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.