The need to understand “bureaucracy”: Something not all politicians do

Now that A.C.T. Leader David Seymour has announced his intention to return his party to its traditional small government, lower taxes stance, one has to wonder how long it will be before the employees of city, district and regional councils around the country find themselves in his sights. Whilst the A.C.T. Party has yet to say anything about local council bureaucracy, its swing at central Government with a promise to lower M.P. numbers to 100 and reduce the Executive to 20 Ministers, would not have gone unnoticed by the Public Service Association. So, how well do politicians, Mr Seymour included, actually understand how city, district and regional councils work?

Shortly after the Government appointed Commissioners took over Environment Canterbury in 2010 there was a critical commentary in The Press asking what the 500 staff (myself included at the time) did there. The commentator might have been genuinely curious or not have knowledge of council’s statutory requirements and thereby possibly not an awareness of why so many staff exist. Also there is a perception among many politicians that public servants are just a bunch of paper pushers creating endless documents and trying to set policies about which they know nothing. This is not true in many respects, not least those “bureaucrats” are employed to do the statutory work that their Ministry or Department of the Crown requires.

At a city, district or regional council one is going to need policy planners who know how the statutory plans prepared in accordance with Resource Management Act and Local Government Act requirements. Those plans are reviewed by statutory requirement every several years and shorter term plans which reflect more immediate priorities that are consistent the longer term goals and objectives have to be prepared. There is also the prospect that a developer proposing something like a new subdivision will have looked at an existing plan, found that their proposed activity is non compliant and ask for a Plan Change to be made to enable their activity. For all such activities qualified planners are needed.

To ensure that that work gets done one needs a range of support staff from across a number of disciplines. At a regional council for example people with knowledge of Geographic Information Systems are needed to translate environmental data such as ground water wells, zones at risk from debris flows or liquefaction into maps that spatially display the data. To get that data in the first place and do the physical analysis specialists such as hydro geologists, possibly engineering geologists and so forth will be needed. Planning staff will be from a range of planning backgrounds such as urban, environmental and transport and will also include policy analysts.

A council has a difficult balancing act to do. Do it hire an extra planner part time on a permanent basis to take some of the administrative pressure off the full time staff. Or does it hire a fixed term full time planner who is only around for a couple of years. Given that their budget comes from the rates people pay, they need to choose carefully.

So, to cut a long story short, this idea that they are all “paper shunters” is really misleading if not out right wrong.


Why downsizing Government is a catch-22

A.C.T. is proposing to downsize Government, says the A.C.T. Party leader David Seymour. The announcement which came out at the A.C.T. Party conference at the weekend in which Mr Seymour proposed a return to the A.C.T. of old, is part of a plan to reshape Government and make it work better for its tax payers.

Or is it?

One needs to be cautious when embarking on a bureaucratic reshuffle. How well does one know the individual departments likely to be affected? What does the Minister want to achieve from a reshuffle? Not all reshuffles have worked, and if an organization has a long serving base of staff who bring skills and knowledge not available outside of the affected agency, who are made to leave, that knowledge and those skills are permanently lost. Using that logic, when Mr Seymour talks about cutting the Executive down to size and reducing the number of aides, how does he know the nature of the aides work – if they work for someone like the Minister of Health or Education or Social Welfare, which are huge portfolio’s to manage, they might be absolutely necessary for the job.

Mr Seymour’s proposal included:

  1. Downsizing the executive from the current 31 Ministers to 20
  2. Downsizing Parliament from 121 M.P.’s to 100
  3. Removing the Maori seats

Let us tackle these proposals one by one.

I have wondered about this in the past myself. I have tried to envisage what I called super ministries, which would be sort of like Ministry of Business Innovation and Enterprise, with a few exceptions. My idea was of a Minister having final oversight for multiple portfolio’s – e.g. an Environment super ministry with Environment, Conservation, Biosecurity departments underneath. There would in this case be 3 “Secretary of Department” positions established. The secretaries would answer directly to the Minister. By doing this

The second proposal is to reduce Members of Parliament from the current 121 to 100. This is perhaps the most interesting proposal and the one most likely to succeed. An earlier referendum in proposed to reduce Members of Parliament to 99, and received 80% support across New Zealand with only the tougher criminal sentencing referendum in 1999 receiving more. Many people, concerned about where their taxes are going, or who are philosophically opposed to large Government might well find themselves in support of this.

The third and final one is guaranteed to run into trouble. Whilst Mr Seymour might find himself in the rare position of having New Zealand First come on board as the party of Winston Peters has long campaigned against the Maori seats on the grounds of being racially divisive. Labour and the Greens are not enthusiastic in the least and National is cool to the idea. For it to succeed, National or Labour would need to come on board.

So, whilst Mr Seymour’s proposal is interesting and has some historical merit, it also has pit falls that he would do really well to acknowledge and avoid.

Why New Zealand needs to condemn Saudi Arabia’s human rights record

This blog was going to be about the detention of female Saudi Arabian activists making a stand for women and a call to petition Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters to speak out. But the same country deciding it is okay to attack a bus full of civilians and the fact that this is a war crime, forced a change.

Saudi Arabia is a country that has long shown open disdain for human rights. It regards them as a “western” concept, perhaps because much human rights law was developed in the West. But western or not, there is nothing humane or proper about attacking civilian targets.

A country that attacks a civilian bus, killing dozens of people including numerous children as Saudi Arabia did a few days ago and thinks that such conduct would horrify many New Zealanders. A country that uses military grade munitions and delivery systems to destroy hospitals, homes and schools would horrify New Zealanders.

It should also horrify people to know that two nations we respect and admire are supplying Saudi Arabia with those munitions and delivery systems. Their names are Britain and United States of America. Both have supplied combat jets and cluster munitions, despite these being subject to international bans – which notably none of the United Nations Security Council permanent five members have recognized, lest it jeopardize the lucrative sale of weapons.

In his valedictory speech as President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower made mention of the potential threat posed by the military industrial complex. That was in 1961. It was before the Cuban Missile Crisis, Exercise Able Archer 1983, a host of wars where one could argue the main reasons for having them were nothing to do with national security, humanitarian emergencies or caused by internal strife. What would the former President think today if he could see the current orgy of violence and in particular America and Britain’s role in arming the combatants?

But those nations are not New Zealand. Those nations are not a country in the southwest Pacific with a record of defending human rights.

New Zealand needs to make stand against the human rights abuses of Saudi Arabia. Our trade is not so great that we should suffer a crippling blow if the Kingdom throws a diplomatic hissy fit – noting the recall of their Ambassador to Canada, and expulsion of Canada’s Ambassador for having the gonads to tell Saudi Arabia imprisoning female activists is not acceptable conduct. Our reputation for being a nation that champions a fair go and common decency will certainly not suffer from having a bit of steel in our spine.

New Zealand had opportunities to condemn earlier actions by Saudi Arabia that involved war crimes in Yemen. It has had opportunities to speak against the imprisonment of and flogging of activists such as Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes – 50 were struck before human rights activism brought enough pressure on Saudi Arabia to desist (so far)in carrying out any further. Unfortunately under the National-led Government of Prime Minister John Key, securing trade deals was a higher priority than protecting universal human rights.

If Canada stands alone, Saudi Arabia will assume that it is just one country that is annoyed. But if others including, but not limited to New Zealand join in the Kingdom will see that – whether they acknowledge it or not, being something altogether different – war crimes and any other illegal war like acts are not okay.

As for stopping Britain and the U.S. from supplying more weapons to cause more civilian deaths, tragically that is probably going to take them being referred for war crimes to the Hague and a change of Government in both countries.


A.C.T. rebrands

The Association of Consumers and Taxpayers (A.C.T.) have announced that they are going to rebrand as a political party. But as the yellow submarine in the right field of N.Z. politics seeks to find – presumably – a better name and message, it is questionable whether it will surface again as a credible force.

The rebranding of A.C.T. might be just the medicine that the right-wing of New Zealand politics needs. It was a party that made the mistake of trying to be everything to everyone – even if a bit of environmental and social common sense was welcome – and as a result its message to New Zealanders became convoluted. This sense of being convoluted might have been a result of the backlash caused by A.C.T.’s experience in the 2008-2011 term of the New Zealand Parliament. During that time its reputation as a perk buster came unstuck; List M.P. David Garrett was made to resign in disgrace after having been found to to have used a dead child’s identity to gain a passport.

Following the 2011 election where a five M.P. party became the sole M.P. party that it is today, A.C.T. had a leadership clean out. Dr Don Brash had lead the party at the election, announced his resignation on the night, clearing the way for Jamie Whyte to be elected leader. David Seymour was made the new candidate for Epsom.

The party that was launched by Richard Prebble and Sir Roger Douglas in 1996, veered across the political spectrum between 2008-2011 to become a more corporate party. It shed its image as the perk busting outfit that relentlessly pursued politicians accused of misusing Parliamentary perks. The accountability that it demanded of other parties was missing in action. The David Garrett saga gave it a dirty tarred image that made voters walk away in droves.

Come 2014, A.C.T. decided it needed a younger leader, and David Blair Seymour became leader after winning the Epsom seat at the election that year. Since then he has spent time as an under secretary for education under the National-led Government of former Prime Ministers John Key/Bill English. Mr Seymour also pushed a Bill of Parliament on euthanasia that is called the End of Life Choices Bill, that by my own admission might be the only time I ever support something that A.C.T. is doing.

The near complete decimation of A.C.T in 2017 outside of the Epsom electorate reflected a general shift in public opinion away from conservative politics towards what was described as more compassionate policy making. Concerns about mental health, education, the environment, social welfare as well as – surprisingly – a lack of action around justice and law enforcement with a surge in armed robberies, methamphetamine fuelled attacks and other violent criminal behaviour, combined with a resurgent Labour, meant there was little room for A.C.T.

A.C.T. has indicated that the party will go back to its roots. When A.C.T. was born its primary goals weer to be a party that promoted small government and minimal taxation. If one looks at their early policies, they might also be going back to a significantly harder line on justice, more money for the military and abolishing the Resource Management Act (one thing that they have remained consistent on).

So, as A.C.T rebrand, we the voting public have to ask ourselves, whether we have a use for a yellow submarine in the right field of New Zealand politics, that may not achieve anything from changing its colours and the torpedo(es)in the tube(s).


Banning plastic bags tackles small part of a big problem

Yesterday the Government announced that New Zealand would phase out plastic bags within 12 months. The announcement, which was made by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Associate Minister for the Environment Eugenie Sage comes amid a growing backlash against single use plastics.

The announcement, whilst welcome is in some respects more of a feel good measure. Whilst single use plastic bags are a very visible part of the plastics problem in New Zealand, in terms of the larger waste issue, plastic bags are a relative minor issue. Paper, glass, wood, materials such as polystyrene and so forth will continue to get dumped in landfills or recycled at negligible rates. Electronic waste will continue to go into landfills at between 72,000 and 85,000 tons per annum with only 1% of that being recycled.

The announcement did not escape criticism. David Seymour, Leader of the A.C.T. Party said it would punish consumers who find the bags easy and convenient. He also attacked the lack of science qualifications held by Green Party Members of Parliament. Nor did it escape criticism from the Leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges who likened it to low hanging fruit and that no real gains would be made. Mr Bridges claimed that the Government had bigger problems on its hands and needed to address what he called “plummeting business confidence”.

Both of these criticisms come from desperate politicians wanting to undermine something that they know will be well received by the public of New Zealand. Much has been made of the growing number of seabirds, fish and other marine life being found to have died from consuming plastics that their bodies are not able to digest. One also cannot ignore the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the central part of the northern Pacific that has an estimated 5 trillion pieces of plastic in it. That is about 680 pieces of plastic for every single human being on the planet.

I doubt that, despite the incoming ban, plastic bags will actually be fully phased out. Several questions need to be asked – and answered about this:

  1. How will the Government deal with imported products that come in plastic bags – last time I got an electrical device there were about three small plastic bags each with a component relevant to the device. They were single use bags in that once opened there was no further use for the plastic.
  2. Will there remain drop off bins after the ban takes effect for those who have stockpiles of plastic bags? I suspect that there will always be a small number of plastic bags retained by New Zealanders and there will be people all over the country with a cupboard holding a few, just as my parents have.
  3. Businesses seem to be enthusiastic about the ban, but there will always be a few that are non-compliant. Will the Government enforce the ban somehow?

All in all, a nice feel good ban. Greenpeace and the other environmental N.G.O.’s might be happy, but the war on waste has a long way to go before it reaches anything approaching a successful conclusion.