Wednesday, 18 July 2018

The Greater Wellington Regional Council has spent the last couple of years or so reviewing all its commuter bus services. It has sought public input, held public meetings across the region, placed large advertisements in local papers, and kept up a steady stream of publicity about what the changes will mean for commuters, but has still managed to bungle the process at every stage. Why? Well, what is now clear is that the GWRC rushed ahead to implement a pre-determined agenda, without listening to any of the public feedback it had been receiving. In so doing, it turned the whole process into a sham.

First, came the saga of the removal of the trolley buses. That eventually took place in October 2017, some time after the original intended date. People who argued for the retention of the capital’s relatively modern, environmentally trolley bus fleet were ridiculed by the GWRC as out of date and behind the times. Besides, the GWRC smoothingly reassured people, the trolleys would be replaced by new hybrid diesel electric buses that would be far more flexible than the trolleys (because they do not rely on overhead wires) and just as environmentally friendly. What actually happened was a little different. The trolleys were replaced all right, but with old diesel surplus buses from Auckland because the new hybrids were not ready in time. 

But rather than learn from that stunning triumph the GWRC felt emboldened to move on with the rest of its changes. A new fleet of double decker buses has been unveiled - while they may be environmentally friendly, they cannot serve the populous eastern and western suburbs because they will not fit through the tunnels connecting those suburbs to the city. Never mind, said the GWRC, we have other buses available to serve those suburbs, and newer routes and timetables besides. 

This week it launched these new routes and services, supremely confident that any teething troubles would at best be minor. Yet even a casual reading of social media commentary over the few weeks beforehand would have shown it that local commuters remained far from convinced about the new services being proposed, their routes and timetables. And so it has proved to be. Now the GWRC meekly says that it probably launched the changes too soon, and that realistically at least six months more work was needed to get things right.

Two responses to this excuse for incompetence immediately come to mind. First, nothing is being said now by disgruntled commuters that has not been said over the past couple of years. It might have been prudent for the GWRC to have actually listened to its constituents, rather than just given their concerns lip service. Second, the GWRC controls the time frame. Saying the hybrids were not ready in time for the cancellation of the trolleys which was they had to get the surplus diesels from Auckland was not good enough. If they were so hell-bent on removing the trolleys, it was in their hands, no-one else’s, to time their demise to coincide with the availability of the hybrids. Similarly with this week’s disaster.  Saying the timetable changes needed another six months’ work is fatuous. The GWRC could have decided as late as the end of last week to have deferred the changes, if that was what it really believed. Instead, they are left this week looking bewildered and more than a little desperate. 


Regional Councils across the country have  important responsibilities for the provision and co-ordination of public transport services. Those responsibilities are set to become far more critical in the next few years as our national response to climate change and shift to carbon neutrality ramp up. Public support will be vital to reaching those goals. The only good thing to come to date from the GWRC’s attempt to restructure Wellington’s bus service is that it is has become a template of ineptitude for others to learn from.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018


Facing once in a generation strikes across the public sector - from nurses to teachers, and core public servants - the Coalition Government has been consistently and confusingly sending a very mixed message. On the one hand, it evinces sympathy for and even empathy with their issues of concern, but on the other hand, says it has no more money to put on the table. Yet, as the first cab off the rank, the nurses have managed, not once but three times, to ratchet up the response to their claims, even though they are yet to reach a settlement. It is little wonder that other public servants like teachers and the core public sector are fancying their chances when their turn at the bargaining table comes.

What is going on here? Is the Coalition Government so naive to think it can lead the public sector on in this way and not expect a backlash when they fail to deliver? Do they really expect these workers whose claims of nine years of income neglect they profess to support,  to now accept the jam tomorrow argument from this Government made up of their apparent friends, for whom many of them they actively campaigned and worked at election time? After all, they believed there was finally some light at the end of the tunnel when the National-led Government was ousted. Their fear must be that, given its shaky electoral position, this Government may not be around in two years time, and things will potentially be back to where they were. Or is there some other game in town?

It is certainly true that across many fields the Coalition Government is determined to paint the previous Government as one of neglect - from health and housing, to education and regional development, and now defence. The message is the same: they have nine years of under-investment has to overcome. By painting such a drastic picture they can then move deftly to say that the problems run so deep, they cannot be solved within one three year Parliamentary term, giving themselves a very convenient way out, and some flexibility.

To that extent, it is a tactic straight out of the Lange/Douglas playbook. In their case, it was the economic crisis that had brought the country to its knees. While a strongly performing economy at present denies this Government that opportunity, it has fixed upon an infrastructure and investment deficit instead. Indeed, the only thing missing from the Lange/Douglas game plan is an Opening of the Books and Economic Summit extravaganza, but greater Government financial transparency today makes that a little more difficult to stage manage effectively than in 1984.

It is within this framework that this Government has to juggle the public sector pay round negotiations. It has already spent large amounts on flagship policies to justify its narrative and meet the demands of its Coalition partners, and is now facing the reality that the cupboard is getting bare, at least in the short term. Hence the delicate balancing act it is now undertaking, trying to convince the public sector it really is on their side, while not meeting their specific demands. It is  hoping to win their support  on a "better your friends in government, than the other side, so just be patient and trust us" approach, and will throw out to them some other bones (like more union friendly industrial relations legislation) to keep them happy in the meantime. The aim is to keep teachers, nurses, and  public servants on side and still populating their electorate committees and delivering their pamphlets.  It is banking on the unions' leadership being able to carry the day with their memberships.

The strategy is risky, as we have already seen. It is clear that the nurses' "rank and file" is more resistant that their union leadership, and that while the deals reached to date may have satisfied the negotiators, they have failed to win the confidence of the membership at large. A similar outcome is likely when the traditionally more militant teachers get fully into their negotiating stride, and the response of core public servants in their rare industrial action this week indicates they may be of a like mind.

The Government's failure to manage effectively the situation to date suggests its whole flimsy public sector incomes policy edifice is not far from tumbling down altogether. The more the Government professes sympathy for the situation of its workforce, yet does nothing, the more it will embolden them. That is not difficult to understand.

What is more difficult to understand, though, is why this Government is continuing to send its mixed messages. It simply looks weak and inept, leaving open the possibility of a pretty grim and dour few months ahead, and a large of group of disillusioned supporters expecting appeasement before the next election.    


Wednesday, 4 July 2018


Politicians often get a bad wrap, even when they do not deserve it. In that regard, they are one of society's safety-valves. They are always good to sound off against.

Of course, there are times when politicians' actions are so egregious to deserve all the criticism they receive. This week's disgusting news from Australia about the comments of a male Australian Senator about the private life of a female colleague, for which he has steadfastly refused to apologise, would be near the top of the list, and absolutely nothing can be said in his defence.

But there are other occasions when it is the sheer stupidity or trivial vacuity of the MPs' comments that deserve the public scorn. The mini-furore that has erupted over Air New Zealand's decision to change the composition of the hamburgers it serves to Business Class passengers on long-haul flights is a great example. A veritable chorus of outrage has exploded around the House about how appalling this change is, and what a blow it strikes against our meat industry. MPs seem to be falling over each other to appear the most offended.

What poppycock! This is hardly the issue of the day, nor is it likely to bring the New Zealand meat industry to anywhere near its knees. Yet it is a good opportunity for MPs the public would otherwise hear nothing of to set off their outrage button, and presumably feel a sense of self-satisfaction at their pontifications. And Air New Zealand will continue to serve their menu, and their passengers will either take it or leave it, without the slightest consideration of the MPs' ramblings. The notion that an airline's menu should be set by Parliament is simply farcical.
And then there is the "never let the facts get in the way" approach. By way of a disclaimer, I am no admirer of New Zealand First, its policies, or its at best barely marginally competent MPs, but the uproar over the Inquiry into the appointment of the new Deputy Police Commissioner borders on the ignorant and the absurd.

For the record, the comments of the new Deputy Police Commissioner at the time of the trials of former Police Officers on sexual assault charges were unacceptable, and despite his apology now, raise major questions about the way his appointment was made and the current level of sensitivity within the Police when it comes to dealing with such issues. So the proposal to have an Inquiry into the circumstances and process of the appointment has merit.

The allegations that such an Inquiry will not be unbiased because the Minister of Internal Affairs, who will oversee it, is a senior New Zealand First MP, and the Deputy Commissioner sought a New Zealand First candidate nomination at one stage, are ridiculous. They overlook the simple fact that the Inquiries Act, passed as recently as 2013, makes the Minister of Internal Affairs the responsible Minister for all such Inquiries. Of course, the Minister does not conduct the Inquiries personally, but is responsible, subject to Cabinet approval, for selecting those who will conduct the Inquiry and securing the resources they will need to do so.

The Inquiries Act was passed when National was in power, and many of the MPs now leaping up and down alleging bias, voted for it. Selective memory is a possible explanation for the about-turn - a more likely one is the obverse of the so-called Maharey principle: say one thing in Opposition, but do something else in Government, and just hope not too many people will notice.

The current Government made many rash promises while in Opposition, more to staunch the bleeding of Labour votes than with any real expectation of ever having to implement them. Now they are struggling to make their impossible dreams work. One would have thought their experience would have been a salutary lesson to the current Opposition of how not to get tied up in credibility knots. But railing against airline menu changes and Inquiries properly constituted under legislation they promoted in Government suggests not.

Being in Opposition - especially unexpectedly after a long spell in Government - is understandably soul-destroying, but it is no licence for the stupidity it often seems to descend to.                   


Wednesday, 27 June 2018


There has been a  curiously lethargic reaction to the Land and Water Forum's report regarding steps to improve water quality levels over the next few years. Environmental organisations have decried the report as timid, while the Minister for the Environment has said the report shows the Forum has reached the end of its life. Yet neither has criticised directly its recommendations. Whether that means they will be implemented in whole or in part remains to be seen.

Since its establishment by the Government nearly ten years ago, the Forum, which contains a wide representation of business, environmental and recreational groups (but no longer major conservation groups like Fish and Game) has made a series of recommendations on freshwater management. But there has never been wholesale acceptance of its work. The previous Government adopted a pick and choose approach to its earlier reports, which caused much frustration within the Forum and led to the withdrawal of some organisations, yet the present Government seems likely to take a similar approach to this latest report.

However, there is no doubt that the issues the Forum is dealing with impinge directly upon the future ownership and management of our national freshwater resources. Therefore, it would have been reasonable to expect Governments, past and present, to have taken more notice of what it has had to say. This latest and potentially last report addresses water degradation issues and a future plan for dealing with these. It makes the telling point that water management standards are currently variable between regional councils, with no clear national enforcement, and proposes instead a national approach.

Perhaps more controversial is the view of the Forum about iwi rights in freshwater management. It rightly points out that resolving these will be critical to future freshwater management. The previous Government travelled warily around their edge during the tortuous resource management changes of the last few years, trying to balance off the concerns of the Maori Party against any perception of exclusivity. The Forum draws the obvious conclusion that the longer these rights and claims remain unresolved, the more difficult it is becoming to achieve consistent management standards and an improvement in overall freshwater quality. And that effects all New Zealanders.

While the Land and Water Forum may have come to the end of the road, the issues still cry out for resolution. The debate around the impact of dairy intensification on water degradation is strengthening, and public impatience for the Government taking decisive action to improve water quality is increasing. In the absence of any other likely successful strategies, the Government should adopt the Forum's recommendation of a new national approach, and get on with it.

A clear early statement to that effect would not only remove the existing uncertainty, but would also clear the way for the issue of iwi rights to be similarly addressed. But, if past experience is any guideline, this is likely to be the point where things founder.

Frankly, that will no longer be good enough. All the while, as uncertainty holds sway, water quality will continue to decline and New Zealand's credible ability to market itself as clean and green will similarly continue to erode. Rather than deride the Land and Water Forum for its perceived shortcomings, the Government and environmental groups need to come together to implement its recommendations, put things on a national basis, and then devise an effective future management system, which acknowledges the legitimate rights of iwi, and the interests of other New Zealanders.

The babies born today deserve no less.            


Wednesday, 20 June 2018


I am almost feeling sorry for the Greens. The self-proclaimed party of principle has struggled with the reality of Government, ever since it joined the unholy alliance with Labour and New Zealand First last October. They are the awkward members at the family dinner-party - the guest Labour really wanted to be in the box seat, but the one New Zealand First wanted left at home altogether. So the ungainly compromise was reached, where the Greens can join the feast, but have to eat in the kitchen, and not the dining room where Labour and New Zealand First recline.

And, if that is not bad enough, they have to go along with whatever is agreed in the dining room, before they get any food at all. They have had to do an about-face on their hitherto principled opposition to party-hopping legislation. Allegedly, according to the rumour mill, this was because of a threat from New Zealand First to release more damaging material about the background circumstances of Meteria Turei's benefit abuse hara kiri last year. Whatever, the claims to be the party of principle have been left looking more than a little tatty.
On the positive side, though, the Greens appear to have made progress on their aim of moving the economy to a carbon neutral status, although their proposals are at only discussion paper stage at present, and could yet be derailed by New Zealand First, or even Labour, if the going gets tough from here on.

Moreover, the Greens' position has been made more difficult by the electoral mathematics. Labour cannot govern now or in the future without the support of both New Zealand First and the Greens. If the Greens were to walk away now, the Government would fall, and they would be punished at the ensuing election. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that one or other, or even both, New Zealand First and the Greens will make it back at the next election, so the Government could fall anyway.

In many senses, the Greens are in no different a position to every other support party over the years. Having made the decision to support a major party in Government, they are virtually duty bound to see the term through. Yet the consequence might be their defeat in the long term, although if they were revert to being the party if principle and leave sooner, they would assuredly be tossed out of Parliament. Successive support partners over the years have faced the same dilemma, and have been derided by the Greens for being without principle when they have stayed the distance. So there is rich irony in the Greens' present plight.

What has complicated the Greens' position further is that they boxed themselves into a corner. They made it clear they would countenance working with Labour only, and, for reasons which are understandable if politically inflexible, ruled out working with National under any circumstances. So desperate were they to be finally part of Government, after having being shut out at every election since they left the Alliance in the late 1990s, they even failed to do basic due diligence on the Labour/New Zealand First coalition agreement, before signing up, sight unseen. Now they are left to reap the whirlwind.

Moreover, to make matters worse, they are facing internal party wrath over their Conservation Minister's decision to expand a water bottling operation, one more thing they railed so strongly against in Opposition. For the record, the Minister made the correct decision, given the legislation, but, as with so many other things this Government does, conveyed the decision so poorly the party backlash was inevitable.

It has to be acknowledged that individually the Green Ministers are very talented, certainly in comparison to their New Zealand First counterparts, and most of Labour as well, but they are simply not functioning well. Nor are things likely to improve as the going gets tougher over the next two years. The Green Ministers add to the competence of the Government, but that may not be enough to save them, either from themselves or the wider electorate.

Maybe it is time for the Greens to rediscover their Green-ness. Maybe it is time to make it clear that while they will continue to support the government on matters of confidence and supply, so that stability is not threatened, they will approach every other issue on the basis of how it impacts upon their Green agenda. With confidence and supply assured, neither Labour nor New Zealand First, could credibly claim that the Government's stability is threatened, so any retribution against the Greens would be of their making, and not the fault of the Greens.

It is a difficult balancing act. In the last Parliament, both the Maori Party and UnitedFuture played such a role, and were defeated. ACT was a more uncritical supporter of the Government, but equally derived no electoral benefit.  Just as the Greens see being part of this Government as critical to their ability to make policy change - and they are right, they know full well parties can do nothing from Opposition - they have to also see that for their changes to have any meaningful impact, they have to get re-elected in 2020. After the initial flush of at last getting into Government, the more mundane reality of how to stay there should be starting to hit home. So far, there is no real sign it is. 




                


Wednesday, 13 June 2018


Almost 20 years ago, New Zealand's first MMP Coalition Government collapsed. It was not a dramatic implosion on a major point of principle, but was provoked by a comparatively minor issue - a proposal to sell the Government's shares in Wellington Airport - and came after a series of disagreements between the Coalition partners on various aspects of policy.

There has been speculation this week in the wake of New Zealand First's hanging out to dry of the Justice Minister over the proposed repeal of the "three strikes" law that the same process might be starting all over again. While it is far too soon to draw conclusive parallels, the 1998 experience does set out some road marks to watch out for.

Immediately after the formation of the 1996-98 Coalition, New Zealand First's standing in the opinion polls slumped to the point where one senior National MP at the time famously described them as "dog tucker", and where National MPs became genuinely concerned that their Party and leadership were conceding too much (perhaps "over a whiskey bottle") which was consequently threatening their own future electoral prospects. There is already speculation that the current Coalition Government is being dominated by the whims of New Zealand First, which has similarly crashed in the polls, although that talk seems limited to the media commentariat at this stage. No Labour MPs have yet broken ranks to make that complaint, but a long winter and some tough decisions lie ahead, which may yet provoke that.

During 1996-98, there had been a series of public differences between National and New Zealand First Ministers on a range of issues. So far, this time, the spat over "three strikes" has been the most obvious, but the seemingly general poor communication between Ministers  there has been so much of  suggests the "three strikes" debacle will not be the last we see of this type.
The third prong of the 1996-98 era was a mounting public concern that the tail was wagging the Coalition dog, and that the National Party was not standing up sufficiently strongly to that. There is no real evidence of that feeling emerging at present, although the next few weeks when the New Zealand First leader is Acting Prime Minister could change that.

One factor present in the current situation which was not there in 1996-98, and which makes the Government potentially more vulnerable, is that this Coalition does not have a majority in Parliament. It has to rely on the Greens as a confidence and supply partner to achieve that. There had been hopes that the Greens might be the conscience and moral backbone of the Government, but so far the allure of power for the first time has supplanted that, and they cannot be expected any more to do anything to put that at risk.

All of which brings us back to the dynamic between Labour and New Zealand First, and the Prime Minister and her Deputy in particular, determining the fate of this Coalition. At the moment, the Prime Minister's authority is unquestioned, but generally unexercised so far. If there comes a time when that perception changes and the Prime Minister, either through circumstances or her own inaction, comes to be seen as weak and in the thrall of her Deputy, then the pressure on the Coalition will intensify.

As the 1998 Coalition collapse shows, a combination of circumstances came together to the point where a relatively small issue triggered the demise. Although similar circumstances exist at present, they do not yet show any sign of coming together in such a way to engineer a repeat of 1998. Nevertheless, each of them has the capacity to be the thread that starts the unravelling process. While a dramatic explosion is unlikely, the durability of the Coalition cannot yet be taken for granted. The New Zealand First leader is beginning to display all over again the same traits that saw him sacked from the Cabinet in 1991; sacked as Deputy Prime Minister in 1998; and, suspended as a Minister in 2008, suggesting leopards really cannot change their spots. In which case, the next 12 months have suddenly became much more interesting.                  



Wednesday, 6 June 2018


For each of us, there is a golden time in our lives, a period we look back on, where everything seemed rosy, where setbacks were few, and which we wish we could recreate tomorrow. It is but a pleasant memory, which rarely can be rekindled, as time and circumstances move inevitably on. Such nostalgia is not a problem. Indeed, it can be quite a positive experience. The only difficulty emerges when we try to recreate it, and fail to appreciate it was a snapshot in time that has gone forever.

For the current Labour-led Government, the golden time appears to be the era of the third Labour Government between 1972 and 1975. This was the era where bold decisions were made that stood out in stark relief to the years of conformity and complacency during the 1950s and 1960s.

China was recognised; the troops were brought home from Vietnam; the Springbok Tour was stopped; the French were taken to the World Court over nuclear testing in the Pacific and nuclear ship visits to New Zealand were suspended. Colour television and the second state-run channel were introduced; beneficiaries received a Christmas bonus; and the Queen Elizabeth Arts Council and the Waitangi Tribunal were established. A bold superannuation scheme we still hanker after was briefly put in place. There was talk of  a new city being built at Rolleston near Christchurch and a national Ohu scheme, based on Israel's kibbutz system, was mooted for young people interested in communal living.

Heady days indeed. but it all came crashing down after the impact of the 1973 Oil Shock. Unemployment  (which at one stage had been literally one person) and shortages of materials began to soar, delaying housing and commercial and industrial development; the Government was forced to borrow massively overseas to meet the soaring oil bill; inflation, which Labour had promised to "knock for six" exploded threefold; and, the Labour Government was swept ignominiously from office after just three years.

Yet, today, nearly 50 years later, it is the idealism, not the failure, that is remembered so wistfully. Ministers in the present Government, many of whom who were some years away from being born then, seem to yearn for a return to those apparently idyllic and simpler times.
There are a couple of lessons from the fate of the third Labour Government that the present administration seems unwilling to confront. The first is that the politics of the grand gesture - in this case, the establishment of the billion dollar Provincial Growth Fund, or the Kiwibuild promise of 100,000 new affordable homes, or the decision to stop oil and gas exploration, come to mind - have to be followed by actions of substance. Otherwise, the bold gesture begins to look like a hollow lie.

The second lesson to learn is the constraint of moving at a pace and direction the public feels comfortable with, and avoiding getting too far ahead of public opinion. One of the reasons why the 1984-1990 Labour Government was able to make its radical changes was because the public generally believed change was overdue. Moreover, the Government was constantly explaining its actions and decisions, giving the dual sense of both assurance that it knew what it was doing, and that the public was being taken into its confidence. Once the public came to doubt both these things after 1987, that Government's demise was as swift and even more dramatic than in 1975.

It was the Spanish philosopher George Santayana who observed that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. An ironic warning really, given that Santayana's work enjoyed a brief renaissance in the 1970s, with posters of his writings adorning the walls of many student flats, some 20 years after his death. In its nostalgia to recreate the spirit (or what the bumbling lawyer Denis Denuto better described as "the vibe" in the great Australian film, "The Castle") Labour could do well to remember the gentle words of Santayana.