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.