Photo by Robert Kitchin / The Post


The Government’s just-completed 100 days of action could well be the most comprehensive and far-reaching rejection of a previous administration’s work programme in recent political history.

And we are not just talking about potentially controversial policy innovations such as Three Waters or the Maori Health Authority. There are also mainstream items of legislation with bipartisan buy-in that are at risk.

For example, the Therapeutic Products Act has been repealed. This piece of legislation is a major item of work involving a large amount of effort by policy professionals, a considerable degree of select committee activity and more than 16,500 submissions. Work in this area started in the 2000s, continued fitfully under the subsequent government, and was reactivated by the Ardern administration. It was passed into law last year, and has now been repealed.

Another example is the resource management legislation. This has been a project worked on by both Labour and National for 40 years, again with substantial policy input. Yet the new government has repealed the legislation in its entirety, rather than seeking just to amend it.

What explains this rejection, not just of potentially contentious policy innovations, but also mainstream items of work of long-standing which have been considered and worked on by both sides of politics? Perhaps it has been the polarising effects of the pandemic – a kind of political “long Covid” – or an unexpected twist to our MMP political system which rather than encouraging coalitions around the centre has instead maximised competition at the extremes.

Regardless, these are troubling developments, and it is in this context that The Helen Clark Foundation hosted a discussion on recent events with former Prime Ministers Helen Clark and Sir Geoffrey Palmer exploring current policy debate and the state of checks and balances in the New Zealand political system

One area where the bipartisan centre has held for many years is in foreign and trade policy. But even here there are tensions. For example, relations with China. New Zealand has a very successful Free Trade Agreement with that country which has greatly lifted the economy since its inception in 2008. Yet at the same time there are growing geopolitical tensions between China and the United States. How far will New Zealand go in working with Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom on the AUKUS defence agreement if in doing so it risks harming relations with China?

Another topic of importance to New Zealand is how the Treaty of Waitangi is observed. It has always been a “work in progress” but has recently become a focal point for political tension. A previous leader of the National Party, Todd Muller, said in his valedictory speech in Parliament last year that where the centre could hold and Labour and National were able to find common ground, then the issue of Treaty relations was in good hands. But once one or other side of politics or both make some departure from that common ground, those relations are at risk. The centre can hold, but it requires work from both sides.

An area which the incoming government is targeting is the speeding up of consents for large-scale projects through the reduction of regulatory and other hurdles. This concern has a long history in New Zealand: since the National Development Act of 1979, and then through various iterations of the Resource Management Act from the 1980s, until the latest version ushered in by the previous Environment Minister, David Parker, now to be repealed.

How is it possible for our legislative system to work for nigh on 40 years in a key area of balancing environmental and economic interests, and still find it difficult to find a solution that will “stick”?

Inevitably this is an area of contention with conflicting interests and priorities, but there are some institutional issues that stand out.

  • There is a lack of transparency, whether it be around lobbyists, donations, or development of initial policy outside public view before it gets to cabinet.
  • There is the dominance of the executive – i.e. cabinet – in a numerically small legislature, with a relatively weak select committee process, and a constant churn and chopping and changing of public service capacity and capability available to facilitate the policy development process.
  • A major issue is the decline of the mainstream media and public interest journalism and a growth in its place of the unmoderated platforms of social media driven by algorithms designed to maximise engagement and monetary returns.
  • Finally, New Zealand has a shrinking “public square” for high-quality independent policy scrutiny and development. As the universities concentrate on academic research and the media struggle for survival, the demise of the likes of the Productivity Commission further narrows this space.

New Zealand has a limited forum for independent policy scrutiny and development. The Helen Clark Foundation was established to contribute in this area, and this discussion was mounted to mark the fifth anniversary of its existence. The contribution of bona fide think tanks is needed now perhaps more than ever before.

Peter Davis is the Helen Clark Foundation Chair.

This blog originally appeared in The Press and other Stuff publications.

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