Thursday, 17 May 2018


Grant Robertson says it is a "Rebuild Budget"; Simon Bridges says it is a "Tax and spend, borrow and hope" Budget. But both would they say that, would they not?

In reality, this Budget is neither as positive as the Minister has painted it, nor as negative as the Opposition claims. It looks to be a cautious and fiscally prudent document, which maintains but does not accelerate significantly the new expenditure track of the previous Government in health and education; allows through reprioritisation of existing spending the introduction of some of the Coalition Government's new programmes; and reduces the overall level of debt to below 20%.

Where the Budget has not been able to deliver expected policies - like the $10 per visit reduction in the cost of going to the Doctor - it makes it clear that the policy will be achieved over the balance of the Government's term. While conservative, given the overall fiscal position, the staging of commitments is a good step forward, especially since too often in the past commitments shelved one year by successive Labour and National Governments have often disappeared altogether.

Despite the Opposition's concern about more borrowing, the real questions over this Budget arise not from its economics - the Minister has made a good fist of balancing the numbers and projecting surpluses into the future - but with the politics.

While Mr Robertson wins plaudits for making clear what was not done in this Budget will be done in the next before the 2020 election, he has at the same time tied himself firmly into a straightjacket. He now has no alternative but to honour those commitments. While many will welcome that, there are some potential negatives.

First, his straightjacket means that, in implementing these commitments, he has left himself little to no headroom for anything that might emerge in the future. Put simply, Labour has played all its big cards in its first year - today - and the next two Budgets will be about implementing the details. Knowing the Government's hand this early leaves the Opposition plenty of scope to develop attractive alternative policies over the next two years. And it makes life a little more awkward for New Zealand First and the Greens. Their trophies are now pretty much in the cupboard, leaving them with the perennial support party problem of relevance between now and the next election. And Labour needs both of them to make it over the electoral line in 2020 to remain the Government.

Second, there is a heavy reliance on the domestic and international economies continuing to perform well over the next two years. Even the notoriously and inveterately overly optimistic Treasury forecasts show there is little headroom should things falter on the home front, let alone there be an international (erratic America-first Trump-induced?) economic correction before 2020. In that event, the Government could be left high and dry with a less than half completed programme and no good news to show in its election-year Budget.

And then there is the reaction of the traditional Labour leaning groups like the teachers and the nurses. It is clear that the significant pay increases they were expecting as their payback for loyal support over the years are not among the new education and health spending in the Budget. Already both are making noises about this. So will the nursing and teaching unions rest quietly, and settle for jam tomorrow, in potentially uncertain times, or will they demand their slice of the pie now? According to their own narrative, they were held back so much during the nine years of the National-led Government, so they seem unlikely to be quiet now "their" party is in power.

This essentially stand-pat Budget certainly passes the good management and solid accounting tests, and the Government will be clearly (if vainly) hoping that, in the absence of any coherent economic growth strategy, this "reliable hand on the tiller" approach will assuage some of the concerns of the business community and stem the erosion of confidence. It probably will not do that, because the leading business and employer groups have now become just as stridently partisan as the unions they criticise. The Government will calculate that business has therefore painted itself into a corner, so probably will not be too bothered by the criticisms.

Of more concern will be the fear that the Budget may fail to satisfy the many who voted Labour last year believing the new Government would do all the things it promised in an immediate new wave of Savage-like compassion and commitment. If they feel that instead they have ended up getting a Budget pretty much the same as they could have expected from National, Labour has a problem.

Grant Robertson says this Budget is but the foretaste of what is to come in 2019 and 2020. Given that and the unreal expectations he and his colleagues let build up for this Budget, he could be dangerously tempting fate for the next two!

You can now also read my new weekly political column for Newsroom at www.newsroom.co.nz

Wednesday, 9 May 2018


Twenty-seven years ago I introduced to Parliament what was then - and probably still is - the largest ever Private Member's Bill - the Information Privacy Bill. It drew heavily on work I had begun as Associate Minister of Justice in the previous Labour Government. The Bill was followed a few hurried and embarrassed weeks later by the National Government's own effort, the Privacy of Information Bill, which bore a remarkable, if not identical resemblance to my own Bill! Both Bills eventually morphed to become what we know now as the Privacy Act. This was passed twenty-five years ago, and this week, Privacy Week, is an occasion to celebrate that, and to consider where we need to go with Privacy law in the future.

Of course, a huge amount has changed in the last few years, let alone the last twenty-five years. When we were first looking at the issue in the late 1980s and early 1990s the principal focus was on ensuring that people's privacy was protected from their being included unknowingly on various corporate mailing lists - Readers' Digest was cited frequently as the main offender - and ensuring that they could get off those lists and stop the flood of unsolicited mail. Today, of course, the scope is much wider as there is more collection of data by Government agencies, and that data is shared with and by a wide variety of organisations, for often beneficial, but no means exclusively so, purposes. On top of that, have been the activities of social media entities like Facebook, and more notoriously recently Cambridge Analytica, which have taken the issue to an entirely different level. Just as communications and technological advances have now rendered national boundaries obsolete, so too and even more so in the data world. It is pervasive and constant, a far cry from the occasional unwelcome and incredible offer from an international mailing company. Little wonder, then, that the Government has recently introduced legislation to modify and upgrade the original Privacy Act.

Earlier this week, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner released some sobering figures regarding how New Zealanders feel about the way their data is being treated. Its latest annual survey shows more than two-thirds of New Zealanders are concerned about their individual privacy, and that that figure has been rising over recent years. Perhaps not a surprise given recent widely reported data breaches here and elsewhere. Of more concern, though, at a time when more and more of citizens' transactions with Government take place on  line, and New Zealand is recognised as one of the most digitally advanced countries in the world, confidence in the Government's ability to handle individual citizens' data securely has fallen sharply over the last five years. Yet during these years, Government practice with regard to the handling of individual data has improved dramatically. But the test here is a simple one - it is not the actuality of what is happening that matters, but the perception of it. Put simply, if people feel their data is less safe with the Government, they will become far less inclined to comply with data gathering and sharing requirements, which will in turn defeat the purpose and efficiency of greater data use and sharing to improve the delivery of public services.

There are some stark lessons here for the Government, whatever its political hue. They will be ignored at their peril. Governments can only move in this space to the extent they have the public's confidence and endorsement. So, a major part of any Government's effort in the digital transformation space has to be about getting and keeping the public on-side. The Privacy Commissioner's survey results, although mildly encouraging overall, sound the timely reminder that there is still some way to go.

When the original Act was passed in 1993, it was launched in a vacuum. Inexplicably, given the nature of the reform, the Government then did nothing to explain what the Act was about. Consequently, incredibly cautious, risk-averse middle ranking bureaucrats in both central and local government were left to fill the spaces, leading to many bizarre and downright silly rulings and new procedures that risked severely quickly bringing the whole Act into disrepute and ridicule. So, whatever the outcome of the current Bill, I strongly plead that the Privacy Commissioner is given the resources and the time to explain what it will and will not do, so that it can become an effective protection of individual privacy from the day it comes into effect. In this fast-moving space, that is not just a pious wish, but an absolute necessity.                   


Wednesday, 2 May 2018


The National Party has been looking increasingly awkward in recent weeks while the Labour-led Government has been rolling out major policy announcements.

Its criticisms seem to oscillate between attacking the proposals themselves, but then saying that they are either really a reiteration of National policies already underway, or things it was planning to do anyway. While there is some evidence these claims are valid (which, after all, should not be surprising, given that National has just finished nine years in office) the consequence is that they leave National's current criticisms looking a little hamstrung, and the Opposition appearing somewhat kneejerk in its response. None of which inspires confidence at this early stage in National's ability to lead a government in 2020, or whenever the next election occurs.

Of, course it is not quite as simple as that and it would be foolishly premature to start making election predictions at this early stage when there are yet almost two and a half years to run before the next scheduled election. (The last election alone showed that predictions made just six weeks before election day can be blown away by changing circumstances!) Nevertheless, the suspicion is strong that Labour will not be too unhappy at National's present approach. After all, it is getting to implement its policies, and the lament "we were already doing that, or were planning to do it anyway" is neither telling nor withering. It might have more impact if it were being pointed out by the media, as would be appropriate, but, overall, most of the media is still too much in the Prime Minister's thrall for that to be happening yet.

So the challenge for National is to work out what to do. On the positive side is the polling position - still heavily in National's favour. Following the general assumption that Governments lose support from the day they take office, it is likely that Labour will never be more popular than it is today - several percentage points behind National. While a good morale booster for National, there is still the daunting reality that National lacks reliable support partners, and that New Zealand First and the Greens are keeping Labour's head just above the water at this stage, and could do so again after 2020, even if Labour falls. That probably means National's best shot at governing, in the absence of a new partner emerging, will be as a single party majority Government, something that has not happened thus far under MMP. In turn, that means ensuring that neither New Zealand First nor the Greens make it to the next Parliament, which also means alienating any potential support from those parties in the meantime.

All this is a very tall order, and will not become even a possibility, given the way National is operating presently. So, what to do?

Well, under this scenario, the flagship policies of the support partners become the real targets, and the day-to-day policies of the Labour Party less important. As befits its historic rural and provincial base, National needs to reclaim its brand as the party of the regions. That will require a full-frontal attack on New Zealand First and the Provincial Growth Fund, not so much the Fund itself, because the idea of a dedicated Provincial Growth Fund is popular in rural and provincial quarters, but more because of the cavalier, overbearing, overly partisan, pork-barrelling way it is being driven by Minister Shane Jones. There is already plenty of scope there, with Minister Jones' enormous, cocky self-belief certainly likely to add to that dramatically before the term is out!

The second area of opportunity for National is environmental policy. There is a strong blue-green element in National, predominantly urban and young, and there are many opportunities for National to appear as the responsible Greens in this regard. However, for some of its MPs, a tectonic plate like shift in attitude will be required. For example, for many urban voters, in Auckland particularly, the promise of light rail as one of our transport solutions has appeal. Dismissing it the way some National MPs seem routinely to do as just "trams" simply brands them as backward looking and ignorant. But, with the Prime Minister seemingly bent on yielding to all of the Greens' environmental wish lists, even at the expense of some of her own key policies like cutting the cost of a visit to the doctor by $10, the likelihood of the Government going too far, too fast is high, further enhancing the opportunity for a more considered blue-green approach from National.

To be successful, National needs to become a nimble and strategic Opposition, spelling out a clear alternative message to voters. Although change will not happen overnight, it will not happen at all if it lapses into Opposition for the sake of it, as looks the case at present. 



Wednesday, 25 April 2018


In the wake of another ANZAC Day and the rekindling of national spirit it always engenders, it is timely to consider our current relationships with those whom we have joined historically in the struggle for what we now routinely describe as the liberties and freedoms we enjoy today.

At the time of the Gallipoli landings in April 1915, New Zealand's population was around 1.1 million people. Over the course of World War I, around 100,000 people, a little under 10% of our total population at the time, were part of our defence forces, with some 16,000 personnel - more than 1% of our total population - now estimated to have been serving at Gallipoli alone. Little wonder that the scars of that conflict and the memories seared upon the national consciousness by that disastrous British-led campaign still run so deep with New Zealanders today. Moreover, from 1915, Britain commandeered all our frozen meat output, with butter and cheese and other items similarly commandeered before the War's end. As a loyal member of the Empire, New Zealand was happy to help the "Mother Country" in this hour of need.

By the time of World War II, New Zealand's total population had risen to 1.6 million people, of whom 140,000 men and women were to serve in the defence forces, a broadly similar proportion to World War I. Michael Joseph Savage's ringing call in September 1939 that "Where Britain goes, we go; where she stands, we stand" again reflected the mood of the time. Between 1939 and 1945, New Zealand further demonstrated its loyalty by providing one-sixth of Britain's meat imports, a quarter of her butter imports, and half her cheese imports - a greater portion of Britain's wartime food requirements than any other country. Even after the war finished, food continued to be rationed in New Zealand until 1950, to ensure an adequate supply was available for the British market.

Britain's gratitude for these extraordinary sacrifices on its behalf by everyday New Zealand men and women during and after two World Wars was to announce abruptly at the end of the 1950s that it saw its future lying more within Europe than its  traditional Commonwealth allies. So it formally applied to join what was then the European Economic Community in 1961, and it was thanks only to the intransigence of France's President Charles de Gaulle that it was thwarted from doing so until 1973, some years after he had left office. The consequence for New Zealand was the need for a massive readjustment to new markets and greater economic diversity, compounded by the later 1970s Oil Shocks, which were to bedevil successive New Zealand Governments for most of the next three decades.

Britain's sudden abandonment of old Commonwealth allies in pursuit of Europe has had invariably unfavourable consequences in other ways too. The current Windrush scandal affecting potentially tens of thousands of Caribbean migrants recruited to work in Britain in the 1950s now being told they and their descendants may be in the country illegally and therefore liable for deportation is but the latest example.

Just as abruptly, Britain is now seeking a divorce from Europe in the wake of the 2016 Brexit vote. Now it is she who has to find alternative markets, and in the most supreme of ironies, is now making eyes afresh at New Zealand, seeking to return home through a new free trade agreement. Despite the way we have been treated over the years, and Britain's apparently earlier cavalier regard for the human and economic sacrifice on its behalf of the New Zealand people in two World Wars, the move to a free trade agreement deserves strong support. Equally, the separate suggestion of a free trade agreement between New Zealand and the European Union should be backed as well, because global inter-connection and co-operation is the best way to secure global peace, stability and prosperity, and to render redundant forever the types of conflict we so properly recall on ANZAC Day, along  with the often futile sacrifices of the lives and futures of our young people of the time. Although trade deals with Russia and even North Korea have been mooted by those who have opposed every trade deal New Zealand has to date been part of, and therefore cannot be taken seriously at present, there may even come a time in the future where such prospects become more realistic as longer-term guarantors of wider peace and stability.

ANZAC Day's key message "Lest We Forget" is extremely relevant here. Free trade agreements with Britain and the European Union would be practical ways of honouring the sacrifices of those who took part in the great conflicts of the 20th century in the defence of our nation and way of life. At the same time, they would also be reminders of the mighty sacrifices, personal, economic and political, of a small nation in years gone by, and a strong statement that we will never again allow our nation's youth and produce to be treated as we were.

We best honour the memory of our fallen by approaching these future trade agreements on the basis of equal partnership, not just as any other nation's glorified farm. We owe no less to those on whose courage, dedication  and strength the ANZAC story has been built.       


Thursday, 5 April 2018


The Government's new plans to improve road safety are certainly controversial. They include a variety of measures from greater emphasis on public transport, to lowering speed limits and increasing fuel excise taxes to pay for it all. Leaving aside the issue of whether raising fuel excise taxes breaks the Government's "no new taxes" promise (although the Prime Minister's explanation that fuel excise is not a tax but a duty is unbelievably cute and further evidence of an earnest naiveté that worryingly she evinces all too readily these days) the question is whether the new strategy will address our increasing road toll and promote better road safety.

Over the recent Easter holiday weekend, I did a lot of driving - from Wellington to Auckland and back, and a few other places in-between - so had the opportunity to observe closely what is going on on our roads. Here are my observations.

Most New Zealanders drive pretty responsibly and carefully, but the ones who do not, are extremely bad and dangerous. Frankly, they should not be allowed on the roads at all because of the threat they pose. Over the weekend, I saw overtaking on blind corners; ridiculous speed just for the sake of it; drivers pulling out from rural side roads into oncoming traffic and then proceeding as they were on a leisurely Sunday afternoon drive; other slow drivers unwilling to pull over to let the mounting queue of motorists behind them, of whom they were obviously oblivious, pass safely.

We have some very good stretches of main highway where driving is a pleasure. But there are significant parts of our main highways that are little more than rickety tar-sealed goat tracks, with unreasonably tight corners, poor vision and inadequate or absent warning signage. Straightening these roads from the days when they were old coach routes and eliminating the most dangerous aspects of them surely has to be a road safety priority. Indeed, we ought to be aiming to four-lane as much of State Highway One as possible to improve both traffic safety and traffic flow.

Some of the most problematic driving I saw was from long-distance truck and trailer units. I realise that truck drivers are highly skilled, and generally have much better vision from their cabs than the average motorist. But I doubt that I saw any of them complying with the 90 kmh speed limit, nor did I see any Police stopping them. Incredibly, I did see big rigs passing each other on passing lanes, holding up much traffic behind them, then speeding up to avoid being passed.

Surprisingly, despite the egregiously sanctimonious advertisement on television  at present, I saw very few Police. There was a handful of speed cameras, but a physical Police presence seemed noticeably absent. Where they were visible, Police invariably seemed to be stationed at the start and end, or, even worse, the middle, of passing lanes, presumably because that is where the speeding infringement pickings are best. I realise that the Police do not really like doing road safety, because they do not regard it as "real" Police work, but their lazy and mistaken belief that good road policing is all about speeding infringements (no, I was not caught speeding over the weekend!) rather than promoting good driving behaviours is simplistic and short-sighted. When, for example, have you ever seen the Police pull over the unreasonably slow driver, or the one with the precariously overloaded trailer or ute? No, the speeding motorist is the far easier prey.

A truly effective road safety strategy needs to focus on the following issues: better roading engineering and improved road conditions; getting the serially dangerous drivers off the roads altogether, whatever their age or circumstances; stricter policing of long-distance trucking; and, a change in the Police attitude to a more positive approach to road safety, rather than a continuation of its current infringement centred fixation.

Addressing these issues are specific positive steps to improving road safety and lowering the road toll. Yet none of them seems to feature in this week's Government announcements. So, as you pay your extra fuel taxes in the years to come, you be the judge of whether we really care about road safety in this country.

Dunne Speaks is having a couple of weeks off, and will be back at the end of April.


Tuesday, 27 March 2018


Are we seeing a subtle act of international defiance from the New Zealand Government, or just another example of its naiveté? According to the Prime Minister, there are no Russian spies operating in New Zealand at present, so therefore there is no need for us to do like other countries and expel Russian intelligence operatives, in the wake of the poisoning of Russian dissidents in Britain.

At face value, the Prime Minister's statement is reassuring. No-one likes the notion of other countries' spies lurking around in our backyards. She seems to be implying that New Zealand is now so insignificant on the world stage that it does not arouse the attention of the Russian intelligence services. So we can all sleep safe in our beds. But face value is not a reliable measure here. Given New Zealand's role in the Five Eyes intelligence partnership, it beggars belief that British and United States intelligence agents are not active in this country, and conversely that New Zealand intelligence agents are not similarly active in other countries. And, in return, it equally beggars belief that agents of countries the Five Eyes partners are likely to be interested in, notably Russia and China, are not active in New Zealand. So, is there something more to what the Prime Minister has been saying?

There have long been suspicions about the depth of Labour's commitment to New Zealand's participation in international intelligence sharing arrangements. In the case of the Greens, however, there is no such doubt - they are implacably opposed to New Zealand's involvement in such agreements. So, is the Prime Minister playing a long game here? In the short term, her blanket denial that Russian intelligence agents are active in New Zealand means there is no need for New Zealand to follow suit with other countries and expel such personnel. But, in the longer sense, could our complete reluctance to even consider such a possibility actually be a calculated snub to our intelligence partners and an early signal that New Zealand is not going to be as co-operative a member of arrangements like the Five Eyes, as it has been? In such a context, last week's initial reluctance to appear too critical of Russia takes on a more significant light. Is New Zealand using the current tension over Russia as a way to flex its small international muscles, and signify that from now it is going to be a little more independent member of the international club, although still paying its subscriptions?

Helen Clark's 2003 decision that New Zealand would not join the "Coalition of the Willing" to invade Iraq was not only correct, but was nonetheless a gentle shot across the bows of Britain and the United States, that although New Zealand was basically sympathetic to the Western cause, it was also an independent nation that would make its own decisions, and would not just be dragged automatically into conflicts like this. Maybe the present Prime Minister is using the Russian intelligence argument to make afresh the same point to the United States and Britain today.

Of course, it may just be that the Prime Minister is absolutely correct and merely stating the obvious when she says there are no Russian intelligence agents operating here. Nevertheless, such a blunt public commentary on another country's diplomatic arrangements is a little unusual. On that basis, though, presumably we can now look forward to the Prime Minister's similar frank public assessments in the weeks to come about the level and numbers of intelligence agents deployed here by the likes of the United States, Britain, and China, and perhaps even how many of,  and where, our SIS and GCSB agents are operating overseas.

Of course, all of this is quite unlikely, no matter any urgings by the Greens, which leaves the question still begging - why was the Prime Minister so specific? Deliberate planning, or just more of the loose lips her Government is becoming so well known for? You be the judge.         


Wednesday, 21 March 2018


One could be forgiven for thinking there is nothing new in politics, that it is all about the redevelopment of old ideas, or the modernisation of old situations, and that the challenge is more one of how these situations are addressed for a new generation of voters.

Writing over half a century ago, the American political scientist, E.E. Schattschneider observed that organisation was "the mobilisation of bias" and that the key to political success lay with those able to organise their causes most effectively. Nearly sixty years later, nothing much has changed, and we are seeing that game being played out here at present by groups like nurses and teachers, who had felt hard done by during the years of the National-led Government, setting high expectations of the Labour-led Government for their forthcoming contract negotiations, with threats of industrial action if their demands are not met. How the Government, which says it cannot afford everything being sought, deals with this without setting off a winter of discontent will be an interesting spectacle to watch over the next few months, especially since it will be discontented nurses and teachers turning up each month to push their case at Labour Electorate Committee meetings, and lobbying backbench lobby-fodder Labour MPs assiduously on Saturday mornings.

The 1984 Lange Government made its mark with a series of well stage-managed Summits at Parliament - most notably the Economic Summit which was televised live from the Parliamentary Chamber - all to create the impression of a new, listening and consultative government, committed to consensus based decision-making as a stark contrast to the dictatorial Muldoon years that preceded it. Also, and arguably more importantly, the Summits' purpose was to provide cover for many of the Government's subsequent decisions, because the people had been consulted, even if their views were subsequently largely ignored.

The present Government does not have quite the same panache, but has already established a breathtaking number of reviews and consultations - 39 in all in just under 5 months in office - to show that it too is a warm and caring Government that listens, then acts. Yet, the outcome of most of the reviews is pretty predictable, even before the reviews have started, so they are simply the modern version of giving the Government the leeway to act in the way that it always intended.

The post 1996 National-led Coalition Government was brought to its knees by a tacky combination of silk boxer shorts, Dirty Dog sunglasses, and some Ministers treating the taxpayers' funding as almost a personal gift. Today, we have the row over one Minister treating Defence Force aircraft as a personal taxi fleet, while another is threatening to fire the entire board of Air New Zealand. Corrosive coalition politics led to the fall of the Prime Minister in 1997, and the defeat altogether of the Government at the next election. The current Prime Minister has already had to rebuke the Minister who attacked Air New Zealand. Now, while the next chapter of the current story has yet to be written, there is already a sense of uneasy inevitability about what will happen next.

It is that fear of the future that has led the Greens to take their unusual stand on Parliamentary Questions. While no-one cares about the niceties, it is a way of showing they are different - and separate - from their two partners, and are not afraid to break out of the coalition straightjacket if they perceive the need. Of course, whether it will work is an entirely different question, but it does highlight the Greens' determination not to become weak collateral damage, if the Government unravels.

Given that all of these situations are reprises to some extent or other of what has happened before, I am reminded of the advice of a long-serving former Labour MP at the time that I was first elected: "Make sure you get yourself a good speech, and stick to it. Then all you have to do is change the audience from time to time."