Wednesday, 26 February 2020

In a tough battle for re-election as President of the United States in 1948, which many predicted him to lose, Harry Truman decided the best way to defend his record was to attack those preventing him from fulfilling his agenda.  So, he took to lambasting the Republican-controlled Congress as the “Know nothing, do nothing” 80th Congress whenever and wherever he spoke. The tactic worked and was a strong contributor to his stunning victory in the election.

Harry Truman’s example came to mind recently when the newly elected Wellington Mayor Andy Foster all but apologised for not being able to achieve some of his plans, like a return to free weekend parking, because of a lack of support within his Council. That looks like the first of many battles the centre-right Mayor will lose with his left-dominated Council over the next three years, which could seriously affect his re-election prospects in 2022. Unless, of course, he changes tack and seizes the initiative.

Mayors are always in a difficult position – they are only one vote of many around the Council table. Mayor Foster’s problem is compounded by the fact that he was not really expected to win the Mayoralty last year, the unrecognised latent unpopularity of his predecessor notwithstanding. However, many of those elected to the Council were more in step with the views of the former Mayor and seem to be taking some time to get over his defeat. Although their disappointment is no justifiable reason for their apparent intransigence to many of Mayor Foster’s plans, it is at least an explanation of their position.

Wellington City Councils in recent years have had a history of being dysfunctional, often because of disruptive and unreasonable personalities around the Council table. Indeed, the last Mayor to be able to ride above all the pettiness and achieve what she wanted was Dame Fran Wilde nearly 25 years ago, and it is no coincidence that some of Wellington’s biggest attractions today – the waterfront, the stadium and Te Papa – were products of that time.

Since then, successive Mayors have been to a greater or lesser extent hostages to often hopelessly splintered Councils. A measure of harmony was reached during the term of Mayor Lester, but that was mainly because a majority seemed in step with his vision, even if the citizens of Wellington showed at the election they were not. The current Council which still seems to consider itself surrogates for Mayor Lester’s dreams seems destined to restore the dysfunctionality of the past. All of which compounds Mayor Foster’s challenges.

Despite having considerably far more Council experience (he has been there since 1992) than any other Councillor of recent times, he has always seemed somewhat of a loner, without a clear base of support around the Council table. There is no doubt he has the experience and skills to do the job required, but he now needs to demonstrate those to the Wellington public, as well as his Council colleagues.

However, Councillors’ reactions to the Mayor’s 150 Days Plan show he is likely to get little of their support. As the city’s leader, directly elected by the people, he might reasonably have expected some co-operation, if not support, from his Councillors. So, rather than apologise for their lack of reason, and appear defensive in the process, the Mayor needs to go onto the front foot, so to speak, and campaign directly to the people of Wellington for his agenda, over the heads of his unresponsive Council. He needs to make his causes the public’s causes.

In short, Andy Foster needs to become Wellington’s Harry Truman – the people’s champion against a stubborn and unresponsive Council. He needs to be seen taking the citizens’ fights, on which he campaigned at election time, constantly to a Council which he can increasingly portray as arrogant, aloof and out of touch as they knock him back. While he is a product of the system, he cannot afford to be seen as the captive of the system.  By being the Mayor of Wellington for Wellington who is standing up for his city against a Council that often seems more worried about not upsetting the Beehive, he can succeed.

A quiet chat to Dame Fran Wilde and adopting the Harry Truman approach to his “do nothing” Council should set him on his way.    

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Recent opinion polls have suggested the recreational cannabis referendum later this year might not succeed. While there is a still a flood of water to move under the bridge before the referendum, there are nonetheless some early warning signs that those promoting change should be wary of. Once early trends become apparent in referenda like this, they can become locked-in and very difficult to reverse.

The referendum was a product of the confidence and supply agreement between Labour and the Greens and has been enthusiastically and diligently promoted ever since by the Greens’ drugs spokesperson. That is its biggest problem – it is seen by too many people to be little more than a sop to the Green Party, not to be taken all that seriously. And that view will persist to the referendum’s detriment while the issue is being left solely to the Greens to run.

What is needed now to get the referendum back on track is for the Ministers of Justice and Health to take ownership of it and drive the campaign based on the legal and health evidence, not the resort to popular emotion. However, Labour seems to have adopted a position of neutrality, neither for nor against, but prepared to be bound by the public outcome, whatever it may be. All well and good, but once more reinforcing the impression that the Labour part of the government is not really all that interested in taking the matter seriously. A cynic might say that this is a deliberate distancing strategy, and that Labour would not be unhappy if the referendum were to fail. The more Labour declines to get involved and leaves it all to the Greens, the more likely such failure becomes.

All of which raises the question of what happens next. If the legal regulation of recreational cannabis fails at the referendum the issue is unlikely to secure prominence on the political agenda any time soon thereafter. That brings everyone back to square one and the existing Misuse of Drugs Act. The one thing they all agree upon – no matter whether they support or oppose the referendum – is that the now 45-year-old Act is no longer fit for purpose. But it, if the referendum fails, it will still be the law of the land that a newly energised public will expect Parliament, the Police the Courts to uphold and enforce, not just pay lip service to.

New Zealand’s National Drug Policy which I released in 2015 when Associate Minister of Health focused on a “compassionate, innovative and proportionate” approach to drug policy issues. When I addressed the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in early 2016, I added “boldness” to those three pillars, saying then that, “responsible regulation is the key to reducing drug-related harm and achieving long-term success in drug control approaches”. Implicit in all this was beginning a major review and rewrite of the Misuse of Drugs Act during the current term of Parliament. However, the present government’s attention has, understandably, been focused more on the referendum, albeit without much obvious enthusiasm, than those wider and more important issues.

Whatever the fate of the referendum, the next government will have to turn its attention to the Misuse of Drugs Act. But its rewrite will be a major task in itself, meaning it is quite possible that the existing Act will live to celebrate its 50th birthday in 2025, before it is replaced by something more fit for purpose.

Meanwhile, the current uncertain state risks just stumbling on. If this year’s referendum fails, the government (particularly if it is National led) will be extremely reluctant to do anything substantive. For their part, the Greens will be tarnished goods, linked to the failed referendum, so their capacity to advocate credibly for change will be considerably diminished. In short, the prospects for credible reform will be at their lowest ebb for a long time.

Having agreed to the referendum as part of its confidence and supply negotiations with the Greens, Labour cannot now wash its hands of it, and imply that the onus of its success or failure rests entirely on the Greens. By accepting it in the post-election negotiations Labour also accepted that the referendum (and by implication a successful result) became government policy. It is not just one more item to be picked up or left on the smorgasbord of policies passing by.

If Labour supports legalising recreational cannabis, it should say so and be upfront it in campaigning for it. If it opposes it, it should be equally upfront in spelling out what changes if any it will make to the Misuse of Drugs Act to uphold the restored status quo if the referendum is defeated. But it is simply not fair to leave it all to the Greens to make the case for change. Everyone knows where they have long stood, and the risk is they conclude that the referendum is more about pandering to those long held views than serious reform.

The recreational cannabis debate is an important one that deserves to be taken seriously by Labour. If the Ministers of Health and Justice do not take over the leadership of the debate, and spell out all the ramifications, including the alternatives, it will most likely fail. And, aside from the Greens, the big losers will then continue to be those vulnerable New Zealanders suffering daily from the consequences of the misuse of drugs. 

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Three examples this week demonstrate the point. First, is the continuing saga of the name of Wellington’s Victoria University. Next is the Radio New Zealand Concert debacle, and third is the ongoing drama over the New Zealand First Foundation.

Take Victoria University first. The Vice-Chancellor’s obsession with renaming the university the University of Wellington is well-known and unbounded. It appears most of the University’s alumni; its staff and benefactors are strongly opposed to any such change. (I am none of those, so have no direct interest here.) When the University applied, after a fractious and bitter internal debate, to the Minister of Education for approval to change its name, that approval was declined.

That should have been the end of the matter, and the Vice-Chancellor should have got back to his day job of promoting the University’s role as a centre of academic excellence, quality teaching and research. But no, with the densest of tin-ears, he has persisted with his dream, defying his critics and the Minister in the process. Revelations this week that the University has spent almost half a million dollars rebranding itself as Wellington’s University, or the Wellington University and the like, are the ultimate two-finger salute to the Minister of Education.

By standing by quietly, the Minister is not only angering the many critics of the renaming strategy but also demonstrating his impotence. Some may argue that for reasons of the protection of the principle of academic freedom the Minister cannot intervene, but this is not a matter that has anything to do with academic freedom. The Minister has every reason to be concerned about how the University is spending public money on non-core activities.

Therefore, he should call in the University’s Chancellor and make it very clear that the Vice-Chancellor’s ongoing actions do not meet his expectations following his earlier decision to decline the name change.  Moreover, if the University Council will not bring the Vice Chancellor to heel, he will replace it with a Council that will. He may not choose to go this far, but the more he sits idly by and lets the Vice Chancellor get away with it and carry on regardless, the weaker he looks.

The still unfolding Radio New Zealand Concert saga is just as puzzling. On the face of it, it appears that Radio New Zealand went ahead with announcing a plan to shift Concert off the FM platform in favour of a youth centred station, even after the government had asked it to hold off, pending further discussion. The Prime Minister’s remarkable decision to step in and decide previously unallocated FM spectrum could be made available to keep Radio New Zealand Concert on air won plaudits and should have been the end of the matter.

However, it seems that Radio New Zealand is still struggling to come to grips with being put in its place so emphatically. All it will admit to is a “miscommunication” over the original announcement – whatever that means – and that it now needs a few days to absorb the impact of the Prime Minister’s intervention. Moreover, it is not prepared to give any guarantees about the future of Concert’s current staff. Yet the public’s expectation (and one suspects, the Prime Minister’s as well) is less ambiguous, that Radio New Zealand Concert will now be retained as it is currently, staff and all.

The remarkable silence throughout of the Minister of Broadcasting to whom the Radio New Zealand board reports is telling. Does he not realise he has been run rough-shod over by them, and made to look quite inadequate by the intervention of his Prime Minister? Even while Radio New Zealand continued equivocating about what this week’s Cabinet decision actually meant, the Minister was still keeping his head well down. Instead, to prove he is still worth his job and that his government is still in charge, he needs to be calling in the Board and leaving them in no doubt of both his displeasure at the way all this has unfolded, and his clear expectation there will be no similar repeat in  the future. Otherwise, he will be left looking just as weak as his colleague the Minister of Education.

But the biggest example of the timidity of current leadership looks likely to be the way the Deputy Prime Minister is treated over the New Zealand First Foundation investigations. This is not the place to express any judgment on the allegations that have come to light – they are now matters for the Serious Fraud Office. However, where there have been previous cases of allegations being made against Ministers being investigated by either the Police or other law enforcement agencies, the practice under successive governments has normally been for the Minister to stand aside until the matter has been resolved. Under the Helen Clark Labour-led government, for example, this happened to Ministers Samuels, Field, Dalziel, Dyson, Parker, and even Peters at various stages.

Based on that precedent, it would not be unreasonable to expect it to now apply to the Deputy Prime Minister pending the outcome of the Serious Fraud Office investigation. However, the current Prime Minister is no Helen Clark, so will not act. Indeed, she has gone so far as to express, albeit after some media prodding, confidence in the Deputy Prime Minister, and to reject all calls for her intervention. Of course, it would be extremely politically difficult for her to do so, given the threat potentially posed to the maintenance of her coalition. But it is inevitable that any stench of taint that lingers from the New Zealand First Foundation investigations will eventually envelope her as well, her current distancing and inaction notwithstanding.

The overall impression left by each of these cases is that while Labour talks big about transparency and accountability it quickly retreats into its shell whenever challenged to match the rhetoric with action.


Wednesday, 5 February 2020

A perennial undercurrent of recent general election campaigns has been the issue of party fundraising. With the emerging controversies this year over the shadowy role of the New Zealand First Foundation and the Serious Fraud Office’s decision to prosecute four individuals over the way in which a since returned donation to the National Party was accounted for, this year’s election campaign promises to be no different.

The Electoral Act contains a number of very specific provisions about how political parties and candidates are to account for the funds they raise, and the Electoral Commission has played a role in policing those. However, their specificity and the petty nature of many of the requirements has led parties and candidates over the years to explore various imaginative ways of getting around them or minimising their impact.

At the same time, parliamentary parties have similarly sought to maximise their electioneering opportunities from their Parliamentary funding to supplement whatever funds they raised externally. And they have become equally inventive and skilled in this regard. Over the latest summer, for example, Labour MPs ran billboards sporting large smiling photos of themselves promoting a banal and obvious message to drive safely over the holidays. This had nothing to do with road safety at all, but everything to do with promotion of the MPs concerned at the start of election year, and all within the rules at the taxpayers’ expense. National MPs have been no less diligent – the glossy electorate newsletters featuring a series of awkwardly staged photographs, and even more trite questionnaires “to find out what you think” are just as much about promoting the  MPs they feature, as are the Labour billboards. The implicit notion that through these devices both Labour and National are “communicating” with those they seek to represent is as facile as it is fatuous.

In 2006, after the uproar over Labour’s taxpayer funded “Pledge Card” at the 2005 election the then Auditor-General conducted an investigation into expenditure of public funds by Parliamentary parties and concluded that most parties were spending their public funding improperly. That was ultimately self-defeating. While it led to a further arbitrary tightening of the rules, it also set off a new round of devices being employed by MPs to get around them.

Now I am not arguing against the corny billboards or the trite newsletters, per se – MPs must be able to promote themselves, their activities and their views to their constituents to enable a fair assessment of their worth come election time. But I am saying that the current plethora of Parliamentary and electoral rules are a nonsense that do more to encourage developments like the creation of institutions like the New Zealand First Foundation, or the breaking up of donations into smaller amounts to stay below a legislative threshold, than they do to eliminate them. While the rules may be a bureaucrat’s dream, giving more power than could ever be considered reasonable to petty non-elected officials like those who populate the Electoral Commission, they simply do not work, as current events show.

There is an obvious and simple solution to this that politicians who love preaching personal responsibility for others should be prepared to adopt for themselves. Scrap all the rules regarding the use of their allocated Parliamentary funding by individual MPs and their parties and replace them with a simple requirement for every MP and their party to file an annual audited return of their specific Parliamentary expenditure. The public would quickly prove to be far better monitors of what was reasonable use of public funds by politicians than any set of confusing, ambiguous and often contradictory Parliamentary rules could ever be.

At the same time, all the financing provisions of the Electoral Act could be abolished and replaced with one simple overarching provision: every donation made to a candidate or a political party, whether in kind or cash, from overseas or within New Zealand, whether it be $1 or $1,000,000, should be fully disclosable.  This would place the onus fairly and squarely on the party or candidate to be absolutely transparent about whom and where they were receiving contributions from, while at the same time protecting their freedom of choice and association.

The chances of this happening are close to zero, as no party, however much it might like to lecture others on the subject, would ever submit to that level of transparency.  Nor could the electoral officials and associated academic and legal fusspots who love nit-picking over these issues even tolerate the notion that people other than them could ever be trusted to be accountable in this way. Their whole careers have been built after all on their smug self-belief they know what is best for others.

So, the more the rules are tightened and tinkered with, the more bureaucratic checks that are imposed, the one certainty is the more politicians and political parties will simply engage in even more elaborate ways of getting around them. And the more we should come to expect election years being clouded by the types of funding controversies we are seeing already this year.