Thursday, 9 May 2019

Parliament's current Speaker is turning the ancient and venerable institution on its head. Traditionally, the Speaker's role has been a rather conservative, sometimes passive, one to preside independently, without fear or favour over proceedings in the House, to ensure that no Member of the House acts in a way that brings Parliament into disrepute, but that every Member, regardless of how senior or junior they are, or what party they represent has a fair and reasonable opportunity to promote their views on the issues before the House. For those reasons, Speakers of the House of Representatives normally stand aside from partisan political activities during their term, and put a reasonable perceptible distance between themselves and their own party, so they cannot be accused by anybody of any form of political bias.

Mr Mallard seems hell-bent on changing all that. He is a long serving MP, second only in seniority to the Deputy Prime Minister in the current Parliament, and, as a former Whip and Minister, has seen more than most about the management of Parliament. Faced with a new government and a totally inexperienced Prime Minister he seems to have taken on the role of her protector in the cut and thrust of Parliamentary debate, Question Time in particular. While his paternalistic approach towards the Prime Minister may be understandable in the circumstances, it is, at the same time, not only utterly patronising, but, worse, it is completely inappropriate and totally compromising of the presumed impartiality pf the Speaker.

When his innovation of adding or subtracting the number of Supplementary Questions the various parties are entitled to during Question Time as penalties for what he considers bad behaviour is considered as well, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Mr Mallard still sees himself to be an active player in the Parliamentary game, rather than its impartial referee.

There might less of a debate about the current Speaker's performance if the perception was that his interventions were evenly spread between the Government and the Opposition. But the reality is that because Parliament is the Opposition's main platform for criticising the Government (which, conversely, by the nature of its role has many more opportunities to promote its message) it is the Opposition that always tends to feel most acutely the way it is treated by the Speaker, no matter how partial or impartial the Speaker may be. And that puts an added pressure on the Speaker to be doubly sure that his treatment of the Opposition in the House is not just fair and reasonable, but is overtly seen to be so. That is where Mr Mallard is failing.

Of course, given his experience, he knows full well the various games the Opposition are playing - he has played many of them himself when in Opposition - but that does not mean it is his role as the impartial referee to try and head them off from doing so, before they actually do so. Yet, time and time again, he seems too quick to intervene to cut the Opposition short, to the benefit and delight of the Government. That is not as it should be.

There were examples of all of the Speaker's shortcomings on display in the House this week. His decision to throw the Leader of the Opposition out from Question Time because he was making alleged "barnyard" noises in response to answers being given by the Prime Minister was an over-reaction. Yes, Mr Bridges was at fault because Ministerial answers are supposed to be heard in silence (yet I seem to recall being interjected upon by Mr Mallard many times when answering questions) but his misdemeanour deserved a stern rebuke, not an expulsion.

Even worse, was the Speaker's decision to "Name" Dr Nick Smith - whom he had just expelled - for shouting criticism of the Speaker as he left the House. Now, I have no particular brief for Dr Smith - he can be unreasonable bordering on utterly impossible at times. (Indeed, I well recall trying to negotiate with him about the Resource Management Act, and being told he was only willing to do so if I gave him a prior commitment that whatever happened we would reach an agreement!) But his behaviour, while impulsive and silly, did not justify his being "Named". Being "Named" means an MP is suspended from the service of the House, initially for 24 hours, but in rising amounts if the offence is repeated, and deprived of salary and access to the House's resources for that time. Put into perspective, Dr Smith's offence was akin to the serial parking offender who wrote an abusive letter to the local Council, being sent to jail for 10 years, completely over the top and out of all proportion to reality.

The major part of the Speaker's role is to ensure the smooth running of the House, and the Parliament as a whole. That relies on co-operation from the Opposition, which in turn will be based on the confidence it has in the Speaker. Already, the Opposition has labelled Mr Mallard a "bully", making the prospect of serious co-operation for the balance of this Parliament quite unlikely. And the blame for that can be laid fairly and squarely at Mr Mallard's overly (and overtly) partisan door. He needs to take the lead in repairing the damage he has created so far, and assuaging the view that he is probably Parliament's most biased Speaker in the last thirty years.

Mr Mallard revelled in being Parliament's resident bully boy when he was in Opposition. And he was good at it. But trying to reprise the role from the Speaker's chair to protect the Prime Minister and batter the Opposition is not acceptable. If he carries on this way, he will achieve the dubious honour of being remembered as the Speaker who brought Parliament into disrepute.

Dunne Speaks is taking a brief break, but will be back at the end of June.
 

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

In my Newsroom Column last week about the proposed Capital Gains Tax I wrote that "Notwithstanding her own strong feelings in favour of a comprehensive capital gains tax, [the Prime Minister] needs to recognise the depth of public opposition and reject the Tax Working Group’s recommendation outright. Otherwise, as the Reid Research poll shows, she risks the real possibility of the public rejecting her just as forthrightly. ... While there are times when Prime Ministers with considerable political capital can afford to spend some to push through some visionary change they feel strongly about, this is not one of those.  The continued pursuit of a comprehensive capital gains tax is just not worth it. The sooner it is buried, the better - for the country, and for the government."

Well, credit where credit is due. The Prime Minister has done just that, so congratulations to her. But while the Capital Gains Tax is dead, there are a number of intriguing questions that remain.

In her announcement, the Prime Minister reiterated her personal support for a Capital Gains Tax, but made it clear the proposal lacked the support internally and amongst the general population to make the tax a viable option. She further said that although having campaigned for a Capital Gains Tax at every election since 2011, Labour would no longer do so, nor implement one, so long as she is leader. It is an emphatic rejection of the nearly $2 million Tax Working Group that spent about eighteen months considering the issue.

But while the public and the business community may be relieved at the Prime Minister's announcement, there is still the problem of the Greens to deal with. Some weeks ago, one Greens co-leader was saying the government would not deserve re-election if it failed to introduce a comprehensive Capital Gains Tax, while the other was saying that the Capital Gains Tax was only the start of a major tax attack on the wealthy. Both have been properly humiliated by the government's decision, and must be left wondering about their futures, not to mention their now non-existent credibility. In the wake of the announcement, there were Green Party activists on social media blaming it all on New Zealand First, and saying that it reinforced the need to elect a Labour/Greens government at the next election, that would be not reliant on New Zealand First, so would be able to introduce a full Capital Gains Tax then.

However, those activists have overlooked, or were unaware of, the Prime Minister's admission that her personal support notwithstanding, the very idea of a Capital Gains Tax is stone cold dead, so long as she is leader of the Labour Party. So, unless the Greens know something about the Prime Minister's future leadership intentions that no-one else seems to know, they are left yet again whistling naively in the wind. 

The next question relates to the role of Sir Michael Cullen. Leaving aside his $1,000 a day pay rate, he was simply too partisan to be a credible independent chair of the Tax Working Group. His comments after the announcement that the "biggest losers" from the government's decision were the National Party because "this was how they were hoping to ride to victory and Mr Peters has shot it out from underneath" them. Those comments reinforce how utterly inappropriate it was to have someone as hopelessly partisan as Sir Michael chair the review, and that that alone probably entrenched public opposition to the Capital Gains Tax. And it also raises the question of whether the Tax Working Group's recommendation of the most draconian and pure Capital Gains Tax in the world was not a clever political ploy all along by Sir Michael to achieve precisely the outcome he referred to above. If he really was the staunch previous opponent of Capital Gains Tax he portrayed himself as (although I clearly recall him testing the water for one during the 2005-08 government) who better to lead the charge for one now, knowing all along it would be defeated, not by the government’s opponents, but from within the government itself? 

As for New Zealand First, the outcome has reinforced the perception that it is they who pull the government's strings, not the Labour Party nor the Greens. The notion that the Prime Minister is but Mr Peter's plaything has been there for some time, and is frequently offered as the explanation for why she tolerates the irresponsible conduct of Minister Jones, when other Prime Ministers, like Helen Clark for example, would although have fired him a long time ago. Her plaintive acknowledgement that although she still supports a Capital Gains Tax, the rest of New Zealand does not, and there is not agreement within her government simply strengthens that perception.

The Labour Party finds itself in a peculiar position following its announcement. On the one hand, it is almost certainly broadly in step with public opinion, which is no bad thing, and unlikely to do its overall standing any great harm. However, it will be two very grumpy groups, for whom the Capital Gains Tax has been a long cherished envy-laden idealistic dream, that it now has to placate. First, are the unions,  leftish social advocacy groups,  and the Labour Party's core activists; and, the second is the Green Party and its supporters. Bringing both of them back into the fold so that they campaign strongly for the return of Labour-led government at the next election now becomes a major political priority for the government. Ironically, the teachers may be unexpected beneficiaries - if Labour now has to deliver something dramatic to its core supporters to show it still retains "the faith", what better than a hefty teachers' pay settlement to keep the branches going and the activists knocking on doors in election year? Otherwise, with Capital Gains Tax abandoned, Kiwibuild foundering, and nothing too much else happening, there may be precious little left for the “true believers” to hang on to. 

Or else, the Prime Minister could simply decide to stare them all down on the basis they have no other political home to go to. Just like John Key did to National voters for nearly nine years. After having been so critical of the Key Prime Ministership, stealing his playbook would be the ultimate u-turn! 

   


Wednesday, 10 April 2019

National's unsuccessful attempt to get a Parliamentary inquiry into PHARMAC is a classic case of shooting the messenger. PHARMAC is a procurement agency, charged with securing the nation's supplies of medicines and medical devices. But it is not, and was never intended to be, a policy agency.

Under the national medicines strategy, Medicines New Zealand, which has underpinned the medicines policy of successive governments since I developed it in 2007, there are three very specific objectives. First, that medicines are safe, of high quality, and are effective; second, that New Zealanders have access to the medicines they need, regardless of their individual ability to pay, and within the government funding provided; and, third, that the choices made about medicines, the ways the system delivers medicines, and the ways individuals use medicines result in optimal outcomes.

In pursuit of those objectives, since 2007, under both Labour-led and National-led governments 420 new medicines have been funded; 500,000 more people have been receiving subsidised medicines; and, PHARMAC’s budget has been increased by almost 56% - from around $650 million to $985 million. However, there are still significant issues about the overall level of funding; the time taken to fund new medicines; the effective proactive use of medicines; and, the role of clinical trials.

Whoever forms the government in the future, the overall size of the PHARMAC budget is unlikely to change substantially. There are primarily two reasons for this. The first is obviously fiscal. New Zealand has had bad experiences in the past with an uncapped approach to pharmaceutical expenditure – the laxatives and antihistamines blowout in the late 1980s, which triggered the start of what was to become the PHARMAC model in 1993 is worth recalling. Aside from the lesson of the need for firm budgetary control that example also highlighted the desirability of removing individual product funding decisions from political influence, unlike in Australia, or Ireland, for example. In my time, and to some extent to my surprise, my discussions with Health Ministers from around the world always showed some envy for the New Zealand approach and the role PHARMAC plays.

An original aim of the medicines strategy was to bring about a change in attitude, which for too long, and in too many cases, with often tragic results, had seen medicines treated as the back stop –  in other words, when all else has failed, medicate. That attitude has to change, if more effective use of medicines is to be made.

However, there are currently two broad obstacles to be overcome. Medical specialists themselves remain wary of their established forms of treatment being disrupted or replaced by medicines. While that is understandable from a professional standpoint, it can lead to perverse outcomes, both for the patient and the health system generally, where a medical intervention is persisted with, when a medicine might be the more effective treatment.

With regard to the medical profession, there is still a need for closer integration with pharmacists, to ensure both that medical practitioners are best informed about the availability and capability of new medicines; and that they getting the best possible clinical advice about their potential. The relationship between medicine and pharmacy is still too hierarchical – it needs to become much more equal and horizontal, if we are to make the most of every point of care, and achieve truly integrated health care. 

Alongside this is the constant worry of governments about the rising costs of new and innovative medicines, and how they can possibly be afforded for the population. At the OECD Health Ministers meeting which I attended in 2017, there was strong condemnation across the board from countries as different as Japan (probably the most vehement of all), Norway, Britain, and most of Europe about the high costs of medicines, and the prices being demanded by Big Pharma. Only the USA was prepared to defend those costs.

The role of clinical trials and the time taken to fund new medicines are arguably the most critical issues facing the medicines sector at present. New Zealand is in many ways an ideal environment for clinical trials – robust regulatory systems, and a convenient population size. Changes in 2007 (by me, as Minister of Revenue) to the tax treatment of research and development had in mind encouragement of clinical trials of new medicines.

Informal preliminary discussions had indicated an interest amongst some pharmaceutical companies in pursuing clinical trials under such arrangements, yet none eventuated. It was very much a lost opportunity, and the tax credit was abolished by the National-led government (with my vote opposing the change) in early 2009.

The time taken to fund a new medicine is unacceptably long. All applications for funding new medicines are first reviewed by PHARMAC's expert Pharmacology and Therapeutics Advisory Committee (PTAC), which then makes a recommendation to PHARMAC. However, although PTAC’s clinical efficacy processes are generally robust, they carry no automatic expectation that a medicine once approved should be funded. And herein lies the problem. PHARMAC funds new medicines as and when it considers that to be a budget priority, regardless of any urgency in a PTAC recommendation. Sometimes, that can take years, by which time a newer and better medicine may have emerged, thus starting off the process all over again.

An unintended consequence of the funding approach of the last three decades under the PHARMAC model has been that the procurement agency has also become the policy agency. It has become the norm for politicians and health bureaucrats to defer to PHARMAC on all matters pharmaceutical, on the grounds that these are clinical decisions that should not be subject to political influence. While it is perfectly understandable, and in many cases the correct thing to do, when taken to the extreme, it leads to an abdication of government responsibility that should be addressed. It has led to the current situation where PHARMAC has become not only the procurement agency for pharmaceuticals and medical devices, but also the de-facto policy agency deciding what medicines New Zealanders should get.

What is currently missing is a plan of what range of medicines the New Zealand population might reasonably expect to have access to and how these should be funded. The Ministry of Health needs to step up here and take a more active role, alongside the clinical experts, the pharmaceutical industry, and community advocates to answer that question and prepare a plan accordingly to inform both future Government funding decisions and PHARMAC’s procurement strategy. And the Minister of Health, who seems to be making a virtue out of not talking to anyone, needs to come out from his shell and become more actively engaged. 

These are the much wider questions the Health Select Committee could usefully be inquiring into, rather than the narrow focus on the way PHARMAC operates as National was seeking. Without such a wider, more fundamental, investigation nothing much is likely to change, leaving patients, clinicians, other health professionals, pharmaceutical companies, and the general public equally unsatisfied. 


Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Anyone who tuned into this week’s television debate between ACT leader David Seymour and National MP Maggie Barry on the subject of Mr Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill in the expectation of learning more about a controversial subject that will affect each one of us in some way or another would surely have been disappointed. Instead of witnessing an informed debate covering the vexed moral and ethical issues, the provisions of the Bill, what refinements of it might yet be required, and whether it is likely to gain the support of Parliament, viewers were subject to an unedifying slanging match between two politicians interested only in pushing their own viewpoint, and not being prepared to even consider whether there was anything even remotely meritorious in what the other was saying. Both were uncompromisingly rigid in their views, and neither was prepared to concede even a millimetre to the other.

Sadly, that display was not unusual. The contemporary failure of politics the world over has been the death of reasoned debate that has come to the fore in recent years. The give and take of hitherto nuanced and balanced argument that has been the hallmark of liberal democracy for so long has been replaced by the absolute assertion of one’s position, with no room for, or even recognition of, the possibility of compromise. From the rise of Trumpism, through to the utter humiliating farce of the daily shambles that is Britain’s attempt to leave the European Union, the result is the same. Reason and judgment have given way to absolutist intolerance.

Associated with this mounting intolerance is a new arrogance where politicians have stopped trying to explain themselves (after all, as Ronald Reagan once said explaining is losing – although as we now know, in his case, it may have been more an excuse for not remembering) and just arrogantly assert the opposite. When, for example, our Deputy Prime Minister, with a record of over more than two decades of anti-Islamic and anti-Asian speeches can baldly state that he has been consistently misrepresented, and, despite his words being on the public record, has been deliberately misinterpreted by his critics yet is generally allowed to get away with it, you know we have a problem. Or when a government promises to fix the housing and child poverty problems the country is facing, yet halfway through its term these problems are far worse than they were when it started but the government says it is making progress and things are actually now better than they were, you realise the extent to which reason, judgment, common-sense and truth have vacated our political scene.

So, in that sense, the Seymour/Barry debacle was not out of the ordinary. It conformed to a trend that has been developing over recent years, which has been steadily alienating people from the political process. It is no coincidence that as a consequence public participation in the political process has been waning. The days of mass membership political parties are long gone. Electoral studies have shown that today about 3% of the population belong to political parties, well down from nearly 25% a couple of generations ago. Not even the advent of MMP has stemmed this, with what data that is available showing that most parties, new and old, have faced declining membership over the period. And voter turnout at elections has also been falling - from almost 94% in 1984 down to just under 80% in 2017.

But the trend is not isolated to New Zealand. From a high of just over 80% in 1950, voter turnout in Britain has slipped to just under 67% at the most recent General Election in 2017. Even the Brexit referendum, arguably the most important constitutional decision Britain has faced since the 1707 Acts of Union that established the United Kingdom, attracted a turnout of just 72%. In the United States voter turnout for Presidential elections has never been high – the highest turnout of the last half century or so was about 63% in 1960 when Kennedy was elected. Trump was elected on a turnout of about 55% in 2016.

These figures will all continue their steady deterioration if the current sorry state of politics remains. And, sadly, all the signs are that it will. Liberalism, with its hallmarks of reason and tolerance, is in decline the world over, with no real signs of an early resuscitation. As The Economist observed recently, liberalism, which has been the world’s most enduring and successful political theory of the last 400 years is now disintegrating. Tellingly, it makes the point that “people are retreating into group identities defined by race, religion or sexuality. As a result … the common interest has become fragmented. Identity politics is a valid response to discrimination but, as identities multiply, the politics of each group collides with the politics of all the rest. Instead of generating useful compromises, debate becomes an exercise in tribal outrage. Leaders on the right, in particular, exploit the insecurity engendered by immigration as a way of whipping up support. And they use smug left-wing arguments about political correctness to feed their voters’ sense of being looked down on. The result is polarisation. Sometimes that leads to paralysis, sometimes to the tyranny of the majority. At worst it emboldens far-right authoritarians.”

Elements of all this can be seen in the Seymour/Barry debate, and in a manner of contemporary political actions in New Zealand and elsewhere. It is powerful food for thought in this country as we contemplate the lasting impacts of the Christchurch Mosque killings and how our society might change as a consequence. The need for a new national tolerance for diversity of race, belief and opinion has been frequently stated as an early necessary step to take. This week’s Seymour/Barry slanging match on an important social issue showed our current political discourse has degenerated into nothing more than “an exercise in tribal outrage”, and what a long road we have yet to travel to restore respect, tolerance and reason to the centre of our political stage. Only then will the coming generation of New Zealanders feel confident that they can renew successfully meaningful engagement with the political process so that we build up afresh a tolerant and open society not afraid to face up to its challenges. 
 
     



Wednesday, 27 March 2019

There is no need to need to review the structure of the security services in the wake of the Christchurch Mosque killings. Both the SIS and the GCSB have already been heavily reviewed in recent years, made more accountable in their operations, and had their funding increased. The SIS and the GCSB are structurally quite different organisations from what they were five years ago.

Indeed, it is barely two years since the Cullen/Reddy review, the first of the five yearly reviews of the security services, ushered in by the 2013 changes to the GCSB legislation. The Cullen/Reddy review led to significant changes to the structures and accountabilities of both the SIS and the GCSB, and a significant budget boost besides. And the next regular review is barely three years away. In the meantime, there are the periodic public reports of the Inspector-General on the operations and practices of both services, which always receive significant media coverage.

On the face of it, little is likely to be gained from a further review, albeit by a Royal Commission, of how our security services are structured, in the wake of the appalling events in Christchurch. That said, there is undoubtedly a requirement to look into the operational conduct of both organisations in the lead-up to the attacks, and why they both seemed so totally taken by surprise by them.

Because of the unusual and sensitive environment within which they work, the security services have always operated at arms length from the  government of the day, lest there be any suggestion of collusion, or politically inspired surveillance taking place. While there are good reasons for maintaining that arms length day to day separation, it may actually be part of the problem, although there would be strong resistance to bringing the security services under any tighter political control. Thankfully, no-one has seriously suggested that.

Nevertheless, it is a matter of huge concern that the build-up to the events in Christchurch was missed completely by the security services. Even more so, is the revelation since March 15 that the SIS's strong historic focus on Islamic terrorism and threats, has meant that very little attention has been paid over the years to right wing extremist nationalist threats and activities, even though there has been plenty of evidence such groups were active in New Zealand.

The question has to be asked how on earth can this be? Where did the focus on potential Islamic terrorism stem from? And why were right wing, ultra nationalist, white supremacist groups apparently ignored altogether? Is it an outcome of the institutional prejudices of the organisations over time, and if so, what drove those? Or was it driven by the world view of the other Five Eyes partners, principally the United States, for whom the Islamophobic focus was paramount?

Following on from that, we need assurances that specific, solid steps have been taken to overcome the deficiencies already identified and that the operational focus of the services has been immediately broadened to include all potential forms of subversion or terrorism, regardless of where their perpetrators might fit on the ideological spectrum. We need those assurances clearly and swiftly and we do not need to wait for a lengthy Royal Commission to get them. A public cross-examination of the Directors of the SIS and the GCSB, under oath, by a Parliamentary Select Committee could obtain the answers far more quickly.

So, why is the government apparently so keen to include a wide-ranging review of the security services as part of the Royal Commission's brief? In part, it is a simple case of convenience - best to have it dealt with there,  rather than separately. And there is a certain logic to that, which is difficult to object to, if that is all. But calls from the Leader of the Opposition about the need to revive the comprehensive surveillance that could have occurred had Project Speargun proceeded, and muffled statements from some Ministers about the trade-offs between more security and personal privacy raise afresh the spectre of additional intrusive powers for the security services, which should arouse more general public concern. Horrific as they were, the events in Christchurch cannot be used as a justification for further moves in this direction.

Yes, we do need to find out why the security services failed so badly on this occasion. And the situation does need to be rectified to ensure such a gross lapse cannot ever occur again. But, at the same time, we must be vigilant to ensure no more of our individual liberties are compromised or surrendered in the process.               

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

In school, we all learnt the phrase, "Beware the Ides of March" courtesy of Shakespeare's play, Julius Caesar. The soothsayer's warning to Caesar was brushed aside and Caesar assassinated a little later in the day. For the last nearly 420 years since Shakespeare wrote the phrase, it has become a harbinger of impending doom.

Friday 15 March, the day of the Mosque shootings in Christchurch, marked the Ides of March for 2019. In many ways, it was our equivalent of the 9/11 attacks in New York, so dramatic was its impact.

As events around 9/11 were unfolding, President George W Bush was visiting a school in Florida. Photographers have recorded his being advised by aides whispering in his ear of what was happening, and all the while he had to sit quietly, and stonefaced through a students' performance, gathering his thoughts, before his hurried departure. His subsequent public addresses helped - indeed had to - quell the shock, grief, anger and horror of the American people, while at the same time having to come to grips with what had happened, or might be about to yet happen, and working out the national response. The photograph showing him addressing the people, megaphone in hand, from the rubble of the World Trade Centre, quickly became a metaphoric and iconic symbol of defiance and determination.

Prime Minister Jacinda Adern would have faced similar circumstances and emotions as last Friday afternoon's tragedies began to unfold. Like President Bush, she would have had limited time to process the information being received, and deal with her own inevitable emotions and reactions, before being expected to address the nation, both to offer information about what had happened; comfort to the distraught and bereaved, and reassurance to the country about the national response. Her subsequent now iconic photograph at the Canterbury Refugee Resettlement and Resource Centre with the Christchurch Muslim community was, like President Bush's all those years ago, a classic example of a picture being being worth a thousand words.

The image of a pained Prime Minister wearing a hijab, like that of a President in windbreaker and speaking into a megaphone, conveyed all the appropriate emotions - empathy, determination, resolution, and even the fear that both leaders must have felt about the path their countries may now had begun to travel down. Above all, they were images of their humanity, something we often forget about our political leaders. They too have feelings like the rest of us about the evil, injustice or whatever of the events, but they also have the responsibility of laying those to one side, and representing the nation as a whole, as they deal with what has happened.

Both President Bush and the Prime Minister gained the warm glow of popular support for their measured responses to the appalling tragedies which, undoubtedly, coupled no doubt with massive bursts of adrenalin, helped sustain them during the dark days. Sadly, as we know from the case of President Bush, mistakes and errors of judgement are likely to occur as time passes, and the immediate wave of public sympathy wanes. That is not a politically loaded observation, nor a judgement call. It is simply a statement of fact. They are both human beings, after all, and no human being is ever perfect.

The essential point is that the Prime Minister, like President Bush before her, is genuinely trying to her best, as she sees it, by the country in these unprecedented circumstances. Her efforts deserve the tolerance of our support, whatever our political allegiances. Normal political hostilities will resume over time, but, for now, the situation is one that should be above the partisan fray.

Many words have been spoken and written about the victims and their families since last Friday. No matter how eloquent, how undoubtedly well-meant and sincere, or how compassionate, they are inadequate compensation for the lives so needlessly lost, but they are the best human beings can do in such circumstances. May all of us in our daily lives stand resolutely with those who have suffered and been so pained, and may we determine to never let hatred and intolerance take firm hold in our land. Kia kaha. تصحبك السلامة 




Thursday, 14 March 2019

It is often said that no government can legislate for commonsense. And it is also often said that the first thing every new Minister should do upon appointment is read and comprehend the provisions of the Cabinet Manual. Both statements are particularly apt in the case of Defence Minister Ron Mark.

The Cabinet Manual is the primary authority on the conduct of Cabinet government in New Zealand, and its confirmation and endorsement is always the first item of business considered by any new Cabinet upon taking office. It covers the full spectrum of Cabinet functions, including spelling out the roles and powers of Ministers, and their financial responsibilities and legal obligations. It also offers guidance as to how they should conduct themselves in carrying out their official duties and the management of any potential conflicts of interest.

In particular, the Cabinet Manual notes that, "... at all times, Ministers are expected to act lawfully and to behave in a way that upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical standards. This includes exercising a professional approach and good judgement in their interactions with the public and officials, and in all their communications, personal and professional." Elsewhere it notes that, "...In all areas of their work ... Ministers represent and implement government policy." Thus the scope for individual Ministerial action, particularly of the capricious kind, without the authority of the Cabinet, is constrained.

Now, there is an inevitable tension between the role as a Minister in the government, and the role as an individual Member of Parliament representing a political party. In these days of multiparty government, there will be times when the policy of an individual's party may not necessarily be the agreed policy of the government. These situations require a certain subtlety of judgement, something clearly lacking in the case of Mr Mark.

As a coalition partner, he is obliged to show clear support at all times for the collective government position, and in the words of the Cabinet Manual "... show careful judgement when referring to party policy that differs from government policy." Interestingly, a confidence and supply partner (like the Greens) are bound by a lesser standard being bound by collective responsibility only in relation to the particular portfolios they may hold, or when representing the government outside New Zealand.

Mr Mark's speech to veterans, apparently linking continued funding to political support for his party clearly did not breach the Cabinet Manual standard of acting lawfully. However, whether the essential crudity of his message that veterans and defence personnel should be voting New Zealand First "or else" met the "highest ethical standards" test and demonstrated "a professional approach and good judgement" is an entirely separate matter.

It may be easy and tempting to dismiss this incident as just another example of the immature strutting bluster and swagger that generally accompanies this Minister's behaviour, but that is no real defence. Any Minister, should, by virtue of the office they hold and their consequent seniority in the political process, know and act better, particularly after almost 20 years as a Member of Parliament, as in Mr Mark's case.

The more worrying aspect is that after almost eighteen months in the job he does not to have learnt the constraints that go with it. This is not to say that Ministers should be muzzled from making partisan political speeches - far from it, they are politicians after all, with a right to promote their re-election - but that they need to act with a dignity and decorum that was lacking on this occasion.

It all comes down to, as former Speaker Margaret Wilson once declaimed, a question of "hats" and people making it clear which hat they were wearing on a given occasion. Had Mr Mark been making his speech as a New Zealand First MP, and not as the responsible Minister, it probably would have no raised no eyebrows, which is where the good judgement question arises.

Yes, Ministers like the trappings of office and they way they are deferred to. They often make the mistake of assuming that gives their pronouncements a greater than normal authority, but there also times when Ministers need to become mere mortals again and make it clear when they are not speaking in a Ministerial role to meet the standards of the Cabinet Manual. The worry here is that even at this stage of his Ministerial career Mr Mark seems unwilling or unable to make and comprehend the distinction.

Mr Mark can feel relieved on one point though. The Cabinet Manual also makes it clear that, "Ultimately Ministers are responsible to the Prime Minister for their behaviour." As the Prime Minister has consistently shown in the case of the serially errant Mr Jones, that means no substantive action will be taken, so long as the Minister is from New Zealand First.