Wednesday, 29 August 2018

There has been much scoffing and guffawing on this side of the Tasman in the last week about the brutal public coup within the ruling Liberal Party that saw the replacement of Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister by Scott Morrison.

All the traditionally wise voices here opined about how poorly timed and executed the coup was; how brutal Australian politics have become; and how all this was the death knell for the current Australian government due to face an election in a few months. The unspoken undertone was that such crudity and barbarity would never happen in New Zealand - that we are so much more subtle. Which is a load of uninformed nonsense, of course - faced with similar situations over the years our politicians have been just as venal and brutal.

Since 1990, there has been the coup initiated by Mike Moore which toppled Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, just a few weeks before Labour's 1990 election rout. Then, three years later, was Helen Clark's ouster of Mike Moore, weeks after the 1993 election where National's record majority of 48 had been reduced to just one. That was followed by the unsuccessful attempt by senior Labour MPs to stare down Helen Clark shortly before the 1996 election when Labour was polling at just 18%.

During its years in  Opposition from 2008 to 2017, Labour stepped up this pace considerably. David Shearer, probably the best Prime Minister New Zealand never had, was undermined constantly from within from when he took the leadership in 2011, until he stood down in 2013. His successor, David Cunliffe, was similarly forced aside, although more unwillingly, after Labour's third straight defeat in 2014. Andrew Little was next, surviving for nearly three years, despite poor polls and ongoing Caucus mutterings, until it all got too much for him in August last year and he yielded to Jacinda Ardern.

National has not been immune from such events either. In 1997, Prime Minister Jim Bolger was met at the airport on his return from a successful overseas visit by senior Minister Doug Graham to be told that a coup led by Jenny Shipley was underway and that he did not have the numbers to survive. In 2003, it was Don Brash's turn, following a series of poor poll showings by then leader, Bill English, and in 2006, after Dr Brash's various peccadillos had been revealed, he was forced to stand aside to make way for John Key.

So while the jokes abound about how frequently the Australians change their Prime Ministers, it is worth recalling that leadership changes also occur frequently in this country as well. Excluding long-term leaders like Helen Clark, Jim Bolger and John Key, the average tenure for our major party leaders in the last 30 years has been just under three years. A similar comparison with Australian major party leaders in the same period, excluding the long term of John Howard, shows an average tenure of just over three years - slightly higher than the New Zealand figure. All of which, perhaps, does not bode too well for either Jacinda Ardern or Simon Bridges.

The one difference between the two countries is that leadership coups are generally more likely in New Zealand when a Party is in Opposition. In Australia, of late, the opposite has been the case. In New Zealand, pre-election leadership coups have produced mixed results, but in Australia they are slightly more likely to have a positive result, as Julia Gillard's 2010 and Malcolm Turnbull's 2016 election wins show. In that sense, Scott Morrison still has something to play for.

What is clear though is that the public on both sides of the Tasman is much more sanguine. While the politicians become extremely exercised by the drama and pressure of coups, the public generally appears better able to take them in its stride.

While it is fashionable at present to tease our Australian neighbours about their current political antics, the record suggests it is not something we can rely upon for too long. We are pretty good at it too - and our time will definitely come again. On the basis of the record, almost certainly by early 2021.


Wednesday, 22 August 2018

For most of the ten months since the change of government, the National Party has had the best of times. Thrust unexpectedly into the role of Opposition, it has settled to its task, with few outward stumbles. It has managed a leadership transition without too much fuss, and has consistently remained top of the opinion polls. It has enjoyed harrying a constantly fumbling government and has dented the reputations of more than a few Ministers along the way. So far, so good, but the good times are coming to an end, and National is beginning to look exposed.

Typically, the first few months of a new government's term are months where the equally new Opposition can have some fun. Freed from responsibility, their former Ministers will still be more in touch with their old portfolios than their successors, still coming to grips with the demands of their new roles, and the overall challenge of being in government. But there comes a time when the momentum inevitably shifts in favour of the new government and its agenda, ushering in with it the perception of the Opposition as yesterday's people. For National, that time is now.

The fallout from the Leader of the Opposition's regional tour and one or two misjudgments by senior members are showing that National is starting to make heavy weather of its role, despite the government's chronic bumbling. That is relatively normal for this time of the electoral cycle (although governments are usually demonstrating more competence by now) and the challenge for National is not to get trapped into a political backwater. To the greatest extent it can, the party needs to be seeking to lead public debate, not just reacting to everything the government does.

So, for a start, it needs to stop barking at every parked car it sees, and focus instead on the issues that matter. A visionary and well-marketed speech from the leader, setting out a handful of key principles and the type of party and government he aspires to lead, followed by the development of some major policy themes to flow from those would be in order right now. Then, the party needs to reference all its actions against those, seeking where it can to shift the debate to its agenda and terms, so promoting the notion that National stands clearly for certain things, rather than just resolutely opposes everything.

This government seems to have realised far quicker that, like it or not, we are in a new political environment where the vitality of new ideas is what counts, even if the practical details still need time to catch up. There is a general mood against some of the more technocratic approaches to government of previous years, with voters looking for more signs of empathy and tolerance from governments, of whatever stripe, than has been the case until now. To prosper, National has to pick up on these themes, and become better at their exposition than Labour.

Dismissing this week's Justice Summit as just a "talkfest" before the discussions were even concluded shows National still has some way to go on this journey. While they may well be right on this particular issue, they are failing to recognise that the current prevailing public mood is more open to such consultative approaches than was the case previously.

And then there is the question of personnel. As the current government shows only too well, we now live in an era where political experience counts for little. Old hands are no longer seen as wise heads, steady guides on the tiller, or whatever, but impediments to progress to be moved on. Again, this phenomenon is not limited to New Zealand, but is an international trend, as, for example, Australia's constantly revolving Prime Ministerships show. Basically, politicians now get one chance and, once that is over, there is seldom any coming back. As he looks at his team, National's leader needs to reflect on that, both in terms of his former Ministers and longer term inhabitants of the back bench. Some early signs of fresh blood coming to the fore to replace the placeholders needs to become more obvious.

Finally, there is the question of future alliances. This is much more difficult because National does not control this space, and, in any case, the options are limited. However, any moves to its right in this regard will cause National more harm than good. For the time being, the days of the hard right - social and economic - are over, and National needs to realise that. The path to the future is not to try returning to the past.

The next few months will tell the strength of National's story. As they become more removed from the day to day reality of government, they will have more opportunity to address, define and promote their agenda and brand. The extent to which they are prepared and able to do this will determine the extent to which they can be taken as serious contenders for the next election.       

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

This week around 30,000 primary and intermediate school teachers have been on strike, closing nearly 2,000 schools for a day. To date, there appears to have been general public support for the industrial action, but the jury is still out as to whether this will continue if the action is prolonged, especially if it is joined by secondary teachers a little way down the track, as has been mooted.

There are early signs, however, that it is in danger of becoming a lost opportunity, just one more round of action across the public sector that has escalated since the current government took office, and let public servants across the board believe nirvana was at hand, an impression Ministers have been keen to foster but not so rapidly deliver.

The case for increased investment in education is strong. The pace of change in contemporary society, the changing international cultural, social, economic and political environments, as well as new emerging industries to replace old technologies are all placing performance pressure on the education sector. Parents increasingly look to our having a world class education system to equip their children with the skills and capacities these changes are requiring. So the question quickly becomes how the teaching profession contributes to this rapidly changing environment.

While better salaries for teachers is undoubtedly an important component of this jigsaw, it is by no means the only one, and claims from the teachers' unions that their salary claims are about a better "investment' in education are questionable. At the same time, issues about teachers' conditions of service need to go under the microscope and be assessed alongside other priority areas in education, such as buildings and facilities, access to technology, professional development and training, and performance accountability. Wider issues relating to recruitment and retention of teachers and the structure of the teaching profession also need to be addressed. Even the teachers' unions acknowledge the unacceptably high rates of teachers leaving the profession after the first few years when they strike the bottleneck of insufficient promotion opportunities above them, but they seem less enthusiastic about focusing on them.

A simple corollary of this is that paying teachers more, without addressing these broader issues will solve nothing. So while overall salary rates are being considered, the issue of how younger teachers can have a more attractive career pathway must also be resolved. Now this is a much more difficult matter because it inevitably raises the question of how older and poorer performing teachers (by no means the same thing) can be moved on, to make way for their younger, or more capable, colleagues.

To date, teachers seem to have shown less interest in these issues, preferring instead the argument that if all teachers were just paid more, many of their retention and career development concerns would be dealt with. Given that the deeper questions also lead quickly to other issues - like performance payments to attract and retain better teachers, or flexibility for Boards of Trustees to reward their better teachers in other ways to ensure their retention - the unions' position is understandable. After all, more flexibility within the workforce, and differing arrangements for certain groups of teachers, inevitably weakens the strength of the collective approach that lies at the core of the way the unions work.

But here is where the current industrial action risks becoming a lost opportunity. Parents are driven by wanting the best for their children - the best teachers in the classroom, with the best of equipment and resources available to them. For many of them, the idea of paying good teachers more, and moving poorer teachers aside is a no-brainer. After all, their children deserve no less than the best. They are far less concerned about issues like collegiality and teaching being a collaborative not a competitive profession, for example, if they see those things getting in the way of their children getting the best.

At the moment, parents broadly support their teachers. But if the current industrial action becomes prolonged and narrowly focused on just bigger salary increases, that support will likely quickly evaporate. For the sake of our children, who are ultimately a far bigger part of this equation than teachers or politicians, it is vital that the wider issue of the best structure for the modern teaching profession now assumes centre stage, and that salary issues are considered in relation to that. Failure to take the chance to do so, would be a lost opportunity from which ultimately no-one will benefit.


Wednesday, 8 August 2018

The debate around free speech and what constitutes it has become toxic and almost irrational. Increasingly, it seems virtually impossible to be able to offer an opinion on it without being labelled as some sort of extremist by one side or the other. It has become ridiculous, and in the interests of maintaining a free and open society everyone needs to pull back quickly from the fast approaching abyss.

Yet, now it seems one of our universities is moving down the same path.  Since Medieval times, universities have been seen as bastions of academic freedom, places where great issues and theories of science, medicine, the arts and philosophy, and religion, can be expostulated, tested and embraced or dismissed as appropriate. To reinforce this principle, the Magna Charta Universitatum was established in 1988. Since then over 800 of the world's leading universities in more than 80 countries have signed it, although, interestingly, neither Massey University, nor any other New Zealand university appears to have done so. All should take immediate action to remedy this. 

Generally, people have looked to the great institutions of state - the government, the courts and the places of higher learning - to uphold freedom of thought, and expression. However, it has been the contrary actions of public institutions and officials (the Mayor of Auckland in the first place and now the Vice Chancellor of Massey University) that have fuelled the current debate in New Zealand. Both may argue their actions were motivated by a concern for the greater good, but the difficulty with that defence is its very subjectivity - their concern is not about upholding the greater good, per se, but rather their perception of the greater good.

That is where this argument becomes so difficult. Everyone will argue that their actions or words are promoted by a desire to achieve the greater good as they see it. It is impossible to draw an absolute line which is why even political parties as organised vehicles for the propagation and implementation of certain ideas come and go in a democratic society, as the public will changes. And that is why it is vital that public officials should adopt an air of Nelsonian blindness on issues of free speech, rather than attempt to impose their own judgment on its expression. It may well be a public meeting today, but it is a short step from there to the work of art in a public gallery, or a play in a public theatre they take offence to.

Free speech, by its definition, cannot be constrained. It is an expression of our free will as human beings, the right to be right and the right to be wrong, a capacity that distinguishes humanity from every other form of life. Where free speech poses a risk to public order, the rule of law should apply, as in every other situation. It never should be left to the arbitrary judgment and prejudice of any particular official to determine.

Tolerance and respect for diversity are the hallmarks of a mature society. Allowing the free expression of a wide range of diverging views is a healthy way of enabling citizens to reach their own conclusions on the credibility or otherwise of the views being expressed. Preventing such expression on the grounds it might offend or incite is nothing but the action of the cowardly and the intolerant.

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France in 2015, many French citizens sought solace in the words of the great free speech philosopher,  Fran├žois-Marie Arouet, better known by his pen-name Voltaire. His 18th century Treatise on Tolerance argued strongly for toleration of religious belief, while reserving the right to argue strenuously against it, and denouncing religious fanaticism of all stripes. “Tolerance has never provoked a civil war; intolerance has covered the Earth in carnage,” he wrote.

The Mayor of Auckland and the Vice Chancellor of Massey University and any  others wishing to follow their path should reflect long and hard upon those words.      

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

The Prime Minister returns from her maternity leave today, but not to lead the same government she was just a few weeks ago. Over recent weeks, the Labour/New Zealand First coalition, supported by the Greens, has undergone a subtle but perceptible change.

This has come about because of a combination of circumstances. The most obvious of these has been the performance of the Deputy Prime Minister as acting Prime Minister. Notwithstanding much earlier critical speculation about how Mr Peters would handle the role, the transition and his performance have been seamless, a combination of uncharacteristic under-statement but firmness nonetheless which, in a backhanded way, has reinforced his authority.

A government that was looking all at sea and somewhat vague and indecisive when it came to overall leadership a few weeks ago now seems, while not out of those waters completely by any means, to have a little more cohesion and purpose about it. Generally, Ministers have appeared more on track than earlier, and their previous almost monotonous propensity to contradict each other in public has reduced substantially. Now, all this may be nothing to do with Mr Peters, and may just be a consequence of the government - now a quarter of the way through its term - at last finding its feet. It is possible, but unlikely. The measured and less "golly gosh" bumbling approach Mr Peters provided has had a flow-on effect across the team as a whole, reflecting his guile and experience.

At the same time, the government has been able to make progress on its policy agenda - even some of the more controversial aspects. A new Defence Review has been released, the confirmation of the replacement aircraft for the P3 Orions has been finalised, and the Provincial Growth Fund continues to spurt out its largesse capriciously on favoured parts of the country. Significantly, these are all initiatives from New Zealand First Ministers, and just as significantly, Labour flagships like Kiwibuild and the review of the health services continue to wallow and appear bogged down.

The Greens have been largely marginalised during this time - left to deal with potential time-bombs like the steep pending rise in landfill charges and the phase out of single trip plastic shopping bags. These are the sorts of worthy issues that can turn quickly from having general public support to having an unwelcome nanny-state flavour once the detail is rolled out, and the well-meaning Ministers promoting them reduced to looking like no more than intrusive, meddling busy bodies as a consequence.

When the Prime Minister went on maternity leave, the expectation was that Labour heavyweights like Grant Robertson and David Parker would act as Mr Peters' minders, to make sure he did not step out of line. Well, Mr Robertson has remained the most affable but invisible Minister of Finance in more than 50 years, and Mr Parker has also disappeared from the public view. While his own performance has been atypically low-key, Mr Peters has shown he can be a relatively safe pair of hands after all, if the situation warrants it, and that he does not need the guidance of others. In fact, most Ministers have kept their heads down in this time, and the government has appeared better for it, in stark contrast to the freewheeling chaos of the preceding few months. It may just be that the recent mid-year Parliamentary recess and the school holidays kept them away from the negative headlines, and all the familiar snafus will return now these are over. Yet it may also be that there has been a little more focus from the top and direct leadership in recent weeks.

Whatever the explanation, things have changed. Mr Peters' performance has dumbfounded many of his critics. In so doing, he has reinforced his importance to the government. Indeed, he observed recently that coalition mathematics mean that he and New Zealand First (still the same thing even after 25 years) are worth far more to the government than their 7% election vote share suggests. He is right and his tenure as acting Prime Minister reinforced that.

All of which makes for an interesting transition now the Prime Minister has returned. Given his performance over the last few weeks and in the face of the continued absence and apparent unwillingness of senior Labour Ministers to play their part in the leadership and management of the government, the Deputy Prime Minister will consider, with some justification, that he should play a much more prominent role in the leadership and direction of the government. 
For her part, the Prime Minister will have little alternative but to accept that assistance, and attempt to make the best of it. Meanwhile, the wily Deputy Prime Minister will continue to smile enigmatically and no less smugly than before, because the transition of this administration from Labour-led to really a New Zealand First/Labour Government, what the last few weeks have actually been all about, has now been completed.