Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The formerly cherished and hallowed centre ground of politics seems to have lost its sheen. That special space in our political spectrum that every political leader since Holyoake has sought to capture and occupy suddenly seems barren and forlorn. The rise of post-truth politics, personified by, although not limited to, the Trump phenomenon, has seen reason and common sense, which used to provide the backbone of Western liberal democracies, abandoned in favour of the simplistic solution, the half-truth and the alternative fact. The centre ground of politics suddenly seems to have become everyone’s new favourite non-cause.

The centre ground has traditionally been closely linked to common sense. Common sense politics have usually been the preserve of centrist politicians, able to bring balance and perspective to difficult situations, to set things on an even keel once more. But even those days may be behind us – not just overseas, but in New Zealand too. Only last week, for example, the Leader of the Opposition told a television interviewer that politicians who promoted common sense, what some have called the shared values of a community, were really just demonstrating their own irrelevance!

How has this happened? How has the pursuit of common sense and reason in politics become so unfashionable? A simple answer might be because of the failure of political ideology. The high water of the ideological divide in modern politics was probably the 1980s, with the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions riding high on the capitalist side of the ledger, and Marxism-Leninism still dominant in the Eastern bloc. Economic pressures meant both were in decline from the 1990s, and were finally relegated to the pages of history after the Global Financial Crisis of the early 2000s, but their scars have remained. Whatever the issue, the common response was that the politicians and the political system they operated were to blame. Their emphasis on modernisation and best practice had become ends in themselves, and had ruined many people’s lives, costing jobs and destroying communities in the process. So more of the same and its inherent moderation, were seen as contributing to, not resolving the problem. It was time to break the mould, although what it was to be replaced with was far less clear.

One thing that was clear was that business as usual, common sense and pragmatism, were no longer the part of the solution they had always been. So Brexit, so Trump, so the rise of neo-nationalism and the push-back on globalism, and the headlong outward rush from the centre. Maybe William Butler Yeats’ prophetic words in 1919 in the wake of World War I are coming to pass at last: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

In these swirling international tides, as New Zealand approaches its General Election, political parties here apparently fear being stranded in the centre ground they previously craved. Labour has long since abandoned any pretence of centrism, seemingly preferring a return to an oxymoronic modern form of the 1930s when the government knew best and did everything. The Greens and ACT have never even pretended to embrace the centre, and the Maori Party realises it can win the ultimate prize of being a permanent party of government just by doing its own knitting and ignoring everyone else. New Zealand First will go where it thinks the votes are, regardless of consistency; while post-Key National looks increasingly keen to loosen the centrist shackles he imposed on it. Only UnitedFuture still stands unashamedly in the centre – therefore completely irrelevant to some, or too full of passionate intensity to others.

A similar scenario is about to be played out in Britain with its snap election. Little wonder then that all the parties here will be watching how that, and the French presidential elections which begin this weekend will play out. The rational view cries out for a resurgence of common sense and the appeal of centrism. But with all the current international uncertainties, that reliance on reason may no longer be enough for voters staunch the headlong rush from the centre. There could yet be an eerie chill to the onset of our winter, before the warmth of the sun comes again.     






Tuesday, 11 April 2017

How free should speech be in New Zealand today? This issue has been in the news recently for a number of reasons. Just last week a group of prominent academics called for restrictions on what they termed hate speech against sexual and ethnic minorities. At the same time, the Leader of the Opposition was in Court defending libel allegations. Each raises questions about what limits there are on free speech, and where, if at all, any boundary lines should be drawn.

Of the two, the issue of hate speech (speech which attacks a person on the basis of their gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation) is the more vexed. At one obvious level no such attacks should be acceptable in a free and open society, but the question then arises what sanctions should be imposed when those norms are breached. Recently, a vile, overtly racist pamphlet, purportedly in support of the Hobson’s Choice movement, was circulated in my electorate and elsewhere. Its contents were repugnant to me and many of my constituents, and I took every opportunity to say so. But should it have been banned? I do not think so, because I think that even though the views are despicable, the racists who peddle them have just as much right to do so, as I have to rail against them. In an open society, views and outcomes are shaped by the free expression of ideas, however objectionable or extreme, what an American political scientist once famously called the mobilisation of bias, as citizens weigh up what they have heard or seen against their own values (and biases) a reach a view accordingly. Book-burning and its modern equivalents have never been hallmarks of democracy. Nor should they become so now.

The Andrew Little libel case raises its own set of interesting issues. At the one level, there is the right of the Leader of the Opposition, and any politician for that matter, to speak out without fear or favour on the issues of the day. Indeed, that right is enshrined in the concept of Parliamentary Privilege, and dates back to the 1688 Bill of Rights. Parliamentary Privilege affords absolute protection to Members of Parliament for comments genuinely made in the course of debate in the Parliamentary Debating Chamber. It is a somewhat different matter, as Mr Little found out nearly to his considerable cost, to be so frank outside the confines of Parliament. Whatever else, it is a salutary reminder that although the law can legislate rights, it can never legislate for individual prudence and judgement.

But, as with the case of hate speech, the question of malice and intent lurks in the background. Freedom of speech and the open expression of views, even if wrong or unacceptable to the reasonable majority are properly defensible, if the views are genuinely held. (Society is entitled to its crackpots, benign or otherwise.) What is more difficult to measure in both instances is where genuine belief gives way to malicious intent. Do those, for example, who preach racial intolerance do so because of a genuine, if thoroughly misguided, belief, or are they doing so to impose pain and suffering on the minority they are vilifying? Are those who attack people’s sexual orientation doing so for biological or strongly held moral reasons, or are they more interested in stigmatising and thereby punishing those whom they are opposing? And where malice is determined to be a factor, how far can we reasonably go in imposing sanctions, before we impinge upon an individual’s right to cause offence and infuriate? There are already provisions in our Human Rights and Race Relations legislation covering the most egregious behaviour.

In two weeks’ time we commemorate ANZAC Day, and invoke once more the notion of the spirit of the ANZACs. We will talk sombrely about their heroic and unselfish efforts over a century ago to secure the freedoms we enjoy today, and how their legacy must never be dishonoured. All quite proper and true. Freedom from the tyranny of strutting despots and the right to free expression lie at the core of that legacy. When we intone “Lest We Forget” this ANZAC morn, we should recall equally that commitment to securing freedom for all. And, for good measure, we should not overlook the famous simple but eloquent words of the French writer Voltaire, over 250 years ago:

“I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.

“Common sense is genius in homespun.”

On a separate note, Easter comes along this weekend. Whatever Easter may mean to you, my wish is that you are able to enjoy the weekend with those you hold dearest, and that if you are travelling around the country, you are able to do so conveniently and safely.




Tuesday, 4 April 2017

We have always prided ourselves that New Zealand is the land of the great outdoors. Our grand mountains, pristine forests, rivers and fresh waterways confirm that. So too does the comparative space our small population allows each one of us to enjoy. And the sea is never more than a hundred or so kilometres away, meaning we literally can have the best of all worlds.

Over 600,000 of us actively tramp, hunt, climb, or mountain bike and almost as many more of us fish, sail or swim each year. Similar numbers of overseas visitors make their way here to enjoy the great outdoor lifestyle we have to offer. Clean, green, active New Zealand has become one of the most overworked phrases in our national vocabulary.

But we are now beginning to realise all is not well in our state of paradise. Numbers of endangered species, marine life particularly, are increasing and populations dwindling as the harvest of the sea’s bounty increases. The prospect of dairy production’s “white gold” has led to farming intensification and irrigation that is starting to bleed major rivers dry, with consequent threats to flora, fauna and land mass. And the sheer delight we all feel at being able to access our great outdoors is placing major pressure on the infrastructure of our national parks and public spaces. Our pristine tourist posters are beginning to look more like a faded reminder of a bygone, simpler era.

The pressure for better health, education and social services has left little room to expand the conservation budget. While that has led to remarkably innovative funding partnerships between the private sector and the Department of Conservation to make up the shortfall, and while these have increased the level of public awareness and specific commitment to projects to save and enhance threatened species, it is still not enough. This is absolutely no criticism of the dedicated conservators and scientists who have done so much over the years, but we cannot go on the way we are.

At the same time, the pressures on other areas will continue and governments will face the perennial balancing act of how much to allocate to competing interests who will always have a justifiable case for saying they are not getting enough. Our small tax base, a product of our comparatively flat income structure and the absence of a significant wealthy middle class, limit any government’s capacity to substantially increase the revenue base.

Yet, there is a way through this conundrum – at little cost to New Zealanders, but with significant benefit to the environment. A levy of $20 to $25 charged on every overseas tourist entering the country would raise between $60 and $75 million a year. That revenue could be designated for use in improving the infrastructure of the conservation estate – upgrading tracks and huts in national parks, and providing more toilets to stop freedom campers polluting our highways and byways. In turn, that additional revenue would free up an equivalent amount in the Department of Conservation’s existing budget which could be redirected towards the protection of vulnerable species, enhanced  predator control and the like. Together, these measures would provide for a small but determined start in redressing the imbalance and heading us back towards a time when we could talk about clean, green New Zealand with justifiable pride once more.

The one-off imposition on the tourist would be minimal – equivalent to the cost to an overseas visitor of going to one stately home run by Britain’s National Trust – so would be hardly be a disincentive to visitors coming here. Indeed, many of them are stunned already that there is no charge on their access to our public estate, so would be unlikely to object to a modest levy of this type, tagged for the preservation, maintenance and upgrading of the natural surroundings they have travelled so far to enjoy.

To date, the government is lukewarm on the idea for reasons which are unclear (although the former Prime Minister seemed to think such a step was inevitable.) He for one seemed to appreciate it would be an easy and popular step to concede to a support party in post-election negotiations. It is not difficult to imagine his successors coming in time to the same view, if it means staying in office. 







Wednesday, 29 March 2017

The search for truth in the wake of the publication of the book, Hit and Run, has been simply excruciating.

The authors’ initial statement was absolute. Innocent citizens had been killed in Afghanistan as a result of an attack by New Zealand SAS forces. Equally emphatic was the response from the Defence Force – the attacks never happened. Then came the first modification – they never took place in either of the two locations the authors claimed. And now, there is the authors’ admission that while they had the village right, they had the wrong locations within it. Both the authors and the Defence Force have been engaging in a very painstaking dance on the head of a pin. And the public is still none the wiser as to what did or did not happen.

Along the way, there have been the reported misgivings at the time of the then Minister of Defence and the apparent comments of anonymous members of the SAS. The Chief of Defence says he has seen video footage of the incident, but at the same time says he has read only the executive summary of the report prepared into the incident, which he also says did not happen.

It is extremely confusing and more than a little Gilbertian. Despite all the disclosures since the publication of Hit and Run, the public still has no clear picture of what did or did not take place.

Over the years, the SAS has built up a highly deserved reputation, based on its skills, professionalism and integrity. It is extremely well regarded. Indeed, it is no coincidence that most recent Chiefs of Defence have come from an SAS background. As a consequence, the reputation of the New Zealand Defence Force has also been high, particularly in the areas of post conflict reconstruction and peacekeeping for which it has become renowned. Our military are not the sort of people who in the normal course of events would become involved in war crimes or militarily improper action.

All of which makes the seeming reluctance to hold some form of inquiry into what did or did not happen all the more puzzling to understand, especially given the variability of the accounts now emerging. The only thing we know for certain is that something happened, somewhere, sometime. Beyond that, the rest is speculation. It is reminiscent of Churchill’s comment on truth and rumour, “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

If the Defence Force is confident of its account of events, what does it have to fear from an inquiry? For their part, the book’s authors say they would welcome an inquiry, but they have no credible option but to say that. In the context of the wider security debate, the government has often pedalled the trite and simplistic mantra, “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” to justify wider intrusion. Well, now the boot is on the other foot, and the question can properly be asked in respect of its position on an inquiry. What does it  have to hide? What does it fear?

Well, maybe, there is another aspect to this which we are all missing. What if the Defence Force’s rebuttal is correct as far as it goes, and the SAS was not involved in the attacks, and the video footage also confirms that, but also shows that another force, the Americans, were more explicitly involved than has been indicated to date? Does New Zealand want to be the source of exposing that right now, given the unpredictability of the current administration? So is that the real reason why there is such official coolness on the idea of an inquiry to clear the name of the SAS?

Yes, that is just supposition. But to paraphrase Churchill, while truth is fossicking around in the dark looking for its trousers, rumour and speculation take hold. And in today’s world of instant communication that quickly becomes the new unshakeable truth. Alternative facts some might call them. Surely all the more reason why an inquiry is needed – and pretty soon now.










Wednesday, 22 March 2017

A constant in politics over the last couple of decades has been the National Party’s dislike and distrust of local communities making their own decisions about their own futures. National really does believe the Beehive knows best, despite a lot of obvious evidence to the contrary.

In recent years, this prejudice has manifest itself in many different areas (for example, debates about local health services and/or the location and number of local schools in places like Christchurch come to mind) but the most obvious and constant area has been that of environmental and resource management. The current debate about the future of the Resource Management Act needs to be seen in this light. National is determined to resist any attempt by regional communities to have any real say in major planning and environmental decisions that affect them.

A consistent pattern of central government intervention in local decisions has emerged in recent years. (National had been suspect in this area in previous times with the famous allegation that its paring back of the role of Regional Councils in resource management in the early 1990s was driven more by the prejudice of the then Local Government Minister against the way his local Council has treated a motel development application he had been involved in, than sound principle.) One of the first actions National took during its current term of office was to remove the power of general competence that had been previously delegated to local government, ostensibly on the grounds of preventing local government becoming too profligate in the expenditure of ratepayers’ money, but really more about stifling the capacity of Councils to act independently.

When Environment Canterbury (the Canterbury Regional Council) refused to play ball with central government over the allocation of waters rights for dairy intensification on the Canterbury Plains, the government stepped in and dumped the Council in 2010, and it will not be until 2019 that full local democracy is due to be restored. (Shades of Bainimarama in Fiji?) And then there is the notorious section 360 of National’s current Bill to change (hardly reform) the Resource Management Act which gives the Minister for the Environment a virtual power of override on just about everything. A few weeks ago, once more consistent with the bulldozer approach to local autonomy, National declared that henceforth all decisions about the application of the 1080 poison  would be made nationally, and no longer at a local level. The apparent justification was that a national decision making process would allow for much greater consistency and certainty, which, while plausible at a superficial level, belies the real reason. National could not simply afford the risk of rural and provincial communities (still its heartland support base) making their own decisions against the application of 1080, and contrary to stated government policy. Most recently, National has confirmed what it has been threatening for some years that, if any region (Hawkes Bay is the immediate example) declares itself to be GE free and markets its produce internationally as GE free, the government will step in to stop them doing so.

There is a strong case for amending and updating a number of the processes of the Resource Management Act, with every party in Parliament agrees with, and which could have been achieved relatively easily about four years ago had National chosen to go down that path. The simple reason National’s plans have faltered to date is because of its wider history in this area, and a deep concern that, based on its past, its real agenda goes way beyond having effective resource management law and is much more about controlling the scope and practice of regional government.

They say that leopards do not change their spots. In this case, the spots on the leopard are far more striking than usual. It would take a mighty change of heart on National’s part to satisfy the concerns about its real agenda. Only a na├»ve optimist or a fool would dare think this may happen.  









Wednesday, 8 March 2017

From the mid 1980s until the late 1990s the one certainty about superannuation policy in New Zealand was its uncertainty. Every government played around with it, to the detriment not just of superannuitants of the time, but also of those approaching retirement and hoping to be able to plan their futures with some certainty. National promised to repeal Labour’s infamous 1984 surcharge, only to replace it with something just as draconian in 1991. That was gradually watered down during the 1990s, and a multiparty accord established, which Labour then walked out of when it had succeeded in taking superannuation off the political agenda and Labour found it no longer had a weapon to beat the government with. Then National reduced the relativity of the rate of superannuation to the average ordinary-time wage, which was subsequently overturned by Labour and the current formula arrived at. A period of superannuation peace and stability was to ensue for about fifteen years.

It has to be said that none of us who were involved in superannuation politics of the time covered ourselves with any glory and that at least one generation of New Zealanders was given no reason to trust politicians on superannuation policy. It is probably true that Sir Robert Muldoon’s overly-generous 1975 election bribe of 60% of the average wage at age 60, developed as a simple reaction to the Kirk Government’s much more complicated contributory 1974 scheme which would have taken until 2014 to reach full maturity, was to blame for all this, but that was of little consolation at the time, or now. Superannuitants simply felt betrayed.

Over the last 15 years, a measure of stability has returned, and retirees, near-retirees and their families have been able to plan their futures with a measure of certainty. All of which raises interesting questions about National’s surprise announcement this week, that as a response to the ageing population, it plans to shift the age of entitlement from 65 to 67 between the years  2037 and 2040, affecting everyone born after the start of 1974. In an eerie throwback that suggests we could be about to get on the superannuation merry-go-round all over again, Labour now finds it convenient to renege on the raising the age policy it promoted at the last two elections.

It could be said that National has learned a lesson from the past with the long time-frame it has for the changes it is now proposing , although those affected, now in their early 40s and younger, may see it differently, having just paid off their student loans, and now raising their young families and meeting the mortgage costs. They probably will not feel downright betrayed as their grandparents did in the 1980s and 1990s, but they most likely will feel somewhat cheated.

The bigger risk is that National’s signalled intent – that is all it is at this stage, with eight general elections due before it takes effect in 2040 – sets off a further round superannuation uncertainty, the last thing anyone wants or deserves. And that raises the wider question about whether age adjustments are the best way to manage future superannuation policy. While it is true people are living – and working – longer, it is also true that the advent of Kiwisaver in 2007 has enabled many people to build up large retirement nest eggs, making them less reliant on New Zealand Superannuation in the future. At the same time, the focus now comes on the demographics of those with short lives post about 60, and how poorly they are catered for at present, In short, despite having paid their taxes all their lives, there are many who die worn out and exhausted before ever reaching 65, or shortly thereafter. And they get no, or very little,  superannuation.

That is why UnitedFuture’s focus is on Flexisuper (the option to take a reduced rate of superannuation from the age of 60 if one wishes, or a higher rate if uptake is delayed to age 70) and compulsory Kiwisaver, rather than adjusting the basic age of entitlement from 65. That package addresses the issue of those worn out at 60, and also sends a clear signal about the value of long-term personal savings, and less reliance on the state pension. But, most importantly, it places control of retirement choices and income back in the hands of the individual, not the state. Under Flexisuper and compulsory Kiwisaver, people will be able to back their own choices and know they will not be interfered with by governments changing their minds.

The one constant in the superannuation debate of the last couple of generations has been that people have craved certainty. They opted for Muldoon’s unrealistic “too good to be true” scheme in 1975 because it was simpler and more immediate than the Kirk scheme. They berated Labour and National governments in the 1980s and 1990s for “mucking up” their retirement plans. Now, when the superannuation spectre is being raised again, many may well see it as too far in the future to get exercised about immediately. An irritant, rather than a body blow, but certainly an opportunity for people to take control of their own retirement destiny, regardless of what the state might impose.            






Wednesday, 1 March 2017

New Zealanders care strongly about their environment. That is evident from general conversations, and even the most casual perusal of the stories produced by major news outlets. Environment issues always feature prominently and usually sympathetically.

Yet New Zealanders are currently being short-changed when it comes to environmental policy. The debate over swimmable rivers water quality comes to mind. How can it be that in a country like pristine, green New Zealand (as we like to style it) we have over time allowed our waterways to become so degraded that it is now going to take at least 20 years of concerted effort to restore 90% of them to a swimmable standard? And do we really believe that housing shortages in our major cities are all the fault of our concern for the environment? 

Equally, on the other side of the ledger, environmental dogmatism, often from the Left, frequently gets in the way of progress. The “my way, or the highway” approach they are fond of simply alienates potential support for a particular cause. (A notable exception at the political level is the cross-party GLOBE group, ably chaired by the Greens’ Dr Kennedy Graham, which is working alongside the Minster for Climate Change Issues on New Zealand’s response to global climate change.) But such co-operation, sadly, remains the exception, rather than the rule. Too often, environmental issues – which should be pervasive – are reduced to the politically partisan level which means that frequently no progress is made on their resolution, lest political credit has to be shared with Opposition parties. It is remarkably and nigh irresponsibly short-sighted.

The prospect – however remote and unlikely according to every opinion poll, published and unpublished so far – of a Labour/Green coalition taking office in September has had a number of spin-off consequences. (In Ohariu, for example, early indications are that the deal between Labour and the Greens has backfired, with support galvanising around the incumbent, and many previous Green voters saying they will cross the line because of their misgivings about the Labour candidate they are now being told to vote for.) More broadly, the Labour/Greens prospect has raised questions about the future direction of environmental policy, given Labour’s likely economic profligacy (few days seem to pass without another expensive spending promise being made) and the Greens’ increasing focus on broad social agitation, at the expense of their traditional advocacy for the environment.

For the many New Zealanders with a strong interest in sound environmental policies the picture is now very depressing – and confusing.  National’s environmental shortcomings are clearly and regularly displayed – and their communication usually mis-articulated. But the Left are no better. After nearly a decade in the wilderness (more than two decades in the case of the Greens) they are so desperate for power that everything else, including environmental integrity, now pales into insignificance. Labour has no environmental vision, nor does it show any interest in what the Greens have to offer on that score. Both seem to agree that, for this election at least, more traditional social democratic issues should be the focus, to the detriment of the Greens – and the environment.

Nevertheless, there is a need for a political voice for New Zealanders passionate about their environment, but at the same time committed to policies that will stimulate sustainable economic growth to support the social infrastructure a progressive and compassionate society requires. Or to state it more simply, a political party with a clear head, matched by a soft heart.

UnitedFuture has strong credentials in this regard. Not only has it used its political influence, through its centrist position of support for orthodox economics balanced by compassionate social policy to moderate both National and Labour Governments over the last 15 years or so, it also has a strong environmental pedigree, based around its support for the retention of the principles of the Resource Management Act, and its practical policies to future proof our environment for coming generations. The likelihood that the National-led Government will be returned at the election is reason enough for UnitedFuture be strongly represented there to provide the environmental balance, and to ensure the strong environmental concerns of New Zealanders are well represented at the decision-making table. No other party can offer that prospect.