Reversing Ardern’s policies as easy as unscrambling an egg

Dr Oliver Hartwich
The Australian
7 December, 2023

When it comes to politics, it is often easier to create new policies than to dismantle existing ones.

Returning a scrambled egg to its original state would be an apt metaphor for the challenge facing Prime Minister Chris Luxon’s newly-formed coalition government in New Zealand.

The administration is embarking on a complex journey to reverse a range of policies instituted by its predecessors. These policies include those relating to the Treaty of Waitangi, Māori and the Te Reo language.

The previous Government, first led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and later by Chris Hipkins, initiated a series of policies sometimes rather disparagingly referred to as “Māorification.”

This involved the establishment of separate agencies for Māori, such as the Māori Health Authority.

Renaming government institutions to Māori names was another significant change. One prominent example was the New Zealand Transport Authority becoming Waka Kotahi. Numerous other government ministries and agencies were similarly renamed.

The integration of Te Reo Māori (the Māori language) into government documents, and the increasing use of Māori concepts in legislation and judicature, marked further steps in this direction.

The new coalition, comprising Luxon’s New Zealand National Party, the libertarian ACT Party and New Zealand First, aims to reverse these developments.

However, barely a week into their tenure, the new Government is already facing resistance from parts of the Māori community and the Māori party in Parliament. Additional, practical obstacles to removing the previous government’s Māori-centric policies are becoming evident.

The coalition agreements between the parties have set the framework for these policy reversals.

The National Party’s agreement with New Zealand First emphasises strengthening democracy and freedom, with a commitment to uphold liberal democratic principles, including equal citizenship and parliamentary sovereignty.

Key points include legislating English as an official language and ensuring that public service departments primarily use English names (except those related to Māori). The agreement also mandates that the government will not advance policies that ascribe different rights or responsibilities based on race or ancestry.

The National-ACT coalition agreement reinforces these themes, with a focus on removing co-governance from public service delivery and ensuring government contracts are awarded based on value without racial discrimination.

The National-ACT agreement also stipulates that public services should be prioritised based on need, not race, and proposes a review of all legislation including references to Treaty of Waitangi principles.

Writing such policies into coalition agreements is one thing. Implementing them is another. The practical challenges and obstacles are significant.

One example is the Government’s promise to end salary bonuses for public servants fluent in Te Reo Māori. For many years, there have been such bonus payments, some running to several thousand dollars per year.

The new government does not support these bonuses, but existing collective agreements pose a hurdle. Changes to established policies are complicated by opposition from unions including the Public Service Association (PSA) and the Primary Teachers’ Union (NZEI). They will not willingly give up any part of their members’ pay packages.

Another example is a directive from Transport Minister Simeon Brown to the aforementioned Waka Kotahi to prioritise its English name in communications. Email signatures and external communications have already changed following the coalition agreement to use the English names of public departments. It is still unclear, though, how much this rebranding exercise will cost. The logistics involved in implementing it are also uncertain.

One of the most contentious and potentially far-reaching policy reversals concerns New Zealand’s planning and environment law.

The new Government plans to repeal the Natural and Built Environments Act and the Spatial Planning Act, introduced in the final days of the previous Labour Government. The intention is to revert to its predecessor, the Resource Management Act (RMA) and then to draft entirely new law for planning and the environment.

However, even this reversion comes with a twist: The old RMA contained clauses relating to the Treaty of Waitangi and Māori participation. But the new coalition’s stance, particularly New Zealand First’s insistence on removing references to the Treaty’s principles from all legislation, would be incompatible with these clauses.

The parties had agreed to revert to the old RMA in their coalition agreements, to provide a breathing space to draft the new legislation. However, they had not initially confirmed what would happen to the old RMA’s clauses that are incompatible with their agreement to remove Treaty references. It took a few days until the Prime Minister confirmed that these clauses will now remain, at least for the time being.

On one level, many of the policy changes brought about by the change of Government are quite straightforward and practical. Renaming and rebranding an agency does not constitute much of a policy change. Yes, it will incur costs, as such changes always do. But in the grand scheme of public spending, these costs are relatively minor.

What matters more is that the new Government’s policy shifts represent a fundamental change from its predecessor’s approach to bicultural and Treaty of Waitangi issues.

Until the Ardern Government took over in 2017, issues relating to the Treaty, though always important, did not play a prominent role in New Zealand politics. Nor were they as divisive as they became under that government.

Regardless of one’s stance on these matters, there is no doubt that Ardern’s government shook up the status quo. It is also beyond dispute that these changes were not universally popular. Partly, this may be explained by them having been introduced over a short period and with practically no consultation.

Despite how quickly these changes were implemented, reverting them will be enormously challenging. Once introduced, any new policy soon creates its own stakeholders, which always makes a return to the status quo ante difficult.

It is the political equivalent of unscrambling an egg. This, more than anything, may well turn out the most difficult part of the new Government’s agenda.

To read the article on The Australian website, click here.

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