Tuesday, 26 May 2015

27 May 2015

I am as big a fan of John Campbell, as he is of me!

For all that, I do not mind admitting that I will be sorry to see him go at the end of this week. Not because I particularly liked his show – I seldom watched it, and was even more rarely invited to appear on it – but because I think New Zealand television journalism will be the poorer for his departure.

Nor am I especially surprised at the way he has been treated by TV3’s bosses. I well recall having to take the same Director of News and Current Affairs to the High Court in 2005 to gain access to a televised leader’s debate before that year’s general election, having been excluded on the apparently lofty grounds that the studio was not big enough to accommodate all the parties in Parliament. This case – which TV3 screamed blue murder about at the time as the ultimate interference in media freedom and therefore an affront to democracy, but which has never been appealed – showed the regard TV3 has for current affairs. It is really all about ratings and entertainment, ahead of quality and information. It is so pervasive that now even someone like John Campbell has been cast aside unceremoniously in its unrelenting pursuit.

The most disturbing feature of this debacle is the wider message it sends. While we have a number of individually talented broadcasters in New Zealand television, it is now clear that those talents run second to the pre-determined light and fluffy news and current affairs formulae both TVNZ and TV3 now to seem operate by. Campbell may have been excessively unctuous at times – the Obadiah Slope of New Zealand television – but there was no doubting his passion and determination. Without him, television news and current affairs will be reduced to just another succession of barely witty asides between presenters, with precious little analysis or actual understanding of what is going on in the world.

What Campbell’s demise demonstrates is the turmoil in all forms of traditional media as they seek to compete with both the explosion and variety of outlets and the tsunami of social media. I fear for the future of newspapers, still (just) the last bastion of considered commentary and insight, but for how much longer? Radio long ago reduced itself to being the voice of the lowest common denominator, with Radio New Zealand’s admirable attempts to staunch the wounds still succeeding, but only just.

In olden days, before newspapers and mass literacy, news was conveyed by the sonorous tones of the Town Crier, standing in the main square and booming out the latest pithy insights. How ironic it is that with the forced departure of John Campbell and some other seasoned professionals in recent years we, the most literate of peoples ever, are heading back to the modern equivalent of the Town Crier to tell us what we are presumed to need to know, when we need to know it, and to leave our critical powers and intelligence otherwise undisturbed. Hardly a prospect to savour.

Farewell John Campbell. You certainly annoyed and frustrated me, but you also made me think, something your boss Mr Jennings, and likely successors will never have the depth to do.    





Wednesday, 20 May 2015

21 May 2015

The 2015 Budget has been presented, and while Parliament settles down for the next day or so to debate some of the consequential legislation, the public will begin to pick over the entrails to determine their assessment of it. Essentially, it will boil down to one thing – do they feel personally better or worse off as a consequence. They may take account of the small projected Budget surplus, with bigger surpluses to come in the years ahead, but they will also remember there was to be a surplus this year which has not eventuated, so they will take that promise with a grain of salt. They will look at the social assistance package, noting with quiet approval the rise in benefit levels (for some, their anxious consciences will be salved by that) but then they will quickly check to see if they are one of the losers because of the consequential adjustments to Working for Families payments. In most cases, they will conclude that the Government has probably got it “about right” with little real impact on their own circumstances, and so they will just carry on with their lives.

Not that they really expected anything different. The days of Budgets being the year’s “Big Bang” have long since passed, with much of the detail announced by Ministers in the weeks immediately beforehand, even though as the Minister of Finance has shown in this Budget the odd surprise can still be delivered on the day.

All of this is a far cry from the Budgets of old, when people would listen in intently, waiting for the feared words, “As of midnight tonight …”, which usually presaged the introduction of new taxes, levies or reductions in some form or other of government services. Gone too are the old traditions of the pre-Budget stock-up of alcohol, and tobacco products to avoid Budget tax increases – even these are indexed now, and movements in rates announced well in advance, so no-one is caught by surprise. Few truly lament the passage of all that drama.

There is another reason why the Budgets of old should be forgotten. Their fundamental purpose was different – they were the politicians’ version of Scrooge’s Christmas, the one time in the year when goodies were dished out to those whom the Government liked, or wanted to like it, while those whom it did not like or care much about were either ignored or scapegoated. An economic and political morality play, if you like.

Today, the Budget is much more a statement of the Government’s plan of action for the year ahead, a politically and economically strategic document, rather than just handing out the loot. One thing that not has changed in the transition is the attitude of the Opposition. Be they of the left or the right, be the circumstances adverse or more propitious, Oppositions always oppose the Budget, with as much and fire and passion as they can muster, even though changes of government over the years have led to very few changes in Budget settings. Benefit levels are a good example – the last significant uplift in basic levels was when Sir John Marshall was Prime Minister, 43 years ago. When benefits were slashed by National in late 1990, despite its outrage and fury at the time, the Labour-led Government after 1999 did not restore the cuts. Now that a basic adjustment has been made, the Opposition are predictably saying it is not enough.

This is the sort of thing that makes Budget watching such fun – so long as no-one takes it too seriously. Debate will rage in Parliament over the next few days; the pontificating commentariat will have its worthy say; and then, by early next week or so, life will settle back to pretty much what it was beforehand.

Until we go through it all over again next year.            







Wednesday, 13 May 2015

14 May 2015

There is a peculiar something about Liberalism. As a political creed, it is frequently derided as neither one thing nor the other, an uneasy fit between the ever-converging forces of the left and the right, and therefore doomed to certain and imminent extinction. The electoral slaughter of Britain’s Liberal Democrats last week is the latest iteration of that. A little while ago, Germany’s equivalent, the Free Democrats, was wiped out of the Bundestag altogether, and UnitedFuture is but an often lonely presence in the New Zealand Parliament. It all looks like no more than a series of political funerals waiting for the celebrant to arrive.

But – and here is the paradox – the reality is not quite like that. Since last week’s election rout Liberal Democrat party membership has surged by about 11,000. When UnitedFuture was temporarily deregistered by the Electoral Commission in 2013, our membership swelled immediately by several hundred and continued to grow afterwards even if that surge was not reflected in the subsequent 2014 election result.

This is where the paradox kicks in. It appears, now in Britain, as in New Zealand, that there is a strand in the community that believes that the political message and position parties like the Liberal Democrats and UnitedFuture promote is a legitimate one that deserves to be heard, even if, when the election crunch comes, those same people feel less inclined to actually vote that way. I frequently hear the comment, as I have no doubt the Liberal Democrats would have heard during their recent campaign too, that “it is important that you be there”, but the point that that will only occur if people actually vote for us seems to be missed.

In Britain, it appears that the spectre of a Labour-led government beholden to the Scottish Nationalists spooked many middle of the road voters in England, particularly, to play it safe and vote Conservative, rather than risk their votes on the Liberal Democrats. In New Zealand in 2014, the prospect of a Labour-led government (not of itself an issue) but one containing in any way members of, or links to, the Mana/Dotcom alliance drove many similar voters straight into National’s arms to make sure there was no risk of that happening. As outgoing Liberal Democrats’ leader Nick Clegg said last week, “Liberalism here and across the world is not faring well against the politics of fear.”

The parallels continue. At its high-water mark after the 2002 election UnitedFuture had just under 7% of the seats in Parliament – today it has just under 1%. In the last British Parliament the Liberal Democrats held just under 9% of the seats, reduced today to just over 1%.

In recent days I have been reminded of the Maori story about Ngai Tahu after the massacres by northern tribes led by Te Rauparaha in the 1820s and 1830s – “The Ngai Tahu will rise again.” And so it has proven to be. Similarly, while Liberal flames now flicker faintly in Britain and New Zealand, they have not been extinguished and will rise again.

Meanwhile, back to the reality of next week’s Budget, forthcoming legislation, and the now forecast colder than usual winter that lies ahead. 








Wednesday, 6 May 2015

7 May 2015

The boiling Auckland property market is attracting all sorts of responses, but very little in the way of practical policies likely to achieve anything. There has been much venting of political spleen for precious little impact to date.

On closer analysis, much of the political rhetoric has been nothing more than a recycling of old arguments. The most obvious example is the attempt to resuscitate the tired old capital gains tax proposal. Somehow, imposing a capital gains tax on non-residential property sales will free up houses for first-time buyers, reduce the cost of houses to Aucklanders, so all will be well.

It is utter nonsense. All a capital gains tax will do is ensure that non-residential properties are not sold, and are either retained as rental properties or shifted within families. And even when it does come time to sell them, sellers will factor the spectre of a capital gains tax into their selling price, so the effect on property prices will at best be neutral. Indeed, arguably it could boost property prices further, proving the whole policy to be pointless. But it will satisfy the envy lust of those who feel property investors deserve to be punished. However, that is no credible basis on which to make policy.

In the same camp is the call to restrict the sale of houses to non-residents. This is actually a code for racial discrimination – remember last election when Labour’s policy proposed this but with a specific exemption for Australians (presumably because they are in the main white like most of us?). The real target here is Asians – although none of the racists (politicians and others) promoting such a policy are brave enough to be that blunt, preferring instead to hide behind hints and innuendo. The Governor of the Reserve Bank has noted recently that around 28% of the Auckland population is already Asian, so it is not unreasonable that they might seek to buy property, and, in any case, the sale of properties to Asians is not manifestly out of line with their proportion in the population. So the Asian invasion argument falls out of the window as well.

Then there is the argument that it is all the fault of the Resource Management Act, which has somehow caused the massive growth of Auckland’s population, and made housing unaffordable. The notion that any single piece of legislation holds the key, and that a few amendments to it can solve the Auckland housing problem is as breathtakingly simplistic as it is fundamentally dishonest.

The actual problem is quite specific – there are simply not enough houses in Auckland to accommodate its burgeoning population. It is estimated that Auckland needs to be adding about 10,000 homes a year to its stock, but is currently falling well short of that, by about 2,500 to 3,000 homes every year.

So the immediate challenge becomes bridging that gap. It is essentially a supply issue and the Government, the Auckland Council and the building industry need to be working together to address it. In the first instance, freeing up more land for development has to be a priority, and that is an Auckland Council responsibility. Then, the various construction companies – who seem to have every second advertisement on television promising to build the home of your dreams – need to be cajoled (by central Government if necessary) into focusing their attention and self-proclaimed reputations on Auckland.

The problem is not insurmountable. The challenge for politicians is to make it work. Unfortunately, grandstanding and the chanting of meaningless old slogans remain far more attractive to too many of them. Yet while they bicker, Auckland continues to need at least 50 more new houses every week.