Reform or transform?

Dr Oliver Hartwich
Insights Newsletter
17 November, 2023

We reserved this space in today’s newsletter to congratulate the new Government on taking office. 

If we have to wait another week or two, then so be it. A Government’s legacy is defined by its accomplishments when it leaves office, not by what is written about it at the outset. 

In history, good intentions count for nothing. It is achievements and results that matter. 

We may therefore, wonder how the next three-to-nine years will unfold under this new Government. 

Its starting point is a country with numerous and well-known challenges. The most pressing issues are education, infrastructure and housing, law and order, and the cost of living. However, they are not the only ones. 

The new Government has two options. It could embark on a path of incremental reform. That would mean a slow and steady approach to change. 

There is a case to be made for incrementalism. The key advantage is that it enables the Government to bring the public along. It allows reforms to be bedded in so they cannot easily be undone. 

If times are not too bad, and reforms are not too urgently needed, incrementalism must be a tempting option for any Government. It is the only choice for Governments wanting to get re-elected while still getting at least some reforms done. 

The early Key Government took this approach, and I defended it. It was a different story in the second and, especially, the third term of that Government. 

Nevertheless, the circumstances back then were different. Yes, the Key Government faced the effects of the Global Financial Crisis and the Canterbury Earthquakes. However, the state apparatus was much more functional than it is today.  

The challenges facing the new Government today are far more acute. There is no point in incremental reform when, for example, half of our students do not attend school regularly and a similar proportion cannot read and write at an adult level. 

Incremental reform is not enough when hospitals have long waiting lists and people have difficulty registering with doctors. 

It is not enough to make incremental reforms when gangs and retail crime plague our inner cities. 

All these social and economic ills require more than small steps. They require root and branch reform. 

Future historians will judge the new Government by its results. The new government will only be deemed successful if it fundamentally turns this country around.

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