Thursday, 16 November 2017

The politician and commentator Austin Mitchell once described the New Zealand education system as "a complex balance of groups, so nicely deadlocked as to make change impossible." Undoubtedly accurate as it was a description of educational administration at the time, it is also a description that could be applied, just as accurately, to our current health system.

The complex balance between a central Ministry of Health, allegedly policy focused, with service delivery mechanisms relying on twenty autonomous District Health Boards which the Minister has no power to direct to do anything is ready-made to ensure nothing much ever really changes. When the layer of the plethora of professional interest groups, all pushing their particular concerns in splendid isolation from the wider health sector, is added, it becomes a marvel that anything positive ever happens in health.

Yet it does, which is an unqualified tribute to the skills, professionalism and dedication of medical and nursing staffs up and down the country who do their absolute best for their patients, despite the system they are obliged to work within. It is little surprise, therefore, that while the public is often critical of the health system at a general level, they are unfailingly positive when it comes to relating their own individual experiences of it. To that extent, it could be argued that the health sector succeeds in what Mitchell also described as the basic function of any government agency - "to keep its field of operations quiet" - and just let things carry on. This has also been taken to the extreme in recent years of measuring the success or otherwise of the government of the day's health policy by the extent to which the Minister has been able to keep health stories out of the news.

This somnambulant approach might satisfy the short-term political objectives of the government of the day, and make the Minister look good in the eyes of the public and colleagues, but it does not really go anywhere. Because the public demand for health services is insatiable, and the cost of meeting new services, medications and capabilities always greater than our national ability to pay, the health system will always be under pressure and health professionals dissatisfied.

So, the only way to make fundamental change to break this complex balance of inertia is to look at structures. Do we really still need 20 autonomous DHBs, all mini-national health systems, in a country the size of medium sized city state, and in an age where technological innovation is rapidly simplifying the need for complex structures? The duplication, bureaucracy, and parochialism the current system encourages not only smacks of a bygone age, but is stifling the development of a modern, integrated national public health system. The perennial debate over DHB finances and the level of their deficits, and the difficulty of decision-making around the priority to be accorded the redevelopment of major hospitals are proof of that. They are by no means the only examples.

No-one wants to return to the disruption of the late 1980s and the 1990s, when we lurched from archaic, narrowly focused Hospital Boards, to Area Health Boards, to a centralised Health Funding Authority, and then back to District Health Boards. But, equally, there are very few who would say that the current system is working well. The new Minister is reportedly struggling to come to grips with how to make the system work to meet his objectives, and is frustrated by the functioning of the Ministry of Health. Whatever, he now has a golden opportunity to take a fresh look at the public health sector and the adequacy of its creaking structures,  to make it fit for the purpose for the future. Mitchell described the principal qualification of the Minister of Education to be "a complete inability to get anything through Cabinet", thereby ensuring nothing ever changed, which the spin doctors could present as continuity. How the government approaches health policy may determine whether this soubriquet should also be applied in the future to the Minister of Health.           



Wednesday, 8 November 2017

New Zealand is at times an unlikely and certainly uncomfortable colonial overlord. When former Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand referred in his speeches to countries of the "realm of New Zealand", his language was often mocked as grandiloquent, which just overlooked the precision of his description. The realm of New Zealand refers to those countries like Niue, the Tokelaus, Samoa and the Cook Islands which were previously New Zealand's island territories prior to gaining their independence in the 1960s and early 1970s. New Zealand, however, still retains defence and foreign affairs responsibilities in respect of these countries. Also part of the realm of New Zealand are Antarctica's Ross Island Dependency, the Bounty, Auckland and Kermadec Islands, and the Chatham Islands.

Of all the realm, the Chatham Islands are probably the most overlooked and taken for granted. Yet of all the realm, the Chatham Islands are the most directly linked to New Zealand, but for many these windswept islands about 750 kilometres to our east are largely ignored - the last place named in the national weather forecast,  just before outlook for tomorrow. (TVNZ does not go even that far - neither any map nor forecast ever features the Chathams in its national weather forecasts!) Yet the Chathams are home to over 600 New Zealanders, with an average annual per capita income slightly higher than in New Zealand and significant fishing and other natural resources, but a number of privations consequent upon living on offshore islands.. Perhaps it is because of their comparative proximity to New Zealand and their self-reliance that they have been left largely to their own devices.

During my time as Minister of Internal Affairs (and settlor of the Chatham Islands Investment Trust) I was able to oversee some progress in improving the Islands' basic infrastructure. In the last two Budgets I secured substantial funding (over $50 million) to rebuild the Islands' main wharf at Waitangi, and to repair and upgrade the wharf at Pitt Island. These wharves are vital transport links, as virtually everything has to be shipped into and out of the Islands. Work was also begun on planning the upgrade of the runway and navigational aids at the airport to accommodate jet aircraft and become less weather dependent. The Chathams' rugged weather means the current air services (performed with amazing efficiency by Air Chathams' noble and extraordinarily durable 1950s  Convairs) are subject to weather cancellations on a reasonably frequent basis - something which jets with more sophisticated technology and improved navigational aids at the airport would reduce to some extent. And that would also facilitate the export of fresh seafood to New Zealand and potentially east coast Australian markets on a faster basis, thus aiding the Islands' economic development. Other issues facing the Chathams include the high cost of energy generation - most energy is diesel generated as, despite its abundance, wind generation has not proven all that reliable, and other sustainable forms of generation are yet to be fully developed. As it stands, energy costs now account for about 35% of most Island household budgets.

Over the years, New Zealand's approach to the Chathams has been haphazard, focusing on problems as they occur, and not looking too far into the future. But they are a part of the realm in just the same way that other countries and territories to whom we provide significant and more frequent assistance are part of the realm. So we need to develop a more focused and co-ordinated approach to dealing with their issues. For that reason, I obtained Cabinet support earlier this year for a review of the Chatham Islands' overall governance arrangements. This had also been advocated by the Chatham Islands District Council, who saw it as an important opportunity to get a much more consistent, integrated approach to the Islands' future development. However, given the history of benign neglect, making progress has not been easy. One senior Minister at the time vowed to me not to support one cent more for the Chathams, while others seemed quite uninterested. There were those who understood the issues fully who were supportive and encouraging, but I still felt the need to prepare what I called a "Chathams 101" paper for their information, to help get the proposal through.

The first stage of the review should have been completed by now, and officials were required to report back to Cabinet in November. While I appreciate that this will not be top of the new government's agenda, it does represent a significant opportunity, which I hope does not end up being passed up, to make rare progress in clarifying and modernising the relationship. The Chatham Islands are an important part of the realm of New Zealand and deserve to be treated as more than just the footnote before the outlook for tomorrow.            
  



Thursday, 26 October 2017

Our new government has taken office and comparisons are already being made about the circumstances of its accession. Some are saying that the public mood is similar in terms of enthusiasm and response to the advent of the Lange Government in 1984. That government came to office after the grim and increasingly repressive Muldoon Government, and its election was greeted more with a sense of relief that the long national nightmare was finally over, than a sense of excitement about what lay ahead. That is clearly not the mood today. There is no sense that either the country is on its knees and facing imminent economic collapse, or that the outgoing government had become more and more intrusive in people's lives and virtually every aspect of the economy, as was the case in 1984.
A more accurate comparison is 1972, when the Kirk Labour Government swept to power. There was at that time a palpable feeling of "It's Time for a Change", not too far removed from this year's "Let's Do It" slogan now being reprised in so many different ways, as Kirk capitalised on a mood that the long-term National Government had run out of steam and ideas. Like today, the economy was in reasonably good shape - the impacts of the 1974 Oil Shock and Britain's joining Europe in 1973 were yet to come - and there was a growing sense of optimism about the country's future and emerging identity. The "climate change" issues of the early 1970s were French nuclear testing in the Pacific, and apartheid in South Africa (both of which the new government had strong positions on) and there was a housing shortage, in Auckland in particular. All in all, circumstances far more akin to today than to 1984.
But herein lies the challenge for the new government. Leaving aside the particulars of managing a coalition with the serially erratic New Zealand First (the Greens will be far less difficult - they, after all, are just happy to finally be there after 27 years of failure), the new government would do well to study the lessons of the Third Labour Government, lest it similarly succumb in 2020 or earlier and end up just another "what if" footnote in history.
First, it should be careful about promoting and believing in its own invincibility too much. When Kirk was elected in 1972, no-one imagined he would be dead within two years, with his government left wallowing in the wake of his demise. This is most certainly not suggesting nor wishing a similar fate for our new Prime Minister, but using the drama of the most unexpected circumstance of all to highlight the priority need to establish a credible, broad based, competent leadership team.  Next, no-one also envisaged in 1972 the economic shocks that lay ahead, with the dramatic oil price increases and supply limitations after the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the catastrophic impact they were to have on fortress economies like ours. The domestic cocoon of complacency always shatters quickly in a crisis. In the 1970s New Zealand was clearly caught short by not only the Oil Crisis but also the impact on our trading patterns and the need to develop markets and diversify products that British entry to the Common Market had caused. So, the government needs to be wary of trying to shelter New Zealand too much from global influences, over which it has no control. A cautious embrace of globalism, rather than a wholesale rejection would be prudent. We are part of, not apart from, an increasingly interdependent world. And finally, the government needs to know and understand the value of flexibility and pragmatism. It will not always be right, no matter how much it will wish to be. Kirk's refusal to budge from costly manifesto commitments, despite the international economic shocks, was short-sighted and blinkered, and allowed Muldoon, aided by the Dancing Cossacks, to storm to victory in 1975 on the promise to "Rebuild New Zealand's Shattered Economy".
Last week, one Australian newspaper stupidly and wrongly labelled our new Prime Minister a "commie", which clearly she is not. But, as an educated and literate person, she will be well aware of Karl Marx's observation that the thing to learn from history is that people do not. So I wish her well as she sets out to disprove that dictum.      
 





Wednesday, 27 September 2017

In 1940, the notorious Labour politician, John A. Lee, was expelled from the Labour Party after writing a sensational article, "Psycho-Pathology in Politics", a thinly veiled attack on the dying Labour Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage.

The article's essential argument, drawing on examples from the United States, Britain and New Zealand, was that ailing politicians can have a disproportionate and distortionary impact on the affairs of nations. At the time it was published in late 1939, Savage was dying of cancer, but that had been concealed from the New Zealand public. Indeed, barely two months before Savage's death, Acting Prime Minister Peter Fraser was assuring the country that the Prime Minister "had never been better."

While "Psycho-Pathology in Politics" was a product of its time, one passage within it struck me as having particular relevance today as the our various political leaders seek to put together the next coalition government. Perhaps presciently, Lee referred obliquely to his target this way- "... sycophants pout flattery upon him ... Like a child, he will only play if he gets his own way ... He becomes vain of mind and short of temper, and believes that anyone who crosses his path has demoniac attributes."

Negotiating government formation arrangements is a serious business. It is not an occasion for settling old scores, satisfying particular fantasies, or tails wagging dogs. The starting point has to be a broad agreement that the parties in the negotiation have a similar view about the direction of travel. They may well disagree about priorities, or particular policies, but for the outcome to be sustainable, they have to at least agree they want to travel in the same direction. Governing arrangements thrown together on the convenience of numbers, but an absence of commitment on direction, are doomed to fail.

All of which brings us back to "Psycho-Pathology in Politics". Establishing the various party negotiating teams on the basis of who is least likely to cause offence, rather than policy expertise, smacks of "sycophants (who) pour flattery". At the same time, taking umbrage at apparent negative descriptions has an air of "vain of mind" about it. Worst of all though is the risk the coalition talks focus far less on policy and the country's future direction than a child-like obsession on getting one's own way, and the baubles of office.

On a different note, one of the saddest aspects of the recent election was the general demise of the smaller parties ACT is now a barely relevant toe-hold, and the Maori Party and UnitedFuture have gone altogether. Whatever one's view of these particular parties, they each represented a distinct point of view which will now be heard only faintly in Parliament, or not at all. That is neither a triumph for MMP, nor broader democracy, but it is the will of the people.

Congratulations to all, especially the newcomers, who were elected to the 52nd Parliament. Your enthusiasm as you begin your roles is to be admired, although reality suggests it will be quickly dashed for many of you. Some of you will go on to be great leaders of our country, but many of you will be but short-term visitors. Whatever your fate, I acknowledge your commitment to serve, and wish you well for the next three years. Whether in Government or Opposition, you have a vital and responsible role to play. I hope you can achieve that and rise above what John A. Lee described as the "vanity of old men going downhill."    
  
   
  

 





Wednesday, 13 September 2017

“Time for a Change” is a mantra often used by political parties seeking office to capture what they imagine to be a public mood of the time. Sometimes the call works, and sometimes it does not. The voter, after all, is always right.
 
But political change and renewal are constant processes, regardless of how the political winds may be blowing, There is a steady turnover of politicians in New Zealand, even if our governments do not change that often.
 
The 51st Parliament was dissolved recently for the 2017 General Election. Yet before a vote was cast in that election, or a single result declared, change had already occurred. Twenty-eight of the 121 MPs elected in 2014 – just under 25%  – have either left during the term or declared they would not be seeking re-election, and that is before the electoral grim reaper has cut any swathe at all. And such a turnover is not unusual. Only 54% of the MPs elected to Parliament in 2011 are seeking re-election in 2017. With regard to Ministers, the turnover is just as strong. Of the 25 Ministers appointed to the Helen Clark Government in 1999, only 10 were still in office when that Government fell in 2008. Of John Key’s original 27 Ministers in 2008, a mere one third (9) are seeking re-election this year.
 
The lament is often heard that MPs have been there too long, and that fresh blood is needed. Well, the facts tell a somewhat different story – only 22 of the MPs currently seeking re-election were in Parliament just 10 years ago (and about five of them have been out and in in that time). Just 12 MPs seeking re-election were in Parliament 15 years ago. Should Labour lead the next Government, it will have a steep experience wall to climb as only 6 of its MPS (including 5 former Ministers) were in the last Labour-led Government in 2008. That is not altogether surprising, since over the years since the election of our first Parliament in 1852, the average length of service of an MP in New Zealand has been a little over 6 years.  
 
What these figures also show is that New Zealand voters are quite good at changing their Members of Parliament reasonably frequently, without necessarily changing the government. Indeed, it may well be that because the turnover of Members of Parliament is so steady, and the process of renewal is so constant, the pressure for more frequent changes of government is mitigated to some extent. As the examples of the Clark and Key/English Ministries show, even the turnover of Ministers is substantial over the life of a government.
 
So, whatever the election outcome, the 52nd Parliament to be elected next week will be vastly different from its predecessor. More young people, more women, and more diversity are likely, even before the possibility of changing electoral fortunes is factored in. But, for all that, it will be sobering to realise that it is likely that the majority of our next set of MPs will have served less three terms in Parliament, and that some of them at least may be running the country.        
  
   
 

Tuesday, 5 September 2017


Are we witnessing the death of MMP? It is not beyond the realms of possibility that after this election Parliament may return to the essentially two-party club (with periodic blips) it was for roughly half a century prior to the shift to proportional representation in 1996.

 

If you believe current polling, the Greens will be lucky to be in the next Parliament. There are mounting rumours that ACT’s hold on Epsom may not be that secure, and with New Zealand First hovering just above the 5% threshold, its hold on Northland becomes all the more critical. There must be a strengthening temptation for National to run an all-out campaign to return that seat to the true-blue status it enjoyed for around 70 years prior to the 2015 by-election (save the 1966-69 Social Credit interlude). In so doing, it would also rid itself of a proven destructive coalition partner. In short, of the minor parties, only the Maori Party seems assured of being in Parliament after the election, and, if the election does come down to a drag-race between National and Labour, the Maori Party’s may be too small to add much to the equation anyway.

 

Under this scenario, National would probably emerge the outright winner, once the high waste vote factor has been taken in to account. A single party, majority National Government would be just as dramatic an outcome as the majority Conservative Government David Cameron was able to put together in Britain in 2105 after the years of coalition  with the Liberal Democrats.

 

The probability of this scenario coming depends on the level of voter discontent t with the multiparty governing arrangements we have had since 1996. While there is no obvious sense of voter disenchantment with multiparty governments, it is arguable that this is because in government both the major parties have been blessed with support parties that have not been sufficiently large in size to seriously threaten to derail the government’s agenda. (In this regard, it must be noted that both the formal coalitions established under MMP – National/New Zealand First between 1996-98 and Labour/Alliance from 1999-2002 – failed to last the full three year term, which underlines the point.) Faced with the prospect that either a continuing National-led Government or an incoming Labour-led one may have to rely on either New Zealand First or the Greens to govern, both of whom are likely to be stroppy partners at best, voters may well decide that it is much easier this time to cut out the middle man altogether, and vote directly for the major party they wish to lead the next government. In which case, we will have come full circle from the mood of disillusionment with the so-called elected dictatorship of the Muldoon era and the Fourth Labour government that led to the switch to MMP in the first place.

 

Now, while all this may be an unlikely scenario to pass, it is nonetheless most likely one that will have crossed the minds of National and Labour strategists as they go for broke in the ever tightening race this election has become. After all, the very best way to ensure you can put all your agenda in place without compromise is to be free of partner encumbrances, who might wish to moderate or stop some policies altogether. So, in the context of the desperate surge for absolute victory both sides are now engaged in, Britain’s SAS’s famous motto “Who Dares, Wins” may yet become the mantra that decides who governs next.            

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 30 August 2017


Since my announcement last week that I was not seeking re-election to Parliament, after 33 years as an MP, a couple of things have taken me by surprise.

 

First, has been the totally unexpected reaction to my announcement. The volume and warmth of the hundreds of messages that I have received from all over the country from so many different people has stunned me. I had not expected that. I felt I was just doing my job, but I have been humbled by, and am extraordinarily grateful to, so many for the very kind sentiments they have expressed. My heartfelt thanks to all of you for your messages.

 

The second thing that has surprised me is how quickly I have disengaged from the active political process. While I will retain my Ministerial warrant and responsibilities until the formation of the next government, and will carry out my duties fully in that time, I have already made the switch from active participant to interested observer, when it comes to day-to-day politics.

 

And, as that has happened, some scales have fallen from my eyes, and I have begun to see politics more from the perspective of the average citizen perhaps, than the active career politician. Already I have come to see many of my soon-to-be former colleagues through a different prism. I smile quietly but cynically at their strutting earnest ways and the egregious ever-so-keen-to-please and not offend tones of the political wannabes, now realising that until recently I too was playing the same games. I watch the news media, taking themselves ever so seriously as they rush breathlessly from one photo-op to the next, pontificating about this bit of trivia or that, as though it really counts for anything, all the while allowing themselves to be manipulated by the absolute worst of politicians focused on nothing more than their own promotion.

 

All this furious activity, chasing political leaders up and down the country, from one day to the next may be great for Air New Zealand, but does nothing for the carbon footprint or the credibility of the political process as a whole. It has all the trappings of a circus rather than a serious democratic event by which we elect our government for the next three years.

 

If this is how a soon-to-be-former politician views things, just over a week after deciding to leave, one can only begin to imagine how long-suffering voters must feel about all this, all the time.

 

I have always treated politics as a serious business, where the great issues of the day were debated properly and thoroughly; where local politicians earned the trust and respect of their communities because of their presence within and immediate connection to those communities; and, where getting to know political leaders was based around personal interactions, not slick media profiles or glossy magazine interviews. In short, in my world, trust was earned through hard work and practical achievement, not manufactured by a public relations profile and other inanities.

 

As this weird election campaign is showing, none of that seems to matter anymore, which is why it is probably time for me to go. A world where the country’s future is potentially determined by vacuous smiles or predeterminedly angry snarls is not for me. Policy debate is seen as boring or a nuisance which detracts from the drama of a succession of mini-scandals which pre-occupy the media. Even when the discussion is about policy debates between the party leaders, it quickly turns into which media personality should moderate the debates, not the substance of the policy issues themselves.

 

One of the reasons why people, young people in particular, switch off politics and voting is because they do not see it has any relevance to them. Given the facile approach being taken to this election, their indifference is hardly surprising. More of the same, through superficial promises, shallow politicians and an indulgent media will not change any of this. Voters will engage only when they see there is a point to it. At the moment, they simply do not.

 

The challenge of the next three weeks until the election is to make politics relevant to the interests of voters again. Politicians and the media are in the same boat here. Victory will deservedly go to whoever can talk to New Zealanders about their real concerns and hopes, not lecture them about what they think those concerns and hopes should be. Through my new unclouded lens, I will be watching developments with considerable interest and a new dispassionate curiosity.