Monday 27 June 2022

They didn't know. That's why they couldn't answer.

Newsroom's Jo Moir had been frustrated that Minsters at press briefings wouldn't give a straight answer on how the fuel tax holiday would apply to diesels.

The simplest explanation seemed almost certain to be the correct one: they didn't have any clue, because they'd given officials no time at all to think about it. It was a politically driven policy, not one that made any darned sense. It was a knee jerk response to the combination of rising fuel costs with the war in Ukraine, and declining polling numbers. 

Why would you ask officials' advice if the ones who'd have to implement it were likely to tell you the policy was just stupid and shouldn't be undertaken?

So I figured that nobody had bothered asking NZTA for advice about it. They'd be the ones stuck figuring out how to apply the fuel tax holiday to diesels, which pay Road User Charges rather than excise - for the obvious reason that the per-litre cost they impose on roads is far more variable than is the case for petrol vehicles. Petrol vehicles don't vary all that much by weight. Diesels span the range from tiny mini trucks to enormous transport units. And NZTA would likely point out all the difficulties in applying it to RUC.

Their response was fulsome. A hefty amount of correspondence about costing and then applying the road use discount - which began just before 3 pm on the Sunday afternoon before the government announced the policy. NZTA wasn't asked for advice. They were just asked to cost it. 

It was my column in Newsroom last week. I should have blogged it earlier - sorry. I also threaded the timeline from the hundred-odd pages of released correspondence. You can read the full OIA results if you like: their letter of response which includes a restatement of my request; their first set of documents covering the Sunday and Monday; and, the second set of documents where they start working things through after the announcement

This really is how the way the OIA should work - rather than getting tons of blank pages withheld as free and frank advice. We here get to see exactly how policy is made under the Labour government, and what officials have to do in the background.

From the conclusion to my column - but please do read the twitter thread laying out the entire timeline so you can judge it for yourself. 
A diesel subsidy equivalent to the petrol excise discount could have been simpler. But the press release from the Beehive had already announced a cut to road user charges, before anyone had had time to think about it.

So we wound up with a high-trust system and many potential stockpiling issues.

NZTA did an admirable job, under circumstances that should not be faced except under real emergency.

There was no emergency that required inventing policy on less than 24 hours’ notice to officials, forcing them to work past 11pm on a Sunday night.

There was only a political emergency caused by Labour’s drop in the polls, resulting in a ruined weekend for officials, extensive and imperfect backfilling of details afterwards, and theft from the Covid fund to cover road costs.  

It is a terrible way to run a country.

Jo Moir followed up with the Minister, who claimed officials had been given more than 24-hours notice. It's likely he'd chatted with the Ministry of Transport - which is supposed to be the policy shop. But NZTA would have to run implementation on it, and would be far more able to see the obvious problems in applying it to RUC. And they started work on the thing about 20 hours before the cabinet meeting, and 25 hours before the policy was announced.  

We're heading into some worse economic times. I do not expect it will lead to better policy. Rather the opposite. 

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