Tuesday, 28 April 2015

29 April 2015

A sage observation from St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, over 1600 years ago continues to shape many of our patterns of behaviour today. It was he who observed wryly that “When I am in Rome, I tend to do as the Romans do”. He could not have imagined the ongoing significance that casual remark would assume, especially in the world of international diplomacy.

The latest example of this practice at work was the decision by the wife of the Prime Minister to wear the traditional loose-fitting anabaya robes, but not a head scarf, during the visit to Saudi Arabia this week. There are arguments for and against doing so – Michelle Obama famously refused to comply during a recent Presidential visit – but, generally speaking, the law of “when in Rome” seems to apply. (Indeed, any Arabic delegation I have met in New Zealand has usually turned up in the most exquisitely cut Amani suits!)

Actually, more important than abiding by whatever the appropriate dress code is considered to be, are the discussions that take place during such visits. In the current case, New Zealand is keen to conclude the long-awaited Free Trade Agreement with the Gulf Co-operation Council states, of which Saudi Arabia is the leading member. The balancing act for the Prime Minister was whether he was prepared to pull his punches on Saudi Arabia’s utterly appalling human rights record, particularly with regard to women, and its heavy reliance on decapitation, whipping and mutilation in its justice system.

Over the years, New Zealand, despite its proven record in human rights, has not always been up to the mark when it comes to expressing horror at the barbaric practices of others. We implicitly condoned apartheid South Africa right through until the mid 1980s; we have long been tongue-tied when it comes to China’s human rights record; and, we seem set to do likewise with Saudi Arabia.

However, frustrating and humiliating as that can be, we could never be accused of playing international bully. Yet it is difficult to escape applying that description to Australia’s handling of the recent Bali Nine ringleaders’ executions. While nothing excuses the barbarism of Indonesia’s actions, the various interventions by Australia – Foreign Minister Julie Bishop notably excepted – all served to make it virtually impossible for Indonesia to get off its high horse with any semblance of dignity. From the crass linking of Australian aid after the Boxing Day tsunami to favourable consideration of this case, through to independent commentary in Australia on the eve of the executions that the actions of President Widodo actually showed his political impotence, Australia appeared hell-bent on humiliating Indonesia into submission, rather than saving the lives of its two citizens.

There is a lesson here for New Zealand. A New Zealander is currently on trial for his life on drugs charges in Indonesia, and potentially faces the fate as Chan and Sukumaran. We need to be talking quietly to the Indonesians now, letting them know our views, and working with them to see if a reasonable solution can be effected. The process needs to be ongoing, not just left until the last few months.

As recent events show, preserving the human rights of a country’s citizens can be a far more delicate form of observing St Ambrose’s principle of “When in Rome’ than just abiding by the local dress code.          







Tuesday, 21 April 2015

23 April 2015

The words “We will remember them. Lest we forget,” will be intoned in ceremonies across New Zealand, Australia, and the Gallipoli peninsula this weekend, as people of many ages and backgrounds commemorate the bravery of those who took part in the ill-fated landings a century ago. And so they should. Those events at ANZAC Cove that morning, now shrouded in almost as much legend as reality, shaped the characters of at least two nations, and established the bond between Australia and New Zealand that endures today.

In New Zealand, at least, ANZAC Day has become the closest thing we have to a genuine national day, where we pay tribute to and celebrate the characteristics and values we regard as intrinsic to being a New Zealander today. (Please stop this incessant reference to us as Kiwis – I for one do not like being compared to a dumb, flightless bird!)

But what about the relationship with Australia? There is certainly the quant sibling  rivalry referred to de rigueur in almost every speech on the subject, although that is mainly on the sports field. We speak a marginally better form of English than they do, although that distinction seems to be receding as our diction is increasingly reduced to grunts and slovenly nasal twangs, more redolent of the other side of the Tasman. We have broadly the same things in our shops, and like visiting each other. Oh, and Australian Prime Ministers keep referring to us as “family”. But beyond that superficiality, the relationship is more akin to that of the distant cousin, rather than the close sibling we like to portray it as.

This is not altogether surprising. Since Seddon properly rejected the invitation for New Zealand to join the Commonwealth of Australia at the time of Federation in 1901 we have, in our parlance, paddled our own wakas. Occasionally, there have been attempts to invigorate the relationship, from the Canberra Pact in 1944, through to the New Zealand Australia Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1967, and most notably the Closer Economic Relations (CER) agreement of 1983, but benign neglect has been the more general characteristic. And in such interactions as occur, the presumption is always of New Zealand being not quite on a par with New South Wales, rather than as an equal sovereign nation. (The nadir most surely – aside from the infamous underarm incident – must have been the Keating Government’s decision via a curt late night fax in the early 1990s to terminate consideration of a single aviation market.)

While Australia and New Zealand are clearly two different and distinct countries, there are arguably no more similar peoples on earth. Despite all the rivalries, we genuinely like each other too. And as Gallipoli and so many other campaigns demonstrate, we have been side by side on so many occasions. The sentiments we express about our closeness are genuine, even if the reality is a little less than that.

So, as we invoke the ANZAC spirit this weekend and promise afresh never to forget the sacrifices of an earlier generation that crisp April morning a century ago, let us mark the occasion by breathing fresh life into the modern Australia New Zealand relationship. As two equal sovereign states, let us honour our forebears by making our relationship the closest of any two nations on earth. A practical starting point would be to allow our respective citizens free movement across our borders, without the need for a passport, as is increasingly the case in Europe. 

The spectacular memorial gift to grace Wellington’s Pukeahu park is one thing – but, Mr Abbott, a move on passports would be a much more enduring recognition of the bond we say we forged at Gallipoli.







Wednesday, 15 April 2015

16 April 2015

One of the most enjoyable election campaigns I have ever fought was in 1990. I was a Minister in an unpopular Labour Government headed for massive defeat. Yet the voters were unfailingly courteous and polite at every stage of the campaign. Why? Quite simple really – they had already decided they were going to change the government, and were simply going through the process of saying goodbye. Indeed, I joked often at the time that if we had promised to give every voter a gold bar, the response would have been, “Thank you – do you think the National party will allow us to keep it?”

Over the years since, I have been reminded of that experience every time I hear some commentator or other speculate that a government might be losing public support, or that a change of government at the next election might be on the cards. In the wake of last month’s Northland by-election I have had cause to think of it again too. The plain fact is that political tides ebb and flow, and once they start to ebb, they seldom return in favour of the government of the day.

The question that inevitably arises is at what point the present government is in the tide. It is in its third term – and is our tenth government since the National/Labour duopoly began with Labour’s election in 1935. Just two of those governments served four terms; four prior to the present government served three terms. So, on the face of it, a reasonable conclusion might be that the current government is unlikely to win another term in 2017.

But it is no longer as simple as that. While my dictum about political tides still applies, the advent of MMP has introduced a few new eddies and rips into the political tidal flow that make things more unpredictable. And because the system now relies on multi-party governments, it is less polarised overall than the two-party club which dominated elections from 1935 to 1993.

There is another factor too. Over the years, our system has become more presidential (starting with Norman Kirk’s all too brief time as Prime Minister). The Prime Minister has become less “primus inter pares” and is now the dominant face of government.

Sir Robert Muldoon, Helen Clark and Jim Bolger all typified the modern Prime Minister. When they were riding high, so too were their governments. When they fell in public esteem, their governments fell with them. (Bolger is arguably in a slightly different position because of the added factor of the taint from his association with New Zealand First, but the essential point remains.)

John Key is in a slightly different position again. We have never had a Prime Minister who has increased his support over three successive elections. (Lange managed it in two elections – only to crash spectacularly and resign abruptly within two years of his re-election.) All the signs are that Key still retains a strong rapport with New Zealand voters, but given the heights of his support, his fall may be all the more dramatic when it occurs.

So, when will that be? Despite the commentators panning his recent performances, my sense is that this is still some time off. Budget 2015 and the Northland by-election setback are not the turning points. The Prime Minister knows his fate rests on his ongoing connection with the voters, in the towns and workplaces across the country. Yes, he sometimes get photographed wearing silly hats, and seldom ducks the chance of a selfie, but his critics dismissal of him as “Mr Smile and Wave” misses the point. There is far more to John Key than that.

There was another Prime Minister who behaved in a similar way – Sir Keith Holyoake, “Kiwi Keith”. Often derided by his critics at the time for his pragmatism and consensual style, he is the only National Prime Minister to have won four successive elections. More than most, John Key is acutely aware of that.







Wednesday, 8 April 2015

9 April 2015

A quiet revolution is underway in the provision of public services. Under the guise of its “Better Public Services” programme the Government is stealthily but deliberately changing the way in which public services are delivered, and also, and perhaps more importantly, the way the public service identifies and designs the services it provides.

The more public area of this process is the 10 Key Result Areas, which for the first time sets specific targets and performance goals for public sector agencies. Specific policy outcomes are being linked to services provided. By focusing, for example, on reducing the numbers of vulnerable children, or reducing the level of petty crime, the Government is really making clear the link between its policy objectives and its specific activities.

The implications of all this are as clear as they are dramatic. No longer will what is essentially displacement activity be tolerated. There has to be a clear purpose for the provision of public services, and a definable outcome. Just doing things the same because this is the way they have always been done is no longer an option. Of course, fiscal considerations are a driver, but they are by no means the only one. Government agencies are being more thoroughly challenged to think about the Government’s policy objectives and the best way to achieve these. What that has done has been to start to unleash a new responsiveness within the public sector, which has seen many more innovative solutions being proposed, and a more equal dialogue between Ministers and public servants on what can be achieved than has been the case in recent experience.

As Minister of internal Affairs I am responsible for Result Area 10, which relates to the provision of on-line government services. Our objective is to have 70% of transactions in  ten major area of public interaction performed on-line by 2017. Presently, the figure sits at just over 46%, leaving us well on target to achieve the 2017 goal. Passport renewal is the shining example, with over 40% of renewals already carried out on-line, within a couple of days.

Now, of course there are dinosaurs who either resist, ignore, or remain suspicious of what all this means. Some, but by no means all, of the state unions remain in that camp, but that is no real surprise as some are still fighting the passage of the State Sector Act 27 years ago!

The worst and most arrogant dinosaurs are those quasi-government bodies who somehow think the Government’s policies do not apply to them, and that they can just carry on doing what they have always done. The worst, by a country mile and then some, is the New Zealand Transport Agency which, leaving aside its precious and downright silly pronouncements on road safety, regards itself as a complete law unto itself when building new state highways is concerned, as my constituents in Tawa and Takapu are presently finding out.

NZTA’s sublime arrogance in proceeding with a link road proposal the neither local people, nor local authorities want or think is even necessary is breathtaking in the extreme. But what is more repugnant is NZTA’s clumsy attempts at blackmail – threatening to withdraw funding from the widely supported Petone to Grenada road unless it gets its own way on the llnk road.

If NZTA cannot understand and respond to the depth of local feeling on this issue, then maybe it is time to unceremoniously dump its current entire board and senior management and replace them who fully understand – and support – the concept of Better Public Services.