Wednesday, 29 June 2016

A Labour Party Bill to establish 26 weeks paid parental leave (which UnitedFuture was pleased to back) has been supported by a majority of MPs at all stages, but the Minister of Finance has used a rare power of financial veto to prevent its becoming law.

The veto is a provision that has been available to governments since 1996 to override costly Opposition proposals that may have more than a “minor impact” on the government’s budget. It was put in place when MMP was introduced to prevent minor parties or temporary coalitions of parties being able to come together to effectively “blow the budget” through passing expensive measures (either in terms of new spending or revenue reductions) contrary to the policies of the government of the day.

In this instance, the Minister of Finance used the veto because he considered the alleged cost of Labour’s Bill – reportedly according to his estimate an extra $280,000,000 (or a mere 0.004%) of the government’s projected total expenditure this year – will have more than a “minor impact”. But the Minister was subsequently forced to admit to Parliament that his figure was wrong – the actual cost net of tax is a fraction of that, just $70,000,000, the merest 0.0009% of the $77,400,000,000 the government is expecting to spend this year.

So is a 0.0009% adjustment to the government’s operating budget more than a “minor impact”, or not? To most reasonable people the answer would surely be no. At the time the veto procedure was established, no dollar amount was set, being left for the government of the day to determine according to the circumstances of the time. But it was anticipated that the veto would be used sparingly and reasonably. While both National and Labour in government have applied the veto on a number of occasions, the application of it to an entire Bill, as happened now, is a first and raises its own set of questions.

At one level, no-one can be all that surprised. Since the Bill was introduced over a year ago National has said repeatedly it would veto it, if and when it came up for its final reading, because they considered it too expensive. As the figures, even the erroneous figure of $280,000,000, now show, that is an unlikely claim. It lacks all credibility completely when the correct figure of $70,000,000 is considered.

So why?

Possibly it was a simple case of political petulance. National did not want to be seen as giving Labour a win on this issue. Unlikely though, as National are not usually that small-minded, and in any case, if they thought Labour were on to a winner, they could have easily stolen their ground in this year’s Budget, the way they did last year when they lifted benefit rates for the first time in over 40 years.

Maybe it was because National are planning something similar in next year’s election Budget? Quite possible, but the problem is that the Budget will be just a few months before the election and there would be no time to put an extended scheme in place before then.

More likely, it was a calculated assessment by National’s leaders that, despite the perceived public sentiment in favour of the Bill, extending paid parental leave is just not that important an issue for their voter base, and that tax cuts (which could be in  place before the election – just) are more attractive. Time will tell on that, but as a supporter of the Bill (in fact, UnitedFuture thinks 26 weeks does not go far enough – we favour a phased in move to 52 weeks) I have to concede that the clamour of public support this time around was not that obvious, compared to that for a similar Labour Bill in the last Parliament. National sources already say that the veto issue has had no detrimental impact on their own internal polling. So, did National just do enough when it increased paid parental leave to 18 weeks a couple of years ago?

Whatever the reason, this issue has exposed some very important questions about the use of the veto and what constitutes a “minor impact”. The government’s use of the veto failed the reasonable test in this instance.

Its use needs to remain rare and reasonable to prevent untoward situations occurring, but in a multiparty environment the veto cannot be allowed to lapse into a government default option every time a passing majority of MPs combine on an important matter of policy which it opposes. National would be wise to put the veto back in the cupboard for a while.            






Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Liberal, modern societies pride themselves on what they perceive to be a genuine sense of tolerance towards diversity. Every Mayor welcoming new citizens and every politician feeling in an expansive mood likes to wax eloquently about the different strands that make up our society, and how much the better we all are for what they have to offer. It is just like one big happy family on a giant scale.

The truth is somewhat different, and more harsh and brutal. Below the veneer of tolerance lies a very nasty streak in all our societies, which comes quickly to the fore when aroused. The horrific, mindless slayings of around 50 young people in Orlando, Florida this week, and the debate festering in many countries, including New Zealand, about refugees and migrants sadly bring this nasty streak to prominence. In Orlando, the facts that the people murdered belonged to the gay and lesbian community and the killer’s parents came from Afghanistan were quickly propelled into the public mind as possible explanations of the horrendous act. Here, the government’s decision to increase the annual refugee quota for the first time in 30 years by a miserly figure of just 250 people quickly degenerated into a row about immigration and the numbers and origins of people coming here, and, in what is really polite code for bigotry, whether they would fit into our society. Britain’s great referendum about the European Union seems likely to be decided not on the basis of what is best economically and socially for the British peoples, but rather on the basis of keeping Eastern European migrants out.

The veneer of liberal tolerance has been replaced by the unacceptable face of ignorant bigotry in each instance. Populist politicians everywhere have seen obvious social itches which they are now scratching with raw, crude enthusiasm. And as a result, the world is becoming a less comfortable place.

A big difference in recent years has been the nature of populism. Populist politics used to be about demagogic politicians legitimising in their utterances their society’s deepest prejudices, and gaining political traction as a consequence. Today, however, populism has a more sinister overtone. In a less tolerant world than before, populism is more and more the flame applied to the powder keg. Prejudice and intolerance simply breed more of the same.

Whatever the perversions that led the Orlando killer to carry out his grisly acts, the sad reality is that they are an encouragement to retaliation – especially in a society where the preservation of the constitutional right to bear arms prevails, meaning guns are everywhere, and violence is virtually impossible to control. In Europe, including Britain, the mounting tide of prejudice against migrants of all types has already produced major terrorist reactions, and more are likely. The seeds of dissension and intolerance now being planted and tilled in our country will most certainly not lead to positive outcomes.

Liberal democracies worth their salt cannot stand idly by and allow this wilful polarisation to take hold. Political leaders of decent values need to become more vocal in calling out intolerance and bigotry for the cancer they are, no matter how big or small the incidence, no matter how distorted the populism. Playing to the public’s most latent prejudices the way the populists do is in reality no more than the ultimate form of social bullying – see the world my way if you know what is good for you.

But the one good thing about bullies is that their basic weakness of character and overall vacuity means they implode when challenged. So challenging and exposing bigotry for the fraud it is remains society’s best safeguard against the horrific acts of brutality and oppression the world has been forced to witness in recent years.        







Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Earlier this week, in my capacity as Minister of Internal Affairs responsible for the delivery of on-line government services, I hosted officials from the D5 group of countries at a planning meeting in Wellington. Now, most people will not have heard of the D5, or know anything about it, but it is arguably one of the most important international groupings New Zealand could be part of at the start of the 21st century.

The D5 was established just under two years ago and comprises the five most digitally advanced governments in the world. Its make-up, which will surprise, is Britain, New Zealand, Korea, Israel and Estonia. Estonia, the small Baltic state of just 1.3 million people, is probably the most digitally advanced country on earth. Once it became independent of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Estonia focused immediately on developing a digitally based society and economy, with breathtaking results. Britain and New Zealand are on a similar plane of moving steadily towards providing more and more government services on-line – in New Zealand we are on track to achieving 70% of the ten most common transactions people have with government being carried out on-line by 2017. For Israel and Korea the driver has been different – national security considerations have been the dominant factors for obvious reasons.

Many New Zealanders, I suspect, would be very surprised to learn how advanced we are by international standards and of the leading role we are playing in this space. We tend to take for granted our already high uptakes of digital services – that over 80% of tax returns are completed on-line (the comparable figure in Estonia is 96%); that around 50% of passport renewals are done on-line and that about 85% of births are now registered on-line, to name a few. More and more government services are now being provided on-line, and, just as we have become accustomed to doing our banking, paying our household bills and a range of other activities on-line, at a time and a place of our convenience and choice, so too has it become with government services. And the driver is the individual: more and more people are demanding the provision of services on-line, and the government machine is running harder than ever, just to keep up. And so it should.

The D5 partnership offers not just the opportunity to improve the delivery of on-line government services in New Zealand, but also for greater co-operation and partnership with the other member states. The next level is equally important – the opportunities this type of partnership can provide for our individual IT industries to partner and work together are immense and should not be overlooked.

At the same time, however, we must remain acutely aware that all this is premised on the provision of personal information and a high degree of trust from individuals that their data so provided is secure and will not be misused. So an equally strong thrust of the D5’s work will be to ensure that there are strong personal privacy laws and protections in place for our citizens, and that cybersecurity generally is taken extremely seriously. In Estonia, for example, every citizen has the right at any time to see who or which agency has been accessing their data, and to take action if that is considered to be improper. We already acknowledge cybersecurity as an important element of our overall IT strategy, but we should also look at personal privacy protection like Estonia’s.

And we also have to ensure that the range of services we are providing on-line is purposeful and valuable to citizens. In this context, a mechanism like Britain’s Social Value Act, passed in 2012, becomes important. It requires public bodies to consider how the services they provide contribute to economic, social and environmental well-being. In other words, are services effective and providing a wider benefit to the community as a whole? This lines up fairly well with the some of the thinking behind the government’s developing social investment model, and deserves further consideration.

The D5 meeting in Wellington this week may have passed quietly and without notice, but the work we are involved in through this partnership will have a most profound impact on all our lives in the future, and we have every reason to be proud of the innovative New Zealand role is playing here. 






Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Politics is a process of constant change. Harold Wilson coined the phrase “a week is a long time in politics” in the 1960s – but in today’s version, the week has certainly been reduced to days, if not hours, in some cases.

All of which makes the game (I hesitate to glorify it as an art) of political speculation that much more pointless, and the consequent credibility of the speculations and those who make them close to minimal. For journalists and commentators this makes their jobs even more precarious – not only does a more instant, competitive and interactive media environment mean they are under constant pressure to find a unique “angle” to every story, no matter how mundane, but also the durability and credibility of their more outlandish analyses and predictions is greatly diminished. This morning’s potential blockbuster may well be old or inaccurate news by midday. David Lange’s famous observation of the Parliamentary Press Gallery behaving like “reef fish” remains an accurate description.

However, there are occasions where the story becomes slightly more durable and the analysis and commentary sustained and penetrating. The ongoing revelations from the so-called Panama Papers are such an example.

Admittedly, the story has changed from its first breathless reportage. There have not been the shocking revelations that were anticipated originally about the involvement of New Zealand rich-listers or political and business high fliers in massive tax evasion schemes. However, the details that have been forthcoming about the way in which New Zealand based foreign trusts or corporate structures are being used by some to evade tax responsibilities elsewhere, or simply hide capital altogether, and the involvement of New Zealand firms in facilitating such practices are very disturbing. They raise legitimate and serious questions about how robust our disclosure rules are, especially when it is revealed that a company director banned in Hong Kong is able to carry on in New Zealand because no-one apparently asked the right questions. Hardly surprising therefore, that the government, after a somewhat lackadaisical response to the early revelations, is now promising to clean things up swiftly.

However, media and commentariat reaction to the Labour/Greens co-operation announcement has been more in the breathtaking drama mode we have sadly become used to. There has been little mention of the basic challenge of how both parties can work together, given their historic differences. The harking back to the Labour/Alliance co-operation arrangement of the late 1990s heralding the Labour/Alliance government that was to come completely ignores the fact that it was the Alliance that effectively brought down that government barely two and a half years later in 2002.  An inconvenient truth that distorts the narrative, perhaps?

Nor has there been any mention of what National might do – indeed, they almost seem to be portraying National as a static, immutable object, unable to react to any change in its potential circumstances. But, as the Prime Minister has shown, even latterly on the Panama Papers, and more broadly right throughout his term, when any issue has looked tricky for National, he is remarkably adept at not only adjusting to the new situation, but also quickly getting ahead of it. So why would he be any different in this situation? If a week in politics is a long time, writing up as fact likely election outcomes and governments formed, let alone picking Cabinets, about 18 months before an election is a monumental stupidity. It may have sold newspapers once, but in today’s more sophisticated age it merely condemns those responsible to well-justified scorn and ridicule, and turns more people off taking media commentary seriously.

Political punditry and speculation is a time-honoured side-show of the political process. But to have any hope of being taken at all seriously its needs a far firmer foundation than the current version consistently demonstrates. Apparently, Keith Holyoake used to tell new MPs to learn to “breathe through their noses” – advice our commentariat could well benefit from following, if they even knew who he was.