Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Australia’s latest announcement that it intends to toughen its already strict deportation rules, with their likely impact on New Zealanders, is a slap in the face for the diplomacy of the Prime Minister.

Remember that barely two weeks ago the Prime Minister was repeating her assertion to her Australian counterpart that the current policy was discriminatory and a “corrosive” factor in the ongoing relationship between the two countries. Australia’s response was not just to ignore completely her representations, but, now, to also rub salt in the wounds by the latest announcement. In the meantime, various Australian journalists, far less in the Prime Minister’s thrall than their New Zealand counterparts, have been vocal in their cynicism and criticism of the New Zealand position.

All of which leaves New Zealand in a very difficult position. No matter how obnoxious we may feel the Australian policy is – and successive governments since it was introduced in the time of Helen Clark have been vocal in their opposition – Australia has not only snubbed its nose at New Zealand’s protestations, but has now felt sufficiently emboldened to go even further. Successive Prime Ministers have ruled out New Zealand stooping to Australia’s level in retaliation which, although admirable in its own right, has effectively left us with nowhere to go but acquiescence. The more we protest, the deafer Australia seems to become, so more of the same from our part is not going to change anything.

Australia has now roughly and cleverly boxed the Prime Minister into a corner. It has created the perception of a nice, well meaning but ineffectual Prime Minister “concerned” about the treatment of New Zealanders in Australia and refugees on Manus Island versus the pragmatic, realistic Australian leader determined to keep Australia’s borders secure by either deporting undesirables to their country of origin or not letting them in in the first place . New Zealand’s moral outrage is all very well, but starts to lose its impact if it cannot deliver the desired change. This is the dilemma our Prime Minister now has to contemplate.

It is a pity the Prime Minister was in the Tokelaus on a long-scheduled visit when this latest announcement broke, but that does not prove Simon Bridge’s erroneous claim that she is a part-time Prime Minister. However, it does give some substance to his point that she seems far more comfortable in the international limelight than dealing with the immediate problems confronting New Zealand as a country.

If the New Zealand news media in general was far less in awe of the Prime Minister and seemingly unwilling to make life too difficult for her they would be starting to ask some tough questions by now.

For example, what advice has the New Zealand High Commission in Canberra been passing to the Government? Surely it would have been picking up strong messages from the Australian Government over a period of time on its attitude and future intentions on deportations and passing these back to Wellington to better inform our responses? What advice were officials in Wellington preparing for the government on the developing situation, Australia’s increasingly entrenched position, and options for possible diplomatic responses? If the advice was that Australia was increasingly unlikely to budge, what was the rationale behind having the Prime Minister continuing to ride a high moral horse that was not going anywhere? Or was that her decision, contrary to any official advice?

While most New Zealanders will support the Prime Minister’s ongoing concerns, equally most New Zealanders will not like being made a fool of by Australia’s latest decisions. They will be keen to know whether we do have some sort of long-term end game in mind, and that this is merely an unfortunate hiccup on the way, or whether our Prime Minister has simply been comprehensively outplayed by the Australian Prime Minister and his colleagues on the issue. They will want to know whether the one-upmanship of the sports field for so many years has now become the way the political relationship between our two countries will henceforth be conducted.

Above all, they will be looking to the New Zealand news media to start to treat the Prime Minister seriously on these and other issues by asking the tough questions they have shied away from for too long.  She is articulate and able, and deserves to be held to account as such, rather than just continuing to be demeaned by being portrayed as little more than a smiling face on a magazine cover.    



Thursday, 25 July 2019

We are pretty good in New Zealand at passing groundbreaking legislation through our Parliament and then leaving it to moulder until some government decides it is not working and should be radically changed.
Seldom do we stop to look at whether the reason for the legislation not working as intended is not so much the legislation itself, as the way bureaucrats and successive governments have chosen to implement it. No, instead we adopt the “baby out with the bathwater” approach, and start all over again, assuring only that without fundamental changes to the way legislation is implemented, the same thing will happen all over again.

Two examples this week highlight the point – the Official Information Act and the Resource Management Act. Both were hailed as far sighted and world leading at the time of their passage, yet both now face the cool breeze of review, once again.

The Official Information Act 1982 introduced the then revolutionary concept that government information should be released to the public, unless there was good reason to withhold it, turning on its head the previous notion that all government information was secret and should be kept so. The Act’s principles still stand up well today, but, over time, problems have arisen with regard to the way requests for official information are handled, with too many instances of unacceptable delays in the processing of requests, or the restrictions on the type of information being released.

Most practitioners of the Act will say there is little wrong with its principles, but much wrong with the way it is administered that should be updated and changed.  Yet, significant modification and updating still seem a long way off, with the government announcing a further delay of at last another three months before it decides whether there should be a review of the Act and the way it works, and despite a preliminary review attracting over 300 submissions calling for more transparency with official information.

At the other end of the scale, the government has announced a complete overhaul for the Resource Management Act 1991. This Act puts environmental sustainability at the core of economic development and replaced the previous mish-mash of more than 54 separate pieces of environmental and planning legislation. A point its critics, probably through sheer ignorance rather than wilful deception, keep overlooking.

However, it was launched in a vacuum in 1991, in part because the then National government did not want to give too much credit to its Labour predecessor for developing the legislation, and in part because of its own deep  antipathy to regional government, which had been intended to play a significant role in the Act’s operation. Consequently, it has never really worked as intended, with central government over the years reluctant to issue any national policy statements, and regional and local governments left consequently struggling to find their proper role. It is little wonder that excessive bureaucracy, decision-making timidity and inconsistency have been the outcome. So now the Resource Management Act is blamed for everything from the housing crisis to climate change, and the knives are out for its replacement.

As with the Official Information Act, making the Resource Management Act work as intended would solve many of the problems associated with it. The previous government tried to do so, but it failed because it found that while attacking the Act and promising to gut its principles altogether was far more attractive to a section of its supporters, there was not a majority appetite in Parliament to do so.

Now the present government is promising a root and branch review of the Resource Management Act, although it is likely to be 2021 at the earliest before any real change proceeds. The Minister for the Environment at least seems cognisant of history, so is unlikely to want to cast aside the principles on which it was founded. But he is also likely to face major challenges keeping both the Greens and New Zealand First on side as the review proceeds, and will come under just the same pressure from development and primary production interests his National predecessors did to simply get rid of the Resource Management Act altogether.  It may end up being all too difficult.

He would be on far safer political ground to make it clear from the outset that the principles of the Resource Management Act are to remain inviolate, but that the real focus of his reform programme will be to make the Act work the way it was originally intended. Such an approach is not only more prudent, but actually has a chance of succeeding and enduring.

Otherwise, some successor Minister in the next decade or so, will have the same bright idea all over again.           

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

There used to be a school of thought on the centre right side of politics that the best way to neuter the Greens as a political force would be to let them have a spell in government. Then, according to the argument, they would show themselves to be so extreme and so wacky that they would never be elected again.

Well, the Greens are now part of the government, and things have not turned out quite the way those centre right speculators might have wished. Rather than being extreme and wacky, the Greens, on the whole, have been responsible and mainstream. In part, this is due to the Greens’ leadership – particularly James Shaw who is both personable and reasonable – and Ministers like Eugenie Sage and Julie-Anne Genter keeping pretty much to the middle of the government’s road, although co-leader Marama Davidson threatens to go off the tracks every now and then. But, in reality, a bigger reason for the Green’s cautious approach so far, is the chain mail blanket of constraint called New Zealand First which smothers them within the coalition.

The Greens’ problem now is not being so radical as to scare the living daylights out of those nice people in the middle class who vote for and financially support the Greens because they want to keep their native bush outlook in the leafy suburbs and quite like the fact that tui, kereru, and even kaka are becoming much more visible in their neighbourhoods. Rather, their challenge is to appear radical enough to continue to attract the support and activism of the more hard-line environmental idealists on whom they have relied for so long. The Greens’ responsibility in government will be sorely testing their patience. This, coupled with the now traditional loss of support all government support parties suffer, means the Greens can no longer take their presence in the next Parliament for granted, the way they were used to before 2017.

This week’s historic announcement regarding the transition of agriculture into the Emissions Trading Scheme is a good example. This is a significant announcement, given the long term intransigence of the agricultural sector to such a move. The announcement is a small step, admittedly, but it is an important step in the right direction, and it, and the emerging consensus that led to it, are worthy of celebration. But, instead of plaudits for engineering a step forward, the Greens are being criticised by many normally regarded as in their core constituency, including a former co-leader, for not going far enough, being too timid, and still allowing agriculture generally a near free ride when it comes to taking responsibility for its emissions. Compounding this frustration is the announcement that because of a provision in Labour’s coalition deal with New Zealand First, there will be a 95% discount rate meaning that by 2025 agriculture will be required to meet only 5% of the cost of their emissions. Whatever hope there may have been for more progress after the review group’s report has been dashed completely by Labour’s earlier agreement with New Zealand First to limit the cost to farmers to just 5%.

Once again, as has been the case so many times since 2017 on issues of importance to them, the Greens have been left looking a little silly and somewhat politically inept. The question that now raises is how much more humiliation the Greens’ rank and file membership will be prepared to accept before walking away altogether, and simply transferring their support to Labour. Some will stay the course, appreciating that saving the Green brand ranks higher than temporary achievements in government, but others will become more disillusioned, and will start to question whether being part of government is actually worth it,  or whether it is doing more harm than good.

The problem is New Zealand First, not the Greens. But the Greens had the power within their own hands after the last election to have avoided this occurring. It would have been an enormous risk to do so, and would have been extremely difficult to sell to the membership base, or even promote to it, but the best thing the Greens could have done to preserve themselves long term would have been to have formed a coalition with National after the last election.

A National/Greens coalition would have had an outright majority in the House, so there would have no need to involve New Zealand First in any way. They would have been left to moulder in irrelevance on the Opposition back bench, and left to disintegrate. That would have established a largely tripartite structure for the future – National and Labour, with  the Greens as the  permanent party of government, the swing party that could switch between the two over the years, but always ensuring that the Green agenda was part of the government agenda. Had the Greens been prepared to consider such a scenario, National would surely have leapt at it, and would have been prepared to cede virtually the entire environmental agenda to the Greens, so desperate were they to remain in office. James Shaw, not the present incumbent, would have been Deputy Prime Minister, calling the shots on regional development in a considered and environmentally sustainable way, not the crude, pork-barrel way it is happening right now. But, instead, we have ended up with a very inexperienced and not especially talented Labour-led government where the considerably less talented, serially erratic New Zealand First holds all the cards, leaving the rather more competent Greens to just chip in now and then from the sidelines. And National desperately trying to invent a new Blue-Green party to be its salvation in 2020.

Of course all this would have been far easier said than done, and the reluctance of the Greens’ leaders to even consider the proposition for a moment, let alone allow it to go anywhere near the party membership was absolutely understandable and unsurprising. It would have required a level of devious determination and imperviousness to criticism that would have been far too great for most people to even contemplate. And the Greens, as they were once prone to repeat with nauseating frequency, always have been a party of principle, which meant the idea was never a goer.

However, as things have turned out, the irony now is that the earlier wishes of the centre right speculators may yet come to pass, not because the way the Greens have behaved in government has scared the horses, but rather because their timidity and impotence has left their supporters to wonder what was the point of voting for them after all.
Greens, seized of the urgency of the climate change debate, in particular, may well decide that cutting out the government middle person altogether, and  putting time and money instead into the likes of activist groups like Forest and Bird and Greenpeace (which they already control)  is a far better and more direct way to take action to save the planet, than relying on the politicians, even the Green ones.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

A recent prominent National politician had the so-called Serenity Prayer penned by American philospoher, Reinhold Niebuhr, "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference" displayed on a plaque on his office wall. It always struck me that the quotation was as much a statement of this person's approach to politics, as it was a reference to religious faith.

Whatever its significance, though, it certainly has relevance to the National Party of today. In its quest to return to power next year it faces many obstacles, some clearly of its own making, and some quite beyond its control. Its problem seems to be making the distinction between the two, let alone focusing on the factors it can influence, and ignoring the rest. National is simply spending too much time chasing parked cars, and not enough time spelling out where it might be different from - and consequently better than - the current government.

A recent good example was the incredible comment from leader Simon Bridges that he was open to working with New Zealand First after the next election if the circumstances made that an option. All that has done has been to confirm New Zealand First's status as a potential kingmaker once more for either the left or the right side of politics. In so doing, it has restored a relevance to New Zealand First that was increasingly lacking, as well as giving disgruntled National voters somewhere to park their vote, in the hope it might ultimately be of help in getting National back into government. It might well be just enough to get New Zealand First over the line again at the next election.

But it is all pie in the sky lunacy. Even if New Zealand First scrapes back into Parliament at the next election, it is not going to work with National, no matter how desperate the blandishments that might be thrown in its path. Mr Peters is this country's ultimate "utu" politician. His driving motivation of the last 30 years has been to make National pay and continue to pay for the way it has treated him in that time - from his expulsion from the first Bolger Cabinet and then the Caucus in the eawrly 1990s, then his sacking as Treasurer by Jenny Shipley, and finally John Key ruling him out as a governing option in 2008 and 2011. Having now achieved office with Labour, there is absolutely no incentive for his returning to his National roots. Utu, after all, knows no time limit.

If all that is not enough to bring National to its senses, the a dose of the realities of history should. New Zealand First's electoral success is normally in direct proportion to the influence voters sense it might have after the election. Hence, the strong showings in 1996 and to a lesser extent in 2017 when it seemed inevitable it would be difficult, if not impossible, to form a government without New Zealand First; and, the far weaker showings in 1999 after the failure of the first coalition, and 2008 when John Key bluntly ruled out any deal with New Zealand First.

Courting New Zealand First, the way Mr Bridges now seems to want to do, plays right into New Zealand First's hands, making them centre stage once again. And that will not end well for National, either in or out of office.

It is time for National to return to the John Key strategy and rule out New Zealand First altogether. While on the face of it this is a high risk strategy for National, it does have some upsides. First, it is a clear message to even the most obtuse National voter that a vote for New Zealand First is no more than a vote to re-elect the current government. Second, because such a declaration immediately would deprive New Zealand First of its ability to play both sides off against each other, it would diminish its relevance, and therefore also increase the possibility of New Zealand First being tossed out of Parliament altogether, (with a significant porportion of its votes transferring back to National?). And third, it would allow National to focus on its story and the message it wants to promote to voters, without having to worry about how that may sit with New Zealand First.

National cannot change New Zealand First's historic antipathy to National. That is not within its ken. but ruling out working with them is certainly something National can change to. All Mr Bridges needs now is the courage and the wit to see the difference.