Wednesday, 21 February 2018

This week, New Zealand is hosting one of the most important international gatherings it will have been part of for some time. No, it is not a meeting of the Five Eyes intelligence and espionage partners. Nor is it anything to do with the Trans Pacific Partnership, nor any of our bilateral relations. It is a meeting of the D5, the grouping of the world's five most digitally advanced governments - Britain, Estonia, South Korea, Israel and New Zealand, and it comes as New Zealand completes its term as chair of the D5, a position it has held since November 2016. Most people will probably be quite unaware of its existence.
The D5 countries work together to share their knowledge and experiences; to enhance the opportunities for mutual co-operation; and, to promote the development of their information technology sectors. The D5's focus is very much on promoting greater uptake by citizens of digitally provided public services, as well as continuing to expand the range of government services provided on-line.
The D5 was established in 2014, following initial discussions between Britain and New Zealand earlier that year, and, after those discussions, I had the privilege, when Minister of Internal Affairs, of leading the New Zealand delegation to the inaugural meeting in 2014, and the subsequent meetings in 2015 and 2016. Indeed, I was absolutely delighted when we met in Korea in 2016 that my invitation to come to New Zealand for the next meeting was accepted. So I am thrilled to see everyone here this week, although a little disappointed that the vagaries of politics mean I no longer have a role in something I was part of for so long.
It will come as a surprise to most New Zealanders to learn that we are literally at the top of the table when it comes to the provision of on-line government services. Yes, we all know that we can renew our passports on-line; the overwhelming majority of us pay our taxes on-line, and we increasingly look to many other government services being similarly available on-line. If anything, we have taken that on-line availability a little for granted. But it is not the norm - a survey by the prestigious Fletcher Business School at Tufts University found last year that New Zealand was in the top one or two countries in the world in this regard. This is a tremendous tribute to the work of government agencies led by the Department of Internal Affairs through the Government Chief Information Officer, and the co-operation of the private sector over the years. Today, around 70% of the top ten interactions a person has with the government are carried out on-line, and the plan was to expand that considerably over the next few years. I assume that the new government shares that commitment.
For its part, the D5 has grown from being just an international talk-shop to a much more dynamic organisation, with a clearly defined work programme, and working with member countries' IT sectors to constantly improve the range and quality of on-line services. It is pleasing that as this year's D5 host, New Zealand has continued the innovation the Koreans showed in 2016 of having a major international IT sector conference immediately before the D5 Summit both to broaden the base of those involved, and draw further attention to the work of the D5.
However, amidst all the good news there remain some challenges. For many citizens, the big fear remains that the ongoing surge of digital business will be at the expense of particular groups in society - the elderly, the isolated, and the disadvantaged. In this context, the timing of Fairfax's announcement this week that it is about to close 28 small mainly provincial community newspapers and transfer their content to on-line platforms is unfortunate. I am not criticising the decision per se, but simply making the point that for some it will be just more confirmation that the move to digital means no more than the further withdrawal of once familiar community services. Similarly, the obstinate complexity of some large utilities' websites leave many yearning for the days when they could just talk to a person directly about what they wanted.
So, as the D5 nations meet this week to develop their further work programmes, there will need to be a strong emphasis on communication to the public about what is planned, and how they will be affected and able to engage with the service providers. While there is nothing to fear here, and the New Zealand experience so far shows we have better at the transformation than most, the ultimate success of the D5's mission will be measured by the level of public acceptance and confidence it engenders, not just the enthusiasm of governments. Overall, the opportunities are too big to pass up by either ignoring or squandering public goodwill. So, the more we hear about the D5 and New Zealand's role within it, the better.           

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

When it was passed in 1982, our Official Information Act was widely applauded and welcomed. It was seen as a positive step (at the height of Muldoonism) that would give the public much greater access to hitherto secret government information, thereby improvinge accountability by making government business and processes more transparent. Over the last thirty-odd years it has generally met its objective, although some major creaks are now starting to become obvious.
During my years in Parliament I worked with the Official Information Act (the OIA) extensively - and also in a variety of different roles. These included being a non-government MP seeking information about some aspect or other of government policy; or a Minister charged with providing such information; or, as an appellant to the Ombudsman urging the overturn of some obviously outrageous decision to deny my ever-so-reasonable request, or as a defendant urging the Ombudsman not to uphold a request to overturn a decision not to release certain information because of its sensitivity. I came to know the OIA pretty well, and, as such, am reasonably well placed to offer some observations about its strengths and weaknesses.
While the role and purpose of the OIA is a fundamental part of our governance structure, the reality is that it is really only non-government politicians and the media, with an occasional irrelevant appearance from some or other otherwise unemployable graduate lawyer fancying themselves as a modern day Mr Haddock of A.P. Herbert fame, who get involved with the OIA. However, this is an issue where the often differing, but occasionally coinciding, interests of the media and the politicians do need to be taken into account and addressed. Our modern Mr Haddocks, though, can be ignored, and left to keep looking for real jobs.
The most obvious criticism of the OIA is that governments, including the present one, can and do play games with it, either by denying or delaying the release of information on a technicality; treating requests so literally as to render them meaningless; or, releasing a swathe of documents at the most inconvenient of times - 3:00 pm on the Friday afternoon of a long weekend is the common classic example here. I have always found such game playing to be petty and silly, and I think it should come to an end. Certainly, it was generally my practice as a Minister to pro-actively release all the major documents of a Budget or major policy decisions in my portfolios within a few weeks of their being made, and to indicate at the time of the policy announcement that such a release would be forthcoming. I do not recall the sky ever falling in as a consequence.
And then there is the scope of the OIA. There has long been criticism at the exclusion of Parliament, and in recent years, there have been questions raised about the exemption for agencies like the Crown Law Office. My view is clear. I see no reason why the Parliamentary Service should be excluded, but I do think Members of Parliament in their roles dealing with constituents and the public and as members of a political party should not be covered by the OIA. Any citizen who seeks to approach an MP, as either a constituent or as an interested member of the public, is entitled to the unconditional assurance that their dealings with the MP will be absolutely protected from disclosure - a standard similar to the Catholic Church's Seal of Confession, if you like. The provisions of other pieces of legislation such as the Privacy Act and the Protected Disclosures Act are important protections here as well. Equally, political parties are not public bodies like government agencies, and therefore should not be subject to the OIA. But in many other areas of their activities MPs are already subject to various forms of accountability - their expenditure, for example - and there is no reason why these areas should not be subject to the OIA.
Similarly, while I do not think it fair or practical that the Courts, the Judiciary, or Crown Law should be subject to the OIA with regard to individual cases - for obvious reasons - nor should the details of legal advice provided to Ministers on specific matters under consideration at the time come within the OIA's ambit, again for obvious reasons, a case can be made to allow for more sunlight in other areas, including when a matter has been resolved.

So what to do? The OIA is a cornerstone of our public accountability structure, so it is important that it is seen credibly in that role. The perception of a genuine commitment to transparency is as important as the reality. It is not necessarily the case at present. Therefore, it is time for a joint working party, involving the Ombudsman's Office, the news media, and the politicians (not just the government of the day) to be convened to prepare a new OIA that upholds its original principles and the good things about the current legislation, but which also modernises its scope, processes, and, if possible, operating culture in the light of contemporary circumstances. And then we should commit in these rapidly changing times, to carrying out a similar review every five years.    

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

The practice of politics is often best left to politicians, just as running professions is best left to professional bodies. When one tries to meddle in the realm of the other, the result is often not what was intended. The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners is currently finding that out to its cost. In the lead-up to last year's election the College appeared to abandon its traditional role of staying outside of partisan politics in favour of subtle, but obvious, support for the Labour Party. Its reason was clear - it liked the idea Labour was promoting of reducing the costs to patients of visits to Doctors. It seemed to have assumed that Labour would do this by increasing the subsidy payable on a Doctor's visit, a win-win outcome as far as the profession was concerned. However, it, and District Health Boards, have been stunned subsequently to discover that while Labour's commitment still stands, it has made no provision for increased funding and is instead relying on DHBs to achieve reduced patient costs within their existing budgets, none of which have yet been approved by the Minister. A classic case of being more careful about you what might wish for!
How this might yet play out is still to unfold and is a separate debate, but it raises again the issue of how a government manages the competing demands on public expenditure. And that, in turn, leads to the much bigger question of the adequacy of current revenue streams. Our present system is based on taxing individuals and businesses on profit and income from what they produce. Of course, everyone - individual or business - thinks they presently pay too much tax, or at a pinch, about the right amount, and certainly cannot afford to pay any more, but that there is scope for getting more out of everybody else. This, in turn, leads to its own form of envy politics and social dislocation, constantly pitting one group against another.
Yet, the ever increasing complexity of our broad base, low rate tax system is becoming obvious, despite the considerable and noble efforts of successive governments to modernise and streamline it. This government, like its two predecessors, has begun its term by initiating a tax review, allegedly to find the holy grail, but really to provide political cover for some potentially unpopular measures they want to take, in this case the capital gains tax which dogged Labour throughout the last election campaign.
The fundamental problem, though, is that the current system is utterly flawed. The impact of income and profit based taxes is lumpy and uneven, no matter the various forms of social engineering designed to achieve balance and equity. The current debate about the tax treatment of multinational corporations which in today's internet world can be everywhere but simultaneously nowhere when it comes to tax liability has graphically proven that. The reality is that the current system has had its day, and no amount of tinkering, however sophisticated, is going to resolve that. It is time to move on. The current system dates broadly from the early 20th century, as a then response to antiquated arrangements like the infamous hearth  or window taxes now regarded as utterly cavalier, haphazard and discriminatory. (One has only to see the windowless 18th and 19th century houses in cities like Dublin and elsewhere to see the folly and absurdity of that approach.)
At a time when, more than at any other time in human history, society's focus is on mitigating the adverse impact human beings have had on the natural environment, and the steps we need to be taking now to assure its sustainability for future generations, the opportunity is surely nigh to reform our tax system along the same lines. We need to redesign our approach to focus on the consumption and consequent depletion of non-renewable resources by both individuals and corporations. Not only would such an approach be more equitable across the board, more difficult to evade, and therefore more sustainable, it would also have the advantage of disincentivising exploitative behaviour in the interests of the planet's future.
The hand-out approach of so much current spending would become rapidly checked if linked to our consumption of society's resources. It is often said, loftily and without much meaning, that taxes are the dues we pay to belong to civil society. A reordering of the tax system along these lines would give new reality to that statement. If ever there was a cause looking for a progressive, genuinely environmentally friendly, but equally fiscally responsible, political party to embrace, this is surely it. Sadly, there seems to be no such party on our political horizon at the moment.           

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Politics often has an irony about it, and is frequently accompanied by a good dose of hypocrisy, interspersed with occasional moments of sanity and sound decisions. All these elements were on display as Parliament resumed this week.
The first action the House of Representatives took after its return was to introduce legislation to effectively convert itself into a House of Party Delegates, where the views of individual MPs count for virtually nothing, and the Party becomes all-dominating. They did this through the majority supporting legislation to prevent MPs leaving the parties they were elected for, shortly after they paid fulsome tribute to the memory and achievements of an early party-hopper, former Deputy Prime Minister Jim Anderton, who died over the holiday period, sadly.
The argument against such essentially anti-democratic legislation was made cogently a few years ago by a prominent MP who said, "Members of Parliament should have to be free to follow their consciences. They were elected to represent their constituents, not swear a blind allegiance to a political party." That MP was acknowledging the long-standing principle of our type of parliamentary democracy first enunciated almost 250 years by the famous Irish philosopher/politician Edmund Burke, who said, "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion." Both statements recognise that ultimately Members of Parliament are accountable to the people who elect them, ahead of the parties or factions that choose them as candidates. If electors are dissatisfied with their representative's subsequent performance, they can vote for someone else at the next election.
How ironic, then, that New Zealand's so-called "waka-jumping" legislation - the very antithesis of these two noble statements - should have been promoted by one of those quoted above. Not Edmund Burke, obviously, but our very own Deputy Prime Minister! Lofty appeals to letting MPs follow their consciences are clearly far less important than blind allegiance to a political party when New Zealand First is in power. While Labour agreed to this demand in the desperation to do a coalition deal (after all, Labour had previously introduced similar legislation after 1999, but had been happy to let it die unlamented in 2005 and had not raised the issue since), the real disappointment are the Greens, long-time principled opponents of such draconianism, but now acquiescing to give the Government its majority on the Bill.
The irony turned to hypocrisy the following day over a Member's Bill on access to cannabis for medicinal purposes. Suddenly, the conscience and judgement of individual MPs became paramount with every Party allowing its MPs a "conscience" vote on the issue, even if National and New Zealand First then made it pretty clear they expected most, if not all, their MPs to use their conscience vote to support their respective leaders' opposition to the Bill.
The one bright spot was the introduction of the Government's legislation to set measurable targets for the reduction of child poverty (although I do wish the Prime Minister would pronounce the word with a "t", and not the "d" she persistently uses). The legislation, not dissimilar to legislation introduced by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron in Britain a few years ago, is a welcome practical step to set goals, measure, and report on, performance, and then if need be, reassess those goals and the Budget resources allocated to achieve them. It is a pity, though, that such an important issue - which both the Labour and National leaders committed to in last year's election campaign - now risks becoming mired in petty politicking over the future of National's Better Public Services targets, and the nature of the briefing the Government offered on its proposals.
The Better Public Service targets were a positive step towards more focused and accountable government, and the current Government's laudable objective on child poverty could easily have fitted within that framework, so it is a little petty to now be talking about dumping the BPS targets altogether. At the same time, National seems to have been remarkably slow to respond to the Government's briefing offer late last year. Given that this legislation was a long, clearly signalled part of Labour's 100 day programme, National has no real grounds for complaint that Labour moved ahead without waiting for it to respond. National may have the numbers in the select committees and be the largest party in the House, but if it wants to have influence, it needs to take up Labour's offers when they come, not wait around to see what might happen.
Irony, hypocrisy, and good legislation - and the 2018 Session of Parliament is not yet a week old. At this rate, it is going to be a mighty year.            

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

In keeping with the beauty parade approach many of our commentators take to reporting politics - I could hardly say analysing, because so many of them are incapable of doing so - this is the time of the year when they accord their accolade to the "Politician of the Year". Generally, their awards go to politicians who have made the most noise, provided the most entertainment, or been the greatest media favourite. Rarely does the politician who has made a real and constructive contribution to improving governance, or enhancing the conduct of public affairs generally, get a look in.
If the latter yardsticks are applied, there are three definite candidates, and possibly two others, worthy of consideration this year. In no particular order they are Jacinda Adern, Bill English and Andrew Little, with James Shaw and Te Ururoa Flavell in the latter category.
For many, Jacinda Ardern will be the stand-out candidate. After all, in the space of 10 months, she has gone from being a relatively obscure list MP, to her victory in the Mount Albert by-election, then Deputy Leader of the Opposition, then Leader of the Opposition, and finally, thanks to favourable coalition mathematics, the country's youngest Prime Minister. Along the way, she rescued the Labour Party from a near terminal state and evinced a certain star quality. An impressive year, to be sure, by any standards, diminished a little by the so far unsteady start her Government has made.
For Bill English, this has been a bitter sweet year. His successful transformation from long serving Deputy Prime Minister to Prime  Minister in his own right, a position for which he seemed forever destined but somehow never able to achieve, was smooth. He fought a superb election campaign on behalf of the National Party, leading them to almost the same numerical position they were in 2011 and 2014, a remarkable outcome after three tough terms of government. But he fell at the last hurdle because of National's lack of viable partners, so returns to Opposition, although with the consolation knowledge of data in recent weeks showing that his vaunted social investment policies are starting to have a positive effect on the most vulnerable in our society.
And then there is Andrew Little, the man who saw his stocks as Labour's leader fall so low, he felt obliged to stand aside just a few weeks before the election in what would normally have been a death knell for his party, but instead heralded the dawn of Jacindamania. Rather than lick his wounds and retreat to oblivion, he seemed to take it all in his stride, and has now re-emerged in key Ministerial roles, and is likely to become the leading face of social reform under the new Government.
James Shaw is also a contender. After all, his rescue act of the Green Party after the Turei fiasco was remarkable, although as co-leader he has to accept a measure of the blame for the inept way in which the whole situation occurred and was handled subsequently. Also, he appears to have passed up a potentially historic opportunity to re-position the Greens as a credible long-term party of influence on both Labour and National by refusing to entertain the possibility of working with National in a National/Greens coalition after the election. However, he has made a solid and mildly impressive start to his Ministerial roles and will remain one to watch.
Finally, there is Te Ururoa Flavell, a gentle, dignified man with a deep-seated passion for Maori development, with much to be proud of in terms of his and his Party's contribution to government over the previous nine years. He is a genuine quiet achiever, who felt his loss in Waiariki incredibly deeply. Parliament will certainly be the worse for his absence, with Maori likely to be the biggest losers, but that is the reality, which counts against him.
So, it comes down to Ardern, English or Little. Ardern, despite an incredible year, remains basically untried, while English is too tried and tested. That leaves Andrew Little as politician of the year - a selfless man of dignity, humility and an ultimate commitment to the greater good, someone whose contribution to good governance is likely to be significant (and substantial) over the next few years.
On that note, Dunne Speaks takes its leave for 2017. Best wishes to everyone for the coming Festive Season, and for restful time with family and friends. See you all again in 2018!     

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Embargoed Against Delivery
I am extremely grateful to Victoria University for the opportunity to make this valedictory statement in this historic Chamber, on this occasion.
I want to begin by expressing my sincerest thanks to everyone - past and present - in this complex who has offered me advice and support over the years, but specifically I want to thank my staff, my constituents and above all, my family.
First, to my staff, who are too numerous to name all individually, but each of whose individual contributions, dedication and commitment I have valued.
In particular, I acknowledge
·         my chiefs of staff, the late Mark Stonyer, and for the last fourteen years, Rob Eaddy;
·         my Senior Private Secretaries Paul Brewer, Jillann Byrnes, Vicki Rogers, Anne Small, Elliot Steel and Elena Scheule;
·         the various secretarial, media, and clerical staff, departmental secondees and advisers, and my drivers, all of whom worked so well for me, and contributed to what was always one of the more efficient and harmonious offices in this complex, a feature by no means common here.
Next, to my constituents who loyally supported for me so long.
They were an absolute pleasure to represent, and I continue to value the many friendships I have formed as a result.
In this context, I was helped hugely by my electorate staff over the years -  Anne Wright, Sue Locke, Cath Blair, Lisa McMillan, Diana Morison and Shirley Simcock - thank you to all of you for your wonderful service.
And finally, my family.
The pressures on politicians' families are strong, and often remarked upon, although really understood by only those who endure them, but their sacrifice and the price they pay are often far greater than for the politician themselves.
My wife Jennifer, has been a wonderful pillar of support - always there (in the early days answering telephone calls from grumpy constituents while juggling a newborn baby, while, I was at Parliament) attending countless local and other functions over the years, and forever accommodating the demands on my time.
My sons, James and Alastair, were not born when I began my Parliamentary odyssey, but have been great throughout (it may have had something to do with the fact that they learned early on that they got special fair money to go to all the school and community fairs we made a point of attending!).
I have been extremely proud watching them grow up and develop their own highly successful professional careers, and now with James and Kendra to have seen the arrival of my grandson Benedict in May this year.
I am a firm believer that there is a time and a place for everything, and that, notwithstanding whatever we might wish, nothing lasts forever.
My grandson's arrival reminded me of the generational nature of politics, and kindled in me the process  which led to my eventual decision to stand down from Parliament.
I had always told myself that I would leave Parliament when the reasons for doing so, outweighed the reasons for seeking to stay.
To that end, I had, at the end of the year before a General Election, beginning in 1986, done a little "for and against" exercise.
This time last year, for the first time ever, there were more reasons to go, than to stay - but I chose to ignore them.
Becoming a grandparent was my wake-up call, and set in train a still reluctant process that led to my eventual decision to stand down.
Now, with the comfortable benefit of hindsight, I am extremely glad that happened - and that, this time, I listened.
I was elected to Parliament in July 1984 - over 33 years ago -  at the then tender age of 30 (unusual then, but almost run of the mill today) and, at the time of my departure had the privilege of being in the top dozen or so of long serving MPs since our first Parliament was elected in 1854.
I was lucky enough to serve initially as a Parliamentary Under-Secretary and then as a Minister under seven of the eight Prime Ministers in my time, for a total of just over fifteen years, and to have been part of every Government, at some stage or another, since the fall of Muldoon.  
When I came to Parliament in 1984 the door was closing on the World War II generation of politicians - those (mainly) men who had served overseas, and come back keen to settle down and then later get involved in politics.
At the time, their values and views seemed increasingly out of step with a majority of New Zealanders, and their time had passed.
1984 saw the baby-boomers take control, and the subsequent sweeping away of many of the pillars  of the last great generational change - the advent of the welfare state under Labour in the 1930s - not only because many aspects of it had become too cumbersome and costly to maintain in a different world, but also because that new generation of politicians had a different set of aspirations, born of a more modern world view.
The 2017 election was similar in many respects - the baby boomers have now yielded to the millennials - hardly surprising when the median of our population today is 37 - but that passing on of the torch is not complete, for the median age of this new Parliament is still around 49.
The Parliament I was first elected to - and the three to follow - were elected under the First Past the Post system, and FPP politics was still rampant.
Many people make the mistake of thinking that FPP's tyranny reached its apogee in the Muldoon years, where Parliament met only from June to December, and the Government relied on the power of regulation for most of the rest of the time.
In fact, it was the Fourth Labour Government where that dubious peak was attained.
A small group of Ministers dominated the policy debate.
Collective responsibility ensured that all members of the Executive (including the Whips) supported the Cabinet line in Caucus which ensured a majority, which in turn was translated to a solid majority for the Government in the House.
They were heady days, as New Zealand (having briefly threatened to do so in the Kirk years a decade or so earlier) attained a place of international significance because of its foreign policy, and also the economic reforms.
Indeed, one of my proudest moments as a very young MP of barely six months' standing was being at a large luncheon in the old Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, in the very room where one of my boyhood heroes, Senator Robert Kennedy, had been shot, to hear David Lange address a highly sceptical and critical audience about New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy.
Finally, at the end of a testy question  and answer session, a local television reporter asked the Prime Minister how, in his upcoming debate with Jerry Falwell "who would have the Bible in one hand and a cross in the other and be in favour of nuclear weapons" he could possibly defend his position.
Quick as a flash, Lange responded "I will tell him that to err is human but that I am prepared to forgive him".
Equally quickly, the entire hitherto grumpy audience of around 400 people rose to its feet in a sustained, spontaneous standing ovation.
In those days I was a Labour MP, comfortable and happy with the direction of the Labour Government, and the new course it was charting.
Around this time, the British Labour Party was going through one of its periodic meltdowns, with the departure of the so-called Gang of Four - Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen, and William Rodgers - to form the Social Democrats and eventually morph into the modern Liberal Democrats.
From afar, I was interested in this development, and had a number of discussions with my special mentor, the late, great political scientist Professor Keith Jackson, about the possible translation of such a move to New Zealand.
While I was still happy in the Labour Caucus, I was starting to feel mildly out of place and uncomfortable, as a number of my colleagues paraded how much more difficult the circumstances of their particular upbringing had been than anyone else in the Caucus in almost some form of Monty Python-esque competition.
As it happened, my story was probably as good as any - after the sudden death of my father, my mother had been left to raise four children on a widow's benefit - but I never saw that as a political card to play the way others did, nor frankly as anyone else's business.
So I never told anyone.
It irked me then and still does now to see politicians play the misery card this way.
While people are products of their life experiences, Parliament is a House of Representatives, not a House for the parading of individual circumstances, where policy should be formed in the best interests of the country, not as a way to salve consciences for the circumstances of the past.
As Edmund Burke said all those years ago, "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement."
So, when MMP came around in the mid 1990s, and the Labour Party tried once more to revert to its 1930s class roots, I saw the opportunity to try and repeat what had happened with the Gang of Four in the 1980s, which was essentially why I left the Labour Party in 1994.
During that time, there was one most unlikely person in whom I was able to confide my intentions and plans, and who never betrayed that confidence, earning my undying respect in the process.
That person was Helen Clark, the then leader of the Labour Party, the person least likely to have any interest in what I was up to at that point.
But it was that sense of trust, that gave me the confidence to enter into two Confidence and Supply Agreements with her Government in 2002 and 2005, and to serve as one of her Ministers from 2005, showing yet again the importance of personal relationships in politics.
I went through seven elections under our proportional representation system, MMP, and firmly believe that the outcomes in terms of more representative and inclusive government are far better than under the old First Past the Post system.
But I am still not persuaded we have the best form of proportional representation.
I still feel uncomfortable at the notion of list MPs - political nomads elected by no particular constituency, owing their primary loyalty to the Party, rather than the nation.
In my view, in a functioning democracy everyone has the right to vote for candidates they support, but also to vote against candidates they oppose, without those candidates defeated on Saturday popping back up on Sunday, courtesy of their place on the party list.
In Ohariu, we often had the case where the three - and on occasions  four - main candidates were all going to be elected, one way or another, making somewhat of a mockery of the actual election  process.
So, that is why  I have always favoured the STV system, because it guarantees that every candidate is elected directly, and perhaps more important, that every candidate has a legitimate piece of territory to lay claim to representing.
Nevertheless, MMP was good to me and my United Party, or UnitedFuture as it eventually became.
UnitedFuture was a formal government support party for just over fifteen years - the longest continuous period in government of any party since the original United Party toppled the Reform Party in 1928, nearly 80 years ago.
More importantly, that long period of influence on successive Labour-led and National-led Governments enabled UnitedFuture to achieve many of its policy objectives.
Early in 2002, I wrote a book, Home is Where My Heart Is, in which I set out a number of policy areas I wanted to see action upon.
Looking  back, I am extremely proud that over the following years 52 of the 66 key policies, just under 80%, I set out then have been implemented - a pretty good record for any party in government, let alone a small support party often derided as a one-man band!
I doubt any party - large or small - could claim a similar record.
Some of the initiatives included:
·         the establishment of the Families Commission;
·         strong Victims' Rights legislation;
·         radical reform of tax rules regarding charitable donations, leading to a substantial increase in philanthropic donations;
·         the establishment of a National Drug Strategy focusing on drugs as primarily a health issue, rather than a legal one;
·         reduction in the company tax rate;
·         ensuring public access to public land through a Walking Access Commission;
·         the development of the annual register of MPs' financial interests to aid transparency.
In addition, I was able to use my Ministerial portfolios over the years to push other areas of concern to UnitedFuture.
For example, when Minister of Revenue, I carried out the biggest reform of the Child Support System since its introduction in the early 1990s, to make it fairer for both custodial and non-custodial parents.
I began this work under Labour, and was delighted to see it through under National.
Similarly, the National Medicines Strategy I developed as part of our 2005 Confidence and Supply Agreement with Labour to improve public access to pharmaceutical medicines was confirmed under National as the basis of medicines policy in this country, and now, over a decade later, has seen well over a quarter of a million more New Zealanders getting access to affordable medicines than before.  
As Minister of Internal Affairs, I campaigned for, and achieved, a return to a 10 year New Zealand passport, something that has proved to be phenomenally popular and has led to a significant increase in the number of New Zealand passports.
Earlier, I had led a successful campaign to persuade the then Minister of Internal Affairs to increase daylight saving to six months per year, making me truly the Time Lord when I took up that portfolio at the start of 2014!
Throughout the 1990s I had waged a lone campaign, often to the point of ridicule from other MPs, to build Wellington's Transmission Gully Highway.
Now, successive Confidence and Supply Agreements later, with both Labour and National, that Highway is being built and will be open by April 2020, just over a mere 100 years after it was first mooted.
And, as Associate Minister of Conservation, I drove the development of the Game Animal Council to give statutory recognition to the interests of the game and recreational hunting sectors.    
This year, I oversaw the implementation of what had been a key UnitedFuture policy for about 15 years  - the establishment of an integrated national fire and emergency service.
This had been recommended by the Royal Commission into the tragic Ballantynes' Fire in Christchurch in 1947, but had never been implemented.
When I took up the mantle I was reminded by many that there had been 16 attempts in the previous 20 years by successive Ministers to make such a change, all of which had failed, basically for a lack of political will, and that I should be prepared for a similar outcome.
There were some rocky moments early on with Ministerial colleagues more than a little sceptical about what I was planning, but, with the quiet but loyal encouragement of John Key, I proceeded, and, after a widespread public discussion and consultation process, Fire and Emergency New Zealand was established from 1 July this year, with substantial political support.
Yet, despite all these achievements, UnitedFuture was frequently dismissed by commentators as ineffectual and I was derided for my liking of bow ties, and my luxuriant natural head of hair, as if either somehow mattered.
In any case, the latter criticism is easy to deal with - it came in the main from bald headed men, with no sense of style and absolutely no understanding of politics.
A provincial newspaper editor recently repeated this line of attack in a dismissal of UnitedFuture following its decision to disband.    
His ignorant editorial was accompanied by his photo - a bald headed man, in an orange shirt, and brown tie, so I rest my case.
More seriously, I think the reason UnitedFuture's role and my contribution were often overlooked was because of the way we went about things.
I have always believed in reason and moderation in the presentation of public discourse, and, coupled with a higher stubborness quotient than most people, have based my dealings with others on that approach, which is why I believe we were able to be successful, often beyond the point we deserved to be.
I have no time for histrionic, showman politics, where style outweighs substance, and where an almost child-like narcissistic obsession with being the centre of attention dominates.
Politics is not a giant freak show or reality television, but a serious and responsible business to be treated seriously by those who participate.
Now, I accept absolutely that for many citizens politics is a sideshow  - they are too busy getting on with on their own lives to share the obsession we have - and that the politicians who catch their attention are usually the outlandish and the irresponsible, rather than the sober and the steady.
Clearly, I failed in that regard but I was - and remain - proud to have been frequently labelled "Mr Sensible"  or the politician who turned being reasonable into a political art-form.
One frustration though is the number of people who over the years told me how much they liked what I stood for and encouraged me to carry on.
While I appreciated that, I would have appreciated their votes more - I reckon if no more than half of them had actually voted UnitedFuture as a result I would have led majority governments for most of the last two decades!
But being reasonable, and seeing both sides of the argument, while desirable in life, is the scourge of the liberal centrist in politics, especially at a time when the politics of reason are giving way across the world to short-term, knee-jerk, populist reactions and political charlatans proffering simplistic and fundamentally dishonest solutions.
Too many still cannot get beyond the prejudice that we live in a bi-polar political world of right and left, and that whichever one's political side of the fence, that is unfailingly correct, and the other side equally wrong.
By contrast, in my time in Parliament, I supported Labour-led Governments for just over 13 years, and National-led Governments for also just over 13 years.
What some may regard that as a classic case of serial indecision, I regard it proudly as a mark of balance and independence, and a capacity to see the wood for the trees, again the scourge of the liberal centrist.
No wonder why I have always been attracted to W.B. Yeats' immortal lines:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.
But, as I said when I announced my decision not to seek re-election to Parliament, all good things must come to an end, and so too with this address.
Yet before I finish, there is one remaining topic I wish to cover.
Throughout my time in politics I was consumed by the thought of what New Zealand might be in the future.
I am excited by how we have become more comparatively bi-cultural, and at our developing multi-culturalism.
That is something to be embraced wholeheartedly, never feared, or worse rejected.
My children and grandchildren are likely to have the opportunity of living in the world's best multi-ethnic, multi cultural nation, where they are as at home in the world of the Pacific, as they are in that of Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas, and where that unique blend and tolerance is what marks out our country.
Constitutional reform will help round out that picture.
I strongly believe the time has well past for us to have severed the umbilical cord to Grandmother England.
We should be an independent republic within the Commonwealth - like India, or South Africa and the majority of other Commonwealth nations.
It is not just my Irish heritage, but more my sense of pride and confidence in our country and what it can be that is why I am so staunchly of the belief we can do so much better than continue to bend our knee to a hereditary monarch on the other side of the world.
We have consistently shown over the last thirty years or so, that we can produce many quality New Zealanders to serve as our Governor-General.
There is no reason why we could not do likewise with a non-executive President in that role, and frankly the time for change is long overdue.
So, let me conclude with a challenge to our new Parliament.
You are in the main the millenials whom will shape our future for the next generation and beyond.
Seize the moment now, and begin the process of wider constitutional reform by committing to our next Head of State being the first President of the Republic of New Zealand.
On that note,

Poroporoaki me poroporoaki ki te katoa

Goodbye and farewell to you all.


Wednesday, 29 November 2017

The row over Green MP Golriz Ghahraman and what role she had defending or prosecuting war criminals is but a storm in a teacup, indeed it is more of a little tempest when it comes to it. Outside the Wellington beltway, the commentariat, and one or two others, it is likely to be of little interest. It certainly will not spell the end of her career, although it will tarnish her reputation and remove some of the credibility of her backstory as New Zealand's first refugee MP.

Its timing, though, is unfortunate, coming at a point when the new Government's commitment to openness and transparency is being exposed as less than wholehearted. It will confirm for some that this new Government is all pious talk and unctuous handwringing ahead of action, with style outweighing substance. While the jury is still out on how competent this Government is going to be, it does need to become more sure-footed than it has been, and to start to control the political agenda, rather than just keep on reacting to it, the way it did in Opposition. The Ghahraman incident is a small but timely worry in this regard. At the very least, it should prompt the Government Whips to check through the backgrounds of all their MPs, if they have not done so already, to check there are not more embarrassing skeletons awaiting discovery.

On a broader level, Ms Ghahraman is by no means the first public figure whose curriculum vitae has been found to contain items that might be politely described as ambiguous. She is not the first MP in recent times to have had questions raised about their backgrounds - National's Dr Jiang Yang and his role in training Chinese spies comes readily to mind, and there have been others. Not too many years ago, there was the case of the chief executive of Maori Television who disappeared rapidly after his c.v. was exposed as false, and there have been tragic cases of health professionals revealed as charlatans. Fraudster Dr Linda Astor, and in an earlier time, Milan Brych, come quickly and sadly to mind.

Now, of course, Ms Ghahraman (nor I suspect Dr Yang) are in this latter league of deception and it would be foolish to even suggest so, however obliquely. Rather, the point is far more about the risks inherent in the practice that used to be known as "gilding the lily".

In that regard, political parties have to take a measure of the blame. There is no escape from thorough due diligence on prospective candidates' and MPs' backgrounds to ensure that there are no surprises waiting to pop-up at an inconvenient moment, and that everything is as it should be. The Australian Liberal and National Parties are discovering now to their dramatic cost that some checking of the citizenship status of their MPs before they were elected might have been in order. I know directly what failure by a Party to do this checking can mean - UnitedFuture was obliged to surrender an MP in 2002 when she was found to not have been a New Zealand citizen at the time of her election. Today, the Green Party needs to accept some responsibility for Ms Gharhramn's plight, just as the National Party needs to do in respect of Dr Yang.

There is one final reason why both the Ghahraman and the Yang cases should be taken more seriously than they might otherwise be. In today's diverse environment, prospective MPs are likely to have had more broadly based, often international,  experiences than was previously the case when MPs came from more predictable stables. The prospect of over-exaggerated or blurred c.vs. is therefore that much greater, the pressure on parties to have done appropriate due diligence that much stronger, and the public tolerance for ambiguity correspondingly that much less. Today's communication environment means reputations can be instantly established. Politicians and political parties need to appreciate those reputations can also be more instantly destroyed.