A bizarre take on the history of private military forces

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If you're writing a hot take on the use of private military forces in conflict, it probably pays to check your history before doing so. Such is the case of Daniel Couch's recently published piece on The Spinoff. Along with demanding questions be asked, and answers given, about National Party leadership candidate Mark Mitchell's past in this field - which is a fair enough concern, Couch makes the absurd claim that:

"Private military and security contractors have become a fundamental part of war. They have been instrumental in creating the increasingly murky and ethically bankrupt landscape of modern warfare."

The above two sentences border on the ridiculous, insofar that their central premise is claiming that the intertwining of private military forces and conflict is somehow a product of the late 20th and early 21st century, and that modern warfare is somehow more murky and ethically bankrupt than warfare throughout history.

The use of private military forces, whether called mercenaries, foreign volunteers, or private military or security contractors, has been a feature of conflict for all of recorded history from Ancient Egypt right through to the modern day.

Likewise, war - whether modern or otherwise - has always been murky and largely ethically bankrupt, regardless of whether private armies are employed. The notion that somehow war would be somehow more ethical and less murky if mercenaries weren't used is laughable. 

The simple reality is that private armies have always had a role in conflict, largely performing roles that the belligerents in a conflict are either unwilling, or unable to do. Whether it's supplementing conventional forces on the battlefield, conducting security services in rear areas away from the front line, or providing analysis and advice on the strategic level, you'll find the use of non-state actors throughout all of history.

Couch makes much of Mark Mitchell referring to an article David Shearer wrote about the use of private armies in conflict. While Shearer does acknowledge that private armies have always been part of warfare, I believe Shearer does err in attributing their changed role in warfare over the past three centuries. Shearer's basis for the assertion is that the rise of the nation-state and associated birth of nationalism meant that "the idea of fighting for one’s country rather than for commercial interests gained currency" and that as a result, mercenary forces which used to make up a significant percentage of the actual combatants in a conflict, markedly declined.

The shift in the balance of forces employed by belligerents - from being heavily reliant on private armies to conscripting their own citizens - has less to do with notions of nationalism motivating people to fight for their country, than it does with the ability of states to equip, feed, and transport ever larger numbers of people.

The industrial revolution, with its resulting ability to cheaply produce more rifles, more canons, more ammunition, more uniforms and kit, and transport vast numbers of soldiers via railways, or via first steam or coal turbine powered ships, was the primary change away from private armies playing such a high profile role in conflicts. The cost effectiveness factor that mercenaries offered belligerents - supplying as they traditionally had their own uniforms and equipment - was reduced very quickly.

The role of nationalism as a motivation for soldiers to fight for their country, as referenced by Shearer, was largely a by-product of the use of nationalism to create internal social and political cohesion within nation-states. Nationalism in itself wasn't the reason why private armies as front line combatants declined.

Yet private armies, whether explicitly as mercenary corps, or euphemistically called foreign volunteers, still continued to play important roles in conflicts throughout the past three centuries. While the French Revolution abolished the use of mercenary forces, Napoleon reinstated their use extensively as he sort to mobilise enough manpower for his wars across Europe and France's colonial empire. Both the Union and Confederacy actively recruited and accepted foreign volunteers to bolster their manpower during the American Civil War - volunteers solicited on the promise of pay glory, and citizenship, both the Prussians and French made use of them during the Franco-Prussian War (most famously the French Foreign Legion effectively operates as a mercenary force with France as its exclusive employer), and the First and Second World Wars, as well as the Spanish Civil War, all saw the use of what were effectively mercenary forces, under the guise of being foreign volunteers.

Shearer also argues that the use of mercenaries declined over this period because states were worried about potential damage to their perceived neutrality by having their citizens participating in someone else's conflict. This argument isn't borne out by facts. Germany objected profusely when American volunteers formed the Lafayette Escadrille and flew for the French in the First World War, primarily on the grounds that by allowing the citizens to go to France and be paid, equipped, and fed by the French army, the U.S. was abandoning its policy of neutrality. To appease the Germans, the French changed the name of the volunteer corps.

A similar situation prevailed in China in 1940/41 with the Flying Tigers, effectively backed by the United States Government, operated as mercenaries in support of the Nationalist Chinese against the Japanese.

Worries about neutrality have always played second fiddle to larger strategic priorities when it comes to these situations.

The notion that the use of mercenaries is somehow a new issue in conflict with regards to their employment in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan simply isn't backed up by the facts.

My next issue with Couch's article is when he somehow manages to equate Mark Mitchell, when he was Defence Minister, calling for New Zealand companies to bid for New Zealand Defence Force contracts as part of the 15 year, $20b investment in upgrading and overhauling New Zealand's defence infrastructure and capabilities, as somehow meaning that New Zealand money will be "promoting further violence."

Who does Couch think supplies the equipment that the New Zealand Defence Force uses? Of course it's private companies. Whether it's their uniforms, the food they eat, the kit they carry with them, the weapons and ammunition they use, it's all virtually all provided by private companies, and it makes perfect sense for it to be.

Mitchell's press release as Defence Minister made perfect sense for a Defence Minister to say. It's much more preferable if New Zealand companies are able to, where practical, supply the equipment and facilities that our defence force needs to perform its roles, rather than sending that money offshore.

Couch's attempt to somehow conflate private military forces or security firms, like the Threat Management Group founded by Mark Mitchell, and a call for New Zealand firms to tender to supply equipment and build infrastructure for the NZDF, is truly weird.

As I mentioned at the start, there are questions that it'd be good to get some answers around Mark Mitchell's background. But Couch's article, very nearly descending into moral and ethical panic as it does, adds little of value to the discussion.

Calls for generational change out of step with aging electorate

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When I hear the latest buzzword "generational change" being bandied about to describe politicians, it makes me cringe. There's almost a element of ageism about the term. It's as if somehow people who don't represent generational change (a term largely based on age rather than anything more meaningful such as values or policies) are less valuable to society, or have less to contribute to our political discourse.

The reality is that New Zealand, like most other Western democracies, has an aging population, a fact which gets amplified through voting patterns. In the 2017 election some 51% of voters were over 50-years-old. The median age of the voting public also greyed - increasing from 47 in 2014 to 48 in 2017.

In fact, the share of the voting public in the age bracket that seems to be most associated with generational change - MPs aged between 35 and 44 shrunk at the last election. While there was an increase in the share of votes coming from those aged 18 - 34, it was offset by growth at the older end of the spectrum.

Factoring into this too is that the median age of New Zealand's population is rapidly increasing, sitting at 37 in 2016. It's likely to likely to hit 40 by the early 2030s, and could accelerate further due to a falling fertility rate.

Throw in analysis around how each of the parties performed for the party vote in each age bracket (remember that this is a fairly broad analysis, so is indicative rather than gospel), and the whole idea of generational change for generational change's sake is a tad nonsensical. There's a very large pool of voters (and I mean people who go and actually participate in elections by casting votes) who aren't representative of generational change at all.

Ignoring or discounting the importance of those voters who emphasising or overstating an apparent need for generational change is done at your own peril.

How do you think Winston Peters has managed to claw out an ongoing niche for himself over the years? I'm not suggesting that National should go down the route of emulating Winston Peters. But they have to be mindful of not turning their back on older voters. If those voters perceive National doesn't care about them anymore, there's really only one place for them to go, and that's to Winston, and that doesn't help National's cause at all.

There are generational policy challenges ahead. Issues like climate change and the housing crisis require long-term thinking. Yet the age of a party's leader and a claim to represent generational change in leadership in itself does not qualify one to be any better equipped to deal with those challenges than their gender, marital or familial status, sexual orientation, or their accent.

What matters more is whether their values match enough of the electorate, whether their policies can deliver outcomes that benefit enough voters and, not least of all, whether their personal style engenders confidence that they understand people's concerns and a sense of trust that they will address them.

Age, and by extension generational change, in itself does not provide politicians with a monopoly on these things. The world is far more complicated than that.

Ultimately, leaders are meant to lead for all New Zealanders, not just lead  for one generation over another.

There are old conservatives, there are young conservatives. There are old liberals, there are young liberals. Judge a leader's suitability on their values, their policies, their personality and style, but not their age and whether it symbolises generational change.

Libertas Digital's National Leadership MP Endorsement Tracker

To help everyone keep track of everything that's going on with National's leadership race, I thought I'd throw together a tracker so we can see who's running and which MPs are backing them. At this stage I've included both Mark Mitchell and Steven Joyce in the race, even though neither have made a declaration about whether they're in or out at the time of writing. I figured it'd be easier to include them now and remove them later than the other way around.

I've listed them in order of announcing, with Mark Mitchell and Steven Joyce alphabetically by first names. There's 28 blue bars as they need 29 to win, but obviously their own vote is the finishing line. I'll endeavour to keep this up-to-date based on publicly available endorsements, of which I'm only aware of four in favour of Amy Adams.

If they don't run it'll mean I don't have to have all those words awkwardly on the left like that. The fun of optimising graphics to display in link snippets on social media platforms!

Kāpiti Council keeps cryptosporidium outbreak secret for a week

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Has the Kāpiti Coast District Council been sitting on news of a cryptosporidium outbreak for a week? Judging by today's events, and the Council's own admissions, it seems so, meaning there's some tough questions to be asked of the Council about when it knew of the risk to the public, and why didn't it notify people sooner?

To put this in perspective, on average around 1,500 people a day use Raumati's splash pad, making it one of the most popular recreational facilities in the district, especially for families with young children.

The first residents in Kāpiti have heard about a possible outbreak of cryptosporidium in the region was a notice sent to parents from schools this morning - 16 February, exactly a week since Raumati's Marine Gardens' splash pad was closed for seemingly innocent "maintenance" work by Kāpiti Coast District Council. In that notice from Regional Public Health - which you can see the full version of here, dated 15 February - while Raumati's splash pad doesn't appear to have been the source of the outbreak, the Council was concerned enough to close it on 9 February for what they called "maintenance".

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As you can see in the above post from Council's own Facebook page, they've made no mention of any possible public health issue. From reading this post, you'd assume that something mechanical or plumbing related broke and needed to be fixed, and wouldn't have given it any other thought.

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When Kāpiti Coast District Council announced five days later that all had been fixed with the splash pad and that people were free to use it again, there was again no mention of any possible public health issue associated with it.

On hearing the news this morning on visiting a client's office, I put the question to Council via their Facebook page. By their own admission, they knew there was a possible cryptosporidium issue with the splash pad since at least 9 February - the day the splash pad was unexpectedly closed - yet did nothing to inform the public about it.

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As a parent who's frequented Raumati's splash pad with my son on numerous occasions (and he loves it as it's an amazing facility) I am absolutely shocked and disgusted that the Council didn't tell the community as soon as they knew there was an issue!

After the high profile Havelock North water crisis, surely the Council should have thought that residents deserved to know about a possible cryptosporidium contamination at the splash pad.

Given Regional Public Health made specific mention of Raumati's splash pad as a possible location where people picked up the parasite as far back as 20 January, that means there could be upwards of 20,000 people, mostly kids, who could have been exposed to cryptosporidium before the Council knew about the issue and decided to act.

You would think that when announcing the closure of the splash pad, the Council had a moral obligation to tell people why it was closed. Had they done so on 9 February when they made the post to Facebook, families who had been to the splash pad since Wellington Anniversary Weekend could monitor themselves and their families for signs of cryptosporidium, and take appropriate action and further halt the spread of the parasite.

That the community is only finding out now, seven days after Council knew of the issue, means that's another seven days infected people could have been using other swimming facilities in the region, including the Ōtaki splash pad, further spreading the infection. Given Kāpiti attracts plenty of tourists over long weekends, it's reasonable to assume that cryptosporidium may have been spread to neighbouring regions too during this time.

The Kāpiti Coast District Council and Mayor Guru have some serious questions to answer about the basic failure to communicate an important issue to the people of Kāpiti. We deserve better!

A few thoughts on National's future direction...

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I'm not endorsing any of the candidates for National Party leader. I'm sorry to disappoint, but I've been very fortunate to work with all of those who are either in or are thinking about contesting, and I don't think it'd be appropriate for me to declare a preference one way or the other. While I have my preferences on who I'd like to see, and I have my reckons on who I think will win, what is ultimately more important to me is to see an change in the direction and tone that the National Party takes in the two and a half years leading up to the 2020 election.

Being in opposition is hard work. I haven't worked for or been involved with National when they've been in opposition, so I made a point of talking to a lot of people who were there before 2008 to get their thoughts on what National needs to do this term.

The challenge of opposition, especially when you've just been removed from Government, is a difficult one. You're balancing up three themes to your work:

  1. Defending the legacy of your time in Government
  2. Holding the new Government to account over its promises and its mistakes
  3. Positioning yourself as a credible Government in waiting for the next election.

Once you get beyond the first term of opposition, those themes narrow down to themes two and three, as typically the Government has, by then, largely undone the policies from your last time on the Treasury benches that they were likely to target anyway.

On that note, I've been thinking about how National could have better positioned a couple of recent initiatives to satisfy all three of those themes. These are the "Save our regional highway projects" and the "Protect NZ jobs" campaigns.

Broadly speaking, these campaigns largely mirror ideas I shared in my blog "Possible opposition strategies for the 52nd Parliament". The issue I have with both of them is the way they've been framed. While many of the regional highway projects in the petitions enjoy significant local support, people generally mobilise best when it comes to saving whales, or other endangered species, "saving" a road that hasn't been built is a hard concept to sell. Likewise, "Protect NZ jobs" feels to me more like a title Labour would have given to a campaign against a free trade agreement or to introduce tariffs or other Fortress New Zealand economic policies from the 1970s.

To be fair, I didn't really address this when I did my original blog. Possibly I should have if the ideas I'm writing here are being picked up and run with, though I can't give away all my good ideas for free! (hint hint - call me!).

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A simple change in the framing of them could have created a much better impression. "Save our regional highway projects" should have been named "Keep New Zealand moving", while "Project NZ jobs" should have been "Keep New Zealand working".

You still have the same general purpose of the campaigns, but the emphasis is changed. The framing of the campaigns isn't any longer seemingly about preserving some sort of Key/English status quo of policy. Rather you have the broader, and much easier to sell, message that National is all about keeping New Zealand growing and moving forward to make it a better place to live, work, and raise a family, all the while as framing Labour as wanting to put the brakes on that progress.

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The words "Save" and "Protect" are useful from an emotive sense, but you have to have a genuinely emotive issue to get people engaged if you're going to use them. The ultimate end game might be to save a roading project that's under threat, but the message you want to tell voters is that you're working hard so that their roads, and therefore local economy, keeps growing and moving forward.

I think this is at the heart of putting National in the best position to win in 2020 regardless of whoever is leader. You have to find a way to not only combine those three themes of defend, hold to account, and Government in waiting, in nearly everything you do, but also have them all flow towards that third point of being the next Government.

It's something that has to be reflected in all National's messaging, it's policies, and how its Leader and MPs conduct themselves. They need to be the party that has a vision to keep New Zealand growing, moving, working, healthy, happy, safe, and so on. It's an concept that will require a lot of policy rework, some bold and innovative ideas that steal a march on Labour's claim to be the future focused party. And ultimately, it'll mean that the above graphic of "Keep New Zealand moving" will need to have some trains, buses, and maybe even light rail in it too, and not just roads.


And before you jump all over me about design aesthetics, I've literally just whipped those up from my sickbed with a grumpy toddler in the house. So I won't claim it's my best work, just a starter for 10.

LIVE: National Party Leadership Race

20 February, 8am: Steven Joyce announced he's in the leadership race on RNZ's Morning Report.

19 February, 2.40pm: Mark Mitchell has now announced that he's running for leader. Says he's had strong support, was approached three weeks ago to consider standing in the event of Bill English resigning.

19 February, 12.55pm: It's been a bit quiet over the weekend. But Mark Mitchell is poised to make an announcement at 2.30pm in Orewa. Still no word from Steven Joyce. We've put together a MP Endorsement Tracker to keep up with any public endorsements from MPs for a specific candidate. We appreciate there's a lot of speculation about how many votes each candidate might have behind the scenes, but we're no really able to count those.

15 February, 3.40pm: Jonathan Coleman has ruled himself out of the leadership race.

14 February, 3.35pm: Amy Adams has announced she's running for leader. She was joined at the announcement with Nikki Kaye, Maggie Barry, Chris Bishop, and Tim Macindoe, the first show of support from any MPs for a leadership candidate

14 February, 11am: Simon Bridges has announced he's running for leader.

14 February, 10:30am: Correction: RNZ only say that Mark Mitchell had confirmed he's considering making a bid, but only after he's visited his daughter in Australia. I misread their tweet!

14 February, 9.45am: Newstalk ZB has Steven Joyce saying he's considering options on running for the leadership.


Over the coming days I'll try to put together a quick graphic as and when news breaks about who's in and who's out of the National Party's leadership contest. I'll endeavour to update it as and when announcements are made, though I'm still recovering from a nasty illness and injury so will be entirely dependent on whether I'm able to get out of bed.

The above is based on publicly reported statements that I've seen on Twitter. Where an MP hasn't yet made any statement (e.g. Amy Adams hasn't said anything at all on the race) I've opted to not include them in any of the boxes.

Bill English steps down as National Party leader

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Bill English has just announced he's standing down as Leader of the National Party and resigning from Parliament. This was an event that had been widely anticipated taking place at some point this term, and I'd personally expected it to take place around the middle of the year.

BIll's decision to leave the leadership now does make a lot of sense though. The speculation about the leadership that had been triggered in the past two weeks was likely to only intensify until Bill did stand down. By leaving now, Bill not only gets to leave on his terms, but takes the heat out of what could have been months of distracting speculation about the party leadership for National.

National's caucus will vote on its new Leader in the next couple of weeks. I imagine the process would be broadly similar to what we saw following John Key's resignation in 2016, with a new leader to be in place by 27 February.

For the time being Paula Bennett will be remaining as Deputy.

Bill's legacy both as Finance Minister and Prime Minister includes, but isn't limited to, returning New Zealand's economy and Government books to a steady footing following the Global Financial Crisis and Canterbury earthquakes, introducing the widely applauded social investment approach to Government thinking, and leading National to the remarkable 44.4% result in the 2017 election, an unprecedented result for a then three term Government.

I'd also like to take this opportunity to thank Bill English for his leadership of the National Party, his service as Prime Minister and Finance Minister, and his work as an MP over 27 years. I had the great fortune of advising Bill English during my time working at Parliament, including his time as Prime Minister, and I wish him all the very best for his future.

Forget a new Cold War, Great Power rivalry is back instead

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Talk of a new Cold War has been popular in the last few years, primarily pitched as China's rising military, political, and economic might against the dwindling power and influence of the United States. More broadly, it often gets seen as a conflict between the liberal democracy and free market values of the West, and the authoritarian, state controlled economies of the East.

While the end of the Cold War left the United States as the sole superpower, it also led many to search for a new rival to US hegemony. From the early 2000s China has largely been seen to fit this bill.

If you were looking through the lens of economic power alone, China would fill that role well, with its GDP having grown to be the third biggest in the world. While only around 60% of the GDP of the United States, China's economic growth has, up until recently, greatly outstripped US growth.

In the political sphere, China has been assiduously cultivating its influence, using access to its immense domestic market and deep pockets as an incentive to either stifle criticism or garner support across the world. On the military front, China is also accelerating the development of weapon platforms and bases that would allow it to project its military power beyond the South China Sea, as far as Africa and deep into the Pacific.

As a result of China's rise the United States has, over the past decade, been putting more and more emphasis on its Pacific theatre of operations, which in turn has fed the narrative of a new Cold War centred on a Beijing-Washington axis.

However it's readily becoming apparent that a return to a world dominated by two duelling superpowers isn't what's happening.

The recently released 2018 National Defense Strategy sees this new paradigm in terms of China, Russia, and the US competing on the world stage. The new US strategy sees China continuing to grow its influence in Asia, Russia putting more pressure on Europe and NATO, and the United States needing to step back from the Middle East in order to contain its new strategic rivals.

I'd go further than this, and argue that we appear to be entering a new era of Great Power competition that shares more with the period 1871 - 1945 than it does with 1945 to 1991.

Where the Cold War was dominated by the duelling superpowers of the US and USSR, 1871 to 1914 was dominated by multipolar rivalry between the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Russia. Towards the end of that period they were joined by the United States and Japan. Just below that top tier of Great Powers sat Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Italy. While right at the end of that period, China began to show signs that it was starting on the path that would eventually lead it to where it is today.

The situation we find ourselves in today mirrors that of 1871. Whereas the United Kingdom and France had been the primary world powers for nearly two centuries - with Russia lurking in the background with the potential to dwarf them both - first the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and then the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 changed that world order. In first asserting its primacy in Central Europe over Austria-Hungary, then breaking up the superpower duopoly by humbling France, Germany's rise saw the world enter an era of Great Power rivalry that would last until 1945.

Fast forward to today and we have the United States' political, military, and economic supremacy being simultaneously challenged by China's rising strength, a militarily resurgent Russia, the growing economic and political influence of India, and the European Union looking more and more like a single federal entity than a loose cooperative of different states (despite the United Kingdom's impending departure) that's set to take its own spot on the world stage.

Just below this top tier of new Great Powers, are countries like Brazil and Indonesia, where it seems a question of when, rather than if, they'll become economic powerhouses in their own right. There's also the question of what role Japan will take as they wrestle with their place in this new world, trapped as they are in the middle of geopolitical competition between Beijing and Washington.

For New Zealand, this new Great Power geopolitical environment offers challenges and opportunities. The biggest challenge for us will be staying on side with the three largest economic Great Powers - the United States, China, and the European Union - which isn't always an easy thing to do, as has been illustrated in recent months. For example, Foreign Minister Winston Peters' pet project of a free trade agreement with Russia earned New Zealand a strong rebuke from the EU, offering a cautionary lesson on what's in store for us - pursuing one course of action could lead to other, potentially more lucrative, opportunities being shut to us.

For much of the past 20 years New Zealand has managed to navigate the China/US divide very well. Helen Clark and John Key fostered positive and productive relationships with both Beijing and Washington. The China FTA delivered by Helen Clark was a huge economic win for New Zealand, while the visit of the USS Sampson in 2016 marked a high point in US/NZ political and military relations in the nuclear-free NZ era. Despite being ultimately unsuccessful due to Donald Trump, the Trans-Pacific Partnership also seemed poised to be a big win for New Zealand too in the economic side of our relationship with the US.

To highlight just how careful New Zealand has to be in this new multipolar world, here's just some of the current free trade agreement activities on New Zealand's plate:

  • An upgrade to the China FTA,
  • Getting the finishing touches on the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership which will cover Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Singapore, and Viet Nam,
  • Negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership which covers Brunei-Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Viet Nam, Australia, China, India, Japan, and Korea,
  • Starting negotiations on a European Union FTA,
  • Finishing up the PACER Plus agreement,
  • Pushing the Golf Cooperation Council FTA towards conclusion, having been stalled for nine years.

Throw in the suspended Russia-Belarus Kazakhstan Customs Union FTA on top of that, and there are a heap of competing geopolitical rivalries that New Zealand somehow has to thread its way through.

The above list is only the economic side of things. We also have defence relationships with Australia, Singapore, and the United States that are generally in New Zealand's interest to keep going (as one day Donald Trump won't be the President of the United States), as well as intelligence relationships through the Five Eyes network that may well prove to be crucial in the coming years in light of growing cyber threats from rival Great Powers.

What I don't see yet on the immediate horizon is this new era of Great Power rivalry descending into widespread armed conflict like we saw during the period of 1871 to 1945. There's always the potential for it further down the track in times of economic and political turmoil, potentially brought on by competition for resources such as rare metals. For the time being though, we're likely to see things play out more like they did in the closing decades of the 19th century, with the new Great Powers jostling for influence throughout the rest of the world, but still being prepared to retreat back from the brink relatively easily.

All that being said, that prediction comes with the caveat that you can never discount the impact rogue actors might have. Just as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand set off a chain of events that led Europe to war in 1914, there's always the potential that North Korea, Iran, or some other random event - be it a cyber attack or something else - could light a powder keg that causes the new Great Powers to go from competition, to open conflict.

Callous Hipkins undermines Ardern's claim to kindness

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's claim that she wanted to bring kindness back to Government, made on 26 October 2017, seems a long time ago in light of Education Minister Chris Hipkins' decision that it's "our way or the highway" to Charter Schools this week.

If you're one of the students, their parents, or a teacher at a Charter School, Hipkins' announcement on 8 February would have come as a bombshell. Having made previous commitments about the Ministry of Education conducting case-by-case negotiations in good faith with Charter Schools, and that such negotiations will be carried out by the Ministry rather than Ministers, this week Hipkins turned that all on its head.

In a sinister sounding press release, Hipkins has essentially told Charter Schools that if they don't agree with the Ministry of Education by May 2018 to terminate their contracts early, then Hipkins himself will intervene and tear them up for them.

Perhaps the Education Minister should visit one of those Charter Schools he's so eager to close, borrow a dictionary, and look up the meaning of the phrase "good faith". Because he'll find that telling people to agree to his his terms "or else" doesn't come under the definition.

What's interesting is that the entire approach to Charter Schools by the new government flies contrary to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's promise that she would bring kindness back to Government. There is nothing kind about her Government's handling of Charter Schools, especially given that many of the students attending them have been failed by the state school system that Chris Hipkins is so ideologically bent on forcing them back into.

Simply put, the Government's approach is callous, heartless, and Hipkins in particular has taken the tone of a schoolyard bully about it.

The thing is, it didn't have to be this way. Labour could have simply announced it wasn't going to fund the opening of anymore Charter Schools, and allowed the existing ones to keep going. It wouldn't have been quite the win that the teachers' unions were demanding on the policy, but it likely would have been enough to keep them happy, and not derail the Government's post-Waitangi Day high.

What's more, the whole announcement around forcing Charter Schools to close from Hipkins is indicative of an ongoing issue from Jacinda Ardern's Government (and one that plagued the Labour Party in opposition too), and that is their uncanny knack to do something good at the start of a news week, then spectacularly shoot themselves in the foot by the end of it, which you can read more about in 100 days of action looking like 100 days driven to distraction.

Of course, a common theme in this all appears to be Chris Hipkins. Whether it was stuffing up Labour's leadership of the House, announcing policies which he hasn't costed yet, or not being able to remember whether fee free tertiary education would apply to Australian students studying in New Zealand, Chris Hipkins seems woefully out of his depth.

It's also interesting that for all the apparent experience in the Prime Minister's Office, such as Heather Simpson, Mike Munro, and Mike Jaspers, that simple political mistakes and mismanagement seem to keep plaguing Labour. Either everyone's just not very good at their jobs (which in the case of Simpson, Munro, and Jaspers I don't believe, because they're all extremely good operators), or - the more likely option - people like Chris Hipkins are failing to communicate or coordinate with the PMO at all. 

The net result of Chris Hipkins' bully-boy tactics towards Charter Schools is that it's taken all the gloss off the Government's successful visit to Waitangi. Instead the narrative for the week ahead will be people asking what students in Charter Schools did to deserve to be so directly threatened by Chris Hipkins, and where did Jacinda Ardern's promise to be kind get lost over the summer?

From sizzle to fizzle? Labour creates sky-high expectations

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"Despite promises of a new dawn in Crown-Māori relations just two years ago, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's anticipated final visit to Waitangi has been marred by protesters preventing Ardern from making it to Waitangi at all. At the heart of the protesters' grievances is a sense of having been misled and betrayed by the Labour-led government, whose actions, in the protesters' eyes, haven't lived up to the rhetoric Ardern used on her first visit in 2018."

While imagining a possible Waitangi Day visit for Ardern going poorly in 2020 is purely a work of speculative fiction, it's not without precedent. In 2002 Helen Clark was widely hailed for a successful visit to Waitangi which received not dissimilar plaudits to Jacinda Ardern's just completed visit.

Clark had had a difficult relationship with Waitangi Day up to that point. Reduced to tears in 1998 and then refused permission to speak in 1999, Clark avoided Waitangi for the first two years of her Government. When she returned in 2002, the tone of reports was largely similar to what we've read over the past week. Clark's visit was seen as a turning point in Crown-Māori relations, and the beginning of a new, more productive relationship between Labour and Māori.

All that goodwill, all that talk of turning a corner in the relationship was gone by 2004. Off the back of the controversial foreshore and seabed proposals, Clark was abused and her group physically jostled by protesters. Despite a last minute decision to visit Waitangi in 2005, Labour would go on to lose four of the seven Māori electorate seats in the 2005 election.

Watching and reading the coverage of Jacinda Ardern's visit to Waitangi, I'm struck with the similarities between 2002 and 2018. Both Helen Clark being escorted by Titewhai Harawira and Jacinda Ardern's BBQ were touted as turning points.

The reality is though, for all the sizzling of the BBQ and the accompanying coverage of what was a fantastic PR event, Jacinda Ardern has set expectations for the relationship between the Crown and Māori at sky high levels. If the Labour-led Government fails to meet them, we could well see a re-run of 2004 in 2020.

In many respects the past week of Waitangi coverage highlights a bigger problem for the Government going forward. In the next 10 years the Government has promised to halve the rate of child poverty, build 100,000 houses, and (between the private sector and Government) plant 1 billion trees. They're all very ambitious targets, and other than the Government's families package, they're yet to make substantive progress on any of them.

Not that there's anything wrong with ambitious targets. It's good to see the Government continuing to challenge itself just as the previous National-led Government did with its Better Public Service targets. Even if Labour falls short on those targets, so long as it's not wildly short, they'll still be able to claim a measure of success.

The problem for Labour is that through all their hype and ambitious targets, they're creating an expectation that they're going to solve all of New Zealand's problems, even if they haven't specifically stated so. One of the best, and most subtle pieces of commentary on this was ventured by RNZ's and Pundit's Tim Watkin.

Newsroom's Tim Murphy also hit the nail on the head too, pointing out that much of the coverage had descended into gushing praise.

There's nothing wrong with people being excited about what was a very successful visit to Waitangi for Ardern's Government. The problem is that we've been here before, and there seems to have been little acknowledgement of the massive weight of expectation that the Government has created for itself, or the pitfalls, especially for the Crown-Māori relationship, if reality falls short of those expectations.

Part of the problem will also be that I can't think of when New Zealand last had a new Government that had stoked expectations and hype to such high levels. When John Key and National came to power in 2008 there were expectations, but they were always tempered by the reality that things were going to get worse before they got better, by virtue of the country being in the middle of one of our deepest and longest ever recessions since the Great Depression, and the Global Financial Crisis still raging. Even in 1999, with the 1998 recession and 1997 Asian Financial Crisis still fresh in people's minds, and the final term of the Fourth National Government being something of a political mess, Helen Clark and Michael Cullen carefully managed expectations throughout that first year until it was clear the economy was roaring back to life.

In that respect, the Government doesn't live up to those expectations, the moment Jacinda Ardern's BBQ ran out of bacon at Waitangi may end up being a metaphor for how this term is office is viewed - started off with plenty of sizzling, ended up just fizzling.

Previewing 2018: Greens

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The Green Party haven't started off 2018 very well. Between selling out their principles to back the controversial Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill and failing to get any reciprocal backing from their partners in Government for Chlöe Swarbrick's medicinal cannabis Members' Bill, they ended up with the worst of both worlds from Parliament's opening week of the year.

What that points to is that the while the Green Party is good at activism and campaigning, they're still behind the eight-ball when it comes to the nitty-gritty of politics itself. Given the Greens support for the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill isn't a condition of their confidence and supply agreement with Labour, the Green Party missed an obvious opportunity to salvage a defensible position.

The backlash the Greens experienced from former MPs, members, the media, and commentators, could have been somewhat mitigated had they made their support to Select Committee for the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill dependent on Labour and New Zealand First returning the favour to vote Chlöe Swarbrick's bill through its first reading too.

Herein lies the big problem for the Green Party in 2018 (and for the rest of the term too for that matter). As the year goes on they're going to into difficult positions over and over again by the Labour/New Zealand First coalition. If they keep emerging from these situations looking more like a doormat rather than a partner in Government, then their members will begin to get restless, which will flow onto their MPs too.

That brings me to the Green Party's co-leader vote. As at the time of writing only Marama Davidson is in the running for the position, having stolen a march on any potential opponents with a cheeky Facebook event promoting an upcoming announcement which took place on Sunday.

The media have talked up Eugenie Sage and Julie Anne Genter as possible options, though if they're thinking of running they're keeping clear of Davidson's announcement. Jan Logie has been largely discounted by media, with Chlöe Swarbrick and Golriz Ghahraman not figuring in calculations due to being first term MPs.

On the latter two, I'm not sure Chlöe Swarbrick should be discounted due to being a first term MP. James Shaw was only a few months into his first term when he ran for the co-leadership. Like Swarbrick's Auckland mayoralty campaign, Shaw impressed with his ability to turn out supporters in Auckland, and that success (combined with his business background) helped propel him past the far more politically experienced Kevin Hague.

Swarbrick is a politician who I think has a rare x-factor. She earned immense respect for her 2016 mayoralty campaign where, despite struggling to get media cut-through, managed to show up significantly better funded opponents. She has a formidable work ethic, is a fantastic public speaker and communicator across social media, has a great understanding of policy and argues her position compellingly, and her position to motivate and turnout the youth vote could be instrumental for the Green Party in 2018.

Some may argue that Swarbrick's youth and perceived inexperience would count against her, but I'd think that's nonsense. Neither of those factors seem to have stopped her rise so far, and in an age where there's a sense people are getting frustrated with politics as it was, Swarbrick represents what it could be instead.

That's not to dismiss the strong cases for Davidson, Sage, or Genter, I just thought there was a strong case to be made for Swarbrick putting her hat in the ring.

All that being said, Davidson is clearly the front runner. Viewed by many to be the natural successor to Metiria Turei, Davidson is similarly strong on the same social justice issues that Turei was a champion of. I remember my wife, during the Spinoff's election debate, being hugely impressed with the two Marama's - Fox and Davidson. Renee loved Fox's energetic, no-bullshit, but have fun at the same time, style, but she also found Davidson's more softly spoken but deeply passionate style resonated with her too.

While Davidson has less Parliamentary experience than her two expected opponents (Sage and Genter), her long career at the Human Rights Commission, as well as involvement with the Glenn Inquiry into Domestic Violence and Child Abuse, gives her a solid base of experience on important issues that the Greens existing co-leader James Shaw isn't as strong on. Davidson's extensive connections with, and ability to mobilise the Greens activist supporters will also help her bid too.

In many ways, the Green Party co-leadership campaign - if there is one as it's entirely possible that only Davidson puts her name forward and then presumably she'd be subject to a confirmation vote by the Greens' branch delegates - also points to that same issue I addressed earlier. Throughout this year, and this term, there will be a constant tension in the Green Party between the need to compromise and accommodate the more moderate Labour Party and the more conservative Winston Peters, and the feeling in the membership that more needs to be done, especially in the areas of climate change, conservation, and inequality.

If Davidson takes out the co-leadership and remains without a ministerial portfolio (as is widely expected) then she'll become the focal point of those tensions. Members and activists who get frustrated with compromises, or the pace of change, will put pressure on her to take a stand and drive a harder bargain for the Greens support on future issues.

There is good news for the Green Party this year though. With the Climate Change Commission likely to kick off this year, and the Green Investment Fund to be set up too, some of that pressure will be mitigated by getting tangible runs on the board.

The problem is, as it always is in politics, is that once you've knocked off one achievement, your supporters always ask the question, "What's next?"

Previewing 2018: ACT

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What to do with a party like ACT? It's a question that I've been pondering since the 2017 election, and I'm yet to find and adequate solution. I also suspect that ACT itself might be in the same bind.

In many ways, 2018 should present itself as an ideal year for David Seymour and ACT. With the End of Life Choice Bill going through Parliament, and likely to end up with a public referendum, David Seymour is going to be at the forefront of the debate on that issue. It's an issue that lines up with what is at the heart of ACT's raison d'être - giving individuals more control over their lives.

But that's also part of the problem for ACT. With the significant economic and government reforms of the 1980s and 1990s done and dusted, the economic libertarianism that gave rise to ACT has largely dissipated. Even by the time of its formation, most of the battles on that front had already been won. This is largely why for most of the past 20 plus years ACT has had a rather interesting combination of public spending watchdog (e.g. Perk Buster Rodney Hide) and, somewhat oddly for a libertarian party, and an advocate of punitive, rather than rehabilitative, law and order policies (think Richard Prebble and John Banks).

In many ways ACT's dilemma of identity was best illustrated during the conscience vote on Civil Unions, where five ACT MPs voted for the bill and four against it. ACT was effectively made up of a socially progressive libertarian wing and a socially conservative libertarian wing (the latter of which has always struck me as an odd position for a libertarian party. Surely they want the government out of both their wallets and their bedrooms?).

That problem of identity for ACT is what has led it down a path where it increasingly had to rely on the personas of leaders to get it over the line, rather than policies. David Seymour is something of a departure from that model. He didn't come to the leadership with the same benefit of name recognition that Prebble and Hide did before him. In many ways that's both benefitted and hurt ACT's fortunes. And while Seymour has carved a niche for himself in New Zealand politics, I don't think the same can be said for ACT as a party.

That's why I think the challenge lies for ACT and David Seymour in 2018. As Seymour is working to get the End of Life Choice Bill through Parliament, and campaigning in the subsequent referendum that seems likely to happen, he needs to use that additional exposure he gets as a springboard for ACT after the referendum.

That being said, Seymour has to be careful to keep party politics out of the debate around the End of LIfe Choice Bill. While the Bill fits nicely with Seymour's personal ideology, to ensure the success of both the bill and the referendum, Seymour's advocacy of the issue, and his work to rejuvenate ACT with the additional attention he'll get need to kept separate lest Seymour alienates potential supporters of the legislation.

In many respects the End of Life Choice Bill does point to a way forward for ACT in terms of growing its support. Seymour could well steer ACT towards a form of libertarianism that's and minimising, or checking undue Government regulation in both people's personal and economic affairs. Seymour has already touched on this when he successfully got liquor licensing laws modified around the Rugby World Cup. If he can continue to find similar issues where regulations are creating seemingly heavy hand responses to common sense issues, he could carve out a far more productive niche for ACT than the perk busting years of Rodney Hide.

Fixing liquor licensing laws around public holidays (e.g. the requirement that you have to order a meal in order to have a drink on certain days) could be a similar issue that Seymour could pursue going forward that would put ACT in front of a pool of voters they might not ordinarily reach. Likewise, there's no doubt other regulatory headaches lurking around for homeowners and small businesses that Seymour might also find fruitful to work on which could also provide easy wins for the Labour-led government.

With National already weighing up plans on how it can best address its own looming issue of finding support partners to form government with after the next election, Seymour's ability to build a formidable public profile and rejuvenate ACT could turn 2018 into a make or break year for the party. 

Greens betray principles for Winston, don't even get a t-shirt

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The opening two days of the Parliamentary sitting year have been a disappointment. First the Green Party turned their backs on nearly two decades of principled opposition to waka jumping laws to vote the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill through its first reading.

Then, last night, Chlöe Swarbrick's Members' bill on medicinal cannabis saw a similar situation grip several Labour and National Party MPs who, despite having previously indicated they'd take a principled position to support the bill, didn't support it when the vote was called.

In National's case, as a whole the National Party has historically been opposed, or very reluctant, to liberalise laws around cannabis. From that perspective, at least, the eventual result of every National Party MP voting against the bill was largely consistent with the party's previous positions on the issue. The disappointing thing was that National's Hutt South MP had initially indicated he would vote for the bill, only to reverse his position around lunchtime on Wednesday. Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye had also been expected to vote for the legislation, but ended up opposing it.

In the Green Party's case though, their decision to vote for the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill has been nearly universally condemned.

Former Green Party MP Sue Bradford summed things up pretty well:

At the heart of the issue for many people is that the Green Party have traded in their principled opposition to any waka jumping legislation essentially to keep New Zealand First leader Winston Peters happy. In return, they received absolutely nothing from either New Zealand First with regards to supporting Swarbrick's bill through to Select Committee. Even Labour didn't have all of its MPs vote for her bill either.

Had the Green Party thought about the situation, they could have had a win/win outcome. As was demonstrated with the failure of an attempt to pass similar waka jumping legislation in the 2005-2008 Parliament, which didn't end the Labour/NZ First coalition then, the Green Party should have been negotiating across the House to get Swarbrick's bill over the line.

Knowing that killing off the waka jumping legislation wouldn't end the government, the Greens would have been well served to stick to their principles, do a deal with National to oppose the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill in exchange for National either allowing its MPs a proper conscience vote, or National voting Swarbrick's bill through to Select Committee.

In that scenario, the Green Party would have been celebrated for honouring their principles, won plaudits for demonstrating an ability to work across the House if needed that would strengthen their negotiating position with the government, kept Swarbrick's bill alive longer.

That latter part is important, because as a minor party in Government, it's important to find ways to differentiate your party brand from the major party you're working with. Medicinal cannabis, especially the more liberal view that Swarbrick's bill was pushing for, would have been an ideal platform for the Greens to demonstrate that independence of brand. While they'll still get some benefit from the Government's bill lesser bill, there's a sense among Green Party members that they've gotten the short end of the stick from their partner parties.

On the flip side of such a deal - it would have been National that would have taken the heat from its supporters for working with the Greens and breaking with their previous opposition, a situation that would have also been useful for the Green Party (and the Government).

I'd also add that as someone who wants to see the National Party take a more pragmatic and less ideological view to medicinal cannabis, and possibly even recreational cannabis use, I'd be happy to see National take a bit of internal strife to advance an issue that's eventually going to move forward anyway.

The other option for the Greens would have been to tell Labour and New Zealand First that their support for the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill was dependent on support for Swarbrick's bill getting to at least Select Committee. While this would have still had the Greens being slammed for turning their backs on their principles, at least they would have walked out of this week with something to cheer about.

As former NZ First and National Party MP Tau Henare put it:

Instead, James Shaw and the Green Party have sold out their principles to appease Winston Peters ego-driven inability to work constructively with his own caucus, and they didn't even the t-shirt.

If, like me, you're concerned about the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill, I'd encourage you to head over to Change.org and sign a petition I'm running, which is calling on the Green Party to stand up for what they believe in and withdraw their support for the bill. If you need it, here's a shareable link: https://www.change.org/p/green-party-of-aotearoa-new-zealand-green-party-to-withdraw-their-support-for-the-electoral-integrity-amendment-bill

One billion trees of embarrassment

In October 2017 Shane Jones' distinctive Shakespearean voice could be heard booming throughout the land as he crowed triumphantly about his 1 billion trees in the Billion Trees Planting Programme. Less than three months later, not a single tree has been planted and the government is on track to come up 90% short of their target of doubling the rate of planting over 10 years.

The issue isn't so much that there isn't enough land available for Forestry Minister Shane Jones to plant these trees on. Rather it's that neither New Zealand First or Labour bothered to ask the public service during the coalition negotiation process whether it was in fact possible.

The "Billion Trees Planting Programme" has been a bit of a disaster right from the get go. The ambiguously worded coalition agreement between Labour and NZ First had everyone thinking that 100 million new trees would be planted each year by the government. Within days, and after realising they'd massively over promised what they were going to do, the government had to walk back the 1 billion trees figure. They hastily tried to explain that what they really meant all along was that they wanted to double the rate of existing planting across both the forestry and conversation sectors. It was now going to be 500 million additional trees on top of the 500 million trees those sectors were already expected to plant over the next decade.

That was still a big, ambitious goal, but it was half of what the coalition agreement had led everyone to believe was going to happen.

Now it looks like the government is going to struggle to even make 10% of that revised target over that decade. It's hardly surprising, with the government believed to have costed the programme at $2 billion over the 10 years, the economic of it look a little tight.

With the Billion Trees Planting Programme expected to need an additional 500,000 hectares, and forestry land selling in December 2017 for an average of $7,713 per hectare, the value of the land alone for those 500 million trees is around $3.8 billion, well over double the $2 billion figure being floated around. That's also before we take a conservative 2005 figure of each hectare of forestry planted in radiata pine costing around $1500 by its first prune - we're looking at a total cost of $4.6 billion.

Thankfully, the reality is that the government isn't likely to have to shell out $4.6 billion. Instead they're more likely to try and subsidise existing land owners, whether it's forest owners, farmers, DOC, or Iwi. Taking that figure of $1500 per hectare of radiata pine, with the $2 billion the government could effectively offer a subsidy of around $4 per tree, effectively meeting half of the value of the land - providing it's only land suitable for forestry that we're talking about.

That all starts to fall apart if there's not enough spare forestry land available. More broadly around the primary sector, the average land sell price per hectare was $29,000. At a shade under four times the price of forestry land, the cost of the Billion Trees Planting Programme is going to rapidly spiral out of control or, much more likely, the Billion Trees Planting Programme is going to fall flat on its face with landowners unwilling to convert more productive land to tree plantings given the increasing opportunity cost involved. I also doubt the inclusion of agriculture into the ETS will be enough to mitigate this.

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Previewing 2018: New Zealand First

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New Zealand First should have one priority in 2018 - launch their new website. It's hugely embarrassing for Winston Peters that three months into the new government, the coalition's junior partner still doesn't have a website.

It's almost as if NZ First's website's issues as symptomatic of the problems facing the party so far this year. Already Forestry Minister Shane Jones has been forced to confess that the party didn't due any research into their 1 billion tree policy, with it turning out that there's only enough available land current for around 5 million additional trees to be planted each year. One of NZ First's big signature wins of the coalition agreement and they're going to struggle to deliver even 5% of what they promised.

Likewise Deputy Prime Minister is also coming under pressure with regards to NZ First's changing position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. Despite having a new name - the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership - and a few minor changes to the text, it's largely the same deal that NZ First has adamantly opposed for some time. Even Foreign Minister David Parker has conceded on RNZ's Morning Report that, for a trade agreement made up of thousands of pages, the changes amount to only a "few pages".

Winston Peters' flip flopping isn't surprising, it's politically expediency on his part in order to not cause tension for Labour. The problem is, much of NZ First's support stems from a small group of conservative voters who want a far more protectionist trade policy for New Zealand. One of Winston Peters' biggest challenges this year, especially as the CPTPP goes through Parliament, will be to not haemorrhage too much support as a result of his changing position on the CPTPP.

Other pitfalls lurk ahead for New Zealand First too. The eventual launch of the $1 billion a year Provincial Growth (Regional Development) Fund is going to see Shane Jones come under immense scrutiny. He's already demonstrated a fairly slack approach to the fund, having gloated that he'd been approached by numerous political figures about projects in their regions late last year, which turned out to only be two people when I OIAed it.

Jones has already hinted that the fund will also largely be an exercise in pork barrelling, singling out Northland and the Wairarapa as likely recipient regions, without either of those regions having approached him with ideas. That's not to say that those regions don't need investment, but rather given NZ FIrst's representation in those regions, I'm wagering that Shane Jones is going to get caught out badly on this.

The controversial Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill - the Waka Jumping legislation specified in NZ First's coalition agreement with Labour - likely won't hurt NZ First much, but it will stoke internal pressure within the Green Party, who have historically been strongly opposed to such legislation.

The party will also need to find a way to manage several competing personalities in its caucus. While Ron Mark may currently be deputy leader, it's no secret that Shane Jones fancies that role for himself, with a view to eventually succeeding Winston Peters as leader of the party. Shane Jones will also have the benefit of the Provincial Growth (Regional Development) Fund to build his profile with over the year, while Ron Mark won't get the same opportunities with Defence. There's also the question of where people like Tracey Martin and Clayton Mitchell fit in, with Martin having previously been deputy leader, and Mitchell looking for more rewards for his fundraising abilities for the party.

The End of Life Choice Bill and associated referendum, as well as that for legalising marijuana, will also require NZ First's MPs to navigate potentially controversial waters for its supporters.

The biggest risk to NZ First's year will be during June and July while Winston Peters is acting Prime Minister while Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has her first child. If anything goes wrong during this time (and there's no reason to suspect it will, as during the post-Budget period it'll be Finance Minister Grant Robertson doing most of the heavy lifting for the government) it'll be Winston Peters and NZ First's credibility that takes a hit, not Jacinda Ardern or Labour.

Peters should manage those six weeks well. He's been acting Prime Minister before. But with that expectation that he'll do well, it does create a risk that should it not be all plain sailing, it'll further hurt his party's prospects for 2020.

Previewing 2018: National

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2018 will be a tricky year for National, with the Labour-led government still benefitting from a new car smell, and being able to formally launch a raft of signature policies, especially over the first half of the year. So what's in store for the blue team in 2018?

National kicked off the 2018 political year early, with Transport spokesperson Judith Collins launching a series of petitions designed to put the government under pressure to regarding a raft of roading projects that had been proposed under National. This was followed by Nikki Kaye launching another petition calling on the government to resource schools so that primary and intermediate aged school children had access to be taught a second language.

Politically they're both useful strategies. Many of the roading projects being fought for via the petitions enjoy significant support at the electorate level, and Nikki Kaye's second language petition stems from a policy idea National launched in election 2017 that was very warmly received. I suspect much of National's approach in 2018 will look similar to what we've seen over the past couple of weeks.

That means that on the one hand National will look to a piece of Key/English era policy that's under threat and use a potential threat to it as a way to attack the new government, but at the same time they'll promote a new, innovative policy in a different area. It's a strategy that will allow National to both stand up to protect their own record in government, as well as move their policy platform forward for 2020.

Remember too that petitions aren't just about promoting a policy or pressuring the government on a given issue, they're also an important tool to bolster email lists and inform voter ID databases. Expect a steady stream of these throughout 2018.

The big question that will hover over National throughout 2018 is whether Bill English will stay or go. English indicated after the election that he intended to stay on to contest 2020 as leader, and the reality is that should he want to, and National's poll numbers continue to hold up, there's every chance he could do that. Bill English is immensely well respected and liked within the National Party, and unless National's polling drops below 40%, it's unlikely there will be any moves to challenge him.

In the event that English decides to leave, or the poll numbers drop off, I'd expect any leadership transition to take place in the second half of the year, possibly around June to August. In part, this is because the new government should, off the back of a busy first half of the year, hit its best poll numbers as a result of the Budget, meaning that post-Budget could be when Bill English decides to call stumps on what's been a long and dedicated career of public service.

Likewise, from that point forward, the strengths that English would trade on versus the government - the experience of him and his team - will deliver diminishing returns as more water goes under the government's bridge as their team builds on their own experience and irons out any teething problems.

Much of National's ability to reinvent themselves going into 2020 may well rest on what English does. If English does decide to leave, along with the leadership contest, it will likely trigger a few other departures too. List MPs like David Carter, Chris Finlayson, and Nicky Wagner may well announce their departures soon after, while a slew of electorate MPs such as Gerry Brownlee, Anne Tolley, Ian McKelvie, and Nick Smith, will likely wait until late 2019 or early 2020 to announce they won't be standing again. I'd be genuinely surprised if any of the National electorate MPs leave mid-term and trigger a by-election, unless they happen to stand for a local body role in 2019.

All of this leaves the question - if not Bill English as leader, then who? In my mind there's a handful of contenders who I'll list in no particular order:

  • Paula Bennett: Currently Deputy Leader, and former Deputy Prime Minister, Bennett is generally well liked throughout the party. Much like John Key, she not only has a compelling backstory, but she does tend to polarise opinion outside the party, with people either loving or hating her. Bennett's personal "westie" brand would offer an interesting contrast with the more inner city urban charisma of Jacinda Ardern.
  • Simon Bridges: National's Leader of the House, Bridges has long been talked about as a future leader of the party. Respected throughout the party, Bridges occupies a special place in National for having nearly snuffed out New Zealand First by beating Winston Peters in Tauranga in 2008. Bridges also has experience going one-on-one versus Ardern, having both been part of TVNZ's political "Young Guns" panel on Breakfast.
  • Nikki Kaye: The Auckland Central MP and former Education Minister has one thing that no other candidate has - she's beaten Jacinda Ardern not once, but twice in Auckland Central, a seat that demographically could be a strong Labour seat. Kaye has also won plaudits both for a formidable work ethic, as well as bringing a fresh and innovative approach to her portfolio areas. While Nikki Kaye has recently ruled out running to be leader if Bill English leaves, I don't think anyone should read too much into that denial.
  • Amy Adams: With her background and links to rural New Zealand, Adams offers an opportunity for National to go after New Zealand First in provincial New Zealand. On top of that, Adams also has a strong grasp of policy and a well respected record during her tenure as a Minister. Adams also kept her powder dry during the post-Key leadership contest.
  • Jonathan Coleman: Following John Key's resignation, the then Health Minister pitched himself as someone who could refresh National's approach. There's no reason to think that Coleman's ambition has diminished since going into opposition, and his hand may very well be strengthened in a post-English world.

Outside possibilities include Judith Collins, who challenged for the leadership in December 2016, as well as Steven Joyce who has refused to speculate on any ambition to be leader of the party.

Whatever happens with National's leadership, there is a need to use 2018 to make the switch from the traditional combative role of opposition to being an opposition that leads the conversation on policy issues. The usual attack-based approach to opposition didn't work for either Labour or National during their spells in the wilderness in the past two decades, and it was only largely when both parties moved away from that approach that they started to enjoy electorate success.

This will be a challenge for National, because as much as they need to make this switch going into 2020, it's also important that they're not seen to turn their backs too quickly on the Key/English era. A leadership change would make this easier, but it is still possible if English decides to stay on to contest the 2020 election.

National will still need to, as much as possible, hold the government to account, keep the feet of poorly performing or struggling government ministers to the fire, poke and prod at policy and personality tension points between Labour, New Zealand First, and the Greens, and ensure that they make their voices heard at Parliament. But now is the time to get their ducks in a row for 2020.

Previewing 2018: Labour

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The summer break couldn't have come at a better time for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the Labour Party. Their performance over their first two months in government didn't set the world alight. For every step forward that the government made, there also seemed to be a step backwards.

In many respects, the end of year political polls which showed no major change in support since the election would have come as a relief for the parties of government, despite the norm for these polls being a significant boost in support for them.

The challenge for 2018 for Labour is to hit the ground running. With Bill English and National having already locked in the opposition's State of the Nation speech for late January, Labour will no doubt be lining theirs up already. Previously this speech has been used by the government to both set their agenda for the year ahead, and to announce some sort of spending package or policy.

The problem for the government is that as indicated by the half year economic and fiscal update, there isn't much headroom for new policies outside of those already outlined in coalition and confidence and supply agreements. 

My suspicion is that in Prime Minister Ardern's State of the Nation we might see some firmer details announced about the $1 billion Regional Development (Provincial Growth) Fund, such as the criteria and types of projects that will be considered by Cabinet. Another option would be the formal setting up of the Green Party's flagship Green Investment Fund.

It's important that for Labour to find some positive initiatives to highlight, because they're also in for some pain in the first half of the year too. With legislation banning foreign buyers already before the House, and the Appeasement of Winston Peters (Anti-Waka Jumping) Bill - not actually it's name, but it may as well be - also to be introduced, Labour will both take heat and be forced to expend some political capital to manage the process.

Prime Minister Ardern will also have some potential tests of her leadership ahead. Clare Curran appears to be a disaster waiting to happen based off her poor performances in late 2017 while Willie Jackson didn't appear to do prep work before taking questions in the House. Kelvin Davis may have struggled badly when filling in for the Prime Minister. Davis, but at least in his case has shown he's a strong performer, especially in his own portfolios. Ardern will also be expecting much better management of the government's activities in the House from Chris Hipkins to avoid any more embarrassing process stories.

There's also some economic uncertainty on the horizon too, with the housing market appearing to plateau, business confidence dropping, and projections of global growth trending lower too. On the first two of these, it's important to keep in mind that the Clark government faced similar issues leading to the "winter of discontent" that saw them savaged in the polls. It prompted them to take a much more proactive approach to their relationship with business and, coupled with an upswing in the economy, saw things improve markedly by the 2002 election.

In terms of their partners in government - New Zealand First and the Green Party - there's a possibility, as there always is, that Ardern will need to discipline or sack a misbehaving or incompetent minister which will test those relationships. That aside, I wouldn't expect any major issues unless, in the case of New Zealand First, the issue is with Winston Peters then all cards are off the table.

What will be interesting is how Labour keeps the momentum of the government going after Budget 2018. The first half of the year largely writes itself. The Prime Minister's State of the Nation and any associated announcement sets the tone for February, March and April are usually focused around promoting polices that can into effect from 1 April each year. From late April until the Budget in late May, the government can usually set the agenda each week with pre-Budget announcements. Then June is spent promoting any announcements from the Budget as much as possible before politicians, and the press gallery, catch a breather in July.

How the Labour-led government, with it's relatively green staff beyond Heather Simpson and Mike Munro - deal with this will be worth watching. KiwiBuild might offer some respite if and when it gets underway. And it won't be the end of the government's popularity if they're flatfooted in the second half of the year. But after an indifferent start to their term in 2017, a poor second half to 2018 could frame the second half of their term in a less than ideal light.

Winston Peters alone on Waka Jumping Island

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While Iran's regime has been brutally crushing anti-government protests, moves that have been met with silence from our government despite condemnation from around the world, Foreign Minister Winston Peters has found time to write an opinion piece in support of the controversial Waka Jumping Bill that was a condition of his going into coalition to form government.

So I thought I'd do a little exercise, and tally up how many articles and blogs have been written about the Waka Jumping Bill and categories them as to whether they are for or against it.

Against:

  1. David Farrar: The real reason Winston wants the ability to expel MPs
  2. Andrew Geddis: Who controls the past now, controls the future
  3. Nick Smith: House of representatives or party poodles?
  4. Karl du Fresne: Winston Peters top of the political pops with willingness to exploit wonky system
  5. Pete George: Peters defends his waka jumping bill
  6. Keith Locke: Party-hopping bill is a restraint on MPs' freedom of speech
  7. Dominion Post editorial: Waka-jumping bill gives too much power to party leaders
  8. David Farrar: Dom Post opposes waka jumping bill
  9. Pete George: The tail wagging the dog and pup?
  10. Gwynn Compton: Andrew Little borrows from North Korea's playbook
  11. RNZ: 'Waka-jumping' law plan dangerous - English
  12. David Farrar: The terrible waka jumping bill
  13. ODT editorial: Bill attacks democracy
  14. Henry Cooke and Jo Moir: National: Waka jumping bill 'an affront to democracy'
  15. NZ Herald: National says bill would gag MPs and make them loyal to leader, not voters
  16. NZ Herald editorial: Waka jumping law shouldn't be necessary
  17. Martyn Bradbury: How ill prepared are the Greens for Government? This ill prepared…
  18. David Farrar: Greens will sell out electoral law for a Parihaka Day!
  19. NZ Herald: Discontent in the new Government over 'cheap horse-trading'
  20. No Right Turn: Horse Trading
  21. Gwynn Compton: If there's a minor party split when is it likely to happen?
  22. Andrew Geddis: Well you picked your tree, now bark up it
  23. Gwynn Compton: Why you should be concerned about Winston Peters' Waka Jumping Bill

For:

  1. Winston Peters: 'Waka-jumping' bill makes our democracy more responsive to MMP

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


So there you go, one article or blog in favour, 23 opposed.

Winston Peters is completely, and utterly on his own in defence of his pet Waka Jumping Bill. He's not just alone on his Waka Jumping Island, he's not even part of an archipelago. He's St Helena, sitting completely isolated in the middle of the southern Atlantic.

Even Andrew Little, who has responsibility for the Electoral Integrity Amendment BIll, won't say a word in support of it.

I can't think of a situation in recent memory where there has been such an overwhelming consensus of opinion against a bill as this. Notably, the New Zealand Herald, Fairfax, and the Otago Daily Times all strongly oppose it too.

It's time for MPs from Labour and the Greens to sit up and take notice and not risk backlash from voters for being the dog that Winston Peters wagged.

Helen Clark's government in 2005 survived a failed attempt by Winston Peters to get a similar law across the line. There's no reason 2018 need be any different.

The Green Party, in particularly, should stand up to Labour and Winston Peters, and stay true to their earlier principled opposition to such legislation.

National uses petitions to pressure government over roads

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National's first move of the 2018 political year is to put local pressure on the government over nine roading projects that were a result of the last government.

It's a move that picks up on an idea I suggested back in October 2017, whereby MPs use local petitions in a move to both bolster their local political standing and force the government to expend political capital, especially in regional New Zealand, in order to either change or ditch those projects.

At an electorate level it's a good move. Many of these projects enjoy significant local support, and are largely in areas where National did well in the party vote. In a way, National is somewhat forced into defending them regardless of whether they were actually needed, because to let them be turfed without a fight could be seen as turning their back on legacy projects of the National government.

Likewise, it gives the local National MP a chance to attack the government and keep their supporters politically engaged while the new government, presumably, steadies itself after a bumpy start last year.

From the other perspective, the government is able to take the edge off these petitions. Without wanting to rush any review process, if the government is able to provide a clearer picture and timeline about the future of transport projects, especially if that future involves pursuing an alternative project in that area, they'll be able to fend off the worst of the pressure.

Much of the heat that the government will take at the local level will be from the future uncertainty generated by the review. While there will be some resentment over changes to previously announced projects, and undoubtedly a group of people not believing any changed project would actually be delivered, being able to speak to an alternative transport solution will help the government greatly.

None of this is to say some of the roading projects National had planned don't have merit, or that some of them are unnecessary or uneconomic, but I'll leave that to other commentators to analyse.

The real aims for National out of this exercise should be as follows:

  • force the government to expend political capital defending the reviews and changes,
  • keep the morale up of supporters in the regions in the short term,
  • grow their database of supporter contact details and policy interest areas,
  • and, once the government has inevitably made decisions and changes to those projects, work towards a new, more balanced 21st century transport policy to take into the 2020 election.

Clare Curran seemingly in breach of Cabinet Manual again

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Cabinet Minister Clare current looks to have fallen foul of the Cabinet Manual for the second time this month, with a tweet that appears to simultaneously question the Police's decision not to prosecute as well as imply that they were somehow involved in a conspiracy.

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Section 4.14 of the Cabinet Manual is a hugely important one, in that it prohibits Ministers from commenting on, or involving themselves in Police investigations or the decision on whether or not to prosecute someone. As far as I'm aware, that prohibition extends to decisions that have been made, as it's entirely possible for Police to reopen an investigation, or revisit a decision to prosecute and as such, any comment made by a Minister on a previous decision, could be seen as an act of political interference in an operational matter for the police.

Regardless of whatever your personal viewpoint on whether Todd Barclay should have been charged or not, one of the most fundamental rules of government in New Zealand is that politicians do not seek to influence or interfere with the operational work of Police. As an example of that, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern followed the Cabinet Manual correctly when asked about the decision of Police not to prosecute anyone over the collapse of the CTV building in the 22 February 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

Despite emotions running very high, and many people, including the families of those who died in the tragedy, being angered by that decision, Ardern correctly said that she couldn't comment on the prosecution decision due to it being an operational matter.

As former Beehive advisor Hamish Price tweeted last night, the Cabinet Manual acts as a check on the formidable powers of Ministers and government to not unduly influence the operations of the Police. Commenting, critiquing, and insinuating as Curran has done risks turning the police from non-partisan arbiters of the law, to enforces of political whims. Doubly so in this case given that the subject of the Police decision is a former politician from the opposite side of the House to Curran.

Combined with her previous minor breach of the Cabinet Manual, as well as a generally incompetent performance in the House fronting up about her portfolios in Question Time, which has seen her not once, but twice, hidden away from scrutiny from the opposition, Clare Curran's time in the Ardern Ministry appears to be on its final countdown.

It will be telling to see how Jacinda Ardern responds to this, and whether she's able to match all her rhetoric of integrity and doing things differently by sacking Curran, or whether she'll gamble that this breach gets swept under the holiday carpet.

As an interesting post-script, Green Party Minister Julie Anne Genter also briefly seemed to run foul of the Cabinet Manual too, as she tweeted her criticism of Police for raiding, and destroying $16,000 worth of hemp (for which the Police were apologising for). Unlike Curran, Genter appears to have realised her mistake very quickly, and deleted the tweet within a minute.

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