Wednesday, 18 December 2013

19 December 2013
2013 is close to being just a memory. As usual, the end of year reviews are being written, and the lessons, if any, for the future noted.
For me, the most significant feature of the year has received scant attention, which makes it also the most disturbing. This was the year when what has been a hitherto subtle, but otherwise unspoken change to the way our justice system operates became explicit, and even worse, officially sanctioned. I am referring to the death of the principle of innocent till proven guilty, which has been the cornerstone of our justice system, for centuries. It was the citizen’s ultimate protection against harassment and coercion by a domineering state. Yet today the principle lies in tatters in New Zealand, thanks to the conduct of both the Henry and Rebstock Inquiries.
In both cases, innocent till proven guilty quickly gave way to cannot be eliminated, which, in turn, in the absence of a firm conclusion, cast a general slur upon reputations and credibility which could not be defended. Some suggestion has been made that this process has been standard Police procedure for years, but, even if that is so, the difference is that in the Police instance any evidence they may gather has to be considered by an independent Court before any judgement can be entered.
Yet in the Henry and Rebstock cases, the follow-up was merely the quick, unquestioning endorsement by the government of such unsubstantiated conclusions as they reached. (It has to be conceded that the conduct and process – and therefore the credibility – of the Henry Inquiry have been utterly and rightly destroyed by the subsequent Privileges Committee investigation.) Nevertheless, the personal costs of both these inquiries have been high – a precipitate Ministerial resignation; the resignation of a senior public servant and the rejected resignation of another; with two other distinguished public servants forced to identify themselves – but no specific allegations against any of them. Rumour and innuendo have prevailed over evidence. And all the while, the government has backed without flinching the integrity of these shabby Inquiries’ processes. This has eerie shades of other countries in other times, not New Zealand as it should be in 2013. 
Nothing to hide, nothing to worry about seems to be the new norm. It is as unacceptable a notion, as it is slick spin. In a world where increased surveillance at all levels – from the security camera at the local store, through to the international environment – is a sad, but growing reality, innocent till proven guilty has to be upheld as never before as the citizen’s ultimate protection against tyranny. Failure by our government to do so strongly portrays a chilling view of freedom and democracy which will just lead us all further towards the abyss.
On that note, Dunne Speaks takes its leave for the summer break. Best wishes for a happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year. May 2014 be better for all of us.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

12 December 2013
Convenient political amnesia is capturing all the attention at the moment, in the main because our Prime Minister cannot remember where he stood on the 1981 Springbok Tour.
While this is the latest and arguably most dramatic incidence of this malady, it is by no means the only outbreak, nor will it be the last. For example, the two Davids now running the Labour Party cannot remember that just three years ago they were proposing to sell minority shareholdings in state company subsidiaries, while now they urge people to vote no in the asset sales referendum. And someone, whose I dare not mention, cannot even remember helicopter rides or anonymous donations.
Political amnesia is an annoyingly harmless complaint of itself. Although it can be contagious and can occasionally be a precursor of the complaint known as political grandstanding (The Al Gore “I invented the internet” condition, or the chronic elderly case in the New Zealand Parliament) it is more commonly a pre-condition of “I was there, but …”, the curse many retired politicians suffer from. A very large outbreak of this has been reported in South Africa this week, with many sufferers diagnosed at the funeral of Nelson Mandela. From David Cameron, whose Tory predecessors armed the apartheid regime in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, but who know proclaims his long admiration of the anti-apartheid struggle, through to two of our former Muldoon Government senior politicians who were “always” against the 1981 Tour, they have all been there.
What is especially galling in the New Zealand instance is that the pair were in a government happy to see an itinerary which really looked more like a tour of marginal National Party provincial seats than a sports visit. They were presumably also happy that the outcome – thanks to the results in the Gisborne, New Plymouth and Hamilton electorates (all beneficiaries of tour related incidents) - was the re-election of the Muldoon Government by just one seat in the election later that year.
There are some worrying signs that over the next twelve months the incidences of this illness could become more frequent. There are already early signs National may have caught the “we were always in favour of extending paid parental leave” virus, and that Labour is seeking to ward off symptoms of the “we will exempt fresh fruit and vegetables from GST” strain.
The only known treatments are short-term and essentially palliative: the onset of summer holidays; the public’s general political tuning-out at that time; and overall relaxation. Normally, this can suppress the condition for a couple of months, but the prognosis is not good. One thing we know about all the sufferers is that relapse is frequent, and its timing predictable. About February 2014 to be precise.        

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

5 December 2013
Just occasionally it would be nice if politicians laid petty differences aside and focused on the interests of the country as a whole.
This week’s row about the PISA report on educational attainment levels is a good case in point. In essence, it showed that rates of achievement amongst New Zealand school students have not improved in recent years, and in relative terms have actually slipped sharply against other countries.
That should have been a real wake-up call to education policy makers, but instead of the response focusing on what needs to be done to boost attainment levels, politicians reverted to type and in so doing sold New Zealand students short once more. The Government says the data covers the period Labour was in power, while Labour says it is all the fault of National Standards and National’s attacks on teachers.
Both are woefully off the mark, and, in any case, who actually cares what they think? Certainly parents who worry about the educational achievement levels of their children have little regard for, or interest in, this continual, inane, political points scoring. Nor do the nations with whom we compete, and who are leaving us rapidly in the wake of their improving levels of educational attainment. Both understand the true worth of the saying that education is the key to the future.
The problem is that education policy here has become the captive of the vested interests. On one side are business lobbyists with their superficially alluring focus on vocational outcomes, rather than academic achievement. National’s approach epitomises that viewpoint. On the other side are the teacher unions who view education as being about protecting their position and conditions of service from change. Labour is their unashamed champion. Both miss the point.
These pre-determined positions have nothing to do with the interests of parents or students, as their rehearsal during the week shows. Nowhere in the midst of all the rhetoric has there been any suggestion of a coherent future focused plan for prolonged improvement in educational attainment levels. Constant fighting old battles will not achieve that, yet, if you listened to the politicians this week that is really all they have to offer.
We need a commitment from our politicians to value educational achievement. That does not mean each political party having the same policy – that would be unrealistic – but a consensus that the overriding priority of all policies has to be the commitment to boosting student achievement. Without that as even a starting point we can look forward to the trends identified in the PISA report becoming entrenched and the opportunities for future generations of students severely diminished. It is time for responsible politicians of all hues to stop and think. Is that the legacy they feel comfortable establishing? I hope enough think not.