Wednesday, 27 November 2019



All of those institutions, while not perfect, have been hailed in international fora as positive and forward-thinking developments, and variations of them have been adopted by a number of countries, based on the New Zealand model and its experiences. Add to that the progress made during the term of the last National-led administration on Treaty of Waitangi settlements, and the National Party can boast a pretty satisfactory record as a humane and compassionate, if somewhat cautious, judicial reformer.

So, against that backdrop the National Party’s recently released discussion paper on law and order is not only a disappointment, but a complete reversion from its historic legacy. It is certainly a long way from the thinking of Hanan, McLay and even Finlayson in previous National administrations. Indeed, even if it were to be ever implanted, it would be a pretty safe bet now that the flagship “Strike Force Raptor” (has there ever been a more ghastly title?) to deal with gangs will never come to be regarded at all highly in the pantheon of New Zealand social reforms.
 
Already, the critics are saying that this proposed policy is a case of the National Party reverting to type, eschewing good policy in favour of populism. Even its own former Courts Minister, now heading the present government’s Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group, which is tasked with helping reform New Zealand's criminal justice system, has spoken out against the idea. However, National’s leader has defended the proposal, making the correct observation that just because a policy is populist, it is not automatically bad. Indeed, a more accurate assessment of its efficacy is whether it actually works.

Strike Force Raptor is an Australian model initiated in New South Wales in 2009. Its own publicity describes it as “a proactive, high-impact operation targeting OMCGs (Outlaw Motor Cycle Gang) and any associated criminal enterprises.”  Over the last ten years questions have arisen about how effective it has been. While it appears to  have been effective at harassing the gangs and generally making life difficult for them, overall gang numbers have not fallen across Australia, and questions have arisen about the tactics Strike Force Raptor  has used, and whether the outcomes to date have been worthwhile.

Whether the policy has worked in Australia is not an immediate concern for National – they are, after all in Opposition, and will have no chance to implement their plans until they next become the government. In the meantime, they can keep pointing to this idea just being one of many included in their law and order discussion document, which they are seeking public feedback on. Firm policy decisions will come later. At face value, this is all true, although it would be a mighty surprise if the Strike Force Raptor policy, albeit with perhaps some modifications, does not emerge as a key part of the law and order policy when it is finalised. Moreover, the Leader of the Opposition has been happy to be so personally identified with the idea that it would be a major backdown if it were not to proceed.

Coming on top of the benefit sanction policy that was floated recently – that the Leader of the Opposition was also happy to be closely linked to – a clear picture of the flavour National will take into the next election is beginning to emerge. Under the current leadership, National will be presenting itself as harsher and more socially repressive than the compassionate conservatism of Bill English or the flexible pragmatism of John Key. While that may play well for it in the provinces, it is questionable whether it will be as beneficial in places like central Auckland and Wellington, where National needs to hold and win marginal seats, to have a shot at being the lead party of government next year.

Of late, National has been promoting, with some justification, the notion that it is the party of talent – based on some of its impressive new candidate selections. With the series of policy discussion papers it has been releasing over recent months it would also like to be cast as the party of vision and hope. Instead, however, some of the ideas presented have too much of an air of grimness about them to be inspiring. Exciting new talent is all very well, but to be effective, it also needs to be matched by bold new thinking.

National would do well to remember that a huge amount of the current Prime Minister’s appeal in the extraordinary, whirlwind lead-up to the last election was what she herself described as her “relentless positivity”. No problem was considered to be insurmountable, or beyond her capability. So long as there was the right attitude and confidence to tackle them, there was no limit to what could be achieved. The fact that the Prime Minister has been subsequently so woefully inept in implementing any of those dreams is not the point here. Rather, the fact National should be focusing on is that people responded enthusiastically to policies they saw then as positive and achievable.

Strike Force Raptor and benefit sanctions do not have the same inspirational ring around them. They will never generate the excitement the Prime Minister did in those few weeks in 2017. There is no doubt the unattainable dreamworld policies of the current government are leaving a huge vacuum for credible and workable policies. People are looking for realistic alternatives, but a reversion to the grim and punitive world National now seems to be focusing on does not fit with the tone of contemporary New Zealand.

There was the opportunity for National to draw on its past, listen to the voices of those around them now, and promote a law and order and justice policy that was humane and compassionate, evidence based and workable. Instead, the shades of Hanan, McLay and maybe Finlayson will be in despair today.


 





Wednesday, 20 November 2019


When the current coalition government was formed, there was some comment that this was perhaps New Zealand First's last chance at political redemption. The party's two previous stints in government had failed to last three years. The 1996-98 coalition with National ended after Winston Peters was fired as Treasurer, and its 2005-08 stint with Labour came to a premature end when Mr Peters was suspended as Foreign Minister over what became known as the Owen Glenn affair. Coming on top of Mr Peters' earlier sacking from a National Cabinet in 1991, less than a year after taking office, the omens were not good. But the general view was that New Zealand First would be different this time around, and there was unlikely to be any case of history repeating itself.

This week’s revelations about the shadowy New Zealand First Foundation and whether its activities are legitimate or a breach of electoral funding rules have raised afresh the question of whether New Zealand First and its leader can at last survive a full term in government, or whether leopards do not change their spots after all. There are still too many unanswered questions about the Foundation and the way it works to be certain about its status, which may have to await the outcome of the Electoral Commission’s investigation now underway. But, in the meantime, the controversy is already raising questions about how, if at all, the reputation of the coalition government will be affected.

During the 1996-98 coalition, then National Prime Minister Jim Bolger took the view that New Zealand First’s travails at that time were primarily for that party to sort out, as they were nothing to do with the National Party. However, over time that view became more difficult to sustain as some of the taint started to rub off on National. In the end, Mr Bolger was replaced as Prime Minister by Dame Jenny Shipley whose prime but unstated mission appeared to be to deal with New Zealand First, to quell the mounting anxiety of nervous backbenchers. A few months later, Mr Peters was dismissed as Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer, the coalition ended, and the government limped on as a minority government until it was defeated at the 1999 election. New Zealand First survived by the skin of its teeth, thanks to a very narrow win by Mr Peters in his then Tauranga electorate.

When, in 2007-08, questions began to be raised about the operations of the Spencer Trust and its relation to New Zealand First funding, Prime Minister Helen Clark initially took a similar hands-off approach as Jim Bolger had. However, as the saga dragged on, and a Privileges Committee inquiry began about a possible misleading of Parliament leading to evidence from Sir Owen Glenn contradicting the New Zealand First version of events, Prime Minister Clark’s patience ran out and Mr Peters was suspended as Foreign Minister. But the overall outcome was little different – her government was defeated at the 2008 election, and this time New Zealand First was tossed out of Parliament altogether.

As today’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern contemplates the allegations swirling about the New Zealand First Foundation, she should be mindful that, on the basis of her predecessors’ fates, she would appear to be damned if she does (in the Shipley fashion) or does not (in the Bolger and Clark approach). While her current instinct seems to be to follow the Bolger/Clark line, she must surely know that could become increasingly untenable, as this situation drags on, which seems highly likely. After all, the one certainty from history, is that events of this type are seldom as straightforward or easily clarified as New Zealand First continues to suggest. There are likely to be more twists and turns, enmeshing New Zealand First further in the mire, before a measure of clarity emerges.

While there is scant evidence this row is doing the Labour Party collateral damage at the moment, it is really only a matter of time, unless things are quickly tidied up. But the Prime Minister’s problem is that by then it may be too late for her. Already, she is being lambasted in some quarters for being too laid back in her dealings with New Zealand First Ministers and some of their more egregious behaviours, although this does overlook some of the realities of holding a coalition government together. Nevertheless, it could become increasingly difficult for her to maintain a dignified silence on this issue without looking weak and ineffectual, as is already being suggested – the last thing she would want as she heads into election year. Either way, the next few weeks are not going to be easy for her and her government.

Some have suggested she might call a snap election, but this seems a little fanciful. New Zealand does not have much of a tradition of early elections, unlike Britain or Australia, and, as Sir Robert Muldoon found out in 1984, having an early election because of problems within the government is not a winning strategy. Others say New Zealand First may be about to quit the coalition anyway to give it more freedom to campaign in the lead-up to the next election, but this makes little sense either. Why prove the accuracy of the latent claims your party cannot be relied on, by pulling out of the coalition several months early, and still expect people to vote for you as a reliable check on the big parties?

Meanwhile, National’s approach to the emerging omnishambles is puzzling. On the one hand, National says the allegations of electoral financing rules being abused by New Zealand First are potentially of the most serious kind, which is why it wants an independent inquiry, over and above the Electoral Commission inquiry. But on the other hand, the National leader says that while this incident makes it less likely his party would seek to work with New Zealand First if in a position to do so after the next election, he is still not prepared to rule them out altogether. If ever there was a time to be decisive as Sir John Key was in 2008 and say there is no way National would seek to work with New Zealand First after the next election, this is surely it. Such a statement would make it clear that New Zealand First is now solely Labour’s problem, making things even more difficult for the Prime Minister. But National’s ambiguity leaves the lingering suspicion that if political power beckoned National would be still be willing to overlook what has happened. In so doing, it will not only further embolden New Zealand First, but also open itself up to facing all over again the same problems that bedevilled Prime Ministers Bolger, Shipley, Clark and now Ardern.

It is true after all – leopards do not change their spots.



Wednesday, 13 November 2019


The newly launched Sustainable New Zealand Party’s first and biggest challenge is to prove that it is in fact sustainable, and not just another flash in the new party pan.

Already, it faces a couple of obstacles that have proved insurmountable for other new parties formed previously. And there are no immediate signs that it will be any different and able to overcome these to make it into Parliament.

It starts, however, from a clear premise – that the current Green Party has, for one reason or another, alienated a number of environmentally friendly potential and actual supporters because of its activism in so many other fields, and that it is time to get back to basics by focusing on achieving sound environmental outcomes within a modern, open economy. In so doing, Sustainable New Zealand echoes the mantra of the Progressive Greens, which appeared just before the 1996 election, as a blue-green alternative to the current Greens, who were still within Jim Anderton’s Alliance at that point. The Progressive Greens were formed by some of the leading environmentalists of the day – Sir Rob Fenwick, Gary Taylor, Stephen Rainbow, and Guy Salmon – yet polled only about 0.3% of the party vote at that year’s election, and disbanded shortly afterwards.

The argument about the desirability of a blue-green party or grouping has, however, remained a wisp, or strand within political debate since then, with National occasionally showing signs of adopting it (even going so far as to have a recognised blue-green group within the Party) but never quite taking the full step. The incarnation of Sustainable New Zealand, which National says it has not inspired but is clearly far from unhappy about, seeks to fill the perceived void. However, so far, it is not clear whether there is the same sort of environmental heft within Sustainable New Zealand, as there was within the Progressive Greens, for example. Without it, the Party’s prospects look that much bleaker.

With the exception of the ACT Party, every new party to have made it into Parliament in the last 30 years has been built around an established sitting Member of Parliament. Even in ACT’s case, its founders Sir Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble had so recently been MPs, that it was very easy for that new party to slot into Parliamentary mode very quickly, treated as a quasi-Parliamentary party even before it was first elected. Having an already sitting MP involved, not only gives a new Party a measure of credibility, it more importantly provides that new Party an almost daily platform in Parliament to promote what it stands for, as well as giving it much more immediate access to the media through the Parliamentary Press Gallery. Such a Party is also able to access various Parliamentary resources and funding, the most significant perhaps being access to the Parliamentary Library for assistance on research for policy development.

One way these systemic advantages can be overcome is for a sitting MP to defect to the new party. However, Parliament’s passage of the so-called “waka jumping” legislation earlier this term has now closed off this option, a further blow to fledgling parties like Sustainable New Zealand.

Idealists may say this is all fair enough and that political parties today – however big or small – should stand or fall in the political marketplace on the strength of their ideas. This overlooks the reality that political parties rely on the news media to promote their message, and, to be blunt, if those parties are not in the space where the media are – the Parliamentary environment – their messages and comments are unlikely to be picked up and transmitted sufficiently regularly to the public to have an impact. In that regard, Sustainable New Zealand risks being quickly reduced to just one more of the twenty or so registered or unregistered political parties not in Parliament, currently saying they intend to contest next year’s general election. This will be particularly relevant when the time comes for the Electoral Commission to allocate election broadcast funding for parties. Sustainable New Zealand is unlikely to receive a significant amount, let alone more than any of the other twenty non-Parliamentary parties. In turn, that means that, like those other minnows, its chances of being included in television election debates are close to zero, unless it defies electoral gravity in the meantime and consistently polls strongly.

That raises the interesting wider issue of the difficulty any new party faces in gaining political traction. It is a classic Catch:22 situation – a new party needs publicity to gain traction, yet it does not start to gain traction until it gets publicity. And it does not stop there. Even once parties are in Parliament the media still tends to allocate coverage on the basis of the party’s numerical strength in the House, rather than the credibility of its policies or contribution.

At another level, single issue parties rarely do well in New Zealand, no matter what issue they are promoting. While there is no doubting the enthusiasm and commitment of those involved, and sometimes the wider legitimacy of the issue they are promoting, the reality is that most voters are more focused on their own circumstances, and how what the respective parties are proposing might affect them, rather than just a single issue. The Greens recognised that early on, which is why they broadened their policy base beyond just the environment, important as it is.

That does offer a small, but difficult opportunity for Sustainable New Zealand. It might just be able to paint the Greens as having lost the environmental plot because they have become more broadly-based. And, potentially, in a time where climate change issues have put the focus on environmental policy as never before, Sustainable New Zealand might be able to claim the mantle of now being the only true environmental party. But it will likely face the same challenges in time as the Greens did when they first entered Parliament in their own right after leaving the Alliance. They were immediately expected to have views and stances on all the issues before the House – environmental or not – and to be able to vote intelligently on them. Then they became held to account for those positions as much as they were for their environmental stances, giving rise to the claim now by Sustainable New Zealand that they are no longer a true environmental party.

The problem for Sustainable New Zealand is that exactly the same thing will happen to it, should it be successful. Suggestions this week that to maintain its environmental purity the new party might abstain from voting on non-environmental issues defy credibility. New Zealand voters expect the parties they elect to Parliament to have a position on all the issues coming before the House, not just those that suit them.

But perhaps the biggest risk is that the contest between Sustainable New Zealand and the Greens becomes so intense that they knock each other out of Parliament next year, leaving no-one to stand up for the environment. 






Wednesday, 6 November 2019


The current “no jab, no pay” debate is provoking strong public reactions, for and against the idea. National Party leader Simon Bridges says his party is promoting removing benefit payments from parents who refuse to vaccinate their children as just a talking point, rather than firm policy, at this stage, but is getting a positive reaction from voters to the idea. New National candidate Christopher Luxon has gone one step further and mused about extending the concept to apply more widely, including to those in receipt of Working for Families tax credits.

The idea is not a new one. At its heart is the concept that the payment of welfare assistance should not be open-ended and without obligations, and that those in receipt of welfare assistance have some sort of reciprocal obligation to the state. In this instance, fuelled by the burgeoning measles crisis, the vaccination issue is an obvious one to target. But it is by no means the only “obligation” and, if the idea finds wide favour, there is no reason to believe other “obligations” could not be added from time to time, as the mood suited.

In the late 1990s, the Shipley Government more overtly promoted a “Code of Social Responsibility” which covered much of the ground the current debate is likely to regurgitate. In the event, after a period, the idea was quietly abandoned. The concept behind it has, however, never quite disappeared, and it has, for example, been a cornerstone of much of the ACT Party’s approach to social policy since then. It was canvassed very briefly during the previous National-led government at the time when the Better Public Service targets were being developed, but there was little enthusiasm for going any further.

There is good reason for this historical reluctance. While the idea of “obligation” might now hold superficial attraction, it is very difficult to imagine how it could be applied evenly or equitably.  Nor was it ever part of the original deal when the Social Security Act was passed in 1938. At the time, Michael Joseph Savage’s ambition was unequivocal and open-ended. “I want to see humanity secure against poverty, secure in illness or old age,” he said, without qualification.

Given the universal nature of social security, and the broad political consensus surrounding it for most of the last 80 years, it is very hard to see how any sense of qualification can now be introduced to it, let alone applied even-handedly, or even sustained into the future. Although the suggestion of linking benefit payments to child vaccination might be a topical issue, the problem becomes what to do when the next topical issue comes along. And where should the line be drawn? After all, there are many things the majority might consider desirable – pre-school education, regular health checks, literacy and numeracy skills, to name a few. So, what is there to stop the “obligation” line being steadily extended to include these worthy objectives, and others that might come to mind? Or, going down the Luxon path, and making Working for Families tax credits, or even veterans’ allowances and New Zealand Superannuation similarly conditional?

But why stop there? After all, attaining these social objectives is just as important for all wage and salary earners, whether or not they are receiving any state-derived income support. So why not introduce a similar sort of obligation test for them? But how it could possibly be made to work? In short, it quickly becomes a nonsense, far removed from the original Savage objective.

And it is all so one-sided. There seems to be no parallel suggestion that similar “obligations” ought to exist on the state as its reciprocity for the tax it collects from its citizens. No political party is suggesting, for example, that the government should be obliged to provide adequate housing to all citizens, or unfettered access to a free, universal 24-hour healthcare system. They are certainly the types of things we reasonably expect from our governments, which we hold them to account for at the ballot box for either delivering or not delivering, but there is no contractual obligation on them to do so, nor would we seriously expect it. Rather, the obligation is a moral and realistic one, based on the consent of the public and the circumstances of the time.

Indeed, were there to be such a push, political parties would not unreasonably emphasise the immense practical difficulties in doing so, consistently or fairly. Nevertheless, they would all pledge to do their best, and leave the electorate to judge whether that was adequate enough to earn continued support. It is about aspiration, rather than dictation.

It should be the same with regard to individual citizens. Governments should not impose obligations on them that they are not prepared to impose on themselves. While it is more than highly desirable that parents vaccinate their children, and that the anti-vax argument is exposed for the nonsense that it is, the outcome cannot be achieved by compulsion. Education, social cajoling and community pressure are usually far more effective in bringing about lasting social and attitudinal change, than heavy handed state intervention. Just the sort of thing the National Party of old was about, when it used to attack the “social engineers” of the left for promoting dull and rigid conformity, and not just letting people get on with their own lives.

While the debate the National Party says it is now engendering on this issue should be viewed positively, it should not be overlooked that it is a convenient smokescreen, giving the impression of resolving a problem that has not yet been shown to exist. Moreover, notwithstanding that such an approach is another lift from the Scott Morrison playbook National seems so obsessed with these days, it is highly unlikely an actual “no jab, no pay” policy will eventually be adopted, let alone extended as per the Luxon formula. Bluntly, the reasons this type of approach has so far never got off the ground remain as compelling today as they always have been.

But, in the meantime, National will be more than happy with the publicity this latest iteration of an old, new idea is attracting.