Wednesday, 10 October 2018

In the wake of its greatest triumph to date, the Coalition Government is about to face its greatest challenge. And one will have been the cause of the other.

The far better than expected Budget surplus figures certainly came as a surprise, but may well be short-lived and more a product of the previous Government’s stewardship, rather than anything the current administration has done. Be that as it may, there is nonetheless little doubt that they come as huge fillip to a Government whose economic management has been under so much criticism. While the Government will understandably seek to milk every ounce of political advantage it can from this happy situation, as it should, Ministers will be well aware of the need to manage and downplay wider expectations of what this might mean.

Even as affable and laid back a Finance Minister as the current one knows that igniting public expectations of a new spending spree would be both economically disastrous and near certainly unattainable, and consequently a monumental political blunder. Especially so, since this self-proclaimed “Government of kindness” has already increased substantially its spending, with the promise of even more to come, while ongoing decisions about how it all is to be paid for are left dangling. After all, ultimately, there is nothing kind about a Government that outspends its capability, and leaves its people struggling to cope when the inevitable retrenchment occurs. So, Mr Robertson and his more economically literate colleagues, although by no means all members of the Coalition one suspects, will, while smiling quietly and just a little smugly, want to let down public expectations, albeit calmly and gently, as befits the “kindness” label.

Ironically, they have been helped considerably, and rather unintentionally, in their efforts to do so by the raw crudity and selfishness of their allies in the teachers’ unions, immediately and loudly laying claim to a fair chunk of the new surplus to settle their current salary claims. Now, this is not to dispute the legitimacy of their claims and their rights to pursue them through the already established channels, but more to make the point that leaping in so quickly to put their fingers on the money, as they did, was a mighty strategic error that has three impacts. First, it makes it much easier for the Government to now push back, as they already have done, citing the “no new lolly scramble” argument to send a wider signal of restraint. Second, it makes it actually a little more difficult for the Government to be seen to be too generous when a settlement with the teachers is eventually reached; and third, it runs a risk of alienating some of the considerable public support the teachers currently enjoy, if they are now seen to have become too pushy.

Beyond the teachers, there are of course many other groups who will be eyeing up a part of the surplus for their interests, and the Government will be well aware of this. So it will be equally determined to send them a "kind" but firm message that its purse strings are not for additional loosening. None of this will be an easy sell, especially if the surplus figures hold up longer than expected, so it will require nerves of steel from the top downwards to continue the line currently embarked upon, and that will impose its own challenges.

Former Finance Minister Sir Michael Cullen correctly and somewhat ruefully observed a number of years ago that managing Budget surpluses was a far more difficult task than managing deficits. When the Budget is in deficit, it is much easier for the Finance Minister just to say no to everything, however meritorious, because the money is simply not there. But in surplus times, the focus comes much more onto the quality and overall value of the new spending being proposed, and that requires Ministers to make some very strong judgements. In such circumstances, the admirable virtue of "kindness" is often not enough.

A tough reality this Government is about to find out. 

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Over the last few weeks there have been three subtle but deliberate moves from New Zealand First which, while on the face of it are apparently unrelated, nonetheless, when taken together amount to a significant attempt to limit diversity and debate in New Zealand. In their own way, each is consistent with that Party's long held, unstated  ambition of returning New Zealand to the type of insular, homogeneous, conformist society it was in the days when Rob's Mob held sway.

The so-called "waka jumping" legislation came first. Ostensibly, this legislation is about  upholding the electoral will of the people by preventing MPs who leave their parties during the Parliamentary term from remaining in the House, and so preserving the electoral status quo. In reality, the initiative has two real objectives: first, straightjacketing New Zealand First MPs from rebelling and splitting from the party, as an earlier bunch did when the 1996-98 coalition with National blew asunder; and, second, preventing National from establishing a new support partner by mandating one or more of its current MPs to split off to establish such a party.

But it also has a more sinister aspect. It makes the party leader all powerful in terms of a party's MPs. As the New Zealand First leader is now the dominant leader of the government, it effectively makes all government MPs responsible to him, not their own parties and most certainly not the electorate which elected them. The chilling consequence of this is that it effectively stamps out all prospect of serious internal dissent, or even debate, and the expression of alternative political views. MPs will therefore be reduced to the status of mere ciphers, pallidly toeing the party line, and eschewing any independence or diversity.

Yet our Parliament is not called the House of Ciphers, nor the House of Delegates. It is properly and deliberately titled the House of Representatives, where MPs are expected to debate fearlessly and without prejudice the issues of the day. (Indeed, one of the first steps every new Speaker takes is to symbolically lay claim to the rights and privileges of Members to do  so.) The "waka jumping" legislation is a clear constraint on the ability of MPs to do their job and represent their constituents effectively, as well as on the conscience of MPs to leave their party if they feel it has moved in a direction they can no longer support, and to leave it to the electorate to judge them at the next election.

Then, at their party conference at the weekend, New Zealand First members supported a proposed Bill to require new migrants to sign up to a set of pre-determined New Zealand values, and presumably be required to leave the country or forfeit their residence status if they will not do so, or breach them subsequently. This has eerie overtones of dark, earlier times when countries have attempted to impose national values on a population and exclude those who failed to comply, and is a direct affront to modern, diverse, tolerant New Zealand. In fact, the only requirement we should impose on new residents is the one we impose on ourselves - to abide at all times by the rule of law. In a democratic society, there is no place for the state attempting to define or legislate the values of that society, save for the universal right to freedom of belief and expression.

Now, this week, New Zealand First is speculating about changing the electoral system by "reviewing" (in reality, tightening) some of the threshold requirements in particular. That immediately raises the point that changes to electoral law should come at the behest of the public, not be driven by any particular political party. So people should be extremely wary of the real motives of politicians abruptly and arbitrarily promoting changes to the way MPs are elected. Moreover, any changes should err on the side of extending the opportunities for the representation of diverse political views, rather than limiting them. 

Taken together, limiting the ability of MPs to speak out and challenge their party leaders if they feel they are wrong; tightening up the electoral system to make the representation of minority views more difficult; and, then defining the values new residents are expected to uphold are a comprehensive assault on the underpinnings of the tolerant, diverse, liberal society we take for granted. They should be rejected, completely, loudly and immediately.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Much of the commentary about the recent ructions within the coalition government has settled on MMP as either the explanation or the blame for what has been going on. In reality, it is neither. MMP is but an electoral system. The blame or explanation lies with the politicians themselves.

Every government formed following the eight elections since we opted for MMP in 1996 has been a combination of at least two, and often three or even four, different parties, in either formal coalition or on a confidence and supply basis. The current government is no more or less a true MMP government than any of those which have preceded it. To suggest otherwise is nothing but a clever deflection of the real problems at hand.

And it matters not whether the government is a coalition, or one based on confidence and supply. What matters most, and ultimately determines its success or failure, is the dynamic of how it works. The claims of dysfunction against this government arise not from the method of its election, nor even its composition, but from its performance.

At the core of that is a perception that the Labour Party and its leader have become hostage to the demands of New Zealand First and its leader and that the Greens are being marginalised. While Labour and the Greens are natural partners, it is the support of New Zealand First that the government relies on to survive. Labour and New Zealand First both argue that there is nothing untoward here, and that all people are seeing is the normal dynamic of a coalition government getting on with its job. It is about give and take, they say.

There is some validity to that viewpoint. But the problem is that there seems to be more give than take as far as Labour is concerned, causing the claim that it is New Zealand First - with just 7% of the votes (less than a fifth of Labour’s share at election time) - calling all the shots, a perception not helped at the outset when it was New Zealand First, not Labour, that announced the shape and form of the new government. Labour seems to be doing a fair amount of giving, for precious little take in return.

When this government was formed, voters expected that the coalition agreement would be the basis of its approach, with other matters decided on a case by case, as had been the practice under earlier National and Labour-led governments. Yet what appears to be happening now is that all the parties are having real difficulty making the compromises necessary on those matters not covered by the coalition agreement. The perception that is creating is one of indecision and internal division, which in turn is leaving the government looking at sixes and sevens, and any progress being made on implementing the coalition agreement being either overlooked or ignored by the media. So the government's story becomes one of internal discord, rather than positive progress.

This is where leadership assumes real importance. Ensuring coalition relationships remain congenial is obviously vitally important, and critical to the government’s survival, but it cannot become just an end itself. The government still has to be seen to be doing things. In that regard, the Prime Minister‘s recent commitment to publish frequent updates of progress is welcome, even if a little late. It may limit some of the cynicism, but of itself is unlikely to be enough. The Prime Minister has to be seen to have dealt to the factors given rise to the negative public perceptions.

Asserting her leadership, and more importantly, being seen to be doing so is a critical part of that. To that end, a public rebuke, albeit well orchestrated, of her coalition partner on a particular issue might also be in order. Her decisiveness to date seems to have been limited to dealing with her own party. She needs to demonstrate unequivocally that she is the head of government, not just head of the largest party in the government. Her apparent unwillingness to ruffle coalition feathers is starting to work against her, especially since New Zealand First seems to have no such compunction about ruffling Labour's feathers.

Her stoicism to date is admirable, but cannot continue. She needs to be seen to be in charge, rather than just turning the other cheek. Her predecessor Helen Clark’s great strength was that people always knew where she stood on an issue. That clarity of purpose enabled her to manage three very different governing arrangements over her three terms in power. As the Prime Minister wrestles to restore her government’s fortunes after an appalling few weeks, she could reflect upon and pick up one or two hints from the Clark playbook.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

The row over Clare Curran’s emails is becoming more and more ridiculous. 

No sooner had the former Minister resigned her remaining portfolios than she was admitting there might be more emails on her private email address with chief technology officer prospect Derek Handley than she first acknowledged, but that she was working with the Prime Minister’s Office to correctly identify those to ensure they were properly recorded for the purposes of any request for their release under the Official Information Act. Not only did this admission raise further questions about the reliability of Ms Curran’s memory, but also the intriguing possibility that there might well even be other unrelated items of Ministerial business on her private email account that have yet to be revealed.

Then there is the bizarre radio interview the Prime Minister gave last week, when she knew Ms Curran’s resignation was imminent, but where she gave assurances that her job was safe and that she had no plans to remove her. All technically correct of course, but the very precision of the Prime Minister’s explanation was grossly misleading. Beyond the Curran case, that cynical glibness will raise serious questions about the extent to which any future explanations from the Prime Minister on controversial topics can be taken seriously. The Prime Minister is an intelligent woman, and it is therefore quite baffling that she was willing to put her credibility on the line in this way, especially as the consequences of the folly of her coyness will long outlast the Curran saga.

Next was the extraordinary suggestion from the National Party, in one of the most flagrant disregards for personal privacy, that all Ms Curran’s private emails, personal and otherwise, should be handed over to an independent investigator to determine which were private and which were Ministerial. This sort of approach is more reminiscent of the STASI, and it must be of concern that the National Party, with a previous strong tradition of upholding liberal values like the right to privacy, should even be thinking this way over an issue which, when everything else is considered, is not that important. It raises far more serious questions about National’s commitment to protecting personal privacy in an era where cybersecurity is raising fresh tensions over the boundary between upholding the rights of the individual, and subjugating personal interests to those of the state.

But no-one seems to be interested in addressing what should be the fundamental point of concern arising from the Curran affair. Put simply, there is no excuse for any Minister seeking to negotiate privately a public service appointment with any individual. Clare Curran’s discussions with Derek Handley over the role of chief technology officer were wrong at all levels and should be nullified. After all, it is the State Services Commission which has the specific responsibility for making such appointments in a way that is open and transparent. That is to prevent any suggestion of cronyism or corruption in public sector appointments, which was the spectre raised by Ms Curran’s novel approach. It is of extreme concern that neither the Government nor the Opposition is focusing on this aspect, all the more so when there is already an Inquiry underway into the recent appointment of the Deputy Commissioner of Police.

The role of chief technology officer is an important one. It is at a senior level and the appointee will be the technical interface between the various branches of government and the information technology sector, supplementing and supporting the work of the government chief information officer as the transformation to a digital economy proceeds. To ensure the credibility of this critical appointment the government needs to immediately turn the whole process over to the State Services Commission to start afresh, without either further Ministerial interference or the involvement of Mr Handley.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

When a few months ago New Zealand First abruptly vetoed Labour’s plans to repeal the three strikes criminal justice law it was glibly explained away by Labour as just a breakdown in communication that would be resolved by the time a policy paper came anywhere near the Cabinet for consideration. With the Criminal Justice Summit then  looming, and clearly more water yet to flow under the bridge, the explanation had a brief air of credibility about it, so was largely believed, and everyone moved on.

However, it will be a little more difficult to treat this week’s equally blunt dismissal by the Deputy Prime Minister of Labour’s long held plans to double the refugee quota in quite the same vein. All the more so, given the Deputy Prime Minister’s accompanying chilling observation that “Labour is not the government.” This would have been news to many people who thought we had a Labour-led coalition government with New Zealand First, and supported by the Greens.

Certainly the comments were intended to play to New Zealand First’s racist constituency that does not like either migrants or refugees and definitely does not want to see any more of them. But they were also sending a none too veiled reminder to Labour that this government survives neither because of the gushing charm of its leader, nor the self-imagined talent of its Ministers, nor the will of the public, but simply and solely at the pleasure of New Zealand First and its leader. Labour has been placed on clear public notice that it needs to toe the New Zealand First line to remain in office. The Prime Minister’s muted response shows she understands her predicament all too well, and will bow to it, because she has no other option.

While this was always seen as a potential risk for this coalition government, given its make-up, Labour had earlier believed that during the period of the Prime Minister’s maternity leave, their Ministers would be able to straightjacket the Deputy Prime Minister, to preserve the fiction this government was Labour-led, but he was too wily for that to ever have been a possibility. This was his opportunity to put his stamp clearly on the government, and he was not going to be denied. He easily outwitted his Labour colleagues and used his considerably greater experience to perform better than most had expected he would as Acting Prime Minister, and bring an air of stability to a government that has looked somewhat chaotic before and since. In so doing, he enhanced considerably his stature within the government, as well as increasing New Zealand First's dominance of it, leaving Labour between a rock and a hard place.

By the time the Prime Minister returned to duty, the die was firmly caste, and the government had to all intents and purposes become a New Zealand First/Labour coalition. Nothing has happened to reverse that over the last few weeks, and the Prime Minister’s travails with her own Ministers in the last couple of weeks have reinforced the new dynamic.

Against that backdrop, the refugee put down this week is a ruthless assertion to the public of where the power really lies in this government and who will be calling the shots for the remainder of its term. The Prime Minister's awkward balancing act from here on is to continue to appear enthusiastic and aspirational, while at the end of her Deputy's string, and only allowed to implement the policies he mandates. How long the now marginalised public tolerates that becomes an open question.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

There has been much scoffing and guffawing on this side of the Tasman in the last week about the brutal public coup within the ruling Liberal Party that saw the replacement of Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister by Scott Morrison.

All the traditionally wise voices here opined about how poorly timed and executed the coup was; how brutal Australian politics have become; and how all this was the death knell for the current Australian government due to face an election in a few months. The unspoken undertone was that such crudity and barbarity would never happen in New Zealand - that we are so much more subtle. Which is a load of uninformed nonsense, of course - faced with similar situations over the years our politicians have been just as venal and brutal.

Since 1990, there has been the coup initiated by Mike Moore which toppled Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, just a few weeks before Labour's 1990 election rout. Then, three years later, was Helen Clark's ouster of Mike Moore, weeks after the 1993 election where National's record majority of 48 had been reduced to just one. That was followed by the unsuccessful attempt by senior Labour MPs to stare down Helen Clark shortly before the 1996 election when Labour was polling at just 18%.

During its years in  Opposition from 2008 to 2017, Labour stepped up this pace considerably. David Shearer, probably the best Prime Minister New Zealand never had, was undermined constantly from within from when he took the leadership in 2011, until he stood down in 2013. His successor, David Cunliffe, was similarly forced aside, although more unwillingly, after Labour's third straight defeat in 2014. Andrew Little was next, surviving for nearly three years, despite poor polls and ongoing Caucus mutterings, until it all got too much for him in August last year and he yielded to Jacinda Ardern.

National has not been immune from such events either. In 1997, Prime Minister Jim Bolger was met at the airport on his return from a successful overseas visit by senior Minister Doug Graham to be told that a coup led by Jenny Shipley was underway and that he did not have the numbers to survive. In 2003, it was Don Brash's turn, following a series of poor poll showings by then leader, Bill English, and in 2006, after Dr Brash's various peccadillos had been revealed, he was forced to stand aside to make way for John Key.

So while the jokes abound about how frequently the Australians change their Prime Ministers, it is worth recalling that leadership changes also occur frequently in this country as well. Excluding long-term leaders like Helen Clark, Jim Bolger and John Key, the average tenure for our major party leaders in the last 30 years has been just under three years. A similar comparison with Australian major party leaders in the same period, excluding the long term of John Howard, shows an average tenure of just over three years - slightly higher than the New Zealand figure. All of which, perhaps, does not bode too well for either Jacinda Ardern or Simon Bridges.

The one difference between the two countries is that leadership coups are generally more likely in New Zealand when a Party is in Opposition. In Australia, of late, the opposite has been the case. In New Zealand, pre-election leadership coups have produced mixed results, but in Australia they are slightly more likely to have a positive result, as Julia Gillard's 2010 and Malcolm Turnbull's 2016 election wins show. In that sense, Scott Morrison still has something to play for.

What is clear though is that the public on both sides of the Tasman is much more sanguine. While the politicians become extremely exercised by the drama and pressure of coups, the public generally appears better able to take them in its stride.

While it is fashionable at present to tease our Australian neighbours about their current political antics, the record suggests it is not something we can rely upon for too long. We are pretty good at it too - and our time will definitely come again. On the basis of the record, almost certainly by early 2021.


Wednesday, 22 August 2018

For most of the ten months since the change of government, the National Party has had the best of times. Thrust unexpectedly into the role of Opposition, it has settled to its task, with few outward stumbles. It has managed a leadership transition without too much fuss, and has consistently remained top of the opinion polls. It has enjoyed harrying a constantly fumbling government and has dented the reputations of more than a few Ministers along the way. So far, so good, but the good times are coming to an end, and National is beginning to look exposed.

Typically, the first few months of a new government's term are months where the equally new Opposition can have some fun. Freed from responsibility, their former Ministers will still be more in touch with their old portfolios than their successors, still coming to grips with the demands of their new roles, and the overall challenge of being in government. But there comes a time when the momentum inevitably shifts in favour of the new government and its agenda, ushering in with it the perception of the Opposition as yesterday's people. For National, that time is now.

The fallout from the Leader of the Opposition's regional tour and one or two misjudgments by senior members are showing that National is starting to make heavy weather of its role, despite the government's chronic bumbling. That is relatively normal for this time of the electoral cycle (although governments are usually demonstrating more competence by now) and the challenge for National is not to get trapped into a political backwater. To the greatest extent it can, the party needs to be seeking to lead public debate, not just reacting to everything the government does.

So, for a start, it needs to stop barking at every parked car it sees, and focus instead on the issues that matter. A visionary and well-marketed speech from the leader, setting out a handful of key principles and the type of party and government he aspires to lead, followed by the development of some major policy themes to flow from those would be in order right now. Then, the party needs to reference all its actions against those, seeking where it can to shift the debate to its agenda and terms, so promoting the notion that National stands clearly for certain things, rather than just resolutely opposes everything.

This government seems to have realised far quicker that, like it or not, we are in a new political environment where the vitality of new ideas is what counts, even if the practical details still need time to catch up. There is a general mood against some of the more technocratic approaches to government of previous years, with voters looking for more signs of empathy and tolerance from governments, of whatever stripe, than has been the case until now. To prosper, National has to pick up on these themes, and become better at their exposition than Labour.

Dismissing this week's Justice Summit as just a "talkfest" before the discussions were even concluded shows National still has some way to go on this journey. While they may well be right on this particular issue, they are failing to recognise that the current prevailing public mood is more open to such consultative approaches than was the case previously.

And then there is the question of personnel. As the current government shows only too well, we now live in an era where political experience counts for little. Old hands are no longer seen as wise heads, steady guides on the tiller, or whatever, but impediments to progress to be moved on. Again, this phenomenon is not limited to New Zealand, but is an international trend, as, for example, Australia's constantly revolving Prime Ministerships show. Basically, politicians now get one chance and, once that is over, there is seldom any coming back. As he looks at his team, National's leader needs to reflect on that, both in terms of his former Ministers and longer term inhabitants of the back bench. Some early signs of fresh blood coming to the fore to replace the placeholders needs to become more obvious.

Finally, there is the question of future alliances. This is much more difficult because National does not control this space, and, in any case, the options are limited. However, any moves to its right in this regard will cause National more harm than good. For the time being, the days of the hard right - social and economic - are over, and National needs to realise that. The path to the future is not to try returning to the past.

The next few months will tell the strength of National's story. As they become more removed from the day to day reality of government, they will have more opportunity to address, define and promote their agenda and brand. The extent to which they are prepared and able to do this will determine the extent to which they can be taken as serious contenders for the next election.