Since the United States, United Kingdom, and France launched missile strikes against Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons infrastructure over the weekend, many have criticised the attack. Often cited in their objections is the notion that violence cannot bring about peace.
It's an admirable sentiment, but unfortunately it's not an entirely accurate one. History is a complex field. Just as there are situations where negotiation would have been a better solution than military force, there are others where the application or threat of force has proven to be a significant factor in either bringing about peace, or at least bringing parties back to the negotiating table.
Two obvious situations where military force was required to bring about peace, or at least a cease fire, were World War Two and the Korean War respectively. Negotiation failed to appease the territorial ambitions of the Axis, and actually seems to have emboldened them. Likewise, had the West not militarily intervened in defense of South Korea from North Korea's Soviet backed invasion, then imagine the abject misery and repression millions more Koreans would have lived under at the hands of the Communist North.
On the other side of the argument, Western military intervention in Vietnam (first by the French and then largely by the United States) is a grotesque monument to how the use of force can fail, with millions of lives lost and ruined, and immeasurable suffering inflicted on the people involved. Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 also belong in this category of the sad overreach of military folly and the horrendous price people in its path pay. The West's current involvement in Afghanistan as part of the War on Terror, despite its initial success in driving back the abhorrent Taliban, now seems doomed to be added to this macabre list too.
What's notable about the above examples are that they're all situations where external powers intervening militarily have done so in a massive way. Yet military intervention is not an all or nothing equation. There's two recent examples that come to mind where a lesser use of military force has contributed to bringing about a peaceful settlement, those being the Bosnian War and the Kosovo War.
These are notable when considering current Western military intervention in Syria and Iraq in so far that the Balkans offer a somewhat similar situation. Like many of the states of the Middle East, Yugoslavia was an artificial entity, created by an amalgamation of different ethnic groups, held together only by the force of personality and mutual respect its component parts had for its leader - Tito. When Tito died in 1980, the lack of any viable succession plan, as well as the inherent pressure within the constitutional arrangements of Yugoslavia, would see the country break up and descend into war. It's also worth keeping in mind that despite the concurrent end of the Soviet Union at the start of the Bosnian War, Russia still viewed itself as having a role to play in Yugoslavia that while not completely comparable to what we see in Syria, is still instructive.
In the Bosnian War, the NATO-led operations Deny Flight and Deliberate Force became necessary as the Bosnian Serb Army (VRS) stepped up its indiscriminate targeting of civilians. In particular, Operation Deliberate Force was necessitated by the Srebrenica and second Markale massacres, as well as the ongoing horrors of the Siege of Sarajevo. The United Nations ground force (UNPROFOR) was not equipped to properly protect civilians from VRS attacks, though they did as much as they could to do so.
By using airstrikes to break the military capabilities of the VRS, Operation Deliberate Force first secured the withdrawal of VRS heavy weapons from around Sarajevo. It also and helped bring Yugoslavia to the negotiating table as they realised that their support for Republika Srpska (the nominal Bosnian Serb Republic) to continue the war was untenable in the face of NATO air power. Russia, while it had initially backed Yugoslavia in its provision of material and political support for Republika Srpska, was also dependent on Western aid as it still tried to recover from the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a result of this, it joined the West in trying to pressure Slobodan Milošević into withdrawing his support for Republika Srpska. Milošević refused, and continued supporting the Bosnian Serbs, and that intransigence, combined with the growing horrors of the conflict, meant that military intervention helped bring an end to the war sooner than would have otherwise been the case.
Had NATO not intervened, it seems likely that the VRS would continued to fight on with Yugoslavian support. While it was slowly being pushed back at the time that NATO's air campaign commenced, without that added firepower it is far more likely the war would have dragged out for several more years, with increasing brutality being inflicted on civilians by the combatants on the ground. UNPROFOR, for all their attempts at protecting civilians, were ultimately unable to prevent the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of people.
A similar situation prevailed again in 1999. In response to Yugoslavian attempts to undertake a new round of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, NATO launched a bombing campaign against Milošević and his regime. While NATO initially underestimated Milošević's ability to both resist the military pressure while persisting with carrying on with the attempt to ethnically cleanse Kosovo, the threat of escalation with talk of a ground invasion (and it was largely talk, with the US and UK knowing that NATO wouldn't support such an action) caused Russia to tell Milošević that they wouldn't defend him in the event of a NATO invasion. Faced with NATO's airstrikes taking an increasing toll on the Yugoslavian military, who he'd come to rely on to stay in power in the face of growing domestic opposition since the end of the Bosnian War, Milošević was effectively bombed back to the negotiating table.
Once again, it seems likely that had NATO not intervened in Kosovo that Yugoslavian forces would have been able to complete the ethnic cleansing, much like what had happened during the Bosnian War when UNPROFOR was largely powerless to stop similar activities taking place.
None of this is to say that these two military interventions in the Balkan's didn't come at a significant cost to innocent civilians. Notably, during the Kosovo War, NATO forces bombed an Albanian refugee column, mistaking it for a Yugoslavian army column, there was the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade caused by mistakes made by an intelligence officer on the ground, and there's the reality that through the use of depleted uranium munitions and cluster bombs, there's a sinister legacy of the war lurking underfoot.
Likewise, a failure to properly police Kosovo by NATO in the aftermath of the Kosovo War saw Serbs and other nationalities resident in Kosovo subject to expulsion or abuse by returning Albanians.
Yet the question that must be asked when assessing the necessity of military intervention is what would the cost have been on not taking action?
In the Bosnian War it seems apparent that Yugoslavia would have kept supporting the VRS, causing the ethnically fuelled violence of that conflict to drag on for several more years. How many more Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs would have been massacred or had other disgusting horrors inflicted on them through the brutal nature of the Bosnian War? Had the world waited and hoped for Milošević to come back to the negotiating table in 1999 through diplomatic pressure, it seems likely that Yugoslavia would have succeeded in ethnically cleansing Kosovo.
Again, and it's important to reiterate this because these issues are complex, that's not to saw that military intervention is some magic panacea to bring about peace, and that it doesn't come with its own terrible costs, but it must be weighed up against what the other possible options are, and which one will - in the long run - result in the least amount of harm being down to as few people as possible.
I've already touched on the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 as being an example where negotiation and diplomatic pressure would have been far better military intervention. That particular example turned out to be the trigger for most of the problems in Syria and Iraq we see currently, specifically with the rise (and now fall) of ISIS.
In a similar note, the West's intervention in Libya in 2011 helped rebels topple Gaddafi, but by 2014 the country had again descended into civil war which rumbles away to this day.
This highlights that just as waiting and hoping that diplomatic pressure and negotiations can prolong misery in a conflict, so can military intervention. It is an impossibly difficult decision to make. But it is a far too simple take on history to say that the use of military force cannot have a role to play in bringing about peace in a conflict.
Where does this leave us over Syria? It is genuinely hard to tell? The United States was very reluctant to intervene at the start of the Syrian Civil War. In part this was because of strong Russian support for Assad by virtue of Russian military bases in Syria, but also because the US under Obama became comparatively circumspect about the role it could play by intervening in conflicts. The Obama administration debated extensively about the chances the anti-Assad forces had in overthrowing his regime, and for a while it did seem like they might manage it on their own.
Assad, unlike other dictators and strongmen whose positions were challenged by the Arab Spring, was determined to hold on and not give up his power base. Assad stalled for time through feigning enough interest in negotiations to regroup his forces and gather material support from Russia. At the same time, the rise of ISIS saw anti-Assad rebels caught between the recovering Syrian Army and ISIS fighters. As the United States begun bombing ISIS in light of the attempted genocide of the Yazidis, Assad received explicit Russian military intervention under a similar guise, though one that was targeted to benefit the stability of his regime rather than necessarily bring about the military defeat the terrorist group.
Where military intervention proven to be the course of lesser evil in the Bosnian and Kosovo Wars, in the Syrian Civil War it's much harder to judge what its success might be. Multiple peace attempts by the UN, US, Russia, France, Iran, and the Arab League have failed to produce a resolution to the conflict. In retrospect were used by Assad to buy time as he recovered from the early setbacks inflicted on his regime. Negotiations and agreement in 2013 for Assad to destroy his chemical weapon stocks have also failed. Assad has both found ways around the 2013 agreement (which didn't cover chlorine gas) and blatantly ignored it with at least two suspected sarin attacks.
Unlike the Balkans, and in light of difficulties and failures of US military interventions since then, the West simply does not have the appetite to act too far outside international law in order to intervene in Syria. Where Russia was greatly dependent on Western aid in 1995, and decided it didn't have any strategic interest in trying to prop up Milošević any longer in 1999, the Russia we see in Syria is a much different actor on the world stage.
Under Putin, Russia has embarked on territorial aggrandisement through the invasions of South Ossetia, the Crimea, and its proxy war in Eastern Ukraine. It has also sought to grow its political influence both by trying to ferment internal instability in the West, as well as being much more forthcoming in providing support for countries that it sees as belonging in its sphere of influence. Syria and Assad's regime is very much a part of that, with the Russian naval base at the Tartus, having been agreed to between the Soviet Union and Syria by Assad's father Hafez al-Assad and Leonid Brezhnev.
With Putin's Russia effectively operating with all the hallmarks of being Russia's take on fascism, it seems extremely unlikely that Putin will do as his predecessor Boris Yeltsin did. Where Yeltsin withdraw support Milošević in as international outcry grew and NATO military pressure increased, Putin seems much more determined to stay the course with Assad, no matter the reaction of the international community to flagrant breaches of international law and the 2013 deal with the Syrian regime continuing to use chemical weapons on civilians.
Interestingly, the support of Putin's Russia for Assad's regime wasn't always as explicit as it is now. In the early days of the civil war when Assad's position seemed less assured, the Russians being less vocal about the necessity of Assad remaining in power as a condition of any peace agreement. It was a preferred option, but the firming of that position to outright support of Assad only came about as his regime regained the initiative in the civil war.
Which brings us to the strikes in April of the past two years. In doing so, the US and its allies have had to weigh up the reality that regardless of what they do, Assad is likely to remain in power. It also appears that so long as Russian support remains in place, and something unforeseen doesn't happen to Assad personally such as an unexpected demise via death or palace coup, he seems likely to be able to slowly, but surely, grind out a victory over the rebels and reclaim control of his country.
The question then becomes, accepting that Assad is going to win, what action, if any, is available to be taken to stop Assad from inflicting the indiscriminate misery of chemical warfare on civilians? Negotiations didn't work, and Assad is already virtually cut off from any external support that isn't coming from Russia or Iran. Russia is already subject to wide ranging sanctions, meaning it's hard to gain leverage over Assad's main backer via diplomatic pressure. While any attempts to put pressure on Iran via diplomatic channels may well undo the good work that seems to have been done via the Iran Nuclear Deal.
In this situation, it would appear that the Coalition's decision to launch military intervention in the form of very limited air strikes was the only viable option available to them. Condemnation hadn't stopped Assad from using chemical weapons, negotiation and deals hadn't worked, Russian continues to protect Syria from any United Nations action via use of the veto - rendering that path a dead end, and options to put diplomatic pressure on Russia and Iran to deter Assad are extremely limited, if plausible at all. It's also since emerged that Russia has denied OPCW inspectors from even accessing the site of the recent chemical attack in Douma without a UN permit, which of course the Russians have prevented in the UN!
All of this adds up to make the strikes we saw in 2017 and in the past week as the only option that could potentially send some sort of message to Assad, or somehow impact his ability to produce and use chemical weapons. That both these sets of strikes have been executed as much as possible to avoid casualties is indicative of the very difficult balancing act the Coalition has had to undertake in this situation.
Sitting in the background of this too is the reality that if nothing is done to punish Assad while he is in the act of using chemical weapons (versus waiting for a hypothetical future day when it might be possible to put him on trial), is that other dictators may feel less restrained in their use of them on domestic opposition too. The fact that the Coalition undertook a military strike in the face of the significant political and legal issues in this situation, serve a wider geo-political message to at reinforcing the broader status quo about not using chemical weapons.
Of course, it's not a perfect option by any stretch of the imagination, and the West is hardly innocent with regards to the use of deplorable chemical weapon agents over the years (most notably Agent Orange in Vietnam, or the use of armour piercing depleted uranium munitions more recently). While it's also worth noting that the last reports I saw suggested the weekend's strikes were carried out with no military or civilian causalities, that wasn't the case in 2017 when military personnel, and civilians in a nearby village were killed.
Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Dexter Filkins essentially makes this same point in the New Yorker. Filkins argues that if the strikes deter Assad from making even just one chemical attack, then they've delivered a good result. Though Filkins' admits that it won't deter Assad in the longer term, but that the West is very limited in what it can do in response given the situation on the ground.
Filkins, in many respects, cuts to the heart of the problem with Syria more broadly. There simply isn't any practical solution to the ongoing civil war that doesn't see it play out in an orgy of violence, death, and destruction for years to come. Russia and Iran are impervious to diplomatic efforts to pressure on Assad to come to the negotiating table. Even if that pressure could be exercised, Assad appears unwilling to consider any solution which isn't him militarily wiping out his opposition (an endgame which suits Assad as it will strengthen his hold on any post-war Syria), and removing Assad is not an option because it seems that such a move will see Syria collapse much like Iraq did after the 2003 invasion.
The sad reality of Syria, and the Coalition strikes, is that they were the least bad option of a whole range of bad options and scenarios. What's more, is that unless there is a fundamental (and highly unlikely) change in the underlying dynamics of the conflict, it seems that everyone involved is doomed to repeat this vicious cycle until Assad has ground out a terrible victory in the ruins of Syria.
On that note, Assad's gamble to use chemical weapons to bring an end to the five year siege of Eastern Ghouta appears to have worked. The Syrian Army has announced that Eastern Ghouta is now free of militants. The question now is whether the Coalition's willingness to strike Assad will deter him from using chemical weapons to crush resistance elsewhere....
As the Government of Jacinda Ardern heads into its third week of its foreign policy blunder regarding Russia, I thought I'd throw together what's hopefully a definitive timeline of how this has unfolded.
24 October 2017: The incoming Government releases it's coalition and confidence and supply agreements with New Zealand First and the Green Party respectively. Everyone is caught be surprise by a clause in the agreement with New Zealand First which binds the Government to "Work towards a Free Trade Agreement with the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Customs Union and initiate Closer Commonwealth Economic Relations." It comes on the back of Winston Peters pursuing the issue with 20 questions in the House over nearly three years.
31 October 2017: The European Union's Ambassador Bernard Savage takes the unprecedented step of bluntly warning the New Zealand Government that pursuing a free trade deal with Russia will be viewed in a negative light by the European Union.
1 March 2018: Jacinda Ardern delivers her first speech on foreign policy to the New Zealand Institute of Foreign Affairs. In it, Ardern talks about as a small country New Zealand puts extra importance on the rules based international order, that New Zealand needs to strengthen our partnerships with out long-standing friends, and that:
We want an international reputation New Zealanders can be proud of. And while we are navigating a level of global uncertainty not seen for several generations, I remain firmly optimistic about New Zealand’s place in the world.
Our global standing is high: when we speak, it is with credibility; when we act, it is with decency.
They're words that in the events that would start to unfold less than two weeks later now look like a bad joke.
10 March 2018: Winston Peters appears on Newshub Nation in a bizarre interview where he claims there is no evidence Russia was involved in shooting down MH17, or that Russia had tried to interfere in the US Presidential election. He also tried to equate trading with Australia and trading with Russia as equivalent moral issues.
12 March 2018: At her post-Cabinet press conference in Wellington, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ties herself in knots in her attempts to defend her Foreign Minister. Questions are also raised about how often Foreign Minister Winston Peters might be meeting with Russian officials.
13 March 2018 (New Zealand time): British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to the House of Commons about the Salisbury attack, unequivocally blaming Russia for launching the first chemical attack on European soil since World War II. Russia is given until midnight to respond and explain their actions. Britain's allies around the world issue statements all condemning the attack and joining Britain in blaming Russia.
13 March 2018: Winston Peters issues a statement which while condemning the attack and calling for an investigation, falls short of blaming Russia for it.
14 March 2018: Russia issues a sarcastic and dismissive response to the British ultimatum. In a rare move, UK High Commissioner Laura Clarke goes on RNZ to make the case that Russia was behind the Salisbury attack. In a message clearly directed at the New Zealand Government following their watered down statement the previous day, Clarke points out that Russia has repeatedly ignored the rules based international system and that New Zealand, more than most countries, relies on that system being respected.
15 March 2018: Pressure mounts on the New Zealand Government as academics, journalists, and political commentators criticise the Government's weak response. The Australian Labor Party's Penny Wong slammed New Zealand's response, as did former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. The Australian issues a highly critical editorial, while the family of a MH17 victim joins the chorus of condemnation of Peters' earlier comments denying evidence of Russian involvement in the downing of the plane.
Later afternoon 16 March 2018: Following mounting pressure, Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters issued a statement on joint letter head, but only using quotes attributed to the Prime Minister, which finally blames Russia for the Salisbury attack - a full three days after New Zealand's allies had already done this. After it's noted by media that none of the quotes in the statement are attributed to Winston Peters, the statement on the Beehive is edited. It's blamed on a mistake by staff.
17 and 18 March 2018: Jacinda Ardern, in her first appearance on Newshub Nation and Q&A for 2018 is drilled on the issue. Ardern takes the weird position that the Salisbury chemical attack "changes things", as if there hadn't been a pattern of growing Russian aggression since the Crimean invasion. Ardern is also out claiming that talks on the Russian FTA hadn't been restarted when its revealed that Russian officials, believed to be trade officials, had met with Winston Peters in Manila the previous year. Weirdly, Ardern begins to articulate the myth that all they were doing wasn't actually trying to pursue a free trade agreement with Russia, just a reduction in non-tariff barriers, even though all her comments up to that point had been about a free trade deal with Russia.
19 March 2018: Ardern is once again grilled in her post-Cabinet press conference. Again it's over why the Salisbury attack had changed whether the Russian FTA was a good idea. Oddly, Ardern claims that Winston Peters is the one who first said that the Salisbury attack changed things, that's despite the fact that the Russian FTA was still all go until Friday afternoon when Ardern was quoted in a story by Stuff's Tracy Watkins and Jo Moir that all efforts to restart talks had been halted. In all the other things that were unfolding that week, Ardern's comments at that press conference now seem at odds with both the events of Friday afternoon, and Ardern's own interviews over the weekend. It seems very likely that there was an effort underway to restart free trade talks with Russia, but it was shelved only after Ardern decided it was no longer viable for the Government to keep taking heat over Winston Peters' stance. And there's no evidence Peters ever said that Salisbury changed things with regards to the Russian FTA, the only report of it appears to be Ardern announcing it would be stopped.
20 March 2018: The House sits again and both Ardern and Peters are questioned over the Government's woeful response to Russia the previous week.
21 March 2018: Ardern is again forced to defend Winston Peters' alternative facts around there being no evidence of Russian involvement in downing MH17 or trying to interfere in the US election.
22 March 2018: Winston Peters, responding on behalf of the Prime Minister, is subjected to questions in the House about his comments on Russia.
27 March 2018: Ardern appears on RNZ. In response to questions about how 150 Russian diplomats have been expelled from 26 countries, as well as NATO, Ardern says that MFAT has advised her that there are no undeclared Russian intelligence officers operating out of the Russian embassy. Ardern refuses later to confirm to other media whether there are declared intelligence officers. The comments soon go global, with it being reported and mocked around the world that Jacinda Ardern doesn't think there are any Russian spies in New Zealand, or that New Zealand would expel Russian spies but can't find any. The exact wording of a couple of exchanges towards the end of it are very interesting. Interviewer Guyon Espiner explicitly asks twice about Russian spies, not just the distinction of undeclared intelligence officers.
Espiner: "We don't have spies, Russian spies, in New Zealand?"
Ardern: "I'm assured by MFAT, that after the checks they've done, we don't. But, again, important to say if we did, we would expel them."
Espiner: "You happy with that? Do you believe that? There's no one gathering intelligence for Russia in New Zealand."
Ardern: "Well I can only rely on the advice I'm given."
Twice Guyon Espiner asked about spies, not just the diplomatic distinction of undeclared intelligence officers, and twice Ardern said there weren't any. She went on to elaborate that she wasn't surprised because we apparently wouldn't top the list for global intelligence services. Tell that to the French spies who bombed the Rainbow Warrior, or the Mossad spies caught travelling on forged passports...
It's also important to note that Ardern wasn't briefed by MFAT, it was actually the NZSIS, as was revealed by Winston Peters during question time the following day, and Ardern herself as she was caught on the microphone mentioning it.
28 March 2018: Local media picks up on the fact that overnight New Zealand has becoming an international laughing stock. Stories have run in high profile publications including Time, the Guardian, and Politico. Even Kremlin mouthpiece Russia Today mocked New Zealand's efforts.
In Question Time Foreign Minister Winston Peters is taken to task on New Zealand's lack of action in response to Salisbury. Not only that, but Winston Peters in talking about the NZSIS report given to him and the Prime Minister reveals that the NZSIS have advised him and the Prime Minister that there is Russian intelligence activity in New Zealand! A direct contradiction of what Ardern told Guyon Espiner on Morning Report.
Along with Security Analyst Paul Buchanan rubbishing Ardern's claims, former KGB agent Boris Karpichkov also weighed in, pointing out that as part of the Five Eyes, New Zealand was a prime target for Russian spies.
Update - 29 March 2018: Ardern finally announces that the Government is looking at implementing travel bans, and step they evidently didn't look at until Wednesday following two days of mounting pressure and international media coverage her comments regarding Russian spies.
While National has held Northcote since 2005, there's every indication that this time around it could switch hands back to Labour. With the Key/English era of National well and truly over, National faces an uphill battle to retain Northcote.
The key to victory in any by-election is maximising turnout by your own supporters. By-elections simply don't attract the same level of turnout as a General Election. In the nine by-elections in the past decade turnout has averaged 58% of what it was at the proceeding General Election. That's a massive drop in voter numbers and illustrates just what a difference a successful get out the vote campaign can do for a by-election. For interests sake the lowest turnout was the Mt Albert non-competition of 2017 where turnout was only 38% of what it had been in 2014, while the highest was Northland's 2015 by-election where 84% of voters from 2014 turned out.
This brings us to National's first big hurdle - getting its supporters out to vote. There's a couple of things that could dampen turnout for National. The first is supporters understandable sitting on the fence and waiting to see how National's new leadership team performs and what direction they take National in. After the successful Key/English years this is an entirely reasonable position for supporters to take, as the National Party of 2018 onwards simply can't sit on its laurels and expect warm fuzzy feelings of the Key/English era to carry them forward. Labour was somewhat guilty of that during Goff's leadership, and it's important National learns from that experience.
There's no easy way for National to earn that support other than getting runs on the board in terms of holding the Government to account and producing new ambitious policies themselves. The by-election, which seems like to hit shortly after Budget 2018, will make that latter part of the equation difficult, as Labour will have it's big set piece of the year to talk about, and National will need to have a credible alternative in place as well as acknowledging any good points in Labour's Budget. National can't be the "No" opposition party that Labour was for so long.
None of this is to say that Simon Bridges and his front bench can't secure that support, I definitely think that they're able to. But securing it within such a short time frame of becoming leader is going to be tough. That being said they've been helped by the Government's ongoing run of bad headlines which is now into its third week thanks to Clare Curran and Jenny Marcroft.
The other issue that will hit National in terms of turnout is largely dependent on who their candidate is. Reports today suggest that upwards of 10 people are potentially looking at seeking the Northcote nomination. There's rumours that a few centre-right local board politicians are looking at contesting the nomination, and speculation that there may be at least one possible contender returning from overseas, and a former mayoral candidate putting their names forward too. There's also the rumour that Air New Zealand's CEO Christopher Luxon might seek the nomination.
There's merit in either approach - either a local body politician or a high profile candidate like Luxon. A local body politician has the benefit of already being immersed in local issues, and already likely having networks in the local party and community that they can draw on during a campaign. Conversely, a high profile candidate like Luxon could be exactly what National needs to combat the hugely popular appeal of Jacinda Ardern that Labour will undoubtedly use to maximum effect in the by-election.
There's also risks in both approaches too. At a local body level the centre-right hasn't exactly covered itself in glory in recent memory with its electoral success. The conflict between competing centre-right tickets didn't help the overall cause in 2016. That failure has been the source of much debate within the National Party about whether the party should set up its own local body ticket to compete with Labour and create a conveyor belt of future MPs too. That's not to say that some of the National Party aligned local body politicians couldn't do a great job as MP for Northcote, but I simply don't know enough about any of them outside of the bigger picture of the 2016 campaign to comment further.
The high profile candidate approach from National could also look desperate too. High profile candidates either go one of two ways - be a fantastic success like John Key was, or ultimately end up being cringe-worthy like Don Brash has ended up being for the right (despite his near success in 2005). From what I've seen of Christopher Luxon it seems more likely he'd follow in John Key's footsteps, rather than follow the Brash burn bright but briefly approach. Luxon has had a pretty successful career at Air New Zealand, and would be able to hit the ground running in terms of the media commitments required of candidates, but it's harder to know how he'll relate to voters on the ground and the gruelling ground nature of day-to-day campaigning. He'll have experience dealing with a wide range of people at Air New Zealand, but being a candidate is a world apart from being the CEO of our national carrier.
Much like Labour, National should be able to deploy a fairly strong ground team to knock on doors, deliver pamphlets put up hoardings, call voters, and do all the usual campaign 101 things that keep campaigns working. In this regard the Young Nats in Auckland have excelled in recent campaigns of putting in the hard yards.
National will also benefit to some extent from Labour and New Zealand First's anti-Asian approach. With Northcote have twice the rate of people identifying as coming from an Asian background that New Zealand, National will be able to use this as an issue to drive people away from voting for the Labour candidate. As much as Labour and New Zealand First will claim their policies are about overseas people, if you read any of the reaction to Labour's "Chinese-sounding surnames" debacle of a couple of years ago you'll know how many Asian-Kiwis coped racial abuse stemming from that.
Another challenge for National is that at this point Northcote looks like it might be their first by-election without Steven Joyce, whose reputation as campaign chair is well deserved. How that might play out in terms of what unfolds in Northcote is hard to tell. Joyce, living in Albany, would have been as well placed as anyone to know first-hand what issues would and wouldn't motivate voters in Northcote. If National can get him involved in some sort of advisory capacity it will be a big help for them, though at the same time they do need to start blooding a new generation of campaign managers and campaign chairs to lead the party into the future.
The other issue National faces is that Northcote, as a bellweather seat, has shown a habit of generally voting where the largest party support is. If we went off the 2017 election results National would be a shoo-in for Northcote. However a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then, with Bill English leaving and Simon Bridges taking over. The dampening impact of the end of the Key/English era can't be underestimated, and National will need to work overtime to mitigate that effect alone. Likewise with recent political polls showing Labour's support in the high 40s, and National's lurking around the mid to low 40s, my calculations have National holding a 4.5 to 5.5 percentage point advantage, and that's without taking into account the recent leadership change.
National also can't break out the cheque book in quite the same way Labour can with regards to policies. Not only are we two and a half years away from the next election, meaning it's hard to promise things that you can't credibly deliver until virtually a full Parliamentary term away, but National has had a mixed bag with those types of by-election sweeteners in the past. It also doesn't suit National's narrative that it's not just about how much a government spends, but what results they get from that spending.
One thing that is in National's favour is that regardless of whether New Zealand First runs a candidate they've probably already bled any potential National supporters from their voters back to National in annoyance over Winston Peters going with Labour. ACT also seems unlikely to take many votes from National in the seat either.
While National holds a slight advantage when looking at Northcote historically, the ongoing strong popularity of Jacinda Ardern personally, and National's own leadership change are going to make it a challenging proposition for National to win the seat again. And I say win here quite purposefully. It's not about National retaining Northcote. We're not talking about an incumbent justifying why they should still be MP. We're facing the situation where a brand new candidate needs to win the support of the Northcote community to take up that leadership role for them, and that means winning each and every vote from the ground up.
On Sunday night I wrote about how Labour has every chance to win the Northcote by-election. Now the question is - how do they go about realising that chance to make history by becoming the first Government to win a seat off the opposition in a by-election?
Winning in Northcote for Labour is more important than most people realise, and it's not just about netting themselves another MP in Parliament at National's expense. A successful campaign in Northcote for Labour would lay the foundation for it to make inroads against National's strongholds across northern Auckland. These electorates are important in that they combine both high turnout and high party votes for National. Denting that Auckland suburban firewall while maintaining their gains elsewhere could guarantee Labour the ability to govern alone in 2020. Electorates like Northcote, North Shore, and Upper Harbour, all share enough similarities with other suburban electorates where Labour has done well to suggest that Labour can make more gains in them, almost exclusively at National's expense too.
The first, and most obvious step, is choosing a good candidate. Labour is relatively fortunate in that on the North Shore they have a host of upcoming politicians who are finding their feet in local body politics. In my last blog I made it quite clear I think North Shore Councillor Richard Hills would be an ideal candidate. He's local, he's smart, he's hard working, he's likeable, and while he lost to Jonathan Coleman in Northcote 2014, he enjoyed remarkable success in the 2016 local body elections. The 2014 result isn't one anyone should put too much stock in, mainly in light of how poorly Labour did across the country in that election.
The sooner Labour does select a candidate, the sooner they're able to get their campaign proper underway. It was an advantage they put to good effect in Mt Roskill where Michael Wood his the ground running several weeks before National's Parmjeet Parmar was able to. While not faced with National in Mt Albert, it also wasn't a secret who Labour was going to run there either, with Jacinda Ardern unofficially selected in that seat as soon as David Shearer announced his resignation.
Next is Labour deploying their much hyped ground game in Northcote. As an electorate Northcote is relatively compact, measuring about 30km² - roughly 6km from east to west, and 5km from north to south. That makes putting an effective ground campaign into action much easier than the larger suburban or provincial electorates around New Zealand. Labour has talked up a big game with regards to their on the ground campaign, and if they're able to quite literally walk the talk, Northcote is an ideal electorate to do it in.
The third step is to map out plenty of visits for Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson, and Phil Twyford to campaign with Labour's candidate. Given the immense popularity of Ardern, it makes sense to use her at least once a week with the candidate, if not twice a week. The popularity and goodwill toward's Labour's top triumvirate is pretty high right now, and they'd be silly not to utilise it and hope some of it rubs off on their candidate. Ardern, Robertson, and Twyford are the Government's most capable ministers, and chances are for Twyford a lot of the issues that will pop up will be in his portfolio areas too.
As always, you have to be mindful of not taking too much of the spotlight away from the candidate, but I think at this stage in the term the benefits of being seen campaigning with Ardern outweigh any downsides of being seen to be too dependent on her star power.
The only thing that might limit this is if the by-election campaign overlaps with Ardern's baby arriving. That being said, Ardern turning up to help Labour's candidate campaign with her new baby in her arms could well be the most iconic campaign moment in our political history.
The next thing Labour will need to do is find some good initiatives to announce for not just Northcote, but to also use as tools for the 2020 campaign across the North Shore. National did this exceptionally well with transport projects in the past, and Northcote and the wider North Shore are well placed for the same sort of pork barrelling that is just close enough in the future to be worth switching your vote for, but is also far enough away that Labour can get mileage out of it for the 2020, and maybe even 2023 elections...
The most obvious of these that springs to mind is not only bringing forward the start date of the Additional Waitematā Harbour Crossing to the early to mid-2020s, but also commit to building commuter rail in the North Shore too. To some extent that decision is made by the fact that the Additional Waitematā Harbour Crossing project calls for rail tunnels to be included in the project. Actually committing to a commuter rail network on the North Shore along with the crossing, which includes more roading, would be an ideal way for Labour to create a piece of policy that should win them votes north of the Harbour Bridge.
While National will be able to attack the policy as unaffordable, and as an example of splashing cash for votes, my gut feel is that those lines play better with the electorates who aren't benefitting from said cash splashing. Whereas those who are set to be beneficiaries of that spending are generally pretty happy to be shown some love by the Government.
The one part of this that might come back to bite Labour if they bring forward these projects is where they, especially the rail network, might impact on people's homes. It'll need to be an issue that Labour and their candidate are ready to sensitively manage, and don't be surprised if National uses it as an opportunity to push for a reform of the Public Works Act to improve the way in which people are compensated for the impact a project has on their property in line with European models.
The other thing that's useful, and this is true for both Labour and National though whichever party is best resourced to utilise this remains to be seen, is that Northcote's snug geographical boundaries make it relatively easy to target with advertising on social media, especially Facebook. A quick look at Facebook's ad tool suggests there's about 58,000 people aged over 18 on Facebook who are roughly within Northcote's boundaries. Taking the estimated performance of each party in each age group from the 2017 election, Labour would appear to have the edge in the ability to target potential supporters on Facebook. With those aged 18-44 voting more for Labour than was the average across the country in 2017, Northcote on Facebook turns up a potential audience of 40,000 people. That leaves around 18,000 for National to target aged 45 and over. Of course there will also be a variety of other factors that come into play on how political parties want to target their online advertising.
Finally, Labour needs to do whatever is necessary to ensure that neither New Zealand First or the Green Party stand candidates in the by-election. The easiest way for Labour to do this is to offer policy concessions to both parties. It may be what Newshub's Patrick Gower would call a dirty deal, but for Labour it might just be the deal they have to do to win Northcote.
For New Zealand First, not standing in Northcote is a no brainer. Following Winston Peters' decision to go with Labour, rather than with National, New Zealand First has already likely shed most of its supports who were sympathetic to National back to the blue team, which means in Northcote they're only going to be taking votes away from Labour's candidate.
For the Green Party though, the calculus is more complex. They're nearly exclusively in competition with Labour for support. Like other electorates with significant young and affluent populations where the Green Party has done well, Northcote does have the potential to deliver more party votes for the Green Party in 2020 than it historically has done. Running a candidate for the Greens will help their visibility going forward in a seat that can do better for them. The Greens, as a confidence and supply partner, have also made a point of displaying an independent streak to the Government at late, and running a candidate would support that. To convince the Green Party to not run a candidate in the seat will take a lot of concessions from Labour, one of which may be a deal to stand aside in a seat for them in the 2020 election.
Underpinning all of this is that Labour's path to victory relies in them maximising the turnout of every single possible voter who is going to vote for their candidate, and hoping that National isn't able to do the same. While Ardern didn't cause a youthquake, there was enough of an upturn in that demographic to suggest that in the short term, while Ardern's popularity is at its strongest, there's more Labour can gain out of that demographic, and Northcote is demographically well positioned for Labour in that regard.
That's enough delving into what Labour could do to win Northcote. I'm hopeful that next time I'll be able to write a bit about how National could win the seat. I say win, because with the incumbent MP leaving, it's not so much about defending a seat National already held as it is a new National Party candidate setting out to win it for the first time, which is a challenge for any candidate to do.
With the resignation of National Party MP Jonathan Coleman triggering a by-election in the electorate of Northcote, I thought it'd be an interesting exercise to delve into the numbers. The objective is to try and understand a bit more about how Northcote has voted since its creation in 1996, and see whether there is anything from its history that could help determine what might happen this time around.
Northcote is generally considered to be one of New Zealand's three bellweather seat - the other two being Hamilton East and Hamilton West. As you can see from the above chart, that's generally true for Northcote other than 2005, where it voted by 2 percentage points more for National than it did for Labour in its party votes.
While National won Northcote on its creation in 1996, Labour took it in 1999 and held it in 2002. What was very interesting about 1999 was that the Alliance's Grant Gillon won 20.51% of the vote, and combined with votes for candidates from the other minor parties, had more votes than either National Ian Revell or Labour's Ann Hartley could manage. Since that high water mark in 1999 for the minor parties in Northcote, National and Labour have gobbled up the lion's share of the vote.
National took the seat again under resigning MP Jonathan Coleman and turned it into a National stronghold by taking the seat with outright majorities since 2008. At the high point Coleman's lead over the Labour candidates was 29 percentage points in 2011, though in 2017 that had been reduced to 17 percentage points.
Since 2005 on the party vote front, National has consistently over performed in Northcote relative to its performance across the rest of the country. Across 2008-2014 Northcote delivered the majority of its party votes for National. Unlike the candidate vote, on the party vote front the high point for minor parties in Northcote, much as it was the for the country more broadly, the 2002 election. National's recovery in 2005 was the first major hit to minor parties in Northcote, followed by Labour's recovery in 2017.
Interestingly, in Northcote in 2002 minor parties received a larger share of the party vote than either National (who hit their lowest ever result) or even Labour, a feat they repeated in 2014 at least in beating Labour. It's a powerful illustration of how when major parties fall on hard times their supporters flock to minor parties instead in the presumed hope that their particular interests will be better represented in opposition.
When broken down by party over the period, it's interesting to see how National's success saw it cannibalise support for New Zealand First and ACT in Northcote, while Labour's fall from its 2005 high and subsequent rise in 2017 saw the Greens benefit, and to some extent NZ First recover, until 2017 hit them both.
Taking a similar look at the candidate voting illustrates how much of a two horse race Northcote has been since 2002. Whatever Grant Gillon was doing in Northcote, he was doing it very well, because since then nobody has been able to crack double figures in challenging the National/Labour duopoly.
This leaves us with the question - what does this all mean for the Northcote by-election? I think this means that Labour is right in the game and has every chance to win Northcote off National. When Labour is performing strongly in the party vote stakes they can, and they do win Northcote.
How have I reached this conclusion? In Northcote National outperforms its New Zealand-wide party vote result by an average of 3.78 percentage points. On the flip side, Labour in Northcote underperforms by an average of -2.93 percentage points. Minor parties also underperform by an overage of 0.84 percentage points.
With that in mind, and using the latest 1News Colmar Brunton poll from February 2018 as a starting point - with Labour on 48 per cent, National on 43 per cent, and minor parties netting the remaining 9 per cent across the country - I've calculated that things staying broadly true to their historical patterns, that would translate in Northcote to National getting 46.78 per cent, Labour 45.07%, and minor parties 8.15% of the party vote.
Then, allowing for the pattern of how candidates in Northcote have gone relative to the party vote of their party in the electorate, (National overperforms by an average of 5.15 percentage points, Labour overperforms by 2.23 percentage points, and minor parties underperform by 7.43 percentage points), that would see the following results:
- National candidate: 51.93%
- Labour candidate: 47.35%
- Minor parties: 0.73%
(due to rounding this does come out at 100.01% if you add those up)
That gives National a 4.58 percentage point advantage over Labour. If I use a slightly different measure - looking at the relative percentage difference rather than percentage points, it delivers a result still in favour of National, but with a 5.47 percentage point lead.
With that predicted 4.58 - 5.47 percentage point lead in favour of National, it's worth considering a few other factors that will come into play. Labour has an immensely popular leader and Prime Minister in Jacinda Ardern. Where Labour seemed to perform strongly in the 2017 election was the youth age groups, those aged 18-34. Incidentally Northcote experienced a 1.29 percentage point increase in the turnout of those voters in 2017. In terms of usually resident population, Northcote has a median age of 35, that's versus a median age of voters in the 2017 election of 48. Northcote sits within the youngest third of general electorates, and is in company with some relatively strong Labour voting seats. Advantage Labour in terms of age demographics.
Conversely, Northcote sits within the highest third of general electorates for median family income, and that places it in the company of some strongly voting National seats. So advantage National in that regard.
In terms of ethnic breakdown Northcote has below below NZ rates of people identifying as Pākehā (European), Māori, and Pacific Islanders, but it does have more than double the New Zealand rate of people identifying as being from from Asian backgrounds. How this will play out is hard to predict. Under John Key and, to a lesser extent Bill English, National was fairly confident that that Asian-New Zealanders were generally strong National supporters. This was reinforced by Labour playing several xenophobic race cards over the past few years, including the "Chinese sounding surnames" debacle, Andrew Little's attack on Indian and Chinese chefs, and the moves to ban foreign buyers - a policy that's been seen as promoting anti-Chinese sentiment which inevitably impacts Chinese-Kiwis. National should still have an advantage in this regard, but it's notoriously difficult to quantify.
Looking at religious affiliation (though admittedly this isn't a the strongest indicator of voting preferences in New Zealand largely due to Kiwis taking a relatively relaxed approach to religion, as is evidenced by having two openly non-religious Prime Ministers in recent memory, those being John Key and Helen Clark), Northcote has a slightly above average representation on non-religious people and slightly below average numbers of Christians vs New Zealand as a whole. I'll make the point again that this is a hard measure to use to predict voter patterns, especially as while National might generally be the party perceived as attracting Christian voters, Labour also has significant Christian support through its strong support in Pacific Island communities. This isn't so much of a factor in Northcote, but insofar that I'd argue that non-religious people are more likely to vote for Labour (even though I'm personally an exception to my own rule) I feel that potentially Labour might have a slight edge in this regard.
While I've written about Ardern and how she turned out the youth vote for Labour - largely at the expense of the Green Party it seemed at the time - National has a different problem. Simon Bridges, while having been a relatively high profile minister and hence having more of a public profile than most new leaders might have, is still new to the role. He doesn't have the same name recognition that John Key or Bill English had, and as such can't be counted on to bring out voters like Ardern will for Labour. That's not a criticism of Bridges, rather it's the simple reality that he's new to the job of being leader and outside of a general election campaign it's generally hard to get cut-through with voters as an opposition leader.
At the current stage of the electoral cycle, Labour does have an edge over National with regards to deploying their leader as a way to promote their candidate. I don't doubt that Simon Bridges will do as good of a job as any new leader for National could do, but it's important to acknowledge that he's also up against Jacinda Ardern who, along with being the Prime Minister, has already built a formidable media profile that's hard to match in such a short time.
The other thing that should count in Labour's favour is that in a by-election minor parties typically either don't run candidates, or struggle to get any cut through. In Northcote's case, minor party candidates have particularly struggled since the highs of Grant Gillon. In 2008 and 2014 New Zealand First didn't run a candidate in Northcote at all, and neither did the Green Party in 2005. If I were Labour, I'd of already started negotiations with New Zealand First and the Green Party to not run candidates in the Northcote by-election, and I'd offer policy concessions in return. Bumping the Government's working majority up a vote would be worth it.
If Labour were feeling especially devious, they could look at running one of their sitting List MPs in the seat, and pulling off the same trick that Winston Peters did to National in Northland in 2015, allowing Labour to bring in a replacement MP off the list if they won.
That being said, I think Labour's best chance of winning would sit with picking someone who already has proven electoral experience in the area. 2014 Northcote candidate, and sitting Auckland Councillor Richard Hills springs to mind as perhaps Labour's best chance. Hills topped the Kaipātiki Local Board results in the 2016 election, but as he placed second to Chris Darby for the North Shore Ward, was elected as an Auckland Councillor instead. Funnily enough, old Grant Gillion of 1999 fame in Northcote missed out to Hills by 128 votes.
Having already run in the seat in 2014, and subsequently becoming a Councillor for North Shore, I think places Hills in a strong position to help Labour take the seat from National. He also captures much of what the rejuvenated face of Labour looks like, and from what I can tell is a bloody hard working local councillor and all round nice guy. While some might criticise him if he stood for Northcote, having only become a councillor in late 2016, I'd argue that situations like this are just the nature of politics. It's probably a once in a lifetime chance to be able to represent your community at the national level, let alone potentially as a Government MP, and the subsequent by-election on North Shore is simply the cost of democracy, and it's a cost that I don't think anyone can reasonably object to paying. I don't think any reasonable person could criticise Hills for doing this.
Which leaves us with National and who they might run. Newshub's Lloyd Burr has already cheekily suggested that Air New Zealand CEO Christopher Luxon wants to enter politics with the National Party. Luxon is based on the North Shore, though I don't know if he falls within Northcote's boundaries (not that this is necessarily a barrier for someone to become an MP). Luxon also has a significant amount of name recognition through his largely successful time at Air New Zealand. That alone could well be important in helping National fight off what should be a very strong challenge from Labour.
National's other options include trying run their own List MP in the seat - with Paul Goldsmith and Melissa Lee being two possibilities if they relocated from their existing bases in Epsom and Mt Albert respectively - which would mean they could bring in another person off the List as well! Alternatively National might have a stellar local candidate in the wings who we haven't seen just yet.
It's often said that by-elections are Christmas come early for beltway watchers, and the Northcote by-election is shaping up to be just that.
It's safe to say that the past two weeks have been the most difficult that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the Labour-led Government have faced.
Between the sexual assaults at a Young Labour summer camp, the entire Russia fiasco, Ron Mark melting down over defence force flights, Jenny Salesa's Ministerial spending, criticism that not enough was being down to help the Nelson and Tasman regions in their recovery from Cyclone Gita, the Green Party ambushing Labour by announcing they were gifting questions to National, and Shane Jones repeatedly shoving his foot in his mouth over Air New Zealand, there's a lot that's been going wrong lately.
The public relations triumph that was Ardern's Waitangi visit must seem like an age ago, while the successful Pacific Mission has completely vanished from view.
Despite all that, when the next round of political polling is released I don't expect to see any significant change from what we saw in February. I'd expect to see Labour in the mid to high 40s, National in the mid to low 40s, and the Greens and New Zealand First struggling to reach 5 per cent.
The main reason for this is that Ardern hasn't been personally responsible for many of the issues that have played out and, where she has, they've mostly been on things that I don't think are necessarily going to sway voters. That, combined with her personal popularity, will mean that while Ardern has burnt some political capital fighting fires, she still has a deep well of support to call on.
The Labour Party's seemingly terrible handling of the sexual assaults at the Waihi camp will reflect badly on Labour's General Secretary Andrew Kirton, but as Ardern was only briefly at the camp delivering a speech, and had nothing to do with its organisation or the events in question, I doubt any voters will hold her responsible for it. A test may come further down the line when Labour's own internal investigation is complete if it finds significant failings on the part of the party organisation and Ardern doesn't demand that someone takes personal responsibility, but that's hard to preempt given there's a lot of water to go under the bridge.
The Russia fiasco - Winston Peters' alternative facts on Russian interference with the US election and Russian involvement in the downing of MH17, the bizarre focus of Peters on a Russian free trade deal, and the ham-fisted attempt by the Government to first condemn the Salisbury attack without blaming Russia, then several days later finally managing to step into line with our allies and blame Russia, as well as Ardern's bungled attempts to spin away that foreign policy disaster - while a bad look generally for Ardern and Peters, isn't the type of issue that will sway votes, even if it has lead to some questioning within the beltway of Ardern's own judgement and Peters' motives.
What has been interesting is that the Russia saga played out over 11 days. If a day is a long time in politics, then 11 days is an eternity for an issue like this to run its initial course. There's possibly more to come in this space, which could start to erode voter confidence in the Government's foreign policy and security credentials.
Ron Mark's defence force flights and Jenny Salesa's ministerial spending are similarly both minor issues. In the bigger scheme of things both are relatively minor issues. While Mark hasn't handled the pressure being questioned about the flights put him under particularly well, Ardern did the requisite telling off of Salesa and unless it becomes a pattern of overspend, the matter will rest there.
One thing that will nag at Labour's recovery of support in the regions, at least in the top of the South Island, has been the Government's sluggish response to Cyclone Gita in Nelson and Tasman. It took nearly three weeks after Cyclone Gita hit New Zealand for the Government to announce any meaningful assistance for businesses cut off by the storm. And unlike the flooding in Edgecumbe, which prompted a Prime Ministerial visit from Bill English to see first hand what had unfolded, the residents of Takaka and the surrounding areas still haven't seen or heard from Ardern.
Not that anyone is suggesting a Prime Minister visiting is somehow going to magically undo the damage done by a given disaster, but it usually serves as both a way to boost morale in the affected communities, as well as to highlight the ongoing importance of the recovery to Government agencies to ensure they keep their efforts up.
The Green Party surprising everyone by gifting questions in Question Time to National has been an interesting issue to follow the reaction to. While it feeds the Opposition's narrative that not all is well and cozy on the Government benches, any consequential reaction to it seems to be more directed at the Green Party over it, both supportive of the move and in opposition to it. While headlines of the Greens doing a deal with National aren't helpful to Labour, it seems unlikely this will translate into the polls either.
Finally, there was Shane Jones' attack on Air New Zealand. It kicked off on Friday and didn't end until Ardern finally hauled Jones back into line during Question Time on Wednesday. Jones' comments caused some concern in both the beltway and business community, as did Ardern's initial backing of Jones. Outside of the beltway, Jones' comments will have played well.
Towards the end of the past two weeks Ardern was getting visibly frustrated with both media questioning and Opposition attacks. In part this will stem from this being the first time her Government has been hauled over the coals for a significant length of time. But no doubt a lot of her annoyance will come from the fact that most of the problems she's been having to deal with aren't ones that she's been responsible for, barring her poor handling of the Russia issue.
The rough patch is set to continue too. With the Select Committee submissions soon to be heard on the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill, there will be a stream of negative headlines about the Government pushing that Bill through, as well as the Green Party's support for it. There's also lingering questions around Winston Peters' infatuation with Putin's Russia.
It shouldn't escape anyone's notice that New Zealand First, who are struggling badly in polls, have been the source of three of the issues that have dogged the Government in the past two weeks. Shane Jones' comments are perhaps the most interesting in this regard, as they point towards New Zealand First taking a much more vocal stand on issues that might not always sit well with the responsibilities and requirements of occupying the Government benches.
The good news for Labour is that with Easter fast approaching, and beyond that the beginning of pre-Budget announcements, the Government does have an opportunity to start setting the news agenda rather than reacting to it.
Yesterday I put in my submission opposing the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill. For interests sake, I'm reproducing it here should anyone wish to read it.
“Members of Parliament have to be free to follow their conscience. They were elected to represent their constituents, not swear an oath of blind allegiance to a political party. If an MP feels that membership in another elected party better serves his or her constituents, then that can be put to the test at election time.”
That was the Leader of New Zealand First, Winston Peters, in 1996 when the then National Party MP Michael Laws defected from National to New Zealand First. Given the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill is being currently considered by Parliament, it’s worth noting that back in 1996, Mr Peters did not demand that Michael Laws resign from both the National Party and Parliament. Instead Mr Peters would have been more than happy for Mr Laws to remain as an MP until the 1996 General Election, had other events in Mr Laws’ career not intervened.
Freedom of conscience and association are justifiably held dear as two of the most important foundations of a healthy and functioning democracy. New Zealand made a point of explicitly enshrining these in our laws through Sections 13 and 17 of the Bill of Rights Act 1990, simply put:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief, including the right to adopt and to hold opinions without interference.”
“Everyone has the right to freedom of association.”
As the Select Committee reflects on the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill, I encourage Members to consider those two sections carefully, and how they apply to the legislation before us. Does it impinge on an MP’s right to freedom of conscience and freedom of association? Does it constitute an interference with those rights?
As I will demonstrate in this submission, the only credible answer to both those questions is a loud and clear “Yes”, and it is for that reason that I have chosen to make this submission which is strongly opposed to this legislation.
While supporters of the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill tout it as being about preserving the proportionality of Parliament as determined at the previous General Election, this claim does not stand up to basic scrutiny. If the Bill were truly about preserving that proportionality, it would deal with other situations that result in changes to that proportionality rather than just when an MP either resigns or is forced out from their political party. The most recent example of a change to Parliamentary proportional that the Bill fails to address was that which resulted from the Northland by-election in 2015.
As a result of Mr Peters winning that by-election and deciding to bring in Ria Bond from New Zealand First’s list to replace him, the proportionality of Parliament was changed relative to that determined by voters little more than six months previously. National’s share of seats was reduced from 49.59% of Parliament on 20 September 2014 to 48.76%. Meanwhile New Zealand First’s share was increased from 9.09% to 9.92%.
Why is this example important? Because if the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill was genuinely interested in preserving the proportionality of Parliament, then it should include sections to address situations like the Northland by-election changing proportionality. Such a section would stipulate that in an event where an electorate seat switches between parties during a Parliamentary term as the result of a by-election, other parties would be required to gain or lose list MPs as necessary to preserve that previous proportionality.
If we use the Northland by-election as an example of such a new section in the Bill: Voters had determined on 20 September 2014 that National should have 60 seats in the 51st Parliament and that New Zealand First should have 11. To preserve that proportionality of Parliament after Mr Peters’ win in the Northland by-election, it would have been National that would have been permitted to bring in an MP to bring their number of seats back up to 60, while New Zealand First wouldn’t have been able to bring in someone off their list to replace Mr Peters and would have remained with 11 seats.
The fact that the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill omits to address such a situation, and only looks to deal with the situation where an MP either leaves their political party and/or switches political allegiance during a Parliamentary term, is indisputable evidence that this Bill is not about preserving proportionality at all.
It is clearly about legislating to introduce a tool for parties and their leaders which constitutes an interference on MPs’ rights to freedom of conscience and freedom of association.
At this point it’s worth noting that the country with an MMP system with which New Zealand is most often compared – Germany – places such a high value on preserving the freedoms of conscience and association for its elected representatives that it has explicitly protected those rights for Members of the Bundestag. Article 38 of the German Constitution states:
“Members of the German Bundestag shall be elected in general, direct, free, equal and secret elections. They shall be representatives of the whole people, not bound by orders or instructions, and responsible only to their conscience.”
The second sentence is especially important for us to consider in that it creates a protection for German MPs to vote with their conscience, against the wishes of their respective party, and not be dismissed from the Bundestag by their party as a result of such an action.
All of this is to say that Germany sees the freedoms of conscience and association for elected representatives as being a fundamental part of a healthy, functional democracy. Germany, perhaps more than any other country, knows the risks of undermining such freedoms.
New Zealand has, relative to other comparable democracies, very few checks and balances on Parliament and the Executive, especially checks that can be accessed and used by ordinary citizens. As a result of this situation, the ability of MPs to disagree with and vote against their party and remain as elected representatives, functions as one of the last and most important combination of checks and balances on the powers of both Parliament and the Executive.
The right of MPs to defy their party and vote against it, or even leave their party should their conscience demand it in more serious situations, while remaining an MP acts as a check on the power of parties to simply force through whatever they like willy-nilly. It functions as a balance against parties enacting or promoting policies which are either too far of a departure from their values or election policies, or are potentially too radical or backwards, in that party leadership should take into account how their own MPs might react to any given course of action.
New Zealand has a proud history of MPs exercising this right to stand up for and act as a check against the power of Governments to do whatever they want. Whether it was Marilyn Waring defying Muldoon’s attempts to invite nuclear powered or armed ships to New Zealand, Jim Anderton rallying against the economic reforms of the Fourth Labour Government, Winston Peters and Michael Laws defecting over a continuation of those reforms under the Fourth National Government, the split of New Zealand First MPs over the behaviour of their leader in 1998, the Alliance fracturing over the Fifth Labour Government’s support for the War on Terror, Tariana Turia fighting back against the foreshore and seabed legislation, or Hone Hawawira disagreeing with the Māori Party being too close in its relationship with the Fifth National Government, this right of MPs to exercise their freedoms of conscience and association has become one of the defining and most important features of our political system.
I, as would many others, would argue that so vital is protecting this right for MPs, that we cannot simply hope that parties and their leaders don’t exercise the powers the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill would give them to effectively sack defiant MPs from Parliament, such as what happened with the Alliance in 2002, but rather we must ensure that we don’t put the tools to abuse such power in the hands of political parties and their leaders to begin with.
It is clear to any observer that the only purpose of the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill is to give parties and their leaders a tool that interferes with an MP’s rights to freedom of conscience and freedom of association. It does so by effectively taking away the power to elect, or not elect, MPs from voters, and hands it over to the internal processes of each party’s caucus and internal processes.
As Members of this Committee will well know from their own personal experience, even if they won’t publicly admit it, the claimed “safeguard” of needing two-thirds of the caucus to agree to written notice being given to an MP is little more than a rubber stamp exercise, and in reality will offer no safeguard to this legislation being exploited to quash internal dissention.
While I appreciate that parties and their leaders are mindful of maintaining the cohesion and unity of their Parliamentary members, largely for reasons of their own self-preservation in the face of voters at the next General Election, I would make the point to the Committee that the best way to achieve that is not through regressive legislation that impinges on MPs’ fundamental freedoms under the Bill of Rights Act, but rather through political parties themselves ensuring that not only do they have the processes in place to manage such issues internally, but that they also develop, pursue, and support policy and positions on issues that are palatable to their MPs.
Another consequence of the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill, and I would go so far as to suggest it may even be an intentional consequence of it, is that it will effectively create two tiers of MPs with different levels of recourse and protection under the law. Electorate MPs who are removed from Parliament under this legislation would have the recourse of contesting the resulting by-election to get back into Parliament, however List MPs would have no such option, and would simply be removed from Parliament barring any legal challenge brought to bare through the court system.
Ironically for a piece of legislation with the word “integrity” in its title, creating two tiers of MPs in such a way would effectively undermine the integrity of our electoral system. As things stand without this legislation, both Electorate and List MPs enjoy essentially the same legal rights and protections and, as such, voters can have confidence that when they cast their party vote they are doing so for a list of MPs that are broadly representative of their values and the needs of their community. Voters also cast their votes the understanding that those List MPs are empowered in the same way as Electorate MPs that they will be able to act as a check against the party or its leadership moving too far away from the policies and values it campaigned on.
However, should the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill be passed, it would then devalue the position of List MPs by making them far more vulnerable to being summarily removed from Parliament by their party. Voters would not have the confidence that their party vote would be cast for anything more than appointing rubber stamp MPs who would smile and nod at whatever policy platform or legislation their party leadership puts before them.
We currently have a system where party leadership, when considering a course of action to take on an issue or a policy, must take into account not only the advice they receive about the policy, and the views of the public, but also the views of their caucus too, regardless of whether those members were elected via an electorate or the party list. That final bit is so crucially important to the integrity of New Zealand’s democratic system. The political calculation that a party’s leadership must take into account the views of their caucus acts as one of the last balances on the ability of party to simply rely on the pressure of the majority to force MPs to support any position they may take on a given issue.
With the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill, that balance would be altered in such a significant way that it would have a huge negative impact on the integrity of our system. Party leaderships would no longer have to worry about threat of MPs voting against legislation, or standing up independently against a proposed course of action. They’d no longer have to worry about those MPs, especially List MPs, remaining in Parliament as a thorn in their side, if such a parting of the ways resulted in the dissenting MP either resigning or be sacked from their party. Under this Bill, those MPs would be effectively gone for good, freeing up parties and their leadership to behave much differently than they are now.
Here I think it’s useful to remember the words of the former Green Party co-leader, the late Rod Donald, when he spoke to Parliament opposing virtually identical legislation to that being considered now, “It is vital that MPs are not turned into party robots. Anti-defection legislation is designed to gag outspoken MPs and crush dissent.”
At its core, that is what the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill is about. It is demonstrably not about preserving the proportionality of Parliament, as it fails to address all other situations which might result in a change to that proportionality. This is especially ironic seeing as the party which is the main proponent of the need for the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill – New Zealand First – was the beneficiary of the most recent example of such a situation which changed the proportionality of Parliament. Yet they’re not arguing to legislate to prevent that happening again.
The only rational and credible reading of this legislation is that it is designed to equip parties and their leaders with a tool to interfere with the legal rights of MPs (a point which Attorney-Generals present and past have noted with this and similar legislation) and make it harder for MPs to oppose policies or legislation that go against their conscience by the threat of their removal from Parliament by their leaders.
It is simply not good enough to suggest that MPs’ freedom of conscience and association won’t be negatively impacted by this Bill. To put in place a legislative framework that allows parties and their leaders to sack dissenting MPs sends an unmistakably chilling message: dare to defy the party line and you’re gone. That message attacks the very heart of the Bill of Rights Act, and very clear fails the test set out in Section 5 of that piece of legislation which states, “the rights and freedoms contained in this Bill of Rights may be subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
Disagreements over policy or personalities within a political party are simply not compelling enough reasons to place limits on the freedoms contained within the Bill of Rights Act, especially when imposing such limits undermine one of the few sets of checks and balances within our Parliamentary system.
To the Labour Party Members of this Committee, I would ask you to look to the words of your former leader and Prime Minister, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who said, “MPs should make honourable undertakings, not legal undertakings. They may be coerced by argument, by public opinion, but not by stand-over tactics in closed rooms by party leaders.”
When you read those words, ask yourself – how does a piece of legislation that gives party leaders the tools to remove MPs who dissent or disagree too much from Parliament support the freedoms, rights, and democracy that we hold so dear in New Zealand?
Furthermore, and I note both with interest and regret, that there are no Green Party MPs on the Justice Select Committee, I would still use this opportunity to call on them to look to the principles of their party, look to their past leaders like the late Rod Donald or Metiria Turei, who have spoken out so strongly against such legislation in the past as being fundamentally undemocratic and an attack on the basic rights and freedoms of MPs. As Metiria Turei put it, “He [Winston Peters] may want to corral his MPs for fear of that they may have an independent thought, but the Green MPs value each others' right to disagree and feel no need to be kept in line by the party leadership.”
The Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill effectively removes one of the last, and most important sets of checks and balances on the power of Parliament and the Executive branch. Despite the claims of its small handful of supporters, it is not genuinely interested in maintaining the proportionality of Parliament, failing to address any of the far more likely events that would change that proportionality. Instead, it explicitly seeks to interfere with the rights and freedoms of MPs through giving party leaders a tool through which to threaten MPs who disagree or dissent too much with sacking, and it undermines the integrity of our electoral and Parliamentary systems by creating two tiers of MPs with different protections and resources.
It is for these reasons that I make this submission in strong opposition to what is both a poorly written piece of legislation, and a disturbing attack on some of the fundamental pillars of our democratic system.
I can't think of a bigger foreign policy faux pas in New Zealand's recent political history than the absolute train wreck that unfolded this week over Russia. It started with Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters bizarre interview on Newshub Nation. In it he denied there was evidence of Russian interference in the US Presidential election, or evidence of Russian involvement in the downing of MH-17.
Those two claims fly in the face of the growing list of charges being brought against Russians by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and the mounting body of evidence from the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team, the British Security and Intelligence Committee, and NGO investigators Bellingcat.
I was one of the first political commentators to call out Winston Peters indefensible and incoherent comments, suggesting to maintain credibility in her leadership and for international partners to have faith in New Zealand's membership of security and intelligence sharing arrangements, Jacinda Ardern needed to sack Winston Peters.
It's a call I stand by having made, especially in light with how badly this week has played out for the Government and the damage it will have caused for New Zealand with some of our most crucial security, intelligence, and trading partners. The source of all these issues is Winston Peters, and only by sacking him can Ardern fully restore confidence in her Government's ability to handle significant foreign policy issues.
It continued on Monday when, at her weekly post-Cabinet press conference, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ineptly tried to avoid contradicting her Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, and defended his continued push for free trade talks with Russia.
On Tuesday things got worse.
Around the world governments moved to condemn the Salisbury chemical weapons attack and squarely point the finger of blame at Russia, with the Canadian, United States, British, Australian, French, and German governments all taking an extremely firm and united stance against Putin and Russia. All New Zealand could manage was a meekly worded statement from Foreign Minister Winston Peters that was massively out of step with New Zealand's key security partners in that it didn't blame Russia, a point that no doubt would have been noticed by our friends and allies.
A yardstick of the seriousness with which Peters' pathetic response was taken by our security partners, their growing concern about his pro-Putin apologism, and how it was going unchecked in the Beehive, was delivered on Wednesday morning when British High Commissioner Laura Clarke made a rare media appearance via RNZ's Morning Report to deliver a blunt message to Jacinda Ardern - Russia was clearly responsible for the Salisbury attack, New Zealand's refusal to publicly acknowledge that responsibility was not good enough, and New Zealand's pursuit of a free trade agreement with Russia was deeply concerning in light of Russia's increasingly brazen pattern of aggression with complete disregard for international rules based diplomacy.
While Clarke was diplomatic enough in the interview, diplomatic representatives simply do not make media appearances outside of their arrival or departure in the country, unless it is to send a very clear message to the government of the day. Clarke's appearance would only have been the tip of the iceberg, with unofficial back channels being used extensively to convey sterner messages to level nine of the Beehive about the gravity with which New Zealand's actions, or lack thereof, were being taken in Westminster.
Not constrained by the need for diplomacy, the Australian Labor Party's Penny Wong (who is staffed by a former New Zealand Labour Party staffer), and former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott slammed Winston Peters' comments, and an even more stinging editorial in The Australian.
The growing domestic and international backlash finally forced Jacinda Ardern's hand.
Having realised how poorly she had judged the entire situation, and the damage that had been already done and the risk of even more damage had she persisted in defending Winston Peters' pro-Putin stance, late on Friday afternoon she issued a joint statement that finally got in line with the significant international outrage at Russia's actions. What was odd about the statement though was that other than Russia's sarcastic response to Britain's ultimatum for a response, nothing much else had changed.
The reason why so many governments got in behind the British position so quickly is because the British shared their intelligence on the Salisbury attack with them, intelligence that would have been shared with Ardern too. She would have had access to that intelligence much earlier in the week, most likely on Tuesday before Winston Peters made his first underwhelming statement on the attack.
The disaster continued to unfold on Newshub Nation. Drilled on whether Russian FTA negotiations had restarted, Ardern was caught out having just denied that they'd restarted, when Lisa Owen pointed out that Winston Peters had already met with Russian officials in Manila, where it's believed the FTA was announced.
What was even more incredible is that Ardern stated the reason for suspending Winston Peters' pursuit of a Russian FTA was that "Salisbury changes things." Really? In case Ardern hadn't noticed, that since invading and annexing the Crimea in 2014, Russia has:
- Interfered with elections in the US, France, Germany, and possibly also in Italy.
- Continued to carry out a clandestine war in Eastern Ukraine.
- Provided military support in the form of soldiers, air power, equipment, and training to Assad's regime in Syria which is again using chemical weapons on civilians.
- Continued to murder and harass political opponents and journalists in Russia.
- Continued to repress ethnic and minority groups within Russia.
- And Putin has even revealed he's antisemitic too in trying to blame Jews for any meddling in the US election!
Salisbury hasn't changed anything. Russia is still the same brutal, aggressive, and repressive dictatorship that it was in 2014 when FTA negotiations were suspended over Crimea, the only thing that changed in that time was that Winston Peters had the balance of power following the 2017 election and used that power to wring a concession for a Russian free trade deal in his coalition deal with Labour.
The height of Ardern's absurd response to her abysmal handling of the situation this week came when she tried to compare what she claims New Zealand is trying to do is just trade on a equivalent basis to how the UK and EU trade with Russia around sanctions.
I hate to tell the Prime Minister this, but essentially the only thing the EU trades with Russia for is to get oil and gas, largely to heat their homes during the European winter. It's something of a necessity, a fact the Prime Minister should be aware of from her own time working for Tony Blair. Some 65% of the EU's trade with Russia is for oil and gas, and New Zealand simply is not dependent on such a relationship in order to not freeze to death each winter. So trying to argue that Peters' FTA plan is little more than trying to trade in a similar manner to how the UK and EU do with Russia is a false analogy.
In many ways what unfolded this week was the culmination of a diplomatic disaster whose first warning signs were very clear made by European Union Ambassador Bernard Savage in November 2017.
This past week Jacinda Ardern has displayed an appalling lack of judgement with her handling of Winston Peters' incoherent comments on Russia, her week long defence of pursuing the Russian free trade deal, and her Government's failure react appropriately to the abhorrent Salisbury chemical weapon attack until late on Friday. It was all capped off by her own poor performances in her post-Cabinet press conference, as well as on Newshub Nation where she has still failed to adequately explain the complete and utter mess of our foreign relations she and her Deputy Prime Minister managed to create.
Most importantly to keep in mind is that this entire episode has damaged New Zealand's international reputation. It will cause our security and intelligence partners to think twice before passing sensitive information to New Zealand, it will make both the UK and the EU more reluctant to concede ground to New Zealand's requests as we work on free trade agreements with them, and we will see less support from them if and when New Zealand takes any international issues we might have to the world stage.
There are also now questions being rightfully asked about why Winston Peters motivations and why is he so single-mindedly obsessed with getting a Russian free trade agreement when he's historically been so fiercely opposed to deals like the TPP, the Korean FTA, and the China FTA.
Why the sudden rush now to do a deal with Putin now, Comrade Peters...?
Following an interview on Newshub Nation today, where New Zealand's Deputy Prime Minister claimed that there was no evidence that Russia either meddled in the US election, or was responsible for the shooting down of MH-17 over Ukraine, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern must sack Winston Peters from her Government, as his position as Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister is no longer tenable.
Mr Peters went so far as to suggest New Zealand trading with Russia would be no different to New Zealand trading with Australia given Australia's treatment of criminals who are New Zealand citizens living in Australia.
Perhaps Mr Peters hasn't noticed, but last time I checked Australia hadn't conducted invasions of South Ossetia and the Crimea, nor was Australia supplying troops and equipment to a proxy war in Eastern Ukraine and backing the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad which has repeatedly and recently used chemical weapons on civilians.
Nor has Australia been involved in attempts to disrupt elections and referendums in the US, France, Germany, and the UK.
The Australian Government also hasn't been attempting to carry out assassinations of dissidents and former intelligence officers using chemical weapons either.
So there's a big difference there, Mr Peters. A mighty big difference.
Mr Peters' comments are completely inappropriate coming from our Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister.
If you're one of New Zealand's friends or allies and you're seeing those comments today, you'll be asking yourself what is an apologist for Russian aggression doing as Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand. If you're one of our intelligence and defence partners, Mr Peters' remarks will undermine your faith in sharing intelligence with your New Zealand partners. And if you're one of the countries whose citizens died in the attack on MH17, you'll probably be weighing up whether to summon New Zealand's diplomatic representatives and demanding a "please explain" from them.
In short, what Winston Peters said on Newshub Nation this morning has the potential to turn into a significant diplomatic incident for New Zealand, damaging our crucial security, trade, and travel relationships around the world.
But not only that, Mr Peters comments will be upsetting and offensive to the families of victims from the downing of MH-17.
Both the Joint Investigation Team and the British Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament have found that it was a Russian supplied 9M38 BUK missile system that shot down MH-17, but that the BUK system crossed the border into Ukraine from Russia on the day of the attack, and was then slipped back across the border shortly afterwards. Given both the nature of a BUK missile system (in that it's not the type of weapon you could just supply to rebel forces without significant training on how to use it), and that Russian soldiers are on the ground in Eastern Ukraine under the ridiculous guise of claiming to be civilians (even though they've been demonstrated to be serving in the same command structures with the same officers as they did in the Russian army). In fact, the UK based NGO Bellingcat has amassed evidence that shows that soldiers from Russia's 53rd Anti-Aircraft Rocket Brigade were operating the missile unit responsible for shooting down MH-17 on that day.
With all this in mind, it is simply not credible to claim that there is no evidence that Russia had any responsibility, or wasn't involved, in the attack, when the evidence points towards either the Russians pulling the trigger themselves, or doing everything but pulling the trigger. It's essentially a question of whether they're guilty of murder or aiding and abetting a murder, including the destruction of evidence and obstruction of justice.
While Winston Peters has tried to argue that there's no enough evidence for a case to be brought in a court of law, he should probably look to the UN Security Council, where Russia was forced to veto a Malaysian drafted resolution that would have led to an international investigation. I wonder why that was?
With regards to Russian interference in the US 2016 Presidential election, each week we're met with more evidence about Russian attempts to meddle. There's the FSB linked hackers targeting the Democrats, fake Twitter profiles trying to amplify Donald Trump's tweets, Russian linked Facebook pages running political ads, or Special Counsel Robert Mueller's growing list of charges being brought against those involved in the Kremlin linked campaign. It is beyond any reasonable doubt that there was a Russian backed attempt to destabilise the US political system during the 2016 election.
Once you've read all that, keep the in mind the following:
- As Deputy Prime Minister, Winston Peters is effectively the second most important person in the Executive.
- As Foreign Minister, Winston Peters is meant to be representing both the New Zealand Government and our interests as a country overseas.
- As a member of Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee, Winston Peters is responsible for the oversight of our intelligence agencies.
- When Jacinda Ardern has her baby in June, Winston Peters will be Acting Prime Minister for six weeks.
In light of Winston Peters' indefensible comments on Newshub Nation, it's no longer tenable for him to be Deputy Prime Minister or Foreign Minister, or for him to be Prime Minister for those six weeks in June and July. Not only are Winston Peters' remarks immensely embarrassing for New Zealand on the world stage, but their impact of our most crucial relationships with our allies and friends, as well as the hurt they'll cause to the families of the 298 victims of that horrific attack.
If Jacinda Ardern is to maintain both her own credibility as Prime Minister, and New Zealand's credibility in the international community, especially with our friends and allies, Winston Peters must be sacked.
Wellington Mayor Justin Lester has been copping flak for his intervention to save the Mornington Golf Club in Berhampore from losing half it's course. Sadly critics of his intervention can't see past their own blinkered dislike of the game, because the reality is that golfers at Mornington aren't subsidised much more than other recreational users in Wellington.
For example, going off Wellington City Council's 2016/17 annual report, and reported playing numbers of around 25 people each day, each round of golf played at Mornington is subsidised by ratepayers to the tune of $16. Going off that same report, each visit to one of the city's swimming pools is subsidised to the order of $10 per visit.
The problem is that the subsidy per round or per visit is only part of the calculation you need to do when assessing the value of the Council subsidising a recreational activity. It's also useful to look at how that subsidy translates per hour of recreational activity. E.g. how much recreational bang for buck is that subsidy delivering.
Looking at the data Google collects about the length of visits to each of the Council's pools, it's not unreasonable to say that each visit to the pool on average lasts for around an hour. So effectively the subsidy per hour of activity for swimmers is $10.
As for the golfers at Mornington, on average it takes around 4 hours to play 18 holes of golf. However, not all golfers play 18 holes, with a mix of people playing 9 or 18 hole games. So the 18 hole golfers are subsidised for their recreational activity at $4 an hour, whereas the 9 hole golfers are at $8 an hour.
So on a per hour of recreational activity, the Council gets more bang for buck out of the subsidy provided to users of Mornington than it does for the swimmers.
Not surprisingly, we're not seeing anyone arguing for the closure of swimming pools though.
Likewise when you look more broadly at the recreational spend of Wellington City Council, golfers pay for around 26% of the upkeep of the course and swimmers pay for about 34% of their swimming facilities. Interestingly, users of sport fields (excluding the new synthetic fields) only pay for 8% of the upkeep of those facilities.
Once again, we don't see people arguing that rugby, cricket, league, football, softball, or netball clubs should be charged 300%-400% more than what they currently are so that they're contributing at a similar level to users of other facilities.
We accept that as part of a Council's responsibilities to their communities that they have to, where possible and practical, provide recreational facilities for a range of activities. That's not to suggest that Council should be running out and building golf courses, as obviously the expense of trying to build one now would be prohibitively expensive, but it does make the case that Council should work to preserve the one it does own.
It's also worth keeping in mind that the cost of maintaining Mornington represents just 0.39% of the Council's recreation spend, and just 0.03% of the Council's overall spend in 2016/17. There are much bigger fish to fry in the search for more efficient Council spending than penalising the users of Mornington for playing golf.
The reality too is that once you lose half that golf course, you've lost it forever, and it'll make it even harder for the golf club to survive. Factor in that Mornington is the only accessible golf club in the North Island, and as a result of that were able to host the golf component of the NZ Special Olympics in 2017.
This means that losing the course is to deny golfers with special needs in the North Island the last course that's able to fully cater for them. It makes critics of the course seem especially petty and heartless in the quibbling over $152,000 of Council money being spent on it.
Public bashing of golfers and golf courses is nothing new. There's a popular, but mistaken, belief that golf is a game only played by those with plenty of money. Nothing could be further from the truth. The people I go and play golf with range from electricians, plumbers, builders, teachers, and hospitality workers, right through to the perceived usual suspects - accountants, lawyers, doctors etc. Most of the people I play with simply can't afford to be a member at most golf courses, so we're either affiliates or, in my case, just play casually when we can.
It's also worth considering that those calling for the course to be halved need to consider the fact that the course is considered part of the Town Belt, so the land legally can't be used for anything else other than recreational purposes. It makes criticism of the Council funding of the course such as "tell that to Wellington's homeless" particularly absurd.
If cutting $75,000 from course maintenance would magically solve homelessness in Wellington, I'm sure the Council could easily get that funding by more broadly cutting expenses elsewhere, or adding a paltry 0.15% to this year's rate increase.
Another criticism I've seen leveled at publicly owned golf courses is that the clubs on them restrict access to the public by charging a fee to use the facility. This is a little bizarre in terms of a line of argument. Other sporting codes also effectively deny public access to recreational facilities when they use them - I challenge you to walk your dog through the middle of a football game, or to go for a run around the inside of the Basin Reserve when there's a international cricket match on! The area covered by Mornington Golf Course represents a minuscule portion of the Town Belt, and it is surrounded by plenty of other parks and walking tracks that mean the effect of closing public access to the course is negligible.
Sadly, people seem more inclined to let their own subjective biases about the value of golf as a recreational activity dictate their view on whether or not Mornington should lose half its course. Just because you mightn't play or value it as a recreational activity doesn't mean that it isn't important to other people. I mightn't currently play cricket, rugby, netball, or football (despite playing all in the past), but I like to know that those facilities are available and provided by Council to those who do choose to spend their recreational time playing them.
The same is true for those who play at Mornington Golf Club.
For most people the experience of putting something through the spin cycle is to have your clothes shrink in the dryer. But for Wellington City Council, an attempt to spin the merits of reducing a potential 7.1% rates rise down to 3.9% has ended up with an announcement that they're reducing rates down to 3.9%, which would be a 96.1% cut!
I can see how this has happened. It's hardly new for politicians to try and be too clever by half about announcements, especially when they know it's news that isn't going to be universally popular.
In this case, the words "rise" or "increase" appear to have been omitted from the article. To illustrate the importance of those two words, 1News' story about the announcement has interpreted the press release as meaning Wellington City Council will be reducing rates by 3.9%.
Rate rises are seldom popular, but ultimately they are necessary. As much as local authorities try and cut as much fat from their budgets as possible, the reality is that most councils have a very limited funding base on which to raise revenue. Wellington City Council is in a better position than most via having some good revenue generating assets to support things rather than just rate payers, but they're also faced with significant costs relating to natural disaster preparedness.
The real moral of the story here is that it sometimes pays to just call a spade a spade and not get too tricky about the message you're trying to tell. Politicians are always going to want to emphasise the reasoning behind or positive aspects of often controversial decisions they've had to make, but the risk is that eventually you're going to say something completely different than what you were intending.
Perhaps unsurprising, but definitely disappointing, is that Education Minister Chris Hipkins has made plenty of time in his ministerial diary to meet with education unions, but virtually none to meet with, or visit, Charter Schools.
The exception to this being when Hipkins spoke at Waitangi with representatives of He Puna Mārana Trust, the sponsor of two Charter Schools whose connections to Te Tai Tokerau MP Kelvin Davis have been the subject of Parliamentary scrutiny.
It makes perfect sense for a new Minister of Education to meet with two of the largest representative groups in the sector for which he's responsible for. Three times in your first seven weeks as Minister is probably reasonable too as you get to grips with the issues in your portfolio
But it also makes sense for the Minister to at least have made an effort to engage with Charter Schools too other than his edict that they either submit (in good faith of course) to the Ministry of Education gutting what's made them so successful, or he'll use his powers as Minister to tear up their contracts.
These schools are benefiting 1,000 students, some of them amongst New Zealand's most vulnerable kids, and are turning around lives thanks to the innovative approach that's only possible due to the freedom afforded to them.
You'd think that before writing off these schools and their operating model due to little more than narrow-minded and ideologically driven Labour Party policy, the Minister owes it to the students, their parents, and the teachers of these schools whose lives he's about to turn upside down, to have at least made an effort to meet or visit them as Minister. Especially when, as Hipkins recently announced, that the government is going to be undertaking a significant review of the education sector.
Of course for Hipkins it's much easier to threaten Charter Schools with closure if you don't have to come face-to-face with the families whose lives you're going to throw into turmoil. Given how often the then Labour opposition demanded this of the previous National Government, it seems like they're firmly on track to be guilty of the same behaviour.
You can read the full OIA I received from Hipkins below.
If there's one thing that becoming Leader of the National Party for Simon Bridges has achieved, it's been bringing out the worst in his opposition online. Bridges seems to be, like Jacinda Ardern and Helen Clark for Labour, or John Key for National before him, a figure who provokes the very worst out of some very vocal people.
The hot takes on Simon Bridges have oscillated from just plan bad, to completely abhorrent and devoid of any rational thought. Whether it's been people criticising his Westie working class accent - a critique that comes off as little more as snobby elitism - or those mocking his hair style - shall we recall the howls of protest over other politicians being judged on aspects of their physical appearance? - a large portion of the opinions being shared aren't based on any substance about Simon Bridges the politician, but are little more than petty personal attacks against Simon Bridges the person.
Perhaps the worst I've seen since the announcement have been from people who should know a damned sight better, that both Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett aren't Māori enough to claim Māori heritage.
This absurd like of attack seems to draw on two equally as stupid measures: one being what percentage of Māori ancestry they have, and the other being whether they're either fluent in te reo or able to recite a mihi.
What makes these lines of argument absurd, and essentially racist, is that they completely ignore the fact that both Bridges and Bennett's experience of being urban Māori are largely representative of urban Māori in general over the past century. The migration of Māori from rural New Zealand to urban centres over the past century, combined with backwards policies towards Māori culture for much of that time, saw many Māori separated from their cultural identity.
Bridges and Bennett are very much part of this wider issue facing urban Māori, in that their disconnect from their cultural heritage has been created by time, geographic, socio-economics, government policy, and circumstances beyond their immediate control. These same factors have also acted as barriers towards urban Māori who seek to reconnect with their culture. It's one part of the reason why the percentage of Māori who speak fluent te reo has been stuck between 20-25%.
While that is gradually changing, with more and more urban Māori reconnecting with Tikanga Māori, it's also important to acknowledge that it's not always possible or easy for urban Māori to do this. Judging one's command of either te reo or Tikanga Māori as a an artificial measure of their "Māori-ness" is a perspective which simply holds no merit.
Much like the arbitrary standards being demanded by some for knowledge and practicing of te reo and Tikanga Māori, the notion that there's a specific percentage or fraction of ancestry that must be Māori for someone to be able to say they're Māori is an idea I had hoped we had abandoned some 30 or 40 years ago.
As I indicated at the start, the plethora of bad takes based on superficial rather than substantive issues directed at Bridges coming from the Left are eerily similar to those directed at Jacinda Ardern from the Right.
Whether it's people opining on what Ardern is wearing, her relationship with Clarke Gayford, her pregnancy, or her age, or her media appearances (which are fundamentally no different to those done by John Key) the Right has been guilty of exactly the same behaviour throughout Ardern's career, and even more so since she became first Leader of Labour, and then Prime Minister.
Interestingly, Bill English never seemed to attract quite the same level of bizarrely bad or offensive reckons on his personal attributes.
Of course, none of this is anything new. The Right and Left both suffered from what's been termed as Clark/Key-Derangement-Syndrome in the past. Yet as both Clark and Key demonstrate, petty personal attacks against politicians achieve nothing.
Unfortunately I suspect the people who most need to learn that lesson, those who continue to spout this nonsense, are also the ones least likely to ever change their ways.
In part it seems that much of this could be down to social media contributing to an increasingly partisan element to online discussion of politics, and in part giving trolls a platform to spout their nonsense that they've never had before. But it also seems that some leaders tend to polarise opinion about them based on largely on superficial elements rather than substantive issues.
Congratulations to Simon Bridges on becoming the new Leader of the National Party. In taking on the role, Bridges also becomes the first Māori to lead either major party in New Zealand, a significant milestone in New Zealand's history that's worth celebrating regardless of where your political loyalties lie.
Throughout the leadership campaign Bridges has talked about the need to review and renew National's approach going into the 2020 election, both from strategic and policy perspectives.
I've been vocal about the importance of the National Party doing this, as it can't be trying to re-litigate the 2017 election when 2020 rolls around. It needs to celebrate the wins from the Key/English era, but acknowledge the shortcomings and come up with a bold policy vision to address the issues that New Zealand faces. Bridges own approach seems to echo this, with him saying in his first press conference as leader that he'll look to build on the good economic policies of the past-National Government, but address shortcomings in other areas.
Since going into opposition Bridges has proven to be a thorn in the Government's side. Winning a battle of Select Committee places by catching the Government out over whether it had the numbers to elect Trevor Mallard Speaker, on the opening day of Parliament, is an example of this. Likewise, Bridges' background as a Crown prosecutor, and having sparred with both Winston Peters in Tauranga, and Jacinda Ardern on national television, means he has form going toe-to-toe with the two central figures of the new Government.
Of course being in Opposition is more than just winning Beltway battles. As Bridges himself has alluded to, National has to both hold the Government account, but also look and act like a Government-in-waiting itself. It's a hard balance to achieve, and much of what Bridges will do over the next week ahead of National's Shadow Cabinet reshuffle will be ensuring that he gets that balance right.
I look forward to seeing how Simon Bridges takes National forward over the coming weeks.
Before midday on Tuesday we should know who the new Leader and Deputy Leader of the National Party are. Within a week or so we'll also have seen the resulting Shadow Cabinet reshuffle.
The five leadership candidates would all bring their own set of strengths and weaknesses to the role. Given I've worked with most of them in the past, I'm not going to traverse these, but there has been some good (and some not so good) analysis out there, so feel free to google away.
What seems readily apparent is that each of the candidates would, to varying degrees, look to change the direction and strategy of the National Party heading into 2020. I'm firmly of the belief that this is a good thing. National can't spend the next two and a half years fighting the 2017 election campaign over and over again.
Labour made that mistake in 2011 and then fought a quasi-civil war for the next six years as it tried to move on from the Helen Clark era, contorting itself into a host of contradictory policy positions along the way. It's a legacy that still plagues them today, as demonstrated by their newfound enthusiasm for the CPTPP despite it essentially being the same deal as the TPP they so vehemently opposed.
The pace of that transition is important too. If National moves too quickly away from the Key/English era they run the risk of leaving behind the very supporters who delivered National such a large share of the party vote. Move too slowly and National will find itself responding to initiatives the Labour-led Government is proposing, rather than leading the conversation on New Zealand's direction and solution to our issues themselves.
That last part is crucial. National knows better than anyone about how fruitless it is to go after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern directly. It watched as Labour smacked its collective head fruitlessly against the edifice of John Key's enduring popularity for eight years, and they know that a similar approach against Ardern won't deliver results.
As to whether National needs to create or foster its own support parties for 2020, I've decided that it's presumptive to assume that new parties won't appear on their own.
Looking back over New Zealand's electoral history, you would have been hard pressed to find anyone who predicted, only a handful of months into the first term of a new government, the formation of any of the minor parties that have existed. In 1984 nobody would have picked that Jim Anderton would head off and create his own political party, likewise for Winston Peters when National took the Government benches in 1990, or the emergence of the Māori Party from Labour.
Notably, with the exception of the Greens breaking off from the Alliance between 1997 and 1999, minor parties generally get created from MPs occupying the government benches. Meaning that if a new minor party is likely to appear, it's more likely to be from Labour, the Greens, or NZ First, than it is from National.
Time and time again minor parties have been created by events unforeseen by political journalists or commentators at the start of a term. There's still every possibility that a new minor party could emerge organically, whether propelled into existence by a policy issue or a personality clash.
National needn't risk its own voter base, or open itself up to claims that it's falling apart, by trying to foster or split up to create its own minor party partner. A far more useful strategy is to pressure the parties of Government so they can deliver that potential partner party for them.
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.
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.
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!
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".
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.
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.
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!
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:
- Defending the legacy of your time in Government
- Holding the new Government to account over its promises and its mistakes
- 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!).
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.
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.