Wednesday, 25 July 2018

I am not a xenophobe, nor am I an economic nationalist. I abhor those who try to turn back the clock and shut out any form of foreign intervention in our economy. After all, from its earliest colonial and even pre-colonial days New Zealand has been built on trade and engagements with the world around it. Our isolation and size have demanded it.

But, at the same time, that economic pragmatism has been accompanied by an essential sense of allowing people to have access to opportunity, based around a commitment to egalitarianism as a defining national characteristic. So it was that the Liberals of the late nineteenth century placed so much emphasis on land and tenure reform, including breaking up the large high country estates. Even today, the issue of tenure reform of high country leases is an important one, with there still being a very live debate about the best way to ensure fairness and equity.

It is against that background that the issue of American media star Matt Lauer and access to Conservation Estate land through the Hunter Valley station which he leases is so galling. The issue is not about whether Mr Lauer should have been allowed to lease the 6,500 hectare station, even though his visits there seem to have been infrequent so far, but, rather, what the conditions of public access through the station to the public lands beyond were, and how they were to be provided for and enforced. Mr Lauer's public unwillingness to date to concede such rights shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the New Zealand psyche when it comes to such issues.

In this he is, unfortunately, not unusual. Sadly, there seem to be a number of foreign investors - usually American - who discover "this great little country of ours" and seek to secure a portion of it for themselves, at the exclusion of the rest of us, who might entertain          some vague notions of birthright. Mr Lauer's apparent insensitivity to local feeling sits alongside the arrogance of his countryman Peter Thiel who felt himself sufficiently qualified to seek New Zealand citizenship, having spent just 12 days in the country. And there have been others over the years who have thought unsuccessfully that a large bank balance could buy them a bolthole in this country.

Now, I do not have any issue with Mr Lauer or anyone else, New Zealander or from wherever for that matter, seeking to lease or acquire property in New Zealand, provided they satisfy the conditions of the Overseas Investment Act, and are a fit and proper person. Section 17 (2) (d) and (e) of that Act, a product of the last Labour-led government, is quite explicit about protecting rights of public access over land. It makes it clear there has to be, "adequate mechanisms in place for providing, protecting or improving walking access over the relevant land or a relevant part of that land by the public or any section of the public." It is not an optional extra to be applied at the discretion of the landowner or leaseholder, but a specific legal requirement. It harks back to the great tradition of unfettered access to the public estate and the outdoors which has been so much a part of our way of life, and which we have a right to expect to be honoured. It is most certainly not for the Mr Lauers of this world to honour or ignore as they see fit.

The issue then becomes one of enforcement and the sanctions to be applied when obvious breaches occur. It appears that is where New Zealand authorities have been somewhat lax over the years, allowing the impression that landowners and leaseholders can basically get away with it if they are stubborn enough. Mr Lauer's case is not the first of its type, nor, given current settings, is it likely to be the last. And, all the while, New Zealanders' resentment will grow, first against the specific case, and then more generally against the whole concept of foreign investment and development.

There are now the inevitable calls to strengthen the current legislation. Blame is being heaped on Ministers past for letting things get out of hand. With respect, this misses the point. The Lauers of this world conclude they can get away with it, not because of the weakenss of our law, but because of the fact we, like them, pay lip service to its enforcement.

While that continues, situations like this will also continue to raise the public ire, and be exploited. The best thing the government could do right now is to stop the blame game and focus instead on making the worthy sentiments of the law work.    

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

The Greater Wellington Regional Council has spent the last couple of years or so reviewing all its commuter bus services. It has sought public input, held public meetings across the region, placed large advertisements in local papers, and kept up a steady stream of publicity about what the changes will mean for commuters, but has still managed to bungle the process at every stage. Why? Well, what is now clear is that the GWRC rushed ahead to implement a pre-determined agenda, without listening to any of the public feedback it had been receiving. In so doing, it turned the whole process into a sham.

First, came the saga of the removal of the trolley buses. That eventually took place in October 2017, some time after the original intended date. People who argued for the retention of the capital’s relatively modern, environmentally trolley bus fleet were ridiculed by the GWRC as out of date and behind the times. Besides, the GWRC smoothingly reassured people, the trolleys would be replaced by new hybrid diesel electric buses that would be far more flexible than the trolleys (because they do not rely on overhead wires) and just as environmentally friendly. What actually happened was a little different. The trolleys were replaced all right, but with old diesel surplus buses from Auckland because the new hybrids were not ready in time. 

But rather than learn from that stunning triumph the GWRC felt emboldened to move on with the rest of its changes. A new fleet of double decker buses has been unveiled - while they may be environmentally friendly, they cannot serve the populous eastern and western suburbs because they will not fit through the tunnels connecting those suburbs to the city. Never mind, said the GWRC, we have other buses available to serve those suburbs, and newer routes and timetables besides. 

This week it launched these new routes and services, supremely confident that any teething troubles would at best be minor. Yet even a casual reading of social media commentary over the few weeks beforehand would have shown it that local commuters remained far from convinced about the new services being proposed, their routes and timetables. And so it has proved to be. Now the GWRC meekly says that it probably launched the changes too soon, and that realistically at least six months more work was needed to get things right.

Two responses to this excuse for incompetence immediately come to mind. First, nothing is being said now by disgruntled commuters that has not been said over the past couple of years. It might have been prudent for the GWRC to have actually listened to its constituents, rather than just given their concerns lip service. Second, the GWRC controls the time frame. Saying the hybrids were not ready in time for the cancellation of the trolleys which was they had to get the surplus diesels from Auckland was not good enough. If they were so hell-bent on removing the trolleys, it was in their hands, no-one else’s, to time their demise to coincide with the availability of the hybrids. Similarly with this week’s disaster.  Saying the timetable changes needed another six months’ work is fatuous. The GWRC could have decided as late as the end of last week to have deferred the changes, if that was what it really believed. Instead, they are left this week looking bewildered and more than a little desperate. 

Regional Councils across the country have  important responsibilities for the provision and co-ordination of public transport services. Those responsibilities are set to become far more critical in the next few years as our national response to climate change and shift to carbon neutrality ramp up. Public support will be vital to reaching those goals. The only good thing to come to date from the GWRC’s attempt to restructure Wellington’s bus service is that it is has become a template of ineptitude for others to learn from.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Facing once in a generation strikes across the public sector - from nurses to teachers, and core public servants - the Coalition Government has been consistently and confusingly sending a very mixed message. On the one hand, it evinces sympathy for and even empathy with their issues of concern, but on the other hand, says it has no more money to put on the table. Yet, as the first cab off the rank, the nurses have managed, not once but three times, to ratchet up the response to their claims, even though they are yet to reach a settlement. It is little wonder that other public servants like teachers and the core public sector are fancying their chances when their turn at the bargaining table comes.

What is going on here? Is the Coalition Government so naive to think it can lead the public sector on in this way and not expect a backlash when they fail to deliver? Do they really expect these workers whose claims of nine years of income neglect they profess to support,  to now accept the jam tomorrow argument from this Government made up of their apparent friends, for whom many of them they actively campaigned and worked at election time? After all, they believed there was finally some light at the end of the tunnel when the National-led Government was ousted. Their fear must be that, given its shaky electoral position, this Government may not be around in two years time, and things will potentially be back to where they were. Or is there some other game in town?

It is certainly true that across many fields the Coalition Government is determined to paint the previous Government as one of neglect - from health and housing, to education and regional development, and now defence. The message is the same: they have nine years of under-investment has to overcome. By painting such a drastic picture they can then move deftly to say that the problems run so deep, they cannot be solved within one three year Parliamentary term, giving themselves a very convenient way out, and some flexibility.

To that extent, it is a tactic straight out of the Lange/Douglas playbook. In their case, it was the economic crisis that had brought the country to its knees. While a strongly performing economy at present denies this Government that opportunity, it has fixed upon an infrastructure and investment deficit instead. Indeed, the only thing missing from the Lange/Douglas game plan is an Opening of the Books and Economic Summit extravaganza, but greater Government financial transparency today makes that a little more difficult to stage manage effectively than in 1984.

It is within this framework that this Government has to juggle the public sector pay round negotiations. It has already spent large amounts on flagship policies to justify its narrative and meet the demands of its Coalition partners, and is now facing the reality that the cupboard is getting bare, at least in the short term. Hence the delicate balancing act it is now undertaking, trying to convince the public sector it really is on their side, while not meeting their specific demands. It is  hoping to win their support  on a "better your friends in government, than the other side, so just be patient and trust us" approach, and will throw out to them some other bones (like more union friendly industrial relations legislation) to keep them happy in the meantime. The aim is to keep teachers, nurses, and  public servants on side and still populating their electorate committees and delivering their pamphlets.  It is banking on the unions' leadership being able to carry the day with their memberships.

The strategy is risky, as we have already seen. It is clear that the nurses' "rank and file" is more resistant that their union leadership, and that while the deals reached to date may have satisfied the negotiators, they have failed to win the confidence of the membership at large. A similar outcome is likely when the traditionally more militant teachers get fully into their negotiating stride, and the response of core public servants in their rare industrial action this week indicates they may be of a like mind.

The Government's failure to manage effectively the situation to date suggests its whole flimsy public sector incomes policy edifice is not far from tumbling down altogether. The more the Government professes sympathy for the situation of its workforce, yet does nothing, the more it will embolden them. That is not difficult to understand.

What is more difficult to understand, though, is why this Government is continuing to send its mixed messages. It simply looks weak and inept, leaving open the possibility of a pretty grim and dour few months ahead, and a large of group of disillusioned supporters expecting appeasement before the next election.    

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Politicians often get a bad wrap, even when they do not deserve it. In that regard, they are one of society's safety-valves. They are always good to sound off against.

Of course, there are times when politicians' actions are so egregious to deserve all the criticism they receive. This week's disgusting news from Australia about the comments of a male Australian Senator about the private life of a female colleague, for which he has steadfastly refused to apologise, would be near the top of the list, and absolutely nothing can be said in his defence.

But there are other occasions when it is the sheer stupidity or trivial vacuity of the MPs' comments that deserve the public scorn. The mini-furore that has erupted over Air New Zealand's decision to change the composition of the hamburgers it serves to Business Class passengers on long-haul flights is a great example. A veritable chorus of outrage has exploded around the House about how appalling this change is, and what a blow it strikes against our meat industry. MPs seem to be falling over each other to appear the most offended.

What poppycock! This is hardly the issue of the day, nor is it likely to bring the New Zealand meat industry to anywhere near its knees. Yet it is a good opportunity for MPs the public would otherwise hear nothing of to set off their outrage button, and presumably feel a sense of self-satisfaction at their pontifications. And Air New Zealand will continue to serve their menu, and their passengers will either take it or leave it, without the slightest consideration of the MPs' ramblings. The notion that an airline's menu should be set by Parliament is simply farcical.
And then there is the "never let the facts get in the way" approach. By way of a disclaimer, I am no admirer of New Zealand First, its policies, or its at best barely marginally competent MPs, but the uproar over the Inquiry into the appointment of the new Deputy Police Commissioner borders on the ignorant and the absurd.

For the record, the comments of the new Deputy Police Commissioner at the time of the trials of former Police Officers on sexual assault charges were unacceptable, and despite his apology now, raise major questions about the way his appointment was made and the current level of sensitivity within the Police when it comes to dealing with such issues. So the proposal to have an Inquiry into the circumstances and process of the appointment has merit.

The allegations that such an Inquiry will not be unbiased because the Minister of Internal Affairs, who will oversee it, is a senior New Zealand First MP, and the Deputy Commissioner sought a New Zealand First candidate nomination at one stage, are ridiculous. They overlook the simple fact that the Inquiries Act, passed as recently as 2013, makes the Minister of Internal Affairs the responsible Minister for all such Inquiries. Of course, the Minister does not conduct the Inquiries personally, but is responsible, subject to Cabinet approval, for selecting those who will conduct the Inquiry and securing the resources they will need to do so.

The Inquiries Act was passed when National was in power, and many of the MPs now leaping up and down alleging bias, voted for it. Selective memory is a possible explanation for the about-turn - a more likely one is the obverse of the so-called Maharey principle: say one thing in Opposition, but do something else in Government, and just hope not too many people will notice.

The current Government made many rash promises while in Opposition, more to staunch the bleeding of Labour votes than with any real expectation of ever having to implement them. Now they are struggling to make their impossible dreams work. One would have thought their experience would have been a salutary lesson to the current Opposition of how not to get tied up in credibility knots. But railing against airline menu changes and Inquiries properly constituted under legislation they promoted in Government suggests not.

Being in Opposition - especially unexpectedly after a long spell in Government - is understandably soul-destroying, but it is no licence for the stupidity it often seems to descend to.