New Zealand must match its Covid 'in this together' rhetoric with action on basic services | Max Harris

New Zealand’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been a master-class in inclusive communication. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described the country as a “team of six million”. The top public health official, Ashley Bloomfield, said: “The virus is the problem, not people … people are the solution”.

But the policies arising out of the pandemic, especially in the run-up to New Zealand’s election on 17 October, have not always been as inclusive as the communication. There’s a mismatch between universalist rhetoric in the pandemic response, and policy offerings that seem to give up on universalism in public services.

If New Zealand is to honour the spirit of collective solidarity expressed in the pandemic, political parties must recommit to genuinely universal basic services. These are services – like healthcare or education – that are publicly-owned, publicly-delivered, comprehensive, and free-at-the-point-of-use, funded by general taxation.

New Zealand’s Labour-led government has made some moves to reduce hidden costs or creeping privatisations in public services since being elected in 2017. It limited requests by schools for parental “donations” in 2019, through offering schools $150 per student in place of “donations”. This year it announced trades training would be free for the next two-and-a-half years, in sectors like construction and care work.

However, the major parties have proposed mainly means-tested, highly limited, or even privatised extensions to public services in New Zealand’s election campaign.

Labour re-announced a free school meals policy first flagged in the 2020 Budget, but only for schools “with the highest disadvantage”, covering around a quarter of children. The party froze its fees-free tertiary education policy, originally planned to cover three years of free study by 2024, saying it would keep only the first year of study fees-free.

The conservative National party unveiled a “First 1,000 Days” families policy that was also restrictive. It promised a $3,000 voucher to be used on a choice of services, including from private providers, with $6,000 available for those “identified through enhanced screening as … having additional need.”

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National did announce as part of its dental plan a toothbrush, toothpaste, and free flouride varnish for all children. This “MySmile” policy, costing just NZ$30m (US$20m), was arguably too minuscule to merit being called a service, even if it was undoubtedly basic.

Only the New Zealand’s Green party has put forward anything like a new universal basic service, with its proposal for New Zealand’s unique accident compensation scheme to be turned into an agency for comprehensive care covering all long-term sickness as well as accidents.

None of the parties, including the Greens, has backed universal free dental care, despite multiple campaigns and reports of a national oral health crisis.

It’s been left to groups outside parliament to take up the call for universal basic services. New Zealand’s public sector union, the Public Services Association (representing 75,000 people), has proposed greater universality in six areas – healthcare, housing, education, income support, transport, and internet – as part of an Aotearoa Wellbeing Commitment. FIRST union, representing 30,000 workers, has reiterated support for free dental care.

Committing to more free public services raises the floor of our basic rights. Put another way, it expands what we can expect from life. It avoids means-testing, which is costly and stigmatising. You shouldn’t have to prove “through enhanced screening” that you have “additional need” to get sufficient funding for early years.

Governments save money through economies of scale. There’s a political benefit, too: as a 2013 UK report noted, giving everyone access to a service like healthcare – even though some people may be able to afford it – ensures “majority buy-in”.

This year is the 75th anniversary of the election of New Zealand’s first Labour government. Politicians at that time used another argument when establishing a universal healthcare service 10 years ahead of the United Kingdom: means-tested services reinforce, rather than redress, the ills of a class-based society. Bill Anderton, a Labour MP who was the grandfather of Roger Douglas, later the architect of New Zealand’s neoliberal reforms, said of universal healthcare in 1938: “New Zealanders, I believe, would never stand for a partial system … which divided the community into classes as far as medical treatment is concerned.”

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Anderton’s view is romantic. Some New Zealanders have tolerated “partial systems” in social services. There is longstanding evidence that the health system (amongst other public services) has disadvantaged Māori, and migrants have often been denied or restricted access to supposedly universal public services in New Zealand.

But if there are some good arguments for genuinely universal public services, why is there not a stronger spirit in favour of universalism in recent political discussions?

To say it is down to a lack of courage or ambition from politicians may be true, but implies the problem is only one of individual temperament or psychology. It’s more than that: the space for political will on this issue is also shaped by views on the current context, the role of government and public ownership.

The Labour health minister, Chris Hipkins, has said free dental care “would come at a very, very significant price tag” and ruled it out “in the current economic environment”. But costs are likely to be slim relative to what the government has set aside as part of its Covid-19 response. New Zealand has relatively low government debt, and can afford to borrow more to set up new social infrastructure, such as free optometry or dental care, which is also likely to save costs in other areas of the health system and education. Restoring more progressive taxation may also provide a sustainable funding base, including for ongoing costs of services.

The bigger fear, including in the minds of those otherwise sympathetic, may be about capacity to deliver major new public services. The New Zealand government has been hollowed out by cuts and restructuring since the 1980s, and as Mariana Mazzucato has pointed out, the self-confidence of public servants has been sapped in recent years. Outsourcing of government functions – continued by the Labour-led government – does nothing to reverse that decline in self-confidence and builds the productive capacity of the private sector in policy work.

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Government capacity is like a muscle that is strengthened through exercise, as the New Zealand public health system’s response to Covid-19 has demonstrated. Building government capacity and skills should be seen as an advantage of expanding public services, not a barrier to it.

It’s true that universal basic services are easier to deliver when the government owns and controls underlying assets and infrastructure. Without public ownership, universal basic services might involve inefficient subsidies to the private sector to guarantee a service is available for free. In areas like free school meals and dental care, the government retains authority over adjacent education and health infrastructure. But in other areas – if, for example, public transport is to be a universal basic service – there needs to be greater debate about public ownership, tailored to the New Zealand context. That means ensuring public ownership is consistent with Te Tiriti o Waitangi, with Māori guaranteed tino rangatiratanga over the delivery of services.

Universal basic services can also exist alongside targeted funding for those in the greatest need because of historical inequities and injustices: what Michael Marmot calls “proportionate universalism”.

These barriers are not insurmountable. Other countries are grappling with similar questions. But as we struggle through the pandemic – and are told repeatedly that “we’re all in this together” – there may be no better time to ensure that universalism in New Zealand’s public services matches the soaring solidarity of its political rhetoric.

Max Harris is a writer, PhD student and author of The New Zealand Project. He previously worked as a policy advisor to British Labour shadow chancellor.


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