Targets worthy but both leaders vague

JOHN HARTEVELT
Last updated 13:14 18/03/2012

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John Hartevelt

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OPINION: We've seen the what. Now voters are entitled to ask, what about the how?

Besides shuffling about bureaucrats and sacking a few of them, the big announcement from Prime Minister John Key's long- awaited speech last week was for a clutch of new "targets" for the state sector.

The targets are clear and each will be measurable by the end of June.

There is an important argument to be had about the choice of measurements. How on earth, for instance, do you choose a decent way of measuring whether or not people can "complete their transactions with the government easily in a digital environment"? Anyone in the education sector will tell you that meaningful assessment fairly tracking performance is extremely difficult to find. Remember the first years of the NCEA? The struggle ahead to find any really meaningful conclusions from the national standards in primary schools is also likely to prove the rule.

But even assuming proper benchmarks can be found, the greater argument to come will be how Key's government makes its way toward the targets.

This is the stuff of real political leadership.

Almost without exception, Key's goals are underscored by economic performance. More productive jobs and higher incomes would, on their own, almost certainly wind back crime, improve health standards, cut welfare queues and flush the Crown coffers with tax revenue to help boost the quality of everyday services. So without finding a new gear for the economy, any gains towards the targets will always be vulnerable.

And then there is the law of unintended consequences. Creating a singular focus on reducing the number of people who have been on a working age benefit for more than a year sounds appealing, but what will actually happen to those pushed off their benefit? Given that they are very likely to have been out of work for at least a year, how much confidence can there be that those people will not then turn up in another set of statistics - potentially turning to crime or suffering ill-health?

Key is not alone in looking rather like the emperor with no clothes on this stuff. David Shearer's first big speech as Labour leader similarly - though much more vaguely - set out some things that his government would most want to achieve. Weeding out poor teachers and getting tough on woeful schools was top of Shearer's to-do list in education. Unfortunately for him, National has long since been similarly convinced of the same priorities and has already made changes to the work of the Education Review Office and started trying to redirect resources towards the stragglers. It has also started some tentative steps - likely to soon become more decisive - ramping up expectations on teachers.

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Shearer also maligned a shortage of engineering and science graduates, but there, too, the government has already recognised a problem and will shortly scratch together some cash to try and ramp up the numbers.

All of which is simply to describe the ongoing political struggle - a what without a how is no better than a question unanswered.

- Sunday Star Times

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