Wednesday, 13 December 2017

In keeping with the beauty parade approach many of our commentators take to reporting politics - I could hardly say analysing, because so many of them are incapable of doing so - this is the time of the year when they accord their accolade to the "Politician of the Year". Generally, their awards go to politicians who have made the most noise, provided the most entertainment, or been the greatest media favourite. Rarely does the politician who has made a real and constructive contribution to improving governance, or enhancing the conduct of public affairs generally, get a look in.
If the latter yardsticks are applied, there are three definite candidates, and possibly two others, worthy of consideration this year. In no particular order they are Jacinda Adern, Bill English and Andrew Little, with James Shaw and Te Ururoa Flavell in the latter category.
For many, Jacinda Ardern will be the stand-out candidate. After all, in the space of 10 months, she has gone from being a relatively obscure list MP, to her victory in the Mount Albert by-election, then Deputy Leader of the Opposition, then Leader of the Opposition, and finally, thanks to favourable coalition mathematics, the country's youngest Prime Minister. Along the way, she rescued the Labour Party from a near terminal state and evinced a certain star quality. An impressive year, to be sure, by any standards, diminished a little by the so far unsteady start her Government has made.
For Bill English, this has been a bitter sweet year. His successful transformation from long serving Deputy Prime Minister to Prime  Minister in his own right, a position for which he seemed forever destined but somehow never able to achieve, was smooth. He fought a superb election campaign on behalf of the National Party, leading them to almost the same numerical position they were in 2011 and 2014, a remarkable outcome after three tough terms of government. But he fell at the last hurdle because of National's lack of viable partners, so returns to Opposition, although with the consolation knowledge of data in recent weeks showing that his vaunted social investment policies are starting to have a positive effect on the most vulnerable in our society.
And then there is Andrew Little, the man who saw his stocks as Labour's leader fall so low, he felt obliged to stand aside just a few weeks before the election in what would normally have been a death knell for his party, but instead heralded the dawn of Jacindamania. Rather than lick his wounds and retreat to oblivion, he seemed to take it all in his stride, and has now re-emerged in key Ministerial roles, and is likely to become the leading face of social reform under the new Government.
James Shaw is also a contender. After all, his rescue act of the Green Party after the Turei fiasco was remarkable, although as co-leader he has to accept a measure of the blame for the inept way in which the whole situation occurred and was handled subsequently. Also, he appears to have passed up a potentially historic opportunity to re-position the Greens as a credible long-term party of influence on both Labour and National by refusing to entertain the possibility of working with National in a National/Greens coalition after the election. However, he has made a solid and mildly impressive start to his Ministerial roles and will remain one to watch.
Finally, there is Te Ururoa Flavell, a gentle, dignified man with a deep-seated passion for Maori development, with much to be proud of in terms of his and his Party's contribution to government over the previous nine years. He is a genuine quiet achiever, who felt his loss in Waiariki incredibly deeply. Parliament will certainly be the worse for his absence, with Maori likely to be the biggest losers, but that is the reality, which counts against him.
So, it comes down to Ardern, English or Little. Ardern, despite an incredible year, remains basically untried, while English is too tried and tested. That leaves Andrew Little as politician of the year - a selfless man of dignity, humility and an ultimate commitment to the greater good, someone whose contribution to good governance is likely to be significant (and substantial) over the next few years.
On that note, Dunne Speaks takes its leave for 2017. Best wishes to everyone for the coming Festive Season, and for restful time with family and friends. See you all again in 2018!     

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Embargoed Against Delivery
I am extremely grateful to Victoria University for the opportunity to make this valedictory statement in this historic Chamber, on this occasion.
I want to begin by expressing my sincerest thanks to everyone - past and present - in this complex who has offered me advice and support over the years, but specifically I want to thank my staff, my constituents and above all, my family.
First, to my staff, who are too numerous to name all individually, but each of whose individual contributions, dedication and commitment I have valued.
In particular, I acknowledge
·         my chiefs of staff, the late Mark Stonyer, and for the last fourteen years, Rob Eaddy;
·         my Senior Private Secretaries Paul Brewer, Jillann Byrnes, Vicki Rogers, Anne Small, Elliot Steel and Elena Scheule;
·         the various secretarial, media, and clerical staff, departmental secondees and advisers, and my drivers, all of whom worked so well for me, and contributed to what was always one of the more efficient and harmonious offices in this complex, a feature by no means common here.
Next, to my constituents who loyally supported for me so long.
They were an absolute pleasure to represent, and I continue to value the many friendships I have formed as a result.
In this context, I was helped hugely by my electorate staff over the years -  Anne Wright, Sue Locke, Cath Blair, Lisa McMillan, Diana Morison and Shirley Simcock - thank you to all of you for your wonderful service.
And finally, my family.
The pressures on politicians' families are strong, and often remarked upon, although really understood by only those who endure them, but their sacrifice and the price they pay are often far greater than for the politician themselves.
My wife Jennifer, has been a wonderful pillar of support - always there (in the early days answering telephone calls from grumpy constituents while juggling a newborn baby, while, I was at Parliament) attending countless local and other functions over the years, and forever accommodating the demands on my time.
My sons, James and Alastair, were not born when I began my Parliamentary odyssey, but have been great throughout (it may have had something to do with the fact that they learned early on that they got special fair money to go to all the school and community fairs we made a point of attending!).
I have been extremely proud watching them grow up and develop their own highly successful professional careers, and now with James and Kendra to have seen the arrival of my grandson Benedict in May this year.
I am a firm believer that there is a time and a place for everything, and that, notwithstanding whatever we might wish, nothing lasts forever.
My grandson's arrival reminded me of the generational nature of politics, and kindled in me the process  which led to my eventual decision to stand down from Parliament.
I had always told myself that I would leave Parliament when the reasons for doing so, outweighed the reasons for seeking to stay.
To that end, I had, at the end of the year before a General Election, beginning in 1986, done a little "for and against" exercise.
This time last year, for the first time ever, there were more reasons to go, than to stay - but I chose to ignore them.
Becoming a grandparent was my wake-up call, and set in train a still reluctant process that led to my eventual decision to stand down.
Now, with the comfortable benefit of hindsight, I am extremely glad that happened - and that, this time, I listened.
I was elected to Parliament in July 1984 - over 33 years ago -  at the then tender age of 30 (unusual then, but almost run of the mill today) and, at the time of my departure had the privilege of being in the top dozen or so of long serving MPs since our first Parliament was elected in 1854.
I was lucky enough to serve initially as a Parliamentary Under-Secretary and then as a Minister under seven of the eight Prime Ministers in my time, for a total of just over fifteen years, and to have been part of every Government, at some stage or another, since the fall of Muldoon.  
When I came to Parliament in 1984 the door was closing on the World War II generation of politicians - those (mainly) men who had served overseas, and come back keen to settle down and then later get involved in politics.
At the time, their values and views seemed increasingly out of step with a majority of New Zealanders, and their time had passed.
1984 saw the baby-boomers take control, and the subsequent sweeping away of many of the pillars  of the last great generational change - the advent of the welfare state under Labour in the 1930s - not only because many aspects of it had become too cumbersome and costly to maintain in a different world, but also because that new generation of politicians had a different set of aspirations, born of a more modern world view.
The 2017 election was similar in many respects - the baby boomers have now yielded to the millennials - hardly surprising when the median of our population today is 37 - but that passing on of the torch is not complete, for the median age of this new Parliament is still around 49.
The Parliament I was first elected to - and the three to follow - were elected under the First Past the Post system, and FPP politics was still rampant.
Many people make the mistake of thinking that FPP's tyranny reached its apogee in the Muldoon years, where Parliament met only from June to December, and the Government relied on the power of regulation for most of the rest of the time.
In fact, it was the Fourth Labour Government where that dubious peak was attained.
A small group of Ministers dominated the policy debate.
Collective responsibility ensured that all members of the Executive (including the Whips) supported the Cabinet line in Caucus which ensured a majority, which in turn was translated to a solid majority for the Government in the House.
They were heady days, as New Zealand (having briefly threatened to do so in the Kirk years a decade or so earlier) attained a place of international significance because of its foreign policy, and also the economic reforms.
Indeed, one of my proudest moments as a very young MP of barely six months' standing was being at a large luncheon in the old Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, in the very room where one of my boyhood heroes, Senator Robert Kennedy, had been shot, to hear David Lange address a highly sceptical and critical audience about New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy.
Finally, at the end of a testy question  and answer session, a local television reporter asked the Prime Minister how, in his upcoming debate with Jerry Falwell "who would have the Bible in one hand and a cross in the other and be in favour of nuclear weapons" he could possibly defend his position.
Quick as a flash, Lange responded "I will tell him that to err is human but that I am prepared to forgive him".
Equally quickly, the entire hitherto grumpy audience of around 400 people rose to its feet in a sustained, spontaneous standing ovation.
In those days I was a Labour MP, comfortable and happy with the direction of the Labour Government, and the new course it was charting.
Around this time, the British Labour Party was going through one of its periodic meltdowns, with the departure of the so-called Gang of Four - Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen, and William Rodgers - to form the Social Democrats and eventually morph into the modern Liberal Democrats.
From afar, I was interested in this development, and had a number of discussions with my special mentor, the late, great political scientist Professor Keith Jackson, about the possible translation of such a move to New Zealand.
While I was still happy in the Labour Caucus, I was starting to feel mildly out of place and uncomfortable, as a number of my colleagues paraded how much more difficult the circumstances of their particular upbringing had been than anyone else in the Caucus in almost some form of Monty Python-esque competition.
As it happened, my story was probably as good as any - after the sudden death of my father, my mother had been left to raise four children on a widow's benefit - but I never saw that as a political card to play the way others did, nor frankly as anyone else's business.
So I never told anyone.
It irked me then and still does now to see politicians play the misery card this way.
While people are products of their life experiences, Parliament is a House of Representatives, not a House for the parading of individual circumstances, where policy should be formed in the best interests of the country, not as a way to salve consciences for the circumstances of the past.
As Edmund Burke said all those years ago, "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement."
So, when MMP came around in the mid 1990s, and the Labour Party tried once more to revert to its 1930s class roots, I saw the opportunity to try and repeat what had happened with the Gang of Four in the 1980s, which was essentially why I left the Labour Party in 1994.
During that time, there was one most unlikely person in whom I was able to confide my intentions and plans, and who never betrayed that confidence, earning my undying respect in the process.
That person was Helen Clark, the then leader of the Labour Party, the person least likely to have any interest in what I was up to at that point.
But it was that sense of trust, that gave me the confidence to enter into two Confidence and Supply Agreements with her Government in 2002 and 2005, and to serve as one of her Ministers from 2005, showing yet again the importance of personal relationships in politics.
I went through seven elections under our proportional representation system, MMP, and firmly believe that the outcomes in terms of more representative and inclusive government are far better than under the old First Past the Post system.
But I am still not persuaded we have the best form of proportional representation.
I still feel uncomfortable at the notion of list MPs - political nomads elected by no particular constituency, owing their primary loyalty to the Party, rather than the nation.
In my view, in a functioning democracy everyone has the right to vote for candidates they support, but also to vote against candidates they oppose, without those candidates defeated on Saturday popping back up on Sunday, courtesy of their place on the party list.
In Ohariu, we often had the case where the three - and on occasions  four - main candidates were all going to be elected, one way or another, making somewhat of a mockery of the actual election  process.
So, that is why  I have always favoured the STV system, because it guarantees that every candidate is elected directly, and perhaps more important, that every candidate has a legitimate piece of territory to lay claim to representing.
Nevertheless, MMP was good to me and my United Party, or UnitedFuture as it eventually became.
UnitedFuture was a formal government support party for just over fifteen years - the longest continuous period in government of any party since the original United Party toppled the Reform Party in 1928, nearly 80 years ago.
More importantly, that long period of influence on successive Labour-led and National-led Governments enabled UnitedFuture to achieve many of its policy objectives.
Early in 2002, I wrote a book, Home is Where My Heart Is, in which I set out a number of policy areas I wanted to see action upon.
Looking  back, I am extremely proud that over the following years 52 of the 66 key policies, just under 80%, I set out then have been implemented - a pretty good record for any party in government, let alone a small support party often derided as a one-man band!
I doubt any party - large or small - could claim a similar record.
Some of the initiatives included:
·         the establishment of the Families Commission;
·         strong Victims' Rights legislation;
·         radical reform of tax rules regarding charitable donations, leading to a substantial increase in philanthropic donations;
·         the establishment of a National Drug Strategy focusing on drugs as primarily a health issue, rather than a legal one;
·         reduction in the company tax rate;
·         ensuring public access to public land through a Walking Access Commission;
·         the development of the annual register of MPs' financial interests to aid transparency.
In addition, I was able to use my Ministerial portfolios over the years to push other areas of concern to UnitedFuture.
For example, when Minister of Revenue, I carried out the biggest reform of the Child Support System since its introduction in the early 1990s, to make it fairer for both custodial and non-custodial parents.
I began this work under Labour, and was delighted to see it through under National.
Similarly, the National Medicines Strategy I developed as part of our 2005 Confidence and Supply Agreement with Labour to improve public access to pharmaceutical medicines was confirmed under National as the basis of medicines policy in this country, and now, over a decade later, has seen well over a quarter of a million more New Zealanders getting access to affordable medicines than before.  
As Minister of Internal Affairs, I campaigned for, and achieved, a return to a 10 year New Zealand passport, something that has proved to be phenomenally popular and has led to a significant increase in the number of New Zealand passports.
Earlier, I had led a successful campaign to persuade the then Minister of Internal Affairs to increase daylight saving to six months per year, making me truly the Time Lord when I took up that portfolio at the start of 2014!
Throughout the 1990s I had waged a lone campaign, often to the point of ridicule from other MPs, to build Wellington's Transmission Gully Highway.
Now, successive Confidence and Supply Agreements later, with both Labour and National, that Highway is being built and will be open by April 2020, just over a mere 100 years after it was first mooted.
And, as Associate Minister of Conservation, I drove the development of the Game Animal Council to give statutory recognition to the interests of the game and recreational hunting sectors.    
This year, I oversaw the implementation of what had been a key UnitedFuture policy for about 15 years  - the establishment of an integrated national fire and emergency service.
This had been recommended by the Royal Commission into the tragic Ballantynes' Fire in Christchurch in 1947, but had never been implemented.
When I took up the mantle I was reminded by many that there had been 16 attempts in the previous 20 years by successive Ministers to make such a change, all of which had failed, basically for a lack of political will, and that I should be prepared for a similar outcome.
There were some rocky moments early on with Ministerial colleagues more than a little sceptical about what I was planning, but, with the quiet but loyal encouragement of John Key, I proceeded, and, after a widespread public discussion and consultation process, Fire and Emergency New Zealand was established from 1 July this year, with substantial political support.
Yet, despite all these achievements, UnitedFuture was frequently dismissed by commentators as ineffectual and I was derided for my liking of bow ties, and my luxuriant natural head of hair, as if either somehow mattered.
In any case, the latter criticism is easy to deal with - it came in the main from bald headed men, with no sense of style and absolutely no understanding of politics.
A provincial newspaper editor recently repeated this line of attack in a dismissal of UnitedFuture following its decision to disband.    
His ignorant editorial was accompanied by his photo - a bald headed man, in an orange shirt, and brown tie, so I rest my case.
More seriously, I think the reason UnitedFuture's role and my contribution were often overlooked was because of the way we went about things.
I have always believed in reason and moderation in the presentation of public discourse, and, coupled with a higher stubborness quotient than most people, have based my dealings with others on that approach, which is why I believe we were able to be successful, often beyond the point we deserved to be.
I have no time for histrionic, showman politics, where style outweighs substance, and where an almost child-like narcissistic obsession with being the centre of attention dominates.
Politics is not a giant freak show or reality television, but a serious and responsible business to be treated seriously by those who participate.
Now, I accept absolutely that for many citizens politics is a sideshow  - they are too busy getting on with on their own lives to share the obsession we have - and that the politicians who catch their attention are usually the outlandish and the irresponsible, rather than the sober and the steady.
Clearly, I failed in that regard but I was - and remain - proud to have been frequently labelled "Mr Sensible"  or the politician who turned being reasonable into a political art-form.
One frustration though is the number of people who over the years told me how much they liked what I stood for and encouraged me to carry on.
While I appreciated that, I would have appreciated their votes more - I reckon if no more than half of them had actually voted UnitedFuture as a result I would have led majority governments for most of the last two decades!
But being reasonable, and seeing both sides of the argument, while desirable in life, is the scourge of the liberal centrist in politics, especially at a time when the politics of reason are giving way across the world to short-term, knee-jerk, populist reactions and political charlatans proffering simplistic and fundamentally dishonest solutions.
Too many still cannot get beyond the prejudice that we live in a bi-polar political world of right and left, and that whichever one's political side of the fence, that is unfailingly correct, and the other side equally wrong.
By contrast, in my time in Parliament, I supported Labour-led Governments for just over 13 years, and National-led Governments for also just over 13 years.
What some may regard that as a classic case of serial indecision, I regard it proudly as a mark of balance and independence, and a capacity to see the wood for the trees, again the scourge of the liberal centrist.
No wonder why I have always been attracted to W.B. Yeats' immortal lines:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.
But, as I said when I announced my decision not to seek re-election to Parliament, all good things must come to an end, and so too with this address.
Yet before I finish, there is one remaining topic I wish to cover.
Throughout my time in politics I was consumed by the thought of what New Zealand might be in the future.
I am excited by how we have become more comparatively bi-cultural, and at our developing multi-culturalism.
That is something to be embraced wholeheartedly, never feared, or worse rejected.
My children and grandchildren are likely to have the opportunity of living in the world's best multi-ethnic, multi cultural nation, where they are as at home in the world of the Pacific, as they are in that of Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas, and where that unique blend and tolerance is what marks out our country.
Constitutional reform will help round out that picture.
I strongly believe the time has well past for us to have severed the umbilical cord to Grandmother England.
We should be an independent republic within the Commonwealth - like India, or South Africa and the majority of other Commonwealth nations.
It is not just my Irish heritage, but more my sense of pride and confidence in our country and what it can be that is why I am so staunchly of the belief we can do so much better than continue to bend our knee to a hereditary monarch on the other side of the world.
We have consistently shown over the last thirty years or so, that we can produce many quality New Zealanders to serve as our Governor-General.
There is no reason why we could not do likewise with a non-executive President in that role, and frankly the time for change is long overdue.
So, let me conclude with a challenge to our new Parliament.
You are in the main the millenials whom will shape our future for the next generation and beyond.
Seize the moment now, and begin the process of wider constitutional reform by committing to our next Head of State being the first President of the Republic of New Zealand.
On that note,

Poroporoaki me poroporoaki ki te katoa

Goodbye and farewell to you all.


Wednesday, 29 November 2017

The row over Green MP Golriz Ghahraman and what role she had defending or prosecuting war criminals is but a storm in a teacup, indeed it is more of a little tempest when it comes to it. Outside the Wellington beltway, the commentariat, and one or two others, it is likely to be of little interest. It certainly will not spell the end of her career, although it will tarnish her reputation and remove some of the credibility of her backstory as New Zealand's first refugee MP.

Its timing, though, is unfortunate, coming at a point when the new Government's commitment to openness and transparency is being exposed as less than wholehearted. It will confirm for some that this new Government is all pious talk and unctuous handwringing ahead of action, with style outweighing substance. While the jury is still out on how competent this Government is going to be, it does need to become more sure-footed than it has been, and to start to control the political agenda, rather than just keep on reacting to it, the way it did in Opposition. The Ghahraman incident is a small but timely worry in this regard. At the very least, it should prompt the Government Whips to check through the backgrounds of all their MPs, if they have not done so already, to check there are not more embarrassing skeletons awaiting discovery.

On a broader level, Ms Ghahraman is by no means the first public figure whose curriculum vitae has been found to contain items that might be politely described as ambiguous. She is not the first MP in recent times to have had questions raised about their backgrounds - National's Dr Jiang Yang and his role in training Chinese spies comes readily to mind, and there have been others. Not too many years ago, there was the case of the chief executive of Maori Television who disappeared rapidly after his c.v. was exposed as false, and there have been tragic cases of health professionals revealed as charlatans. Fraudster Dr Linda Astor, and in an earlier time, Milan Brych, come quickly and sadly to mind.

Now, of course, Ms Ghahraman (nor I suspect Dr Yang) are in this latter league of deception and it would be foolish to even suggest so, however obliquely. Rather, the point is far more about the risks inherent in the practice that used to be known as "gilding the lily".

In that regard, political parties have to take a measure of the blame. There is no escape from thorough due diligence on prospective candidates' and MPs' backgrounds to ensure that there are no surprises waiting to pop-up at an inconvenient moment, and that everything is as it should be. The Australian Liberal and National Parties are discovering now to their dramatic cost that some checking of the citizenship status of their MPs before they were elected might have been in order. I know directly what failure by a Party to do this checking can mean - UnitedFuture was obliged to surrender an MP in 2002 when she was found to not have been a New Zealand citizen at the time of her election. Today, the Green Party needs to accept some responsibility for Ms Gharhramn's plight, just as the National Party needs to do in respect of Dr Yang.

There is one final reason why both the Ghahraman and the Yang cases should be taken more seriously than they might otherwise be. In today's diverse environment, prospective MPs are likely to have had more broadly based, often international,  experiences than was previously the case when MPs came from more predictable stables. The prospect of over-exaggerated or blurred c.vs. is therefore that much greater, the pressure on parties to have done appropriate due diligence that much stronger, and the public tolerance for ambiguity correspondingly that much less. Today's communication environment means reputations can be instantly established. Politicians and political parties need to appreciate those reputations can also be more instantly destroyed.   

Thursday, 23 November 2017

For many, the chatter about the Parliamentary Prayer is a non-event. After all, New Zealand is a fiercely secular state, without a state religion, but with a large cultural and ethnic diversity. So what is the fuss about?
There are two parts to this question: whether Parliament should begin each sitting day with some sort of invocation, and second, what form should any invocation take. To take the second part first, in a secular society, any such invocation needs to be as broadly based as possible. In a society as increasingly diverse as ours it is arrogant bunkum to suggest, nay insist, as some of the more self-righteous do that it can only be of Judeo- Christian form. That may have been a legitimate reflection of New Zealand a generation or more ago, but it is not the case today.
In any case, it is a comparatively trivial point, as is evidenced by the total silence of the mainstream churches, who know full well when a cause is lost.
Forget too, the peripheral argument about the way the Speaker of the House has gone about proposing change. That is frankly irrelevant - it is the prerogative of the Speaker after all, and he has chosen to exercise it, albeit a little more directly than his predecessors. The most facile point of all is the objection that he did so in Maori. So? It is an official language of New Zealand after all, and now able to be followed by an increasing number of New Zealanders, so the suggestion that he was indulging in some sort of subterfuge is more arrant nonsense. (At least its recitation was not as laboured or painful as previous attempts by earlier Speakers to deliver the traditional prayer in Maori!)
So we come back to the basic point of whether there should be a prayer at all. Most of the cultures represented in  our contemporary society have some sort of invocation to commence their official proceedings, and many of us are well and used to karakia. It is therefore not unreasonable that Parliament, an institution of custom and tradition, should have a similar procedure. From my vantage point, I never saw the daily Parliamentary Prayer as a literal request for direct, divine intervention in the work of our Parliament (a few, invariably to be disappointed MPs did!) but more a pause for reflection about the awesome nature of the responsibilities to the country all MPs have. To that extent, that brief moment before the rigours of the daily sitting was no bad thing in my view.
The real point of the current discussion, though, is the contribution it makes to our emerging identity as a modern multi-cultural, multi-ethnic nation. Of course, the role of the Parliamentary Prayer has only a limited influence in this, but its importance is more as a symbol that our Parliament is in fact a House of Representatives. At the very least, therefore, the daily invocation should be representative and inclusive, so I encourage the Speaker in his efforts. A manifestly more tolerant and inclusive Parliament must just be a small step towards a more tolerant and inclusive nation - surely, a "relentlessly posidive" (as I understand how the word is now to be pronounced) goal for all of us.          

Thursday, 16 November 2017

The politician and commentator Austin Mitchell once described the New Zealand education system as "a complex balance of groups, so nicely deadlocked as to make change impossible." Undoubtedly accurate as it was a description of educational administration at the time, it is also a description that could be applied, just as accurately, to our current health system.

The complex balance between a central Ministry of Health, allegedly policy focused, with service delivery mechanisms relying on twenty autonomous District Health Boards which the Minister has no power to direct to do anything is ready-made to ensure nothing much ever really changes. When the layer of the plethora of professional interest groups, all pushing their particular concerns in splendid isolation from the wider health sector, is added, it becomes a marvel that anything positive ever happens in health.

Yet it does, which is an unqualified tribute to the skills, professionalism and dedication of medical and nursing staffs up and down the country who do their absolute best for their patients, despite the system they are obliged to work within. It is little surprise, therefore, that while the public is often critical of the health system at a general level, they are unfailingly positive when it comes to relating their own individual experiences of it. To that extent, it could be argued that the health sector succeeds in what Mitchell also described as the basic function of any government agency - "to keep its field of operations quiet" - and just let things carry on. This has also been taken to the extreme in recent years of measuring the success or otherwise of the government of the day's health policy by the extent to which the Minister has been able to keep health stories out of the news.

This somnambulant approach might satisfy the short-term political objectives of the government of the day, and make the Minister look good in the eyes of the public and colleagues, but it does not really go anywhere. Because the public demand for health services is insatiable, and the cost of meeting new services, medications and capabilities always greater than our national ability to pay, the health system will always be under pressure and health professionals dissatisfied.

So, the only way to make fundamental change to break this complex balance of inertia is to look at structures. Do we really still need 20 autonomous DHBs, all mini-national health systems, in a country the size of medium sized city state, and in an age where technological innovation is rapidly simplifying the need for complex structures? The duplication, bureaucracy, and parochialism the current system encourages not only smacks of a bygone age, but is stifling the development of a modern, integrated national public health system. The perennial debate over DHB finances and the level of their deficits, and the difficulty of decision-making around the priority to be accorded the redevelopment of major hospitals are proof of that. They are by no means the only examples.

No-one wants to return to the disruption of the late 1980s and the 1990s, when we lurched from archaic, narrowly focused Hospital Boards, to Area Health Boards, to a centralised Health Funding Authority, and then back to District Health Boards. But, equally, there are very few who would say that the current system is working well. The new Minister is reportedly struggling to come to grips with how to make the system work to meet his objectives, and is frustrated by the functioning of the Ministry of Health. Whatever, he now has a golden opportunity to take a fresh look at the public health sector and the adequacy of its creaking structures,  to make it fit for the purpose for the future. Mitchell described the principal qualification of the Minister of Education to be "a complete inability to get anything through Cabinet", thereby ensuring nothing ever changed, which the spin doctors could present as continuity. How the government approaches health policy may determine whether this soubriquet should also be applied in the future to the Minister of Health.           

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

New Zealand is at times an unlikely and certainly uncomfortable colonial overlord. When former Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand referred in his speeches to countries of the "realm of New Zealand", his language was often mocked as grandiloquent, which just overlooked the precision of his description. The realm of New Zealand refers to those countries like Niue, the Tokelaus, Samoa and the Cook Islands which were previously New Zealand's island territories prior to gaining their independence in the 1960s and early 1970s. New Zealand, however, still retains defence and foreign affairs responsibilities in respect of these countries. Also part of the realm of New Zealand are Antarctica's Ross Island Dependency, the Bounty, Auckland and Kermadec Islands, and the Chatham Islands.

Of all the realm, the Chatham Islands are probably the most overlooked and taken for granted. Yet of all the realm, the Chatham Islands are the most directly linked to New Zealand, but for many these windswept islands about 750 kilometres to our east are largely ignored - the last place named in the national weather forecast,  just before outlook for tomorrow. (TVNZ does not go even that far - neither any map nor forecast ever features the Chathams in its national weather forecasts!) Yet the Chathams are home to over 600 New Zealanders, with an average annual per capita income slightly higher than in New Zealand and significant fishing and other natural resources, but a number of privations consequent upon living on offshore islands.. Perhaps it is because of their comparative proximity to New Zealand and their self-reliance that they have been left largely to their own devices.

During my time as Minister of Internal Affairs (and settlor of the Chatham Islands Investment Trust) I was able to oversee some progress in improving the Islands' basic infrastructure. In the last two Budgets I secured substantial funding (over $50 million) to rebuild the Islands' main wharf at Waitangi, and to repair and upgrade the wharf at Pitt Island. These wharves are vital transport links, as virtually everything has to be shipped into and out of the Islands. Work was also begun on planning the upgrade of the runway and navigational aids at the airport to accommodate jet aircraft and become less weather dependent. The Chathams' rugged weather means the current air services (performed with amazing efficiency by Air Chathams' noble and extraordinarily durable 1950s  Convairs) are subject to weather cancellations on a reasonably frequent basis - something which jets with more sophisticated technology and improved navigational aids at the airport would reduce to some extent. And that would also facilitate the export of fresh seafood to New Zealand and potentially east coast Australian markets on a faster basis, thus aiding the Islands' economic development. Other issues facing the Chathams include the high cost of energy generation - most energy is diesel generated as, despite its abundance, wind generation has not proven all that reliable, and other sustainable forms of generation are yet to be fully developed. As it stands, energy costs now account for about 35% of most Island household budgets.

Over the years, New Zealand's approach to the Chathams has been haphazard, focusing on problems as they occur, and not looking too far into the future. But they are a part of the realm in just the same way that other countries and territories to whom we provide significant and more frequent assistance are part of the realm. So we need to develop a more focused and co-ordinated approach to dealing with their issues. For that reason, I obtained Cabinet support earlier this year for a review of the Chatham Islands' overall governance arrangements. This had also been advocated by the Chatham Islands District Council, who saw it as an important opportunity to get a much more consistent, integrated approach to the Islands' future development. However, given the history of benign neglect, making progress has not been easy. One senior Minister at the time vowed to me not to support one cent more for the Chathams, while others seemed quite uninterested. There were those who understood the issues fully who were supportive and encouraging, but I still felt the need to prepare what I called a "Chathams 101" paper for their information, to help get the proposal through.

The first stage of the review should have been completed by now, and officials were required to report back to Cabinet in November. While I appreciate that this will not be top of the new government's agenda, it does represent a significant opportunity, which I hope does not end up being passed up, to make rare progress in clarifying and modernising the relationship. The Chatham Islands are an important part of the realm of New Zealand and deserve to be treated as more than just the footnote before the outlook for tomorrow.            

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Our new government has taken office and comparisons are already being made about the circumstances of its accession. Some are saying that the public mood is similar in terms of enthusiasm and response to the advent of the Lange Government in 1984. That government came to office after the grim and increasingly repressive Muldoon Government, and its election was greeted more with a sense of relief that the long national nightmare was finally over, than a sense of excitement about what lay ahead. That is clearly not the mood today. There is no sense that either the country is on its knees and facing imminent economic collapse, or that the outgoing government had become more and more intrusive in people's lives and virtually every aspect of the economy, as was the case in 1984.
A more accurate comparison is 1972, when the Kirk Labour Government swept to power. There was at that time a palpable feeling of "It's Time for a Change", not too far removed from this year's "Let's Do It" slogan now being reprised in so many different ways, as Kirk capitalised on a mood that the long-term National Government had run out of steam and ideas. Like today, the economy was in reasonably good shape - the impacts of the 1974 Oil Shock and Britain's joining Europe in 1973 were yet to come - and there was a growing sense of optimism about the country's future and emerging identity. The "climate change" issues of the early 1970s were French nuclear testing in the Pacific, and apartheid in South Africa (both of which the new government had strong positions on) and there was a housing shortage, in Auckland in particular. All in all, circumstances far more akin to today than to 1984.
But herein lies the challenge for the new government. Leaving aside the particulars of managing a coalition with the serially erratic New Zealand First (the Greens will be far less difficult - they, after all, are just happy to finally be there after 27 years of failure), the new government would do well to study the lessons of the Third Labour Government, lest it similarly succumb in 2020 or earlier and end up just another "what if" footnote in history.
First, it should be careful about promoting and believing in its own invincibility too much. When Kirk was elected in 1972, no-one imagined he would be dead within two years, with his government left wallowing in the wake of his demise. This is most certainly not suggesting nor wishing a similar fate for our new Prime Minister, but using the drama of the most unexpected circumstance of all to highlight the priority need to establish a credible, broad based, competent leadership team.  Next, no-one also envisaged in 1972 the economic shocks that lay ahead, with the dramatic oil price increases and supply limitations after the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the catastrophic impact they were to have on fortress economies like ours. The domestic cocoon of complacency always shatters quickly in a crisis. In the 1970s New Zealand was clearly caught short by not only the Oil Crisis but also the impact on our trading patterns and the need to develop markets and diversify products that British entry to the Common Market had caused. So, the government needs to be wary of trying to shelter New Zealand too much from global influences, over which it has no control. A cautious embrace of globalism, rather than a wholesale rejection would be prudent. We are part of, not apart from, an increasingly interdependent world. And finally, the government needs to know and understand the value of flexibility and pragmatism. It will not always be right, no matter how much it will wish to be. Kirk's refusal to budge from costly manifesto commitments, despite the international economic shocks, was short-sighted and blinkered, and allowed Muldoon, aided by the Dancing Cossacks, to storm to victory in 1975 on the promise to "Rebuild New Zealand's Shattered Economy".
Last week, one Australian newspaper stupidly and wrongly labelled our new Prime Minister a "commie", which clearly she is not. But, as an educated and literate person, she will be well aware of Karl Marx's observation that the thing to learn from history is that people do not. So I wish her well as she sets out to disprove that dictum.      

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

In 1940, the notorious Labour politician, John A. Lee, was expelled from the Labour Party after writing a sensational article, "Psycho-Pathology in Politics", a thinly veiled attack on the dying Labour Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage.

The article's essential argument, drawing on examples from the United States, Britain and New Zealand, was that ailing politicians can have a disproportionate and distortionary impact on the affairs of nations. At the time it was published in late 1939, Savage was dying of cancer, but that had been concealed from the New Zealand public. Indeed, barely two months before Savage's death, Acting Prime Minister Peter Fraser was assuring the country that the Prime Minister "had never been better."

While "Psycho-Pathology in Politics" was a product of its time, one passage within it struck me as having particular relevance today as the our various political leaders seek to put together the next coalition government. Perhaps presciently, Lee referred obliquely to his target this way- "... sycophants pout flattery upon him ... Like a child, he will only play if he gets his own way ... He becomes vain of mind and short of temper, and believes that anyone who crosses his path has demoniac attributes."

Negotiating government formation arrangements is a serious business. It is not an occasion for settling old scores, satisfying particular fantasies, or tails wagging dogs. The starting point has to be a broad agreement that the parties in the negotiation have a similar view about the direction of travel. They may well disagree about priorities, or particular policies, but for the outcome to be sustainable, they have to at least agree they want to travel in the same direction. Governing arrangements thrown together on the convenience of numbers, but an absence of commitment on direction, are doomed to fail.

All of which brings us back to "Psycho-Pathology in Politics". Establishing the various party negotiating teams on the basis of who is least likely to cause offence, rather than policy expertise, smacks of "sycophants (who) pour flattery". At the same time, taking umbrage at apparent negative descriptions has an air of "vain of mind" about it. Worst of all though is the risk the coalition talks focus far less on policy and the country's future direction than a child-like obsession on getting one's own way, and the baubles of office.

On a different note, one of the saddest aspects of the recent election was the general demise of the smaller parties ACT is now a barely relevant toe-hold, and the Maori Party and UnitedFuture have gone altogether. Whatever one's view of these particular parties, they each represented a distinct point of view which will now be heard only faintly in Parliament, or not at all. That is neither a triumph for MMP, nor broader democracy, but it is the will of the people.

Congratulations to all, especially the newcomers, who were elected to the 52nd Parliament. Your enthusiasm as you begin your roles is to be admired, although reality suggests it will be quickly dashed for many of you. Some of you will go on to be great leaders of our country, but many of you will be but short-term visitors. Whatever your fate, I acknowledge your commitment to serve, and wish you well for the next three years. Whether in Government or Opposition, you have a vital and responsible role to play. I hope you can achieve that and rise above what John A. Lee described as the "vanity of old men going downhill."    


Wednesday, 13 September 2017

“Time for a Change” is a mantra often used by political parties seeking office to capture what they imagine to be a public mood of the time. Sometimes the call works, and sometimes it does not. The voter, after all, is always right.
But political change and renewal are constant processes, regardless of how the political winds may be blowing, There is a steady turnover of politicians in New Zealand, even if our governments do not change that often.
The 51st Parliament was dissolved recently for the 2017 General Election. Yet before a vote was cast in that election, or a single result declared, change had already occurred. Twenty-eight of the 121 MPs elected in 2014 – just under 25%  – have either left during the term or declared they would not be seeking re-election, and that is before the electoral grim reaper has cut any swathe at all. And such a turnover is not unusual. Only 54% of the MPs elected to Parliament in 2011 are seeking re-election in 2017. With regard to Ministers, the turnover is just as strong. Of the 25 Ministers appointed to the Helen Clark Government in 1999, only 10 were still in office when that Government fell in 2008. Of John Key’s original 27 Ministers in 2008, a mere one third (9) are seeking re-election this year.
The lament is often heard that MPs have been there too long, and that fresh blood is needed. Well, the facts tell a somewhat different story – only 22 of the MPs currently seeking re-election were in Parliament just 10 years ago (and about five of them have been out and in in that time). Just 12 MPs seeking re-election were in Parliament 15 years ago. Should Labour lead the next Government, it will have a steep experience wall to climb as only 6 of its MPS (including 5 former Ministers) were in the last Labour-led Government in 2008. That is not altogether surprising, since over the years since the election of our first Parliament in 1852, the average length of service of an MP in New Zealand has been a little over 6 years.  
What these figures also show is that New Zealand voters are quite good at changing their Members of Parliament reasonably frequently, without necessarily changing the government. Indeed, it may well be that because the turnover of Members of Parliament is so steady, and the process of renewal is so constant, the pressure for more frequent changes of government is mitigated to some extent. As the examples of the Clark and Key/English Ministries show, even the turnover of Ministers is substantial over the life of a government.
So, whatever the election outcome, the 52nd Parliament to be elected next week will be vastly different from its predecessor. More young people, more women, and more diversity are likely, even before the possibility of changing electoral fortunes is factored in. But, for all that, it will be sobering to realise that it is likely that the majority of our next set of MPs will have served less three terms in Parliament, and that some of them at least may be running the country.        

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Are we witnessing the death of MMP? It is not beyond the realms of possibility that after this election Parliament may return to the essentially two-party club (with periodic blips) it was for roughly half a century prior to the shift to proportional representation in 1996.


If you believe current polling, the Greens will be lucky to be in the next Parliament. There are mounting rumours that ACT’s hold on Epsom may not be that secure, and with New Zealand First hovering just above the 5% threshold, its hold on Northland becomes all the more critical. There must be a strengthening temptation for National to run an all-out campaign to return that seat to the true-blue status it enjoyed for around 70 years prior to the 2015 by-election (save the 1966-69 Social Credit interlude). In so doing, it would also rid itself of a proven destructive coalition partner. In short, of the minor parties, only the Maori Party seems assured of being in Parliament after the election, and, if the election does come down to a drag-race between National and Labour, the Maori Party’s may be too small to add much to the equation anyway.


Under this scenario, National would probably emerge the outright winner, once the high waste vote factor has been taken in to account. A single party, majority National Government would be just as dramatic an outcome as the majority Conservative Government David Cameron was able to put together in Britain in 2105 after the years of coalition  with the Liberal Democrats.


The probability of this scenario coming depends on the level of voter discontent t with the multiparty governing arrangements we have had since 1996. While there is no obvious sense of voter disenchantment with multiparty governments, it is arguable that this is because in government both the major parties have been blessed with support parties that have not been sufficiently large in size to seriously threaten to derail the government’s agenda. (In this regard, it must be noted that both the formal coalitions established under MMP – National/New Zealand First between 1996-98 and Labour/Alliance from 1999-2002 – failed to last the full three year term, which underlines the point.) Faced with the prospect that either a continuing National-led Government or an incoming Labour-led one may have to rely on either New Zealand First or the Greens to govern, both of whom are likely to be stroppy partners at best, voters may well decide that it is much easier this time to cut out the middle man altogether, and vote directly for the major party they wish to lead the next government. In which case, we will have come full circle from the mood of disillusionment with the so-called elected dictatorship of the Muldoon era and the Fourth Labour government that led to the switch to MMP in the first place.


Now, while all this may be an unlikely scenario to pass, it is nonetheless most likely one that will have crossed the minds of National and Labour strategists as they go for broke in the ever tightening race this election has become. After all, the very best way to ensure you can put all your agenda in place without compromise is to be free of partner encumbrances, who might wish to moderate or stop some policies altogether. So, in the context of the desperate surge for absolute victory both sides are now engaged in, Britain’s SAS’s famous motto “Who Dares, Wins” may yet become the mantra that decides who governs next.            






Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Since my announcement last week that I was not seeking re-election to Parliament, after 33 years as an MP, a couple of things have taken me by surprise.


First, has been the totally unexpected reaction to my announcement. The volume and warmth of the hundreds of messages that I have received from all over the country from so many different people has stunned me. I had not expected that. I felt I was just doing my job, but I have been humbled by, and am extraordinarily grateful to, so many for the very kind sentiments they have expressed. My heartfelt thanks to all of you for your messages.


The second thing that has surprised me is how quickly I have disengaged from the active political process. While I will retain my Ministerial warrant and responsibilities until the formation of the next government, and will carry out my duties fully in that time, I have already made the switch from active participant to interested observer, when it comes to day-to-day politics.


And, as that has happened, some scales have fallen from my eyes, and I have begun to see politics more from the perspective of the average citizen perhaps, than the active career politician. Already I have come to see many of my soon-to-be former colleagues through a different prism. I smile quietly but cynically at their strutting earnest ways and the egregious ever-so-keen-to-please and not offend tones of the political wannabes, now realising that until recently I too was playing the same games. I watch the news media, taking themselves ever so seriously as they rush breathlessly from one photo-op to the next, pontificating about this bit of trivia or that, as though it really counts for anything, all the while allowing themselves to be manipulated by the absolute worst of politicians focused on nothing more than their own promotion.


All this furious activity, chasing political leaders up and down the country, from one day to the next may be great for Air New Zealand, but does nothing for the carbon footprint or the credibility of the political process as a whole. It has all the trappings of a circus rather than a serious democratic event by which we elect our government for the next three years.


If this is how a soon-to-be-former politician views things, just over a week after deciding to leave, one can only begin to imagine how long-suffering voters must feel about all this, all the time.


I have always treated politics as a serious business, where the great issues of the day were debated properly and thoroughly; where local politicians earned the trust and respect of their communities because of their presence within and immediate connection to those communities; and, where getting to know political leaders was based around personal interactions, not slick media profiles or glossy magazine interviews. In short, in my world, trust was earned through hard work and practical achievement, not manufactured by a public relations profile and other inanities.


As this weird election campaign is showing, none of that seems to matter anymore, which is why it is probably time for me to go. A world where the country’s future is potentially determined by vacuous smiles or predeterminedly angry snarls is not for me. Policy debate is seen as boring or a nuisance which detracts from the drama of a succession of mini-scandals which pre-occupy the media. Even when the discussion is about policy debates between the party leaders, it quickly turns into which media personality should moderate the debates, not the substance of the policy issues themselves.


One of the reasons why people, young people in particular, switch off politics and voting is because they do not see it has any relevance to them. Given the facile approach being taken to this election, their indifference is hardly surprising. More of the same, through superficial promises, shallow politicians and an indulgent media will not change any of this. Voters will engage only when they see there is a point to it. At the moment, they simply do not.


The challenge of the next three weeks until the election is to make politics relevant to the interests of voters again. Politicians and the media are in the same boat here. Victory will deservedly go to whoever can talk to New Zealanders about their real concerns and hopes, not lecture them about what they think those concerns and hopes should be. Through my new unclouded lens, I will be watching developments with considerable interest and a new dispassionate curiosity.              














Wednesday, 9 August 2017

It may seem strange to suggest it now, but the dust will soon settle on the political turmoil of the last ten days, and a form of normalcy will return, the imminent advent of the formal election campaign notwithstanding. And when that dust has settled, some basic realities will be clear.


The Labour Party has replaced a grim and dour leader New Zealanders would never have made their Prime Minister with someone more telegenic and permanently smiling who is likely to staunch the bleeding of Labour’s wounds. Whether she can, or will or be acceptable as a potential  Prime Minister remains to be seen, although the early signs are that style more than substance will be her hallmarks.


And, after a contorted public display of political hari kiri, the Green Party’s co-leader finally resigned. This seems due not so much to her truly bizarre admissions of welfare and electoral abuse a quarter of a century ago, as to the defiant and smug arrogance of her subsequent public comments, and the extraordinarily heavy-handed reactions of her colleagues to two Green MPs who dared criticise her. They were summarily dispatched with a brutality reminiscent of the best of totalitarian regimes, while at the same time the Party tried to stick to its long held mantra of being the one Party of principle. The picture that emerged instead – and which subsequent opinion polls confirm – is of a Party that condones welfare and electoral law abuse, particularly by one of its own, and is utterly intolerant of dissent or criticism. The collective moral failure of the Party’s MPs and leadership has been palpable and punished accordingly.


With these momentous events now behind the electorate, if not for the Parties themselves, voters’ focus will quickly return to more basis issues. They will be considering whether the reconfigured Labour and Green Parties, with their Memorandum of Understanding apparently still intact, are better placed to form a viable and coherent government than they were a couple of weeks ago. The chaos of the last few days, their apparent euphoria notwithstanding, makes that a much a more arguable proposition. Few would agree these recent events have demonstrated they are now more able to provide good and stable government than before.


And how does the current National-led Government, with support from ACT, the Maori Party and UnitedFuture, look by comparison? Has its position as a reliable and stable combination that has served New Zealand well over the last nine years been enhanced or weakened by recent events? On balance, the conclusion would have to be that the contrast between strong, reliable and focused government and unimaginable chaos has never been starker.


New Zealand First will be smarting that it has been largely sidelined by the recent shenanigans, despite its solid support in provincial New Zealand. However, its problem is more fundamental. Its current crop of MPs is the most singularly uninspiring and inept to have been in parliament for a while – and believe me, having seen many such groupings over the years, I do not say this lightly. The problem is that it therefore cannot risk exposing them to too much public scrutiny, lest they be found out. And that means having to maintain the focus on the Party leader and his idiosyncratically destructive style of politics.


All of which will make for a fascinating few weeks ahead. Expect National and its allies to continue to try sailing in the smooth waters of competence, reliability and experience. There will be a number of business as usual policy announcements to maintain both the image and the sense of a coherent strategy for the way ahead, with allowance for the diversity of views it support partners offer. For Labour and the Greens, excitement and vibrancy will be the dominant themes, but the challenge will be showing a sense of cohesion and consistency, unlike anything they have shown to date, and getting their leaders to answer the hard questions posed of them, rather than just make glib policy pronouncements. For New Zealand First, it will be politics as usual, picking the familiar social and political scabs in an effort to fuel distrust in the system and reinforce its self-sought image as the “you tell ‘em” Party.


As politics as usual returns, some voters may be forgiven for yearning for more of the drama of the last two weeks.