Wednesday, 30 July 2014


31 July 2014

This week’s stoush over the Fish and Game Council points to a deeper challenge confronting the Government as it contemplates a third term in office.

There is no doubt of this Government’s commitment to boosting economic development, but that is increasingly running up against the dual brick walls of environmental law and mounting public anxiety about environmental values being traded off for economic advantage.

Last year’s skirmish over the Resource Management Act should have been a salutary lesson. Remember the hype of the National Party’s Conference announcement then of a bold, new housing plan, based on streamlining the principles and operation of the Resource Management Act, to speed up development. It ran into immediate difficulties when the Government discovered that while there was near universal support for improving the processes of the Resource Management Act, neither UnitedFuture nor the Māori Party would support any changes to, or weakening of its principles. Curiously, rather than compromise, and proceed with those areas where it could get support, the Government adopted an “all or nothing” approach and quietly shelved its plans for another day.

That pattern has continued in other areas over recent months. Independent Boards of Inquiry reports have dealt crippling if not fatal blows to the Ruataniwha Dam in Hawkes Bay and the flyover around Wellington’s Basin Reserve. A clear picture is emerging: the trade-off between big projects and the environment is erring increasingly on the side of the environment, leaving the Government’s plans to streamline environmental law looking more and more out of step with public expectation.

It is against this backdrop that the role of a statutory body like Fish and Game assumes fresh significance. In pursuit of its mandate, Fish and Game has been taking an increasingly strident line against issues which impinge on deteriorating water quality in our lakes and rivers. The most obvious of these practices is dairy intensification, which brings the debate strongly back to the Government’s economic development agenda and explains its obvious sensitivity on the matter.

But here is where a reality check is needed. Recent developments make it clear public tolerance for the “environment is nice, but the economy is nicer” argument is evaporating and pressure will mount for a stronger line to be drawn in the future. Ironically, the one thing stopping that from happening more suddenly and starkly is the Green Party, whose zealotry and intolerance on those issues scares off many voters who might otherwise be sympathetic to the cause.

What did or did not go on between the Conservation Minister and the people at the Fish and Game meeting is really just fish and chip paper.

Far more important is the challenge to National to understand that while there is general support for its commitment to economic development and boosting living standards – as the polls strongly show – that support is conditioned by a strong sense of environmental protectionism. Striking the right balance is not something National has yet shown itself to have a clear grasp upon.

That is where support parties like UnitedFuture, who do understand the limits and constraints, have an important role to play in the next Government to ensure we have progress, matched by environmental responsibility and sustainability.      

    

  

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 23 July 2014


24 July 2014

The ruckus over a National MP’s spending and a critical performance review of the Parliamentary Service highlight two unsatisfactory aspects of the way we currently run Parliament.

Spending by MPs has always been a vexed question and control over it has never been satisfactorily resolved. The approach to date, typified by the widely-hailed but actually fundamentally flawed report of former Auditor-General Kevin Brady, has been to treat MPs as just another branch of the public service and apply broadly the same types of rules and controls to their spending. (What is about retired senior public servants, who seem to have an inbuilt resentment of MPs? Henry failed like Brady in exactly the same way.) Under this approach, the focus has been to empower the Parliamentary Service to exercise greater control and accountability, but this has essentially failed.

The current approach is also constitutionally suspect. Parliament is elected to oversee and hold to account the executive branch of government for its conduct and performance, and is in turn, held to account by the public every three years for its stewardship. Yet the mentality of the Brady approach, which has been the prevailing norm of recent years, has actually turned that on its head. Parliament and Members of Parliament are now in so many ways subservient to rules devised by anonymous risk-averse bureaucrats, who like to see every situation as being able to be fitted in one or another set of neat boxes. (There are also strong shades of this blind rigidity in the way the Electoral Commission chooses to administer electoral law.)

However, there is a simple and fair solution available – make MPs fully accountable to the public in the first instance, and not the bureaucracy, by bulk-funding them for their office and related expenditure and requiring them to publish annual accounts of their expenditure (as Ministers are obliged to do already). Under this model, the bureaucrats’ role will become the proper one of assisting and advising elected representatives, not controlling them. Control and accountability will return to the people of New Zealand to be exercised through the ballot box.

Yes, but will this ever happen? Sadly, probably not, I suspect. And the reason is simple and selfish. The last thing National and Labour want is for their MPs to have more individual control of their own spending, because that could make them more independent of the collective, and loosen party discipline. Just imagine what a recalcitrant MP could in such circumstances! Remember the fuss whenever an MP leaves a party and takes their funding with them. Having MPs exercise that type of independence while staying in the Caucus is just too difficult to contemplate, so the fallback becomes the current unsatisfactory externally imposed rules.

So, an accepted unsatisfactory situation looks set to continue. Bureaucrats whom no-one voted for will continue to try to impose arbitrary and unworkable rules on their political masters, who will continue to devise ways to thwart them. And every now and then, there will be a stupid MP who gets caught, and further damages the standing and credibility of all MPs as a consequence.

Good copy while it lasts, it may well be, but it is certainly not good governance.  

            

  

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 16 July 2014


17 July 2014

Joining the dots together to reveal a mystery shape was a popular childhood game. The continuing Dotcom evidence saga has shown elements of this game again this week.

The facts in this case are few, but relatively clear. Dotcom was granted residency in New Zealand in 2010 against the initial advice of the SIS which subsequently changed its mind. At the time he was being pursued by the US authorities on a variety of internet related charges and agencies like the FBI were seeking his deportation to face trial in the United States. In early 2012, there was a botched raid on his home involving the Police and the SIS, as a result of which Dotcom and some associates were temporarily imprisoned. The political fallout has continued ever since and the case to extradite Dotcom to the United States has still to be resolved by the New Zealand Courts.

Beyond these facts, the world of supposition and dot-joining starts to apply. For example, given the major interest of the US film studios in extraditing Dotcom and presumably silencing him, was the visit of Warner Brothers executives to New Zealand about the time his residency was being considered purely coincidental and related solely to the fate of the Hobbit movies? Or was it a smokescreen for the opportunity to apply pressure over the Dotcom case? Was the deal around the Hobbit movies struck on the basis that the New Zealand Courts would fall into line over the extradition case? (If so, it demonstrated an incredible naivety about the independence of our judiciary.) And why was Dotcom so keen to become a New Zealand resident, if, as he now says, it was just a ruse to make his eventual extradition that much easier to achieve?

A few things have become a little clearer as the saga has unfolded. First, the intelligence agencies do not believe Dotcom should be here, whatever the circumstances, although they do not quantify whether and how his presence here might be a risk to our national security. Second, the handling of the Dotcom case has been inept at virtually all levels, with the exception of the Courts who have demonstrated admirable independence. Third, politicians generally have been constantly at sixes and sevens on the issue, and it is genuinely difficult to know what there is to know, and who knew what of that and when, and does it really matter anyway.

So what does it all mean? Presumably, if the New Zealand Government had substantial, subsequently provided, information that Dotcom was not a fit and proper person to be a resident, it would have cancelled his residence status and deported him. It has not done that, so it can be reasonably assumed no such information exists. Which brings us back to the Americans.

If the scenario that the United States wanted New Zealand to grant Dotcom residence because it would make his deportation easier is true, then it shows either a woeful misunderstanding of how our judicial processes work, or an incredibly overbearing attitude that, the niceties of the law notwithstanding, New Zealand would “find a way” to deport him. It also begs the question of why an astute man like Dotcom would put his head in that noose in the first place.

Sadly, a far more likely explanation is that this is another case of New Zealand suffering from “small country syndrome” – spooked by a controversial international mogul seeking residence here; panicked by the intervention of the FBI and desperate to show we could foot it with the “big boys”, leading to general cock-up and confusion, with much egg on face all round.

Unless I am missing something and there are yet more unjoined dots to be found and connected.     

Wednesday, 9 July 2014


10 July 2014

It was a pretty shabby, poorly lit room.

A few sad looking souls sat around in a circle, all looking at their feet.

Finally, someone spoke, albeit in a hushed and hesitant tone. “My name is David, and I am a man,” he said. He stopped for a moment but the others urged him to carry on to tell his shameful story. After all, a burden shared is a burden lightened.

When he had finished, others in the room felt sufficiently emboldened to make the same admission, and tell their awful stories. And then they all went out into the night and off home. Confession may have been good for the soul, but nothing had changed as a result.

Yes, the story is apocryphal, but it is the sort of absurd world the Leader of the Labour Party is envisioning for all men.

Meanwhile, the scourge of domestic violence continues across all communities, sadly without discrimination, right across the country. Let there be no doubt about the severity and complete unacceptability of any violence against women and children in our society. That has to stop – now – and, as the major perpetrators of that violence, men have to face up to their responsibilities in addressing it. Bold action, across the board, is required right now – not simpering, gesturing apologies for a biological fact that cannot be easily altered.

We need to take the wraps off domestic violence and expose its prevalence wherever we can. Police revelations there are around 200 reported cases every day of the year are part of that. Our aim has to be to make any tolerance of domestic violence as unacceptable as drink-driving and smoking have been made in earlier times, so that underlying social attitudes are changed.

That broad brush needs to be supported by a range of other mechanisms to be sustainable and effective. Men and women need support for and education about their respective roles as partners and parents. That is where the extension of paid parental leave to 52 weeks is so important – to give both parents the opportunity to bond with their new children, and thereby better understand their roles as parents and partners.

There needs to be more support for agencies like Women’s Refuge in the awesome and valiant work they do in helping support women and children who have been domestic violence victims. And the laws governing the prosecution of domestic violence cases need to be upgraded and properly enforced, along the lines of last week’s government announcement.

The last thing we need is the absolute trivialising of a serious social problem by fake and insincere apologies, designed more for a headline, than to do any meaningful good. The women and children of New Zealand who live in constant fear and suffering because of domestic violence deserve a far better response than that.

And I make no apology for saying so.

   

  

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 2 July 2014


3 July 2014

Charles de Gaulle once commented that politics were far too important to be left to the politicians. It appears our diplomats have adopted the same view about diplomacy, if the case of the disgraced Malaysian diplomat is any guideline.

By and large, we are well served by our public servants, and Ministers are usually extremely loyally supported, whatever their foibles. But when things go wrong, they often do so in a mighty way. I well recall seeing a former Prime Minister incandescent with rage after a comparatively junior official told him of plans to release adverse economic figures just a few days before an election. When the Prime Minister reminded him of this, this official arrogantly and utterly naively replied, “That is not my problem, Prime Minister.”

The same breathtaking dose of unreality seems to be behind MFAT’s Malaysian diplomat SNAFU. Whoever thought the “our chaps will talk quietly to your chaps” approach that appears to have been adopted was smart and sustainable, let along morally defensible, deserves their head read. Yet these are the same people who shudder visibly at the idea of politicians taking too hands-on a role in foreign policy formation because of its apparent subtlety and sensitivity, which leaves it far too important to be left to people who in Sir Robin Day’s infamous words are “mere here today, gone tomorrow politicians.”

Well, the case of the Malaysian diplomat has knocked any pretence of credibility that argument may have had, not just for six, but right out of the park and down the street. Diplomats of all people should not be letting down their political masters this way, let alone being so amoral when it comes to the instance of prosecuting a serious case like attempted rape.

Should we be altogether surprised? I venture to suggest not, sadly. The culture of many of our diplomats stems from the British Foreign Office. And it is not that many years ago that Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt and possibly even Hollis were protected by the “club” because ‘decent chaps” could not be Soviet spies.  Or that our own Paddy Costello was similarly protected.

It has been a week of bizarre events. First up, Labour said it would ensure new migrants did not live in Auckland. Short of ankle bracelets and leg irons, how on earth was it ever going to enforce such a crazy policy? Then came the Moa reincarnation scheme – prize winner for the most crackpot political idea of the year.

But while these two ideas smack of political lunacy and can be quickly dismissed as such, the Malaysian diplomat saga is more sinister: officials deliberately withholding information from Ministers and advising another country how to get around the law by claiming immunity to prevent a trial on one of the most serious criminal charges. Such behaviour, with so little regard for the victim, is simply unconscionable. Just as the diplomat is being extradited to face trial, so too should those responsible for this appalling state of affairs be held to full and proper account.
 
Authorised by Hon Peter Dunne, Parliament Buildings, Wellington