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I love playing Sim City. It’s a fun game where you have to build a city, run it’s policies and amenities and try like hell to make it prosper. The problem is, I’m not very good at it. I get the theory behind where to place residential zones in relation to commercial and industrial. I get how to provide power and water. I understand how to manage the various resources and civil departments. But when a disaster strikes – I just lose control of the city. I find my game degenerates into a series of panicked measures and bad policy as I desperately try to peddle together money and resources to keep on top of things.The reason being is that I don’t plan my cities and tactics. I don’t have a grand scheme in place when I become Mayor – I just want to start playing.

I bring this up because I have recently come to the realisation that National’s term in government has played out just like a bad game of Sim City. A Sim New Zealand, if you like. While the National Party understands the theory and philosophy of politics and governance, they have no plan. They stick blindly to ideological theory rather than actually pay attention to facts and as such have spent their entire term putting out fires and changing policy to keep the sims of our country in the green bar of contentment.

If we look at their policies, they are all short term measures to either generate raw capital or reduce overall expenditure. But beyond that there is no overall plan. National has no milestones, no goals for the long term. Helen Clark famously said that Labour had a three term plan. Everything they did had a long term goal in mind. Some policies had to be dropped for being unpopular, but because there were targets, goals and plans in place it was easy for Labour to take the short term losses in favour of the long term gains.

National has shown no such thinking. Their proposition to mine conservation land had no plan beyond “hey this could make us lots of money!” Partial sales of SOEs? Again, no real answers for the long term. The SOE’s are put up for sale and then… well there doesn’t appear to be a clear answer for this.

But the most telling thing has been National’s response to the Christchurch Earthquake. They are now facing the reality that their budget simply cannot react to the cost of the earthquake. They have given away so much of their income in favour of tax cuts, and have resorted to borrowing that there is not enough money coming in. But the solution? Not to get more money from NZers but to try to take the scalpel to more government spending to avoid reneging on the tax cuts of last year. In doing so, those in the upper income bracket end up losing nothing, while those who already faced a tax rise by stealth in the raising of GST (A policy action that National promised during the election that they wouldn’t do) are also now facing a reduction in support for programs that they are involved in.

So effectively, there is less money than ever going around. Not exactly a smart choice during a recession when you want to stimulate the economy, not stifle it.

Removing money from programs is like scraping coins from under the couch while Uncle Big Bucks sits next to you eating his dinner. There are those among the wealthier members of society who like everyone to believe that they are suffering because they pay so much more money. But the reality is that they gain so much more from being in NZ. Most of these people are seriously small fry in the greater global market and they know it. NZ policies protect their interests and help them to make money.

In contrast to National, Labour had a plan and did not just make ideological decisions at every turn. They understood the importance of compromise and commitment. Their budgets were often restrained and unexciting affairs because they were good at knowing when to hold onto money and when to release it. And they kept an eye on how the economy was faring, had targets to meet and focused on meeting them. For most of their time in government, Labour and it’s allies had a responsible plan in place.

National’s budget is not based on a responsible plan but on a blind faith in free market philosophy. They believe that the less government is involved, the better the economy thrives. However the US has shown quite dramatically that this is not the case at all. National’s fiscal policy is best summed up as “Let the money be free and pray the economy looks after itself.” That is not a responsible government, that is a grossly naïve view of the economy.

The reality is that people do not follow theory. They all operate differently and ignoring the factual reality in favour of an ideological theory is poor governance. The real world is full of people who like to cheat the system, exploit loopholes and generally work only to promote themselves. National’s ideology relies on people being honest and all having faith in the system. Except with less people involved in government, there are less people to police the system and ensure that the rules are being followed. Money moves up, not down. The more people spend the more it collects at the top of the heap – and many business are built on the concept of maximising the dividends for those at the top who own the business – not socially responsible trickle down of profits to those at the bottom.

And National’s members know this. They are using the government solely to benefit themselves, and have no plan beyond living this naïve ideological dream. They have come into government on a shopping list of promises with no overall idea how those promises would be met. Their entire term in government has been defined by a constant scramble to find a way to meet all their promises and to find excuses when it hasn’t been popular. First the Labour government was to blame, and when that excuse wore out it was the recession and now it is the Christchurch Earthquake.

A good government shouldn’t need to make excuses, it should be able to make plans. Even now we see National proposing to cut $800m for spending that they may need to make. None of their language is confident “and this is what it is going to be used for and how we plan to do it.” Instead we are getting a wimpish “we are probably going to need to do this and it wont be popular and we don’t really know what it is going to be going into, but EARTHQUAKE, so it help Christchurch somehow – not that we can actually explain what we plan to do about Christchurch yet.”

Ideology is not enough. A plan needs to have contingencies in it, it needs to have targets to meet and if they aren’t being met, you change the plan.Government is not like running a business. You need to spend money to make money, and National keeps cutting its own nose off. They lecture to save money, then cut spending and income at the same time, leading to having to borrow to make up for the remaining financial commitments. They have no plans, no milestones and no targets. Every time they try to fulfil a promise we get a litany of excuses about why they have had to make another budgetary problem to meet their commitments.

This is not a government with its hand on the tiller. This is a government that is flapping around on the deck trying to grab all the ropes because after tying one knot, another flies loose and when one of the crew says “we can help” they cry “No. Go below deck, we have it under control.”

Make no mistake – National has lost all control of the country and the economy. They are just desperately trying to prevent anyone else from realising it.

March 2011

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