Wednesday, 28 November 2018


The outrage when President Trump refused outright to condemn the Saudi Crown Prince for his role in the murder of expatriate columnist Jamal Khashoggi, despite apparently overwhelming implicating evidence, was palpable and predictable. So too was the President’s response that his decision was based on his “America First” policy. Given Saudi Arabia’s influence on global oil prices, it was not in the interests of American industry and domestic jobs to be too critical and thereby risk escalating further already high global prices, if the Saudis felt provoked on the issue, he argued. The reaction to that was just as visceral. Here, yet again, was the President putting American domestic interests ahead of the concern of the rest of the world at an orchestrated act of international barbarity, the critics said. Most informed opinion around the world agreed with that reaction. Trump’s America was once again isolated as a self serving international pariah.

In New Zealand over recent months there has been mounting concern over the steadily rising influence of China on various aspects of our domestic political and economic environment. First, is the still unresolved question of National MP Dr Jiang Yang and his previous and potentially ongoing links to Chinese intelligence agencies. Then, in the wake of the Jami-Lee Ross affair, was the row about the mounting influence of Chinese money in New Zealand politics and the particular hold that seems to have on both the Labour and National parties.

Now there is the case of the University of Canterbury professor, Anne-Marie Brady, and whether she has been the subject of burglary and other harassment by Chinese security services. The Prime Minister says she will not comment until our Police have completed their inquiries into Professor Brady’s allegations, yet according to Professor Brady that inquiry was completed some time ago, making the Prime Minister’s continuing silence that much harder to fathom, and consequently that much more worrying.

Taken together, the way in which the last two governments have reacted paints a disturbing picture. It seems that where China is concerned, New Zealand has become very reluctant to say a word out of place, presumably for fear of the economic consequences. China is our dominant economic partnership, and increasingly is becoming just as dominant in terms of our political and diplomatic relationships, as well. We seem extremely unwilling to say or do anything to upset the Chinese, lest we risk economic retaliation which could prove catastrophic.

The irony is that putting our national interests first this way is fundamentally no different from President Trump’s America First approach to international relations which we deride as amoral, narrow and selfish. Yet, we seem to think we can get away with criticising the President of the United States for his excesses, while acting precisely the same way ourselves when it comes to dealing with China. While President Trump bullies, we have cowered and retreated for fear of causing offence.

Whether the GCSB's rejection of Spark's plan to utilise Chinese telecommunications company Huawei in the roll out of 5G telecommunications services is a temporary glitch, or marks the start of a new approach to dealing with China remains to be seen (assuming of course the Government accepts the GCSB decision). It is significant that the Americans have been calling on their allies to freeze out Huawei for security reasons, and that New Zealand will be following Australia if it decides to do so. Already, there have been ramifications. Chinese displeasure at New Zealand's investigation  of this is allegedly the real reason why the Chinese have postponed the Prime Minister’s proposed visit to China to “some point in the future”, not the scheduling issues as have been claimed here.

Right now, though, New Zealand's position looks compromised. The Minister's mealy mouthed response to the GCSB decision and the National Party's warnings how badly this outcome will play in Beijing suggest strongly that some form of compromise will be arrived at to placate China's annoyance. Yet again, where China is concerned, New Zealand will cave-in.

The Prime Minister modestly likes to compare herself to Labour greats like Norman Kirk and David Lange who spoke up fearlessly on the great issues of the day like apartheid and nuclear testing, and carried through their moral outrage on issues with specific actions that won international acclaim. But unlike Kirk and Lange, she still seems too full of talk. She needs to remember actions speak louder than words.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018


There is a popular misconception that the apparently clubby nature of Parliament means that all MPs, in Government or Opposition, have pretty much the same access to information. That has never been the case, even since the introduction of MMP. The Government of the day not only holds power, but also controls access to information. While there have been some improvements over the years - the Public Finance Act and the Fiscal Responsibility Act have made the state of the Government's finances more transparent, and the overall annual Budget process more open and predictable - the control of official information remains overwhelmingly under the control of the Government of the day. And, as information is power, they regard access to it jealously.

All of which leaves Oppositions at a massive disadvantage. When parties first leave office, their outgoing Ministers have a huge, immediate advantage over their successors in that they have all the information about what has been going on to that point. But that advantage is temporary - usually, former Ministers' information loses its currency after about six to nine months as the new Ministers get their feet more fully under the table, and start to take control of their portfolios.

That reality will have hit the National Party a few months ago. Its information channels will have dried up, and will not be refilled until they next win office, or the few months beforehand when their win seems likely, and sympathetic officials start quietly slipping information their way.

So, as with all Oppositions, National now has to start doing it alone, without the power of the Government bureaucracy to answer their queries or provide specialist advice. That is where the current controversy about the numbers of Written Parliamentary Questions becomes relevant. Parliamentary Questions, carefully crafted and camouflaged to disguise their true intent, coupled with a judicious use of the Official Information Act, are the primary weapons of an Opposition to get the answers it needs to do its day to day job of holding the Government to account, as well as the information it needs in the development of its next election policy.

It is a time-honoured tactic, making Labour‘s criticism of it a little hypocritical. Moreover, as the largest Opposition ever, it is not unreasonable that National should be asking more questions than ever before. Yes, the process is time consuming for the public servants who have to prepare the answers for Ministers’ consideration, and it is tedious for Ministers to have to spend several hours each week poring over the replies before approving them and signing them off. But, by definition, it is not the Opposition’s job to be helpful to the Government.

Besides, every now and then Parliamentary Questions strike gold. This year, it was the Questions process that brought Clare Curran’s Ministerial career to a close. Discrepancies in Written Questions replies caught out Shane Jones and his failure to disclose 61 meetings, and the ongoing skewering of Iain Lees- Galloway is largely because of the inadequacy of his answers to Parliamentary Questions. 

Parliamentary systems of government, where the Executive is part of the legislature, as opposed to systems of government where the Executive is separate from the legislature (like the United States, for example) tend to be winner-take-all systems. Governments govern and Oppositions are largely bystanders. But, a Parliamentary system also means Governments are more directly accountable to the legislature and can be changed by changing the composition of the legislature at an election, as opposed to again, say, the United States where both Houses of Congress can be controlled by one Party, while the President in whom Executive power resides, can be from another Party and still retain power.

The immediacy of our Parliamentary system means Governments will always seek to control the flow of information as much as possible to protect their situation, and that Oppositions will always seek every opportunity they can to obtain the information they want. To pretend otherwise, and to complain when they do so, is as churlish as it is woefully naive.




Wednesday, 14 November 2018


It is perhaps a commentary in itself of this Government’s media management skills that it chose to reveal the two worst kept political secrets of its tenure to date on the same day. The first was the confirmation that a manned re-entry of the Pike River mine would be attempted within the next few months, and the second was the appointment of Dame Annette King as High Commissioner to Australia.

To take Dame Annette’s appointment first, there is merit in having a seasoned politician representing us in Australia. All the more so, given her staunchly Labour background, if, as seems increasingly inevitable, that country’s Liberal/National Coalition Government is replaced by Labor after the Federal election due in the next few months.

The Pike River decision has been long foreshadowed by Labour and its partners. While it will provide closure up to a point for the Pike River families (assuming re-entry is able to be completed fully and safely) it has the potential - depending on what is discovered at the explosion site - to open up a new range of disquieting issues. What, for example, if it becomes clear from the site that there were survivors who might have been saved had a rescue attempt being mounted at the time. Other, potentially more horrific, possibilities come to mind. Should any of these come to pass, how will the families be expected to react, and what public tolerance will there be?

There will also be the inevitable questions about the previous government’s early decision to seal the mine off, effectively as a permanent memorial, and attempt no rescue on safety considerations, and the advice there was no realistic prospect of survivors. Will they stand the test of time, or will they be found to have been wanting? What lessons from that arise for the future? Also, the role of the company and its management in the lead-up to and aftermath of the disaster, and whether there remain grounds for corporate manslaughter type prosecutions, will also come under fresh scrutiny.

So how much did the previous government know, and how much of its information did it share with the public and the families as the years went on? As part of that government, I for one was satisfied at first that its decision had been the correct one and was for the best. However, as various pieces of new evidence and new claims came forward over the years, I became increasingly concerned at the often quick and increasingly dogmatic dismissals by the Ministers involved of each piece of new information. It led me to the view, and to express my misgivings,  by late 2016 that they both knew more than they were letting on, and were determined not to share what more they knew with anyone else. Was it just a perhaps misguided sense of compassion seeking to spare the families from more pain, or were they concerned about what a manned re-entry might reveal about what actually happened on that day in November 2010?

Whatever the reasons, I became dissatisfied with the way the families were being treated,  and came to believe that they had the right to as full a picture as existed, however awful and shocking it might be, but that they were unlikely to get it under the previous government. It was why I joined a cross-party group of politicians calling for the manned re-entry option to be explored further.

For that reason I support this week’s announcement. But it is just a start on a still long journey. My hope has to be that the Pike River families feel by the end of it that they have got the answers they have been seeking, and some comfort from those so that the remains of their loved ones can be laid to rest, and a very sad chapter in our national history be brought gently to a close.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018


The one constant about the Karel Sroubek case is that every day seems to reveal more uncertainty. But while we are no closer to either a resolution of the case, or even a clear understanding of why Minister Lees-Galloway has acted the way he has, some things are a little clearer.
For a start, Lees-Galloway did not grant Sroubek permanent residence - that happened in 2008 (albeit under a false name), before Lees-Galloway was even in Parliament, let alone Minister of Immigration. We also know, by deduction, that the decision to grant permanent residence must have been considered so straightforward by immigration officials at the time that it did not require reference to the then Minister, because officials have now conceded the only Minister they have ever discussed the case with is Lees-Galloway, after October 2017. And, somewhere along the way, presumably after Sroubek’s imprisonment in 2016, officials discovered the false identity and reissued the permanent residence in his correct name.

When Sroubek became eligible for release, officials raised the case with Lees-Galloway, seeking his confirmation that the standard deportation provisions should apply. Here is where the situation starts to get murky. It appears - for reasons which are not yet known - that Lees-Galloway declined to confirm Sroubek’s deportation, choosing instead to defer the requirement for five years, thus upholding Sroubek’s permanent residence and allowing him to stay here.

In the wake of the ensuing uproar, and the release of more information about Sroubek’s background that was apparently and curiously not known previously to officials, Lees-Galloway has ordered a reconsideration of the case. But that has only made things more difficult. Lees-Galloway is already under strong public and political pressure to just overturn Sroubek’s permanent residence immediately and send him on his way. That is the one thing he cannot do - for reasons of natural justice in the event of any subsequent push for a judicial review of his decision-making - so Lees-Galloway has to be seen to now have followed due process, which will be time consuming. And while this rolls on, he has to suffer the death of a thousand cuts on almost a daily basis.

This whole saga raises many questions of judgement, most of which come back to Lees-Galloway. While he cannot be held responsible for the original residency decision, which happened long before he became Minister, he has to be held responsible for the decision to effectively confirm Sroubek’s residence by deferring the usually automatic deportation decision for up to five years. There have to be serious questions as to his reasons why. Moreover, his failure to offer anything approaching a credible explanation of his actions starts to bring his wider  judgment and suitability to hold Ministerial office into question. His subsequent bizarre behaviour (hiding awkwardly behind pillars to avoid journalists and less than stellar defences of his position in the House) raises even more doubts.

No doubt officials will find compelling reasons over the next couple of weeks to enable Lees-Galloway to overturn his decision and Sroubek’s residency. But that will not excuse them for the original decision to grant residence to Sroubek, and not pick up until much later the false identity he was using.

With allegedly improved information sharing between relevant government agencies following the 2014 Smith/Trainor passport fraud case, there should have been no reason for not picking up Sroubek’s real identity much earlier. The discovery that Sroubek used a false identity to gain residence all those years ago was a sufficiently serious matter to have been to the attention of the Minister of the day at that time. There needs to be some explanation for this, and steps taken to ensure future Ministers are not subject to similar blindsides.

Probably the worst news for Lees-Galloway is that while the Prime Minister did not seem at first to know too much or even be all that interested in the Sroubek case, she is now engaged and becoming irritated and frustrated by what is being disclosed. He will also be well aware that two Ministers have already fallen this year over performance and conduct issues, and will be increasingly concerned not to become the next one to go.

He will have realised that what officials disclose when they eventually report back will determine not only Sroubek’s fate, but also his own.