Keep that door shut

May 26, 2020

One of the questions National leader Todd Muller has been asked is will he open the door to New Zealand First?

His answer is that the decision was made by caucus and it hasn’t changed.

Nor should it.

The door was closed for very good reasons, not least of which is NZ First’s leader Winston Peters can’t be trusted.

Before the last election he gave the usual spiel about waiting until after people had voted then began negotiations with both National and Labour, even though he was serving legal papers on two of National’s most senior MPS – Paula Bennett and Anne Tolley.

That was showing bad faith to both voters and National.

Since then he’s had his day in court, dropped the case against the MPs, lost the case against the Ministry of Social Development but has announced he’s appealing that decision.

Since then the Serious Fraud Office has begun investigating donations to the New Zealand First Foundation and its relationship with the party.

Since then he’s continued to act the way he always does, which is to put his own interests, and that of his party, first regardless of what’s best for the government of which he’s a part, or the country.

He simply can’t be trusted.

Shutting the door to NZ First gave people who want a National-led government a very clear message – if that’s what they want they’d be wasting their votes if they give them to NZ First.

Opening the door will suggest to them they could get a National-led government by voting for NZ First.

Much has been made of National’s rating in last weeks two polls, there’s been only passing reference to NZ First’s support which was well below the 5% required to stay in parliament without an electorate.

With a new leader and refreshed caucus, National’s support will climb again.

With the same old leader and same tiresome antics, there’s a very good chance that NZ First’s won’t.

National got a poll-bounce when it shut the door on NZ First earlier this year. Opening it would send the wrong signal to voters, and help NZ First at National’s expense.

The door was firmly shut months ago and it must stay shut.


If it were done

May 21, 2020

Macbeth was talking about murder when he said, If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well It were done quickly.

That also applies to leadership tussles and National leader Simon Bridges has made the right call in summoning his caucus to settle the matter on Friday.

Every day’s delay is a day more when the issue festers with all the negative media attention that accompanies it leaving little clear air left to hold the government to account.

I am not going to give my opinion on who should be leader.

I support the party and whoever leads it and will continue to do so whether that is Simon with Paula Bennett as his deputy or Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye.

But I will say that whatever the outcome of the caucus vote, all MPs must be loyal to the leader and the party.

The leaking, the criticism and any show of disunity and disloyalty must stop.

Just a few months ago National was polling higher than Labour.

What changed was Covid-19 and the response to it.

The government’s abysmal record of doing very little it said it would until then has not changed.

KiwiBuild, child poverty, climate change  . . . it’s been lots of talk and very, very little action.

What has also changed is the economy.

The lockdown flattened the Covid curve and in the process has flattened the economy.

The government has voted itself so much money in response most of us can’t comprehend the amount. But worse, it doesn’t have a clear plan on how to spend it and at least as important, it doesn’t have a plan on how to repay it.

As Heather Roy explains in a letter to her children:

. . .By way of explanation, this is why I am sorry about your inheritance. Debt is what you have to look forward to and growth will take some time to return. In the short-term, New Zealand is facing a large rise in unemployment, predicted to peak at nearly 10 percent before falling back to 4.6% in 2022 (optimistic I suspect). Government debt will explode to more than 53 percent of GDP, up from 19% now. . . 

Not all debt is bad of course. It often allows you (and countries) to invest wisely in areas that will be of benefit later, but I fear the lack of vision and planning associated with the government borrowing an additional $160 billion means ‘wisely’ isn’t part of this equation. Vision and hope are important for people. We need to know where we are going – what the end game looks like and that the pain is worth bearing because a better life awaits. Hope too, is important. People will endure a lot if they have hope. I’m afraid I saw neither in the Budget last week. There was lots of talk of jobs, and lots of picking winners but not much in the offing for those already struggling and those who will inevitably lose their jobs when businesses go under.

Figures are tricky things. If you say them quickly, especially the billions, they don’t sound so bad. Most people can imagine what they could spend a million dollars on. Billions are a different kettle of fish. Many of us have to stop and think, how many 0’s in a billion? When figures are inconceivable, people give up trying to work out what they mean. After all, the politicians will look after the money side of things, won’t they? I hope you realise that is very dangerous thinking. To start with it’s not the government’s money – it’s yours and mine, hard earned and handed over to the government for custodial purposes.  We hope it will be spent wisely on health, education, social welfare, but after we’ve voted every three years, we don’t have any say on where it goes.

Beware of those saying we can afford to borrow this much money. Just as when we borrow from the bank to buy a car or house, when government’s borrow, repayments must be made and this limits the amount in the pot for spending in extra areas. The state of our economy is your inheritance: to contribute to your tertiary education, to educate your future children, to provide medicines and hospital treatments when you are sick, to help those who for whatever reason have no income. A mountain of debt places the prosperity of your children in peril.

Picking winners is dangerous too. Government’s love picking winners, especially in an election year. Election year budgets often resemble a lolly scramble with media reporting the “winners and losers”.  The simple fact is when you confer advantage on one group everyone else is automatically disadvantaged. Giving to the vulnerable is understandable but private industry winners are not. As an example, those who had been promised Keytruda (last year) to treat their lung cancer only to have that rug whipped out from underneath them now must be devastated to see the racing industry handed $74 million to build/rebuild horse racing tracks around the country. Flogging a dead horse instead of funding up to date medical treatments is folly and unfair in a humane society. 

I know fairness and equity are important to you all. Your generation has a more egalitarian outlook on life. Partly I think this is because you have not experienced real poverty and why New Zealand’s debt doesn’t bother you as much as it does me.

I have recently read two excellent writings by people I respect and I want to share them with you. The first is a report written by Sir Roger Douglas and two colleagues called “The March towards Poverty”. . . 

The report concludes “ For too long, we have lived with the fiction that we are doing well, lulled by successive governments into believing we truly do have a ‘rock star’ economy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Starting with Grant Robertson’s post-Covid budget, we must admit to the problems facing our economy and begin to deal with them. Otherwise, current inequalities will remain entrenched, we will continue to fall further behind our OECD partners, and the prosperity of our younger generations will be placed at peril”.

While I’m on the topic of legacies, the second article I want to share is by Chris Finlayson, Attorney General in the Key/English Governments for 9 years starting when I was also a Minister. I’ve been worried about the legality of many of the impositions we have experienced since the country was plunged into lockdown. I know you sometimes think all this theoretical  stuff isn’t that important, but in a well functioning democracy how the law is made and enforced is central to an orderly society we can have faith in. Chris has eloquently described these matters much better than I can in his opinion piece  on the rule of law:

“Some readers will no doubt respond that this rule of law stuff is all very interesting for the legal profession and retired politicians but is hardly of any practical impact given what New Zealand has just avoided.

I disagree. The former Chief Justice, Sian Elias, once said that if only judges and lawyers concern themselves with the rule of law, New Zealand is in trouble. She was right. Adherence to the concept of the rule of law would have helped avoid some of the basic failures of the past eight weeks – failures that should give all New Zealanders pause for thought.”

I’m afraid it’s too late to put Ardern’s debt genie back in the bottle. I apologise on behalf of my generation and older that you and your kids will carry this debt for all of us. My advice to you is to do what this government should have done. Cut costs and minimise your liabilities. Spend only on the essentials and invest in assets that will produce a safe dividend. Perhaps most important of all, stay engaged in our democracy and encourage your friends to do the same. If COVID-19 has taught the world anything it is this: politicians need to be closely scrutinised at all times but especially in crises like these.

The government’s arrogance was exposed a couple of weeks ago when ministers were ordered not to speak in the wake of the Covid document dump. It’s carried on this week when Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis refused to attend the Epidemic response Committee because, doing a Facebook Live session instead.

The country needs an opposition focussed on the government’s mistakes and formulating a plan to do much, much better, not on itself and a leadership struggle.

Whatever happens at Friday’s caucus meeting, this is what National must be doing, and doing it together in step with the leader.

And whether or not there’s a change of leader, one thing must not change – and that’s the decision to rule out any deal with New Zealand First.


So much for rights and freedoms

May 14, 2020

The government gave in to public pressure and raised the number of people permitted at a funeral from 10 to 50.

However only 10 are permitted to attend a wedding, go to church or gather in a private home yet 100 are permitted in a restaurant, bar, casino or strip club.

Making it worse are the new powers the police have to ensure we all adhere to this.

The government has had nearly two months to work out legislation to cover Level 2 alert level and had it gone about it the right way the Opposition would have worked with it and supported it.

Instead they’ve rushed through legislation about which the Human Rights Commission is deeply concerned.

“For weeks the Government has known that we would be moving to alert level 2. It has not allowed enough time for careful public democratic consideration of this level 2 legislation. There has been no input from ordinary New Zealanders which is deeply regrettable,” said Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt. 

“This is a great failure of our democratic process. The new legislation, if passed in its current state, will result in sweeping police powers unseen in this country for many years.” . . .

“In times of national emergency sweeping powers are granted. There is a risk of overreach. Mistakes are made and later regretted. This is precisely when our national and international human rights, and Te Tiriti, commitments must be taken into account.” 

“Human rights can help to ensure all measures are effective, balanced, fair, reasonable, non-discriminatory, proportionate and subject to independent review. If the Government wishes to retain the public’s trust and confidence, it must honour human rights and Te Tiriti.”  

“A process of regular review by Parliament is needed. If passed in its current form, the Bill should be reviewed by select committee at regular terms and the Government should be open to any recommended changes.”   . . 

The rushed legislation is even worse when it gives police more powers at Level 2 than they had at Levels 4 and 3.

Heather du Plessis-Allan reckons the government has lost perspective:

Look at the powers the Government is giving police today and tell me they haven’t lost perspective over Covid-19.

Because it looks a lot like they have.

From today on – once this legislation passes – police will be able to come into your house without a warrant if they think there is a party going on inside. A party. Of more than 10 people. Not a murder scene, not drug-cooking, a gathering of more than 10 people.

That’s a family of two parents, four children and one grandchild.

Is that proportionate under level 2?

You could perhaps make excuses for the East German police approach under levels 3 or 4 when health authorities were worried about silent community transmission, but under level 2 this is overkill.

We have 74 people with Covid-19 in this country and yet the Government believes it’s fine to allow police unfettered access into the homes of 5 million people.

Because that’s what this means: warrantless entry means no one checks that the officers are doing the right thing … it is entirely up to them. . . 

Under normal circumstances a warrant from the court or a JP would be required and police would have to have reasonable grounds for requesting one.

How have we got to a stage where we think this is fine. Where we accept rules that say only 10 people are allowed at funerals but 100 people can go to a pub? Where families can’t get out of quarantine to say goodbye to dying family members and people in hospitals die without any loved ones holding their hands?

This all feels like a blinkered, mono-focused, perfectionist approach to get zero zero zero and to hell with the sadness and loss of human rights.

Politically the law passing today is not a good for the Government but especially bad for the Attorney General, David Parker. This is the same guy responsible for the stuff-up over whether the lockdown was legal or not. He has high regard for his own abilities and yet created far too many legal headaches for the Government thus far.

Perspective has been lost here.

So have rights and freedoms.

An observation by Theodore Dalrymple is apropos here:

It has long been my opinion that inside every sentimentalist there is a despot trying to get out. 

This government is becoming more despotic by the day and Labour’s coalition partners New Zealand First and the Green Party should be ashamed of their silent acquiescence to these new draconian powers which have been seized under urgency.


Do as I say . . .

March 7, 2020

Jacinda Ardern has issued a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do instruction to voters:

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has delivered her strongest rebuking of NZ First MP and Minister Shane Jones yet, suggesting that if he was a Labour MP, he would face demotion. . .

How strong is that strongest rebuke?:

“If I had a member within my own party making statements like that, I would have a very obvious ability and course of action that I could take,” she said.

“I could demote, I could reprimand; [there is] a range of things that I could do.”

But all those things were off the table because – although Jones is one of her ministers – he is in a different political party. . .

That is weak and it’s tosh.

She is the Prime Minister and has the power to discipline, which could include sacking, any members of her cabinet.

At least that’s what the Cabinet Manual says, but could it be that the secret collation agreement between Labour and New Zealand First holds a clause that takes that power from her?

We can’t know while the agreement remains secret and in the absence of that knowledge this looks hypocritical:

“My message to voters is this: In election year, the power now sits with you. You determine who is able to form Governments and you have it within your power to decide what you make of those remarks, as well,” she said.

“What is within other’s powers is to join in the condemnation of statements, like those we have seen made by Shane Jones.

“I asked of voters to act on their values when it comes to election time.”

She’s expecting voters to act on their values when she isn’t acting on her own.

She could, as Simon Bridges has done, and as Cat MacLennan writes she should , rule out New Zealand First as a partner in a future government.

She’s failing to discipline Jones and rule out his party next time herself but asking voters to do it for her.,

That’s very much do as she says, not as she does.

In doing that she’s sending a message  to not only not vote for NZ First but to not vote for National because only with that party leading the next government can voters be sure it won’t include NZ First.

 


Fast justice needed

February 19, 2020

The Serious Fraud Office is investigating New Zealand First Foundation:

The SFO had been considering whether to launch an investigation after police handed in a complaint from the Electoral Commission last November.

That followed reports by RNZ about the way the foundation had been handling donations, and questions about disclosure and donors’ identities.

It referred the matter to the police, who promptly sent it to the Serious Fraud Office last week.

The commission said it had formed the view the secretive foundation had received donations that should have been treated as donations to New Zealand First.

“The Commission does not have the investigative powers to form a view about whether this failure to transmit and the non-disclosure means offences have been committed,” the commission said.

The commission passed its findings to police last Monday, and police immediately referred that on to the SFO. . .

Justice can’t be rushed but this is a situation which requires fast action.

This has been under consideration since November. That’s around three months which, even allowing for the Christmas shut down, is a long time.

In less than seven months, people will be casting early votes.

That there is an investigation could have a significant impact on the election and voters need to know the outcome so they can make a fully informed decision before they vote.


Politics of appeasement

February 17, 2020

When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else … you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being. – Eleanor Roosevelt

Wondering what Labour and the Green Party think about New Zealand First and its leader?  Are they staying true to their values and promises, or have they adopted the standards and values of New Zealand First and its leader Winston Peters?

Keep wondering because, as Henry Cooke writes,  their silence is deafening:

. . .  there’s a difference between leeway for jokes and leeway for seriously unbecoming behaviour. And the prime minister has slipped this week from the usual kind of space people give Winston to be Winston into plain supplicancy.

Jacinda Ardern is yet to say anything at all about the fact the Electoral Commission made absolutely clear on Monday that the way NZ First was treating donations to its foundations was wrong. . .

Instead of properly taking this on, Ardern has hidden, as politicians often do, behind the perceived inappropriateness of commenting while some process is still active.

Sometimes this waiting game is both useful and sensible – politicians shouldn’t talk too much about murder trials before they finish.

But in this case it makes no sense. . . .

. . .there are ways of commenting on things without alleging criminal conduct. It is the lifeblood of adversarial politics.

Following the Electoral Commission’s finding, Ardern would have been totally within her rights to say, at the very least, that she thought these donations should have been declared to the commission. She could have said she was disappointed that a coalition partner appeared not to have been as fulsome as it could have been with informing the authorities – all without alleging any kind of crime. . .

Later last week it wasn’t just the donations saga on which she wasn’t commenting.

This silence got even louder on Thursday when it became clear that NZ First had some kind of involvement in two covertly taken photographs of journalists reporting on the Foundation story, which found their way onto a right-wing blog. Peters told Magic Talk on Tuesday that “we took the photographs just to prove that’s the behaviour going on”, but later backtracked to say a supporter just happened to see the journalists and thought he or she should snap a photo.

Because of this shifting story, there is a muddle over exactly how involved NZ First and Peters are, a muddle that would best be sorted out by Ardern demanding a fuller explanation from Peters. Any level of involvement in this kind of tactic – clearly designed to intimidate journalists – is worth condemning, and you can bet that, if Ardern was in Opposition, she would manage it.

Instead she’s not commenting, saying it is a “matter for NZ First”, while her office notes that she speaks about ministerial decisions and comments, not about things said as party leader. 

The thing is, the Cabinet Manual does have a section about ministers upholding and being seen to uphold “the highest ethical standards” at all times, not just when doing ministerial business. Ardern has all the ammo she needs to give Peters a dressing-down over this, but instead she defers. Things don’t have to be illegal to be wrong.

And it’s not just Labour which is staying silent.

Worse, this rot of silence has also infected the Green Party, which, as a confidence and supply partner, has plenty of legitimate room to criticise such tactics. You don’t need to tear the Government up or demand that Peters is fired – you can just say what the journalists’ union said on Friday, that Peters needs to explain himself and apologise.

Instead the Greens just talk about how the law needs to be changed – which most people agree with, but isn’t the point. The topic at hand isn’t underhanded but lawful behaviour, it’s stuff that is potentially illegal – hence the police referral. The party should grow back its spine. . .

John Armstrong has a similar view:

Rarely has the current prime minister looked quite so feeble as was evident during yet another turbulent week for her pockmarked, patchwork Administration.

It was another week which witnessed Winston Peters at his frustrating, selfish, perfidious and domineering worst.

In a perfect world, it would have been a week which ended with him having been relieved of the title of Deputy Prime Minister, if only temporarily.

So damning was the verdict of the Electoral Commission on the propriety of the activities of the highly-secretive New Zealand First Foundation that any other minister finding themselves on the receiving end of such a judgement would have been stood down forthwith.

That verdict on its own is a damning indictment. Once it it became public that the commission’s findings had been passed to the Serious Fraud Office, Peters’ relinquishing of his status of Deputy Prime Minister ought to have been a mere formality, if only a temporary measure while the SFO determined whether everything was above board or whether prosecutions should follow its investigation.

Peters, however, has clearly concluded that he is somehow exempt from the rules covering the disclosure of the source of political donations.

The arrogance is breathtaking — especially from someone who has previously suffered the ignominy of being censured by his parliamentary colleagues. . . 

Given that track record, Peters is beyond being shamed.

He might be beyond being shamed, has that rubbed off on the other parties in government?

Just witness the outrageousness of the New Zealand First Foundation, the leaked records of which have revealed its purpose had been to accept donations in the tens of thousands of dollars from some of the country’s wealthiest individuals without having to disclose their names.

Ardern’s problem is that Peters is Deputy Prime Minister. She cannot wash her hands of him no matter how embarrassing his statements and actions might be for her or the wider Labour Party they might be. Neither can she sit blithely to one side and pretend that Peters’ very obvious agenda to undermine the Electoral Commission is not happening.

Ardern needs to read the Riot Act to Peters — and not just to remind him of his constitutional obligations.

Failure to do so makes her look weak. In dragging her down, he is dragging Labour down too.

She’s letting the party be dragged down lest Peters brings the whole government down, even though Simon Bridges’ announcement National own’t work with NZ First should it be in a position to do so after the next election leaves it, like the Greens, the choice of going with Labour or sitting or sitting on the cross benches.

He hasn’t got a lot of options. It would seem to be an opportune time to remind him of that. He is hardly in a position to pull down the Government.

That makes Ardern’s failure to talk tough appear even more pathetic. . . 

And not for the first time. remember Clare Cullen and Iain Lees-Galloway?

The bizarre chain of events which unfolded on Thursday only reinforced the case for Peters losing the title of Deputy Prime Minister.

The revelation that he was party to the covert photographing and filming of journalists whose investigations of the New Zealand First Foundation have uncovered much to embarrass him and his party is a clear breach of the provisions in the Cabinet Manual covering the conduct expected of ministers of the crown.

To quote that handbook: “At all times, ministers are expected to act lawfully and to behave in a way that upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical standards. This includes exercising a professional approach and good judgement in their interactions with the public and officials, and in all their communications, personal and professional”. . .

Andrea Vance has more to say about snooping on  journalists:

No doubt Peters’ supporters are enjoying the irony of publishing paparazzi-style photographs of the reporters digging dirt on their party

For reasons that are unfathomable to me, New Zealand tends to minimise Peters more outrageous behaviour. But he is no lovable rogue – and this is straight-up intimidation.

Protecting the identity of journalists’ sources is an essential part of media freedom.

The threat of surveillance is chilling. It can have an intimidating and traumatising effect. . .

We might be a troublesome and unlovable bunch, but good journalism and a free press is an essential part of a functioning democracy.  

This attack on Shand and Espiner’s privacy is an attack on the public’s right to know about who is secretly funding their Government partner. 

Both Labour and the Greens must acknowledge that and condemn it, if we are to believe their exhortations New Zealand politics should be transparent and fair.

Both Labour and the Greens are forced into silence or at best mealy-mouthed muttering over New Zealand Firsts and Peters because they daren’t face up to him lest he pulls the pin that blows up the government.

Ever since the coalition was formed they’ve pandered to him, exercising politics of appeasement, having to make material concessions, several of which have been contrary to their principles and values.

They’ve swallowed so many dead rats they must suffer from permanent indigestion.

One of MMP’s big weaknesses is that it allows the tail to wag the dog. Peters and his party aren’t just wagging the other two parties they have forced them to roll over and accept not just policies that are contrary to their principles and they’re now, by refusing to condemn it,  accepting behaviour that is too.

Many commentators have questioned the values and standards of NZ First and its leader. Labour and Greens are day by day being more tainted by association and exposing their own values and standards to questions too.


NZ First referred to police

February 10, 2020

The Electoral Commission has referred New Zealand First to the police:

The Electoral Commission has made enquiries into issues raised regarding the New Zealand First Party and the New Zealand First Foundation and their compliance with the requirements for donations and loans.

Based on the information available, we have formed the view that the New Zealand First Foundation has received donations which should have been treated as party donations for the New Zealand First Party. In the Commission’s view, the donations were not properly transmitted to the Party and not disclosed as required by the Electoral Act 1993.

The Commission does not have the investigative powers to form a view about whether this failure to transmit and the non-disclosure means offences have been committed. These matters have therefore been referred to the New Zealand Police, which have the necessary powers to investigate the knowledge and intent of those involved in fundraising, donating, and reporting donations.

As these matters are now with the Police, the Electoral Commission will not be commenting further.

No doubt everyone in NZ First will refuse to comment further because the matter is with the police.

The rules on donations to political parties and candidates start here.

There’s further explanation here.

The responsibility for disclosure lies primarily with the party secretary, but will this case involve NZ First leader Winston Peters?

He has maintained that the Foundation and the party are separate.

The Electoral Commission obviously thinks otherwise.

Peters has also said the NZ Foundation was modeled on National’s but National treats donations to its Foundation as donations to the party and declares them as it’s required to do.

I was one of National’s regional chairs when the Foundation was established and this was made very clear to everyone in the party and all donors. This and the legal requirements for disclosure are spelled out on the Foundation website.

 


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