Tuesday, 29 November 2016

When I was growing up and starting to become politically aware, I became a strong Labour supporter. I could see no redeeming feature in any other political party and so joined the Labour Party immediately I left school. At university, I was a Labour Party and student activist and gradually progressed my way through the Party until I became a Parliamentary candidate at the age of 29, and an MP shortly thereafter.

I was an enthusiastic member of the Fourth Labour Government, supporting both its bold economic and foreign policy decisions as it sought to rebuild New Zealand after the Muldoon era. I marvelled then at the breadth and diversity of the Labour Caucus, encompassing a range of experiences, skills, and backgrounds. It seemed to represent New Zealand at its broadest. But when Labour started to implode during its second term in the wake of the Sharemarket Crash my first doubts started to stir. I remember talking at the time to then senior National MP George Gair, a liberal who often seemed more comfortable with Labour policies than those of his own Party. I well recall asking him why he had joined the National Party. He replied that, “Only a fool believes his Party is right all the time. I joined National because I agreed with more of what it stood for, than I disagreed with.”

That conversation set me thinking about my own situation, especially once Labour went back into Opposition and tried to turn its back on all that it had done in Government, under the fatuous slogan of its then leader: “Labour’s coming home.” I rapidly realised that particular home was not a place where I wanted to be, and that I did not quite fit anyway. I was not able to tell Caucus of the privations of being brought up in a state house, the way so many others did, and I did not feel my personal experience of being the oldest of four young teenagers raised by my mother on a widow’s pension in a middle class suburb was anyone else’s business but my family’s.

I suppose it was no real surprise, therefore, that I was to leave the Labour Party after more than 20 years as a Party member, in favour of establishing a more centrist, liberal Party. But that is not the real point of this story. Rather, it is to hark back to the Gair comments and the folly of “my party, right or wrong” politics.

I remember being lectured at University that to understand New Zealand politics one had to appreciate that Labour was too hide-bound by its principles and its past, and consequently too often unelectable. National, on the other hand, stood for nothing other than not being Labour, and beat them more often than not at election time as a consequence. Harsh, perhaps, but certainly true.

So when I heard the current Labour leader berating the former Labour Mayor of Porirua as not “true Labour” for allegedly contemplating standing for the National Party, I felt I was back in the time warp. “My party, right or wrong” thinking has returned with a vengeance under the current Labour leadership. The focus seems to be more on building a cadre of proper-thinking members, rather than a broad based organisation, capable of accommodating many different voices, but coalescing around some common broad goals to present to the electorate. No, the primary goal now seems to be to ensure the ideological purity of those who represent the Party, which narrows its base considerably. The test for advancement is no longer merit based, but on whether one is “true” Labour or not, however vaguely that is defined. Labour’s leaders used to proclaim it was a “broad church”, but now it has become a “narrow sect”.

In my darker moments, I think of the Labour Party I joined and how it has changed over the years. I feel sad, not bitter, that it has moved away from so many people like me, who used to be its advocates, and has written off people of independence and aspiration as not fitting its core values. Yet, we still have a burning social conscience, and still believe there is a place for a major Party of compassion that can balance the accounts, and preserve the environment. Today, National has well and truly outflanked Labour on those scores, and only Labour seems not to realise it.

As the ultimate pragmatists, New Zealanders ditched the notion of “my party, right or wrong” and rigid party identification a generation or two ago at least. The advent of political diversity under MMP makes that point exceedingly obvious. And it certainly makes the Labour leader’s preoccupation with supporters being “true Labour” that much more irrelevant and unfathomable.







Tuesday, 22 November 2016

In the wake of the recent earthquakes it was probably inevitable that someone would suggest government agencies be shifted out of Wellington to make them safe. It is the sort of populist drivel one can expect at a time like this.

While it might sound good in theory to shift everything out of harm’s way, the problem – which in their typically cavalier way the populists never address – is where to decentralise to in a country with the level of natural risk New Zealand has. Presumably, the 2010-2011 earthquakes rule out Christchurch and its environs. The 1931 earthquake probably rules Napier and Hastings as well. The 1942 Wairarapa earthquake counts against Masterton (even though a Labour Government in the 1970s shifted the Government Printing Office there ever so briefly). Gisborne was severely damaged by a big earthquake in 2007, so it would be off the list. Palmerston North, Wanganui and New Plymouth are a little too close to Wellington for comfort. And one certainly could not consider Auckland – the populists say it is too big already because of the immigration flood – and it is ringed by volcanoes bound to erupt some day soon anyway. Tauranga is also in a seismically and volcanically active area, so the only places left in the North Island are Hamilton and Whangarei.

The South Island is not much better. Earthquakes have already ruled out everywhere north and immediately south of Christchurch at least. Queenstown is too busy having fun, which leaves only Dunedin and Invercargill.  The point that from all this is how pointless the argument is, and how facile those who promote it are.

But there is another far more compelling point. Government today is increasingly not about large physical structures and offices – in the digital age the delivery of government services is much more nimble and customer focused. The last concerted attempt to physically relocate government departments out of Wellington was Labour’s half-hearted regional development policy of the 1970s – almost half a century ago, and long since abandoned. In today’s digital environment, the thought of shifting large numbers of people to this location or that to maintain services is redundant.

Already, over 80% of New Zealanders report that they have at least some interaction with government services on-line. Over half of the top ten interactions all citizens have with government are now done on-line, and we are on track for that figure to rise to about 70% in the next year. We already do our banking, pay our insurance and rates, book our travel or a restaurant table on-line and think little of it. Increasingly, we shop on-line, as the growth of Trade Me, E-Bay and Ali Baba demonstrates. We renew our medical prescriptions on-line, and more frequently watch movies or other entertainment on-line, rather than going out to the theatre. Accessing government services on-line is but the next step.

As one of D5 nations (the five most digitally advanced governments in the world) New Zealand is well placed for the transition that is occurring. This month’s D5 Summit in Korea confirmed that New Zealand is at the cutting edge in terms of the digital transformation.

Of course, there will be lessons arising from the recent earthquakes. Some deficiencies in our emergency response have already been revealed, and these need to be rectified. Most important has been the preservation of telecommunications links, so that information can be obtained and disseminated quickly. Digital services are a vital link, and ensuring their preservation is imperative in a time of national emergency.

Now all this will be too difficult to comprehend for the populist who thrives on bar-stool conversations as reality, regardless of the evidence. At a time when people are already on edge because of what has happened, and are therefore seeking reassurance, the intervention of the populists and their simplistic nostalgia is the last thing the country needs.    






Tuesday, 15 November 2016

New Zealand has had to deal with two earthquakes in the last week – at almost opposite ends of the globe.

First was the unexpected election of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States, and the second was the massive earthquake that tumbled many people in central New Zealand and the Upper South Island from their beds in the early hours of Monday morning. Both will have profound effects on our country for many years to come.

The Trump earthquake was extraordinary in that it was so unexpected. While no-one suggests that Hillary Clinton lapsed into sleep-walking to victory, there was a general assumption that the election was hers for the taking, and that despite the campaign ups and downs, she would ultimately prevail. In the wake of her defeat, many reasons have been proffered by all the usual now wise after the event commentators in the United States and here. They may be right, or just professional pontificators singing for their fee once more, but they all overlooked one obvious fact – the only time the Democrats have won more than two consecutive Presidential elections was in the Roosevelt/Truman Depression and War era of the 1930s and 1940s. Before and since then no Democrat candidate has won the third election, as incumbent Vice Presidents Humphrey and Gore found out in 1968 and 2000 respectively, and Hillary Clinton found out last week.

Donald Trump comes to the White House as a political novice – he has never been elected to any political office before. The last President to have had no prior political experience was Eisenhower in the 1950s. Yet it was Eisenhower who as President oversaw the development of America’s comprehensive Inter-State Highways programme, and whose outgoing address to the American people warned against the rise and development of the military industrial complex, an extraordinary admission from a former Five Star General. So there is the precedent for Trump to similarly surprise positively, but his demeanour to date suggests this is unlikely.

All that raises the prospect of Trump’s stated protectionism having a detrimental effect on New Zealand’s economic relationship with the United States, and his wider isolationism might also put paid to the thaw in the US/New Zealand relations that was highlighted by John Kerry’s visit last weekend. We have moved forward from then Secretary of State Colin Powell’s “very, very, very good friends” description of 2008 to Mr Kerry’s assessment last weekend that we were “the great Kiwi friend” and “extraordinary partner” of the United States. What Mr Trump will say in time remains to be seen.

The Kaikoura earthquake and associated aftershocks are a further, if unnecessary and certainly unwelcome, reminder that we live in an incredibly seismically active country. They have not only inflicted serious physical scars on the landscape and emotionally traumatised many tens of thousands of people from Christchurch to north of Wellington, but have also highlighted once again the vulnerability of many of our infrastructural links. From roads to railways, to ships and ports, we have put too many eggs in one basket, which means affected areas of the country generally become quickly isolated once disaster strikes.

On the positive side, however, the phenomenal resilience first demonstrated after the Christchurch earthquakes has been shown once more, as individuals, communities and emergency services have gone about the task of recovery. But Christchurch has also showed it will take time, and not be without stress, although the outcome is likely to be very positive. We have to hope the same spirit prevails as we go about this latest rebuild.

In America last week, the slowly improving times the Obama Administration has been ushering in were sideswiped by the Trump victory. Similarly, in New Zealand, the emerging recovery demonstrated by improving growth rates and falling unemployment may have been knocked by the recent earthquakes.

In both cases, resilience is what matters now. The cork cannot be put back in the bottle or the clock wound back. Things are what they are. The challenge for Americans scared or affronted by Mr Trump and New Zealanders disrupted by earthquakes is how quickly we both can put our vicissitudes behind us and get on with building our future the way we want it.

Good luck to both countries in the face of their respective adversities!








Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Two critical by-elections are about to take place on opposite sides of the world. In a few weeks, in Auckland, the Roskill by-election will be held to elect a new MP to replace former long-serving Labour MP Phil Goff, following his election as Mayor of Auckland. And in west London, a by-election will be held in the seat of Richmond because of the resignation of the sitting Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith, who failed to get elected Mayor of London.

But the contrast does not stop there. In Roskill, the Labour Party is wooing voters by promising a more than one billion dollar infrastructure upgrade through a light rail system from Mount Roskill to the Auckland central city. However, in Richmond, Zac Goldsmith’s resignation was because of an infrastructure upgrade – the plan to build a third runway at Heathrow. Mr Goldsmith is hoping the Richmond by-election (which he is contesting as an independent) will become a negative referendum on the runway proposal. But, in Roskill, Labour’s Michael Wood is hoping the by-election will be a positive referendum on the light rail proposal. All of which goes to prove that in the topsy-turvy world of modern politics, by-elections can often produce the most perverse outcomes.

Because they are one-offs, with seldom any impact on the overall shape of government, by-elections often free up voters to indulge themselves in a way they would not normally do at a general election. By-elections are the opportunity to give the politicians the proverbial kick in the pants, without really upsetting the apple cart. While most by-elections see the incumbent party re-elected, there are sometimes occasions when real changes are made.

Seven times in the last 50 years by-elections in New Zealand have seen a seat move from the Government to the Opposition. (National lost Palmerston North to Labour in 1967; Marlborough to Labour in 1970; Rangitikei to Social Credit in Rangitikei; and, East Coast Bays lost to Social Credit in 1980. Labour lost Timaru to National in 1985; Te Tai Hauauru to the Maori Party in 2004; and, National lost Northland to New Zealand First in 2015.) No seat has ever gone the other way – from the Opposition to the Government.

But here is the rub. In only one of those instances did the governing party that lost the seat at a by-election also lose the next general election (National’s loss of Marlborough in 1970 heralded its landslide loss in 1972). In every other case, the governing party went on to serve another term in government. Also, with the obvious exclusion of Northland where it is too early to tell, the by-election change was not a temporary fling – it took at least two further general elections before the seat reverted to its previous holder.

A similar pattern exists in Britain, although from the time of the Orpington by-election in 1962 by-elections have often heralded a brief Liberal revival, or other third party successes, and, in the case of Scotland from the time of Winnie Ewing’s victory in the Hamilton by-election in 1967, the rise of the Scottish National Party.

All this adds to the pressure on the Labour Party in the Roskill by-election. Labour has not just to win, but has to win well. National, on the other hand, has no such expectations. In the extremely unlikely event it reverses every known trend and takes the seat, it will have triggered a political earthquake. Roskill is after all a fortress Labour seat, not held by National since 1957. Winning it would completely rewrite the history books. But it is most unlikely to happen, meaning National’s best hope is a close result which would be a pyrrhic victory for its candidate and a severe blow to Labour’s morale, just under a year out from the general election.

So pity the poor voters of Roskill who are likely to see more politicians over the next few weeks than most will see in a lifetime. The promises will flow – light rail here, probably upgraded schools and more housing there, none of which will ever come to pass. Thankfully, Roskill is a little further away from Auckland Airport than Richmond is from Heathrow, otherwise accelerating the runway extension would also be on the table. And then it would really be all on!