Tuesday, 16 December 2014

17 December 2014

We are in that slide towards the Festive Season where everyone suddenly becomes nice to each other, where the year’s problems no longer seem as grim or pressing, and where we start to think about our plans and hopes for next year. Christmas always seems to usher in a brief period of optimism, which is usually dashed once we return to work.

This year, there seems to be a sense that the woes of the Global Financial Crisis are now well and truly behind us and that there is more hope of some prosperity gains in the future. But how sustainable are those? Some of the international signs are not as encouraging as they might first appear, as a quick survey of a few other economies shows.

In Ireland, similar in size and type to New Zealand, but one more savagely ravaged by the GFC, growth is forecast to lift to about 3.5% this year. But that improvement has hardly led to dancing in the streets. The government is facing a bitter battle over its water pricing plan, and President Michael D. Higgins recently told a Chinese audience that Ireland’s modern economic history has been “poverty, illusory affluence, and poverty.”

In Britain, where growth is hovering around 3%, Prime Minister David Cameron, facing an uncertain election in May and the rise of myopic xenophobia in the form of UKIP, is arguably even more despondent, pointing to “red warning lights flashing on the dashboard of the global economy”. In the United States, despite his foreign policy failures and racial discord at home, President Obama appears more optimistic although still rather cautious, commenting that with growth at 3.9% the US is “primed for steady, more sustained economic growth.” In Australia, the Abbott government’s recovery hopes have been knocked by the Budget deficit blowing out to more than $40 billion. And in the “rockstar” (a term we do not hear any more) New Zealand economy the prospect of a Budget surplus seems to have receded, and Mr English restrains himself to saying our growth rate (similar to the US) means that we are “on track for solid growth.”

Sadly, all of this means we are not out of the economic woods yet and that prudent fiscal management and restraint will remain the order of the day for some time to come. Magic bullets will again be in short supply under the Christmas tree, but in comparative terms, the performance of the New Zealand economy does give cause for a little more optimism next year, as Mr English’s comments appear to imply. So, there is scope for some cheer over the Christmas barbies after all, even if economic Nirvana is still a little while off.

On that warily optimistic note, Dunne Speaks takes its leave for 2014. I will be back in 2015 after a few weeks break. In the meantime, my best wishes to all of you for a peaceful and happy Christmas with those that are nearest and dearest to you, and my hope that 2015 will enable you to achieve your hopes and dreams. Merry Christmas!        

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

4 December 2014

The relationship between politicians and the media has been the subject of a lot of recent speculation. Often symbiotic, occasionally incestuous, it is always a good topic for rumour and gossip. Perhaps the real extent to which politicians are in the media thrall will be shown next week when Parliament wraps up its business for the year, conveniently just in time to enable politicians to attend the annual Press Gallery Christmas Party. (Has Whaleoil been invited?)

For the first time in many years I will not be there. Instead, I will be at an information-sharing exercise of another hue – the first meeting of the D5 in London. Now, while most will know about the G20 and will have followed its recent meeting in Brisbane, probably few (if any) will have heard of the D5.

The D5 is a grouping of five nations (no, not Five Eyes!) – Britain, New Zealand, Korea, Estonia and Israel – considered amongst the most advanced in the provision of on-line government services. Its establishment is a British Government initiative, and next week will be the first time the five nations have met together. New Zealand is well placed to play its part in this grouping – it is already government policy here to be achieving 70% of New Zealanders’ most common interactions with government on-line by 2017, and we are keen to both share our experiences and learn from others.     

According to the United Nations E-Government Survey released in July 2014, New Zealand already shows “an exemplary commitment to the provision of transactional services” and is ranked 9th in the world, up significantly from just a couple of years ago. We are especially well regarded for the work we have done on cloud computing and the use of the creative commons licence for open data.

All of this, of course, will excite the geeks – who know what it means – but it has little immediate resonance with the average citizen. And that is the challenge of digital transformation. It cannot just be about system upgrades, but it has to demonstrate a positive, specific and noticeable benefit to the individual to be sustainable. One such demonstration in the New Zealand context is that we have just renewed the 300,000th passport on-line. That percentage of on-line renewals is rising steadily, with the time involved dropping dramatically to just 2-3 days.

The government’s Better Public Services strategy is about achieving similar types of results across the board. The establishment of the D5 provides an opportunity for countries of like mind to share experiences and learn from each other. It promises to become an extremely valuable forum.

Information sharing of a different type is the stock-in trade of the Press Gallery Christmas Party, which is why I regret not being there to hear all the latest passing gossip. But the work of the D5 is likely to be more enduring, lasting well beyond the next newspaper headline, or television news bulletin, and therefore of far more benefit to our citizens.    







Tuesday, 25 November 2014

26 November 2014

I have thought for many years that the State Services Commission was redundant and should be abolished.

I felt that in these days of more autonomy for departmental chief executives the oversight role of the SSC was no longer necessary, and that the responsibility should rest with individual chief executives.

Recent events have forced me to change that view. Ironically, the utter ineptitude of the SSC’s handling of the Sutton case has been the reason. Here was a case of serious misconduct by a chief executive – which did require external intervention – which was so mishandled by the SSC as to draw attention to the need for it to be seriously reformed.

It should start at the top. The State Services Commissioner has performed very poorly in this instance, and should be replaced. A more vibrant, independent leadership, not politically beholden to the government of the day is needed to oversee reshaping the SSC to become a more performance improvement and professional standards monitor of government agencies and their chief executives, rather than the defender of the status quo and protector of the government’s perceived interests it seems to be at present.

In the same vein, the role of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet merits review. Too often, the DPMC has been seen as a protective mirror image of the SSC, each bolstering and supporting the other, rather than independent agencies carrying out separate functions. The attendance and performance of the DPMC chief executive at the infamous Sutton press conference highlights the point. Worse, however unfounded, is the implication of a very cosy arrangement between CERA, the SSC and DPMC, and Mr Sutton to resolve his situation in a way that minimised embarrassment, with no apparent regard for the victim(s) involved. DPMC should never forget that its role is to provide the Prime Minister of the day with the best possible advice and information on current issues, but not to act, as increasingly appears the case, as some sort of political praetorian guard.

State sector reform since the 1980s has been allegedly about promoting greater transparency and accountability. In the light of the Sutton case, a justifiable argument can be mounted that those principles have been well and truly cast aside, at least by central agencies. Serving the public interest appears to have given way to keeping the ship of state on a smooth course. That is the job of politicians, not public servants, and when they start to confuse the roles, it is time they were moved on.        

The only good to emerge from the Sutton case is to learn from all the bad practices it contains. The failings of Mr Sutton, the SSC and the DPMC are now obvious and need to be addressed. Beyond that lies the wider issue of the reform of the key agencies themselves.

But the biggest issue – and the one still unspoken of – is the impact on the victim(s) in both this case, and the many other potential cases continuing undetected across the public sector.

Now, that would be a task a fit for purpose SSC could really focus its attention upon.







Monday, 17 November 2014

18 November 2014

The case of Phillip John Smith has raised many questions which are now the subject of a number of inquiries so it is therefore imprudent to be commenting too specifically about it before these have been completed. However, it does raise broader issues regarding individual privacy in age of increasingly joined-up government.  

As a constituency MP, I am struck constantly by the number of people I see who genuinely assume that their basic information is already readily accessible by a range of government agencies. Moreover, they seem somewhat surprised – and in some cases become quite agitated (“I have already given that information to such and such a government agency”) – when asked to provide it again. They not only expect their information to have been passed on, but seem to think that is acceptable.

But, by way of contrast, people appear far more concerned at a global level about the sharing of their personal information and the implication that nothing is private any more, and that their every communication, indeed activity, is monitored in some way by an increasingly inquisitive state. And all this is occurring against a backdrop of a communications revolution which is making the capacity to obtain and share information greater day by day, and where the whole process of government is increasingly technologically driven.

This apparent contradiction has particular implications for New Zealand. We are at the forefront of nations when it comes to joined-up government services, and New Zealanders are increasingly taken with the idea of doing their business with government – like paying their taxes, or renewing their passports – on-line, and at a time of their convenience. They like the freedom new circumstances are now providing, and are pushing the government to do more in that space.

So when a case like Smith arises people properly want to know why the relevant agencies did not have access to all the relevant information at the earliest opportunity, and as a matter of course. Our lack of tolerance for Smith’s behaviour is understandable, and we have some lessons to learn from what has happened to ensure there are no repeats.

Now, a number of challenges lie within all of this. The information technology explosion has only just begun, and it would be foolish to think otherwise. Today’s challenges are likely to seem miniscule to those that lie ahead.

The potential advantages of joined-up government are great – particularly to the individual – but so too are the risks. Information sharing is the way of the future, but it needs to be balanced by ensuring that our privacy and official information legislation, and official functions like those of the Ombudsman and the Privacy Commissioner are kept fit for purpose to ensure they can effectively protect the individual from any Orwellian risks inherent in the expansion of joined-up government. The balance between information sharing to enhance people’s lives, and information sharing to control them is a fine one, demanding constant vigilance. There is, after all, now no turning back.






Tuesday, 11 November 2014

12 November 2014

“Curiouser and curiouser,” said Alice in Wonderland in 1865. “I don’t much care where – just so as I get somewhere.”

A couple of recent events remind me that nearly 150 years later, Alice’s plea still has a great deal of relevance.

Last year, as amendments were being made to legislation governing the GCSB there was a great deal of comment about the changes being made introducing a new era of transparency and accountability for the hitherto shadowy intelligence agencies. A process of regular five yearly independent reviews was established and assurances given that henceforth no New Zealanders would be spied on improperly.

Any surveillance warrants issued would have to be promptly reported to the Inspector-General of Security and so on and so forth. In short, the clear message was that the days of warrantless surveillance were over.

Or so it seemed – until last week and the proposed introduction of the 48 hour warrant free fishing expedition to allow the authorities to snoop around a person of interest for up to 48 hours without a warrant to see if more detailed surveillance was necessary. All this is not only at total variance with last year’s decisions, but is coming even before the first of the independent reviews due to get underway in the middle of next year. ISIS is the presumed pretext, but the scope of the proposal is breathtaking. It should be deferred, at least until the independent reviews of the GCSB and SIS have taken place.

In the same vein was the announcement a couple of days ago by a group of South Island Mayors that they wanted the right to control where and how any psychoactive substances approved in the future could be handled in their areas. They realised that it was difficult to ban these substances outright because their composition changed regularly, but they wanted the right to determine things locally.

That all seems realistic and reasonable. It mirrors what I have been saying for over three years about the difficulty of dealing with this issue. More importantly, it mirrors provisions written into the psychoactive substances legislation when it was going through Parliament last year – and at the specific request of local government – to allow local authorities to develop policy plans for the sale and distribution of these substances in their areas.

Yet for at least the last twelve months, Mayors have been railing against these provisions, saying they shift the burden of responsibility from central to local government and are a cop-out which will not work. And what is even more bizarre, they now say that the solution lies in their implementing the very provisions they have been so staunchly opposing, despite having called for them in the first place. Well, yes, that was why Parliament gave them the power they requested.

It all smacks of Alice’s wishful journey to somewhere – just anywhere. The destination has become secondary to the perception that someone is doing something, somewhere.

Curiouser and curiouser indeed.    







Wednesday, 5 November 2014

6 November 2014

Solid Energy’s decision not to re-enter the Pike River mine is awful, horrific and tragic – especially for the families concerned – but is almost certainly correct in the circumstances.

That is a painful thing to say and will understandably not be well received by the affected families, who have been allowed to cling to the hope of recovery since the very first day of the tragedy. I fully understand that, and am by no means confident that I would think any differently were I in their position.

Whatever way one views it, Pike River has been an unmitigated tragedy at every level in the needless loss of the lives of the 29 miners, the prevarication and obfuscation in the immediate aftermath of the explosions, the revelations about the company’s lax management and safety standards, and the too many false dawns of hope the grieving families have been given. It is far too much expect decent people to bear, yet they have done so with remarkable bravery and stoic dignity. But, sadly, now it is time to move on.

The latest edition of the New Zealand Geographic magazine captures the situation starkly and well in its article “The Uncompromising Chemistry of Tragedy”. In a dispassionate way, it describes the chemical reactions that occurred at the time of the explosions, the immediate impact they would have had on the miners, and the risks and level of the buildup of methane gases in the mineshaft. It makes it all too clear how forlorn the hope of recovery would be in a virtual incinerator. It is compelling reading.

At a broader level, the article makes it clear that the way in which the families were treated immediately afterwards, while probably intended as sympathetic, in fact created a situation where precisely the opposite has been the case. The hope given to the families from the outset has now been shown to have been false – and to have been so from day one. Hope can often be a powerful stimulant, but false hope is never more than a cruel hoax.

So, where to from here to give the families the sense of closure and solace they have been seeking and deserve? I suggest that the formal designation of the mine site and its surrounds as a recognised grave site and memorial to the memory of the men would be appropriate.

The Pike River families have paid a dreadful price for their men’s careers. One way of helping them move forward would be to stop the litanies of false hopes and half truths they have been subjected to over recent years. Formally declaring the mine site as an official grave site is a way we can recognise that while their men are not coming back they are being allowed to rest in peace, with the dignity and respect that they deserve.        


Wednesday, 29 October 2014

30 October 2014

My Irish forbears were staunchly republican. I have inherited that trait. So, you would think I would welcome the Prime Minister’s plan for a couple of referenda on changing the New Zealand flag to something more distinctive.

Do not get me wrong – I do, but, at the same time, I think it is a really wasted opportunity. The process is estimated to cost around $26 million and at the end of it all we will either have a new flag, or not, as the people will decide. Nothing else will have changed.

MPs and others swearing oaths of loyalty will still be required to swear them to the Queen. The activities of the state will still be carried out in her name or those of “her heirs and successors”, who will still live on the other side of the world, with no direct or meaningful involvement in or understanding of the lives of contemporary New Zealanders.

We may well change the design of a cloth – and finally banish the Union Jack – but beyond that not a lot else is likely, or, more importantly, intended to change. It is a $26 million downpayment on letting the people have their say, but without threatening the core fabric of our comfortable society too much.

Sadly, it could have all been quite different, and not just another spluttered effort along the way. So too could the results of the Constitutional Arrangements Review Committee I chaired in 2004-05, but the Clark Government got cold feet when it came to getting anywhere near the feared “R” word. And so, despite their inclinations, the status quo was preferred, and the first opportunity for reform allowed to pass.

When the current government took office, the Constitutional Conversation was established, with a very high powered Eminent Persons Group under the distinguished leadership of Sir Tipene O’Regan, but again, the debate was cast in such a way to prevent any substantive debate of the “R” question. Despite the eminence of the committee and the willingness of people to engage and to be engaged, it rapidly became clear that the real purpose of the committee, at least insofar as the government was concerned, was to get the National and Maori Parties off their respective intransigent and diametrically opposed high horses on the future of the Maori seats. While it achieved that, it became our second lost opportunity in five years for a wider constitutional debate.

All of which brings me to the current flag exercise, which seems likely to fizzle out once the primary question has been resolved. It really is all quite clever politics. At one level, the various efforts of the last decade can be held to show at least that governments have a superficial willingness to talk about constitutional issues, so that can be construed as a positive. But, at another level, the debates have been constructed in such a way to ensure that the real issues are not addressed or really even discussed.

That may well work while it is perceived that the majority is comfortable with our retaining the Royal Family as the source of our Head of State. A little racy perhaps in giving people a say over the flag, but no real harm done even if people vote to change it, because we still have the Queen.

But, the times are a-changing. New Zealand’s increasingly multi-ethnic society feels less and less emotionally linked to Buckingham Palace as each year and scandal passes. The cry for our own Head of State will become irresistible, just as it was to my forbears all those years ago.           







Wednesday, 22 October 2014

23 October 2014

Earlier this week we marked the passing of the former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. The patrician, suavely elegant, physically imposing, polished orator, and silver haired Whitlam was very much a product of his time – the man credited with lifting Australia out of the torpor of the Menzies era of the 1950s and 1960s, and into the (then) modern era of the 1970s. In so doing, he shaped the face of modern Australia to the extent that today, nearly 40 years after his brief three years in office, Australia’s fundamentals are still very much the Whitlam legacy.

The contrast between the haughty grandeur of Mr Whitlam and the four contenders presently seeking the leadership of the New Zealand Labour Party in the now almost annual round of primary elections could not be more profound. However, it is a different time, and a different place, after all.

But there is an important lesson from the Whitlam ascendancy that the current gang of four should think about. Whitlam became leader of the Australian Labor Party at a time when the party had lost eight straight elections. It was dominated by its National Executive – the 12 faceless men as Whitlam famously called them – whose focus was preserving the legacy of the past, rather than facing the challenges and opportunities of the future. The problem as they (and the Caucus they selected and controlled) saw it was that while the ALP’s policies were fine and immutably principled, the Australian public seemed unwilling to accept in the comparative prosperity of the 1960s, the wisdom and virtue of returning to the more controlled society of the 1940s Labor heyday.

It had become a vicious circle. The more Labor lost, the more it turned inwards upon itself, and reaffirmed the need to return to first principles to regain power. And the more Menzies just kept winning.

Whitlam’s real success came early in his leadership of the party when he took on the entrenched interests directly, with a stinging attack on their failings that culminated in the immortal line “only the impotent are pure.”

A similar challenge faces the New Zealand Labour Party as it searches for its fifth leader in six years. A common refrain in the Labour Party is that the reason for their last two catastrophic defeats is that people do not understand their policies, and they need to be better communicated. On the contrary, people understand their policies all too well, and just do not like them. They may well meet all the needs of the interest groups that make up the modern Labour Party, but they clearly do not resonate with the near half million voters who have deserted Labour in recent years.

None of the current leadership contenders is a Gough Whitlam. But they can learn from him. “Only the impotent are pure” is a powerful starting point. The long term winner and possible next Labour Prime Minister will be the candidate bold enough to take on the party’s entrenched interests, and make them secondary to the interest of suburban, middle New Zealand.

Shane Jones was the last such candidate – and look what happened to him.  

Monday, 13 October 2014

14 October 2014

So, we are embarking on a rapid, four week review of our intelligence and security settings in the light of the rise of ISIL and associated groups. But did we not have a major review of the GCSB legislation last year, and was not one of the outcomes of that review a new requirement that from 30 June 2015 the GCSB and the SIS would be independently reviewed every 5 to 7 years to ensure that they remain relevant and fit for purpose?

The answer to each of those questions is yes, so what has changed so dramatically in the last 12 months to apparently override all of this? The rise of what Minister Finlayson described as the “international terrorist” as evidenced most dramatically by the ISIL is the obvious answer. Repugnant as ISIL’s and related factions’ actions have been, the term is essentially pejorative, and needs to be treated with some caution. After all, we used to talk of “freedom fighters” to cover people who joined a variety of “liberation” movements to fight for decolonisation in Africa and Asia, without attracting huge security attention. When New Zealanders were killed in such actions, in East Timor for example, we took clear stances to find out what had happened. And in an earlier generation, many idealistic, progressive young people, New Zealanders included, joined the International Brigade to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War.

So what has changed? Is it the graphic display of the brutal atrocities being carried out by groups like ISIL? Or the cause they are perceived to represent in this post 9/11 world?

Whatever the reason, all governments (curiously most reporting always contains the adjective “western” governments, which may of itself be telling) are responding. That in turn is bringing renewed focus upon international intelligence sharing arrangements, in New Zealand’s case Five Eyes, and the extent to which national sovereignty is being influenced if not actually limited by the information being obtained and shared.

Now these are not necessarily reasons why we should be wary of the urgent review being undertaken, but they raise very serious questions about the timing and the apparent rush to complete it, compared to, say, the more deliberate way we are approaching the potential Ebola pandemic, arguably of far greater risk to humanity. (The Prime Minister has spoken of legislation being passed under Urgency by the end of the year.) Yet we are scheduled to have a fully independent review of our security services as soon as possible after 30 June 2015, and Minister Finlayson was reported at the weekend noting the importance of that process.

Until the case for urgency is made, we are all left to speculate. For example, has this got something to do with shoring up support for our UN Security Council seat bid, or placing New Zealand in a good international position ahead of next month’s G20 meeting? Or will the Prime Minister’s promised major speech in the next few weeks reveal a set of circumstances so compelling to make obvious the need to leap-frog next year’s planned reviews and introduce new measures now, which ironically may not survive those reviews?

Time will tell, but, in the meantime, a dose of healthy caution is warranted. Breathing steadily and deeply and focusing on the facts, not the emotive hyperbole, is the best way forward.                





Monday, 6 October 2014

7 October 2014

One of the challenges facing any government – particularly a long-term government – is that of regeneration. And the conventional wisdom is that by and large, governments are not very good at that, because the last thing politicians want to do is think too much about who might succeed them.

When changes are made and Cabinets reshuffled they are generally dismissed as cosmetic exercises, mere fiddling around the edges, removing the one or two more obvious problems, but leaving the essential fabric more or less untouched.

Well, actually, that conventional wisdom does not accord with reality. Politics is a game of constant regeneration, and the present government is a good example of that. Of the 58 National MPs elected when the party came to office in 2008, just 34 remain MPs today. 24, nearly 42%, of that original Caucus have for one reason or another moved on within the intervening 6 years. A similar pattern applies with regard to Ministerial selections. Just 12 Ministers (44%) remain from those appointed to john Key’s first Ministry in 2008. Within the Cabinet itself there has been a 45% turnover rate in the last 6 years.

Now, the sceptic might concede that this process of subtle, steady change under John Key is unusual, and that the parlous state of the Labour Party at present shows what happens when a party does not regenerate and lets the old guard hang on for too long.

But they would be wrong too. Of 43 Labour MPs elected in 2008, only 18 remain today. 58% of Labour’s post 2008 election Caucus has moved on, or been moved on, a far higher turnover rate than National’s. All of which gives the lie to the old guard argument Labour has been suffering from.

Overall, a bare majority – 61 MPs – has been elected at or since the 2008 election, which means a just over 50% turnover rate of MPs in the last 6 years. Moreover, just 21 of our current MPs were in Parliament 10 years ago. The average life of a New Zealand MP remains at just over two terms.

So, in reality, we do have a high and constant rate of MP turnover, contrary to the public perception. The challenge therefore is not so much the turnover question, but the twofold one of ensuring that the quality of MPs coming into Parliament is high, and that a sufficient number of experienced MPs is re-elected each election to ensure continuity and stability. And that is where the unfailingly correct judgement of the electorate at large plays the decisive role.



Monday, 29 September 2014

30 September 2014

The current debate over the future leadership of the Labour Party has given rise to much commentary about the ideal political leader.

For me, an outstanding political leader by any standard, whom I have always admired, was the great Irish nationalist Eamon de Valera. From the time of the Easter Uprising in 1916 until shortly before his death in 1975, de Valera was at the centre of Irish politics, either as Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, or President of the Republic.

That physical longevity was remarkable enough, but de Valera’s political survival skills mark him out as one of the great leaders of the 20th century. Yet he was a grim, dour figure, possessing no charisma, and virtually blind for the last 20 years of his life.

What made de Valera was that he never lost his dream of what his country could be. Quaint and out-moded as it proved to be by the time he finally stood down as President in 1973, de Valera’s dream shaped and dominated Ireland’s destiny, probably through until the rise of the Celtic Tiger in the 1990s. He was extremely wily – his biographer Lord Longford paints vivid pictures of how he outwitted the English over the Abdication Crisis in 1936, and the Germans during the War over their wish to upgrade the status of their Legation in neutral Dublin to that of a full Embassy. To their surprise, de Valera not only was supportive but agreed that the Embassy should be opened by the German Head of State, provided, of course, he respected Ireland’s neutrality by travelling to Dublin for the occasion, by non-military means, which was of course completely impossible in the circumstances of the time, unless one was to travel via England. At that point, the proposal was quietly shelved.

I am not seeking to make allusions between de Valera’s extraordinary and arguably unique career and the current plight of the Labour Party, save for one point. De Valera knew instinctively what the narrative was that he wanted to present to the Irish people, and he stuck with it for over half a century in public life. There were times when it was unpopular; times when it was seen as slightly old-fashioned and romanticised; and, other times, especially towards the end of his career, when it was simply out of touch.
Yet he stuck to his line, and backed down for no-one, most notably in his rebuke to President Kennedy, after the latter’s powerful speech to the Dail during his successful 1963 visit, or when he spoke on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the Easter Uprising in 1966. Constancy was his byword.

To me, that highlights a critical quality of leadership – conviction and strong self-belief in the cause one is promoting. I do not mean conviction displayed superficially in the neo-Pentecostal sense we often confuse as charisma, but conviction in the sense of quiet, determined inner passion that drives one forward and which over time inspires its own sense of confidence. Grim determination in pursuit of a goal should always outshine flashiness or overt showmanship, in my view.

Interestingly, it was that same sense of grim determination that marked out one of our greatest Prime Ministers – Peter Fraser – and Helen Clark, in more recent times. So, maybe as Labour begins its now near-annual search for a new leader, it should take a leaf out of the Fraser and Clark books, and opt for the choice that has the determination, constancy, grit and stamina to settle in and knuckle down for the long haul.

The problem is finding such a person in the current Labour Caucus.     







Wednesday, 17 September 2014

18 September 2014

A couple of elections ago there was a bumper sticker around to the effect the one million New Zealanders liked to hunt, fish or tramp in our great outdoors. The implication was that governments therefore needed to take their concerns more seriously to retain their electoral support. The reality was, however, that when it came to the elections that million New Zealanders voted pretty much the same way as everyone else, and nothing much changed.

One of the reasons for that that was that while the statements were fine and the concerns serious, there was no political party that appealed as the most logical home for their votes. All that has changed significantly in the last three years. There has been a party in Parliament that has demonstrated a commitment to outdoor values in the most practical of ways. That party is UnitedFuture, and the practical evidence is the establishment of the Game Animal Council as a statutory body. For almost 70 years hunters in particular had been advocating for such a body, but those calls had consistently fallen on deaf ears. The fact that UnitedFuture was able to bring the Game Animal Council to fruition not only resolved this long standing issue, but more importantly sent a signal to many with an interest in outdoor recreation policy that at last there was a party which did not just talk the talk, but walked the walk as well.

That achievement assumes a fresh relevance on the back of an announcement by the recreational fishing group Legesea last week. Legesea, which speaks for about 85,000 recreational fishers, issued its assessment of the various political parties’ policies and who would be best for the recreational fishing sector. UnitedFuture was their runaway winner. Now here is the rub. If around 30,000 of those members give their party vote to UnitedFuture there will be at least 2 UnitedFuture MPs in the new Parliament. If 50,000 of them vote for us, there will 3 UnitedFuture MPs, and if the whole 85,000 vote for us there will be at least 4 UnitedFuture MPs, and the debate about potential kingmakers would look entirely different.

Be all that as it may, we are now coming to the end of the most unusual and bizarre election campaign I have ever been involved in. The overriding message I am picking up is that people have had more than enough of the sideshows, and are looking forward to the resumption of normal business next week.

My parting shot is simply this: one thing this campaign has shown is that anything is possible – and you can vote for it. This is still a democracy which our votes control. So maybe this time the bumper sticker claims I began with will translate into practical results on the day – but only if people vote for what they believe in. Now it really is over to you. Your vote can move mountains, if you are prepared to let it do so.      


Thursday, 11 September 2014

12 August 2014

It had to happen at some stage. And better late than never is probably an understandable excuse, but, at last, as the home straight looms, the election debate has started to focus on the policy options the various parties are putting forward.

UnitedFuture seemed all alone a few weeks ago when we launched our election manifesto on-line. Alone – because we had a detailed manifesto – and even more alone because we chose to promote it. And when we started to follow that up with specific Policy of the Day on-line releases, we were really out on a limb. We were in danger of taking the election too seriously, and proving my infamous “we did not set out to be spectacular” comment was true after all. I mean, fancy using an election campaign to focus on serious things like policy, when there are so many clowns, charlatans and cheap sideshows around to claim public attention.

Yet our statistics show that thousands of people have had a look at our manifesto and on-line policy announcements, and have liked what they have seen. And I have been struck at meetings, in my own electorate and around the country, in casual conversations at airports and shopping centres and other places I have visited, how familiar people are with our key policies and how they could be implemented. All that is consistent with the messages being recorded by the various websites which aim to fit voters’ views with the most relevant political party for them, and the numbers of people contacting us to say they have been most aligned to UnitedFuture.

All these developments offer encouragement that the election is not going to be the farce it threatened to be a few weeks ago, and that people do want to focus on the real issues, and hear what the parties have to say, and that our democracy will be the better for it.

By and large, the media have worked this out too, and have started to focus on the things that matter. However, it is by no means universal. Of course, every election has its clowns and snake-oil merchants – indeed, we seem to have a perennial performer in that regard. Sadly, spivs like this attract their own deal of curious attention – superficial, slobbering, and looking solely at the external trappings, not the lack of substance or policy, or the chicanery lying behind the faded image. Most people, in the media and elsewhere, readily see this for what it is. Some genuinely do not, but worse, some who do choose to ignore it, preferring to be tawdry apologists for what they see as no more than necessary electoral entertainment. That not only defiles their credibility as commentators, but also politics as a noble art.

As I say, policy and its detail – which were decidedly absent at the start of the campaign – have now become relevant, as at least one leader has discovered to his discomfort. Now, as the post-election phase approaches, it will be policy again –not sensationalist alarums – that will shape the future direction of government. A simple tip comes to mind: in looking ahead to what may happen post September 20th, it will be the parties that have worked together, who will be those that are able to stay together.





Wednesday, 3 September 2014

4 September 2014

Tax seems to have become the first real issue of the election, following the distractions of recent weeks.

And, as usual with tax debates, the argument quickly has descended into the devil of the detail. The one certainty about tax policy is its inherent complexity, the fact there will always be winners and losers, and frequently unintended consequences.

The fundamental point of a tax system often gets overlooked – its primary purpose is to raise the revenue a government needs to carry out its functions. Income versus expenditure, if you like. When I was Minister of Revenue, I had prominently on my desk a copy of Canada’s first Income Tax Act passed in 1917 – a slim volume of just 11 pages. It made the point by its brevity that the collection of tax was a mechanical process which needed to be properly applied. As a standard for tax administration, it is probably as relevant as ever today.

However, tax policy has been distorted over the years and around the world by governments of all stripes who have sought to use the tax system for all range of other purposes – from encouraging and incentivising particular forms of behaviour in business, through to discouraging or severely penalising other forms of economic activity deemed socially, politically or economically undesirable. The more governments have sought to use the tax system in this way, the more complicated it has become, and the more uneven and prone to anomalies it has been seen to be. And a whole new industry of interpreting, devising ways around the system, exploiting the system for advantage, or just finding new activities to escape the tax net has sprung up the world over, with now dramatic implications in the digital era for international tax collection in particular.

This is the backdrop against which the current tax debate in New Zealand is being conducted. Like most tax debates, it is missing the point. The argument should not be about what new distortionary taxes can be introduced to skew behaviour one way or the other, but more about the basic point of ensuring that all the taxes levied are properly collected. The debate this week over the details of Labour’s proposed Capital Gains Tax simply presages more complexity, more issues with avoidance and boundary definitions, and overall, a less simple tax system, should the policy ever be implemented. Similar problems lie ahead with the tax free thresholds being proposed by the Greens and the Conservatives. For its part, National needs to be careful about grafting too much of the welfare system’s income support policies onto the tax system, for similar reasons.

From my vantage point, having been at the heart of and now outside the tax policy loop, the situation is clearer than ever. The key to good tax policy in the future is governments getting back to the basics – ensuring the system collects the revenue they need to do their job, and not trying to use taxes to re-organise the world the way their prejudices dictate.      








Wednesday, 27 August 2014

28 August 2014

Amidst the sideshows in danger of enveloping the election campaign, the issue of child poverty stands out as one of the most important matters facing the country and which deserves strong attention.

Most political parties seem to recognise this and have developed their own responses to dealing with it.

UnitedFuture’s position is clear cut. We say every child not only deserves the best start in life, but also deserves the love and attention of both parents, wherever possible, no matter what their circumstances are. The family unit, however structured, is therefore a vital component in the life and development of a child, and every child has a family to provide the nurturing and support they need. But, sadly, children have no choice over whom their parents are, or the circumstances of their upbringing. So an important part of addressing the issue of child poverty has to be about strengthening and empowering parents and families to be the best that they can be.

At one – albeit important – level, it is vital to ensure that families and their children have good access to opportunity: jobs, income support measures like our Income Sharing plan, good social services and access to quality early childhood education. UnitedFuture supports all of those things but recognises that of themselves, no matter how generous the programmes or the support mechanisms, they will not be enough in all cases to ensure every child has the opportunities to be the best they can be.

And that brings us back to the critical role of parenting. Parents are arguably the most important but most overlooked group in our society. They receive precious little training or support for their role (buy a new dishwasher and it comes with more information and back-up services than any new parent receives) and even when parents do ask for help, they are the ones considered to have a “problem” that needs resolving.

Very few parents, if any, wilfully set out to fail as parents or to let their children down, so we need to be investing much more in supporting and encouraging parents as they carry out their role. That is arguably the area of greatest single focus in ensuring that every child grows up in a decent and loving environment and then gets access to all the things they need to live happy and contented lives.

My major concern about some aspects of the child poverty debate is that parents are being left out of the loop. Of course, there are economic issues to be addressed, and I am not arguing against those, but the focus has to be as much on promoting good parenting as it is on supporting children.

United Future is the original family party. We championed family issues long before it was fashionable to do so. And we have achieved much for families over the last decade or so. The best way we can support our children today is to support our families, something we will continue to do with vigour.