Wednesday, 19 December 2018


I want a Christmas present I do not think Santa can, or will, deliver me. I am not being selfish or unreasonable, but just realistic, because what I want is a political party I can vote for at the next General Election.

As one who feels currently disenfranchised, I have been looking at what the two main parties have to offer. Both have their good points, but are too bogged down by their negatives to be real options. 

I quite like National's pragmatism and realism, but it is too beholden to the top end of the business community for my liking, and still far too inclined to see its role as doing their bidding. Besides, there is a nasty, punitive streak evident in the attitudes of some of its newer MPs that is disturbing, and a group of hard right activists outside Parliament trying to pull the party more in their direction that is downright scary.

Labour's social policies have always held appeal, but the fact that it is still lock-step with the unions when most New Zealanders are not is a turn-off. Also, its obsequious adherence to political correctness is nauseating. I wish it would actually stand for something, rather than just pandering to every passing cause.

Both parties are still in the rigid "my party, right or wrong mould", with limited capacity to compromise, or reach across the political divide. I well recall the advice a very distinguished former MP gave me many years ago that he joined his particular party simply because he agreed with more of what it stood for than he disagreed with. I have always thought that was the appropriate balance. It would nice to see more evidence of that type of thinking in both Labour and National today.

In my quest, I have even looked at the Greens and ACT as well. The Greens have increasing credibility on environmental issues, especially as the ravages of climate change become daily more apparent, but, oh dear, they do go off at  strange and tangents every now and then, that leave one wondering. ACT is still too trapped in the neo-liberal time warp of the 1980s to be at all relevant today.

As I am a generally tolerant and reasonable person focused on the opportunities that lie ahead for our country, rather than the restoration of yesteryear, I cannot possibly consider New Zealand First. Nor am I am bigot or a racist, which seems to be a precondition for belonging to that party.  

What I want is a basic, progressive  liberal party which believes in social justice, equality and equal access for all to opportunity, built on sound, environmentally sustainable market led economic policies, and where the government is there to help those in need, but otherwise lets people get on with their own lives. I want a party that is no slave to vested interests, and is transparent and open in the pursuit of its principles.

Of course, we used to have a party like that - UnitedFuture - whose policies people kept saying they liked, and that it was important we be in Parliament to promote them, but all that notwithstanding, when the crunch came, they just did not vote for us in sufficient numbers to make it all possible.

For those other middle ground people who feel similarly disenfranchised right now, it seems a simple enough proposition. A party of people like us to represent people like us. Yet, sadly, I do not think even Santa can make it happen!

So, in the meantime, it will be back to just dreaming. Dunne Speaks is taking a break for a few weeks, to focus instead on enjoying Christmas celebrations with family, but will be back early next year ever hopeful of finding a solution to this conundrum, and a party to vote for.

May I wish everyone a very happy and peaceful Christmas and a successful New Year.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018


Just over two years ago when Business New Zealand and the Employers and Manufacturers Association were using the bully-boy and standover tactics more associated with the trade unions of old in an attempt to browbeat Government support partners at the time to oppose a piece of legislation from the Labour Opposition to protect vulnerable workers, I wrote the following piece in this column: “For most New Zealander’s under about forty, the stories of industrial disruption in the 1970s and early 1980s seem like fantasy. The thought that a small group of members of the Boilermakers’ Union was able to hold up the construction of Wellington’s BNZ Tower or Auckland’s Māngere Bridge for years seems too far-fetched to be true. Yet it was, as was the regularity that the Cooks’ and Stewards’ Union or the Seamen’s Union were able to find an excuse to go on strike at various holiday periods, tying up the Cook Strait ferries and disrupting travel plans. And who would have ever thought a union secretary would be brazen enough to go on national television during such a strike to spit out “the travelling public can go to hell” as did the National Union of Railwaymen Secretary Don Goodfellow. Strange as it may seem now, this was all very much the way of the world then.”

The incredulous reaction of many to the threatened three day strike by Air New Zealand engineers just before Christmas confirms many New Zealanders have no recollection of the days when this type of disruption was the norm. The decision to lift the strike notice means that their incredulity will remain for a little while longer, although there is no doubt that the engineers made the wrong call in threatening industrial action on the eve of the Christmas holidays.

This year has seen more industrial action than in any year of the previous quarter century, and principally in the public sector. How much of this is because of pent-up pressures from the term of the previous government, and how much of it arises from a sense that this government is a soft touch is not certain, although there is no doubt the government’s dithering response to both the nurses and now the teachers, to whom so much was at implicitly promised during the election campaign and has yet to be delivered, is a factor.

The nurses were fortunate in being at last able to reach a settlement while public support was on their side. The teachers still enjoy public support, although that will begin to wane if threatened combined strikes across the primary and secondary sectors early next school year become prolonged, and teachers become perceived as turning down not unreasonable settlement offers.

The key point in such disputes is timing. When does the inconvenience to the public go beyond what is reasonable? In the case of nurses and teachers there is a general view that they deserve a better deal, hence a greater level of tolerance for their endeavours to achieve that. However, in the case of the Air New Zealand engineers, some of whom apparently already earn as much as $150,000 a year, it was difficult to see the same level of public support ever applying, especially given the level of public inconvenience threatened.

The feeling that the travelling public was potentially being used deliberately and callously as a negotiating pawn, was never likely to be a winning one, and the reaction of recent days showed there was little sympathy for the engineers‘ position. Unlike the nurses and the teachers, they were unable to make the case they were undervalued and overworked to the extent the nation‘s health and the education of its children were being compromised.

It was telling that the Prime Minister, who seemed almost studiously to avoid getting publicly involved in the nurses‘ and teachers‘ disputes because of the public support both enjoyed, was quick to step into the Air New Zealand dispute. She well recognised that even though the government had nothing to do with this dispute, it would bear the brunt of visceral public outrage if the engineers’ strike proceeded and people's holiday plans disrupted.

The mounting industrial action of the last year is already becoming a awkward matter for the government, especially since the Prime Minister appeared during the election campaign to give assurances there would be no strikes on her watch. She will be very keen to calm things down, should the message being pedalled by the National Party that the country is on the verge of returning to the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s start to gain public traction.

Although a waning memory, the spectre of Don Goodfellow’s infamous response of all those years ago still looms. No-one wants those times to come to pass again. Goodfellow's despicable sentiments should stay buried with him.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018


Congratulations David Clark! In a Government where initiating a review has been a substitute for doing anything, he has become the first Minister to have both established a major review - into Mental Health - and to have received the final report of the finished review, complete with a comprehensive set of recommendations.

But, unfortunately, that is where it stops so far. The Mental Health review has made 40 specific recommendations for change to a system that it describes as broken and long overdue for major change. However, Dr Clark has indicated the Government will not finalise its response until March next year. So, the prospects for urgent action on the report’s recommendations are not high.

Assuming the Government adopts the recommendations - by no means a certainty - the Minister will need to have funding bids in for the 2019 Budget, meaning definitive action is unlikely to come on stream before the latter half of next year at the earliest. If new legislation is required to implement any of the recommendations, it will probably be well into 2019 or even 2020 before it passes, meaning those changes would not take effect until after that.

And some of the recommendations are beyond the Government’s control at this stage. For example, the recommendations regarding decriminalising drugs will not be able to proceed before the recreational cannabis referendum, apparently now scheduled to be held at the time of the next election. The government has yet to indicate whether it will regard the outcome of that referendum as binding, and what steps it will take in the event of a vote for recreational cannabis decriminalisation.

So the path to the positive future recommended by the Mental Health review is a long and uncertain one yet. But none of this should detract from the importance of addressing comprehensively the Mental Health review’s recommendations. There are too many individuals and families suffering to allow that.

And despite the public expectation for swift action, due in part to the Government, as usual, overselling its intentions, it is more important that the Government introduce a comprehensive and integrated response, rather than an ad hoc and piecemeal approach. And that will be a difficult balancing act because the public’s hopes are so high.

In the meantime, the Government may have to do something Labour Governments of late have been loathe to do - make full use of non-government agencies and their skills and experience. There are several hundred such agencies active in the mental health and addictions fields, and there is no reason why they could not be utilised more fully, alongside the services provided by District Health Boards. Indeed, the review provides the opportunity to rationalise the respective roles of the non government agencies and the District Health Boards, and establish a long overdue partnership between them. The obstacle, though, is Labour's long held view that such matters are primarily the province of the state to control.

The Mental Health review opens up the possibility of the most profound changes since the Mason Report of the late 1980s. The Government’s response in March must set out a clear and integrated way forward, together with an interim pathway towards achieving it.

Dr Clark may well feel satisfied that the Mental Health review has been completed on time, and is comprehensive. But for patients and their families, the agonising wait while the review was underway will continue and reach its crescendo when the Government responds in March. In that sense, the mental health challenge is now only just beginning.


Wednesday, 28 November 2018


The outrage when President Trump refused outright to condemn the Saudi Crown Prince for his role in the murder of expatriate columnist Jamal Khashoggi, despite apparently overwhelming implicating evidence, was palpable and predictable. So too was the President’s response that his decision was based on his “America First” policy. Given Saudi Arabia’s influence on global oil prices, it was not in the interests of American industry and domestic jobs to be too critical and thereby risk escalating further already high global prices, if the Saudis felt provoked on the issue, he argued. The reaction to that was just as visceral. Here, yet again, was the President putting American domestic interests ahead of the concern of the rest of the world at an orchestrated act of international barbarity, the critics said. Most informed opinion around the world agreed with that reaction. Trump’s America was once again isolated as a self serving international pariah.

In New Zealand over recent months there has been mounting concern over the steadily rising influence of China on various aspects of our domestic political and economic environment. First, is the still unresolved question of National MP Dr Jiang Yang and his previous and potentially ongoing links to Chinese intelligence agencies. Then, in the wake of the Jami-Lee Ross affair, was the row about the mounting influence of Chinese money in New Zealand politics and the particular hold that seems to have on both the Labour and National parties.

Now there is the case of the University of Canterbury professor, Anne-Marie Brady, and whether she has been the subject of burglary and other harassment by Chinese security services. The Prime Minister says she will not comment until our Police have completed their inquiries into Professor Brady’s allegations, yet according to Professor Brady that inquiry was completed some time ago, making the Prime Minister’s continuing silence that much harder to fathom, and consequently that much more worrying.

Taken together, the way in which the last two governments have reacted paints a disturbing picture. It seems that where China is concerned, New Zealand has become very reluctant to say a word out of place, presumably for fear of the economic consequences. China is our dominant economic partnership, and increasingly is becoming just as dominant in terms of our political and diplomatic relationships, as well. We seem extremely unwilling to say or do anything to upset the Chinese, lest we risk economic retaliation which could prove catastrophic.

The irony is that putting our national interests first this way is fundamentally no different from President Trump’s America First approach to international relations which we deride as amoral, narrow and selfish. Yet, we seem to think we can get away with criticising the President of the United States for his excesses, while acting precisely the same way ourselves when it comes to dealing with China. While President Trump bullies, we have cowered and retreated for fear of causing offence.

Whether the GCSB's rejection of Spark's plan to utilise Chinese telecommunications company Huawei in the roll out of 5G telecommunications services is a temporary glitch, or marks the start of a new approach to dealing with China remains to be seen (assuming of course the Government accepts the GCSB decision). It is significant that the Americans have been calling on their allies to freeze out Huawei for security reasons, and that New Zealand will be following Australia if it decides to do so. Already, there have been ramifications. Chinese displeasure at New Zealand's investigation  of this is allegedly the real reason why the Chinese have postponed the Prime Minister’s proposed visit to China to “some point in the future”, not the scheduling issues as have been claimed here.

Right now, though, New Zealand's position looks compromised. The Minister's mealy mouthed response to the GCSB decision and the National Party's warnings how badly this outcome will play in Beijing suggest strongly that some form of compromise will be arrived at to placate China's annoyance. Yet again, where China is concerned, New Zealand will cave-in.

The Prime Minister modestly likes to compare herself to Labour greats like Norman Kirk and David Lange who spoke up fearlessly on the great issues of the day like apartheid and nuclear testing, and carried through their moral outrage on issues with specific actions that won international acclaim. But unlike Kirk and Lange, she still seems too full of talk. She needs to remember actions speak louder than words.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018


There is a popular misconception that the apparently clubby nature of Parliament means that all MPs, in Government or Opposition, have pretty much the same access to information. That has never been the case, even since the introduction of MMP. The Government of the day not only holds power, but also controls access to information. While there have been some improvements over the years - the Public Finance Act and the Fiscal Responsibility Act have made the state of the Government's finances more transparent, and the overall annual Budget process more open and predictable - the control of official information remains overwhelmingly under the control of the Government of the day. And, as information is power, they regard access to it jealously.

All of which leaves Oppositions at a massive disadvantage. When parties first leave office, their outgoing Ministers have a huge, immediate advantage over their successors in that they have all the information about what has been going on to that point. But that advantage is temporary - usually, former Ministers' information loses its currency after about six to nine months as the new Ministers get their feet more fully under the table, and start to take control of their portfolios.

That reality will have hit the National Party a few months ago. Its information channels will have dried up, and will not be refilled until they next win office, or the few months beforehand when their win seems likely, and sympathetic officials start quietly slipping information their way.

So, as with all Oppositions, National now has to start doing it alone, without the power of the Government bureaucracy to answer their queries or provide specialist advice. That is where the current controversy about the numbers of Written Parliamentary Questions becomes relevant. Parliamentary Questions, carefully crafted and camouflaged to disguise their true intent, coupled with a judicious use of the Official Information Act, are the primary weapons of an Opposition to get the answers it needs to do its day to day job of holding the Government to account, as well as the information it needs in the development of its next election policy.

It is a time-honoured tactic, making Labour‘s criticism of it a little hypocritical. Moreover, as the largest Opposition ever, it is not unreasonable that National should be asking more questions than ever before. Yes, the process is time consuming for the public servants who have to prepare the answers for Ministers’ consideration, and it is tedious for Ministers to have to spend several hours each week poring over the replies before approving them and signing them off. But, by definition, it is not the Opposition’s job to be helpful to the Government.

Besides, every now and then Parliamentary Questions strike gold. This year, it was the Questions process that brought Clare Curran’s Ministerial career to a close. Discrepancies in Written Questions replies caught out Shane Jones and his failure to disclose 61 meetings, and the ongoing skewering of Iain Lees- Galloway is largely because of the inadequacy of his answers to Parliamentary Questions. 

Parliamentary systems of government, where the Executive is part of the legislature, as opposed to systems of government where the Executive is separate from the legislature (like the United States, for example) tend to be winner-take-all systems. Governments govern and Oppositions are largely bystanders. But, a Parliamentary system also means Governments are more directly accountable to the legislature and can be changed by changing the composition of the legislature at an election, as opposed to again, say, the United States where both Houses of Congress can be controlled by one Party, while the President in whom Executive power resides, can be from another Party and still retain power.

The immediacy of our Parliamentary system means Governments will always seek to control the flow of information as much as possible to protect their situation, and that Oppositions will always seek every opportunity they can to obtain the information they want. To pretend otherwise, and to complain when they do so, is as churlish as it is woefully naive.




Wednesday, 14 November 2018


It is perhaps a commentary in itself of this Government’s media management skills that it chose to reveal the two worst kept political secrets of its tenure to date on the same day. The first was the confirmation that a manned re-entry of the Pike River mine would be attempted within the next few months, and the second was the appointment of Dame Annette King as High Commissioner to Australia.

To take Dame Annette’s appointment first, there is merit in having a seasoned politician representing us in Australia. All the more so, given her staunchly Labour background, if, as seems increasingly inevitable, that country’s Liberal/National Coalition Government is replaced by Labor after the Federal election due in the next few months.

The Pike River decision has been long foreshadowed by Labour and its partners. While it will provide closure up to a point for the Pike River families (assuming re-entry is able to be completed fully and safely) it has the potential - depending on what is discovered at the explosion site - to open up a new range of disquieting issues. What, for example, if it becomes clear from the site that there were survivors who might have been saved had a rescue attempt being mounted at the time. Other, potentially more horrific, possibilities come to mind. Should any of these come to pass, how will the families be expected to react, and what public tolerance will there be?

There will also be the inevitable questions about the previous government’s early decision to seal the mine off, effectively as a permanent memorial, and attempt no rescue on safety considerations, and the advice there was no realistic prospect of survivors. Will they stand the test of time, or will they be found to have been wanting? What lessons from that arise for the future? Also, the role of the company and its management in the lead-up to and aftermath of the disaster, and whether there remain grounds for corporate manslaughter type prosecutions, will also come under fresh scrutiny.

So how much did the previous government know, and how much of its information did it share with the public and the families as the years went on? As part of that government, I for one was satisfied at first that its decision had been the correct one and was for the best. However, as various pieces of new evidence and new claims came forward over the years, I became increasingly concerned at the often quick and increasingly dogmatic dismissals by the Ministers involved of each piece of new information. It led me to the view, and to express my misgivings,  by late 2016 that they both knew more than they were letting on, and were determined not to share what more they knew with anyone else. Was it just a perhaps misguided sense of compassion seeking to spare the families from more pain, or were they concerned about what a manned re-entry might reveal about what actually happened on that day in November 2010?

Whatever the reasons, I became dissatisfied with the way the families were being treated,  and came to believe that they had the right to as full a picture as existed, however awful and shocking it might be, but that they were unlikely to get it under the previous government. It was why I joined a cross-party group of politicians calling for the manned re-entry option to be explored further.

For that reason I support this week’s announcement. But it is just a start on a still long journey. My hope has to be that the Pike River families feel by the end of it that they have got the answers they have been seeking, and some comfort from those so that the remains of their loved ones can be laid to rest, and a very sad chapter in our national history be brought gently to a close.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018


The one constant about the Karel Sroubek case is that every day seems to reveal more uncertainty. But while we are no closer to either a resolution of the case, or even a clear understanding of why Minister Lees-Galloway has acted the way he has, some things are a little clearer.
For a start, Lees-Galloway did not grant Sroubek permanent residence - that happened in 2008 (albeit under a false name), before Lees-Galloway was even in Parliament, let alone Minister of Immigration. We also know, by deduction, that the decision to grant permanent residence must have been considered so straightforward by immigration officials at the time that it did not require reference to the then Minister, because officials have now conceded the only Minister they have ever discussed the case with is Lees-Galloway, after October 2017. And, somewhere along the way, presumably after Sroubek’s imprisonment in 2016, officials discovered the false identity and reissued the permanent residence in his correct name.

When Sroubek became eligible for release, officials raised the case with Lees-Galloway, seeking his confirmation that the standard deportation provisions should apply. Here is where the situation starts to get murky. It appears - for reasons which are not yet known - that Lees-Galloway declined to confirm Sroubek’s deportation, choosing instead to defer the requirement for five years, thus upholding Sroubek’s permanent residence and allowing him to stay here.

In the wake of the ensuing uproar, and the release of more information about Sroubek’s background that was apparently and curiously not known previously to officials, Lees-Galloway has ordered a reconsideration of the case. But that has only made things more difficult. Lees-Galloway is already under strong public and political pressure to just overturn Sroubek’s permanent residence immediately and send him on his way. That is the one thing he cannot do - for reasons of natural justice in the event of any subsequent push for a judicial review of his decision-making - so Lees-Galloway has to be seen to now have followed due process, which will be time consuming. And while this rolls on, he has to suffer the death of a thousand cuts on almost a daily basis.

This whole saga raises many questions of judgement, most of which come back to Lees-Galloway. While he cannot be held responsible for the original residency decision, which happened long before he became Minister, he has to be held responsible for the decision to effectively confirm Sroubek’s residence by deferring the usually automatic deportation decision for up to five years. There have to be serious questions as to his reasons why. Moreover, his failure to offer anything approaching a credible explanation of his actions starts to bring his wider  judgment and suitability to hold Ministerial office into question. His subsequent bizarre behaviour (hiding awkwardly behind pillars to avoid journalists and less than stellar defences of his position in the House) raises even more doubts.

No doubt officials will find compelling reasons over the next couple of weeks to enable Lees-Galloway to overturn his decision and Sroubek’s residency. But that will not excuse them for the original decision to grant residence to Sroubek, and not pick up until much later the false identity he was using.

With allegedly improved information sharing between relevant government agencies following the 2014 Smith/Trainor passport fraud case, there should have been no reason for not picking up Sroubek’s real identity much earlier. The discovery that Sroubek used a false identity to gain residence all those years ago was a sufficiently serious matter to have been to the attention of the Minister of the day at that time. There needs to be some explanation for this, and steps taken to ensure future Ministers are not subject to similar blindsides.

Probably the worst news for Lees-Galloway is that while the Prime Minister did not seem at first to know too much or even be all that interested in the Sroubek case, she is now engaged and becoming irritated and frustrated by what is being disclosed. He will also be well aware that two Ministers have already fallen this year over performance and conduct issues, and will be increasingly concerned not to become the next one to go.

He will have realised that what officials disclose when they eventually report back will determine not only Sroubek’s fate, but also his own.


Wednesday, 31 October 2018


Kiwibuild is beginning to look more and more like no more than one of Edmund Blackadder’s cunning plans. While this week’s controversy about the couple getting the first Kiwibuild home is nothing like the drama National is making it out to be, it is nevertheless just another example of the policy’s shifting sands.

It is worth recalling that in its election policy just one year ago Labour promised that it would “build 100,000 high quality affordable homes over 10 years”. The policy went on to talk about curbing homelessness through building affordable homes in the $350-450,000 price range. The implication was unambiguous - Labour’s approach was going to be far more activist than National, and Kiwibuild would be Its primary policy to deal with homelessness and the housing crisis.

The not unreasonable belief consequently emerged that Labour would get on top of the housing crisis, in a way that National never could. Given the general view of the time that National had let the housing crisis get well away from them, without too many ideas of how to resolve it, Kiwibuild began to look as though it might just be the fresh approach needed.

How different things look one year later. So far, just 18 Kiwibuild homes have been built, and another 447 are on track for completion by July 2019, leaving a shortfall of 535 on its first year 1,000 homes target. Put another way, a first year achievement rate of just under 47%. And there has been a subtle but clear rewrite of the Kiwibuild objective. According to the Kiwibuild website, the objective is now the much more passive one to “deliver 100,000 homes for first home buyers over the next decade”.

So, no longer will the government build “100,000 high quality affordable homes”. And no longer does “affordable” mean $350-450,000, but $650,000. Moreover, now the plan is merely to “deliver” 100,000 homes, which, in the best Blackadder fashion, means accumulating all the new homes already being built over the next ten years by the private sector anyway, and dressing them up as Kiwibuild homes. And by introducing the new qualifier of “homes for first home buyers” the government can better tailor its plans to fit with what the building companies are currently doing anyway, and market it all under the Kiwibuild label. Any suggestion that Kiwibuild will mean 100,000 more houses being built than might otherwise be the case has long since vanished. All that is happening is that existing plans are being branded under the Kiwibuild label, which is win-win for both the government and the industry.

Therefore, in reality Kiwibuild is a very clever strategy of the government doing very little, but making it look like a lot, and all the while being able to milk many photo opportunities for Ministers as the still uncommon achievement of each house being completed happens.

Meanwhile, the homeless Labour was so concerned about in the lead up to last year’s election remain homeless, with not much apparently being done to meet their needs. A specific initiative is the Sweat Equity programme, but it is only available for 6,400 homes, and is unlikely to be sufficient to house the many homeless families Labour used to focus its attention on. In addition, over the next four years the government is planning to increase the public housing stock by a net 1,000 over the total projected under the previous government last year, likely to still be less than the total number currently on housing waiting lists.

Mind you, given its own record on housing is hardly one to crow about, National is not going to be taken seriously on this issue for a while yet, making some of its current criticisms a little hard to take. The public memory is not that short. So, despite the criticisms, the benefit of the credibility doubt still lies with Labour - just.

Nevertheless, when the marketing awards are next given out Kiwibuild deserves first prize as a cunning plan, well marketed, but delivering very little and changing not very much, while all the time leaving people feeling good about the government’s warmth and kindness. Not even Blackadder and Baldrick in their heyday could ever have been as devious.






Wednesday, 24 October 2018


It would be unwise to read to too much into this week's TVNZ Colmar Brunton political poll. Polls, after all, are but a snapshot in time, and the timing of the poll coincided with one of the most unusual weeks in New Zealand politics in a very long while. It actually showed very little movement - Labour up three points and National down two (quite remarkable in itself given the Nats' last week), while there was barely any movement for the other parties. And it certainly is no guide - either way - to the outcome of the next election in two years' time.

A better guide might be what appears to be an emerging behaviour pattern within the three government parties, and how that will play out over time. Over recent weeks, the government has started to appear a little more organised and focused than it has over the last six to nine chaotic months, although it still has a very long way to go to show genuine progress on its policy agenda. For their parts, both New Zealand First and the Greens have started to focus on promoting some of their own core policies, rather than just focus on being good supportive members of the governing coalition.

That helps explain New Zealand First initiatives like the proposed  "Kiwi Values" legislation to test whether new migrants fit into our country, and the plan to restrict access to New Zealand Superannuation to people with 20 years' residency. Both are consistent with New Zealand First's anti-foreigner stance, and will play well with the party faithful, even if the support of other parties is unlikely.

Similarly, with the Greens. Labour's fumbling over what to do with the Green's recreational cannabis referendum has left the field open for the Greens to take up the drug reform mantra in the way they have always wanted to. Also, the Greens have been able to burnish their anti-free trade credentials by being the only party in Parliament to vote against the Trans Pacific Partnership legislation when it came before the House. 

Both parties have obviously come to realise that just being a good government partner will not be enough for them, come the next election. As well as achieving specific policy wins, they have to give their respective supporters a fresh reason to vote for them next time. So it is not unhelpful for either to be seen to be pursuing policies that no-one else is, while still ensuring stable government carries on.

But it is also not an entirely risk free strategy. In the short term, putting up policies which other parties reject is good branding, but over the next two years, party supporters are likely to tire of seeing their party's pet policies being put up and either ignored or knocked over, and will start to put pressure on both parties to extract more from Labour to be more sympathetic. In turn, that will become a problem for Labour, already clearly struggling to get most of its agenda through before the election, if it is now expected to be even more accommodating to their wants, than it is  already. Labour cannot afford to surrender too much of its brand space to its partners.

The next year will be critical in this regard. The election die is likely to be largely cast by the end of next year, with 2020 being the year of consolidation and battening down the electoral hatches. 

In the grand scheme of things, this week's opinion poll will probably not amount to all that much. More likely to be of lasting impact are the moves by New Zealand First and the Greens to promote their brands a little more vigorously. In the same way Labour cannot be seen to give too much away to its partners, New Zealand First and the Greens cannot either be seen to be too unreasonable in their demands, while not being too acquiescent at the same time. It will be a delicate balancing game for all to play, and will be fascinating to observe. 

Either way, the next twelve months, not one opinion poll, will determine the government's fate.



Wednesday, 17 October 2018


Just a year ago, as the pixie dust gently fluttered down, and the smiles flashed, there was nothing the new government could not do. With kindness and relentless positivity, everything was suddenly possible, inspired by the clarion call, “Let’s do this!” Nine years of apparent stolid inaction had given way to an exciting new vision and enthusiasm that would suddenly melt away all the country’s problems.

Public servants like teachers and nurses who had been so oppressed under the previous government would be fairly and substantially remunerated without the need to resort to strike action. But a year later there have been more strikes in the last few months than in the previous two decades, and more lie ahead. A year ago, people’s living costs would be reduced by better economic management - today inflation is rising and energy prices are at record levels. Homelessness would cease to be - today Kiwibuild is bogged down and homelessness has never been higher. The only thing that has happened has been that the “smile and wave” politics Labour accused Sir John Key of have given way to “smile and Neve”.

For its part, the National Opposition has now ditched unity, strength and purpose, and the opportunity to present a clear and attainable alternative to maintain economic growth and enhance long term prosperity in favour of internecine bloodletting.

One of the most obvious areas of this government’s failings has been that of drug reform. A year ago, a compassionate government was, as a priority, going to move swiftly make more cannabis based medicines available to more people, more rapidly, and more cheaply. Today, despite a muddled, poorly drafted Bill being introduced early in this Parliament’s life, nothing has actually changed. The Bill has not yet passed into law, nor is likely to do for up to another six months, and the government now says it will be mid 2020 at the earliest before there are any changes.

The issue of recreational cannabis was going to be addressed, with the public to be given their say in a referendum. Today, no one seems to know when the referendum will be held, what form it will take, and whether its result will even be binding on the government. Indeed, the only certainty appears to be that the issue will remain unresolved when the country next goes to the polls in 2020. The 1975 Misuse of Drugs was slated a year ago as old fashioned and out of date. Today, the Act remains unchanged, and it is not even certain whether the review of the Act the previous government had foreshadowed for 2018 has even got underway, let alone been completed and new legislation developed.

Another issue stated to require a fresh approach was psychoactive substances. But today, apart from an as yet unimplemented and likely unworkable proposal to reclassify a couple of substances, the promised bold new approach is completely missing in action. And more people are dying than ever before.

While the Prime Minister waxed eloquently, if somewhat deceptively, at the UN General Assembly about New Zealand’s bold new approach (which was in reality nothing more than a restatement of the existing National Drug Policy presented to the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs just over two years ago, New Zealand showed its real commitment to change by not even bothering to send a Minister to this year’s annual meeting of the UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs, for the first time in almost a decade.

There are many other areas of government activity like this, where the achievements to date have fallen far short of the pixie dust and flashy smiles promises of just a year ago. They should have galvanised the largest Opposition ever into clinically exposing, as a first step towards  deposing, the government. Instead, National, for now, has embarked on a bitter, internal struggle from which there will be no winners. It owes the country far better than that.

Meanwhile, petrol prices and household costs will continue to rise; unlawful psychoactive substances will continue to kill those using them; and, there will be still be those sleeping out at night. Expressions of profound concern and compassion, alongside the smiles, will not stay enough to overcome these.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018


In the wake of its greatest triumph to date, the Coalition Government is about to face its greatest challenge. And one will have been the cause of the other.

The far better than expected Budget surplus figures certainly came as a surprise, but may well be short-lived and more a product of the previous Government’s stewardship, rather than anything the current administration has done. Be that as it may, there is nonetheless little doubt that they come as huge fillip to a Government whose economic management has been under so much criticism. While the Government will understandably seek to milk every ounce of political advantage it can from this happy situation, as it should, Ministers will be well aware of the need to manage and downplay wider expectations of what this might mean.

Even as affable and laid back a Finance Minister as the current one knows that igniting public expectations of a new spending spree would be both economically disastrous and near certainly unattainable, and consequently a monumental political blunder. Especially so, since this self-proclaimed “Government of kindness” has already increased substantially its spending, with the promise of even more to come, while ongoing decisions about how it all is to be paid for are left dangling. After all, ultimately, there is nothing kind about a Government that outspends its capability, and leaves its people struggling to cope when the inevitable retrenchment occurs. So, Mr Robertson and his more economically literate colleagues, although by no means all members of the Coalition one suspects, will, while smiling quietly and just a little smugly, want to let down public expectations, albeit calmly and gently, as befits the “kindness” label.

Ironically, they have been helped considerably, and rather unintentionally, in their efforts to do so by the raw crudity and selfishness of their allies in the teachers’ unions, immediately and loudly laying claim to a fair chunk of the new surplus to settle their current salary claims. Now, this is not to dispute the legitimacy of their claims and their rights to pursue them through the already established channels, but more to make the point that leaping in so quickly to put their fingers on the money, as they did, was a mighty strategic error that has three impacts. First, it makes it much easier for the Government to now push back, as they already have done, citing the “no new lolly scramble” argument to send a wider signal of restraint. Second, it makes it actually a little more difficult for the Government to be seen to be too generous when a settlement with the teachers is eventually reached; and third, it runs a risk of alienating some of the considerable public support the teachers currently enjoy, if they are now seen to have become too pushy.

Beyond the teachers, there are of course many other groups who will be eyeing up a part of the surplus for their interests, and the Government will be well aware of this. So it will be equally determined to send them a "kind" but firm message that its purse strings are not for additional loosening. None of this will be an easy sell, especially if the surplus figures hold up longer than expected, so it will require nerves of steel from the top downwards to continue the line currently embarked upon, and that will impose its own challenges.

Former Finance Minister Sir Michael Cullen correctly and somewhat ruefully observed a number of years ago that managing Budget surpluses was a far more difficult task than managing deficits. When the Budget is in deficit, it is much easier for the Finance Minister just to say no to everything, however meritorious, because the money is simply not there. But in surplus times, the focus comes much more onto the quality and overall value of the new spending being proposed, and that requires Ministers to make some very strong judgements. In such circumstances, the admirable virtue of "kindness" is often not enough.

A tough reality this Government is about to find out. 
  


Wednesday, 3 October 2018


Over the last few weeks there have been three subtle but deliberate moves from New Zealand First which, while on the face of it are apparently unrelated, nonetheless, when taken together amount to a significant attempt to limit diversity and debate in New Zealand. In their own way, each is consistent with that Party's long held, unstated  ambition of returning New Zealand to the type of insular, homogeneous, conformist society it was in the days when Rob's Mob held sway.

The so-called "waka jumping" legislation came first. Ostensibly, this legislation is about  upholding the electoral will of the people by preventing MPs who leave their parties during the Parliamentary term from remaining in the House, and so preserving the electoral status quo. In reality, the initiative has two real objectives: first, straightjacketing New Zealand First MPs from rebelling and splitting from the party, as an earlier bunch did when the 1996-98 coalition with National blew asunder; and, second, preventing National from establishing a new support partner by mandating one or more of its current MPs to split off to establish such a party.

But it also has a more sinister aspect. It makes the party leader all powerful in terms of a party's MPs. As the New Zealand First leader is now the dominant leader of the government, it effectively makes all government MPs responsible to him, not their own parties and most certainly not the electorate which elected them. The chilling consequence of this is that it effectively stamps out all prospect of serious internal dissent, or even debate, and the expression of alternative political views. MPs will therefore be reduced to the status of mere ciphers, pallidly toeing the party line, and eschewing any independence or diversity.

Yet our Parliament is not called the House of Ciphers, nor the House of Delegates. It is properly and deliberately titled the House of Representatives, where MPs are expected to debate fearlessly and without prejudice the issues of the day. (Indeed, one of the first steps every new Speaker takes is to symbolically lay claim to the rights and privileges of Members to do  so.) The "waka jumping" legislation is a clear constraint on the ability of MPs to do their job and represent their constituents effectively, as well as on the conscience of MPs to leave their party if they feel it has moved in a direction they can no longer support, and to leave it to the electorate to judge them at the next election.

Then, at their party conference at the weekend, New Zealand First members supported a proposed Bill to require new migrants to sign up to a set of pre-determined New Zealand values, and presumably be required to leave the country or forfeit their residence status if they will not do so, or breach them subsequently. This has eerie overtones of dark, earlier times when countries have attempted to impose national values on a population and exclude those who failed to comply, and is a direct affront to modern, diverse, tolerant New Zealand. In fact, the only requirement we should impose on new residents is the one we impose on ourselves - to abide at all times by the rule of law. In a democratic society, there is no place for the state attempting to define or legislate the values of that society, save for the universal right to freedom of belief and expression.

Now, this week, New Zealand First is speculating about changing the electoral system by "reviewing" (in reality, tightening) some of the threshold requirements in particular. That immediately raises the point that changes to electoral law should come at the behest of the public, not be driven by any particular political party. So people should be extremely wary of the real motives of politicians abruptly and arbitrarily promoting changes to the way MPs are elected. Moreover, any changes should err on the side of extending the opportunities for the representation of diverse political views, rather than limiting them. 

Taken together, limiting the ability of MPs to speak out and challenge their party leaders if they feel they are wrong; tightening up the electoral system to make the representation of minority views more difficult; and, then defining the values new residents are expected to uphold are a comprehensive assault on the underpinnings of the tolerant, diverse, liberal society we take for granted. They should be rejected, completely, loudly and immediately.