OBVIOUSLY disturbed by Education Ministry boss Lesley Longstone’s trouble-at-mill South Yorkshire accent, someone complained to Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report recently about the preponderance of British migrants in top government jobs.Surely the complainer hadn’t just noticed. This has been going on for decades, and not just at the top level of the public service. British migrants are disproportionately represented throughout the public sector, from building inspectors and animal control officers upward. They show a particular fondness for jobs that require a uniform, as has been apparent from some of the witnesses in the Christchurch earthquake inquiries.
Several of our most important government departments have British chief executives. Besides Longstone at Education, there’s Gabriel Makhlouf at the Treasury – arguably the most influential public servant of them all – and David Smol, who heads the new “super-ministry”, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (although to be fair, Smol had previous experience in New Zealand).At a function last month I heard speeches from the chief executive of the Earthquake Commission, Ian Simpson, and the head of Te Papa, Michael Houlihan – both Brits who replaced New Zealanders. Houlihan’s appointment was particularly intriguing, given that the institution he runs is supposedly all about defining what it means to be a New Zealander.
Is this a lingering legacy of the cultural cringe, whereby we assume that outsiders are more capable than we are?It’s worth recalling that we farewelled the last British governor-general, Bernard Fergusson, in 1967. New Zealanders have done the vice-regal job ever since. It’s puzzling that nearly five decades later, we still turn to Britain for so much expertise in other areas. While the government obviously has to recruit the best people for the job, I can’t imagine other countries – Australia, for example – tolerating such a high proportion of imports in top public service jobs.
I have a theory about this, albeit one that’s completely unscientific.
It’s often said that New Zealanders lack ambition. A common explanation for the lack of big New Zealand companies, for instance, is that Kiwi business people are not interested in building world-leading empires. Once they’ve got the “three Bs” – the bach, the boat and the BMW – they are content.
You could argue, I suppose, that this is a reflection of our easy-going, she'll-be-right culture. Life in New Zealand is essentially pretty cruisy for the majority; it's not a country where you have to claw and compete to survive, and there's always a generous welfare system to cushion failure.Of course there are ambitious New Zealanders, but most tend to go overseas. This country is too small, and the opportunities too limited, to contain them.
Has this, I wonder, created a talent vacuum in the upper echelons of the public service that can be filled only by recruiting abroad?Getting back to Longstone, it was very clear from her recent contretemps with teachers that she’s hopelessly unfamiliar with the New Zealand way.
Longstone copped flak for daring to say New Zealand’s education was not world-class. Had she spent more time here, she would understand that only teachers and their unions are allowed to say there’s anything wrong with the education system, and that only they are entitled to define what’s wrong and what’s right.Longstone riled the teachers by drawing attention to the stubbornly high proportion of under-performing Maori and Pacific Island students. Teachers are allowed to highlight this, but only as a way of exposing government failings and condemning inequity in the system. When they are not focusing on the system’s failings, teachers are forever talking up our internationally high achievement rankings (which Longstone acknowledged), for which they like to take credit.
What upsets the teachers when the head of the Ministry of Education brings up the subject of under-achievement is that it threatens to turn the debate in a direction they don’t like. When teachers talk about under-achievement, it’s with a view to leaving the system unchanged but having more money ploughed into it: more teachers at the chalkface, higher pay (to encourage more people to take up the profession) and smaller class sizes. But when Longstone brings the subject up, in the teachers’ eyes it can only be because the government wants to soften us up for some wicked neoliberal experiment such as charter schools.How much simpler everything would be if we forgot foolhardy alternative ideas and left it to teachers to control the education debate. That’s the natural way of things. The sooner the English interloper comes to terms with this peculiar fact of New Zealand education, the sooner we can all get back to normal.