Wednesday, 26 April 2017

For those who follow British politics, the prospect of the coming General Election turning into a major train wreck for the British Labour Party looms large. Barely a day passes without another set of contradictory views or comments emerging from senior members of that Party. Most of the criticism inevitably finds its way back to the Party’s veteran socialist leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a man who, in a long political career has never been chosen to hold any Government office. For afficiandos, it is all fun and games, happening sufficiently far away not to be too bothered about. However, there are some similarities with the New Zealand situation which should not go unremarked upon.

Jeremy Corbyn was never elected leader of the British Labour Party by the Party’s MPs – indeed, only a few months ago, they passed overwhelmingly a vote of no-confidence in his leadership. Yet he remains, having twice been selected by the Party at large and its trade union base to be Labour’s standard bearer. New Zealand Labour has a similar selection system – current leader Andrew Little was installed in his role in 2014 with the backing of well under half his MPs, and then only narrowly because of the union vote. (Hardly surprising given his background as a former President of the Council of Trade Unions. It is tantalising to speculate how different the outcome might have been had Caucus favourite Grant Robertson with running mate Jacinda Ardern – the so-called Grazinda team – been selected at that time instead.)

As with Mr Corbyn, Mr Little knows that the key to his retaining the leadership, lies not with his MPs, but with the Party’s trade union affiliates. He has already shown his recognition of that by his installation of trade union officials as candidates in a number of seats around the country. Many are likely to feature high up on the Party’s “democratically” selected list. And, like Mr Corbyn, he has eschewed any prospect of Labour claiming the centre ground of politics, indeed going so far as to dismiss the political centre and those who occupy it as “irrelevant.” Both Mr Corbyn and Mr Little believe naively that there is a latent Labour majority out there – the missing million voters New Zealand Labour keeps talking about – that has only to be offered a “true” Labour Party for them to return home, and that in the meantime, there is therefore no need to reach out to any other voting group than the missing “true believers” waiting for the restoration of traditional paradise.

In Britain, so far, Labour’s campaign has been marked by public disagreements on key policies – whether it be how to deal with ISIL, or the future of the Trident missile system, where Mr Corbyn’s position seems to be at odds with the rest of his MPs. That is yet to come in New Zealand – principally because Labour seems to have no real policy for its MPs to disagree over – but there are clear signs Mr Little is prone to the same make-it-up-on-the-spot approach as Mr Corbyn. Witness the debacle over immigration policy. Last week, Mr little was reported widely as proposing to cut immigration numbers by 51,000. While the announcement came from nowhere, there was no denial by any Labour MP at the time that this was their policy. Now, over a week later, having been widely criticised for the announcement, Mr Little says he was misreported, that when he said immigration levels should fall from about around 71,000 to about 20,000, he did not mean a reduction of 51,000. It is difficult to know what else he meant, particularly when his defence was to confirm his original figures, and that he was talking about a drop of “tens of thousands” only. It was a pure Corbyn moment. (It came just a week after a similar moment when responding to National’s pay equity decision.) National will be hoping for many more over the next few months.    

As the Antipodean Jeremy Corbyn, Mr Little must have groaned when Teresa May called Britain’s election for early June. New Zealanders are going to be able to watch a preview of his performance and likely fate, well in advance of our own election. And when the inevitable blood-letting takes place after the British train wreck, New Zealand Labour will struggle to avoid the spotlight being turned on its own Jeremy Corbyn, and his journey down the same track.       








Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The formerly cherished and hallowed centre ground of politics seems to have lost its sheen. That special space in our political spectrum that every political leader since Holyoake has sought to capture and occupy suddenly seems barren and forlorn. The rise of post-truth politics, personified by, although not limited to, the Trump phenomenon, has seen reason and common sense, which used to provide the backbone of Western liberal democracies, abandoned in favour of the simplistic solution, the half-truth and the alternative fact. The centre ground of politics suddenly seems to have become everyone’s new favourite non-cause.

The centre ground has traditionally been closely linked to common sense. Common sense politics have usually been the preserve of centrist politicians, able to bring balance and perspective to difficult situations, to set things on an even keel once more. But even those days may be behind us – not just overseas, but in New Zealand too. Only last week, for example, the Leader of the Opposition told a television interviewer that politicians who promoted common sense, what some have called the shared values of a community, were really just demonstrating their own irrelevance!

How has this happened? How has the pursuit of common sense and reason in politics become so unfashionable? A simple answer might be because of the failure of political ideology. The high water of the ideological divide in modern politics was probably the 1980s, with the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions riding high on the capitalist side of the ledger, and Marxism-Leninism still dominant in the Eastern bloc. Economic pressures meant both were in decline from the 1990s, and were finally relegated to the pages of history after the Global Financial Crisis of the early 2000s, but their scars have remained. Whatever the issue, the common response was that the politicians and the political system they operated were to blame. Their emphasis on modernisation and best practice had become ends in themselves, and had ruined many people’s lives, costing jobs and destroying communities in the process. So more of the same and its inherent moderation, were seen as contributing to, not resolving the problem. It was time to break the mould, although what it was to be replaced with was far less clear.

One thing that was clear was that business as usual, common sense and pragmatism, were no longer the part of the solution they had always been. So Brexit, so Trump, so the rise of neo-nationalism and the push-back on globalism, and the headlong outward rush from the centre. Maybe William Butler Yeats’ prophetic words in 1919 in the wake of World War I are coming to pass at last: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

In these swirling international tides, as New Zealand approaches its General Election, political parties here apparently fear being stranded in the centre ground they previously craved. Labour has long since abandoned any pretence of centrism, seemingly preferring a return to an oxymoronic modern form of the 1930s when the government knew best and did everything. The Greens and ACT have never even pretended to embrace the centre, and the Maori Party realises it can win the ultimate prize of being a permanent party of government just by doing its own knitting and ignoring everyone else. New Zealand First will go where it thinks the votes are, regardless of consistency; while post-Key National looks increasingly keen to loosen the centrist shackles he imposed on it. Only UnitedFuture still stands unashamedly in the centre – therefore completely irrelevant to some, or too full of passionate intensity to others.

A similar scenario is about to be played out in Britain with its snap election. Little wonder then that all the parties here will be watching how that, and the French presidential elections which begin this weekend will play out. The rational view cries out for a resurgence of common sense and the appeal of centrism. But with all the current international uncertainties, that reliance on reason may no longer be enough for voters staunch the headlong rush from the centre. There could yet be an eerie chill to the onset of our winter, before the warmth of the sun comes again.     






Tuesday, 11 April 2017

How free should speech be in New Zealand today? This issue has been in the news recently for a number of reasons. Just last week a group of prominent academics called for restrictions on what they termed hate speech against sexual and ethnic minorities. At the same time, the Leader of the Opposition was in Court defending libel allegations. Each raises questions about what limits there are on free speech, and where, if at all, any boundary lines should be drawn.

Of the two, the issue of hate speech (speech which attacks a person on the basis of their gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation) is the more vexed. At one obvious level no such attacks should be acceptable in a free and open society, but the question then arises what sanctions should be imposed when those norms are breached. Recently, a vile, overtly racist pamphlet, purportedly in support of the Hobson’s Choice movement, was circulated in my electorate and elsewhere. Its contents were repugnant to me and many of my constituents, and I took every opportunity to say so. But should it have been banned? I do not think so, because I think that even though the views are despicable, the racists who peddle them have just as much right to do so, as I have to rail against them. In an open society, views and outcomes are shaped by the free expression of ideas, however objectionable or extreme, what an American political scientist once famously called the mobilisation of bias, as citizens weigh up what they have heard or seen against their own values (and biases) a reach a view accordingly. Book-burning and its modern equivalents have never been hallmarks of democracy. Nor should they become so now.

The Andrew Little libel case raises its own set of interesting issues. At the one level, there is the right of the Leader of the Opposition, and any politician for that matter, to speak out without fear or favour on the issues of the day. Indeed, that right is enshrined in the concept of Parliamentary Privilege, and dates back to the 1688 Bill of Rights. Parliamentary Privilege affords absolute protection to Members of Parliament for comments genuinely made in the course of debate in the Parliamentary Debating Chamber. It is a somewhat different matter, as Mr Little found out nearly to his considerable cost, to be so frank outside the confines of Parliament. Whatever else, it is a salutary reminder that although the law can legislate rights, it can never legislate for individual prudence and judgement.

But, as with the case of hate speech, the question of malice and intent lurks in the background. Freedom of speech and the open expression of views, even if wrong or unacceptable to the reasonable majority are properly defensible, if the views are genuinely held. (Society is entitled to its crackpots, benign or otherwise.) What is more difficult to measure in both instances is where genuine belief gives way to malicious intent. Do those, for example, who preach racial intolerance do so because of a genuine, if thoroughly misguided, belief, or are they doing so to impose pain and suffering on the minority they are vilifying? Are those who attack people’s sexual orientation doing so for biological or strongly held moral reasons, or are they more interested in stigmatising and thereby punishing those whom they are opposing? And where malice is determined to be a factor, how far can we reasonably go in imposing sanctions, before we impinge upon an individual’s right to cause offence and infuriate? There are already provisions in our Human Rights and Race Relations legislation covering the most egregious behaviour.

In two weeks’ time we commemorate ANZAC Day, and invoke once more the notion of the spirit of the ANZACs. We will talk sombrely about their heroic and unselfish efforts over a century ago to secure the freedoms we enjoy today, and how their legacy must never be dishonoured. All quite proper and true. Freedom from the tyranny of strutting despots and the right to free expression lie at the core of that legacy. When we intone “Lest We Forget” this ANZAC morn, we should recall equally that commitment to securing freedom for all. And, for good measure, we should not overlook the famous simple but eloquent words of the French writer Voltaire, over 250 years ago:

“I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.

“Common sense is genius in homespun.”

On a separate note, Easter comes along this weekend. Whatever Easter may mean to you, my wish is that you are able to enjoy the weekend with those you hold dearest, and that if you are travelling around the country, you are able to do so conveniently and safely.




Tuesday, 4 April 2017

We have always prided ourselves that New Zealand is the land of the great outdoors. Our grand mountains, pristine forests, rivers and fresh waterways confirm that. So too does the comparative space our small population allows each one of us to enjoy. And the sea is never more than a hundred or so kilometres away, meaning we literally can have the best of all worlds.

Over 600,000 of us actively tramp, hunt, climb, or mountain bike and almost as many more of us fish, sail or swim each year. Similar numbers of overseas visitors make their way here to enjoy the great outdoor lifestyle we have to offer. Clean, green, active New Zealand has become one of the most overworked phrases in our national vocabulary.

But we are now beginning to realise all is not well in our state of paradise. Numbers of endangered species, marine life particularly, are increasing and populations dwindling as the harvest of the sea’s bounty increases. The prospect of dairy production’s “white gold” has led to farming intensification and irrigation that is starting to bleed major rivers dry, with consequent threats to flora, fauna and land mass. And the sheer delight we all feel at being able to access our great outdoors is placing major pressure on the infrastructure of our national parks and public spaces. Our pristine tourist posters are beginning to look more like a faded reminder of a bygone, simpler era.

The pressure for better health, education and social services has left little room to expand the conservation budget. While that has led to remarkably innovative funding partnerships between the private sector and the Department of Conservation to make up the shortfall, and while these have increased the level of public awareness and specific commitment to projects to save and enhance threatened species, it is still not enough. This is absolutely no criticism of the dedicated conservators and scientists who have done so much over the years, but we cannot go on the way we are.

At the same time, the pressures on other areas will continue and governments will face the perennial balancing act of how much to allocate to competing interests who will always have a justifiable case for saying they are not getting enough. Our small tax base, a product of our comparatively flat income structure and the absence of a significant wealthy middle class, limit any government’s capacity to substantially increase the revenue base.

Yet, there is a way through this conundrum – at little cost to New Zealanders, but with significant benefit to the environment. A levy of $20 to $25 charged on every overseas tourist entering the country would raise between $60 and $75 million a year. That revenue could be designated for use in improving the infrastructure of the conservation estate – upgrading tracks and huts in national parks, and providing more toilets to stop freedom campers polluting our highways and byways. In turn, that additional revenue would free up an equivalent amount in the Department of Conservation’s existing budget which could be redirected towards the protection of vulnerable species, enhanced  predator control and the like. Together, these measures would provide for a small but determined start in redressing the imbalance and heading us back towards a time when we could talk about clean, green New Zealand with justifiable pride once more.

The one-off imposition on the tourist would be minimal – equivalent to the cost to an overseas visitor of going to one stately home run by Britain’s National Trust – so would be hardly be a disincentive to visitors coming here. Indeed, many of them are stunned already that there is no charge on their access to our public estate, so would be unlikely to object to a modest levy of this type, tagged for the preservation, maintenance and upgrading of the natural surroundings they have travelled so far to enjoy.

To date, the government is lukewarm on the idea for reasons which are unclear (although the former Prime Minister seemed to think such a step was inevitable.) He for one seemed to appreciate it would be an easy and popular step to concede to a support party in post-election negotiations. It is not difficult to imagine his successors coming in time to the same view, if it means staying in office.