Wednesday, 18 December 2013

19 December 2013
2013 is close to being just a memory. As usual, the end of year reviews are being written, and the lessons, if any, for the future noted.
For me, the most significant feature of the year has received scant attention, which makes it also the most disturbing. This was the year when what has been a hitherto subtle, but otherwise unspoken change to the way our justice system operates became explicit, and even worse, officially sanctioned. I am referring to the death of the principle of innocent till proven guilty, which has been the cornerstone of our justice system, for centuries. It was the citizen’s ultimate protection against harassment and coercion by a domineering state. Yet today the principle lies in tatters in New Zealand, thanks to the conduct of both the Henry and Rebstock Inquiries.
In both cases, innocent till proven guilty quickly gave way to cannot be eliminated, which, in turn, in the absence of a firm conclusion, cast a general slur upon reputations and credibility which could not be defended. Some suggestion has been made that this process has been standard Police procedure for years, but, even if that is so, the difference is that in the Police instance any evidence they may gather has to be considered by an independent Court before any judgement can be entered.
Yet in the Henry and Rebstock cases, the follow-up was merely the quick, unquestioning endorsement by the government of such unsubstantiated conclusions as they reached. (It has to be conceded that the conduct and process – and therefore the credibility – of the Henry Inquiry have been utterly and rightly destroyed by the subsequent Privileges Committee investigation.) Nevertheless, the personal costs of both these inquiries have been high – a precipitate Ministerial resignation; the resignation of a senior public servant and the rejected resignation of another; with two other distinguished public servants forced to identify themselves – but no specific allegations against any of them. Rumour and innuendo have prevailed over evidence. And all the while, the government has backed without flinching the integrity of these shabby Inquiries’ processes. This has eerie shades of other countries in other times, not New Zealand as it should be in 2013. 
Nothing to hide, nothing to worry about seems to be the new norm. It is as unacceptable a notion, as it is slick spin. In a world where increased surveillance at all levels – from the security camera at the local store, through to the international environment – is a sad, but growing reality, innocent till proven guilty has to be upheld as never before as the citizen’s ultimate protection against tyranny. Failure by our government to do so strongly portrays a chilling view of freedom and democracy which will just lead us all further towards the abyss.
On that note, Dunne Speaks takes its leave for the summer break. Best wishes for a happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year. May 2014 be better for all of us.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

12 December 2013
Convenient political amnesia is capturing all the attention at the moment, in the main because our Prime Minister cannot remember where he stood on the 1981 Springbok Tour.
While this is the latest and arguably most dramatic incidence of this malady, it is by no means the only outbreak, nor will it be the last. For example, the two Davids now running the Labour Party cannot remember that just three years ago they were proposing to sell minority shareholdings in state company subsidiaries, while now they urge people to vote no in the asset sales referendum. And someone, whose I dare not mention, cannot even remember helicopter rides or anonymous donations.
Political amnesia is an annoyingly harmless complaint of itself. Although it can be contagious and can occasionally be a precursor of the complaint known as political grandstanding (The Al Gore “I invented the internet” condition, or the chronic elderly case in the New Zealand Parliament) it is more commonly a pre-condition of “I was there, but …”, the curse many retired politicians suffer from. A very large outbreak of this has been reported in South Africa this week, with many sufferers diagnosed at the funeral of Nelson Mandela. From David Cameron, whose Tory predecessors armed the apartheid regime in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, but who know proclaims his long admiration of the anti-apartheid struggle, through to two of our former Muldoon Government senior politicians who were “always” against the 1981 Tour, they have all been there.
What is especially galling in the New Zealand instance is that the pair were in a government happy to see an itinerary which really looked more like a tour of marginal National Party provincial seats than a sports visit. They were presumably also happy that the outcome – thanks to the results in the Gisborne, New Plymouth and Hamilton electorates (all beneficiaries of tour related incidents) - was the re-election of the Muldoon Government by just one seat in the election later that year.
There are some worrying signs that over the next twelve months the incidences of this illness could become more frequent. There are already early signs National may have caught the “we were always in favour of extending paid parental leave” virus, and that Labour is seeking to ward off symptoms of the “we will exempt fresh fruit and vegetables from GST” strain.
The only known treatments are short-term and essentially palliative: the onset of summer holidays; the public’s general political tuning-out at that time; and overall relaxation. Normally, this can suppress the condition for a couple of months, but the prognosis is not good. One thing we know about all the sufferers is that relapse is frequent, and its timing predictable. About February 2014 to be precise.        

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

5 December 2013
Just occasionally it would be nice if politicians laid petty differences aside and focused on the interests of the country as a whole.
This week’s row about the PISA report on educational attainment levels is a good case in point. In essence, it showed that rates of achievement amongst New Zealand school students have not improved in recent years, and in relative terms have actually slipped sharply against other countries.
That should have been a real wake-up call to education policy makers, but instead of the response focusing on what needs to be done to boost attainment levels, politicians reverted to type and in so doing sold New Zealand students short once more. The Government says the data covers the period Labour was in power, while Labour says it is all the fault of National Standards and National’s attacks on teachers.
Both are woefully off the mark, and, in any case, who actually cares what they think? Certainly parents who worry about the educational achievement levels of their children have little regard for, or interest in, this continual, inane, political points scoring. Nor do the nations with whom we compete, and who are leaving us rapidly in the wake of their improving levels of educational attainment. Both understand the true worth of the saying that education is the key to the future.
The problem is that education policy here has become the captive of the vested interests. On one side are business lobbyists with their superficially alluring focus on vocational outcomes, rather than academic achievement. National’s approach epitomises that viewpoint. On the other side are the teacher unions who view education as being about protecting their position and conditions of service from change. Labour is their unashamed champion. Both miss the point.
These pre-determined positions have nothing to do with the interests of parents or students, as their rehearsal during the week shows. Nowhere in the midst of all the rhetoric has there been any suggestion of a coherent future focused plan for prolonged improvement in educational attainment levels. Constant fighting old battles will not achieve that, yet, if you listened to the politicians this week that is really all they have to offer.
We need a commitment from our politicians to value educational achievement. That does not mean each political party having the same policy – that would be unrealistic – but a consensus that the overriding priority of all policies has to be the commitment to boosting student achievement. Without that as even a starting point we can look forward to the trends identified in the PISA report becoming entrenched and the opportunities for future generations of students severely diminished. It is time for responsible politicians of all hues to stop and think. Is that the legacy they feel comfortable establishing? I hope enough think not.



Wednesday, 27 November 2013

28 November 2013
Amidst the frenzied debate about the suitability or otherwise of the untested, yet to be elected, Conservatives as a viable post-election support partner for National, one point seems to have been overlooked.
By all means focus on the absolute, genuine sciurid nuttiness of Mr Craig and his colleagues – that should be enough to scare off any sane voter – but also give some thought to the actual role of a support or coalition partner. Mr Craig’s utterances make it clear he has yet to.
Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg summed up that role very well earlier this week when he said that Britons need to know “there’s still a party that will always shun the extremes and govern from the liberal centre.” He was, of course, referring to his Liberal Democrats, but his point has equal relevance to New Zealand.
The role of support partners in multi party governments is not to push extreme agendas, but to moderate the actions of the major party of government, lest it lurch towards an  extremism of its own. People do not vote for a support party to keep a check on the government, only to find that support party is the one needing to be kept in check. Yet, when one looks at the New Zealand scene, support party extremism is precisely what would happen with the Conservatives, and arguably, although to a lesser extent, with ACT and the Greens. (In New Zealand First’s case the record is more basic – it is just chronically, serially unreliable.)
The most common dislike voters express about our MMP system is that tails can wag dogs. So long as governments of either hue are reliant on more extreme partners, that will continue to be a valid criticism. After all, MMP was introduced to be a check on the hitherto unbridled power of the major parties in government. But because of the need, more often than not, to have to constrain unruly support partners, the two main parties have ended up potentially more powerful than ever.
As the Liberal Democrats’ New Zealand sister party, UnitedFuture has attempted to play the role Nick Clegg describes. However, while we have knocked off some of the extreme edges of various things successive Labour- and National-led governments have considered in the last decade or so, or at the very least voted against them, we have never really been in the numerical position to do so absolutely. Nor have we got the credit when we have done so – after all, stopping nuttiness is never as exciting a media story as promoting it in the first place. Or, in the even worse case of the Conservatives, actually believing it as gospel.
MMP will only work as people expected when it is the big parties that are being constrained from the centre – and not being the ones hauling in their partners from the extremes. John Key has already acknowledged he would have to reign in the extremes of the Conservatives in government – is not that completely back to front?





Wednesday, 20 November 2013

21 November 2013
Most of us of a certain age can remember what we were doing on 22 November 1963, the day of President Kennedy’s assassination. My own memory is especially vivid – hearing the news on the 7:00 am radio news on the Saturday morning, and going in to wake my sleeping parents, who dismissed me as having a bad dream. So, I went back to my room and waited for the next bulletin, by which time they were ready to believe me.
50 years later, President Kennedy remains one of my two enduring political heroes – by way of complete contrast, the austere, dour Eamon de Valera is the other. In virtually every way they were complete opposites. (Kennedy quipped to Ireland’s Parliament, the Dail, during his 1963 visit that had his forbears stayed in Ireland he could have been sitting that day with the TDs in the Dail, listening to de Valera, had he stayed in the United States.) Yet, between them, they possessed qualities I continue to admire and value.
Kennedy’s oratory and his ability to inspire his generation by the use and construct of his words was overpowering, as was his leadership, first during the steel crisis, and then most famously during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. His empathy, so evident in his 1963 visits to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, and to Ireland was simply extraordinary. But above all, it was his capacity, at the height of the Cold War, to articulate a vision of freedom and hope, not just for the United States, but for the world that marks his greatness. And the tragedy of his death made him a 20th century martyr.
De Valera, on the other hand, was the ultimate survivor, avoiding execution by the British after the 1916 Uprising (because of his American origins) to become President of Ireland in 1919 and – with many years as Prime Minister in between – to be President again until he finally retired, after a fourteen year term, blind and his 90s, in 1973, over half a century later. Whereas Kennedy’s appeal lay in his flair, charm and charisma, de Valera survived by stubbornness and sheer cunning, defeating many of his rivals and cementing the development of the modern Irish state along the way.
Both men had their foibles. Kennedy’s now notorious private life was in stark contrast to the often extremely narrow-minded approach of de Valera. While Kennedy’s flame burned brightly and quickly before being cruelly extinguished, de Valera’s flame smouldered on until the mid 1970s.
On a cold Sunday morning some 25 years ago, I stood at Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery and reflected upon the lives of my two heroes. I recalled Kennedy’s words and mercurial brilliance, and de Valera’s absolute steadfastness and wily determination.
As we mark 50 years since Kennedy’s death this weekend, I will be thinking of the good things my two heroes contributed to their two countries and the world of their times, and I will also be remembering afresh my grumpy parents, abruptly awoken by a precocious young child on that most extraordinary Saturday morning all those years ago.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

14 November 2013
This weekend’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka seems set to be dominated by the furore surrounding human rights abuses in that country.
That should hardly be a surprise. Such issues are the norm for CHOGMs. Over the years, meetings have been dominated by the domestic situation in one member country or another – Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Nigeria, Fiji, and in earlier times South Africa and Uganda, come to mind. Crises within a member state at CHOGM time seem to have become the norm.  Indeed, even the student CHOGM held in Wellington at Parliament each year factors into its programme a session dealing with a simulated crisis in one member country or another!
The Commonwealth has long since ceased to be the cosy club of the British Empire it once was. It is now far more diverse and diffuse – 53 independent nations in a loose and free association, but with increasingly little in common. It is certainly not a trade or economic bloc (the WTO and the G20 have long since taken on that role, and the days of Imperial Preferences are well gone); nor is it a political or strategic powerhouse like NATO. It is certainly not an alternative to the United Nations.  While the Queen might like to wistfully refer to the Commonwealth “family” that is really bygone era stuff, which no-one takes all that seriously. Today’s Commonwealth is not so much a family as a loose and free association of states, with interests in development in the sharing of cultures, and the promotion of development and education, the essentially liberal preconditions for “democratic’ societies.  It is that quaint vagueness that gives the modern Commonwealth its strength and purpose.
Of course, none of that justifies the rogue behaviour of individual member states from time to time. In such circumstances, the Commonwealth club’s best reaction is to shame the offender to the extent that in most cases the miscreant gets the message and stays at home, either in defiance or a sulk. And the chaps at CHOGM hope they get the message and tidy up their act so that they can be welcomed back next time. And often they do.
Where things are a little different this time, though, is that the host is the problem. This is new territory which member states seem uncertain about how they should handle. Some (like club stalwarts Canada and India) are just staying home, others like New Zealand are going and planning to confront the issue head on. Either way, the danger is that diplomatic and political niceties will mean that nothing actually changes and Sri Lanka’s nominal leadership of the Commonwealth will carry on.
And if Sri Lanka does not “get the hint”, then the occasional “Wither the Commonwealth?” debate might gather more steam. That would be a pity – for all its idiosyncrasy, the Commonwealth remains a valuable international organisation that serves its members well.


Wednesday, 6 November 2013

7 November 2013
Karl Marx once said famously that the thing to learn from history is that people do not.
That certainly seems to be the case with the Police when it comes to dealing with sexual abuse matters. During 2006-07 we had the trials of former Police officers on historical rape charges, which led to the highly critical Bazley Report in 2007. As a consequence, we were led to believe that the Police had ‘turned the corner”, not just in terms of their own culture, but also in how they dealt with sexual abuse cases generally.
And we were inclined to believe that, more or less. Until early this week, at least, and the ghastly Roastbusters revelations. Now it appears that the Police had received at least four complaints about this gang as early as 2011, but had done very little about them.
How could this be? Especially after the Bazley Report? No doubt these thoughts are all racing through the Police Commissioner’s mind as he faces one of the most feared events known to humankind – a dressing down from his Minister Judith Collins!
RadioLive hosts Willie Jackson and John Tamihere provided the answers in their disgraceful interview with one of the young women involved. The ridicule and scorn they heaped upon her is symptomatic of the way the Police and wider society still deal with sexual abuse claims, particularly from women. Remember the recent comments by Sir Bob Jones on the two young German tourists?
Too many men still have a remarkably patronising attitude towards women – perhaps borne of their own insecurity and feelings of in adequacy. They still see women as wily temptresses, leading poor males on, who then complain when things go too far, or when they do not go far enough. Either way, it is their fault, and they are either making things up, or being vindictive, so their complaints are discounted accordingly. The Police and the wider community are no different in their attitudes in hat respect.
Well, it is time for those men to get a life. Until their awkward, unacceptable, ambivalent attitude towards inappropriate sexual behaviour against women is widely and consistently denounced for the degrading abuse it is, nothing much will change, sadly.
That is where we all have a responsibility to act.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

31 October 2013
A sure sign of looming danger is when a politician opines the eerie words, “I’ve been thinking.” It is usually a warning some new crackpot idea is about to be unleashed, or hobby horse indulged. In fact, politicians’ “thinking” lies at the heart of many of the problems we face today.
Now, of course there are exceptions to every rule. There have been occasions when politicians’ thinking has led to profound positive social and economic change, or times when the lofty aspirations outlined by a politician have inspired a nation or a generation. (Nelson Mandela’s struggle against apartheid is the obvious contemporary example.) But generally speaking these occasions are the exception rather than the rule.
So, against that background, and with a fair measure of trepidation, let me share some of my current thinking about a contentious issue.
Just over a couple of months ago, the Psychoactive Substances Act of which I was the principal architect was implemented. It provides for the first time for a regulated market for the sale and supply of psychoactive substances, based on the level of risk they pose to the user. It is attracting interest from around the globe, as an innovative solution to an international problem, and, after a few not unanticipated teething problems, seems to be settling down quite well.
Now, here is where I have been thinking. Although the Psychoactive Substances Act was intended to deal with that issue only, and not to have wider application, it does occur to me that, if after a period of time, it is shown to be working effectively, it could well become the model by which narcotic drugs, currently controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act, are regulated for the future. The yardstick of level of risk – based on sound pharmacological and toxicological evidence – would become the determinant of availability, not public sentiment or prejudice.
I am not suggesting a revolution, but simply observing that the regulatory regime introduced for psychoactive substances could well have wider application and that we should not be averse to that possibility. After all, most experts now concede the so-called “war” on drugs has failed, and new initiatives are required.
So, is this another crackpot idea from a politician with time on his hands to be “thinking’? Or is an idea with merit worth considering further?
You be the judge.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

24 October 2013
Many years ago, when I was a Labour MP, there used to be a weekly debate in Caucus about the theme for the week. If it was a quiet week, or one the government would rather forget, the default theme was always splits and divisions in the Opposition.
I do not know whether Labour still operates that way (it is over 19 years since I left the Labour Caucus) or whether National does likewise, but it seems that the news media certainly do.
Last week was proceeding quietly enough, with all the focus on the Auckland Mayoral circus, until John Banks’ resignation after being committed for trial on electoral fraud charges. A media feeding frenzy quickly developed (reminiscent of David Lange’s reef fish) about the government’s consequent apparent instability. One commentator referred to the government as “as stable as a blancmange”; another had me packed off to Canberra as High Commissioner, despite my having no interest in the job at all; and, they all had John Key throwing out a desperate lifeline to Colin Craig to be his saviour.
Amidst all the panic, a couple of small but significant facts were overlooked. The government still has a 64-57 majority on confidence and supply measures in the House; and there is over a year to run before the next election. A lot can change in that time. After all, as they keep reminding us in other circumstances, a week is a long time in politics, as Len Brown was discovering. So today’s drama is tomorrow’s fish and chips wrapping.
Now I am not criticising the Press Gallery. Theirs is a thankless job, at the best of times, trying to report coherently on events that often just happen, in an environment where cock-up beats conspiracy every time, and where the wonderful irrationality of humankind is frequently demonstrated. So, their attempts to spice up dull and turgid times are perfectly understandable, but it is a pity when in their enthusiasm for a fresh angle a few basic facts get lost.
Whatever happens to Mr Banks, the government will retain its majority and stability and will go on to at least the next election. There will be inevitably be more alarums and excursions along the way to be reported with breathless excitement, and splits and divisions will continue to be the default debate when the going gets quiet.
Just as our weather patterns are predictable anticyclones from the west, pushed away by depressions from the south, all within a few days, our political weather is follows the same pattern – big highs chased away by the lows. But at the end of it all, the worst day in Government still far outstrips the very best day in Opposition.
Enjoy the coming long weekend – Christmas is less than nine weeks away!







Wednesday, 16 October 2013

17 October 2013
In the 1980s the Wellington retailer Alan Martin of L.V. Martin & Son became a cult figure for his idiosyncratic television advertisements where he proclaimed, “it’s the putting right that counts”. The slogan became part of the national lexicon and a byword for after sales service.
In 1995 when the United Party was formed cartoonist Tom Scott lampooned the hurried circumstances of the party’s launch with the line,” it’s the getting it about right that counts”.
I thought of that line again last week when Mark Lundy was released on bail pending a new trial for the murder of his wife and daughter. His case follows in the footsteps of David Bain, Arthur Alan Thomas and a few others over the last 40 years. The common thread has been that each of the original convictions was found to be unsafe in some way or other. To date, in each case, subsequent processes have led to either their acquittal or the quashing of the original convictions. It remains to be seen whether Mark Lundy will join that list.
In each case, the “getting it about right” approach to justice has been the problem. Too often, the innocent till proven guilty maxim that supposedly underpins our justice system has given way to the lesser and far more unreliable “they probably did it” approach. While that fits well with our national pragmatism and is probably likely to be right more often than not, it is still a fundamentally haphazard and far too casual way to dispense justice, especially in serious cases.
Unfortunately, and probably more worrying, that approach also influences the ways crimes and other misdemeanours are now investigated by the Police and others. Instead of painstakingly and impartially investigating all aspects of a case from the ground up, New Zealand’s approach is increasingly focused on finding someone responsible, or more likely than not to be responsible. That is based on a sifting sand approach of shaking the issue to see who can be eliminated, and then building a case, often no more than strongly circumstantial, around them in such a way to convince a Court of guilt. The pursuit of truth and justice are often the first casualties. Finding someone on whom the crime can be “pinned” is a far more immediate focus and satisfies the public that the investigators have done their job properly.
But while that remains our focus and while those who gather the evidence remain responsible for prosecuting the cases, situations like the Lundy case and others will continue to occur.  That may satisfy the public pressure for crimes to be solved, but the pursuit of justice will be the casualty. Getting it “about right” in these circumstances definitely does not count!
 





Wednesday, 9 October 2013

10 October 2013
The greatest football game in town kicked off again this week – and I am not referring to the epic All Blacks/Springboks test at Ellis Park last weekend.
Rather, it is the ongoing Superannuation football, which has been a tedious, unresolved struggle between National and Labour for the last 40 years. The latest round kicked off this week with the release of the Retirement Commissioner’s periodic review of superannuation policy.
And all the traditional responses were there, as predictable as ever. The Retirement Commissioner was preaching the normal doom and gloom unless the eligibility age was lifted. The Prime Minister and National were saying it is staying at 65, and that is that. Just as predictably, Labour wants it to be 67, and not to be outdone New Zealand First had to allege it was all a conspiracy with the private pensions industry to privatise the state’s superannuation obligations. Greypower was, as it is with everything these days, just outraged and opposed.
For the spectators in the grandstand, who have the greatest stake in the outcome, and who are literally growing old waiting for some resolution, it was all just like it has been ever since this test series was kicked off by Norman Kirk back in 1973. Same old, same old, with nothing changing and uncertainty remaining.
And just like the stodgy IRB over the years, the Retirement Commissioner did not even look at some of the innovative ideas the spectators are interested in. UnitedFuture’s Flexisuper proposal, which according to some polls is the most popular future option by far, and which the government is currently consulting upon, was not even mentioned in the Report, and the question of making Kiwisaver compulsory – as it should be – was literally kicked for touch.
So, sadly, this now rather pointless test series looks set to carry on into the future, just as it has in the past. Statistics will continue to be collected and quoted knowingly. Yet the various players will stick to same old tactics and stratagems. Nothing will change. Lost opportunity will be lamented by everyone. The spectators will steadily come to the realisation that they need to look out for themselves, because no-one else is likely to.
And the cynic will conclude, that maybe that was the way it was meant to be, after all


Monday, 30 September 2013

1 October 2013
Resource management issues are very prominent on the current political agenda, and reveal a great deal about the National Party’s attitude to the environment. 
Over recent years, the debate about sustainable development has been assumed to have settled into a largely unarguable space. Economic development that does not deplete non-renewable resources or otherwise have adverse environmental impacts has become almost a given, and, as a consequence, New Zealand has been quite happy to bask in the self-awarded title of 100% Pure.
But recent moves by the National Party suggest that broad consensus of the last two decades in no longer that given, and faces strong challenges.
It is not just the Ruataniwha Dam issue, or the proposed changes to the principles of the Resource Management Act, or even allowing prospecting for precious metals on certain conservation lands, although these are all important individual issues. Rather, it is the emerging philosophy behind them that is the real concern.
There are legitimate gripes about the application of certain aspects of environment law which National has clearly tired of trying to rectify. So, instead, it is trying to shift fundamentally the focus of the debate. No longer, according to National, is it to be about sustainability, but rather about the balance between the environment and development. In other words, instead of being the platform on which economic decisions are made, the environment will become just one more factor to be taken into account.
National justifies this shift on its “unyielding” focus on jobs, which many will regard as positive. However, that contains echoes of an eerie throw back to the Muldoon Government’s “Think Big” policy of the late 1970s, sold on the basis of “410,000 jobs for your children and your children’s children”. That mantra became an excuse for some of the most Draconian development legislation we have ever seen – like the infamous National Development Act.
In the event, very few of the jobs materialised, and we ended up with a massive debt burden we have struggled to pay off over subsequent decades.
So when I hear of projects like Ruataniwha being justified primarily on the basis of the jobs to be created; or Resource Management Act changes being needed to make it easier to build cheaper houses, I become deeply suspicious at the simplicity of the argument. It is beginning to sound like footsteps down a pathway we have travelled once before.
The Resource Management Act was born out of the development excesses of the late 1970s and early 1980s. While it has generally done its job well over the years, its processes are not inviolate and do need to be refreshed and updated from time to time. But its principles are our safeguard against over-zealous governments mortgaging our environment to the future, and should therefore be left to lie.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

25 September 2013
While there has been a lot of hype over the new Labour leadership, the reality is very little has changed. It is still the same old group, albeit a little reshuffled, with all the old rivalries and tensions simmering as ever, just below the surface.
The new leader is promising a bold, new direction, apparently an antipodean version of the pre-distribution theory currently doing the rounds in northern hemisphere left-wing circles. Pre-distribution is actually a far more interventionist policy than even left-wing governments have traditionally advocated, focusing on preventing rather than ameliorating social and economic inequality. While it might sound good the significant constraints pre-distribution would place on business and society make it impractical.
And even if Labour could win the pre-distribution argument, and persuade people it is not just another attack on success and the aspirations of the middle class, it would still have to accommodate the ever-strident Greens and probably the grumpy, terminally unreliable New Zealand First to form a government. It would never last – remember, it was the Greens who walked out of the Alliance and forced the Clark Government to an early election in 2002, and that Mr Peters has so far been fired from every government he has ever been part of.
So, despite the hype, the reality remains the same. The left-wing axis is most unlikely to be able to form coherent, stable government. All of which shifts the onus back to John Key and the National party. And that is where this week’s German election provides relevant lessons. Chancellor Merkel’s party emerged as easily the largest party, but without an overall majority, while its long-term coalition partner failed to cross the threshold to win seats in the Bundestag, leaving Ms Merkel having to negotiate a coalition with any or all of the left wing parties, if she is to be able to form a new government.  
Failure by National to nurture its government partners now – and not the Labour leadership change – could yet prove to be turning point in determining the shape of the next New Zealand government.
And that is something for John Key to ponder on his flight home after his current overseas trip.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

18 September 2013
The visit to parliament this week by Dunedin leaders to push for the retention of the Invermay agricultural research centre in Otago raises the wider issue of what is now referred to as localism in some quarters.
The problem is that while everyone seems in favour of decentralisation, devolution, regional development, or call it what you like, the reality is that since the early 1990s successive governments, beginning with National’s local government reforms in 1991, have centralised more and more activity at the expense of local communities.  (I was the last Minister of Regional Development, and I surrendered that portfolio in 1990!)
So perhaps it is little wonder that there seems to be not much interest in the forthcoming local body elections, and mounting cynicism that regional government is even worth it anymore.
And, all that will do over time is add to a growing sense of individual and collective frustration and disempowerment. In time, that will affect the quality of local government, and lead to more Invermay type situations occurring.
UnitedFuture is strongly committed to the localist agenda. One size does not fit all in this regard. But this does not mean local and regional government malfeasance and failed performance is tolerable.
So what needs to change is the pervasive view that New Zealand is the same from one end to the other. We are not – we are a series of diverse regional communities, with differing capabilities and experiences. We need, both from a government perspective and a community and wider economic development focus, to be enabling those communities to take more responsibility for their own actions and priorities, with central government in a supporting, not dictating, role.
That means central and local government working together in a new partnership of equals to achieve regional potential, and welding that together into the overall national interest. It means flattening out the top down approach of the last couple of decades, and recognising that both central and local government have equally important but quite distinct role to play.
It may be too late to inspire more interest in this year’s local elections, but such an approach over time has the capacity to invigorate our regions, and stop the need for delegations like the Dunedin one to make the time honoured trudge to Parliament in often vain attempts to save regional ventures like Invermay.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

11 September 2013

The cat is out of the bag.
Let the Greens anywhere near government, and the value of your house – your biggest single investment – will be reduced by deliberate government action.
The message to hundreds of thousands of mortgaged couples and families is stark. The Greens want to bring down the value of your investment, and decry your efforts to pay off your mortgage, and build up a nest egg.
And the fact they are now running a mile from the policy shows even they realise what a slap in the face it is to hard working middle New Zealand.
But it is too late. They are already proposing to bring in more taxes – including a capital gains tax – and to tilt the playing field further against the people who work the hardest and get the least in return. With Labour likely to lurch leftward under whoever its new leader will be, middle New Zealand will not be able to look in that direction for relief.
It is all a good reminder of the fact that unlike politicians the vast of majority of New Zealanders do not live an ideology. While politicians may pride themselves on being left or right, most people do not live in such a straightjacket. Their views are tailored by their circumstances, and they look to politicians who reflect their values.
So the Labour leadership procession of increasingly quirky promises (regulating supermarkets and rent controls just for Christchurch come to mind) strikes no chord, nor offers much hope.
The Greens attacking the values of the people that make the country tick, and Labour bouncing aimlessly from one bright idea to the next do not connect with the aspirations of the mainstream of our country that just wants to get on with things, without the government getting too much in their way.
For them, their priorities are their families, their work, their home, their children’s future, their security, and the hope they will be able to live a comfortably.
Attacking those foundations as the Greens have done this week puts them very much on edge.
Middle New Zealand does not want politicians who shatter their version of the Kiwi dream.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

4 September 2013

The looming death of Learning Media has many lamenting the potential demise of the School Journal – one of the great cradles of New Zealand’s literary talent, and a staple of education for generations.
I certainly remember many hours spent in the school library reading back copies of the Journal, as will many New Zealanders.
Nostalgia is important in shaping our national values and character, but it does not pay the bills. In today’s competitive publishing environment, it was virtually inevitable that Learning Media’s fate would come to this. But that should not mean the consequential death of the School Journal, and nor should it be allowed to happen.
This situation highlights an ongoing challenge modern governments face in ensuring the effective modern provision of established services. The fact that different delivery methods are required should not mean that those services are simply abandoned or cancelled, because times have changed.
While resuscitating Learning Media seems impractical, the opportunity now exists for the government to enter into a new partnership with a commercial publisher for the ongoing publication of the School Journal in either hard copy or electronic form, to ensure its survival.
Yet too often debates about these types of issues degenerate into patch protection issues, from which no-one wins. The bottom line is simple: we want the School Journal to continue (no-one seems to be questioning its value) and we need to find the best way of doing that.
This is a managerial not a political issue, and will be not be resolved by chest-puffing and grandstanding, but by a simple focus on securing the best way forward for the School Journal so it can continue to enrich, delight and inspire generations of school children into the future.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

30 August 2013

Syria is the world’s current international pariah. And the drums of war are beating once more.
The apparently regime sanctioned poison gas attacks on Syrian citizens are despicable, callous and indefensible. They offend all our humanitarian principles. No-one seriously contests that.
The question, though, is what to do about it. International order provides a mechanism through the United Nations and the Security Council for considered, deliberative and globally co-ordinated responses to such outrages. The problem occurs when the UN’s measured approach gives way to paralysis or indecision, or when powerful international member states and their allies become impatient and for wider geopolitical reasons decide they can stand by no longer.
That is what happened with the ill-fated Anglo-American response to Iraq in 2003, which New Zealand prudently stood aside from. It was the right decision then, and would be the right decision today in respect of Syria.
While the major powers seem to be paying diplomatic lip service to the lessons of Iraq and the need for due process, there is the gnawing fear of the inevitability of some form of unilateral military action against Syria. The significant build-up of naval forces in the Mediterranean, and the deployment of British bombers to a Cyprus staging post provide the tell-tale signs.
But while there was a measure of international consensus that the despotic Hussein regime in Iraq had to go, WMDs or not, it is not the same with Syria. There are significant differences within and between the Europeans, for example, meaning any concerted military action against Syria is likely to domestically and internationally divisive and destabilising, especially if it is unsuccessful, and the Assad regime just carries on.
New Zealand is not a military player in these machinations, but it can be a pillar of common sense. We were right over Iraq in 2003. Buoyed by that, we should be in the vanguard of urging diplomatic intervention through the UN and the Arab League, rather than tacitly endorsing the increasing slide to military confrontation.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

26 August 2013

Today I launched a Government discussion paper on UnitedFuture’s flagship FlexiSuper plan.
Under FlexiSuper, people have a choice of taking a reduced rate of superannuation from the age of 60, or a higher rate if they decide to wait until they are up to 70 before picking it up. The basic age of entitlement remains 65, and no change is planned for the rate of superannuation.
FlexiSuper offers a number of advantages. For Māori, Pasifika and other groups with shorter post retirement life spans it offers some dignity in their last years. For those who might wish to work longer, they can look forward to a greater nest egg when they retire and pick up an increased rate of superannuation after 65. For everyone, it offers greater choice in retirement income planning.
And it also lets both National and Labour off their respective superannuation high horses. National can continue to hold to its policy of not increasing the age of entitlement beyond 65, knowing that people will choose for themselves when they pick up superannuation at either an enhanced or discounted rate. Labour can get itself off the hook it got onto by pledging an increase to 67 (which was interpreted by many of its working class voters as meaning they were being told they had work for two years longer) by also letting people choose for themselves.
The discussion paper is open for public comment until 11 October. Then the government will decide what action it may wish to take about FlexiSuper. So the next few weeks are an opportunity for all New Zealanders to have their say, and I encourage them to do so.
The current proposal does not include making Kiwisaver compulsory, but that is another long standing UnitedFuture policy we would like to see action upon.
The combination of FlexiSuper and compulsory Kiwisaver is an attractive package that would go a long way to restoring stability in the perennial superannuation debate.   
You can view a copy of the discussion paper at www.unitedfuture.org.nz
 


Wednesday, 14 August 2013

15 August 2013
Today UnitedFuture will be formally Gazetted once more as a registered political party – just under ten weeks after it was deregistered at its own request by the Electoral Commission.
The entire saga has thrown up a number of absurdities which need to be tidied up to stop our electoral system falling into complete disrepute. And I am preparing a Member’s Bill to do just that.
First, it was UnitedFuture, not the Electoral Commission, that raised the issue of the difficulty we were having verifying the status of some of our members. Had we just signed the annual statutory declaration that we had 500 financial members the Electoral Commission would have been none the wiser because it has no power to check the accuracy of a party’s declaration. So we were deregistered for being honest, which is quite absurd. Therefore, my Bill will require the Electoral Commission to formally audit the membership of all registered parties once every three years to ensure they do in fact have a minimum of 500 financial members, and are not just saying so in the sure knowledge they will not be checked up on.
The next absurdity was the Electoral Commission’s archaic insistence that we produce 500 individually signed declarations and its refusal to accept on-line memberships. That is totally out of step with today’s reality so my amendment will ensure on-line memberships will be treated as valid for registration purposes, and will make the Commission subject to the provisions of the Electronic Transactions Act, something it is currently specifically exempted from.
Third, I am proposing that where a party that has been registered for at least two elections is deregistered it will be able to lodge a re-registration application within 90 days, without being treated as a new party. The Electoral Commission kept telling us that UnitedFuture was clearly not a new party – having been around for nearly 20 years – but under its internal rules (not the Electoral Act incidentally) it claimed it had no option but to treat us a new party. This is clearly a nonsense – a party cannot be both an established party, yet treated as new party, at the same time.
I will be releasing my Bill shortly, and then submitting it to the ballot for Members’ Bills. At the same time, I will be talking with the Justice Minister and the Prime Minister, both of whom have expressed interest in my proposals, to see if my changes can be fitted in to the government’s own forthcoming Electoral Act Amendment Bill.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

8 August 2013

This week I am not going to write about the GCSB, the Henry inquiry, the breach of a journalist’s privacy, or stolen emails – I am saving all that for the novel!
Rather, I want to concentrate on our tarnished green reputation. From Fonterra to rivers not safe to swim in, the image of environmentally pristine New Zealand is taking a hammering. We are apparently not quite as pure after all, as we have deluded ourselves to believe. It would appear our green values have been hijacked by the far left of politics, with substance replaced by causes and slogans, so no-one takes care for the environment seriously any more.
The Greens’ attacks on business, and stands against sustainable development have led many middle of the road people, who still care nonetheless, to run a mile from such issues, because they now see them as too polarising and extreme. Meanwhile, rivers are degraded and poor environmental practices allowed to survive by default. But concern about the environment should not be just the prerogative of the young, the idealistic, or the socialist.
Middle New Zealand keenly wants to play its part, but has had enough of its values and concerns being sneered at and derided for not being pure enough. The net result has been their apathy. And degraded rivers, polluted beaches and now Fonterra’s crisis have been the consequence.
It is time to build a new environmental consensus around the concepts of balance and sustainability on which the Resource Management Act is based. An environment where the renowned New Zealand values of enjoying the great outdoors – respecting nature – are back in play. One where development is seen as necessary for sustainable growth, and not a dirty word. And an environment where we all care enough to want to leave something positive for future generations to enjoy.
This is not about politics or ideology – it is far more important than that. It is about the future we want for ourselves and our children. And because of that it is about all of us – not just the well-meaning activists using the issue to push a wider agenda of political and social change.
In short, it is time to stop the games and the pandering to sectional interests, and reclaim the environmental high grounds by focusing anew on what fits best with the lifestyle those of us who call these islands home want to enjoy.