Wednesday, 28 June 2017

We are a pretty self-effacing lot as a nation. We do not stand on too much ceremony; we have an innate sense of equality and trying to see everyone gets a “fair go”; and the absolutely worst thing we can say about a person is that they are “up themselves”. Often we are seen as taciturn and perhaps a little dour, far more comfortable doing things, than talking about them. We pride ourselves on our practical, considered approach to issues – and our uncanny ability to develop solutions tailored to our needs, no matter the ridicule or criticism of others.
The people we look up to in all fields of endeavour – from our great-grandparents and grandparents who fought so stoically in two World Wars and other conflicts, through to sport and politics, the arts and sciences, and business and the outdoors today, all fit that mould. We are wary of the flashy extrovert, with the ever-present smile, the cocky, arrogant “don’t pull the wool over my eyes sunshine, I didn’t come down in the last shower” demeanour and the cheap, instant answer to everything. We generally despise them as fake – shallow, inveterate fraudsters and charlatans who, despite all their bravado, can be relied to always fail badly when the crunch comes, and then blame someone else. We far prefer the quiet, level-headed doer, who just gets on with the task at hand, and makes things work.
Sometimes we make the mistake of putting the New Zealanders we admire on pedestals as remarkable, and different to the rest of us. But, in doing so, we fail to recognise that the reason for their success lies often not in their difference, but rather in their quintessential New Zealand approach. John Mulgan came closest to capturing that essence in the seminal New Zealand novel, “Man Alone”, and it is probably no coincidence that the men and women we admire the most have always had more than an element of that in their make-up.
The word that underpins the New Zealand character is reliability – the archetypal safe pair of hands in a crisis. Peter Burling constantly demonstrated that in the recent stunning America’s Cup Series. Taciturn, almost to a fault, yet the symbol of reliability and dependability, and ultimately the winner. Until the explosion of the Barclay crisis the same thing could have been said of Prime Minister Bill English. While the lasting extent to which that may have been damaged by recent events is probably too premature to assess as yet, there is no doubt that the Prime Minister’s historic strengths have been his perceived dependability, and focus on performance ahead of superficiality.
The test of leadership comes with the ability to deal with crisis situations. Just a few weeks ago, Emirates Team New Zealand’s boat pitch-poled dramatically during the start of a challenger semi-final race. It was severely, almost fatally we now know, damaged and could have put paid to New Zealand’s efforts. Similarly, Barclay has become Bill English’s pitch-pole moment. Yet sheer guts, determination and hard work not only saw Team New Zealand back on the water in a day or two, but Burling and crew going on to win the challenger semi-finals and then the final, and ultimately the America’s Cup itself, without ever conceding the merest whiff of their dire predicament to their opponents. In political terms, Bill English now has to do likewise.
When the schooner America beat the best British yachts in the International Race off the Isle of Wight in 1851 to win what became known as the America’s Cup, Queen Victoria inquired about the fate of other yachts in the race, only to be informed “There is no second.” Those four words have endured in cup history ever since. They are also the words the Prime Minister needs to put front and centre now as he mounts his recovery from the Barclay affair. 

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Like most New Zealanders, I was shocked that November weekend in 2010 when the reality struck that 29 men had perished in the Pike River Mine. My initial reaction was like that of so many people – that everything possible should be done to retrieve their bodies, and bring a sense of closure to their loved ones.

Over time, as the scientific and specialist evidence was gathered, then presented to the Royal Commission established to investigate the disaster, and the apparently ever so saddened and seemingly reassuring Mr Whitall kept appearing on television, I came to the view that the awful reality was that it was probably too dangerous to risk re-entering the mine to retrieve the bodies of the men. A large part of me still holds to that view, but then I am not directly affected. However, the drip-feed of revelations over recent years about documentary evidence that was either known at the time, but not accorded weight by the Royal Commission, or perhaps not even presented to the Commission at all, and has become available subsequently, leaves me questioning increasingly the received wisdom that the mine was best left sealed as a permanent memorial to the men who died there.

First was the exposé of Mr Whitall and the company that owned Pike River at the time, which raised substantial questions about the what had been going on, and how safe the mine had been all along. Then came the now constant refrains every time apparently new documentary evidence was revealed that it either “contained nothing new” or “was known to the Royal Commission at the time”, but “in any case does not change anything”. It is all starting to wear a little thin, after all these years. There still seems to be either a lack of clear facts about what went on, or at least a lack of full public access to the full story that may be known by some.

As a bottom line, I do not think it appropriate to put lives potentially at risk to retrieve the remains of the victims of Pike River. That has always been the argument put forward for not attempting to re-enter the mine. On the face of it, and the official facts available, it is hard to argue against. But the continuing revelations about the state of the mine now and then raise many questions about the accuracy of that advice. And while that spectre of inaccuracy remains, so will the perfectly understandable anguish and frustration of the families grow.

Instead of the essentially cat and mouse game that has been going on for now nearly seven years continuing, surely it is time to put all the relevant information – audio-visual, technical, safety and otherwise – into the public arena where it can be properly and thoroughly assessed. I, for one, do not like learning of relevant “previously unreleased footage”, or the like. If the material exists, it should be made public, so that everyone can know and understand exactly what the issues are, and can reach their judgements accordingly.

Of course, it may well be that at the end of such a process nothing much changes. The mine might still be considered unsafe to enter, and the status quo will remain. But at least there will be an obvious evidential base established to either confirm or debunk the findings of the Royal Commission. At present, we seem left increasingly, rightly or wrongly, with the suspicion that there is more to this story that has hitherto been acknowledged publicly. And that is a completely unsatisfactory way to resolve an issue that has troubled people for so long.

Now, I appreciate well that there will be those who will criticise me for not having expressed these views earlier. A fair cop, maybe, but I suspect I have been no different to many considered New Zealanders who felt appalled by the horror of the original tragedy, and believed that, hard and all as it would have been for the families, the official investigations would come to the right conclusion, having had the opportunity to consider all the known facts and expert evidence. I am one of many who have become more uneasy over the years about the apparently ever shifting sands of how the Pike River case has been handled.

Of course, my heart goes out to the families who suffered the loss of husbands, sons and brothers. I have felt for them at every stage as they have hoed the difficult road to recovery, and have hoped time would heal their wounds. I used to feel that, tough and all as they were, the decisions taken not to go back into the mine were probably correct, sadly, and an inevitable consequence of a tragedy of this type. But today, I can no longer feel that way with any confidence.       






Monday, 12 June 2017

We used to talk about the “cultural cringe” in New Zealand. That was the old notion that if something came from overseas, it was automatically superior to any local equivalent, and therefore had to be embraced almost uncritically. Those days have largely gone – thankfully – although every now and then the malady that Austin Mitchell once diagnosed as “overseasia” returns.

The most recent reported outbreak has been in the wake of the British General Election. For the second time in three elections no party has won an absolute majority in the House of Commons. By contrast, that has been the norm in New Zealand since the advent of MMP in 1996, yet we have not been seriously threatened by political instability subsequently. A large body of constitutional, academic and political knowledge – and experience – has built up here as a consequence.

For her part, Teresa May, seems to have acknowledged that experience, however grudgingly, with reports that she has consulted our Prime Minister about the mechanics of running stable, minority governments. But she seems to be alone in the sea of lost for words analysis that our media has reported in the wake of the British result. We have a long-established process of running effective and stable minority governments in this country, under both National and Labour leadership, yet few seemed interested in drawing the parallels, preferring instead the sometimes befuddled speculations of dumbfounded British commentators. It was a return to “overseasia” at its best.

A small point that was overlooked in the British result was the performance of the Liberal Democrats – the unambiguously anti-Brexit, pro-immigration centrist party that increased its representation by 50% (from 8 to 12 MPs), arguably the best performance in proportionate terms of any party, and an oasis of reason in the midst of chaos. Indeed, had the election been conducted under an MMP type system, they would have won at least 45 seats, and the hitherto largely obscure (outside Northern Ireland at least) but extremely weird Democratic Unionists (who now seem set to control Britain’s destiny until the next election) no more than 6 or 7  seats.

A notable casualty of the election was the right wing, racist extremist UKIP party which has been virtually obliterated. Conventional wisdom would suggest the Conservatives should have been the beneficiary of this meltdown, but the surge to Labour implies a significant number of those UKIP votes must have gone its way. Maybe that is the thinking behind New Zealand Labour’s recently announced immigration policy, which seeks to cleave into territory occupied by New Zealand First? While Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First are running here as a loosely connected troika-in-waiting, the risk for Labour has always been it might not end up in a strong enough position post-election to be able to dominate the other two in any governing arrangement, making for an “In the Thick of It” omnishambles. So, the rationale for launching a pre-emptive strike into New Zealand First territory was clear. Not only will it help staunch the flow of traditional working class votes to New Zealand First, it also provides the opportunity to try to put New Zealand First back “in its box” as it were, and strengthen Labour’s potential to dominate a still unlikely post-election governing arrangement. The complicit silence of the Greens in this regard is telling. But will they be Labour’s next cannibalisation target?

One lesson that has been learnt in New Zealand over the years is that the worst of days in Government, always far surpasses the very best of times in Opposition. Bloodied, humiliated and chastened as Teresa May’s Conservatives may now be, they will quickly knuckle down to that reality, and make their situation work, the eccentricities of the DUP notwithstanding. Just as we have learned to do after every election since 1996. “Overseasia” in reverse, perhaps?      









Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Over the years, a media myth of my intractable negativity towards the Greens has developed. While I have been properly critical of the Greens at times, and may regret some of my harsher criticisms in the cooler light of day, I have nonetheless worked constructively with a number of Green MPs during those years. Keith Locke and I raised more than a few eyebrows when we made a joint submission to a select committee calling for the repeal of New Zealand’s antiquated sedition laws, but we succeeded and the laws were repealed. Kevin Hague and I maintained a very good common-ground dialogue over a long period on drug-related issues, and even though the media liked to pit us against each other, Nandor Tanczos and I worked fairly closely together on law and order and broader justice issues. During this Parliament, I kept in close contact with Eugenie Sage during all of the debate around the changes to the Resource Management Act, and I work closely with Kennedy Graham on climate change policy through the multi-party GLOBE group.

Recently, the Greens have attracted criticism from the more staid corners of the political spectrum over their selection of some very young candidates on their Party list. I do not know any of them personally, but I do not share that criticism. More than that, I welcome their selection as a sign of renewal within the body politic, and I wish them well.

However, it is not going to be easy for them. I say so from experience, having been one of the youngest MPs in the House when first elected, and therefore knowing first-hand how difficult it is to break through the glass ceiling. Young MPs quickly discover that the system is loaded against them. Passion and enthusiasm go only so far, when the opportunities to express them within the Parliamentary system are so limited. Speaking opportunities in the House are not spontaneous, but predetermined in advance by the Whips and the Business Committee; and the hours spent grinding worthily away in a select committee seldom attract much public attention. Yet, the public expects these new MPs to make their mark quickly, and becomes frustrated and unforgiving (“you have sold out, just like all the rest”) when they do not immediately do so. Few do – it often takes years of hard work for a young MP to overcome some of the prejudice they encounter and to be noticed, and more importantly to be taken seriously, for their achievements, rather than constantly pigeon-holed for their age. Little wonder their attrition rate is high, with their enthusiasm either extinguished by frustration, or boredom. A few survive, and an even smaller number prosper.

While these facts may seem brutal, they should not in any way be seen as a discouraging of young MPs. On the contrary, I believe the system needs a healthy influx of young MPs every election to refresh both it and the political parties. The vibrancy and enthusiasm they bring can be infectious, and their presence alone serves as a constant reminder to the rest of us that our core mission as Members of Parliament is to build a better and more sustainable New Zealand for those who are to follow us.

But if young MPs can be accused of sometimes being a little wide-eyed and with unrealistic expectations of what they can achieve immediately, they are far preferable to those who turn to Parliament after a lengthy career elsewhere, in the vain belief that they have something special to offer in the twilight years left before they retire. There have been many examples from all parties over the years, from all different backgrounds, from diplomacy, the media and local government and a few others besides, but each with the common expectation that not only will Parliament and the country be better off for their presence, but that it is also extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to be blessed by their talent. Their ultimate frustration and alienation is even more pronounced, because their sense of entitlement was far greater to begin with, while their time horizon is far shorter than their younger counterparts’.

So, good on the Greens for their boldness. Parliament needs to be a balance of all the faces that make up New Zealand today. Promoting young MPs is a healthy step in that direction.