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.