Beating Budget Responsibility Rules Restraint

Public health and public education, for countries that have them, make the two great calls on government expenditures, and for that reason they are at the core of the central contradiction in the character of the Ardern government. The boost in spending on these services that Labour seemed to offer in 2017 is confounded by the Budget Responsibility Rules policy that the Labour and Green parties concocted, carried through into government and have since held as an article of faith. The effect of the Rules, broadly, is that government spending is kept within the parameters inherited from the former National government. Government expenditure is pegged as a proportion of GDP and paying down government debt is prioritised over spending. The Budget Responsibility Rules are a declaration of Labour’s fealty to capitalism. As a result of spending restraint, health and education have been the flashpoints of much of the industrial action by expectant, but frustrated, workers that occurred last year and continues this year unabated.

In a mid-February speech outlining her plans for this year, Jacinda Ardern again trotted out the cautious BRR policy: “Careful management of the government books also helps provide a buffer against any external shocks. We are meeting the Budget Responsibility Rules, which show that a healthy fiscal surplus is being maintained and net debt – which peaked at over 25 per cent under the previous Government is now forecast to be down to 19 per cent of GDP by 2021/22 – is being reliably managed.”

In health, the first to bang their heads against the wall of “budget responsibility” were the nurses until they were eventually browbeaten, as much by their own union officials as anybody, into a settlement with the District Health Boards. This year the cudgels have been picked by striking midwives of the MERAS union, anaesthetic technicians in APEX and the junior doctors of the Resident Doctors’ Association.

APEX recently held a 5-day strike at Rotorua Hospital. Northland DHB anaesthetic technicians are striking for 72 hours from 26 February to 1 March.

A threatened strike by E Tū members who work for contractors OCS in Hawkes Bay and Wairarapa DHBs has resulted in an agreement being reached. DHB administration workers in the PSA have held nationwide Stop Work meeting and threaten strike ballots.

It is the junior doctors, or Resident Medical Officers, however, who have mounted the most determined action so far. They took their fourth round of 48-hour strikes on 26-28 February and are balloting on a fifth strike. On 31 January, 1,700 junior doctors wrote to Minister of Health David Clark to ask his help in securing a fair deal with the DHBs. By 19 February the minister had not replied, which prompted an angry media release from the RDA. In this statement David Munro, the union’s Senior Advocate said:

“We’ve had and are having strikes across the board among healthcare workers — doctors, nurses, midwives, pharmacists, anaesthetic technicians, sterile service technicians, physiotherapists, psychologists, ambulance workers and perfusionists — and more seem likely. While the Minister ignores the plight of RMOs and many allied professional groups, he is simultaneously meddling in other areas and preventing agreement being reached, such as with anaesthetic technicians in Lakes and Northland. It’s as if the Minister doesn’t understand where he’s needed and where he’s not, and is somehow managing to get it entirely backwards.”

The root cause of Munro’s ire is that David Clark, and the whole government behind him, are abiding by the Budget Responsibility Rules policy, putting their pact with private capitalism ahead of relief for over-worked health workers.

The same restraint applies in the education sector, where last year’s strikes did not result in any breakthrough. The government intransigence has provoked the primary teachers of the NZEI and secondary teachers of the PPTA to move towards a combined one-day ‘mega strike’ in early April.

With the government unmoved so far, the question has to be asked of what is required to win the significant increases in health and education budgets needed to relieve workloads, deliver pay equity and allow across the board better incomes. There are two strands to the strategy needed by the unions.

One strand is the purely industrial: to increase the unions’ might by more united and more forceful action. On the question of unity, the NZEI and PPTA collaboration is to be welcomed. In health the situation is more complex with several unions and numerous collective agreements giving rise to disunity and an advantage to the employer.

The cause of the midwives cannot be helped by them being divided between the NZNO and MERAS. Junior doctors have the choice of the RDA or the Speciality Trainees of New Zealand (SToNZ). SToNZ were formed in 2018 in opposition to the safer hours of work won by RDA strike action taken in 2016 and 2017. SToNZ has a two-year collective agreement from December 2018 that inferior to RDA’s. SToNZ is a strike-breaker’s union that should be disavowed by the union movement. Unfortunately, SToNZ was established with the support of the PSA bureaucracy for the latter’s own sectarian reasons. The PSA and APEX compete for membership in the DHBs. APEX and the RDA are connected in that they both employ Deborah Powell as their National Secretary.

If division is one problem, the other is the current penchant for limited action. One-day or two-day actions mean short-term pain that can be ridden out by a determined government. There is a difference between short-duration actions, which unions hope will prompt concessions, and stronger intransigent actions that can put a government’s back against the wall.

The other strand to strategy is ideological: to put the government under pressure politically. To date, union leaderships have tended to be soft towards the Labour coalition, desisting from criticism even when promised reforms to workers’ rights are dropped. The unions should be articulating an independent worker’s perspective to put pressure on Labour from the left.

The Green Party says that it will review the Budget Responsibility Rules, but it will adhere to the policy until the 2020 elections. While it is good that opposition to the financial conservatism is brewing in the ranks of the Greens, it should be the Council of Trade Unions and the unions clamouring for the BRR policy to be scrapped immediately.