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.