Wednesday, 27 November 2013

28 November 2013
Amidst the frenzied debate about the suitability or otherwise of the untested, yet to be elected, Conservatives as a viable post-election support partner for National, one point seems to have been overlooked.
By all means focus on the absolute, genuine sciurid nuttiness of Mr Craig and his colleagues – that should be enough to scare off any sane voter – but also give some thought to the actual role of a support or coalition partner. Mr Craig’s utterances make it clear he has yet to.
Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg summed up that role very well earlier this week when he said that Britons need to know “there’s still a party that will always shun the extremes and govern from the liberal centre.” He was, of course, referring to his Liberal Democrats, but his point has equal relevance to New Zealand.
The role of support partners in multi party governments is not to push extreme agendas, but to moderate the actions of the major party of government, lest it lurch towards an  extremism of its own. People do not vote for a support party to keep a check on the government, only to find that support party is the one needing to be kept in check. Yet, when one looks at the New Zealand scene, support party extremism is precisely what would happen with the Conservatives, and arguably, although to a lesser extent, with ACT and the Greens. (In New Zealand First’s case the record is more basic – it is just chronically, serially unreliable.)
The most common dislike voters express about our MMP system is that tails can wag dogs. So long as governments of either hue are reliant on more extreme partners, that will continue to be a valid criticism. After all, MMP was introduced to be a check on the hitherto unbridled power of the major parties in government. But because of the need, more often than not, to have to constrain unruly support partners, the two main parties have ended up potentially more powerful than ever.
As the Liberal Democrats’ New Zealand sister party, UnitedFuture has attempted to play the role Nick Clegg describes. However, while we have knocked off some of the extreme edges of various things successive Labour- and National-led governments have considered in the last decade or so, or at the very least voted against them, we have never really been in the numerical position to do so absolutely. Nor have we got the credit when we have done so – after all, stopping nuttiness is never as exciting a media story as promoting it in the first place. Or, in the even worse case of the Conservatives, actually believing it as gospel.
MMP will only work as people expected when it is the big parties that are being constrained from the centre – and not being the ones hauling in their partners from the extremes. John Key has already acknowledged he would have to reign in the extremes of the Conservatives in government – is not that completely back to front?

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

21 November 2013
Most of us of a certain age can remember what we were doing on 22 November 1963, the day of President Kennedy’s assassination. My own memory is especially vivid – hearing the news on the 7:00 am radio news on the Saturday morning, and going in to wake my sleeping parents, who dismissed me as having a bad dream. So, I went back to my room and waited for the next bulletin, by which time they were ready to believe me.
50 years later, President Kennedy remains one of my two enduring political heroes – by way of complete contrast, the austere, dour Eamon de Valera is the other. In virtually every way they were complete opposites. (Kennedy quipped to Ireland’s Parliament, the Dail, during his 1963 visit that had his forbears stayed in Ireland he could have been sitting that day with the TDs in the Dail, listening to de Valera, had he stayed in the United States.) Yet, between them, they possessed qualities I continue to admire and value.
Kennedy’s oratory and his ability to inspire his generation by the use and construct of his words was overpowering, as was his leadership, first during the steel crisis, and then most famously during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. His empathy, so evident in his 1963 visits to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, and to Ireland was simply extraordinary. But above all, it was his capacity, at the height of the Cold War, to articulate a vision of freedom and hope, not just for the United States, but for the world that marks his greatness. And the tragedy of his death made him a 20th century martyr.
De Valera, on the other hand, was the ultimate survivor, avoiding execution by the British after the 1916 Uprising (because of his American origins) to become President of Ireland in 1919 and – with many years as Prime Minister in between – to be President again until he finally retired, after a fourteen year term, blind and his 90s, in 1973, over half a century later. Whereas Kennedy’s appeal lay in his flair, charm and charisma, de Valera survived by stubbornness and sheer cunning, defeating many of his rivals and cementing the development of the modern Irish state along the way.
Both men had their foibles. Kennedy’s now notorious private life was in stark contrast to the often extremely narrow-minded approach of de Valera. While Kennedy’s flame burned brightly and quickly before being cruelly extinguished, de Valera’s flame smouldered on until the mid 1970s.
On a cold Sunday morning some 25 years ago, I stood at Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery and reflected upon the lives of my two heroes. I recalled Kennedy’s words and mercurial brilliance, and de Valera’s absolute steadfastness and wily determination.
As we mark 50 years since Kennedy’s death this weekend, I will be thinking of the good things my two heroes contributed to their two countries and the world of their times, and I will also be remembering afresh my grumpy parents, abruptly awoken by a precocious young child on that most extraordinary Saturday morning all those years ago.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

14 November 2013
This weekend’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka seems set to be dominated by the furore surrounding human rights abuses in that country.
That should hardly be a surprise. Such issues are the norm for CHOGMs. Over the years, meetings have been dominated by the domestic situation in one member country or another – Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Nigeria, Fiji, and in earlier times South Africa and Uganda, come to mind. Crises within a member state at CHOGM time seem to have become the norm.  Indeed, even the student CHOGM held in Wellington at Parliament each year factors into its programme a session dealing with a simulated crisis in one member country or another!
The Commonwealth has long since ceased to be the cosy club of the British Empire it once was. It is now far more diverse and diffuse – 53 independent nations in a loose and free association, but with increasingly little in common. It is certainly not a trade or economic bloc (the WTO and the G20 have long since taken on that role, and the days of Imperial Preferences are well gone); nor is it a political or strategic powerhouse like NATO. It is certainly not an alternative to the United Nations.  While the Queen might like to wistfully refer to the Commonwealth “family” that is really bygone era stuff, which no-one takes all that seriously. Today’s Commonwealth is not so much a family as a loose and free association of states, with interests in development in the sharing of cultures, and the promotion of development and education, the essentially liberal preconditions for “democratic’ societies.  It is that quaint vagueness that gives the modern Commonwealth its strength and purpose.
Of course, none of that justifies the rogue behaviour of individual member states from time to time. In such circumstances, the Commonwealth club’s best reaction is to shame the offender to the extent that in most cases the miscreant gets the message and stays at home, either in defiance or a sulk. And the chaps at CHOGM hope they get the message and tidy up their act so that they can be welcomed back next time. And often they do.
Where things are a little different this time, though, is that the host is the problem. This is new territory which member states seem uncertain about how they should handle. Some (like club stalwarts Canada and India) are just staying home, others like New Zealand are going and planning to confront the issue head on. Either way, the danger is that diplomatic and political niceties will mean that nothing actually changes and Sri Lanka’s nominal leadership of the Commonwealth will carry on.
And if Sri Lanka does not “get the hint”, then the occasional “Wither the Commonwealth?” debate might gather more steam. That would be a pity – for all its idiosyncrasy, the Commonwealth remains a valuable international organisation that serves its members well.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

7 November 2013
Karl Marx once said famously that the thing to learn from history is that people do not.
That certainly seems to be the case with the Police when it comes to dealing with sexual abuse matters. During 2006-07 we had the trials of former Police officers on historical rape charges, which led to the highly critical Bazley Report in 2007. As a consequence, we were led to believe that the Police had ‘turned the corner”, not just in terms of their own culture, but also in how they dealt with sexual abuse cases generally.
And we were inclined to believe that, more or less. Until early this week, at least, and the ghastly Roastbusters revelations. Now it appears that the Police had received at least four complaints about this gang as early as 2011, but had done very little about them.
How could this be? Especially after the Bazley Report? No doubt these thoughts are all racing through the Police Commissioner’s mind as he faces one of the most feared events known to humankind – a dressing down from his Minister Judith Collins!
RadioLive hosts Willie Jackson and John Tamihere provided the answers in their disgraceful interview with one of the young women involved. The ridicule and scorn they heaped upon her is symptomatic of the way the Police and wider society still deal with sexual abuse claims, particularly from women. Remember the recent comments by Sir Bob Jones on the two young German tourists?
Too many men still have a remarkably patronising attitude towards women – perhaps borne of their own insecurity and feelings of in adequacy. They still see women as wily temptresses, leading poor males on, who then complain when things go too far, or when they do not go far enough. Either way, it is their fault, and they are either making things up, or being vindictive, so their complaints are discounted accordingly. The Police and the wider community are no different in their attitudes in hat respect.
Well, it is time for those men to get a life. Until their awkward, unacceptable, ambivalent attitude towards inappropriate sexual behaviour against women is widely and consistently denounced for the degrading abuse it is, nothing much will change, sadly.
That is where we all have a responsibility to act.