Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Much of the commentary about the recent ructions within the coalition government has settled on MMP as either the explanation or the blame for what has been going on. In reality, it is neither. MMP is but an electoral system. The blame or explanation lies with the politicians themselves.

Every government formed following the eight elections since we opted for MMP in 1996 has been a combination of at least two, and often three or even four, different parties, in either formal coalition or on a confidence and supply basis. The current government is no more or less a true MMP government than any of those which have preceded it. To suggest otherwise is nothing but a clever deflection of the real problems at hand.

And it matters not whether the government is a coalition, or one based on confidence and supply. What matters most, and ultimately determines its success or failure, is the dynamic of how it works. The claims of dysfunction against this government arise not from the method of its election, nor even its composition, but from its performance.

At the core of that is a perception that the Labour Party and its leader have become hostage to the demands of New Zealand First and its leader and that the Greens are being marginalised. While Labour and the Greens are natural partners, it is the support of New Zealand First that the government relies on to survive. Labour and New Zealand First both argue that there is nothing untoward here, and that all people are seeing is the normal dynamic of a coalition government getting on with its job. It is about give and take, they say.

There is some validity to that viewpoint. But the problem is that there seems to be more give than take as far as Labour is concerned, causing the claim that it is New Zealand First - with just 7% of the votes (less than a fifth of Labour’s share at election time) - calling all the shots, a perception not helped at the outset when it was New Zealand First, not Labour, that announced the shape and form of the new government. Labour seems to be doing a fair amount of giving, for precious little take in return.

When this government was formed, voters expected that the coalition agreement would be the basis of its approach, with other matters decided on a case by case, as had been the practice under earlier National and Labour-led governments. Yet what appears to be happening now is that all the parties are having real difficulty making the compromises necessary on those matters not covered by the coalition agreement. The perception that is creating is one of indecision and internal division, which in turn is leaving the government looking at sixes and sevens, and any progress being made on implementing the coalition agreement being either overlooked or ignored by the media. So the government's story becomes one of internal discord, rather than positive progress.

This is where leadership assumes real importance. Ensuring coalition relationships remain congenial is obviously vitally important, and critical to the government’s survival, but it cannot become just an end itself. The government still has to be seen to be doing things. In that regard, the Prime Minister‘s recent commitment to publish frequent updates of progress is welcome, even if a little late. It may limit some of the cynicism, but of itself is unlikely to be enough. The Prime Minister has to be seen to have dealt to the factors given rise to the negative public perceptions.

Asserting her leadership, and more importantly, being seen to be doing so is a critical part of that. To that end, a public rebuke, albeit well orchestrated, of her coalition partner on a particular issue might also be in order. Her decisiveness to date seems to have been limited to dealing with her own party. She needs to demonstrate unequivocally that she is the head of government, not just head of the largest party in the government. Her apparent unwillingness to ruffle coalition feathers is starting to work against her, especially since New Zealand First seems to have no such compunction about ruffling Labour's feathers.

Her stoicism to date is admirable, but cannot continue. She needs to be seen to be in charge, rather than just turning the other cheek. Her predecessor Helen Clark’s great strength was that people always knew where she stood on an issue. That clarity of purpose enabled her to manage three very different governing arrangements over her three terms in power. As the Prime Minister wrestles to restore her government’s fortunes after an appalling few weeks, she could reflect upon and pick up one or two hints from the Clark playbook.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

The row over Clare Curran’s emails is becoming more and more ridiculous. 

No sooner had the former Minister resigned her remaining portfolios than she was admitting there might be more emails on her private email address with chief technology officer prospect Derek Handley than she first acknowledged, but that she was working with the Prime Minister’s Office to correctly identify those to ensure they were properly recorded for the purposes of any request for their release under the Official Information Act. Not only did this admission raise further questions about the reliability of Ms Curran’s memory, but also the intriguing possibility that there might well even be other unrelated items of Ministerial business on her private email account that have yet to be revealed.

Then there is the bizarre radio interview the Prime Minister gave last week, when she knew Ms Curran’s resignation was imminent, but where she gave assurances that her job was safe and that she had no plans to remove her. All technically correct of course, but the very precision of the Prime Minister’s explanation was grossly misleading. Beyond the Curran case, that cynical glibness will raise serious questions about the extent to which any future explanations from the Prime Minister on controversial topics can be taken seriously. The Prime Minister is an intelligent woman, and it is therefore quite baffling that she was willing to put her credibility on the line in this way, especially as the consequences of the folly of her coyness will long outlast the Curran saga.

Next was the extraordinary suggestion from the National Party, in one of the most flagrant disregards for personal privacy, that all Ms Curran’s private emails, personal and otherwise, should be handed over to an independent investigator to determine which were private and which were Ministerial. This sort of approach is more reminiscent of the STASI, and it must be of concern that the National Party, with a previous strong tradition of upholding liberal values like the right to privacy, should even be thinking this way over an issue which, when everything else is considered, is not that important. It raises far more serious questions about National’s commitment to protecting personal privacy in an era where cybersecurity is raising fresh tensions over the boundary between upholding the rights of the individual, and subjugating personal interests to those of the state.

But no-one seems to be interested in addressing what should be the fundamental point of concern arising from the Curran affair. Put simply, there is no excuse for any Minister seeking to negotiate privately a public service appointment with any individual. Clare Curran’s discussions with Derek Handley over the role of chief technology officer were wrong at all levels and should be nullified. After all, it is the State Services Commission which has the specific responsibility for making such appointments in a way that is open and transparent. That is to prevent any suggestion of cronyism or corruption in public sector appointments, which was the spectre raised by Ms Curran’s novel approach. It is of extreme concern that neither the Government nor the Opposition is focusing on this aspect, all the more so when there is already an Inquiry underway into the recent appointment of the Deputy Commissioner of Police.

The role of chief technology officer is an important one. It is at a senior level and the appointee will be the technical interface between the various branches of government and the information technology sector, supplementing and supporting the work of the government chief information officer as the transformation to a digital economy proceeds. To ensure the credibility of this critical appointment the government needs to immediately turn the whole process over to the State Services Commission to start afresh, without either further Ministerial interference or the involvement of Mr Handley.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

When a few months ago New Zealand First abruptly vetoed Labour’s plans to repeal the three strikes criminal justice law it was glibly explained away by Labour as just a breakdown in communication that would be resolved by the time a policy paper came anywhere near the Cabinet for consideration. With the Criminal Justice Summit then  looming, and clearly more water yet to flow under the bridge, the explanation had a brief air of credibility about it, so was largely believed, and everyone moved on.

However, it will be a little more difficult to treat this week’s equally blunt dismissal by the Deputy Prime Minister of Labour’s long held plans to double the refugee quota in quite the same vein. All the more so, given the Deputy Prime Minister’s accompanying chilling observation that “Labour is not the government.” This would have been news to many people who thought we had a Labour-led coalition government with New Zealand First, and supported by the Greens.

Certainly the comments were intended to play to New Zealand First’s racist constituency that does not like either migrants or refugees and definitely does not want to see any more of them. But they were also sending a none too veiled reminder to Labour that this government survives neither because of the gushing charm of its leader, nor the self-imagined talent of its Ministers, nor the will of the public, but simply and solely at the pleasure of New Zealand First and its leader. Labour has been placed on clear public notice that it needs to toe the New Zealand First line to remain in office. The Prime Minister’s muted response shows she understands her predicament all too well, and will bow to it, because she has no other option.

While this was always seen as a potential risk for this coalition government, given its make-up, Labour had earlier believed that during the period of the Prime Minister’s maternity leave, their Ministers would be able to straightjacket the Deputy Prime Minister, to preserve the fiction this government was Labour-led, but he was too wily for that to ever have been a possibility. This was his opportunity to put his stamp clearly on the government, and he was not going to be denied. He easily outwitted his Labour colleagues and used his considerably greater experience to perform better than most had expected he would as Acting Prime Minister, and bring an air of stability to a government that has looked somewhat chaotic before and since. In so doing, he enhanced considerably his stature within the government, as well as increasing New Zealand First's dominance of it, leaving Labour between a rock and a hard place.

By the time the Prime Minister returned to duty, the die was firmly caste, and the government had to all intents and purposes become a New Zealand First/Labour coalition. Nothing has happened to reverse that over the last few weeks, and the Prime Minister’s travails with her own Ministers in the last couple of weeks have reinforced the new dynamic.

Against that backdrop, the refugee put down this week is a ruthless assertion to the public of where the power really lies in this government and who will be calling the shots for the remainder of its term. The Prime Minister's awkward balancing act from here on is to continue to appear enthusiastic and aspirational, while at the end of her Deputy's string, and only allowed to implement the policies he mandates. How long the now marginalised public tolerates that becomes an open question.