Tuesday, 29 September 2015

30 September 2015

Our foreign policy lacks any commitment to human rights. A bold conclusion maybe, but the most realistic one to be drawn from a couple of recent events where New Zealand appears to have been caught on the hop.

First was the appallingly tardy response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Even though the mounting tragedy had been filling our television screens for some days, our government appeared to miss its significance and any sense of obligation on New Zealand’s part to assist. Indeed, it seemed to be only the strong public reaction that finally jolted it to take any action at all.

Now, this week there been the saga of the New Zealanders being held in Australian detention camps prior to deportation here. Our response has been to send a text to the Australians about what is going on. I am not standing up for Australian criminals who happen to have been born in New Zealand, but the treatment being meted out to them is excessive and out of line with the vaunted special relationship between our two countries.

However, these two incidents are not isolated cases. They are symptomatic of a general malaise when it comes to standing up for human rights internationally. There is the case of the New Zealander jailed in Myanmar for insulting the prophet Buddha, or the case of the fugitive Qatari businessman evading imprisonment over the deaths of the New Zealand triplets in the shopping centre fire a few years ago. (And I shudder to think what efforts on his behalf the New Zealander currently awaiting a potential death sentence in China on drugs charges might expect!) Like the latest two examples, these cases all bear the hallmark of New Zealand not wanting to become too involved, until public opinion demands it.

Why? The prevailing view seems to be that as a small trading nation buffeted in the seas of international economic uncertainty New Zealand cannot afford to upset, lest existing markets be threatened, or potential new ones closed off. It explains, but does not justify, the reason for soft-pedalling any criticism of Saudi Arabia’s shocking human rights record, and our timidity on the case of the Qatari businessman, because the greater prize of a potential free trade agreement with the Gulf states might be put at risk. We remain quiet on Myanmar for trade reasons too, and have been pathologically scared of saying critical of China for years now.

While the pursuit of enlightened self-interest is a legitimate foreign policy goal, it needs to be balanced by some objectivity. In recent years though our foreign policy has become too craven and trade-focussed and lacking a moral compass. In short, we have become too silent, lest we cause offence.

But relying on quiet words in diplomatic ears; nods and winks; pull-asides; text messages, or whatever, is not the way to conduct foreign policy. We have a right to expect our foreign policy to be evocative of our independence and nationhood by upholding human rights and dignity, and to stand up for New Zealanders when and where necessary. It is time to abandon the chin-dripping subservience we are lapsing into.             








Wednesday, 23 September 2015

24 September 2015

Four months ago I began a public consultation process on the future of New Zealand’s Fire Service. The reason was simple – the basic structure of the Fire Service has not changed since the late 1940s, despite its nationalisation in 1975. Yet, in that time, the nature and volume of its work has changed considerably. So there is a need to ensure that the Fire Service continues to be fit for purpose.

New Zealand’s Fire Services – urban and rural – are distinct, in that over 80% of our firefighters are volunteers. That is not about to change. Therefore, alongside maintaining the position of our paid firefighters, ensuring the future viability of the volunteer force is critical to the future of the Fire Service.

During the consultation period I attended over 40 meetings up and down the country with members of the public, firefighters, and special interest groups. In addition over 250 detailed written submissions were received by the review team. The results of all these consultations have now been collated. Taken together, they provide a strong mandate for change to a modern, integrated Fire Service, capable of meeting community needs well into the 21st century.

Although a clear preference has emerged for a unified national service, there is also a deep feeling that it needs to be bolstered by a strong regional influence, provided through a series of regional advisory committees. The model we have therefore developed is a deliberate response to the message we received that while people understand the need for a unified service, they also want to ensure there is a strengthened role for community engagement.

Earlier this week I met again with a large group of stakeholders to report back on where we have got to. They expressed support for the direction being proposed, and a real commitment to making it work.

We are still working on the best option for funding the new Fire Service, with ongoing discussions with interested parties but I am confident we will make a great deal of progress over the next couple of weeks or so. Now, of course, there is no perfect solution here, but I have been struck throughout the consultation process by the pragmatism and positive engagement of so many. All this bodes extremely well for the future and reinforces my view that this is the time to progress the changes so many have but dreamed of for so long.

I intend to take a paper to Cabinet in the next few weeks proposing a new organisational and financial structure for the Fire Service. Legislation to give effect to the new system should be introduced early next year, and my intention is that the new Fire Service be launched by the middle of 2017.

I have been encouraged by and am thankful for the input and support that the review has received so far from Ministers, firefighters, local government and community leaders, and key industry groups. We all have a major stake in making this reform work and ensuring that the new New Zealand Fire Service can carry out its role as our premier emergency service effectively and skilfully into the future.

After all, our communities depend on it and rightfully expect no less.  







Wednesday, 16 September 2015

17 September 2015

Guardian political writer David Torrance says the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour Party and the earlier rise of Nigel Farage and UKIP mark the death of moderation in politics and the rise of a new breed of anti-politician, governed more by conviction than pragmatism. Leaving aside the minor point that Jeremy Corbyn has been an MP for over 30 years, so is hardly a fresh face, and factoring in the phenomenon of the Scottish Nationalists which owes more to the uncomfortable artificiality that is the current United Kingdom, does Torrance’s thesis hold weight beyond Britain’s shores? 

The rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as the early stars of the United States Presidential race might suggest he is reflecting an emerging international trend, as might the election earlier in the year of Greece’s radical anti-austerity government under Alexis Tsipras (although on current polls he will lose the snap election he called a couple of months ago, to boost his mandate, suggesting that any phenomenon might be short-lived.)

Canada might also succumb to the Torrance theory. Long-term conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in the electoral fight of his life – a three way contest where the radical New Democrats, until recently the third party in Canadian politics, are leading the field.

But in the southern hemisphere Torrance’s thesis might not be so accurate. John Key has been a comparatively moderate Prime Minister and at this early stage of his third term seems just as popular as ever. Across the Tasman, Tony Abbott has just been ousted as Prime Minister by the more urbane Malcolm Turnbull, because Abbott was seen as too hard-line and gaffe prone. And Turnbull’s first comment as Prime Minister was that he wanted to govern like John Key.

So perhaps the death of moderation is just a northern hemisphere phenomenon, brought on by the failures of successive governments of the left and the right. But the signs here still suggest it is not travelling south – yet. Labour is still pathologically scared of putting any markers in the ground, lest it upset people, and even the Greens under James Shaw suddenly seem and sound far less threatening. The flame of the liberal democratic UnitedFuture still flickers, and ACT’s radical edge has been replaced by the quirkiness of its new leader. The Maori Party remains the quiet achiever for its constituents, who reward it by voting Labour in ever-increasing numbers.

All of which leaves New Zealand First, certainly as racist and nationalist as Farage’s UKIP, but the party both major parties want to avoid to ever having to work with in government because of its disruptive nature. However, its alleged resurgence following the Northland by-election has had no impact, so it is doubtful that it is having any role in the death of moderation in politics here.

Moderate politics seem set to continue in New Zealand, arguably because of our egalitarian society. We just do not have the extremes of wealth or deprivation here to drive masses of marginalised people to mobilise for political representation. While that remains the case, the incentives to upset the apple cart will not be strong. Political parties will carry on pretty much as they are, representing pretty much the people they do today.

John Key well knows that, in the end, all politics are local. So the continuity of moderation here will only be upset by a significant external shock, which may be why the government’s operating mantra seems to be “act only as we need to”.  It certainly explains why it has taken such a pragmatically cautious line in response to the refugee crisis, and to rising sea levels in the Pacific because of climate change.








Wednesday, 9 September 2015

10 September 2015

Every day the government collects information about some aspect or other of our lives. Whenever we interact with a government agency, some sort of record is generated about us. A visit to the doctor, the pharmacist, the local school, the Police, paying a traffic fine, or calling ACC will have a similar effect.

In the information age, there is not much we can do to stop all this. It is difficult to have the advantage of increasingly joined-up government services without acknowledging some of the costs. And in most cases, anyway, privacy law and the rather mundane nature of the information gathered means it is not really a major issue.

What we have to guard against is the government’s desire for information becoming insatiable and overbearing, and its failing to use the information already gathered to maximum positive benefit. This is no more important and relevant than in the case of vulnerable and abused children, and our response.

We all know of the significant problem of child abuse in New Zealand. Over the years, successive governments have poured millions of dollars into agencies like CYFS, and special programmes, yet the frequency of child abuse seems no less and in some cases considerably worse than it was in years gone by. CYFS has undergone frequent reviews, yet is still treated warily by many New Zealanders as an agency of state that interferes unduly in the lives of New Zealand families.

At the same time, through various longitudinal studies, and through the data already gathered by CYFS and other agencies, we have a pretty fair idea of who and where the at-risk families and children are in New Zealand, and in most cases could probably just about name them. Yet because of an understandable fear of stigmatising these families, we have deliberately shied away from a more direct approach, in favour of a broader brush “whole of society” approach, which has left us in the predicament we currently are.

Given the maxim about doing the same things producing the same results, is it not time to change the way we deal with vulnerable and at risk children? Why not utilise the information the government currently holds to intervene directly and early with at-risk families and children to ensure they get the love and care needed to avoid their becoming the victims of abuse later on? While governments cannot legislate to provide love and affection, they can act to ensure their resources are directed towards every child having the chance to be raised and cared for in a stable environment. No child can determine the circumstances of its birth and upbringing, but every child surely has the right to be raised in a stable and caring environment.

We have the capacity to make this change right now – but it may require a few sacred cows to be killed off first. So it is not a question of can we – we most assuredly can – but rather one of will we. Our appalling record demands that we make every effort to do so.      







Wednesday, 2 September 2015

3 September 2015

The country quota – which operated in New Zealand from 1881 to 1945 – seems set to return, at least as far as the people of Canterbury are concerned. Under the country quota, rural seats in Parliament were about one-third smaller in population than urban seats, to preserve the power of rural (conservative) voters. Of inherent value to the National Party and its predecessors, the country quota was abolished by Labour in recognition of New Zealand’s increasing urbanisation. Since then, there has been no serious attempt to revive it, or to give rural votes greater weight than urban votes.

However, there are signs that may be about to change through National’s plans to delay the restoration of a fully elected regional council in Canterbury until 2019.

At issue is the allocation of water rights over the central Canterbury plains, which has brought the interests of the last vestiges of the old provincial squattocracy and the urbanites into stark relief. The squattocracy wants more irrigation to facilitate dairy conversions, and therefore, so the argument goes, boost the economic potential of the Canterbury province, while the denizens of Christchurch are somewhat more ambivalent. And their seats on the regional council will be greater than the squattocracy’s. Indeed, the last time they got to elect a full regional council, Cantabrians opted for choices that made it difficult for the squattocracy to achieve its ambitions. So, on the pretext of the council’s dysfunctionality (in other words, one working on the basis of majority rule, not the squattocracy) the National government dismissed it and replaced it with appointed Commissioners to sort things out.

The legislation by which that happened is about to expire and Cantabrians had reasonable expectations of being able to elect a new full regional council in 2016. But, worried by the sustainability of the water management plans developed by the Commissioners, the Government has announced a two-stage process which will see a minority of regional councillors directly elected in 2016, with full democracy not restored until 2019.

Consistent with UnitedFuture’s previously expressed view that the key to successful regional development is supporting regions to implement their agreed priorities, not telling them from afar what their priorities ought to be, it is surely now time to restore full democracy to Canterbury, and for the 2016 regional council election to be for a full council.

The old country quota created many problems – particularly in the area of land and resource management – that took decades to resolve. It would be a very backward step to re-impose its equivalent now, especially in one of our largest and most wealthy provinces.

The people of Canterbury have a right to elect a full regional council in 2016. If it fails to perform, or does not meet their expectations, they have an equal right to expel it in 2019, 2022, or whenever. But after six years, it is now time for the government to trust the local  people to make the right decision, as they see it.