Wednesday, 26 October 2016

As the thirteen member (including New Zealand) Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State meets in Paris to plot the eventual demise of the movement known as Daesh, the campaign to drive Daesh out of Mosul, its northern Iraq stronghold is gathering pace. According to western media, this is but a formality. Mosul cannot stand forever, they report, and the only questions are when it will fall, and what unspeakable atrocities will Daesh have been discovered to have perpetrated on the local citizenry in the meantime. It all seems very logical and straightforward.

But there is another aspect to this which is not receiving nearly the same amount of attention. Put simply, what happens next? The fall of Mosul, whenever it occurs, will not be the fall of Daesh. As with all guerrilla movements ever, it will simply regroup somewhere else, and start its campaign all over again. Meanwhile, the Coalition will be engaged in extensive ongoing peacekeeping in and around Mosul, as well as significant post-event reconstruction. Already, New Zealand’s deployment of 140 Defence training personnel has been extended until at least 2018. The same will be occurring amongst all the other members of the Coalition, and with no guarantee that there will not be pressure to extend the 2018 deadline.

Since World War I, the West has shown an unerring ability to get involved in the Middle East with constant disastrous consequences. Despite the persistent external pervasive military presence over the years by the Americans, the British, the French and others, let alone all the covert operations from all sides, the entire region has remained a consistently unstable powder keg, as the various powers seek to play out their geopolitical ambitions on the distant soil of others. It is no coincidence that the consequences have led to artificially drawn national boundaries from Egypt east to Turkey and beyond, ensuring the powers’ ongoing involvement to prop up the range of artificially created states that have emerged.

It was oil that sparked the interest of the western powers in the region over a century ago. Ever since, it has been a dominant feature, from Rommel’s Afrikakorps campaign in 1942, through to the toppling of the Mossadeq regime in 1953 and the propping up of the Shan of Iran until the late 1970s, the burning of the Kuwaiti oilfields during the 1990 Iraqi invasion, and the constant blind eye turned to the perennial civil rights abuses of the Saudi Arabian regime. Protecting oil interests and the infrastructure that surrounds them has been the one consistent thread of western policy towards the Middle East. When the regional distrust of foreign intervention is added to the swirl of traditional cultures and religious differences the mix becomes a very volatile one indeed. In such circumstances, the emergence of groups like Daesh becomes understandable, even if their practices and conduct are utterly intolerable by our standards.

The focus on the elimination of Daesh is understandable and justified, but it is also very short-term and narrow in its focus. Its defeat – whenever it may occur at some point in the future – will not be the end of the struggle. While the overall situation remains as it is, where the West feels free to intervene in the region, as and when it sees fit, resentment and bitterness will remain amongst affected local people. The rise of fundamentalism will become that much more explainable.

The real challenge, therefore, for the nations of the Coalition is the far bigger one of respecting sovereignty and enabling the countries of the region to develop their own viable systems of governance and economic development. It will mean working with and alongside them to achieve their national objectives, and supporting them to do so. Sadly, the experience of the last hundred years strongly suggests this will be a forlorn hope. The last thing the western powers favour is surrendering their position in the Middle East. So groups like Daesh seem destined to continue.

New Zealand’s challenge is to determine its future role. To date, our focus has been on peacekeeping and reconstruction activity, which is laudable. We should continue with that approach, without fear or favour to any particular side, but instead focusing always on the humanitarian aspect. However, our position is in danger of being blurred by our participation in groups like the Global Coalition where the interests are far more political. We are being drawn inextricably into its web, with there being suggestions already that our current deployed personnel are involved in more military activity that we have admitted. Our respected and noble role as peacekeepers runs the risk of being compromised, which we cannot afford.

During the invasion of Iraq in 2003 New Zealand won plaudits for not joining the so called Coalition of the Willing, saying that as a believer in a rules-based international system it preferred to be working to a United Nations mandate. It is time once more to recommit to that approach.     






Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The dance of the seven veils on United States Navy ship visits finally ended this week with the revelation that USS Samson, a guided missile destroyer, would represent the United States at the 75th anniversary celebrations of the Royal New Zealand Navy in November. But like the conclusion of most such dances, the final revelation was neither a great surprise, nor a moment of high drama.

Indeed, for many who had been watching the dance unfold over the last year, from the first indications the United States Navy might participate, through to the confirmation that a visit would occur, and then the disclosure of the ship’s identity, there had been a certain inevitability about the outcome. Early suggestions that the Americans might send an auxiliary vessel, or an icebreaker, or even a hospital ship were a little too cute to be credible. Indeed, such a move could have backfired badly, and left a strong impression that America was honouring the 75th anniversary of our Navy with the proverbial two-fingered salute. A destroyer like the Samson was the obvious choice. It is non-nuclear powered, and non-nuclear armed (not really an issue anyway since the first President Bush ordered the removal of nuclear weapons from American surface ships in 1992), so would clearly comply with the provisions of our anti-nuclear law.

Many are seeing this move as the culmination of the stand-off between the two countries following the ANZUS Row in 1985, and some are suggesting that it represents an American backdown, and so is a victory and vindication for the New Zealand stance. That may be so, but there is also another explanation to consider. The original 1985 crisis was as much a clash of vanities, as it was the matter of principle it subsequently became expressed as.

The Lange Labour Government had been elected in 1984 on a clear policy of no-nuclear ships being permitted in New Zealand, like the Kirk Government over a decade earlier. The focus was on nuclear weaponry, with the argument about propulsion being secondary, and somewhat less well thought through at the time. The combination of an ANZUS Council meeting coinciding with the election, and precipitate position taking by both the American Secretary of State and the New Zealand Prime Minister-elect and their respective officials put both sides on the back foot from the outset, and set up the scenario where it became impossible for either side to back down. So when the Americans offered to send an elderly non-nuclear, conventionally armed destroyer to New Zealand, it was inevitable that the New Zealand Government was obliged, for the sake of its own credibility, to say no. The rest, as they say, is history.

Not only, though, did the political leaders on both sides of the time have a lot invested in upholding their respective positions, so too did their officials. While politicians tend to come and go reasonably frequently, officials tend to be around for rather longer, and they are probably even more vain than their political masters. It was not reasonable to expect significant public rapprochement by either side, until that generation of officials had joined their political masters in moving on. Now, over 30 years later that has occurred, meaning there is no residual baggage for either President Obama or Prime Minister Key, making it possible for Foreign Minister McCully and Secretary of State Kerry to reach a deal last year.

There is an arguable irony that the nuclear stand-off which was precipitated by the proposed visit of the then 26 year old destroyer USS Buchanan is to be ended by another destroyer, the 10 year old USS Samson. While the Samson is coming for a specific reason – the celebration of the Navy’s 75th Anniversary – earlier ship visits were purely flag-waving exercises, for crew rest and recreation. Indeed, in the latter days of the Muldoon Government they seemed to be far more overtly timed to serve the domestic political interests of the pro-ANZUS Muldoon. (It is doubtful an American naval vessel has visited New Zealand for genuine operational reasons since World War II.)  The restoration of visits now is unlikely to lead to a surge of visits, nor a return to the days of the Nixon era where (because of that President’s great admiration of New Zealanders because of his wartime experiences in the Pacific) New Zealand naval vessels were able to freely provision and bunker at Pearl Harbour. Most important, though, New Zealand’s anti-nuclear legislation remains intact and will not change.

Thirty years on some may wonder what all the fuss was about. It was an important statement of our nationhood at the time which should not be diminished. Its lasting legacy is probably not so much in the policy itself, but much more in the fact that New Zealand’s ability to take its stand on important international issues has been recognised, and is unlikely to be tested in that way again.

Shortly before he became our first anti-nuclear Prime Minister Norman Kirk quipped, “All too often we have heard New Zealand foreign policy announced in Washington with an American accent.” The visit of the Samson confirms that once and for all those days are well and truly over.  

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Most of us are either shaking our heads in disbelief or laughing in amazement at the ongoing train wreck that is the American Presidential Election campaign. The hype, the hyperbole, the sleaze and the vitriol, let alone the virtual disregard for anything approaching the truth, are at a level we have never seen before. And so, we console ourselves smugly with the throwaway line “only in America” as a potential explanation and justification.

Our next election is about a year away, and, despite some over-excited speculation from one or two wistful commentators, it is difficult to imagine our campaign plummeting to the same depths. However, there are one or two issues that are capable of arousing some of the same levels of passion and wild inaccuracy that have characterised the American campaign.

Immigration is the most obvious of these. Over the years, law and order has not been far behind. Whenever the two are connected, they can become very toxic populist tools. (The 1975 campaign combination featuring the Dancing Cossacks, Pacific Island overstayers, and more Police is undoubtedly the most obvious such example. But the 1996 campaign against Asian immigration in Auckland – remember the snide attacks on big houses in Howick? – and the slurs and word plays that were allowed to run from that would be a close second.)

Sadly, it looks likely there could be some sort of repeat next year with immigration, particularly. We have already seen Labour’s blatantly racist and unfounded attack on people with foreign sounding names buying homes in Auckland. Data released this week by Inland Revenue completely blew Labour’s credibility on the issue, confirming that foreign home buyers accounted for just 3% of the market. Now that has been followed by National abruptly changing immigration settings, including the harsh suspension of the parent category, which will cruelly disrupt the lives of many migrant families. The official explanation is that there is nothing untoward about these moves; that they are just tweaking following ongoing and regular policy operational reviews. It is difficult, however, to escape the conclusion they have been more related to concern within National that New Zealand First’s increasingly erratic, irrational and inaccurate attacks on immigration and migrants might strike a chord within its provincial support base.

However, here is where it is timely to introduce some facts into the debate. Each year, typically more New Zealanders have departed overseas than return after a year or more away, and more non-New Zealand citizens arrive here to stay for a year or more, than leave. But in the year to May 2016, New Zealanders returning home overturned that long-term trend completely, with returning New Zealanders accounting for a little under 50% of the country’s net migration gain. By comparison, just four years ago, New Zealanders leaving the country outnumbered those returning by almost 40,000. While one can speculate on the reasons for the turnaround, it is pretty difficult to deny any New Zealanders the right to return to the country of their birth. It demolishes the suggestion by some politicians that migration is the root cause of all our problems as no more than racism in its most pernicious form. Moreover, it indicates the need for a long term (10 year) population strategy to ensure a balanced and stable approach to population growth, which takes us away from the kneejerk reactions we have seen in recent years.

There are worrying signs that the law and order debate might go the same way, with hints that an election year auction on Police numbers might be about to get underway between the major parties. At the same time, it is inevitable we will need to build more prisons to cope with an ever rising prison muster. To populist politicians, promising more Police and more prisons might be a godsend, but it is a shallow and unsustainable policy response.  A tipping point is inevitable – fiscal constraints will mean we will soon be unable to go on building more and more prisons and increasing Police numbers without any commensurate assessment of how the criminal justice and law enforcement systems are operating, and whether a more fundamental review is required to stem the rising tide of lawlessness. The debate about child poverty and the Government’s wider work about at risk families and vulnerable children need to be factored into this discussion. For instance, better information about whom and where the likely offender cohorts are, and focusing attention on dealing with them will be far more effective and efficient than our current blanket approaches.

But as immigration and law and order are such attractive electoral flashpoints, that is unlikely to happen in the context of an election year when there is just too much good politicking to be had. While it is unlikely to be as bitter or visceral as the American contest, but assuredly it will be just as superficial and ultimately pointless.

The only certainty to arise from it will be that our society will be the worse for it.







Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Our world is built on words. Big words, little words, everyday words.  Some words are acceptable, others are not. (This week, the British media published the list of English swear words in order of their unacceptability. One or two surprises along the way, maybe, but no real shocks at the top end.) Whatever the words, or however they are used, we cannot do without them.

But some words are more difficult than others. For the National Party, two words seem particularly troublesome, so much so that they seem unable to be uttered in polite company, or at least in public. One such word is "crisis" particularly when linked to the words "Auckland" and "housing", or in the phrase "Auckland housing crisis". This week, the word "poverty" as in the phrase "child poverty", has joined the list.

The Children's Commissioner is right to draw attention to the numbers of New Zealand children being brought up in circumstances over which they have no control, where they are suffering significant social, emotional and economic deprivation, which he terms poverty. The Government knows this too, which is why it is unashamedly shifting its policy mindset to put children at the centre through the establishment of the new Ministry for Vulnerable Children, although the name is seen as too stigmatising, and sticks in the craw of many. But it seems unable to bring itself to recognise these children's circumstances as the poverty others see it to be.

In part, this is because of definition issues. There is no universally accepted single definition of poverty, so it becomes a little too easy to split straws over what is poverty, and what it not. But the semantics of the argument are irrelevant to those deprived children, and indulging in them is easily seen by everyone else as seeking to avoid the issue. It is not good enough.

An evidence based policy approach provides the best way of addressing the issue, as  Britain's then Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government did in 2010 when it passed the Child Poverty Act. That legislation requires the Government to release a national child poverty strategy every three years and to monitor its impact. Now, given the National-led Government here already has a strong focus on key result areas, the concept of a national child poverty strategy should not be a difficult one to embrace.

Moreover, the British legislation even sets out the specific measures to be addressed as part of the strategy, which are easily transferable to the New Zealand context. First, is a commitment to reduce by 10% by 2020 the number of households where the net annual income is less than 60% of the median annual household income. (This is referred to as relative poverty). The second commitment is to reduce by 5% by 2020 the number of households where net income is less than 60% of  the base level of income. (These are the households in absolute poverty.) Third, there is a commitment to reduce the number of households that have been in the relative poverty group above for more than three years, although no specific target has been set here. Fourth, the Government is required to set by regulation the circumstances by which a child is considered to be suffering deprivation, which could include a basic index (such as having good clothing, rainwear and footwear, (similar to the Children's Commissioner's suggestions), and to reduce by 5% by 2020 the number of households where household income is less than 70% of mean household income.
With some tweaking for the New Zealand context, these measures set a framework for action, which could easily be embodied in similar legislation here, or in a special Government policy package.

While the words will remain difficult for some to want to utter, a move in this direction will confirm that actions are always more effective than mere words. And what is more, the shift from semantics to substance will have a real impact on the poorest children and families in our country.