Tuesday, 27 September 2016


So, the Leader of the Opposition thinks elections should not be about who wins the centre ground. He is right, up to a point, especially about bringing together “coalitions of interests” in his bid to win office. Where he is wrong, however, is that no New Zealand Government – single or multi party, pre or post MMP – has ever been elected without winning over the centre ground of politics. Moreover, for at least one hundred years, New Zealand has had moderately conservative governments, led since the 1930s by either National or Labour. We do not have a tradition of electing governments based on their ideological fervour, as both Sir Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson found to their cost in the late 1980s and early 1990s. (Even the great, reforming first Labour Government had to rely on the ravages of the Great Depression across our society since 1929, rather the zeal of its reformism, to win office in 1935.) While the Leader of the Opposition is right to talk of “coalitions of interests” he is wrong to assume he alone can put them together without the glue of the centre ground. Fraser, Holyoake, and more latterly Clark and Key fully understood that point. Mr Little, who is nowhere near their league, appears not to.

It was probably only coincidence, but Mr Little’s timing could not have been worse. To renounce the centre ground the way he did the very weekend the British Labour Party re-elected its overtly old-fashioned socialist leader, thereby consigning it to political oblivion until at least 2025 as most commentators predict, was at best extremely unfortunate. At worst, it had all the hallmarks of an international Labour death-wish, making it more likely that it will be at least 2020, if not 2023, before New Zealand Labour becomes a serious player again. Mr Little, notwithstanding, that is probably unlikely, however.

Karl Marx once wrote that the thing to learn from history is that people do not. After its defeat in 1949, Labour was not a serious challenger to National (aside from the brief period of resurgence in the late 1950s under the septuagenarian Nash and his 1940s throwbacks) until the Kirk ascendancy in the late 1960s, culminating in the 1972 landslide. And the idiosyncratic Muldoon era was only ended in 1984 when that wiity and friendly Mr Lange came along. In 1999, Helen Clark was elected because she had become the dominant politician of her time. It is no coincidence that along the way, Kirk, Lange and Clark had all moderated their message to win the public confidence, and that Labour only won office when they did so. Yet the far less impressive Mr Little apparently believes he can eschew those lessons.

As a progressive party Labour traditionally has more activist policies than its more conservative rivals, so its determination not to wish to compromise its intentions too much is quite understandable, although there is a time when forsaking the prospect of office (and thereby the ability to do something for the people you represent) rather than moderate a stance, is somewhat foolhardy. As another great Labour leader who was to return his party to government after nearly a quarter century in the wilderness – Australia’s Gough Whitlam – once excoriated his chauvinistic, faceless, geriatric national executive, “only the impotent are pure.” But again, the decidedly inferior Mr Little knows better.  

In 1981, the British Labour Party was led by a rampant left-winger, Michael Foot. It had been out of office for about 60% of the time since 1945, and showed no immediate signs of being capable of returning anytime soon. Frustrated centrists, led by Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams, despairing of their party’s future and retreat from the centre, issued the Limehouse Declaration that led to the formation of the Social Democratic Party and the ultimate merger with the moribund Liberal Party to form the modern Liberal Democrats. History may be about to repeat itself following Mr Corbyn’s re-election, with Liberal Democrat membership rising sharply.

By contrast, in New Zealand, Labour has been out of power for two-thirds of the time since 1945, and similarly is showing no signs of an early return to office. So, is a split like Britain likely here as well? Who knows, but here is a possible scenario. Assume the return of Shane Jones to Parliament in 2017 wearing a New Zealand First shirt. It then becomes possible to see a new political grouping emerging of traditional working class Labour (that probably now votes New Zealand First anyway), provincial small business and non-middle class Maori coming together under Mr Jones, along with the mainstream remnants of the present Labour Party to mount a serious challenge to National by 2020. Under such a scenario, Labour’s non trade union left would gravitate to the Greens, leaving the Maori Party and UnitedFuture to seek to appeal to its Maori and urban liberals respectively.

While that is just speculation, the reality in the meantime, since Labour no longer wants it, is that the centre ground of New Zealand politics is now completely up for grabs.

 

 

Wednesday, 21 September 2016


National’s challenges over the Kermadecs Marine Sanctuary are a potential foretaste of what is to come with its ongoing attempts to change the Resource Management Act.

Three years ago, with much fanfare, the then Environment Minister announced to the National Party Conference a slew of proposed changes to the principles and practices of the Resource Management Act, only to discover somewhat shamefacedly subsequently the basic reality of politics – make sure you have the numbers first. National did not have the support from its support partners, the Maori Party and UnitedFuture to gut the Resource Management Act the way it wanted, so the proposal was shelved. A further attempt, after the 2014 election, similarly hit roadblocks, first when National lost the overall majority it briefly enjoyed prior to the counting of special votes, and second, worse was to come, when it lost the Northland by-election, meaning it could no longer rely on just ACT’s vote to pass critical legislation. Since then, National has needed either UnitedFuture, as well as ACT, or the Maori Party to do so.

During 2014, National attempted to woo both the Maori Party and UnitedFuture on resource management changes, all the time taking for granted ACT’s support, which proved to be a near fatal blunder. Along the way, UnitedFuture’s discussions came to an end when it became clear National’s proposed Ministerial veto procedures could easily be a stealthy way of subverting the Resource Management Act’s principles, without having to specifically amend them. Worse, ACT simply tired of having its support just assumed. So, both parties decided to oppose National’s legislation, leaving it reliant on the Maori party for any further support.

The Maori Party’s price was more Iwi involvement in the allocation of water rights, to which National agreed reluctantly, just to get the legislation introduced. But the Maori Party has made it clear that it regarded National’s early concessions as no more than a downpayment, and that its future support would hinge on further private agreements it had with the Minister regarding Iwi involvement being incorporated into the Bill. All of which has left National in a self-made quandary. It feels it has gone as far as it can already, perhaps too far for some of its more conservative supporters, in its concessions to the Maori Party, and that if it concedes more it may well alienate those supporters’ backing. On the other hand, if it loses the Maori Party’s support, it will not be able to proceed with any resource management changes, so upsetting its developer base.

Against that background, earlier this year, ACT and UnitedFuture made proposals to National on ways of resolving the looming impasse and meeting their own concerns about the Bill in a way which could lead to their supporting it, and making the government less reliant on the Maori Party. However, while those discussions were cordial enough, nothing has eventuated in terms of a government response, so the position remains one where the Maori Party’s decisions will determine what happens to resource management changes. All of which has a familiar ring to it when it comes to looking at the Kermadecs Sanctuary issue.

For its part, UnitedFuture strongly supports the proposed sanctuary, as do most political parties, so its ultimate fate is not an issue. The point is much more one of process and relationships with support parties.

As Prime Minister, John Key has been consistently especially sensitive, as has his Deputy, Bill English, to ensuring and maintaining good relationships with support partners, and, generally speaking, has been very successful in doing so. (Indeed, maintaining that careful balance probably explains National’s reluctance to adopt the ACT/UnitedFuture resource management reform proposals.) But, unfortunately the importance of those relationships is not always appreciated or understood by others in government, who seem to view the support parties as just an automatic extension of National’s votes in the House.

Messrs Key and English are far too astute to let the current Kermadecs row lead to the Maori Party walking out of its confidence and supply agreement, and despite the current chest-beating, it is really going way too far to suggest that it is a remotely serious possibility. But the Prime Minister and his Deputy will be using the incident to reinforce to colleagues the importance of maintaining good relationships with support partners, especially since the Prime Minister has made it clear that his preferred post-election option will be to carry on with his existing arrangements, rather than be forced to lie prone and impotent before the historically unreliable and serially quixotic New Zealand First, who in perhaps another more unpleasant foretaste proved as much again this week.

How the government handles both the Kermadecs and resource management issues might well prove decisive to its long-term desired outcome. A prudent and long kick to touch until more rational and balanced solutions can be found to both would therefore be in the government’s best long-term interests.  

  

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 14 September 2016


When I was obliged to resign as a Minister in June 2013 because I would not give an Inquiry into the early release of a Government report my private emails, I made the comment that, “The sole reason that I did not disclose the full content of my emails was because of my strong belief that citizens, be they constituents, members of the public or journalists, ought to be able to communicate with their elected representatives in confidence if they wish, and we tamper with that right at our collective peril.” In the uproar that followed, that comment was dismissed by my political opponents as largely self-serving pap on my part, and generally ignored.

A subsequent investigation by Parliament’s Privileges Committee found that I had every right to withhold my emails and that the Parliamentary Service (the bureaucrats that run Parliament) should have at the very least consulted the Speaker of the House – which it had failed to do at any stage – before it had handed over copies of my metadata, phone records, and the even the file of the emails themselves to the earlier Inquiry. Along the way, the General Manager of the Parliamentary Service had resigned over its conduct, and the chief executive of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet had offered his resignation as well.

In the light of all this, it was not unreasonable to assume that the Parliamentary Service would have learnt its lesson well and truly, and that it would be far more circumspect in the future about how it treated MPs’ communications. How the chickens have come home to roost with this week’s revelations that it has blocked emails between a senior Labour MP and a journalist because it considered them too “sensitive.” Suddenly, the very people who so ridiculed and scorned my 2013 comments as pious twaddle are making exactly the same comments themselves, now they are directly affected. While that U-turn can be quickly dismissed as nothing more than proof of their collective shallowness and vacuity, the more substantial question is why the Parliamentary Service has failed to learn the lessons of 2013, and still sees it as entirely appropriate to interfere in MPs’ private communications.

MPs are not employees in the technical sense, so they do not work “for” the Parliamentary Service, as some might assume. Therefore, employment law and practice regarding private communications do not apply. By its nature Parliament is different, so practices need to be tailored to Parliament’s special circumstances, not the other way round, the way some old-style senior public servants desperately believe should be the case.

Of course, it is possible that the current case is no more than a case of firewalls, and not active interference. The Parliamentary Service’s belated admission that it has been using the SEEMail screening system that government departments use, unchanged since 2007 lends some credence to this latter explanation. However, that raises another, more worrying question. Why is it that, given the pointed criticisms of the Privileges Committee, the Parliamentary Service seems to have blithely carried on unchanged? Where was the internal management that should have identified the problems likely to have been caused by SEEMail, and acted proactively to overcome these? Did the Parliamentary Service not foresee that a case like this week’s was bound to arise, sooner or later, that would put the management of MPs’ communications back in the spotlight? Or, is the real reason that the Parliamentary bureaucrats do not accept the point that MPs are not just extensions of the core public service?

One of the core tenets of our democracy is the right of citizens to have free and unfettered contact with their Member of Parliament. As a constituency MP of more than 30 years standing, I frequently receive personal information from constituents to assist me to advocate for them on a tax, or immigration, health or ACC issue, or whatever. They provide that information to me on a basis of trust, often in confidence, and virtually now always by email, because they rely on me to use it prudently on their behalf. They certainly do not expect faceless, unelected and anonymous bureaucrats to be using an old security system to screen their communications with their MP, and to decide what the MP should be allowed to see (or send). This week’s events will have shattered their confidence in that regard, and that is simply wrong.

I feel very sorry for the Speaker of the House. As the head of the Parliamentary Service, he has now been let down very badly on two occasions by this law-unto-itself organisation. They deliberately left him out of the loop in 2013, and he was left to come in and pick up the pieces. Exactly the same has happened on this occasion too. His considered statement to the House about the options available to deal with the now obvious shortcomings in the current system is helpful and merits further consideration – but by the MPs, not the bureaucrats. But why did it take this week’s revelations for the Parliamentary Service to even acknowledge to him that the system was failing? Why was it not raised in the wake of the Privileges Committee’s report in 2013, and why have that report’s findings been so obviously ignored? Why has the Speaker now been left twice in the invidious position of having to explain after the event what has gone wrong, and why the Parliamentary Service has been so inept? And who will be held accountable?

The openness and intimacy of our democracy is something to be valued. We should cherish the fact that week in and out constituents can visit their local MPs to discuss their problems in confidence and seek assistance. This week’s events strike at the very core of that relationship, so are much more than a technical argument about security. Unchecked, they pose a far more serious threat to representative democracy.

  

 

 

 

Wednesday, 7 September 2016


In just under four months New Zealand will end its fourth stint since 1954 on the United Nations Security Council. From the inception of the United Nations in 1945 at the San Francisco Conference New Zealand has been one of its strongest supporters, with then Prime Minister Peter Fraser playing a well-recognised leading role as both an advocate for collective security as an alternative to the devastating world war that was just ending, and a staunch promoter of the rights of small nations in the post-colonial world about to emerge. Consistent with that view, Fraser argued strongly, but unsuccessfully, against the individual veto power proposed for the Permanent Members of the Security Council (America, Britain, Russia, France and China). New Zealand’s support for the United Nations has been constant since that time, although successive governments have upheld Fraser’s view about the veto, and have routinely argued for its abolition, the most recent occasion being John Key’s stinging speech to the General Assembly in 2013.
New Zealand’s previous terms on the Security Council have coincided with great international events, where it has been able to have had some direct influence on the United Nations’ approach to those. In 1954, it was the aftermath of the Korean War and the fall of the French in Indo China after the defeat at Dien Bien Phu, which led to the formation of the southern hemisphere version of NATO – SEATO (the South East Asia Treaty Organisation) – as a supposed bulwark against Communist insurgence and expansion in the region, and in which New Zealand played a significant role until its demise in the 1970s and 1980s. In our 1966 term the Vietnam War was at its peak, and as the Pentagon Papers revealed subsequently, that while outwardly hawkish, Prime Minister Keith Holyoake was actually a strong doubter of the wisdom and effectiveness of the United States’ saturation bombing of North Vietnam. New Zealand’s 1994-95 term was dominated by the appalling genocides of the 1992-95 Bosnian War and the Rwandan crisis, and New Zealand won plaudits for the deft courses it followed in working towards peace and reconciliation in both conflicts.
At each of those times, New Zealand held true to Peter Fraser’s line, against the veto, and was a consistent advocate for the rights of small nations. At other times, most notably the ill-fated United States’ promoted and led invasion of Iraq, New Zealand upheld his commitment to collective security and declined to become involved unless there was a clear and specific United Nations’ mandate to do so.
Against that background and John Key’s strong speech to the General Assembly three years ago, there were high hopes New Zealand’s current term on the Security Council would be in the mould of the previous ones, and that we would mark out clear territory of our own to make a difference. United Nations Reform and the promotion of international human rights seemed obvious areas for New Zealand to pursue, so the question needs to be asked whether New Zealand has made any difference at all this time around.
In part, New Zealand’s current role has been somewhat diverted by the understandable commitment, this year especially, to supporting Helen Clark’s bid to become the next Secretary-General. But while United Nations Reform and the promotion of international human rights have been the strong foundations of her campaign, it is not clear that they have been as strong a set of features of New Zealand’s term overall. And if Helen Clark’s bid fails, as now seems increasingly likely (perhaps because of the veto, ironically) New Zealand will be left with barely a couple of months to make an impact. All of which seems unlikely, and suggests this term on the Security Council will best be remembered, if at all, as one of lost opportunity.
Peter Fraser’s determination in 1945 was that the United Nations be a forum where all countries, large and small, would have a say, which was why he was so strongly opposed to the veto. The sad conclusion is that 70 years later, having campaigned successfully in 2014 as a trusty upholder of the rights of small nations, and bolstered by the strong support of our current Prime Minister for the Fraser position, New Zealand now looks likely to end its current Security Council term, in T.S. Eliot’s immortal words, “not with a bang, but a whimper.”