Wednesday, 25 November 2015

26 November 2015

Later this week I will join current and former Labour MPs to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the election of one of New Zealand’s most reforming and innovative governments – the first Labour Government under Michael Joseph Savage. No doubt there will be much reminiscing and catching up with former colleagues, particularly those from the equally reforming and innovative fourth Labour Government in which I was privileged to serve.

Amidst the banter and inevitable backslapping, there will assuredly be reflection on the remarkable Labour Prime Ministers New Zealand has had over the years. Savage, Fraser, Kirk, Lange and more recently Clark come to mind.

For me, the remarkable thing about the Labour Party, which attracted me to join it while still at school, was its ability to continually adapt to the circumstances of the time to promote a new vision for the New Zealand of the future. Savage and Fraser expanded the incipient welfare state Seddon’s Liberals had ushered in during the 1890s to meet the needs of a society recovering from the 1930s Depression. Kirk and subsequently Lange captured the yearning for national identity of the restless baby boom generation and beyond. Lange and Clark oversaw the painful economic adjustment necessary to shift New Zealand from Muldoon’s Gdansk shipyard of the 1980s to the modern dynamic economy of today. Differing circumstances and differing challenges, but the constant was the capacity to develop responses attuned to the time.

Sadly, today’s Labour Party is but a shadow of its bold predecessors. There is no sense of future direction or purpose, and even in its rare positive moments, the Party’s best offerings seem to be a hankering for yesteryear. The boldness in politics is now coming from the National Party – formed primarily to oppose the first Labour government – with no more striking example than its Budget decision this year to lift basic benefit payments, the first such upward adjustment in over 40 years(including the 3rd to 5th Labour Governments). Labour, the traditional friend of the beneficiary, was left gasping in its wake.

Labour’s challenge today is to recover its soul and its place. In this post market age, there is a still a role for a radical reforming party of the left, if it is prepared to be bold. There is the opportunity to pull together the threads of the Labour heroes and promote a new commitment based around strengthening New Zealand’s national identity through constitutional and social reform, and encouraging diversity. There is still a place for a progressive party promising a new, more co-operative economic approach in today’s globally digitally and free trade connected world. And there is still a place for a progressive party to promote new, innovative approaches to education and social services.

But rather than grasp these opportunities, Labour has become predeterminedly negative. While it supports a new New Zealand flag, it opposes the current referendum process, essentially because it is a National Prime Minister’s idea. Its approach to economic policy is stalled because it cannot make up its mind on the Trans Pacific Partnership. Its stigmatising of people with Chinese sounding names buying property in Auckland has robbed it of any credibility in the diversity stakes, and its capacity to champion meaningful education reform is zero while it remains the plaything of the PPTA.

Labour’s great leaders of the past all succeeded because in differing ways they snapped themselves out of the prevailing straightjackets of the time to offer something fresh and dynamic.

Among the canapes and the congratulations this week, there ought to be many still in the Labour Party thinking about these points.

If not, there may not be a similar dinner in 20 years time.        







Wednesday, 18 November 2015

19 November 2015

In the wake of last weekend's horrific terrorist attacks in Paris many are asking fresh questions about what new steps can be taken to curb outrages committed by Daesh extremists and their like. Western intelligence agencies have already warned these types of attacks are likely to become more commonplace, and, as if to reinforce their relevance, have judiciously revealed details of similar projected incidents that have been thwarted already. Countries like France and Russia have stepped up their bombings of suspected sites in Syria and Iraq. And, generally, people in Europe particularly, and elsewhere besides are that much more on edge than a week ago.

There have been warnings that cyber attacks may replace physical attacks, with dramatic potential consequences for things like air traffic control or the international financial system. Given increasing global inter connectivity this is potentially the greatest threat of all. Moreover, it comes at a time when governments are becoming more committed to the delivery of services on line to their citizens, and in their dealings with each other. Ironically, rather than closer global co-operation being a way of enhancing common security, it may actually become a threat to it.

It is against this background that the D5 Summit is taking place this week in Tallin, Estonia. The D5 (comprising Britain, New Zealand, Estonia, Korea and Israel - the five leading countries in terms of online government services) was formed last year to promote digital government and greater co-operation between governments in providing services digitally. For the Estonians, probably the most advanced government in this space, it was a no-brainer: when the Soviet Union fell in the early 1990s Estonia was left with virtually no physical infrastructure, and so a move to digital was a logical step. Now, virtually every government service there, including voting in elections, can be accessed through one's mobile phone. The drivers for digitisation were different in both Korea and Israel where national security has been the obvious focus. In the case of Britain and New Zealand,  delivering public services more conveniently and at a time of people's choosing has been the dominant influence. The D5's focus is not on global security, but on the delivery of joined-up government services services on line.

In short, the D5 looks to the positive use of cyberspace to facilitate governments' interactions with their own citizens, and with other governments. (The recent agreement that Australia's Justice Minister and I announced about sharing cyber data to prevent identity theft is a good example of the type of inter-governmental co-operation we envisage.)

Inevitably, the recent outrages and their consequences will intensify the pressure for greater intelligence sharing, and potentially more surveillance of citizens as the price to pay to preserve public order. (Wryly, the business maxim that doing more of the same just produces more of the same old results seems never to apply when it comes to intelligence agencies and the exercise of what they quaintly refer to as their craft, but be that as it
may.) While that may be an understandable, if not condonable short-term reaction, it cannot be allowed to prevail. (Churchill's wartime warning about "perverted science" leading to a "new dark age" is worth recalling here.) The D5's challenge is to ensure that its positive vision for cyber connection and co-operation is not subsumed by the short-term exigencies we currently face, and that the idea of more on-line government remains something to be relished, not feared.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

12 November 2015
Somewhere along the way this week the plot got well and truly lost. Uproar in Parliament, walk-outs, protests and people shouting at and over each other may be all good theatre, a modern form of gladiators in the arena if you like, but after it is over, the fact remains, nothing has changed as a result.
Moreover, the issue itself seems to have become secondary to the noise it has generated. And the issue here is simple: Australia is treating people in its detention camps – in the main New Zealanders awaiting deportation – in a way that is appalling, no matter which way you look at it. Yes, there are definitely very evil people amongst them who have committed unspeakable crimes, with whom we would not usually wish to associate, but they still have the same basic human rights as the rest of us. The argument should be focussing on how these rights are being upheld in the detention camps. On the strong face of it, the detainees are now worse off than when they were in prison, even though they have presumably paid for their crimes in Australia. This cannot be just.
And that is the real issue here. Are these detainees being justly treated, and if not, what can we in New Zealand reasonably do about it? There has always been a more frontier approach to justice in Australia, as the treatment of their indigenous people has shown, and the current treatment of boat refugees continues to show. I suspect most New Zealanders are far from comfortable with the notion of holding such people captive on offshore islands, and would not let a New Zealand government even consider doing so.
That different approach is where our focus needs to be. The modern concentration camp approach Australia has taken is simply wrong. It was wrong when the British tried it in Northern Ireland in the 1970s; it is wrong in Guantanomo Bay, or in Israel today. Australia is no different. The right to due process and fair and open trials is inalienable. So New Zealand needs to be asserting basic human rights and freedoms, not stooping to the name-calling and abuse that has passed for debate over the last week.
Australia is a sovereign state. We cannot automatically require it to change its laws, just because they affront us. The Prime Minister is right on that score. But we can, and should, be speaking out as loudly and frequently as we can against abhorrent practices, especially given the mantle of family the Australians like to drape upon us. After all, most families are blunt with each other and speak out about what they do not like. We should be as well.
The political civil war of the last week has done nothing at all for any of the detainees on Christmas Island. Rather than turning their guns on each other to pointless effect, the Government and the Opposition need to be turning on the real villains of the piece – Ministers like Peter Dutton and others in the Australian Government who continue to promote and support such savage and inhumane policies.    

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

5 November 2015

National’s plans to ask the Productivity Commission to take a “blue skies” look at rules and legislation that may impede housing development are at one level logical and unobjectionable.

But – and this is a very big but – the timing of this announcement causes considerable alarm and suspicion. It comes at the very time when the Government’s plans to amend the Resource Management Act are going nowhere. UnitedFuture and the Maori Party, who have consistently and unwaveringly opposed any moves to weaken the RMA’s principles since National first announced back in 2013 that RMA change was on its agenda, are usually seen by right-wing critics as the reasons why the Government has been unable to progress its plans. On the basis of that narrow view, there is a logic to bypassing the two support parties and abolishing the RMA altogether – although it would be a real toys out of the cot approach, and it is impossible to see a Parliamentary majority in favour of that. But right-wing ideologues have never been troubled by such practicalities.

However, such a view overlooks the fact that National has passed up many opportunities to date to progress changes to the processes by which the RMA operates, because of what appears to be a stubborn “all or nothing” approach. Several months ago, the Minister for the Environment provided UnitedFuture (and possibly the Maori Party although that is not entirely certain) with a list of 39 headline amendments he wished to make to RMA processes. UnitedFuture’s response, after a brief period of consideration (which the Minister even tried to prescribe by suggesting whom we should and should not seek advice from) was that many of the proposals appeared reasonable, some were clearly objectionable, and others required more information. I suggested the best way forward would be to release a public exposure draft of a Bill so that we could all see how the proposed amendments fitted together and could therefore be assured that the Government was not trying to change the RMA’s principles by stealth. When I discussed this with the Prime Minister in late June he agreed. Indeed, both he and the Minister of Economic Development gave public assurances shortly thereafter that an exposure draft would be released.

That was over four months ago, and nothing seems to have moved since, until the weekend’s announcement. Various attempts have been made to find out where the exposure draft is at. We keep being told it is still being worked on. (It seems strange to have a list of 39 proposed amendments, but with no legal drafting.) But we are also being told it is a huge commitment of resources preparing such a draft without an assurance in advance that the proposals it contains will be accepted. If we do not ultimately support the changes, it will all have been a waste of time, they say.

Well, that is, to put it mildly, a strange and novel approach to policy development and working constructively with support partners. UnitedFuture remains committed to working alongside like-minded parties on constructive amendments to the RMA’s processes, but to do so, we need to see the full details of what is being proposed. Simply handing out lists of proposed changes, like tablets of stone, without the accompanying legal drafting so we can see how it all fits together is not good enough. The devil, after all, is always in the detail.

National can make progress now – if it chooses to do so – but it will need to show its full hand, and work openly with its partners. Threatening or implying to “spit the dummy” is neither credible, nor the way to build a Parliamentary majority. And it does nothing to tidy up the RMA.