Wednesday, 28 February 2018


Much of the commentary since the election of Simon Bridges as leader of the National Party has been utterly mindless. After all, it is at least two and a half years in all probability until the next election and a great deal can happen before then. By way of comparison, would anyone have seriously imagined just six months ago that Jacinda Ardern and Simon Bridges would be the leaders of their respective parties by now, and that both would be beholden to Winston Peters for the exercise of power? It is that glorious uncertainty which makes contemporary politics so interesting, and why the election of Mr Bridges should be viewed as more than just another passing event.

But, already the script has been written, at least by some. In essence, it boils down to Labour being unassailable for the next election because of the popularity of the Prime Minister, and Mr Bridges being just the next in the hapless list of National Party leaders she will dispose of before then. Now, if Mr Bridges acts like Opposition leaders since about 2008 all of this may well come to pass. But that assumes that he and the wider National Party have learnt no lessons from Labour's time in Opposition and will simply repeat the same mistakes.

It may well be the case. After all, National in Opposition from 1999 to 2008 went through three leaders before the emergence of John Key, and Labour from 2008 to 2017 went through four before the arrival of Jacinda Ardern. It is just what happens when parties go into Opposition after long periods in Government.

However, the current notion that an Opposition leader should get only one shot at being Prime Minister has not always been the case, and need not be so again. Indeed, had that formula applied, some of our more formidable Prime Ministers may never have made the grade. Holyoake lost in 1957 but then came back to win four straight elections - the best performance ever - and Kirk lost two elections before his landslide win in 1972. More recently, Jim Bolger lost badly in 1987, but won the next three elections. So, the first lesson for the National Party today is to take a long view about its new leadership. By all means, it should do its utmost to win the 2020 election, however unlikely that may appear at this stage. But, at the same time, and on the assumption Mr Bridges performs well over the next couple of years, there will be no reason to drop him if he does not win in 2020. Voters constantly send a message that they like predictability and stability. Sticking with a good leader, if not yet a successful one, sends a pretty clear signal about reliability and continuity, whereas changing leaders every couple of years or so confirms a sense of instability and lack of fitness to govern in voters' minds, something both National and Labour should be well aware of from recent experiences. Mr Bridges is young enough to lead National to a loss in 2020 and two following wins, yet still be under 50.

National is struggling to get to grips with the reality of emerging as the largest party at the last election, but ending up powerless because it lacked friends. Mr Bridges recognised this immediately with his none too subtle olive branch to the Greens, but given the Greens' apparent tunnel vision when it comes to the prospect of working with National, he will need to do much more than this. A rapprochement with New Zealand First any time soon seems unlikely, and may not matter in the longer term anyway. Moreover, the notion that by driving both the Government's partners below the 5% threshold at the next election, National might thereby be in a position to govern without partners is so fanciful to suggest that even after more than 20 years of MMP National has not yet understood its very essence.

And when the Government's anti-democratic party hopping legislation is passed, it will become extremely difficult for National to set up a partner party based around one or two of its sitting MPs peeling off, so its dilemma in terms of future government formation becomes even more acute. The absence of the Maori Party the demise of UnitedFuture, and the increasingly erratic ACT simply add to the problem.

That set of circumstances and Mr Bridges' own political positioning - socially conservative and from working class origins - does open up a possible solution. There has long been a view that one void in the New Zealand political spectrum has been an effective representative vehicle for the liberal, urban middle class. For a time, both UnitedFuture and ACT sought to fill that vacuum, but, for various and differing reasons, never quite made it. Yet the void still exists, so presents National with an opportunity. It should seek to work with like-minded people to establish such a party to provide it, more often than not, with the long-term partner it now so desperately needs.

Of course, National must be determined to win in 2020, but so too will Labour which will start as clear favourite. But with its partners suffering at the moment the fate of all small parties in government, Labour may be more vulnerable than it otherwise should be. This does not mean National might be able to sleepwalk to victory - absolutely very far from it - but that with the proverbial little bit of luck, coupled with a long-term perspective and a lot of sensible organisation, it could prove to be extremely competitive. A challenge Mr Bridges is no doubt acutely aware of, and one he will relish.      
        



Wednesday, 21 February 2018

This week, New Zealand is hosting one of the most important international gatherings it will have been part of for some time. No, it is not a meeting of the Five Eyes intelligence and espionage partners. Nor is it anything to do with the Trans Pacific Partnership, nor any of our bilateral relations. It is a meeting of the D5, the grouping of the world's five most digitally advanced governments - Britain, Estonia, South Korea, Israel and New Zealand, and it comes as New Zealand completes its term as chair of the D5, a position it has held since November 2016. Most people will probably be quite unaware of its existence.
The D5 countries work together to share their knowledge and experiences; to enhance the opportunities for mutual co-operation; and, to promote the development of their information technology sectors. The D5's focus is very much on promoting greater uptake by citizens of digitally provided public services, as well as continuing to expand the range of government services provided on-line.
The D5 was established in 2014, following initial discussions between Britain and New Zealand earlier that year, and, after those discussions, I had the privilege, when Minister of Internal Affairs, of leading the New Zealand delegation to the inaugural meeting in 2014, and the subsequent meetings in 2015 and 2016. Indeed, I was absolutely delighted when we met in Korea in 2016 that my invitation to come to New Zealand for the next meeting was accepted. So I am thrilled to see everyone here this week, although a little disappointed that the vagaries of politics mean I no longer have a role in something I was part of for so long.
It will come as a surprise to most New Zealanders to learn that we are literally at the top of the table when it comes to the provision of on-line government services. Yes, we all know that we can renew our passports on-line; the overwhelming majority of us pay our taxes on-line, and we increasingly look to many other government services being similarly available on-line. If anything, we have taken that on-line availability a little for granted. But it is not the norm - a survey by the prestigious Fletcher Business School at Tufts University found last year that New Zealand was in the top one or two countries in the world in this regard. This is a tremendous tribute to the work of government agencies led by the Department of Internal Affairs through the Government Chief Information Officer, and the co-operation of the private sector over the years. Today, around 70% of the top ten interactions a person has with the government are carried out on-line, and the plan was to expand that considerably over the next few years. I assume that the new government shares that commitment.
For its part, the D5 has grown from being just an international talk-shop to a much more dynamic organisation, with a clearly defined work programme, and working with member countries' IT sectors to constantly improve the range and quality of on-line services. It is pleasing that as this year's D5 host, New Zealand has continued the innovation the Koreans showed in 2016 of having a major international IT sector conference immediately before the D5 Summit both to broaden the base of those involved, and draw further attention to the work of the D5.
However, amidst all the good news there remain some challenges. For many citizens, the big fear remains that the ongoing surge of digital business will be at the expense of particular groups in society - the elderly, the isolated, and the disadvantaged. In this context, the timing of Fairfax's announcement this week that it is about to close 28 small mainly provincial community newspapers and transfer their content to on-line platforms is unfortunate. I am not criticising the decision per se, but simply making the point that for some it will be just more confirmation that the move to digital means no more than the further withdrawal of once familiar community services. Similarly, the obstinate complexity of some large utilities' websites leave many yearning for the days when they could just talk to a person directly about what they wanted.
So, as the D5 nations meet this week to develop their further work programmes, there will need to be a strong emphasis on communication to the public about what is planned, and how they will be affected and able to engage with the service providers. While there is nothing to fear here, and the New Zealand experience so far shows we have better at the transformation than most, the ultimate success of the D5's mission will be measured by the level of public acceptance and confidence it engenders, not just the enthusiasm of governments. Overall, the opportunities are too big to pass up by either ignoring or squandering public goodwill. So, the more we hear about the D5 and New Zealand's role within it, the better.           




Wednesday, 14 February 2018

When it was passed in 1982, our Official Information Act was widely applauded and welcomed. It was seen as a positive step (at the height of Muldoonism) that would give the public much greater access to hitherto secret government information, thereby improvinge accountability by making government business and processes more transparent. Over the last thirty-odd years it has generally met its objective, although some major creaks are now starting to become obvious.
During my years in Parliament I worked with the Official Information Act (the OIA) extensively - and also in a variety of different roles. These included being a non-government MP seeking information about some aspect or other of government policy; or a Minister charged with providing such information; or, as an appellant to the Ombudsman urging the overturn of some obviously outrageous decision to deny my ever-so-reasonable request, or as a defendant urging the Ombudsman not to uphold a request to overturn a decision not to release certain information because of its sensitivity. I came to know the OIA pretty well, and, as such, am reasonably well placed to offer some observations about its strengths and weaknesses.
While the role and purpose of the OIA is a fundamental part of our governance structure, the reality is that it is really only non-government politicians and the media, with an occasional irrelevant appearance from some or other otherwise unemployable graduate lawyer fancying themselves as a modern day Mr Haddock of A.P. Herbert fame, who get involved with the OIA. However, this is an issue where the often differing, but occasionally coinciding, interests of the media and the politicians do need to be taken into account and addressed. Our modern Mr Haddocks, though, can be ignored, and left to keep looking for real jobs.
The most obvious criticism of the OIA is that governments, including the present one, can and do play games with it, either by denying or delaying the release of information on a technicality; treating requests so literally as to render them meaningless; or, releasing a swathe of documents at the most inconvenient of times - 3:00 pm on the Friday afternoon of a long weekend is the common classic example here. I have always found such game playing to be petty and silly, and I think it should come to an end. Certainly, it was generally my practice as a Minister to pro-actively release all the major documents of a Budget or major policy decisions in my portfolios within a few weeks of their being made, and to indicate at the time of the policy announcement that such a release would be forthcoming. I do not recall the sky ever falling in as a consequence.
And then there is the scope of the OIA. There has long been criticism at the exclusion of Parliament, and in recent years, there have been questions raised about the exemption for agencies like the Crown Law Office. My view is clear. I see no reason why the Parliamentary Service should be excluded, but I do think Members of Parliament in their roles dealing with constituents and the public and as members of a political party should not be covered by the OIA. Any citizen who seeks to approach an MP, as either a constituent or as an interested member of the public, is entitled to the unconditional assurance that their dealings with the MP will be absolutely protected from disclosure - a standard similar to the Catholic Church's Seal of Confession, if you like. The provisions of other pieces of legislation such as the Privacy Act and the Protected Disclosures Act are important protections here as well. Equally, political parties are not public bodies like government agencies, and therefore should not be subject to the OIA. But in many other areas of their activities MPs are already subject to various forms of accountability - their expenditure, for example - and there is no reason why these areas should not be subject to the OIA.
Similarly, while I do not think it fair or practical that the Courts, the Judiciary, or Crown Law should be subject to the OIA with regard to individual cases - for obvious reasons - nor should the details of legal advice provided to Ministers on specific matters under consideration at the time come within the OIA's ambit, again for obvious reasons, a case can be made to allow for more sunlight in other areas, including when a matter has been resolved.

So what to do? The OIA is a cornerstone of our public accountability structure, so it is important that it is seen credibly in that role. The perception of a genuine commitment to transparency is as important as the reality. It is not necessarily the case at present. Therefore, it is time for a joint working party, involving the Ombudsman's Office, the news media, and the politicians (not just the government of the day) to be convened to prepare a new OIA that upholds its original principles and the good things about the current legislation, but which also modernises its scope, processes, and, if possible, operating culture in the light of contemporary circumstances. And then we should commit in these rapidly changing times, to carrying out a similar review every five years.    

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

The practice of politics is often best left to politicians, just as running professions is best left to professional bodies. When one tries to meddle in the realm of the other, the result is often not what was intended. The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners is currently finding that out to its cost. In the lead-up to last year's election the College appeared to abandon its traditional role of staying outside of partisan politics in favour of subtle, but obvious, support for the Labour Party. Its reason was clear - it liked the idea Labour was promoting of reducing the costs to patients of visits to Doctors. It seemed to have assumed that Labour would do this by increasing the subsidy payable on a Doctor's visit, a win-win outcome as far as the profession was concerned. However, it, and District Health Boards, have been stunned subsequently to discover that while Labour's commitment still stands, it has made no provision for increased funding and is instead relying on DHBs to achieve reduced patient costs within their existing budgets, none of which have yet been approved by the Minister. A classic case of being more careful about you what might wish for!
How this might yet play out is still to unfold and is a separate debate, but it raises again the issue of how a government manages the competing demands on public expenditure. And that, in turn, leads to the much bigger question of the adequacy of current revenue streams. Our present system is based on taxing individuals and businesses on profit and income from what they produce. Of course, everyone - individual or business - thinks they presently pay too much tax, or at a pinch, about the right amount, and certainly cannot afford to pay any more, but that there is scope for getting more out of everybody else. This, in turn, leads to its own form of envy politics and social dislocation, constantly pitting one group against another.
Yet, the ever increasing complexity of our broad base, low rate tax system is becoming obvious, despite the considerable and noble efforts of successive governments to modernise and streamline it. This government, like its two predecessors, has begun its term by initiating a tax review, allegedly to find the holy grail, but really to provide political cover for some potentially unpopular measures they want to take, in this case the capital gains tax which dogged Labour throughout the last election campaign.
The fundamental problem, though, is that the current system is utterly flawed. The impact of income and profit based taxes is lumpy and uneven, no matter the various forms of social engineering designed to achieve balance and equity. The current debate about the tax treatment of multinational corporations which in today's internet world can be everywhere but simultaneously nowhere when it comes to tax liability has graphically proven that. The reality is that the current system has had its day, and no amount of tinkering, however sophisticated, is going to resolve that. It is time to move on. The current system dates broadly from the early 20th century, as a then response to antiquated arrangements like the infamous hearth  or window taxes now regarded as utterly cavalier, haphazard and discriminatory. (One has only to see the windowless 18th and 19th century houses in cities like Dublin and elsewhere to see the folly and absurdity of that approach.)
At a time when, more than at any other time in human history, society's focus is on mitigating the adverse impact human beings have had on the natural environment, and the steps we need to be taking now to assure its sustainability for future generations, the opportunity is surely nigh to reform our tax system along the same lines. We need to redesign our approach to focus on the consumption and consequent depletion of non-renewable resources by both individuals and corporations. Not only would such an approach be more equitable across the board, more difficult to evade, and therefore more sustainable, it would also have the advantage of disincentivising exploitative behaviour in the interests of the planet's future.
The hand-out approach of so much current spending would become rapidly checked if linked to our consumption of society's resources. It is often said, loftily and without much meaning, that taxes are the dues we pay to belong to civil society. A reordering of the tax system along these lines would give new reality to that statement. If ever there was a cause looking for a progressive, genuinely environmentally friendly, but equally fiscally responsible, political party to embrace, this is surely it. Sadly, there seems to be no such party on our political horizon at the moment.