Tuesday, 20 February 2018

National’s Moderates May Win This Leadership Battle – But Can They Win The War?

All Smiles - For Now: A victory for the moderate Amy Adams will not sit well with the National Party rank-and-file who, pretty obviously, favour the more right-wing Judith Collins for the role of Opposition leader. Moreover, the longer the race continues, the more pressure Collins’ rank-and-file supporters will be able to apply to their local and/or List MPs to give her their support.

IN THE RACE FOR OPPOSITION LEADER, the numbers are solidifying around Amy Adams. A consensus is forming among the journalists of the Parliamentary Press Gallery that Adams, with 20 votes, is at least 2 or 3 votes ahead of her nearest rival, Simon Bridges. The moment Adams assures the National Party Board that she has no intention of dispensing with the services of National’s chief strategist, Steven Joyce, her lead will advance by at least 4 votes. At that point, Adams will be only 4 or 5 votes shy of the 29 votes she needs to become Leader of the Opposition. If Mark Mitchell can be enticed into Adams’ camp (with the offer of the Deputy’s spot, perhaps?) then it will require only 1 further defection from either Team Bridges or Team Collins for the game to be over.

A victory for Adams will not sit well with the National Party rank-and-file who, pretty obviously, favour Judith Collins for the role of Opposition leader. Moreover, the longer the race continues, the more pressure Collins’ rank-and-file supporters will be able to apply to their local and/or List MPs to give her their support.

Team Collins’ argument that only their candidate has the strength and decisiveness to keep National polling in the mid-40s is already beginning to tell with those MPs positioned at the bottom of National’s Party List contingent. Indeed, some have already moved quietly to join Collins’ very small band of supporters – just 4 to 7 strong at this stage.

From the vantage points of both Adams and the National Board, it therefore makes sense to hold the Leadership ballot as soon as possible.

The less time Team Collins has to raise a clamour from the membership for their candidate’s election, the easier it will be for Team Adams to nibble away at the edges of Bridges’ support.

The Board, meanwhile, has every reason to fear that Collins’ efforts to rouse the membership could very easily set the National Party up for exactly the same “Us” versus “Them” struggle that tore the Labour Party apart between 2011 and 2013. (That was the fight which erupted after Labour’s parliamentary caucus imposed a leader on the wider party organisation that it clearly did not want.) A swift and decisive victory by Adams would, from the Board’s point of view, be less likely to provoke such a debilitating outcome.

The pressure is, therefore, on Adams to accede quickly to Joyce’s and Mitchell’s demands, so that, having pocketed their votes, she can commence the deal-making required to deflate Bridge’s numbers.

This is the point at which Bridges would be well advised to secure what he can from his position (a place in Adam’s “Kitchen Cabinet”, perhaps?) by magnanimously marching as many of his followers as possible into her camp and, figuratively, crowning her National’s Queen before the smoke of battle has had time to clear. The title of “Queenmaker” is not one to be discarded lightly!

With the serried ranks of the now largely unified National Caucus arrayed against her, Collins could elect to either fight it out to the bitter end, or, to lower her banners and join in Adams’ victory feast.

That meal need not taste too bitter in Collins mouth. After all, a victory for Adams can only be interpreted as a victory for the Key-English status-quo. Collins and her followers, convinced as they are that, ideologically-speaking, that status-quo has positioned National well to the left of where its members and voters believe it should be, need only wait for the polls to register conservative New Zealand’s disappointment at the National caucus’s failure to elect their champion. When that happens, Team Collins’ banners can, once again, be unfurled; and the battle for the heart and soul of the National Party can recommence – minus Amy Adams.

UPDATE: This morning (20/2/18) Steven Joyce further complicated National’s leadership contest by announcing his own candidacy for the top job. Clearly, the contest is now set to run until Tuesday 27 February. Team Collins will, therefore, re-double its efforts to mobilise the National Party rank-and-file in her support. Also stepping-up their effort will be National’s Board. It is now absolutely imperative that the two front-runners – Amy Adams and Simon Bridges – strike a deal. With Labour at its highest poll-rating in 15 years, the last thing National needs is a divided Opposition caucus.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 20 February 2018.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

“The Data Is Simply Not Available, Minister.”

SIR HUMPHREY APPLEBY: "Yes Minister, promising to build 500,000 affordable homes would be a very courageous policy, indeed!"

IS LABOUR getting Sir-Humphreyfied on housing? For younger readers, Sir Humphrey Appleby is one of the leading protagonists in Antony Jay’s and Jonathan Lynn’s incomparable 1980s television satire “Yes Minister”. So compelling was the Sir Humphrey character (played to perfection by the late Nigel Hawthorne) that his name quickly became synonymous with the obfuscating, prevaricating, manipulative and often downright misleading senior civil servant who steers his ministerial master away from his better instincts towards the maintenance of the bureaucratic and political status quo.

Dr Chris Harris, a specialist in urban design and planning, raised the Sir Humphrey question with me after a careful reading of “Stocktake of New Zealand’s Housing”, the study authored by Alan Johnson of the Salvation Army, Otago Public Health Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman and economist Shamubeel Eaqub, which was released by the Housing Minister, Phil Twyford, on Monday afternoon.

One figure, in particular, caught his attention. This was Figure 3.4 “New Dwellings Consented, By Owner Type, 1970-2017” (see below). It’s most notable feature, explained Dr Harris, was the extraordinary spike in new dwelling consents which followed the election of the Third Labour Government, led by Norman Kirk, in 1972.


The graph shows consents flat-lining at around 23,000 per year in 1970, 1971 and 1972. Between the end of 1972 and the beginning of 1974, however, the number of dwelling consents shot up to an astonishing 39,000.

The first and most obvious question that springs to mind is: “How on earth did the Kirk Government do it?” Finding the answer to that question would, surely, be of considerable assistance to Minister Twyford as he sets about tackling New Zealand’s appalling shortage of affordable housing?

Presumably, the same thought occurred to the “Stocktake” authors. What was their conclusion? That’s when Dr Harris’s eye fell upon the concluding sentences of the paragraph printed immediately below Figure 3.4:

“While current levels of new house building compare favourably with the low levels of construction seen immediately after the global financial crisis, during the period 2009 to 2011, these current volumes are not historically exceptional particularly compared with the early 1970s. However, data on government involvement in the 70s boom is not available.”

Get that? Information on the way in which the Kirk Government managed to nearly double the number of houses being consented “is not available”. (My emphasis.)

In his e-mail alerting me to this extraordinary omission, Dr Harris writes:

“Note the last sentence! In fact, you can find out quite a lot from consulting the on-line NZ Official Yearbooks of the time. State Advances credit, available for actual housing construction but not speculation since 1919, was increased. And on top of that there was as yet no Accommodation Supplement to fritter away government housing money, so that it very much went on actual building. There was also a shift from building large stand-alone houses on the city fringe to building lots and lots of small and affordable flats in more urban locations, which is where the real shortage was, and had long been. And this was all directed from the top by Big Norm.

“Norman Kirk re-founded the old-time Ministry of Works as the Ministry of Works and Development in 1973, and founded the Housing Corporation in 1974, also to try and get more houses and flats built. It turned out that urban flats proved easiest and quicker to build once central government weighed-in to overcome the usual obstacles. This was a really important part of the recipe for getting runs on the board quickly. Our cities are still full of flats built in the 1970s – the standards were higher than in later decades. Mass-produced hollow concrete blocks, suitably reinforced, were the building material of choice. Concrete block walls signify a 1970s flat in the same way that a tiled roof is typical of a 1940s state house. 

“Big Norm's policy of pulling out as many stops as possible and focusing on flats really did work surprisingly quickly and the proof is in the consent graph. Our population back then was only a bit over three million, so the graph actually understates the success of the policies of the 1972-1975 Labour Government.

“Actual builds are always a bit less than consents granted. In the early 1970s the peak rate for actual housing construction was 34,300 units built in one year. This roughly equates to 50,000 a year today, if not more, and that nice round number might explain why Shamubeel Eaqub challenged the government to see to it that 500,000 housing units are built in ten years.

“Interestingly enough, few of the houses built under Kirk's administration were state houses. To get things moving quickly, the policy was very much one of collaboration with commercial builders and developers, who were offered guarantees to go and work flat out building small affordable units without worrying too much where the money was coming from, or whether the consent was going to be approved.”

Dr Harris goes on to observe:

“You have to wonder whether there is some kind of an embargo on the level of government activism that led to such a boost in housing production in the early 1970s. It's like an episode of Yes Minister in which the bureaucrats have hidden all the relevant files and the politicians don’t notice that they’re missing straight away. Adding to suspicion of a stitch up by a business-as-usual brigade is the fact that the word ‘credit’ does not appear in the report and there is only spotty and empirical reference to ‘finance’. So, no need to frighten the banks in other words. There also doesn't seem to be any mention of the really important part played by central government institutions in making things happen more effectively and in a streamlined way back in the past: institutions such as the State Advances Corporation, the MWD – which the Rogernomes abolished in 1988 while dialling-back state construction lending at the same time – and the Housing Corporation. The Housing Corporation is still with us of course, but only in a feeble and gutted sort of a way.”

Here, perhaps, is the explanation for Shamubeel Eaqub’s extraordinary forthrightness during Monday’s media conference in the Beehive Theatrette. With barely concealed frustration at what he clearly regards as the new government’s half-hearted housing effort, he urged the governing parties to break free of the fiscal “straightjacket” in which they are currently restrained by Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s Budget Responsibility Rules.

The last thing the “Sir Humphrey’s” at the top of our own civil service want, deeply imbued as they are with the neoliberal economic orthodoxy which has guided New Zealand public policy for more than 30 years, is for “their” ministers to begin searching back through the historical record to discover how, forty years ago, a newly-elected Labour Government responded to the needs of its people by – of all things – fulfilling them.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 17 February 2018.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Princess Stardust versus The Crusher Queen.

Demolition Woman: Who is best placed to demolish Labour's Jacinda Ardern most effectively? Simon Bridges? Amy Adams? Some other National MP of whom the overwhelming majority of conservative voters have heard next to nothing? Or the woman tens-of-thousands of conservative voters already admire for her take-no-prisoners approach to parliamentary politics – Judith “Crusher” Collins?

IT’S GOT TO BE JUDITH COLLINS. There will be many in National’s caucus who bridle at the very suggestion of Collins replacing Bill English. “She’s too divisive!”, they’ll cry. “She carries too much baggage”, others will mumble. “It would be the Woman of Yesterday going up against the Woman of Today”, the pundits will pronounce. “Jacinda’s relentless positivity would leave Collins battered and bleeding in the rubble of her negativity.”

And all of them would be missing the point.

The sort of leader the Right chooses when the Left has been in power for nine years is always very different from the leader it chooses when the Left has been in power for less than nine months. The former needs to present himself as the friend of continuity: the man who will hold the country together; the fresh pair of eyes in a familiar landscape. The latter must be a demolition agent: someone who can smash to pieces the dangerous installations of left-wing radicalism; a living rebuke to socialism in all its forms: a crusher.

The most vivid exemplar of the National-Party-leader-as-demolition-agent was, of course, Rob Muldoon. The redoubtable Norman Kirk, himself, would have struggled to match the political force-of-nature that was Muldoon. The mild-mannered Bill Rowling stood no chance at all.

What do you say to a man who wisecracks to his followers that he has seen “the shivers running ‘round Bill Rowling’s body looking for a spine to crawl up”? (And here you were thinking it was Donald Trump who invented that sort of political invective!)

Muldoon’s weapon-of-choice against the Rowling-led Labour Government was his self-proclaimed mastery of all things economic. Presented with the political gift of the 1973 Oil Shock – which injected a virulent booster-shot of commodity price inflation into the already inflation-plagued economies of the West – Muldoon seized upon the Labour Government’s policy of borrowing heavily overseas (to prevent the New Zealand economy from falling into recession) as proof of its economic recklessness.

Given that the debate on whether or not Grant Robertson should relax his grip on the nation’s purse-strings is likely to grow ever more heated over the next few months, it would make sense for National to elect a leader who is ready, willing and able to expose and exploit the divisions over the proper level of public debt already widening within the government’s ranks.

Who is best placed to do this most effectively? Simon Bridges? Amy Adams? Some other National MP of whom the overwhelming majority of conservative voters have heard next to nothing? Or the woman tens-of-thousands of conservative voters already admire for her take-no-prisoners approach to parliamentary politics – Judith “Crusher” Collins?

The expectation of a head-to-head contest between the Kiwi equivalents of Game of Thrones antagonists Daenerys Targaryen and Cersei Lannister extends well beyond the boundaries of the political Right. Collins is one of those rare politicians who, like Rob Muldoon, are able to imbue their bids for leadership with a sense of political inevitability.

Jacinda Arden displayed considerable political skill in masking the scale of her ambition until she was certain of success. From the moment she trounced Julie Anne Genter in the Mt Albert by-election, however, that same sense of inevitability was all around her as well.

It was the tragedy of Bill English’s career that, in spite of his supporters’ best efforts, not quite enough New Zealanders were able to look at him and see a prime minister. A highly competent finance minister? Yes. But, a prime minister? Yeah-Nah.

The question National’s caucus needs to ask itself is how many New Zealanders look at Simon Bridges, or Amy Adams, and say to themselves: “That person is going to be prime minister one day.” Does either politician possess that twinkle in the eye; that infuriatingly knowing smirk; which betrays the leader’s intimate acquaintance with Destiny?

The other factor National’s caucus needs to consider is whether its leadership candidates are strong enough to truly test Jacinda? This is the question that the Labour caucus and party never answered honestly in relation to John Key. It would be astonishing if the National Opposition repeated the folly of sending one leaden amateur after another to do battle with such a consummate sprinkler of stardust.

It is a huge mistake in politics to pit like against like.

Judith is nothing like Jacinda.


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, 16 February 2018.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

The Second Coming Of National's Rough Beasts.

Its Hour Come Round At Last: Instead of being thankful that New Zealand’s democratic constitution transforms days of retribution into peaceful transitions of power from one combination of political parties to another, National's far-right seethes with frustration, and consoles itself with fantasies of imposing a day of retribution of its own. On that day, all those who have deprived them of their rightful power and status will get what’s coming to them.

WHAT ROUGH BEAST SLOUCHES towards Wellington to be born? What sort of National Party are the people who brought down Bill English trying to establish? And will there be enough reasonable men and women in National’s caucus on Tuesday, 27 February to stop them?

In the movie, Schindler’s List, the hero, Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson) attempts to persuade the SS labour-camp commandant, Amon Goeth (played by Ralph Fiennes) to refrain from picking-off random prisoners with his hunting rifle. For a few days, Schindler’s appeal appears to be working. Eventually, however, the commandant’s murderous impulses get the better of him and he resumes his deadly sport.

For 12 years, Bill English has played the role of Oskar Schindler: cajoling, persuading and, on occasion, outmanoeuvring the far-right of the National Party into running with a moderate, liberal-conservative political agenda. It was by trading on the popular appeal of this agenda that John Key and Steven Joyce were able to give the National Party three general election victories in a row.

Not that English was some sort of bleeding-heart liberal in disguise. On the contrary, his Catholic faith mandated a deeply conservative stance on many of the social issues which Key supported as proof of National’s liberal bona fides. By the same token, however, it was English’s Catholic faith that caused him to reject the swingeing economic austerity measures imposed by right-wing finance ministers in the UK, Canada and Australia.

Not only was English convinced that austerity was economically ineffective, but he also recognized that it was politically counter-productive. Not that the economic and social policies of the Key-English era were entirely benign – far from it. The National Right had to be appeased with anti-worker and anti-beneficiary measures that were intended to – and did – inflict a great deal of unnecessary suffering on tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders. In the hands of a different finance minister, however, matters could have been a great deal worse.

This was the knowledge with which the National Right, like SS Commandant Goeth, found it so difficult to be reconciled. Why be just a little oppressive of the poor and marginalised when you possess the power to grind their faces in the dust? Why restrict oneself to fastening legal leg-irons on the trade unions when you can legislate the evil socialist bullies out of existence altogether?

For the far-right, political power only becomes real when it is used. To exercise restraint is to allow those within your power to set the limits of their own persecution. Far from being a manifestation of strength (as Schindler suggested to Goeth) the willingness to exercise restraint is a craven demonstration of weakness.

In his fascinating Newsroom essay on Bill English’s political career, Bernard Hickey describes the occasion upon which his subject was so moved by the recollection of his own and his wife Mary’s family histories that he wept:

“He talked of his admiration for his father-in-law’s family ethos and hard work in raising a big family in Wellington, despite the struggles of arriving with little from Samoa in an unfamiliar city. He also talked about a quiet chat he had with a kaumatua on a marae about the problems of Maori youth, and the need for strong communities with their own resources. His point was that he admired the self-reliance and quiet conservatism of family and community life. He saw his role as helping those communities and pulling Government out of the way to let them get on with it. It wasn’t an ugly or dry form of libertarian scorched-earth politics. It was a deeply humane and thoughtful approach where Government was supposed to treat people with empathy and dignity and as individuals, rather than as just another beneficiary locked into welfare for life. His views on helping to lift people out of poverty were a precursor to his championing of the social investment approach, which he was only just starting to roll out through the Government as Labour returned to power in late October.”

It was during this part of his talk that English was obliged to pause for a few moments:

“The tears rolled down his nose and splashed onto the lectern. You could hear a pin drop. The audience was with him though. English's story was utterly authentic and thoughtful and showed a depth of humility and humanity that struck a chord that night. He got a standing ovation when he finished.”

English’s moderate conservatism, Hickey seems to be saying, is born out of a love for ordinary people. By contrast, the vicious conservatism of the far-right is born out of the gnawing fear that ordinary people might one day decide to exact retribution from those who have found it expedient to grind their faces in the dust. That fear begets hate which, in turn, is translated into institutional and physical violence. The great paradox of far-right aggression, however, is that by oppressing the poor, the marginalised and the dispossessed it only brings the terrifying day of retribution closer.

Instead of being thankful that New Zealand’s democratic constitution transforms these days of retribution into peaceful transitions of power from one combination of political parties to another, however, the far-right seethes with frustration, and consoles itself with fantasies of imposing a day of retribution of its own. On that day, all those who have deprived them of their rightful power and status will get what’s coming to them.

That’s where we are now. English’s moderation is deemed, by his colleagues, to have failed the National Party. New, and much more aggressive leadership is required. Those panderers to, and enablers of, the poor and marginalised – Labour and the Greens – must be driven from the Treasury Benches as quickly as possible. And Winston Peters, that conservative turncoat and traitor, must be cast into the ninth circle of political hell – and his worthless party with him.

William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet, saw it all happening nearly a century ago, in the fretful aftermath of the First World War. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity”, he wrote in his most famous poem, The Second Coming.

The final lines of that poem can still send a chill down the spine:

… but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


This essay was jointly posted on Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog of  Thursday, 15 February 2018.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Taking Stock: Is the Government Doing Enough to End the Housing Crisis?

A Fading Dream: “The past 25 years have seen the gradual demise of the so-called Kiwi Dream – a place where home ownership and the economic independence which this offers, was within reach of most working families. Home ownership rates have fallen to a 60-year low and could fall further. These falls have been alongside rapid house price inflation in many parts of New Zealand and, with this, deteriorating affordability. We are quickly becoming a society divided by the ownership of housing and its related wealth and recent housing and tax policy settings appear to have exacerbated this division.” - Stocktake of New Zealand's Housing, 12 February 2018.

THE FULL MAGNITUDE of the housing crisis confronting the new government stands revealed in its Stocktake of New Zealand’s Housing. Released this morning, the document paints a far worse picture of the situation than even the parties now in government presented to voters from the opposition benches.

In the words of the three authors of the stocktake, Alan Johnson of the Salvation Army, Otago Public Health Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman and economist Shamubeel Eaqub:

“The past 25 years have seen the gradual demise of the so-called Kiwi Dream – a place where home ownership and the economic independence which this offers, was within reach of most working families. Home ownership rates have fallen to a 60-year low and could fall further. These falls have been alongside rapid house price inflation in many parts of New Zealand and, with this, deteriorating affordability. We are quickly becoming a society divided by the ownership of housing and its related wealth and recent housing and tax policy settings appear to have exacerbated this division.”

The policies advanced by the Labour-NZF-Green government in response to New Zealand’s housing crisis – most particularly Labour’s KiwiBuild initiative – no longer impress informed observers as either bold or comprehensive enough to bring about a speedy resolution of the crisis. On the contrary, they seem doomed to fail: there being neither the material, nor the human, resources required to make them succeed.

One has only to look back at the first great wave of state-initiated and funded house construction to appreciate the full scale of the difficulties confronting the new government.

Between 1936 and 1949 the first Labour government was responsible for the construction of 30,000 state houses. In other words, over a period of 13 years, the Department of Housing Construction and its private sector contractors were able to build fewer than a third of the number of dwellings which the present government has promised to build in ten!

What’s more, those 30,000 state houses were built at a time when the New Zealand economy was awash with unemployed labour and underutilised resources impatient to be set to work. Labour’s state housing programme was the New Zealand equivalent of US President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal”: a massive public works programme designed to both enhance the nation’s quality of life and provide steady and well-paid employment for its people.

One of the ways the First Labour Government accomplished these goals was by mandating the use of local materials in state house construction. This decision gave an immediate and massive boost to all those businesses ancillary to the construction industry. To help the private sector keep pace with the state-induced demand, the Department of Housing Construction established two publicly-owned factories dedicated to producing the standardised joinery used in state house interiors.

The present government’s chief promoter of the CPTPP, David Parker, might pause to consider that such a policy of buying and using only Kiwi-made and sourced materials is expressly forbidden in practically all of the free-trade agreements New Zealand has signed since 1984 – including the CPTPP.

The state housing programme of 1936-1949 involved an unprecedented mobilisation of New Zealand’s human and material resources to construct a total of 30,000 dwellings. Even allowing for the fact that New Zealand’s population has more than doubled in size, how likely is it that Labour’s Phil Twyford is going to out-build Jack Lee’s Department of Housing Construction by a factor of 3 – in just 10 years?

Is it even remotely feasible that: from a tight labour market already suffering serious skill shortages; and from a construction sector already running at full-tilt; this government will be able to elicit an average of 10,000 additional houses per year?

Because, just to be clear, that total of 30,000 state houses constructed between 1936 and 1949 was over-and-above the normal total of dwellings commissioned and constructed by and for private companies and individuals. It is not yet clear whether Twyford’s promise of 100,000 “affordable homes” between 2017 and 2027 is on-top-of, or included-in, the output of private house construction.

It is important to remind ourselves at this point that Twyford’s “affordable” KiwiBuild homes are expected to sell for between $500,000 and $600,000 – a price completely beyond the reach of the tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders who possess neither a home of their own, nor a secure tenancy in somebody else’s.

For these: the working-poor on rock-bottom wages; Kiwis struggling to survive on a benefit; and, increasingly, for pensioners without a freehold home of their own; the Labour-NZF-Green government is promising to build just 1,000 state houses a year.

With the findings from the Stocktake of New Zealand’s Housing in their hands. With their heads chock-full of data showing how desperate New Zealand’s housing situation has become, Mr Twyford and his colleagues are proposing to build 1,307 fewer state houses than Jack Lee and the First Labour Government managed to build in a little country laid flat by the greatest depression in human history – eighty years ago.


This essay was posted simultaneously on Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 13 February 2018.

No Matter Whether You’re Red Or Blue – You Must Keep Paddling In Your Own Canoe.

Each To Their Own: More than any other party, NZ First has good reason for seeking legislative protection against “waka jumping”. It was, after all, NZ First that, in August 1998, was forced to watch eight members of its caucus jump out of their own party’s waka to become either solo kayakers or de facto paddlers in National’s.

SHOULD MEMBERS OF PARLIAMENT be permitted to jump from their own party’s waka into the waka of another political party? The question is more than rhetorical because under the provisions of the Election (Integrity) Amendment Bill, currently before Parliament’s Justice Select Committee, political defection by parliamentarians will render them liable to expulsion from the House of Representatives.

Introduced last December by Justice Minister, Andrew Little, in fulfilment of the coalition agreement between Labour and NZ First, the Bill is being strenuously opposed by the National Party and Act. The Greens, having supported the legislation’s introduction, are now entertaining some pretty outspoken second thoughts.

Why the fuss? Who could seriously oppose the idea of penalising politicians who head off to war in the coat of one army only to turn it when the heat of battle grows too hot?

Many New Zealanders would endorse the argument of the bill’s NZ First promoters: If you don’t like what your party is doing, then quit. It is, quite simply, unethical to upset the balance of the House of Representatives by giving another political party, or parties, votes that they did not win.

More than any other party, NZ First has good reason for seeking legislative protection against “waka jumping”. It was, after all, NZ First that, in August 1998, was forced to watch eight members of its caucus jump out of their own party’s waka to become either solo kayakers or de facto paddlers in National’s.

That spectacular act of political mendacity was glossed-over at the time and has remained largely unexamined ever since. National’s supporters were too busy celebrating their escape from the clutches of their erstwhile colleague, Winston Peters. While Labour voters were prepared to write-off the whole episode as but the first instalment in the political retribution NZ First had well-and-truly merited by leaving Helen Clark standing at the altar.

The unacknowledged truth of the matter, however, was that the nature and general policy direction of a New Zealand government had been fundamentally changed without the fuss-and-bother of a general election. The last occasion upon which such a change-of-government-by-political-defection had been accomplished was the destruction of Thomas Mackenzie’s Liberal Government by the Reform Party leader, William Massey, in 1912.

But, if it suited both National and Labour to turn a blind eye to this blatant assault upon New Zealand’s constitutional norms, it was never forgotten by Winston Peters and NZ First. Nor, indeed, by the late Jim Anderton, who had, similarly, been required to sit back and watch as the renegade Alliance MP, Alamein Kopu, took tea with Jenny Shipley and cast her vote with the National Party.

National and Act’s “principled” opposition to the Election (Integrity) Amendment Bill should, therefore, be taken with a grain of salt.

The Opposition’s objection to the legislation, if the speeches of its MPs can be taken seriously, is because Members of the House of Representatives are there to carry out the wishes of their constituents – not the orders of backroom party chieftains.

If that was ever true, then it was only in the era before the establishment of coherent and tightly disciplined political parties. Since the advent of party politics (which in New Zealand dates from around 1890) candidates have taken their parliamentary seats not on the strength of their character and ability, but courtesy of the political colours they stand under, and the support those colours attract.

This crucial role played by political parties has been further entrenched and strengthened by the introduction of Mixed Member Proportional Representation.

That being the case, becoming a political turncoat is not simply an act of personal moral inadequacy, but of constitutional vandalism. New Zealanders elect parties to govern them – not individuals. Members of Parliament who repudiate their party spit in the face of the whole ethos of representative government.

“Oh, but what about the individual member’s conscience!”, cry the waka-jumping legislation’s opponents. “Is that to be sacrificed to faceless party bureaucrats?”

The only answer to that is: “Of course not!” But, that does not mean that members of parliament are free to do as they please. If an MP no longer finds it possible, in good conscience, to support his or her party, then the only ethical course of action is to resign.

That is precisely what Winston Peters did in 1993 (and what Jim Anderton should have done in 1989). By resigning, Peters gave the electors of Tauranga the opportunity to reject or endorse his refusal to toe National’s party line. Would that his colleagues, four years later, had demonstrated a similar respect for the basic tenets of representative democracy.

There really is no need for the Greens to further equivocate on this matter. The only politicians opposing the Election (Integrity) Amendment Bill are those who have no qualms about rorting our representative democracy.


This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 13 February 2018.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Hypothetical Questions.

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?  (Who Will Guard The Guardians Themselves?) All knowledge is power: and the acquisition, by your enemies, of knowledge you’d rather they did not possess, and of whose unauthorised transfer you remain entirely ignorant, could – hypothetically – give them a great deal of power indeed.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP and his White House staff are convinced America’s “Deep State” is out to get them. They’re probably right.

Regardless of their ideological leanings, a persistent base-note of paranoia thrums through the heads of most politicians. In the case of the Trump Administration, however, that drumbeat is growing faster and louder with every passing day. Making it stop is fast becoming a POTUS obsession.

It’s easy to imagine how vulnerable a political leader must feel when it becomes clear that the individuals and institutions charged with protecting the integrity of the state are, simultaneously, being encouraged to gather information about the private life of the head-of-state. Knowing that was happening could easily drive a person onto Twitter in the early hours of the morning!

If New Zealand even has a “Deep State”, then it is unlikely to be a very big or a very scary one. Our population is simply too small for big secrets. Always, there’s someone who knows someone, who heard it from someone who was/is directly involved. The fear of being exposed publicly is almost always enough to prevent those institutions best equipped to undertake covert surveillance of New Zealand’s political leaders – the SIS, the GCSB, the NZDF and the Police – from even considering such a risky mission.

But, what if the surveillance and the reporting-back was being undertaken unofficially? What if a group of renegade state operatives, motivated out of ideological conviction – or baser considerations – decided to act independently, outside the chain-of-command? What if, having seen their superiors escape any kind of meaningful official reprimand for engaging in unethical conduct, they decided to embark on a little free-lance politicking of their own?

Suppose, to illustrate these hypothetical questions, we imagine a small, democratic nation governed by a young, socialist, prime-minister. Like her immediate predecessors, this young prime minister is protected by a group of specially-trained and armed bodyguards.

These bodyguards are, naturally, sworn to keep secret everything they see and hear pertaining to the public and private life of the politician under their protection. Because, of course, anyone spending so much time in such close proximity to another person is bound to witness all kinds of behaviour; overhear all manner of exchanges; which, if wrenched from their context and passed on to an interested third party, could give rise to the most acute political and personal embarrassment.

Now, let us further suppose that a number of this young prime minister’s bodyguards, being strong supporters of the conservative political party which she and her left-wing allies have only recently supplanted, decided to “help” her conservative opponents by feeding them detailed information of a private, personal and politically highly-sensitive nature.

Obviously, our hypothetical prime minister’s hypothetical opponents could not use this information publicly without betraying its source. Nevertheless, the intelligence in their possession would likely prove to be of enormous benefit to them, both strategically and tactically. All knowledge is power: and the acquisition, by your enemies, of knowledge you’d rather they did not possess, and of whose unauthorised transfer you remain entirely ignorant, could – hypothetically – give them a great deal of power indeed.

Not that anything as dangerous as the scenario sketched-out above could possibly unfold in corruption-free New Zealand. Our happy South Pacific democracy is simply too small for really big secrets, and our public servants too big-hearted to pass on its small and private ones to unauthorised persons.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 1 February 2018.