Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Once, Greens co-leader James Shaw's comment when Parliament resumed this week that the current government does not deserve to be re-elected if it fails to introduce a capital gains tax would have been regarded as yet another reason why the Greens kept themselves from being invited into government for almost twenty years. But now they are inside the tent, the comment takes on a more significant perspective. Not because there was ever any doubt the Greens would back a capital gains tax - after all, they have never yet met a new tax they do not like - but because of the acid it puts on the government's formal coalition partner to state where it stands.

At the moment, it holds all the cards. With the Greens having now declared their hand, the future of the capital gains tax rests not on the tax working group's recommendations, nor even the Labour Party, but on the nine New Zealand First MPs, or, to be more specific, their quixotic leader. To date, they have maintained their typical silence.

With recent polls showing that New Zealand First will struggle to be in the next Parliament, an issue like capital gains tax is potentially a heaven sent opportunity for the Party to reassert its independence and act as a handbrake on government to stop the implementation of an unpopular policy. Indeed, James Shaw's statement could almost be seen as inviting New Zealand First to do just that, perhaps in the hope of restoring itself in Labour's eyes as the preferred partner it was before the last election. But it is not as simple as that.

For a start, on this occasion, New Zealand First is not just any other party. It is the government's formal coalition partner, and its leader is the Deputy Prime Minister. And the capital gains tax is not just any other policy. It is a key plank of Labour's tax policy, and, as such, comes into the category of a confidence and supply issue. Failure to gain support to introduce such a policy, let alone a formal vote against it in the House, would raise serious questions of confidence, and could potentially bring down the government. And an election brought about in such circumstances would almost certainly see the end of New Zealand First. So, there are strong reasons for New Zealand First supporting the introduction of a capital gains tax, albeit after a few tweaks.

However, a capital gains tax is unlikely to be popular with a chunk of New Zealand First's provincial and rural support base. Not that many of them are likely to be affected by it, but, as both Labour and National found out during the superannuation debates of the 1980s and 1990s that spawned New Zealand First, it was not the reality of the impact of the superannuation surcharge - which never affected more than a quarter of superannuitants - but the perception that every one of them was hit, and the fear amongst those under 65 at the time that it would hit them too, that did the political damage. A similar reaction is likely if a capital gains tax is introduced, which is why New Zealand First is likely to face pressure from its support base to resist the proposal.

So the decision to support or oppose the capital gains tax is likely to be a finely balanced one for New Zealand First, which is where James Shaw's  statement assumes its real significance. It is far less a statement of the Greens' position, (which no-one would have been at all surprised to hear anyway) and much more an attempt, to flush out where New Zealand First stands. It also gives more than a passing hint to the tensions within the coalition government on the subject.

In that respect, one has to feel a little sorry for the Greens. They spent most of the last Parliament preening themselves as Labour’s coalition partner in waiting, only to be gazumped at the altar by New Zealand First, because Labour was not astute, strong, or brave enough to say to New Zealand First they wanted to form a Labour/Greens coalition that they were welcome to join, or else they could keep the National Party in office. In the event, the Greens were jilted and relegated to the position of confidence and supply partner. Ever since, they have been struggling to reinsert themselves into the major policy loop, and this is but the latest example.

It could yet prove their most effective if they can force New Zealand First’s hand. But a more likely outcome is that New Zealand First will fudge and delay a decision as long as possible, quite possibly beyond the current Budget cycle, to make it difficult for Labour to legislate in advance  for the post 2020 capital gains tax, as it wishes, while all the time keeping its own powder dry.

Although James Shaw deserves acknowledgement for doing his best to try to keep New Zealand First honest, he has in reality shown once more that when it comes to realpolitik New Zealand First will continue to run strategic rings around the hapless Greens.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Another Waitangi Day has passed – this year without adverse event – and with it, the often too brief opportunity to consider what it means to be a New Zealander, 179 years after the signing of the Treaty.

A striking feature of this year’s typically cursory discussion and woeful analysis was the attention paid to New Zealanders’ understanding of their country’s history from pre-colonial and colonial times in a manner slightly more sophisticated than the back of the corn flakes package descriptions prevalent when we were growing up.

This concern was fuelled inadvertently by the Prime Minister’s embarrassing performance when asked about the Articles of the Treaty. While she was clearly caught on the hop and almost certainly answered in a way most other people would have responded in similar circumstances, her fluffing reply highlighted a couple of issues. First, she should have had, and read, a briefing note on the content of the Treaty before decamping to Waitangi to swan around for five days, and second, and far more important, all of us individually need to become better informed about our nation’s history and milestones. While they may not always be the reference point, it is, for example, highly unlikely that American school students would reply similarly ineptly to a question about the Declaration of Independence. 

So, I am all for young New Zealanders learning New Zealand history at school, probably as part of a wider civics programme, where they would also learn about our system of government, and their rights and responsibilities as citizens, including what citizenship means and how it has evolved over the years. The focus needs to be on the full spread of our history – from the earliest Polynesian migration, and the types of society Maori and Moriori developed, and their relationships, through to the arrival of the colonists and their interactions – good and bad – with indigenous people, and the development of contemporary New Zealand society, and the full challenges it faces. It should not shy away from the truth, but equally needs to present a balanced picture of the New Zealand story.
An equally critical part of everyone who lives in our islands understanding where our nation has come from and how it has developed over many centuries, is understanding and valuing its languages. Te Reo Maori is obviously a vital part, and should be a core part of the primary school curriculum. Our aim should be that every young New Zealander leaves primary school with at least basic proficiency in the language, alongside their English skills, so that they can feel comfortable in a range of environments. The criticism that Maori is not an international language is really not relevant – it is a language of our country, and we should be familiar with it.

We keep saying that the New Zealander today is unique, often without appreciating what that means. Knowing our languages, history and culture is an important step towards making that claim a reality. The vast majority of us are no longer transplanted Europeans living at the end of the world, trying to integrate our ways and past with an indigenous people. The uniqueness of being a contemporary New Zealander is the opportunity our nation, its background and history, gives each of us is to move with ease and comfort between the Maori and Pakeha worlds, absorbing almost unconsciously aspects of both. From that springs the modern New Zealander, acknowledging our bicultural history, mixing that with the strands of our individual experiences to create, thus creating the special bond that binds the peoples of these islands together today.

In a world where cultural and ethnic tensions are being exacerbated, not ameliorated, where stereotypes and prejudice are still fuelled by politicians promoting excessive xenophobia and intolerance of diversity for domestic partisan advantage, New Zealand has the opportunity to be one of those nations that stands against the pernicious tide.

But to achieve that objective, we first need to know and understand properly who we are, which brings us back to the issues of history and language.  In this apparent year of delivery, giving priority to meeting this goal would be a positive step all of us should welcome.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018


I want a Christmas present I do not think Santa can, or will, deliver me. I am not being selfish or unreasonable, but just realistic, because what I want is a political party I can vote for at the next General Election.

As one who feels currently disenfranchised, I have been looking at what the two main parties have to offer. Both have their good points, but are too bogged down by their negatives to be real options. 

I quite like National's pragmatism and realism, but it is too beholden to the top end of the business community for my liking, and still far too inclined to see its role as doing their bidding. Besides, there is a nasty, punitive streak evident in the attitudes of some of its newer MPs that is disturbing, and a group of hard right activists outside Parliament trying to pull the party more in their direction that is downright scary.

Labour's social policies have always held appeal, but the fact that it is still lock-step with the unions when most New Zealanders are not is a turn-off. Also, its obsequious adherence to political correctness is nauseating. I wish it would actually stand for something, rather than just pandering to every passing cause.

Both parties are still in the rigid "my party, right or wrong mould", with limited capacity to compromise, or reach across the political divide. I well recall the advice a very distinguished former MP gave me many years ago that he joined his particular party simply because he agreed with more of what it stood for than he disagreed with. I have always thought that was the appropriate balance. It would nice to see more evidence of that type of thinking in both Labour and National today.

In my quest, I have even looked at the Greens and ACT as well. The Greens have increasing credibility on environmental issues, especially as the ravages of climate change become daily more apparent, but, oh dear, they do go off at  strange and tangents every now and then, that leave one wondering. ACT is still too trapped in the neo-liberal time warp of the 1980s to be at all relevant today.

As I am a generally tolerant and reasonable person focused on the opportunities that lie ahead for our country, rather than the restoration of yesteryear, I cannot possibly consider New Zealand First. Nor am I am bigot or a racist, which seems to be a precondition for belonging to that party.  

What I want is a basic, progressive  liberal party which believes in social justice, equality and equal access for all to opportunity, built on sound, environmentally sustainable market led economic policies, and where the government is there to help those in need, but otherwise lets people get on with their own lives. I want a party that is no slave to vested interests, and is transparent and open in the pursuit of its principles.

Of course, we used to have a party like that - UnitedFuture - whose policies people kept saying they liked, and that it was important we be in Parliament to promote them, but all that notwithstanding, when the crunch came, they just did not vote for us in sufficient numbers to make it all possible.

For those other middle ground people who feel similarly disenfranchised right now, it seems a simple enough proposition. A party of people like us to represent people like us. Yet, sadly, I do not think even Santa can make it happen!

So, in the meantime, it will be back to just dreaming. Dunne Speaks is taking a break for a few weeks, to focus instead on enjoying Christmas celebrations with family, but will be back early next year ever hopeful of finding a solution to this conundrum, and a party to vote for.

May I wish everyone a very happy and peaceful Christmas and a successful New Year.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018


Just over two years ago when Business New Zealand and the Employers and Manufacturers Association were using the bully-boy and standover tactics more associated with the trade unions of old in an attempt to browbeat Government support partners at the time to oppose a piece of legislation from the Labour Opposition to protect vulnerable workers, I wrote the following piece in this column: “For most New Zealander’s under about forty, the stories of industrial disruption in the 1970s and early 1980s seem like fantasy. The thought that a small group of members of the Boilermakers’ Union was able to hold up the construction of Wellington’s BNZ Tower or Auckland’s Māngere Bridge for years seems too far-fetched to be true. Yet it was, as was the regularity that the Cooks’ and Stewards’ Union or the Seamen’s Union were able to find an excuse to go on strike at various holiday periods, tying up the Cook Strait ferries and disrupting travel plans. And who would have ever thought a union secretary would be brazen enough to go on national television during such a strike to spit out “the travelling public can go to hell” as did the National Union of Railwaymen Secretary Don Goodfellow. Strange as it may seem now, this was all very much the way of the world then.”

The incredulous reaction of many to the threatened three day strike by Air New Zealand engineers just before Christmas confirms many New Zealanders have no recollection of the days when this type of disruption was the norm. The decision to lift the strike notice means that their incredulity will remain for a little while longer, although there is no doubt that the engineers made the wrong call in threatening industrial action on the eve of the Christmas holidays.

This year has seen more industrial action than in any year of the previous quarter century, and principally in the public sector. How much of this is because of pent-up pressures from the term of the previous government, and how much of it arises from a sense that this government is a soft touch is not certain, although there is no doubt the government’s dithering response to both the nurses and now the teachers, to whom so much was at implicitly promised during the election campaign and has yet to be delivered, is a factor.

The nurses were fortunate in being at last able to reach a settlement while public support was on their side. The teachers still enjoy public support, although that will begin to wane if threatened combined strikes across the primary and secondary sectors early next school year become prolonged, and teachers become perceived as turning down not unreasonable settlement offers.

The key point in such disputes is timing. When does the inconvenience to the public go beyond what is reasonable? In the case of nurses and teachers there is a general view that they deserve a better deal, hence a greater level of tolerance for their endeavours to achieve that. However, in the case of the Air New Zealand engineers, some of whom apparently already earn as much as $150,000 a year, it was difficult to see the same level of public support ever applying, especially given the level of public inconvenience threatened.

The feeling that the travelling public was potentially being used deliberately and callously as a negotiating pawn, was never likely to be a winning one, and the reaction of recent days showed there was little sympathy for the engineers‘ position. Unlike the nurses and the teachers, they were unable to make the case they were undervalued and overworked to the extent the nation‘s health and the education of its children were being compromised.

It was telling that the Prime Minister, who seemed almost studiously to avoid getting publicly involved in the nurses‘ and teachers‘ disputes because of the public support both enjoyed, was quick to step into the Air New Zealand dispute. She well recognised that even though the government had nothing to do with this dispute, it would bear the brunt of visceral public outrage if the engineers’ strike proceeded and people's holiday plans disrupted.

The mounting industrial action of the last year is already becoming a awkward matter for the government, especially since the Prime Minister appeared during the election campaign to give assurances there would be no strikes on her watch. She will be very keen to calm things down, should the message being pedalled by the National Party that the country is on the verge of returning to the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s start to gain public traction.

Although a waning memory, the spectre of Don Goodfellow’s infamous response of all those years ago still looms. No-one wants those times to come to pass again. Goodfellow's despicable sentiments should stay buried with him.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018


Congratulations David Clark! In a Government where initiating a review has been a substitute for doing anything, he has become the first Minister to have both established a major review - into Mental Health - and to have received the final report of the finished review, complete with a comprehensive set of recommendations.

But, unfortunately, that is where it stops so far. The Mental Health review has made 40 specific recommendations for change to a system that it describes as broken and long overdue for major change. However, Dr Clark has indicated the Government will not finalise its response until March next year. So, the prospects for urgent action on the report’s recommendations are not high.

Assuming the Government adopts the recommendations - by no means a certainty - the Minister will need to have funding bids in for the 2019 Budget, meaning definitive action is unlikely to come on stream before the latter half of next year at the earliest. If new legislation is required to implement any of the recommendations, it will probably be well into 2019 or even 2020 before it passes, meaning those changes would not take effect until after that.

And some of the recommendations are beyond the Government’s control at this stage. For example, the recommendations regarding decriminalising drugs will not be able to proceed before the recreational cannabis referendum, apparently now scheduled to be held at the time of the next election. The government has yet to indicate whether it will regard the outcome of that referendum as binding, and what steps it will take in the event of a vote for recreational cannabis decriminalisation.

So the path to the positive future recommended by the Mental Health review is a long and uncertain one yet. But none of this should detract from the importance of addressing comprehensively the Mental Health review’s recommendations. There are too many individuals and families suffering to allow that.

And despite the public expectation for swift action, due in part to the Government, as usual, overselling its intentions, it is more important that the Government introduce a comprehensive and integrated response, rather than an ad hoc and piecemeal approach. And that will be a difficult balancing act because the public’s hopes are so high.

In the meantime, the Government may have to do something Labour Governments of late have been loathe to do - make full use of non-government agencies and their skills and experience. There are several hundred such agencies active in the mental health and addictions fields, and there is no reason why they could not be utilised more fully, alongside the services provided by District Health Boards. Indeed, the review provides the opportunity to rationalise the respective roles of the non government agencies and the District Health Boards, and establish a long overdue partnership between them. The obstacle, though, is Labour's long held view that such matters are primarily the province of the state to control.

The Mental Health review opens up the possibility of the most profound changes since the Mason Report of the late 1980s. The Government’s response in March must set out a clear and integrated way forward, together with an interim pathway towards achieving it.

Dr Clark may well feel satisfied that the Mental Health review has been completed on time, and is comprehensive. But for patients and their families, the agonising wait while the review was underway will continue and reach its crescendo when the Government responds in March. In that sense, the mental health challenge is now only just beginning.


Wednesday, 28 November 2018


The outrage when President Trump refused outright to condemn the Saudi Crown Prince for his role in the murder of expatriate columnist Jamal Khashoggi, despite apparently overwhelming implicating evidence, was palpable and predictable. So too was the President’s response that his decision was based on his “America First” policy. Given Saudi Arabia’s influence on global oil prices, it was not in the interests of American industry and domestic jobs to be too critical and thereby risk escalating further already high global prices, if the Saudis felt provoked on the issue, he argued. The reaction to that was just as visceral. Here, yet again, was the President putting American domestic interests ahead of the concern of the rest of the world at an orchestrated act of international barbarity, the critics said. Most informed opinion around the world agreed with that reaction. Trump’s America was once again isolated as a self serving international pariah.

In New Zealand over recent months there has been mounting concern over the steadily rising influence of China on various aspects of our domestic political and economic environment. First, is the still unresolved question of National MP Dr Jiang Yang and his previous and potentially ongoing links to Chinese intelligence agencies. Then, in the wake of the Jami-Lee Ross affair, was the row about the mounting influence of Chinese money in New Zealand politics and the particular hold that seems to have on both the Labour and National parties.

Now there is the case of the University of Canterbury professor, Anne-Marie Brady, and whether she has been the subject of burglary and other harassment by Chinese security services. The Prime Minister says she will not comment until our Police have completed their inquiries into Professor Brady’s allegations, yet according to Professor Brady that inquiry was completed some time ago, making the Prime Minister’s continuing silence that much harder to fathom, and consequently that much more worrying.

Taken together, the way in which the last two governments have reacted paints a disturbing picture. It seems that where China is concerned, New Zealand has become very reluctant to say a word out of place, presumably for fear of the economic consequences. China is our dominant economic partnership, and increasingly is becoming just as dominant in terms of our political and diplomatic relationships, as well. We seem extremely unwilling to say or do anything to upset the Chinese, lest we risk economic retaliation which could prove catastrophic.

The irony is that putting our national interests first this way is fundamentally no different from President Trump’s America First approach to international relations which we deride as amoral, narrow and selfish. Yet, we seem to think we can get away with criticising the President of the United States for his excesses, while acting precisely the same way ourselves when it comes to dealing with China. While President Trump bullies, we have cowered and retreated for fear of causing offence.

Whether the GCSB's rejection of Spark's plan to utilise Chinese telecommunications company Huawei in the roll out of 5G telecommunications services is a temporary glitch, or marks the start of a new approach to dealing with China remains to be seen (assuming of course the Government accepts the GCSB decision). It is significant that the Americans have been calling on their allies to freeze out Huawei for security reasons, and that New Zealand will be following Australia if it decides to do so. Already, there have been ramifications. Chinese displeasure at New Zealand's investigation  of this is allegedly the real reason why the Chinese have postponed the Prime Minister’s proposed visit to China to “some point in the future”, not the scheduling issues as have been claimed here.

Right now, though, New Zealand's position looks compromised. The Minister's mealy mouthed response to the GCSB decision and the National Party's warnings how badly this outcome will play in Beijing suggest strongly that some form of compromise will be arrived at to placate China's annoyance. Yet again, where China is concerned, New Zealand will cave-in.

The Prime Minister modestly likes to compare herself to Labour greats like Norman Kirk and David Lange who spoke up fearlessly on the great issues of the day like apartheid and nuclear testing, and carried through their moral outrage on issues with specific actions that won international acclaim. But unlike Kirk and Lange, she still seems too full of talk. She needs to remember actions speak louder than words.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018


There is a popular misconception that the apparently clubby nature of Parliament means that all MPs, in Government or Opposition, have pretty much the same access to information. That has never been the case, even since the introduction of MMP. The Government of the day not only holds power, but also controls access to information. While there have been some improvements over the years - the Public Finance Act and the Fiscal Responsibility Act have made the state of the Government's finances more transparent, and the overall annual Budget process more open and predictable - the control of official information remains overwhelmingly under the control of the Government of the day. And, as information is power, they regard access to it jealously.

All of which leaves Oppositions at a massive disadvantage. When parties first leave office, their outgoing Ministers have a huge, immediate advantage over their successors in that they have all the information about what has been going on to that point. But that advantage is temporary - usually, former Ministers' information loses its currency after about six to nine months as the new Ministers get their feet more fully under the table, and start to take control of their portfolios.

That reality will have hit the National Party a few months ago. Its information channels will have dried up, and will not be refilled until they next win office, or the few months beforehand when their win seems likely, and sympathetic officials start quietly slipping information their way.

So, as with all Oppositions, National now has to start doing it alone, without the power of the Government bureaucracy to answer their queries or provide specialist advice. That is where the current controversy about the numbers of Written Parliamentary Questions becomes relevant. Parliamentary Questions, carefully crafted and camouflaged to disguise their true intent, coupled with a judicious use of the Official Information Act, are the primary weapons of an Opposition to get the answers it needs to do its day to day job of holding the Government to account, as well as the information it needs in the development of its next election policy.

It is a time-honoured tactic, making Labour‘s criticism of it a little hypocritical. Moreover, as the largest Opposition ever, it is not unreasonable that National should be asking more questions than ever before. Yes, the process is time consuming for the public servants who have to prepare the answers for Ministers’ consideration, and it is tedious for Ministers to have to spend several hours each week poring over the replies before approving them and signing them off. But, by definition, it is not the Opposition’s job to be helpful to the Government.

Besides, every now and then Parliamentary Questions strike gold. This year, it was the Questions process that brought Clare Curran’s Ministerial career to a close. Discrepancies in Written Questions replies caught out Shane Jones and his failure to disclose 61 meetings, and the ongoing skewering of Iain Lees- Galloway is largely because of the inadequacy of his answers to Parliamentary Questions. 

Parliamentary systems of government, where the Executive is part of the legislature, as opposed to systems of government where the Executive is separate from the legislature (like the United States, for example) tend to be winner-take-all systems. Governments govern and Oppositions are largely bystanders. But, a Parliamentary system also means Governments are more directly accountable to the legislature and can be changed by changing the composition of the legislature at an election, as opposed to again, say, the United States where both Houses of Congress can be controlled by one Party, while the President in whom Executive power resides, can be from another Party and still retain power.

The immediacy of our Parliamentary system means Governments will always seek to control the flow of information as much as possible to protect their situation, and that Oppositions will always seek every opportunity they can to obtain the information they want. To pretend otherwise, and to complain when they do so, is as churlish as it is woefully naive.