Friday, 9 December 2016

The No. 8 Wire Prime Minister.

Principles? Seriously?  New Zealanders, as a people, are not much given to following theories of any kind. If we subscribe to any philosophy at all it is the philosophy of pragmatism. If a problem can be fixed by using the political equivalent of No. 8 Wire, then “no worries, mate”.
 
JUST HOURS BEFORE HE RESIGNED, the Prime Minister told RNZ’s Kim Hill that “you can’t right the wrongs of the past”. He was responding to questions about the acknowledged ill-treatment of children in state care during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and whether his government was prepared to sanction an independent inquiry into multiple allegations of systemic child abuse.
 
It struck me as an extremely odd thing to say. Not least because righting the wrongs of the past is a cause into which this National Government has poured (and continues to pour) hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.
 
True, the wrongs being righted with government money are not those inflicted upon acutely vulnerable children in the care of state institutions – like the Epuni Boys Home. No. The Crown’s cash is being doled out to compensate Maori iwi and hapu for wrongs inflicted by its representatives as far back as the 1850s, 60s and 70s.
 
What’s more, for the wrongs inflicted upon nineteenth century Maori by the colonial authorities, the present government of New Zealand (usually in the person of the Minister for Treaty Settlements, Chris Finlayson QC) has issued multiple apologies. But, issuing a public apology to the hundreds of young people (a great many of them Maori) who were, according to the testimony of their victims, beaten, tortured and raped by public servants acting in loco parentis: that, apparently, is impossible.
 
That John Key failed to recognise the extraordinary inconsistency embedded in his response to Kim Hill’s questions speaks volumes about the way he and his government have played the game of politics.
 
Mr Key and his ministers do not come at the nation’s problems with solutions informed by a common philosophical understanding of the world. If they did, then the need to inquire into the alleged injustices suffered by state wards would be as pressing as the need to inquire into the alleged injustices suffered by Maori iwi and hapu. And if those injustices were proved, then the need for proper compensation, and a public expression of culpability and regret, would be just as apparent.
 
Lacking a common philosophy, National’s ministers are forced to respond to economic and social problems in an ad hoc, piecemeal fashion. They do not appear to recognise that much of the advice they receive is underpinned by philosophical and ideological assumptions with which their party has little affinity. Assumptions flatly contradicted by the arguments ministers use to convince and/or placate the public.
 
Public Choice Theory, for example, seeks to limit the power of state providers to “capture” the processes by which services are delivered to the public. Those who subscribe to the theory are, consequently, searching constantly for ways to disrupt and “downsize” bureaucratic systems. Government ministers, on the other hand, have often attempted to “sell” such measures as the only way of shifting scarce resources to the people on “the front lines” of service delivery.
 
It would be wrong, however, to suggest that philosophical inconsistency is a failing which constantly occupies the mind of the ordinary Kiwi voter. New Zealanders, as a people, are not much given to following theories of any kind. If we subscribe to any philosophy at all it is the philosophy of pragmatism. If a problem can be fixed by using the political equivalent of No. 8 Wire, then “no worries, mate”.
 
The problem with this “pragmatic” approach to politics is that, eventually, one’s society finds itself held together by nothing but No. 8 Wire temporary fixes. When every remedy is ad hoc, and every argument is cobbled together to meet the needs of the moment, then the inconsistencies of approach and internal policy contradictions reach a level that even the most “practical” of voters is no longer able to overlook.
 
If it is simply not possible to right the wrongs of the past, as the outgoing Prime Minister insists, then why is the long-suffering taxpayer called upon continually to address the wrongs inflicted upon Maori in the nineteenth century? If it is unreasonable to become too agitated about the way children in state care were treated in the 1960s, then why apologise for the colonial confiscations of the 1860s?

It is to be hoped that Bill English brings to the office of prime minister a more consistent and coherent political philosophy than his predecessor. No. 8 Wire cannot fix everything.
 
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 9 December 2016.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

John Key Bound For The IMF. Real News Or Fake News?

Whaddya Reckon? With everything that's going on in politics at the moment, you might think that the NZ Herald's deputy-political editor would be extremely cautious about rushing into print with a year-old story, based on nothing more than speculation, posted on an obscure Napier website, that turned out to be completely wrong. No such luck.
 
IS JOHN KEY really in the running for Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF)? Well, yes, according to the NZ Herald’s Deputy-Political Editor, Claire Trevett, he is. Upon closer examination, however, Trevett’s story looks a lot more like fake news than real news.
 
Let’s take a look at her source – a speculative opinion piece posted on the Manufacturers Success Connection (MSC) website under the dateline Monday, 21 December 2015 08:38. That’s right – 2015 – just short of one year ago.
 
A year ago the Managing Director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, was embroiled in yet another of the financial-cum-political scandals that have wracked the French Republic over recent years.
 
The anonymous author of the MSC NewsWire story is clearly of the view that since Lagarde had just been told by the French courts that she must stand trial for her role in the so-called “Tapie Affair”, she will soon be standing down from her job at the IMF.
 
The writer further speculates that since there is a “move to place a non-European official at the helm of the IMF”, a “door of opportunity has unexpectedly opened to enable New Zealand prime minister, John Key, to maintain his upward trajectory in the form of becoming managing director of the International Monetary Fund.”
 
Except that the “door of opportunity” was closed, and has remained firmly shut.
 
Christine Lagarde is still the Managing Director of the IMF. Her Board of Directors were in no mood to lose the services of their high-flying employee. Citing the legal doctrine of the presumption of innocence, they were happy to keep Madame Lagarde exactly where she was.
 
The other problem with the MSC NewsWire story is that if there ever was a “move” to place a non-European in the Managing Director’s chair, then it did not get very far. Nor was such a “move” remotely likely to succeed. Ever since the appointment of the first IMF Managing Director, the Belgian Camille Gutt, in 1946, the position has been filled exclusively by Europeans. There has been one each from Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Spain; two from Sweden; and five from France. The chances of John Key sashaying his way down the that particular catwalk are pretty close to nil.
 
The more important question, however, is how did Claire Trevett ever come into possession of a speculative news release issued by a very obscure website – Manufacturers Success Connection – just shy of one year ago? The MSC NewsWire was set up by Napier entrepreneur, Max Farndale, in 2012, and while it’s a lively and a perfectly respectable website, it is not really on a par with Reuters or Associated Press!
 
It would only be speculation, of course, but, in the current political environment, isn’t it highly likely that the dissemination of a story such as this, to a person occupying a critical media post (such as deputy-political editor of the country’s largest newspaper) is going to be the work of the out-going prime minister’s political opponents?
 
All the more reason, you would think, to be extremely cautious about rushing into print with a year-old story, based on nothing more than speculation, posted on an obscure Napier website, that turned out to be completely wrong.
 
The sort of fake news item that you might expect to find on Breitbart News? Certainly. But on the NZ Herald website?
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 7 December 2016.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Winning Mt Roskill The Old-Fashioned Way.

Native Son: One of the reasons Wood was able to generate such spectacular support from Mt Roskill voters is because he is one of them. He and his young family have lived in the electorate for 13 years. During that time he has repeatedly proved himself acceptable to his neighbours by standing, successfully, in local government elections. In an electorate chock-filled with the adherents of many faiths, Wood is a self-acknowledged Christian.
 
IT WAS AN OLD-FASHIONED LABOUR VICTORY, won with old-fashioned Labour weapons, by an old-fashioned Labour candidate. Michael Wood deserves the heartiest congratulations for his stunning success in Mt Roskill. Capturing two-thirds of the votes cast is an impressive achievement no matter which way you slice it. Labour is, therefore, entitled to a few moments of self-congratulation at Wood’s success – but only a few. Because the party’s low membership, and its perilously stretched budget, will make it almost impossible to replicate Wood’s success across the country in 2017.
 
Wood threw everything bar the kitchen-sink into holding Mt Roskill for Labour. Beginning his campaign weeks before the by-election was officially announced, he made sure his name and face were everywhere Roskillians looked. They simply couldn’t escape him! Nor could they escape the vast army of volunteers Wood managed to enlist for the duration of his campaign. Canvassers and pamphlet-droppers from all over Auckland – and much farther afield – poured into the electorate in a very passable imitation of the Labour Party machine which had propelled the likes of Phil Goff into Parliament in the early-1980s.
 
And there’s the rub. Electioneering in the early-1980s took place under the rules of First-Past-The-Post (FPP). The very same rules that, in 2016, apply only to – you guessed it – by-elections. Under FPP, and in by-elections, the electors have only one vote to cast. So, there is no chance that, having identified the voters intending to vote for your party’s candidate, and driven them to the polling place, they decide to give their Electorate Vote to your candidate, and their Party Vote to an opposing party.
 
This is exactly what happened in Mt Roskill in 2014. Phil Goff won easily with 55 percent of the Electorate Vote, but National won the all-important Party Vote by more than 2,000 votes. The Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system which has operated in New Zealand since 1996, by allowing electors to “split” their two votes between two different parties, has rendered the highly effective “machine” politics of FPP frustratingly unreliable.
 
Except at by-elections. Knowing this, Wood was able to assemble and operate an old-fashioned “election-day system” to “get out the vote” in Mt Roskill.
 
An election-day system is a complex process for identifying how many of your party’s supporters have already voted; how many need a hurry-up; and how many require a lift to the nearest polling-place. How do the political parties know who their supporters are? By knocking on thousands of doors and asking. How do they know if they have, or haven’t, voted? By stationing scrutineers in every polling place.
 
It’s a fearsomely labour-intensive process, requiring upwards of 200-300 volunteers to operate effectively. But, when the canvassing work has been done; the database is up-to-date; and the scrutineers, communicators, checker-offers, telephone operators and drivers have all been trained and deployed; then a candidate can be confident that the overwhelming majority of his or her identified voters will end up casting their ballots. The veteran party leader, Jim Anderton, was so good at running his own election-day system that he could predict, with frightening accuracy, how many votes he would get.
 
This was how Wood “got out” Labour’s vote on 3 December. And, if Labour had a sufficiently large membership, it could look forward to doing the same across the whole country. The problem, of course, is that Labour does not have anything like enough members to get out its optimal vote in 2017.
 
Nor, frankly, does it have anything like enough candidates like Michael Wood. One of the reasons Wood was able to generate such spectacular support from Mt Roskill voters is because he is one of them. He and his young family have lived in the electorate for 13 years. During that time he has repeatedly proved himself acceptable to his neighbours by standing, successfully, in local government elections. In an electorate chock-filled with the adherents of many faiths, Wood is a self-acknowledged Christian.
 
Forty years ago, practically all Labour candidates fitted the above description. In 2016, however, Wood is something of a political throwback: an old-fashioned Labour man more suited to when Labour could boast 85,000 branch members and there was no such thing as the Party Vote.
 
If Andrew Little wishes to replicate Wood’s success, then he will have to make good all of Labour’s current deficiencies. He needs to increase the party’s membership tenfold and replenish its war-chest. He needs to identify, as Wood identified, the most serious problems confronting his supporters and to offer them practical and believable solutions. Finally, he needs to ensure that Labour fields candidates firmly rooted in their communities, whose life experiences and personal values complement those of their voter base.
 
An old-fashioned formula for securing the electoral support of New Zealanders? Perhaps. But as Michael Wood has proved – it works.
 
This essay was originally posted on the Stuff website on Tuesday, 6 December 2016.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

What A Way To Go! Some Initial Thoughts On John Key’s Resignation.

So Long - And Thanks For All The Votes: To leave office undefeated and unpushed; with New Zealand’s economy the envy of the OECD, and with his party hovering implausibly close to 50 percent in the polls; no one has done it before – and it will be a bloody long time before anybody does it again.
 
RELINQUISHING POWER holds almost as many dangers for a political leader as the risky business of acquiring it. If John Key had chosen December 2015 to announce his intention of retiring from politics in December 2016, then the past twelve months would have been a messy combination of House of Cards and Game of Thrones.
 
Factions would have consolidated around the National politicians most likely to succeed, and investors would have put their plans on hold until the shape of the new regime became clear. Politically and economically, giving New Zealand advance warning of his intention to step down would have been a very foolish thing for John Key to have done. And whatever else he may be, John Key is no fool.
 
By surprising everyone with his resignation (and everyone was surprised) and then nominating Bill English as his preferred successor (with Steven Joyce as Finance Minister) Key has ruthlessly restricted the room for manoeuvre of all the other claimants to National’s crown. English’s and Joyce’s principal rivals, Judith Collins and Paula Bennett, are now at risk of being branded “rebel pretenders” to Key’s vacant throne.
 
If either, or both, of these women force the issue to a Caucus vote they will likely be painted as selfish and disruptive by English and Joyce (and Key?) . In the face of the shock and dismay which the Prime Minister’s resignation has occasioned both inside and outside of the National Party, the succession team will argue strongly that the interests of the country are best served by a calm and smooth transition of power. They will insist that the last thing National needs; the last thing New Zealand needs; is for these two ambitious women to plunge the governing party into a bitter struggle for power.
 
Whether or not the combined influence of Key, English and Joyce proves sufficient to squash the ambitions of Collins and Bennett depends on how many members of the National Caucus are willing to persist with Key’s Labour-Lite policy settings. While he could point to three election victories on the trot and consistently favourable poll results, Key’s ideological apostasy, while not forgiven, could, at the very least, be overlooked. With Key gone, however, those wishing to restore National’s right-wing default settings may conclude that the tree of free-market capitalism needs to be watered with the blood of the party’s remaining pragmatists.
 
For Andrew Little and Labour, a win for the National Right would be the best possible outcome of Key’s departure. As Matthew Hooton commented, only this morning, the Labour Party in 2017 will not be running – as Michael Wood was running – against Pamjeet Parmar, but against John Key: a very different proposition altogether. Well, not any more. Labour may have had no answer to the political shape-shifter who dominated New Zealand politics so effortlessly for the best part of a decade, but finding the correct answer to the right-wing sneers of Collins and Bennet - that will not be a problem.
 
Which is why Key left vacant the position of Deputy Prime Minister. His clear message to Collins and Bennett: if you want to fight over something – fight over the deputy’s slot. That way, if English fails to win National a fourth term, a successor will be ready and waiting. Neat.
 
But then, everything about John Key’s fourteen-year run in New Zealand politics has been neat and tidy. Almost as if, at some point early in his career, he had negotiated a deal with Mephistopheles & Partners Ltd.
 
Perhaps that’s it? Perhaps the principal shareholder in Mephistopheles & Partners Ltd has decided to call in his debt? Perhaps John Key’s unprecedented mode of departure was the severance package?
 
To leave office undefeated and unpushed; with New Zealand’s economy the envy of the OECD, and with his party hovering implausibly close to 50 percent in the polls; no one has done it before – and it will be a bloody long time before anybody does it again.
 
What a way to go!
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 5 December 2016.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Prime Minister John Key Resigns.


Why?
 
This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

“Die Boomers, Die!” – A Dispatch From The Future.

"Steady, Charlie, old boy! Breathe!"
 
“The Boomers will be hunted in the streets by marauding Millennials raised on a diet of electronic screens and empathy reducing paracetamol. Buy shares in a razor wire factory would be today’s top tip.”
 
  Excerpt from a comment posted on The Daily Blog
 
 
THE AGED DEFENDERS HEARD THE MOB before they saw it. The rhythmic chanting of “Die Boomers, Die!” and “Fee, Fi, Foe, Fum – we smell the blood of Boomer scum!” Moments later they were shielding their eyes from the sun-bright twinkle of a thousand smart-phone flashes. The Millennials were advancing up the road, taking selfies as they came.
 
“Any sign of the Police?” Charlie Watson spoke into his own cell-phone, as the mob of Millennials flowed up-to-and-around the razor-wire-topped, four-metre-high walls of the retirement village.
 
“Not yet, Charlie. Their dispatcher says that ours isn’t the only village under attack tonight. Word is that the Restful Gardens complex is also under attack.”
 
“Really? I didn’t think these kids were that stupid. Don’t they realise that its full of the parents of Chinese Gen-Xers? The Consulate won’t wait for the Police. The latest revision of the Chinese-New Zealand FTA allows the People’s Republic to use deadly force against anyone threatening the lives or property of Chinese nationals.”
 
“Yes, people are already tweeting that the Consulate’s helicopter gunships are strafing the crowds. Scores of casualties, apparently.”
 
Charlie sighed. “When will they ever learn?”
 
Suddenly, the air was filled with the sound of a screaming car engine. The Millennial sea parted as the electronically-guided vehicle made for the village’s steel gates at top speed.
 
“Driverless rammer!” Charlie yelled into his cell-phone. “Take it out, Bill! Take it out!”
 
Bill Ramsden squeezed the trigger of his 50-calibre machine-gun and watched as the explosive rounds tore the car to a thousand pieces. A great wail went up from the Millennials as the petrol tank exploded in a searing fireball.
 
As if in sympathy, scores of Molotov Cocktails arced through the air. In seconds the village’s prize-winning rose-gardens were ablaze.
 
“Bastards!” Charlie shouted, as his precious blooms burned.
 
Blood-pressure rising dangerously, the old Baby Boomer jammed the butt of his sniper-rifle into his shoulder. His rheumy eye, pressed to the scope, followed the bouncing laser dot as it traversed the bodies seething beneath him.
 
Confronted with their magnified faces, a pang of guilt tightened his throat. They were all so young: burdened down with debts they could never hope to discharge; eking out a precarious living as gig-geeks; cooped-up in the high-rise slums of the Unitary Plan’s sixteenth iteration. These kids could barely afford to eat – let alone equip themselves with the sort of high-powered weaponry authorised by the Boomer-dominated government after the first Millennial hunting-packs had left dozens of elderly bodies strewn along suburban streets.
 
Remembering the fear and outrage that had swept the country after the first attacks, Charlie hardened his heart and brought the laser-dot to rest on the “Non-Voting and Proud!” T-shirt of a bearded hipster working furiously to haul away a dislodged coil of razor-wire. Gripped firmly between his teeth was the Millennial killers’ weapon-of-choice – a wicked-looking hunting knife.
 
“Steady, Charlie, old boy!”, he muttered to himself. “Breathe!” The laser-dot moved steadily upwards and came to rest in the middle of the hipster’s forehead. Charlie’s finger tightened on the trigger.
 
It was only in the split second between the explosive crack of the rifle and the young man’s skull exploding, that Charlie recognised the face of his grand-son.
 
This short story was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Sunday, 4 December 2016.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Banana Split: David Seymour’s Latest Declaration of Intergenerational War.

Millennials Of The World Unite! Act Leader, David Seymour, has issued yet another call for the Millennials to take up arms against the rapacity of the Baby Boomer Generation. As if all the young people of today will not themselves grow old and be succeeded by a new generation of New Zealanders. As if the whole experience of human existence is not a constant process of paying forward and paying back.
 
THAT DAVID SEYMOUR’S latest effusion of political bile is being hosted by The Spinoff is entirely fitting. The ACT leader and his hipster enablers cannot wait to get into the political engine-room, and their chosen path to the centre of power is via fomenting an intergenerational war. The headline attached to Seymour’s piece says it all: “NZ Baby Boomers are Building a Banana Republic, and No One Gives a Shit.”
 
Except that “banana republics” are characterised by obscene extremes of wealth and poverty, authoritarian modes of governance, ruinous levels of corruption, and the irretrievable loss of national sovereignty. In other words, states that have dispensed altogether with democratic politics. That this continues to be Act’s and Seymour’s endgame should surprise no one. But for those who still regard The Spinoff as a platform for serious journalism, its tacit support for Seymour’s plans to incite young citizens to use their votes as weapons against the old may come as a bit of a shock.
 
Seymour’s latest excuse for fanning the flames of Millennial discontent is the Treasury’s most recent Long-Term Fiscal Outlook (LTFO). And, when the Treasury boffins say “long-term” they’re not kidding. Their latest LTFO purports to describe the fiscal position of the New Zealand government in 2056!
 
To put their heroic prognostications into some sort of perspective, ask yourself how much luck someone living in 1916 would have had describing the world of 1956. As Peter Drucker quipped: “Trying to predict the future is like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window.” Which is why the only way to produce a half-way credible LTFO is to proceed on the assumption that current government policy settings remain unchanged for 40 years. If you’re thinking that this reduces the LTFO to a simple exercise in linear extrapolation, then take a bow. That’s pretty much all it is.
 
So, what are the fiscal implications of the current policy settings remaining unchanged for 40 years? Well, not surprisingly, they’re pretty dire. As Seymour, rather breathlessly, puts it:
 
“If no policy changes are made, by 2060, when current students reach retirement age, government debt will be 206 per cent of GDP. In other words national debt will equal two years’ income, worse than the current debt of countries world famous for being fiscally screwed such as Zimbabwe (203 per cent) Greece (179 per cent), Italy (133 per cent) and Portugal (121 per cent). No matter how well you prepare for retirement, you’ll be living in a banana republic.”
 
Unless, of course, we, the voters of New Zealand, taking serious and principled thought for our nation’s future, decide to change the current policy settings.
 
The most obvious way pay for the dramatic increase in human longevity would be to restore a much larger degree of progressivity to New Zealand’s taxation system. Additional measures to improve our future fiscal position might include re-starting government contributions to the Superannuation Fund and making Kiwisaver compulsory. Getting rid of the commercial imperatives currently driving New Zealand’s universities and research institutes into the ground would also help. Neoliberalism is deadening our national imagination.
 
That’s why a thorough-going “deliberalisation” of the whole of New Zealand society would be so helpful. Modelled on the “denazification” of post-war Germany, such an exercise would unleash precisely the sort of pent-up social energy and creativity that the LTFO itself identifies as a the best way of avoiding the long-term fiscal difficulties it is projecting.
 
Not that David Seymour wants a bar of anything even remotely resembling these solutions. He dismisses the option of raising taxes with characteristic venom by presenting it as yet another dastardly imposition by the Baby Boom Generation:
 
“The first way of absorbing [the projected demographic changes] is to raise taxes by about a quarter, so GST becomes nearly 20 per cent and the top tax rate goes over 40 per cent, along with every other rate being increased by the same proportion. People embarking on their careers now would pay a 25 per cent extra “boomer tax” for being born at the wrong time.”
 
As if all the young people of today will not themselves grow old and be succeeded by a new generation of New Zealanders. As if the whole experience of human existence is not a constant process of paying forward and paying back.
 
Utterly dependent when we are born; utterly dependent as we drift inexorably toward death. Isn’t this the universal fate of humanity? As applicable to the richest people in the world as it is to the poorest – and just as inescapable? The true measure of our equality.
 
And isn’t this the dreadful reality that all the pathologically ambitious are running from: that not all the power in the world, nor all the money, can save them from the grave? And isn’t it the true measure of wisdom that, in the end, we come to recognise that we are defined by what makes our fellow human beings’ similar to ourselves – not by what makes them different?
 
As President John F. Kennedy told the students of Washington’s American University in his celebrated commencement address of June 1963 – delivered just six months before his assassination in Dallas:
 
“For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 29 November 2016.