Wednesday, 28 January 2015

29 January 2015

As the world commemorated the 70th anniversary this week of the liberation of Auschwitz death camp, the Beehive’s flag fluttered at half-mast in tribute to the late King of Saudi Arabia, where women have no rights, beheadings are frequent and journalists and bloggers are whipped. A northern Maori leader warned that burqas would not be welcome at Waitangi celebrations next week and Winston Peters made his first racist statement of 2015.

The incongruent juxtaposition of these events is stunning. While Auschwitz stands forever shamefully head and shoulders above all other symbols of human intolerance and brutality, and while all memorial services in New Zealand and around the world were right to proclaim we must never let such events happen again, the above examples show we still have a long way to go in the tolerance stakes.

Yet the lessons of history are obvious. Take South Africa, for example. Our “bridge building” approach of the 1950s-70s did not work in changing the attitudes of the apartheid regime, and if anything reinforced its intransigence. It took the isolation and sporting and economic boycotts of the 1980s to free Nelson Mandela and usher in the development of the rainbow nation we know today.

Similarly with repressive states like Saudi Arabia. Lowering flags to commemorate the late King, or sending an incredibly high-powered delegation like President Obama has to pay homage to the new monarch merely reinforce the form and structure of the regime and its repressive practices. And, in their own way, incidents like banning burqas or racist statements by shallow politicians reinforce the prejudice that discrimination is more or less acceptable, provided your target is unpopular to start with, and you do not go too far.

Now one might have expected the loftily titled “state of the nation” speeches by our two major political leaders to have made at least some passing comment about these matters. But, not unexpectedly, both were silent in favour of the mundane. One was a speech about housing, the other a trip down memory lane. Neither had the gravitas or substance to justify the “state of the nation” title.

The grief and emotion that has accompanied the Auschwitz events reinforces the reality that human beings are more than just mechanistic, uncaring robots. Attitudes, feelings and what we quaintly call values are the true and important shapers of our destinies. Maybe that was the point behind Eleanor Catton’s forthright comments in India. While not agreeing with the particular sentiments she expressed – although she had every right to do so, without abuse – I have some sympathy with her underlying message that nation states ought to stand for something, and are more than just collections of people all furiously getting on with their own lives, like bees in a hive.

Yet our indifference to the incongruent events around us suggests that is exactly what we are doing. And perhaps, more seriously, that no-one really cares too much. It may well be an expression of the complacency the long hot summer is inducing, or a very successful political management strategy. Either way, it cannot last.





Wednesday, 21 January 2015

22 January 2015

Two acts of political crassness marked the holiday break.

The first was the befittingly silly comment from Ron Mark about putting shots across the bows of foreign fishing vessels illegally poaching toothfish in the southern ocean.

The second was Nick Smith’s speech to his Nelson constituents. This was no mere putting of shots across the bows of the Resource Management Act, but the launching of a full-scale assault.

National has long had the RMA in its sights. Even before it passed the Act in 1991 elements in National (notably then Local Government Minister Warren Cooper smarting over restrictions imposed on developing his motel complex in Queenstown) have been opposed to requiring development to be undertaken in an environmentally sustainable way. But, to date, wiser heads have usually prevailed.

Initially, that seemed to be likely outcome this time around, with National appearing to have taken aboard the criticism its 2014-14 reform attempts received. The Prime Minister spoke of “moderate and pragmatic” reforms – usually code for watering down the more extreme enthusiasms of some of his colleagues – but all that seemed to fly out the window this week. (One charitable, but probably far-fetched, interpretation of Dr Smith’s speech is that it is an elaborately Machiavellian attempt to prove to his more gung-ho colleagues just how difficult carpet-bombing the RMA will be in practice, and is really a carefully disguised plea for moderation. As Churchill once observed in a similar situation, if that is the case, it is a very effective disguise!)

All of which is a huge pity. National’s blunderbuss attempts to obliterate the RMA, egged on by ACT which fears National is not going far enough, are obscuring the vast areas of agreement for change across the political spectrum, upon which a responsible package of change could be developed.

There is little disagreement that some of the RMA’s processes are cumbersome and outmoded, and a break on responsible development, and a solid Parliamentary majority could be deftly and quickly assembled for a package of measures to address these. That has not changed since National first began its latest RMA assault in 2013, and it is a genuine mystery why it has not taken the opportunity to build such a majority before now. After all, if the “crisis” is as pressing as National keeps saying, its all or nothing approach seems a very curious way to proceed.

For the record, UnitedFuture’s position is clear and unchanging. We are prepared to work with National and other parties – like the Maori Party and possibly even Labour if Andrew Little’s initial comments mean anything – on changes to streamline the processes of the RMA to make them more responsive and efficient, and not an unnecessary impediment to responsible development. But we will not support any changes to the principles of the RMA that have the effect of weakening the environmental protections it enshrines. The RMA is not just one piece of the development jigsaw as its critics would wish, but the fundamental backdrop. That principle must remain inviolate.

From my perspective, the door is ajar for further discussion, but I get the sense that National is now less inclined to that, having tucked away the ACT vote to secure its majority. Suggestions I have heard this week that National will only talk to support partners if it can be certain in advance that it will get their agreement reinforce that view.

That was this week. The Prime Minister returns next week and it will be interesting to see if “moderate and pragmatic” returns to the RMA agenda as a consequence. For the sake of the environment and future generations, I hope so.