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The decision by the coalition government to implement severe job cuts across public services is not just a fiscal adjustment; it’s a decision with potentially dire consequences for the nation’s most vulnerable populations. In the past few weeks alone, the government has cut more than 2,500 jobs and it will cut even more in the coming weeks and months in a bid to save $1billion.

While the government frames these cuts as necessary to rein in debt that it hopes will help it fulfil election promises of tax cuts, the collateral damage is significant, particularly in crucial sectors like education, child welfare, healthcare and a range of government services to taxpayers.

Education, often considered the cornerstone of a prosperous society, stands to bear a heavy brunt. With over 550 full-time roles proposed to be axed within the Education Ministry alone, the repercussions are alarming. These cuts not only destabilise families but also whole communities, as highlighted by the Secondary Principals’ Council. It’s not just about the loss of jobs; it’s about the ripple effect on the quality of education and support services for children across the country.

One of the most concerning aspects is the impact on initiatives like the school lunches programme, Ka Ora, Ka Ako. With reduced funding and staff, ensuring the success and sustainability of such vital programmes becomes increasingly precarious. Health Coalition Aotearoa rightly questions how the same results can be achieved with fewer resources. The risk of hungry students, financial strain on families, and heightened barriers to educational attainment cannot be understated.

Cuts to agencies like Oranga Tamariki threaten the safety and well-being of at-risk children. Valid concerns have been raised about the ability of these agencies to listen to feedback and implement necessary changes without adequate staffing. The loss of experienced professionals weakens an already fragile and under resourced support structure for vulnerable youth, potentially leaving them even more marginalised and underserved.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) is among the government departments implementing job cuts, with over 286 positions already eliminated, costing over $6 million in redundancy pay outs. While the total expense of these cuts across all departments remains unclear, Finance Minister Nicola Willis, who will present this government’s first Budget in May, believes the savings will outweigh the costs. Despite assurances that senior management positions won’t be spared, concerns persist about the disproportionate impact on junior staff. Willis aims to ensure the public service remains balanced and efficient, with a review of managerial roles planned after the Budget in May.

The government’s argument that these cuts will redirect funds to frontline services seems dubious at best. While Education Minister Erica Stanford assures that redirected funds will enhance student achievement, the reality is starkly different. The assertion that the Ministry of Education has bloated in size without evidence of productivity overlooks the critical roles these professionals play in supporting teachers and addressing the complex needs of students.

National MP Chris Bishop’s argument about the sustainability of public servant numbers fails to acknowledge the human cost of these cuts. While there may be a need for efficiency, it cannot come at the expense of essential services. Labour MP Kieran McAnulty rightly points out that these professionals are not idle; they are integral to supporting teachers and vulnerable children. Passing the burden on to already overstretched educators is not a solution but a recipe for further strain on an already burdened system.

During a recent session of the Finance and Expenditure Committee, Willis acknowledged the necessity of borrowing to meet the upcoming Budget’s requirements. This acknowledgment directly contradicts previous statements made by her during her time in opposition, where she asserted that the tax plan would not entail any additional borrowing.

Ultimately, the government’s approach to debt reduction through slashing public sector jobs lacks foresight and compassion. The long-term consequences on education, child welfare, and healthcare could be profound, exacerbating inequalities and undermining the nation’s future prosperity. Rather than focusing solely on short-term fiscal goals, a more balanced approach that prioritises investment in vital services and social infrastructure is imperative for New Zealand’s well-being.

First appeared in the 18 April 2024 issue of the Indian Weekender