost-benefit analysis to better inform parliamentarians and the public about poor-quality spending programmes. That would complement and strengthen the watchdog A-G’s role.
Again, as always, the problem is intense opposition from all those benefiting from poor quality programmes.  The deeper the rot, the harder it is to reverse. Poor quality spending is soft corruption.
The Auditor-General needs broad-based support on this issue.

Bullsh*t detectors are the answer
Dr Michael Johnston | Senior Fellow |
Many students … intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance … to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.

So opens Deschooling Society, a provocative 1971 book on education by Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich. 

Illich’s analysis of the confusion of “process and substance” was insightful. Fifty years on, it can help us understand the rot that has set into New Zealand’s education system.

A third of our young people emerge from school barely able to read. Could that be because we confuse teaching – or, at least, the appearance thereof – with learning?

NCEA pass rates are rising while New Zealand’s performance in international tests like PISA continues to tank. Perhaps that’s because we confuse grade advancement with education.

Our public service is packed to the gunwales with university graduates. Yet our public systems – heath, immigration, not to mention education itself – seem to be falling apart. Maybe that’s because we confuse diplomas and degrees with competence.

Illich advocated a decentralisation of schooling, towards a system of informal “educational webs”, run at the community level. Whatever one might think of his radical prescription, Illich was onto something with his diagnosis.

It boils down to what he called “the institutionalisation of values”. We have, he thought, come to rely too heavily on the state to do our thinking and moral reasoning for us.

It’s no wonder. Thinking is hard. But the future of open society depends on citizens who can think independently and take responsibility for their moral decisions.

The last two decades have seen an appalling decline in educational standards. Equally concerning is a decline in independent mindedness.

Education, which Illich identified as the source of institutionalised values, could also be the antidote.

In Teaching as a Subversive Activity, published in 1969, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner wrote that the most important job of schools was to install “bullsh*t detectors” in young minds.

Some of our politicians worry about the perils of ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’ emanating from dubious online sources. They would like to regulate online content. But events in the last week or so suggest that some of those same politicians are part of the problem.

I’m with Postman and Weingartener. If we equip young people with bullsh*t detectors, they won’t have to rely on the government to be the arbiter of truth.

On The Record

Initiative Activities:   
All Things Considered
  • Graph of the week: There's no one quite like Grandma
  • What an excellent soccer play would look like if the pitch were smaller, the nets were smaller, and the whole field were covered with ice
  • What would happen if large language models played out the same way as historical technologies
  • MPs and peers do worse than 10-year-olds in maths and English Sats
Copyright © 2024 The New Zealand Initiative, All Rights Reserved

Unsubscribe me please

Brought to you by outreachcrm