Wednesday, 26 August 2015

27 August 2015

Sometimes Parliament’s attention is distracted for the most trivial of reasons to deal with issues that it should never have needed to deal with, but for which there is no other option. Confused? Well, the sort of thing I am thinking about in the main is where Parliament has to step in and tidy up a mistake – the recent example of having to validate years of local roads speed limits because some local authorities had failed to meet the requirement of the law was a case in point. In such circumstances, the cases invariably sound silly, but there is no other alternative to a Parliamentary repair job.

More unusual and certainly more infuriating are the cases where Parliament has to step in – not to correct a mistake as such – but to clarify the law, either because of a drafting ambiguity, or a woefully obvious misinterpretation of intent or timidity of action by the administering agency. The recent emergency legislation regarding the opening of bars during the Rugby World Cup is a case in point.

I applaud David Seymour for picking up the issue, and the overwhelming majority of Parliament (the chronically anti-fun Greens excepted) for supporting his initiative. But it should never have had to come to that. David Seymour had to act because the Police had taken such an overly rigid approach to the provisions of the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act to make external intervention necessary to resolve what had all the makings of a ludicrously unintended problem. And when the Greens’ Kevin Hague saw the legislation as an opportunity to exact some form of obscure utu on James Shaw for beating him to the co-leadership, an already banal situation descended into sheer farce. The Greens managed the rare accomplishment of a double U-turn within a few days to end up back where they started from – against fun and out of step with public opinion – which was no mean feat.

Yet while Parliament went through its contortions and the public enjoyed the various gymnastics, the Police officials whose original bureaucratic rigidity had caused the problem remained curiously aloof, and of course unaccountable.

It is a worrying trend these days – the very agencies that cause the problems seem more adept than ever at keeping below the radar screen when it all goes awry. There were elements of this approach also at work by Workplace Safety and ACC during the debate about worm farms and the like in the latter stages of the Workplace Safety legislation.

I am strongly in favour of Ministerial accountability and am not arguing in any way for a diminution of that, but Ministers should not be left to defend the indefensible as a consequence. “It’s ultimately the Minister’s problem” is no defence for bureaucratic incompetence; nor is “It is really nothing to do with the Minister, even though he is technically responsible”. Ministers are accountable for the overall performance of the agencies for which they are responsible, but the quid pro quo is that they should not be left holding cans they never knew even existed.

If nothing else, recent events are a timely reminder our system of government relies on Ministers and officials working together professionally, and not at arms length, to achieve proper policy outcomes.







Wednesday, 19 August 2015

20 August 2015

The British Labour Party is currently whipping itself into a frenzy at the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn becoming its next leader. The veteran, hard-line left wing Islington North MP is a less polished modern version of Michael Foot, the scruffy academic journalist and politician remembered for his big glasses, wild white hair, and appalling jackets, whose leadership in  the early 1980s ensured Labour was out of office for almost 20 years, cementing the rise of Thatcherism in the process. (It was not all bad – Foot’s old-fashioned demagoguery also ensured the revival of liberalism and the rise of the Liberal Democrats as disaffected middle class Labour voters sought a new home.)

The Labour grandees (including former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who built “New” Labour in the 1990s) are naturally horrified at the prospect of history repeating itself, but they are now so reviled that the more they comment, the more they seem to entrench Corbyn. At least Jeremy Corbyn stands for something. His left-wing agenda may be old-fashioned and out of step with reality, but he is putting a clear stamp on the type of Labour Party he wants for Britain, and forcing Labour supporters to make a choice.

The contrast with the New Zealand Labour Party could not be more striking. Rather than standing for anything, it seems to have decided that the best way for it to reconnect with New Zealand voters is to be against everything, despite the absurd situations that creates. For example, since the time of Norman Kirk, now over four decades ago, Labour has been in favour of changing the New Zealand flag to something more representative of our country today, although it has never actually done anything about it. Now, when the Prime Minister initiates a referendum process to change the flag, Labour is suddenly against the idea.

Similarly with the new Health and Safety legislation. Everyone accepts the current law is inadequate and in need of reform. The legislation currently going through Parliament does not meet Labour’s objectives but is nevertheless acknowledged as an improvement on what we have at present. But contrary Labour opposes it as not going far enough. In other words, it would rather stick with an unacceptable status quo, putting more people’s lives at risk, than support changes which at the very least improve the current law. These knee-jerk reactions are symptomatic of a Party that has lost its way, and does not know where it stands anymore.

Who, for further example, would have ever imagined a Labour Party in New Zealand apologising to Chinese migrants one decade for the disgusting, discriminatory poll-tax imposed on their forbears a century ago, in the next decade attacking those with Chinese sounding surnames for buying residential property in Auckland? Or, with its historic commitment to free speech, singling out particular journalists and commentators for attack because they are perceived to be supportive of the current government?

Labour needs a Corbyn-like threat, a contemporary Jim Anderton if you like, to shake it out of its torpor and to allow it to redefine itself in terms of what it actually now stands for. As the failings of the Little leadership start to become obvious, and the mutterings begin about possible replacements, the challenge will be to find a candidate to stands for something and is prepared to fight for it. That forlorn hope probably means Andrew Little is safe for a while, and that Labour’s spiral of angry negativity will continue. It also means John Key’s smirky grin will grow ever broader.               





Wednesday, 12 August 2015

13 July 2015

The news that NZTA staff had racked up 8,500 speeding infringements over a nine month period was bad enough, but the subsequent comment from the chief executive that probably no more than 50 staff were involved turned bad enough into sheer farce. On the basis of his admission, that is around 170 offences per individual, or more than 5 per week in the nine month period reviewed.

But let us take this a little step further. On the assumption that each offence was at the conservative end – no more than 10 km/h above the speed limit – each offence would have incurred 10 demerit points. That is 50 points a week, 100 a fortnight. Under the law which NZTA itself administers, once a person hits 100 demerit points, their driving licence is automatically cancelled for three months. Did that happen in any of these cases?

After a three month suspension of licence you have to apply afresh – to the same NZTA – for a new licence. How many times have NZTA staff been required to do that, I wonder? Serial offenders – arguably including the 50 the NZTA chief executive refers to – could be subject to up to 10 years in prison; permanent cancellation of licence; and/or a $20,000 fine. I am not aware of any NZTA staff currently languishing in prison!

Now all this might appear absurd – and to some it is with regard to the ridiculous penalties we apply to minor speeding infringements – but it also serves to highlight once again the arrogant attitude prevalent within NZTA that the law exists merely for its convenience, and certainly not its compliance.

It is the same arrogant attitude that sees NZTA continue to plan roading developments, with scant regard to the interests of local communities, or trying to relitigate the Basin
Reserve Flyover decision in Court once more, when local public opinion is so clearly against it. The notion of public service has long since to be part of its lexicon, and this latest example is further proof of that.

Sadly, they are not alone. Other government agencies seem to have similarly lost the plot when it comes to the provision of service to the public.

Metservice and NIWA now compete with each to provide meteorological services, yet, in apparent defiance of international conventions about the provision of weather data, seek to charge other New Zealand competitors exorbitant fees which is made available free of charge elsewhere. This leads to the ridiculous situation where these competitors source their New Zealand free of charge from international providers, rather than from our own well-regarded institutions.

I am all for government agencies acting competitively, but I am equally of the view they have to act within the law, rather than beyond it.

The Spooks have got away for years with treating the law as an inhibition to their exercise of the “craft”. While that attitude is being curbed, it sadly looks as though they have established with other government agencies are now seeking to follow. And that is equally unacceptable!       


Wednesday, 5 August 2015

6 August 2015

In June 1991 I introduced to Parliament what was then the largest ever Member’s Bill in the history of our Parliament – the Information Privacy Bill, which, subsequently, through the Government’s almost identical Privacy of Information Bill a few weeks later morphed into what we now call the Privacy Act.

At the time I introduced my Bill I made the points that the ongoing questions it would raise would be whether its scope was too wide and the protections that it offered individuals against breaches of their privacy were too great. This was in an environment and time where protecting individual privacy was still a very new concept, and where the general assumption was that the onus should be on greater protection rather than less. And so, what emerged was a regime where the levels of privacy protection were very high.

Unfortunately, because of New Zealand’s extraordinary propensity to launch major legislative change in a vacuum, the high bar that was set for protecting personal privacy led to some downright silly interpretations of what constituted personal privacy, which have sadly tarnished the credibility of the Act in the some people’s eyes ever since. The Privacy Act was never intended to be about preventing parents from seeing their children’s exam results, or denying people basic information about family members in hospital, or any of the other ridiculous interpretations it became subject to.

Over the last 25 years, the need to protect personal privacy has become more critical than ever, as the march of technology has turned into a stampede. While information sharing between government agencies makes sense and ought, with proper safeguards, to be utilised as appropriate in the beneficial interest of citizens, there are two important conditions that must be inviolate at all times.

The first relates to the insidious “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” mentality some have touted as the yardstick to be applied. This is as obnoxious as it is fundamentally wrong. All citizens have an absolute right to the protection of their privacy, and it cannot be qualified in this or any similar way.

The second is to respect the primacy of one’s right to protect personal information. I become wary when I hear talk of privacy law being modified because the focus on individual privacy is but one aspect, which often gets in the way of the “greater good” of effective information sharing programmes. We have heard such comment this week in the context of the approach being considered to curb the scourge of domestic violence.

While technology and information sharing/data matching offers so many possibilities not available in 1991 and there can be many beneficial outcomes for citizens to flow from that, a citizen’s right to privacy is still paramount, and the expectation it will be safeguarded is justifiably very strong.

Weakening the Privacy Act in the interests of wider social policy objectives is not acceptable, in the same way that weakening the Resource Management Act in the interest of economic development is not acceptable. However well intended and sincerely meant, such compromises are not in the wider public interest and need to be resisted.