Tuesday, 27 March 2018


Are we seeing a subtle act of international defiance from the New Zealand Government, or just another example of its naiveté? According to the Prime Minister, there are no Russian spies operating in New Zealand at present, so therefore there is no need for us to do like other countries and expel Russian intelligence operatives, in the wake of the poisoning of Russian dissidents in Britain.

At face value, the Prime Minister's statement is reassuring. No-one likes the notion of other countries' spies lurking around in our backyards. She seems to be implying that New Zealand is now so insignificant on the world stage that it does not arouse the attention of the Russian intelligence services. So we can all sleep safe in our beds. But face value is not a reliable measure here. Given New Zealand's role in the Five Eyes intelligence partnership, it beggars belief that British and United States intelligence agents are not active in this country, and conversely that New Zealand intelligence agents are not similarly active in other countries. And, in return, it equally beggars belief that agents of countries the Five Eyes partners are likely to be interested in, notably Russia and China, are not active in New Zealand. So, is there something more to what the Prime Minister has been saying?

There have long been suspicions about the depth of Labour's commitment to New Zealand's participation in international intelligence sharing arrangements. In the case of the Greens, however, there is no such doubt - they are implacably opposed to New Zealand's involvement in such agreements. So, is the Prime Minister playing a long game here? In the short term, her blanket denial that Russian intelligence agents are active in New Zealand means there is no need for New Zealand to follow suit with other countries and expel such personnel. But, in the longer sense, could our complete reluctance to even consider such a possibility actually be a calculated snub to our intelligence partners and an early signal that New Zealand is not going to be as co-operative a member of arrangements like the Five Eyes, as it has been? In such a context, last week's initial reluctance to appear too critical of Russia takes on a more significant light. Is New Zealand using the current tension over Russia as a way to flex its small international muscles, and signify that from now it is going to be a little more independent member of the international club, although still paying its subscriptions?

Helen Clark's 2003 decision that New Zealand would not join the "Coalition of the Willing" to invade Iraq was not only correct, but was nonetheless a gentle shot across the bows of Britain and the United States, that although New Zealand was basically sympathetic to the Western cause, it was also an independent nation that would make its own decisions, and would not just be dragged automatically into conflicts like this. Maybe the present Prime Minister is using the Russian intelligence argument to make afresh the same point to the United States and Britain today.

Of course, it may just be that the Prime Minister is absolutely correct and merely stating the obvious when she says there are no Russian intelligence agents operating here. Nevertheless, such a blunt public commentary on another country's diplomatic arrangements is a little unusual. On that basis, though, presumably we can now look forward to the Prime Minister's similar frank public assessments in the weeks to come about the level and numbers of intelligence agents deployed here by the likes of the United States, Britain, and China, and perhaps even how many of,  and where, our SIS and GCSB agents are operating overseas.

Of course, all of this is quite unlikely, no matter any urgings by the Greens, which leaves the question still begging - why was the Prime Minister so specific? Deliberate planning, or just more of the loose lips her Government is becoming so well known for? You be the judge.         


Wednesday, 21 March 2018


One could be forgiven for thinking there is nothing new in politics, that it is all about the redevelopment of old ideas, or the modernisation of old situations, and that the challenge is more one of how these situations are addressed for a new generation of voters.

Writing over half a century ago, the American political scientist, E.E. Schattschneider observed that organisation was "the mobilisation of bias" and that the key to political success lay with those able to organise their causes most effectively. Nearly sixty years later, nothing much has changed, and we are seeing that game being played out here at present by groups like nurses and teachers, who had felt hard done by during the years of the National-led Government, setting high expectations of the Labour-led Government for their forthcoming contract negotiations, with threats of industrial action if their demands are not met. How the Government, which says it cannot afford everything being sought, deals with this without setting off a winter of discontent will be an interesting spectacle to watch over the next few months, especially since it will be discontented nurses and teachers turning up each month to push their case at Labour Electorate Committee meetings, and lobbying backbench lobby-fodder Labour MPs assiduously on Saturday mornings.

The 1984 Lange Government made its mark with a series of well stage-managed Summits at Parliament - most notably the Economic Summit which was televised live from the Parliamentary Chamber - all to create the impression of a new, listening and consultative government, committed to consensus based decision-making as a stark contrast to the dictatorial Muldoon years that preceded it. Also, and arguably more importantly, the Summits' purpose was to provide cover for many of the Government's subsequent decisions, because the people had been consulted, even if their views were subsequently largely ignored.

The present Government does not have quite the same panache, but has already established a breathtaking number of reviews and consultations - 39 in all in just under 5 months in office - to show that it too is a warm and caring Government that listens, then acts. Yet, the outcome of most of the reviews is pretty predictable, even before the reviews have started, so they are simply the modern version of giving the Government the leeway to act in the way that it always intended.

The post 1996 National-led Coalition Government was brought to its knees by a tacky combination of silk boxer shorts, Dirty Dog sunglasses, and some Ministers treating the taxpayers' funding as almost a personal gift. Today, we have the row over one Minister treating Defence Force aircraft as a personal taxi fleet, while another is threatening to fire the entire board of Air New Zealand. Corrosive coalition politics led to the fall of the Prime Minister in 1997, and the defeat altogether of the Government at the next election. The current Prime Minister has already had to rebuke the Minister who attacked Air New Zealand. Now, while the next chapter of the current story has yet to be written, there is already a sense of uneasy inevitability about what will happen next.

It is that fear of the future that has led the Greens to take their unusual stand on Parliamentary Questions. While no-one cares about the niceties, it is a way of showing they are different - and separate - from their two partners, and are not afraid to break out of the coalition straightjacket if they perceive the need. Of course, whether it will work is an entirely different question, but it does highlight the Greens' determination not to become weak collateral damage, if the Government unravels.

Given that all of these situations are reprises to some extent or other of what has happened before, I am reminded of the advice of a long-serving former Labour MP at the time that I was first elected: "Make sure you get yourself a good speech, and stick to it. Then all you have to do is change the audience from time to time."    
 
  



Wednesday, 14 March 2018


It is funny how it is often unexpected things that trip us up. Prime Minister Adern will surely be reflecting on that after the success of her Pacific Mission was pushed firmly into the background by Labour's summer camp revelations. Instead of not unreasonably being able to glow in the wake of her week in the Pacific, she suddenly found herself on the back foot over the summer camp issue. To make matters worse, it appears she knew nothing about it, which makes the actions of the Party's General Secretary (who had known of the incident for  some weeks) and senior Cabinet Minister Megan Woods (who had known for a lesser time) that much harder to follow.

Both should have understood that anything to do with the slightest suggestion of sexual abuse was likely to attract media attention pretty quickly - especially a summer camp coming right on the heels of the now infamous revelations about summer camps held by Otago University Law students. It would have not been reasonable for Labour to have a clear strategy in place both for dealing with the issue in a way the public would consider acceptable, and for keeping the Prime Minister - who would ultimately be called on to front the issue, even though she could hardly be held responsible for it - fully in the loop. But no, someone decided the matter should be dealt with in-house, and that the Prime Minister deliberately should not be involved.

And that is a puzzling issue too. Hardly a day passes without the Church being implicated in another sex scandal, and without the utter inadequacy of their in-house procedures for dealing with such things being mocked and derided. Surely, one would think, Labour would have been aware of all this - after all,  the Government has just set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry into claims of historical institutional sex abuse - and not allow itself to be perceived as having now stumbled deliberately into the same trap.

There is one other peculiar thing about all this. Successive governments have gone to extraordinary lengths whenever there is a whiff of scandal around to insulate the Prime Minister of the day from any suggestion of being involved in or even aware of  the incident in question. While this is perfectly understandable in an overall sense, it has frequently created some awkwardness when Prime Ministers have suddenly been confronted with something they were not aware of and have given hasty, unconvincing and incomplete responses as a consequence. Certainly, the reputation of the Prime Minister of the day has been left largely unsullied, but the awkward situations they have been placed in by the good intentions of those of those around them have left their mana a little diminished.

While National will be enjoying Labour's discomfort, it may not be all that happy itself. This was, after all, to be the week to focus on Simon Bridges' new line-up, and to set the scene for the first head-to-head contests when Parliament resumes next week. Well, all that has been knocked aside by the summer camp saga, and the week of promoting the new line-up has vanished. Moreover, because the summer camp story relates to the activities of the Labour Party, not the Government, there is no Ministerial responsibility involved, so National will not even be able to question the Prime Minister about it when the House resumes.

What happens next with the summer camp saga will depend very much on the Labour Party head office and the individuals involved. The matter may yet be taken up by the Police - who should have been informed at the outset - or Labour may continue its hitherto ham-fisted internal damage control. Either way, expect stern words between the Prime Minister's Office and the Party head office about making sure the Prime Minister - the Government's best and so far only asset - is not caught on the hop by the Party's activities again.

Recesses are times when both Governments and Oppositions seek to create opportunities which give them bragging rights and set themselves up well for the next round of public opinion polls, and for when the House resumes. The Pacific Mission and the Opposition reshuffle both had potential in that regard. That both should be gazumped by the goings-on at a Party summer camp is a timely reminder that keeping a close eye on and on top of what is happening at home will trump big external achievements every time.
   



Wednesday, 7 March 2018


Every year the Prime Minister leads a delegation of senior politicians from all parties and business leaders on a Pacific Islands tour. This week's Prime Ministerial visit to Samoa, Niue, Tonga and the Cook Islands is the 2018 version. Inevitably, there will be those who will dismiss such tours as little more than a junket, a description which is unfair. Having taken part in a number of them over the years, I can confirm that they are a valuable way of strengthening our relationships with the various Pacific Island states, as well as creating mutual business and trade opportunities.

However, this year's visits have the potential to break the mould, especially if the Government's rhetoric of the "Pacific Reset" is to be believed.  Such a reset is certainly overdue. New Zealand and Australia have had long relationships, forged by geography, with the Pacific but which have, at times, been ambivalent and uneasy. It is far more pronounced for Australia than for New Zealand. Australia views itself as much more part of South Asia than New Zealand. For Australia, the Pacific is a geographic nuisance, and, aside from keeping a wary eye on Indonesia and increasingly having to combat the people smugglers coming across the Indian Ocean, it sees its primary role as Deputy Sheriff to the United States in this part of the world. The Pacific States are equally wary, seeing Australia precisely in that role, and therefore not very sympathetic to Pacific aspirations. Historically, New Zealand has had much closer political and people to people relationships (occasional interruptions like the infamous 1970s Dawn Raids notwithstanding) with Pacific states, and therefore is much more trusted. For many of them, we have been the great provider from time to time, and are still the pre-eminent home away from home for many Pacific peoples. Increasingly, over the last forty years, New Zealand has become much more comfortable with its emerging identity as a Pacific nation, and the roles increasing numbers of Pacific peoples are playing in our society.

However, the demeanour of the occasional colonial overlord has been a little harder to shake off. New Zealand aid policy has tended to focus on supporting projects that we have deemed to be good value for Island states, and more recently has been narrowed to focus on what is a good project for New Zealand to be seen to associated with. 

That is not to say that New Zealand and our aid organisations have not done good work in the region over the years - they have and continue to do so - but increasingly and not unreasonably, Pacific states want to be masters of their own destiny, using development  assistance funding to assist them achieve those goals. There have been examples in recent years where those aspirations have clashed with New Zealand's perceptions of what the Islands should be doing, with some awkward situations resulting.

Throw into that mix the growing influence of China and Taiwan in the region, both in terms of their own rivalry and the fear increasing Chinese influence in the region gives rise to in some quarters anyway, and New Zealand's role becomes more critical. New Zealand cannot afford to maintain its traditional approach to its Pacific relationships, because, over time, those states will simply look elsewhere for support, if they feel they are no longer getting what they want from New Zealand.

All of which makes a reset of our Pacific policy that much more appropriate, and is why the new Government's approach is encouraging so far. The challenge will be to strike the right chord for the reset to be effective. It will need to be based on a strengthened partnership of equals between the New Zealand and Pacific Governments, where the focus is on supporting the Pacific Islands Governments to achieve their potential, as they themselves judge it, not always as we tell them. This week's visit will be an important step towards achieving that objective, and why it was vital that the Prime Minister and the leaders of her two support partners be part of the delegation, to gain the confidence of the Pacific's leaders as they embark upon the reset.

The goodwill towards New Zealand, and the close bonds of connection are strong, right across the Pacific. For its part, New Zealand needs to be seen to be working closely with its Pacific partners to achieve mutual social and economic progress. New Zealand's response to the threat climate change poses to low-lying islands and their peoples will be an early test. But, so far, the first signs from this week's visit are that the Pacific Reset is going to be positive all round.