New Zealand politics: Steady as she goes


New Zealand politics are, for the most part a serious case of “Steady as she goes”. No wild swings across the political spectrum, left to right; libertarian to authoritarian.

How have we managed to keep such a steady ship for so long, one might ask. Over the years I have come to identify three key drivers of this which I describe below.

Part of the answer is that Mixed Member Proportional governance has never promoted this by way of encouraging coalition governments instead of single party ones with an outright majority. Coalition governments require deals to be cut with other parties that mean some bold policies that may have been acceptable have to be cast aside in order to secure the co-operation of a larger party (think Labour and the Greens; Labour and New Zealand First; National and New Zealand First). In 1996 for example when New Zealand First did a deal ending nine weeks of negotiations with National, the latter had to agree to give up the privatization of state assets.

A second aspect has been the li(n)es that are told. Politicians who say that they are working for the greater good of the country are often scared to implement changes that might be recommended by an inquiry or by the Ombudsman. Very often they will take the route that appears to be the shortest and easiest to get out of having to handle hot topic issues. In doing so, the legislative might offer up a half cooked solution that will not do the intended job. The politicians of the day will then say “It is the best solution available”, when they actually mean “it was the best solution that we thought was acceptable”. And being largely uncritical of the Government, most New Zealanders will swallow the story whole without thinking twice.

A third aspect is whether political parties are who they claim to be. In New Zealand we have the centre-left Labour and the centre-right National. New Zealand First claims to sit somewhere between the two, whilst the Greens and A.C.T. define the left and right field limits. At its heart, both Labour and National are not so much parties of the centre as their 21st century iterations are two shades of neoliberal. As is New Zealand First, despite its claims to not support trade agreements in their current format, or giving state owned assets to the private sector. Probably only the Greens and A.C.T. are true to their word. A.C.T. is an unashamedly neoliberal party who think market economics are the answer.

Last but not least, New Zealanders have an attitude in society, almost casual in nature to believe that wrongs will somehow come right in good time. It is a carefree attitude that has led to a toxic combination of lax safety at work, casual attitudes to socio-economic policies announced, which is unnecessarily coming to bite many people when and how they least expect it.

Our mediocre progress on economic, social and political changes as needed can be in large part put down to the above three factors and the dash of “she’ll be right”-ness that too many people believe in.

Just how taxing is Labour’s income tax announcement?


(Sung to the Telethon tune) “Thank you very much for your kind taxation. Thank you very very very much”

The above was a National Party advert criticizing the proposed tax policy of then Prime Minister Helen Clark’s government in 2005. Dr Don Brash was leading the National Party, which had finally found its voice to the delight of National’s conservative base.  As the 2020 election campaign begins to ramp up, the political parties are starting to release their major policies after a considerable concern that the 2020 contest was not going to be about ideas.

Interestingly enough, Dr Brash’s proposed tax policy in 2005, despite being leader of the National Party was actually steeper than the announcement yesterday by Treasurer Grant Robertson. Dr Brash had proposed the following brackets (but not as steep as those of Dr Michael Cullen (bold)):

  • Up to $12,500 = 15% ; Up to $9,500 = 15%
  • $12,501-50,000 = 19% ; $9,501-38,000 = 21%
  • $50,001-100,000 = 33% ; $38,001-60,000 = 33%
  • $100,000+ = 39% ; $60,001+ = 39%

In contrast, social activist John Minto once upon a time proposed a 100% income tax on income over $250,000. In other words if you earned that much money, you did not get to see a cent of it. For obvious reasons, aside from Mr Minto not standing for Parliament, his proposals never went ahead. But it was that kind of extremism that prevents me ever supporting a bid by him to stand for public office.

I mentioned my own thoughts about income tax rates in June.

Many on the right will grumble about wealth being taken away from successful, hard working New Zealanders. Wealth and income are quite different classifications. Income is the hard money that your bank account sees, whilst wealth is ones cumulative assets – house/s, car/s, luxury items like boats, expensive jewellery and so forth. One might not have a huge day to day income, many have a share portfolio, investments in gold and so forth.

National and A.C.T. will invariably grumble, as will the Taxpayers Union. What these parties and the T.U. will never admit is that even some prominent former New Zealand politicians, such as former Prime Minister Jim Bolger believe high income New Zealanders should be paying more tax. Which is why it will be all the more interesting to see what their tax policies are and how they will fund expenditure.

Some on the left will grumble too. For entirely different reasons, namely they do not think the changes go nearly far enough. This will include the left-wing of Labour, the Green Party and social activists. They will argue that the Government is not serious about using income taxation to reduce poverty.

Others like me, however, will argue there are other ways in which poverty can be reduced. Tax is certainly useful as a lever to encourage, discourage certain behaviours and to fund programmes, but anyone who has studied poverty in depth will know there is a lot more to it than just this.

 

National and A.C.T. do not value the worker


One of the most important rules of having staff in a work place is to look after them. Aside from the legal obligations that come about as a result of signing contracts, a well cared for staff will return the care shown to them by caring about the company that they work for. A well cared for staff is less likely to be disruptive, less likely to argue among themselves and more likely to support management during times of change.

When I worked at a supermarket job in the early 2000’s, I learnt a few lessons about the work place. The first nearly three years were pretty good as I had a proactive boss, rather than a reactive boss. But around the three year mark I noticed as did the rest of the staff that management were largely invisible. It was difficult to find a duty manager to report to in the mornings; no one interested in conflict resolution among staff, preferring to – in at least one case – boil over into an open argument that dragged in customers. The state of the store declined. Staff presentation declined; no one seemed to mind rubbish being left in trolleys that had been collected.

Then something happened. We got new management. New contracts with an immediate pay rise were issued, as were new uniforms. Staff were made to understand that it was okay to come to management offices if there were concerns. Presentation standards improved. Customer service improved. The staff room was no longer racked by arguments every lunch time and those that did not want to lift their game were quickly shown the door.

National and A.C.T. fundamentally do not understand this. Nor do they appear to want to.

National M.P.’s Chris Penk and Dan Bidois have in recent months both spoken out against workers rights and the responsibilities of employers to care for their workers. More recently National leader Judith Collins and Small Business spokesperson Andrew Bayly suggested that, rest and meal breaks would go, the ban on 90 day trials would be overturned and “costs cut”.

My supermarket job did not teach me much academically, but it taught me a fair bit about workplace politics. It taught me about workers rights, grievance processes and how to resolve disputes as well as health and safety. It taught me about the perils of weakening the very work place laws that Messrs Bidois, Bayly, Penk and Ms Collins seem determined to repeal.

But there are other reasons to be profoundly alarmed by what National and A.C.T. are proposing. New Zealand workers, whilst enjoying comparatively plentiful rights when compared with the United States where there is no federal law requiring a minimum standard of worker rights – sick leave; statutory holiday pay – or working conditions, do have some major disadvantages. Unions have been largely dismantled by neoliberal reforms, meaning organized protests are more difficult; rogue employers get away too easily as we can see with abuses going on in the liquor industry. Our occupational safety and health record is not flash and too many employees operate on a “she’ll be right” basis.

Even small and medium businesses are not keen on the proposals, with one survey suggesting S.M.E. owners might vote Labour in 2020.

 

An honest conversation about COVID19: Ministerial Response


I think we need to be clear up a few points of misunderstanding that people seem to have around New Zealand’s management of COVID19. A combination of misinformation being fed by news agencies such as Newstalk ZB, individuals such as Billy Te Kahika of the New Zealand Public Party and poor communications from Parliament have led to an unfortunate fog of confusion that simply does not need to exist. It is incumbent on all who know fact from fiction to make of the truth.

New Zealand has a public service that is, compared to the rest of the world, with the exception of the Scandanavian countries, very transparent about its activities. Successive Government’s have for the most part tried to maintain that transparency, which is why Transparency International has consistently rated New Zealand as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. And there are good reasons for it:

  • Whilst the Government watchdogs such as the Privacy and Human Rights Commissioners are sometimes put under undue pressure by the Government, they enjoy a freedom to operate that simply does not exist in a lot of other countries – the one time I remember a politician making a credible threat was Prime Minister John Key telling the Human Rights Commission to get into line or risk losing its funding
  • We have a high level of media freedom, but also a Broadcast Standards Authority that people can take complaints about the conduct of media outlets to, with a reasonable expectation that they will be looked into and
  • Whilst the Official Information Act is sometimes perceived as not working, is that really a failure of the Act itself, or the agencies that give effect to the Act – like any legislation it is only ever as good as the agency or agencies giving effect to it

So what has this got to do with COVID19?

Quite a lot. These checks are not adequate in my opinion, yet they along with a relatively well working legal system help to ensure that New Zealand’s elected officials and public service work to a high standard. They serve to give the public faith in the system, because the public are able to go explore options such as going to the Ombudsman’s office, or, if that fails, going to the media.

But it also means that the Government of New Zealand has access to information and data that is likely to be of a correspondingly higher standard. The officials that have been working on our COVID19 response will have been informed about the standards of honesty expected and the consequences of not meeting that standard.

Of course there will be a few along the way who do not. What happens to them is in part dependent on what they did, but also how serious their offence was. Most of the failures, are not at Ministerial level, but in lower and middle level management. Thus whilst the Minister is responsible at a national level, they cannot take responsibility for privacy and other reasons for someone failing to to do their job at Auckland airport for arguments sake. The slips at the border were most likely by people in middle management who overstepped their limits, or failed to spot a potential case. In the same way the Minister of Health cannot be responsible for whether a medical practice sacks a nurse or doctor for serious misconduct (in the first case the practice is responsible, but it can be referred to the Nursing Council or Royal College of General Practitioners), the Minister of Transport is not responsible for whether Aviation Security sack Joe Security for failing to direct someone displaying COVID19 symptoms to step aside, whilst appropriate arrangements are made.

So, whilst you are understandably frustrated if someone goes into the community with COVID19, it is not necessarily the Government to blame. They are reliant on everyone under them being honest about what is going on, including whether they are appropriately resourced, trained, staffed and so forth, but it is responsibility of the agencies tasked with the border work to DO the border work.

 

COVID19 in New Zealand: The border question


I want to be clear that I do not advocate its immediate reopening whilst the rest of the world including nearly all of our major trading partners are not in control of their domestic COVID19 situations. There are several very good reasons for doing so, which I will outline shortly, but first I want to examine the situation New Zealand finds itself currently in.

Compared with other countries, our control of COVID19 has by and large been very good. Whereas COVID19 is still killing people in large numbers on a daily basis in numerous western nations, New Zealand has not had a COVID19 death since May. We managed to go 102 days without community transmission being picked up. Even now with community transmission being linked to the current outbreak, with the exception of two cases in Tokoroa in the central North Island who are linked to the Auckland outbreak, nowhere south of Waikato has it.

Is this to say we are doing a perfect job of containing COVID19? Absolutely not. We have made some mistakes and I think it is probably more sheer dumb luck that those mistakes have not made us pay a lethal price, yet. The authorities at the border should all be kitted out in P.P.E. and assume any one or more of the arrivals in front of them is a walking time bomb. Their union should be insisting on it. The same goes for Air New Zealand flight crew, counter staff and terminal customer service crew. All of them should be assuming that they are working in the presence of someone potentially with COVID19.

It was inevitable that another outbreak would eventually occur. We did very well to get 102 days of no community transmission. We managed to go back almost to normal at Level 1 with pretty much all activities, daily routines and associations being able to occur in some form or another. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern always said that there would be a possibility that we might have to go back into some kind of lock down somewhere in New Zealand at some point.

This is not to say that we should now be thinking that with a second – limited scale – lock down in progress that things will now improve long term. Not the way the world is going. Not the way our most immediate potential bubble partners are going. So, with that said, the reasons for not opening the border immediately include:

  1. New Zealand has a number of tiny Pacific Island neighbours in addition to Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Islands. These island/atoll nations are in several cases even more vulnerable than the aforementioned and in the most serious case an outbreak of COVID19 could potentially kill the entire population. I am talking about tiny dependencies such as Wallis and Futuna (French, population 15,000); Norfolk Island (Australian, pop. 2,100); New Caledonia (French, pop. 256,000), among others. We owe to those nations to keep them safe from COVID19.
  2. COVID19’s ability to kill is not to be underestimated. And what really irks me is how people are playing statistical games to justify following the ill-fated Swedish model that has seen a country with just twice our population lose 250x as many of its people as New Zealand has, whilst being saddled with 53x as many cases.
  3. Herd immunity DOES NOT WORK! This is the only thing that irks me more than the statistical games and the crappola emanating from some parts of the political spectrum about conspiracies against New Zealanders liberties and economic well being. The idea that in order to gain it we should expose our most vulnerable citizens, and in particular our elderly to the illness makes me feel off just thinking about it. Just ugh!

This is not to say that the border should stay closed indefinitely. At some point we are going to have to open up again. Some want to open now. Some want to wait a few months and see if we can establish bubbles with other well performing nations. Then there are some like me who believe that opening up in 2020 is just inviting a humanitarian catastrophe New Zealanders know would be catastrophic for the country, not just in terms of potential threat to New Zealanders, but also our reputation world wide as a responsible first world nation that cares about others.

The border question I think will need to be reviewed in early 2021. It buys us time to patch up the economy internally, to address system issues with quarantine and hopefully flush the toxic conspiracy theories that are emanating from the likes of New Zealand Public Party, Brian Tamaki and others down the electoral toilet.

Until then, it must stay closed.