Wednesday, 27 January 2016

28 January 2016

There used to be a State opening of Parliament every year, complete with a Speech from the Throne setting out the government’s agenda. That was followed by a full Address-in-Reply Debate, where most MPs spoke, on what was said or not said, as the case may be.

Nowadays, we have an annual Prime Minister’s Statement. Even that has changed over the years. Today, the actual Statement is merely tabled; the Parliamentary debate is quite truncated and highly politicised. Rather than being a formal presentation and consideration of the government’s agenda for the year ahead, it has descended to the depths of being no more than the opening round of the year’s political boxing match.

It is preceded – in the best of the emerging traditions of what passes to be sporting competition today – with the preliminary skirmishes. This farce is euphemistically and overly grandiosely referred as the state of the nation addresses. With rare exceptions (the Auckland rail funding announcement and the Greens’ election policy costing ideas, for example) these speeches are increasingly like the strutting bellowing of boxers at the weigh-in, or a pre-Big Bash team rant. Because of the ritual chest-thumping and knuckle dragging behaviour they display, they actually add nothing to political debate.  Sadly, for many New Zealanders they are no more than the signal that the holidays are over, the politicians are back, so it is time to switch off and carry on with their own lives for the year ahead.

There is a place for passion, outrage and anger in politics. It should be rare and dignified, and never feigned, befitting a major issue of the day. Unfortunately, the competition for attention and the presence of some addled egos means that virtually every issue is now treated that way. All that means is that a moderately interested (at best) public sees this cant for what it is, and becomes more cynical and turned-off from what it perceives to be these contrived, insincere performances.

All around the world today people bemoan the lack of interest or engagement in the political process. Some are even suggesting direct action is likely to be more effective political involvement than following democracy. The challenge for all of is to develop new and better forms of public engagement than are currently the case. Politics as usual, in this country and elsewhere, will no longer work.

History’s great leaders have been those who have transcended the superficiality of their times to connect directly with people about the enduring issues that matter – personal and family security, access to opportunity, the protection  of their rights and dignity, and the chance to live a good life.

That remains the challenge today. Everything else is extraneous. While it is na├»ve to think there can ever be full trust in the political process (it is after all a robust contest of ideas and values, where some win and others lose) there needs to be greater alignment of the public’s aspirations and the politicians’ focus. After all, the ultimate handbrake on reckless politicians and government is an educated and informed public holding them to account. As more formal political processes reduce, the handbrake is similarly loosened. To overcome this, and thereby restore a modicum of trust, the reinvigoration of education about citizenship (or what used to be called civics) would be a welcome step towards a more civilised, substantive and responsible form of political engagement than the loud, populist, shouting sports channel approach we have currently. 








Wednesday, 20 January 2016

21 January 2016

Welcome to 2016! May the year ahead fulfil your dreams and aspirations.

2016 has begun with New Zealand continuing to tiptoe – always seemingly reluctantly and certainly gingerly – around the issues of its identity and future.

The upcoming vote on the flag is the obvious current example. Changing our national ensign to represent something more in tune with contemporary New Zealand should have been a no-brainer, but, if the opinion polls are correct, such a result seems unlikely at this stage. Then we will be stuck with the current drab flag for another century or so, and the government will probably conclude that the lack of enthusiasm for even this modest change shows no public appetite for wider constitutional change, so that will also fall off the agenda, and we will remain in our national rut.

While the flag is but a symbol, the debate about its future is important. It should be an opportunity to engage all New Zealanders in discussing our values as a nation. In particular, it is important for young New Zealanders, many of whom will be too young to vote in the referendum, but will have to live with its outcome far longer than those of us who will be voting and making the decision. What do they think? What are our obligations to them when we vote? Surely the vote on the flag should be more than just the selfish expression of those who are older?

Of course, the ultimate objective of any constitutional reform project has to be the establishment of an independent New Zealand republic within the Commonwealth. In the meantime, there are other steps we ought to be considering as well. Changing the flag is but the first of these.

Amongst the others is the oath of allegiance. This has caused controversy in recent years because the current oath makes no reference to the Treaty of Waitangi. But it also continues to require allegiance to the Queen, which becomes more and more absurd as each year goes by. Surely a more logical solution would be to amend the oath to one of loyalty to the people and laws of New Zealand?

At the same time, we could look to replacing other antiquated British symbols with a few more relevant to contemporary New Zealand. For example, the Queen’s Birthday observance could be abolished in favour of a Matariki Day holiday, to serve as a possible National Day as well. The offensive Guy Fawkes Day could be replaced by Parihaka Day to honour the tradition of passive resistance New Zealanders have shown in many different settings over the years.

All these debates will be opportunities for the young people who are New Zealand’s future to have their say about the type of country they seek. In our role, as custodians of the present for the future, it will be our challenge to give them that opportunity.

A 2016 that embraces these ideas could be an exciting and significant year for New Zealand. But a year that continues to ignore them, will be no more than just one more – like last year and so many more before it. The years of almost, but not quite, and opportunities lost.