Tuesday, 6 December 2016


What a difference a week makes! It was former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson who coined the adage in the 1960s that a week is a long time in politics. And that has certainly been the case in New Zealand in the last week.

A week ago, Labour was facing the prospect of a tight race in the Roskill by-election and continuing leadership ructions over Andrew Little’s lack-lustre performance, while John Key was riding as high as ever in the polls, seemingly untroubled as he sailed relentlessly towards a fourth straight election victory next year. Today, all that has changed. Labour has had a resounding victory in the Roskill by-election (mainly because National voters saw it for the formality it was, and since the fate of the government was not at stake, chose to stay home and mow the lawns instead) thereby apparently relieving the pressure on beleaguered leader, Andrew Little. And John Key has, as dramatically as unexpectedly, decided to step aside as Prime Minister. National faces the uncertainties of having to find a new leader and Prime Minister, and adjusting to life post John Key. Labour’s glee, though restrained thus far, is barely disguised. As they see it, their nemesis has been removed, and it therefore should be plain sailing under spinnaker on the downwind leg in the race home to next year’s election.

But despite the hoopla, nothing much has actually changed. Labour is still the party it was last week, wracked by division and uncertainty (remember Nick Legget’s defection?) and Andrew Little is still the same leader he was then, failing to connect with the public or articulate a vison which resonates with middle New Zealand – the people who decide elections. A win in Roskill – a seat held firmly by Labour for all but three of the last 60 years – and John Key’s departure change none of that.

As for National, it is still the government it was last week, following the economic course so carefully steered by Bill English over the last eight years. The captain’s departure from the bridge changes nothing in that regard, nor does it suddenly obliterate the political capital the government has banked over the last eight years. In short, the election is still National’s to lose.

To be blunt, despite its brief relief induced excitement, Labour is no more a credible government-in-waiting than it was a week ago, when most commentators were writing it off. It is still the same old policies and people, nothing has changed. And given its own  succession of drawn out messy leadership challenges over the years it is in no position to point the finger at National’s far more truncated (if now a little crowded) process.  Its grim reality will return once the new Prime Minister is installed, and the momentarily jubilant MPs realise the mountain is still there to be climbed.  But this reality presents both a threat and an opportunity for National.

National’s opportunity is to pick-up and continue the lines from the John Key playbook, providing sensible, inclusive government that does not pander to the extremes. But any attempt by the new leadership to rebrand National post-Key as something else, perhaps to pander to its right wing, or to deviate towards embracing populism and extremism as the road to power would be a foolhardy risk that would deservedly doom it.  Despite some wistful dreaming amongst Parliament’s resident backwoodsmen, New Zealanders are showing no inclination to follow the Brexit and Trump mantras. National needs to remember that.

Speculation beyond that is essentially pointless at this stage. New Zealanders will take the new leadership in their stride – the summer barbecues will be the mulling grounds for their assessment and reaction, with the initial critical verdict to be known in the first round of opinion polls next year.

In the meantime, watching passively but passionately as ever from the sidelines will be John Key – a remarkable New Zealander and an extraordinary Prime Minister. He served New Zealand extremely well, and helped expand our country’s self-confidence and belief in itself. In that, he unleashed an enduring change in our society, the influence of which will be felt for generations. Very few, if any, Prime Ministers can boast that achievement, and no other Prime Minister has been able to leave office at a time of his own choosing, neither deceased, defeated, nor deposed.

As they count their Christmases, Both National and Labour need to reflect long and hard on that.


     

   

  

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, 29 November 2016


When I was growing up and starting to become politically aware, I became a strong Labour supporter. I could see no redeeming feature in any other political party and so joined the Labour Party immediately I left school. At university, I was a Labour Party and student activist and gradually progressed my way through the Party until I became a Parliamentary candidate at the age of 29, and an MP shortly thereafter.

I was an enthusiastic member of the Fourth Labour Government, supporting both its bold economic and foreign policy decisions as it sought to rebuild New Zealand after the Muldoon era. I marvelled then at the breadth and diversity of the Labour Caucus, encompassing a range of experiences, skills, and backgrounds. It seemed to represent New Zealand at its broadest. But when Labour started to implode during its second term in the wake of the Sharemarket Crash my first doubts started to stir. I remember talking at the time to then senior National MP George Gair, a liberal who often seemed more comfortable with Labour policies than those of his own Party. I well recall asking him why he had joined the National Party. He replied that, “Only a fool believes his Party is right all the time. I joined National because I agreed with more of what it stood for, than I disagreed with.”

That conversation set me thinking about my own situation, especially once Labour went back into Opposition and tried to turn its back on all that it had done in Government, under the fatuous slogan of its then leader: “Labour’s coming home.” I rapidly realised that particular home was not a place where I wanted to be, and that I did not quite fit anyway. I was not able to tell Caucus of the privations of being brought up in a state house, the way so many others did, and I did not feel my personal experience of being the oldest of four young teenagers raised by my mother on a widow’s pension in a middle class suburb was anyone else’s business but my family’s.

I suppose it was no real surprise, therefore, that I was to leave the Labour Party after more than 20 years as a Party member, in favour of establishing a more centrist, liberal Party. But that is not the real point of this story. Rather, it is to hark back to the Gair comments and the folly of “my party, right or wrong” politics.

I remember being lectured at University that to understand New Zealand politics one had to appreciate that Labour was too hide-bound by its principles and its past, and consequently too often unelectable. National, on the other hand, stood for nothing other than not being Labour, and beat them more often than not at election time as a consequence. Harsh, perhaps, but certainly true.

So when I heard the current Labour leader berating the former Labour Mayor of Porirua as not “true Labour” for allegedly contemplating standing for the National Party, I felt I was back in the time warp. “My party, right or wrong” thinking has returned with a vengeance under the current Labour leadership. The focus seems to be more on building a cadre of proper-thinking members, rather than a broad based organisation, capable of accommodating many different voices, but coalescing around some common broad goals to present to the electorate. No, the primary goal now seems to be to ensure the ideological purity of those who represent the Party, which narrows its base considerably. The test for advancement is no longer merit based, but on whether one is “true” Labour or not, however vaguely that is defined. Labour’s leaders used to proclaim it was a “broad church”, but now it has become a “narrow sect”.

In my darker moments, I think of the Labour Party I joined and how it has changed over the years. I feel sad, not bitter, that it has moved away from so many people like me, who used to be its advocates, and has written off people of independence and aspiration as not fitting its core values. Yet, we still have a burning social conscience, and still believe there is a place for a major Party of compassion that can balance the accounts, and preserve the environment. Today, National has well and truly outflanked Labour on those scores, and only Labour seems not to realise it.

As the ultimate pragmatists, New Zealanders ditched the notion of “my party, right or wrong” and rigid party identification a generation or two ago at least. The advent of political diversity under MMP makes that point exceedingly obvious. And it certainly makes the Labour leader’s preoccupation with supporters being “true Labour” that much more irrelevant and unfathomable.

   

  

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, 22 November 2016


In the wake of the recent earthquakes it was probably inevitable that someone would suggest government agencies be shifted out of Wellington to make them safe. It is the sort of populist drivel one can expect at a time like this.

While it might sound good in theory to shift everything out of harm’s way, the problem – which in their typically cavalier way the populists never address – is where to decentralise to in a country with the level of natural risk New Zealand has. Presumably, the 2010-2011 earthquakes rule out Christchurch and its environs. The 1931 earthquake probably rules Napier and Hastings as well. The 1942 Wairarapa earthquake counts against Masterton (even though a Labour Government in the 1970s shifted the Government Printing Office there ever so briefly). Gisborne was severely damaged by a big earthquake in 2007, so it would be off the list. Palmerston North, Wanganui and New Plymouth are a little too close to Wellington for comfort. And one certainly could not consider Auckland – the populists say it is too big already because of the immigration flood – and it is ringed by volcanoes bound to erupt some day soon anyway. Tauranga is also in a seismically and volcanically active area, so the only places left in the North Island are Hamilton and Whangarei.

The South Island is not much better. Earthquakes have already ruled out everywhere north and immediately south of Christchurch at least. Queenstown is too busy having fun, which leaves only Dunedin and Invercargill.  The point that from all this is how pointless the argument is, and how facile those who promote it are.

But there is another far more compelling point. Government today is increasingly not about large physical structures and offices – in the digital age the delivery of government services is much more nimble and customer focused. The last concerted attempt to physically relocate government departments out of Wellington was Labour’s half-hearted regional development policy of the 1970s – almost half a century ago, and long since abandoned. In today’s digital environment, the thought of shifting large numbers of people to this location or that to maintain services is redundant.

Already, over 80% of New Zealanders report that they have at least some interaction with government services on-line. Over half of the top ten interactions all citizens have with government are now done on-line, and we are on track for that figure to rise to about 70% in the next year. We already do our banking, pay our insurance and rates, book our travel or a restaurant table on-line and think little of it. Increasingly, we shop on-line, as the growth of Trade Me, E-Bay and Ali Baba demonstrates. We renew our medical prescriptions on-line, and more frequently watch movies or other entertainment on-line, rather than going out to the theatre. Accessing government services on-line is but the next step.

As one of D5 nations (the five most digitally advanced governments in the world) New Zealand is well placed for the transition that is occurring. This month’s D5 Summit in Korea confirmed that New Zealand is at the cutting edge in terms of the digital transformation.

Of course, there will be lessons arising from the recent earthquakes. Some deficiencies in our emergency response have already been revealed, and these need to be rectified. Most important has been the preservation of telecommunications links, so that information can be obtained and disseminated quickly. Digital services are a vital link, and ensuring their preservation is imperative in a time of national emergency.

Now all this will be too difficult to comprehend for the populist who thrives on bar-stool conversations as reality, regardless of the evidence. At a time when people are already on edge because of what has happened, and are therefore seeking reassurance, the intervention of the populists and their simplistic nostalgia is the last thing the country needs.    

  

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, 15 November 2016


New Zealand has had to deal with two earthquakes in the last week – at almost opposite ends of the globe.

First was the unexpected election of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States, and the second was the massive earthquake that tumbled many people in central New Zealand and the Upper South Island from their beds in the early hours of Monday morning. Both will have profound effects on our country for many years to come.

The Trump earthquake was extraordinary in that it was so unexpected. While no-one suggests that Hillary Clinton lapsed into sleep-walking to victory, there was a general assumption that the election was hers for the taking, and that despite the campaign ups and downs, she would ultimately prevail. In the wake of her defeat, many reasons have been proffered by all the usual now wise after the event commentators in the United States and here. They may be right, or just professional pontificators singing for their fee once more, but they all overlooked one obvious fact – the only time the Democrats have won more than two consecutive Presidential elections was in the Roosevelt/Truman Depression and War era of the 1930s and 1940s. Before and since then no Democrat candidate has won the third election, as incumbent Vice Presidents Humphrey and Gore found out in 1968 and 2000 respectively, and Hillary Clinton found out last week.

Donald Trump comes to the White House as a political novice – he has never been elected to any political office before. The last President to have had no prior political experience was Eisenhower in the 1950s. Yet it was Eisenhower who as President oversaw the development of America’s comprehensive Inter-State Highways programme, and whose outgoing address to the American people warned against the rise and development of the military industrial complex, an extraordinary admission from a former Five Star General. So there is the precedent for Trump to similarly surprise positively, but his demeanour to date suggests this is unlikely.

All that raises the prospect of Trump’s stated protectionism having a detrimental effect on New Zealand’s economic relationship with the United States, and his wider isolationism might also put paid to the thaw in the US/New Zealand relations that was highlighted by John Kerry’s visit last weekend. We have moved forward from then Secretary of State Colin Powell’s “very, very, very good friends” description of 2008 to Mr Kerry’s assessment last weekend that we were “the great Kiwi friend” and “extraordinary partner” of the United States. What Mr Trump will say in time remains to be seen.

The Kaikoura earthquake and associated aftershocks are a further, if unnecessary and certainly unwelcome, reminder that we live in an incredibly seismically active country. They have not only inflicted serious physical scars on the landscape and emotionally traumatised many tens of thousands of people from Christchurch to north of Wellington, but have also highlighted once again the vulnerability of many of our infrastructural links. From roads to railways, to ships and ports, we have put too many eggs in one basket, which means affected areas of the country generally become quickly isolated once disaster strikes.

On the positive side, however, the phenomenal resilience first demonstrated after the Christchurch earthquakes has been shown once more, as individuals, communities and emergency services have gone about the task of recovery. But Christchurch has also showed it will take time, and not be without stress, although the outcome is likely to be very positive. We have to hope the same spirit prevails as we go about this latest rebuild.

In America last week, the slowly improving times the Obama Administration has been ushering in were sideswiped by the Trump victory. Similarly, in New Zealand, the emerging recovery demonstrated by improving growth rates and falling unemployment may have been knocked by the recent earthquakes.

In both cases, resilience is what matters now. The cork cannot be put back in the bottle or the clock wound back. Things are what they are. The challenge for Americans scared or affronted by Mr Trump and New Zealanders disrupted by earthquakes is how quickly we both can put our vicissitudes behind us and get on with building our future the way we want it.

Good luck to both countries in the face of their respective adversities!

           

   

  

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 2 November 2016


Two critical by-elections are about to take place on opposite sides of the world. In a few weeks, in Auckland, the Roskill by-election will be held to elect a new MP to replace former long-serving Labour MP Phil Goff, following his election as Mayor of Auckland. And in west London, a by-election will be held in the seat of Richmond because of the resignation of the sitting Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith, who failed to get elected Mayor of London.

But the contrast does not stop there. In Roskill, the Labour Party is wooing voters by promising a more than one billion dollar infrastructure upgrade through a light rail system from Mount Roskill to the Auckland central city. However, in Richmond, Zac Goldsmith’s resignation was because of an infrastructure upgrade – the plan to build a third runway at Heathrow. Mr Goldsmith is hoping the Richmond by-election (which he is contesting as an independent) will become a negative referendum on the runway proposal. But, in Roskill, Labour’s Michael Wood is hoping the by-election will be a positive referendum on the light rail proposal. All of which goes to prove that in the topsy-turvy world of modern politics, by-elections can often produce the most perverse outcomes.

Because they are one-offs, with seldom any impact on the overall shape of government, by-elections often free up voters to indulge themselves in a way they would not normally do at a general election. By-elections are the opportunity to give the politicians the proverbial kick in the pants, without really upsetting the apple cart. While most by-elections see the incumbent party re-elected, there are sometimes occasions when real changes are made.

Seven times in the last 50 years by-elections in New Zealand have seen a seat move from the Government to the Opposition. (National lost Palmerston North to Labour in 1967; Marlborough to Labour in 1970; Rangitikei to Social Credit in Rangitikei; and, East Coast Bays lost to Social Credit in 1980. Labour lost Timaru to National in 1985; Te Tai Hauauru to the Maori Party in 2004; and, National lost Northland to New Zealand First in 2015.) No seat has ever gone the other way – from the Opposition to the Government.

But here is the rub. In only one of those instances did the governing party that lost the seat at a by-election also lose the next general election (National’s loss of Marlborough in 1970 heralded its landslide loss in 1972). In every other case, the governing party went on to serve another term in government. Also, with the obvious exclusion of Northland where it is too early to tell, the by-election change was not a temporary fling – it took at least two further general elections before the seat reverted to its previous holder.

A similar pattern exists in Britain, although from the time of the Orpington by-election in 1962 by-elections have often heralded a brief Liberal revival, or other third party successes, and, in the case of Scotland from the time of Winnie Ewing’s victory in the Hamilton by-election in 1967, the rise of the Scottish National Party.

All this adds to the pressure on the Labour Party in the Roskill by-election. Labour has not just to win, but has to win well. National, on the other hand, has no such expectations. In the extremely unlikely event it reverses every known trend and takes the seat, it will have triggered a political earthquake. Roskill is after all a fortress Labour seat, not held by National since 1957. Winning it would completely rewrite the history books. But it is most unlikely to happen, meaning National’s best hope is a close result which would be a pyrrhic victory for its candidate and a severe blow to Labour’s morale, just under a year out from the general election.

So pity the poor voters of Roskill who are likely to see more politicians over the next few weeks than most will see in a lifetime. The promises will flow – light rail here, probably upgraded schools and more housing there, none of which will ever come to pass. Thankfully, Roskill is a little further away from Auckland Airport than Richmond is from Heathrow, otherwise accelerating the runway extension would also be on the table. And then it would really be all on!      

   

  

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 26 October 2016


As the thirteen member (including New Zealand) Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State meets in Paris to plot the eventual demise of the movement known as Daesh, the campaign to drive Daesh out of Mosul, its northern Iraq stronghold is gathering pace. According to western media, this is but a formality. Mosul cannot stand forever, they report, and the only questions are when it will fall, and what unspeakable atrocities will Daesh have been discovered to have perpetrated on the local citizenry in the meantime. It all seems very logical and straightforward.

But there is another aspect to this which is not receiving nearly the same amount of attention. Put simply, what happens next? The fall of Mosul, whenever it occurs, will not be the fall of Daesh. As with all guerrilla movements ever, it will simply regroup somewhere else, and start its campaign all over again. Meanwhile, the Coalition will be engaged in extensive ongoing peacekeeping in and around Mosul, as well as significant post-event reconstruction. Already, New Zealand’s deployment of 140 Defence training personnel has been extended until at least 2018. The same will be occurring amongst all the other members of the Coalition, and with no guarantee that there will not be pressure to extend the 2018 deadline.

Since World War I, the West has shown an unerring ability to get involved in the Middle East with constant disastrous consequences. Despite the persistent external pervasive military presence over the years by the Americans, the British, the French and others, let alone all the covert operations from all sides, the entire region has remained a consistently unstable powder keg, as the various powers seek to play out their geopolitical ambitions on the distant soil of others. It is no coincidence that the consequences have led to artificially drawn national boundaries from Egypt east to Turkey and beyond, ensuring the powers’ ongoing involvement to prop up the range of artificially created states that have emerged.

It was oil that sparked the interest of the western powers in the region over a century ago. Ever since, it has been a dominant feature, from Rommel’s Afrikakorps campaign in 1942, through to the toppling of the Mossadeq regime in 1953 and the propping up of the Shan of Iran until the late 1970s, the burning of the Kuwaiti oilfields during the 1990 Iraqi invasion, and the constant blind eye turned to the perennial civil rights abuses of the Saudi Arabian regime. Protecting oil interests and the infrastructure that surrounds them has been the one consistent thread of western policy towards the Middle East. When the regional distrust of foreign intervention is added to the swirl of traditional cultures and religious differences the mix becomes a very volatile one indeed. In such circumstances, the emergence of groups like Daesh becomes understandable, even if their practices and conduct are utterly intolerable by our standards.

The focus on the elimination of Daesh is understandable and justified, but it is also very short-term and narrow in its focus. Its defeat – whenever it may occur at some point in the future – will not be the end of the struggle. While the overall situation remains as it is, where the West feels free to intervene in the region, as and when it sees fit, resentment and bitterness will remain amongst affected local people. The rise of fundamentalism will become that much more explainable.

The real challenge, therefore, for the nations of the Coalition is the far bigger one of respecting sovereignty and enabling the countries of the region to develop their own viable systems of governance and economic development. It will mean working with and alongside them to achieve their national objectives, and supporting them to do so. Sadly, the experience of the last hundred years strongly suggests this will be a forlorn hope. The last thing the western powers favour is surrendering their position in the Middle East. So groups like Daesh seem destined to continue.

New Zealand’s challenge is to determine its future role. To date, our focus has been on peacekeeping and reconstruction activity, which is laudable. We should continue with that approach, without fear or favour to any particular side, but instead focusing always on the humanitarian aspect. However, our position is in danger of being blurred by our participation in groups like the Global Coalition where the interests are far more political. We are being drawn inextricably into its web, with there being suggestions already that our current deployed personnel are involved in more military activity that we have admitted. Our respected and noble role as peacekeepers runs the risk of being compromised, which we cannot afford.

During the invasion of Iraq in 2003 New Zealand won plaudits for not joining the so called Coalition of the Willing, saying that as a believer in a rules-based international system it preferred to be working to a United Nations mandate. It is time once more to recommit to that approach.     

  

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 19 October 2016


The dance of the seven veils on United States Navy ship visits finally ended this week with the revelation that USS Samson, a guided missile destroyer, would represent the United States at the 75th anniversary celebrations of the Royal New Zealand Navy in November. But like the conclusion of most such dances, the final revelation was neither a great surprise, nor a moment of high drama.

Indeed, for many who had been watching the dance unfold over the last year, from the first indications the United States Navy might participate, through to the confirmation that a visit would occur, and then the disclosure of the ship’s identity, there had been a certain inevitability about the outcome. Early suggestions that the Americans might send an auxiliary vessel, or an icebreaker, or even a hospital ship were a little too cute to be credible. Indeed, such a move could have backfired badly, and left a strong impression that America was honouring the 75th anniversary of our Navy with the proverbial two-fingered salute. A destroyer like the Samson was the obvious choice. It is non-nuclear powered, and non-nuclear armed (not really an issue anyway since the first President Bush ordered the removal of nuclear weapons from American surface ships in 1992), so would clearly comply with the provisions of our anti-nuclear law.

Many are seeing this move as the culmination of the stand-off between the two countries following the ANZUS Row in 1985, and some are suggesting that it represents an American backdown, and so is a victory and vindication for the New Zealand stance. That may be so, but there is also another explanation to consider. The original 1985 crisis was as much a clash of vanities, as it was the matter of principle it subsequently became expressed as.

The Lange Labour Government had been elected in 1984 on a clear policy of no-nuclear ships being permitted in New Zealand, like the Kirk Government over a decade earlier. The focus was on nuclear weaponry, with the argument about propulsion being secondary, and somewhat less well thought through at the time. The combination of an ANZUS Council meeting coinciding with the election, and precipitate position taking by both the American Secretary of State and the New Zealand Prime Minister-elect and their respective officials put both sides on the back foot from the outset, and set up the scenario where it became impossible for either side to back down. So when the Americans offered to send an elderly non-nuclear, conventionally armed destroyer to New Zealand, it was inevitable that the New Zealand Government was obliged, for the sake of its own credibility, to say no. The rest, as they say, is history.

Not only, though, did the political leaders on both sides of the time have a lot invested in upholding their respective positions, so too did their officials. While politicians tend to come and go reasonably frequently, officials tend to be around for rather longer, and they are probably even more vain than their political masters. It was not reasonable to expect significant public rapprochement by either side, until that generation of officials had joined their political masters in moving on. Now, over 30 years later that has occurred, meaning there is no residual baggage for either President Obama or Prime Minister Key, making it possible for Foreign Minister McCully and Secretary of State Kerry to reach a deal last year.

There is an arguable irony that the nuclear stand-off which was precipitated by the proposed visit of the then 26 year old destroyer USS Buchanan is to be ended by another destroyer, the 10 year old USS Samson. While the Samson is coming for a specific reason – the celebration of the Navy’s 75th Anniversary – earlier ship visits were purely flag-waving exercises, for crew rest and recreation. Indeed, in the latter days of the Muldoon Government they seemed to be far more overtly timed to serve the domestic political interests of the pro-ANZUS Muldoon. (It is doubtful an American naval vessel has visited New Zealand for genuine operational reasons since World War II.)  The restoration of visits now is unlikely to lead to a surge of visits, nor a return to the days of the Nixon era where (because of that President’s great admiration of New Zealanders because of his wartime experiences in the Pacific) New Zealand naval vessels were able to freely provision and bunker at Pearl Harbour. Most important, though, New Zealand’s anti-nuclear legislation remains intact and will not change.

Thirty years on some may wonder what all the fuss was about. It was an important statement of our nationhood at the time which should not be diminished. Its lasting legacy is probably not so much in the policy itself, but much more in the fact that New Zealand’s ability to take its stand on important international issues has been recognised, and is unlikely to be tested in that way again.

Shortly before he became our first anti-nuclear Prime Minister Norman Kirk quipped, “All too often we have heard New Zealand foreign policy announced in Washington with an American accent.” The visit of the Samson confirms that once and for all those days are well and truly over.