Ministers hiding from the truth?

I have been watching the Chernobyl miniseries, which is based on the 1986 meltdown of Reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine, when it was part of the former U.S.S.R. Constantly coming out of the series is the determination of the Communist government to cover up the disaster even though the scale of it makes that impossible, even though the radioactive cloud drifting across Europe has been detected in multiple countries.

The lack of transparency and the corruption within the Communist system was a major contributor to its eventual downfall in 1989. It took their ineptness at Chernobyl in a rigid system hell bent on preservation at all cost including locking up those who knew too much to start its unravelling.

Midway through its first term in office, the number of inept Ministers in the Labour-led Government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is startling. And as National looks at the 2020 election as a chance to take back the Beehive, we see them shying away from taking questions. We see them ducking behind the public service officials who are meant to keep them up to speed.

Fortunately New Zealand could not be more different from the Cold War era U.S.S.R. It is a nation that enjoys very high ratings with Transparency International, which focuses on the accountability of elected officials, the ability to obtain information and the freedom of the press. Using a scale of 1-100 where 100 is completely transparent, T.I. have graded countries around the world. The current rating is 2. Only Denmark has a higher score. However, both countries have slipped from a ratings a few years ago in the very low 90’s. Last year New Zealand topped the list at 89 and in 2016, 90. Russia and Ukraine by contrast only scored 29 in 2018.

Whilst this is still a very good score for New Zealand and one worth celebrating, at the same time the gradual downwards drift needs correcting. New Zealand continues to maintain a somewhat laissez faire approach to oversight of its authorities and there is room for improvement in terms of having a watchdog overseeing the Privacy Commission and Human Rights Commission, among others who have been dogged in recent years by conduct completely unbecoming of such important bodies.

Recently we have seen the sort of activity that might be behind the gradual downwards drift in our score. At Chernobyl we saw nuclear scientists trying to persuade Communist officials more intent on saving their own skin and the system they worked under about the grave threat Chernobyl posed. They were constantly monitored, threatened and on occasion, even detained. It would lead the chief scientist Valery Legasov to take his own life, rocking the Communist apparatus in a way even the hardliners struggled to ignore.

In New Zealand we have seen Ministers ducking for cover. Phil Twyford is the prime example, as a man who knows Kiwi Build is a failure but instead of being upfront and saying so has retreated from interviews about it. A second example is Shane Jones. What was he doing lobbying Minister of Immigration on behalf of Stan Semenoff and the transport company he owns so they could get accredited employer status and employ Filipino workers? And a third will be the Minister of Immigration himself and the Karl Sroubek snafu where a Czech man wanted by Czech Republic authorities fled to New Zealand, claiming he would die if he went back to the Republic.

So far none of them come close to matching the ineptness of Comrade Dyatlov who had control of Reactor No. 4 on that fatal night. Nor do the consequences involve the threat of getting the KGB involved. But they do involve massive loss of personal reputation. They do raise questions about how in control of her Government Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern really is, and a failure to improve might be the downfall of this Labour-led Government just as Chernobyl probably caused the downfall of Communism.


The need to hold China accountable for Tiananmen Square

Who can forget the sight of a lone man standing in front of a column of tanks near Tiananmen Square on the morning of 04 June 1989. The tanks – hundreds of them along with hundreds of armoured personnel carriers (A.P.C.’s)and thousands of troops – were in the late stages of shutting down a massive demonstration that had lasted for weeks in central Beijing. On the night of 03-04 June 1989 the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army was given orders to clear the square by force and impose martial law. Hundreds were known to have died (3,000 is the most widely accepted death toll)and thousands were being made to go missing by the Chinese Government, furious that its ruthless brutality had been caught on video and cassette by media around the world.

Fast forward 30 years since “tank man” bravely stood before those tanks and the Chinese Government is still determined to shut down any and all efforts to commemorate the massacre, and remember those that died in an attempt to gain democracy. To the Chinese Government any mention of Tiananmen Square is taboo – they would much rather the world forgot about it.

But we cannot. And nor should we. There was nothing wrong with what those many brave people were trying to do. They were standing up for their human rights, standing up for their rights to freedom of assembly, of speech, of peaceful protest. To ignore this would be to acknowledge totalitarianism as an acceptable state of governance. When a Government is so scared of the people it is meant to be governing that it has to deploy the military with orders to use live ammunition, there is something fundamentally wrong with that Government.

But it was not just the massacre that made the world recoil in disgust. In the coming weeks thousands – some estimates are as high as 30,000 – of Chinese who were thought to be undesirable or suspected of being complicit in the organization of the protests were made to disappear by their Government. Whilst many were eventually released, some have never been heard from again.

Over the years China has fought to rid itself of the stain of Tiananmen Square. It promised in return for the 2008 Beijing Olympics that it would significantly improve its human rights record which has also included mobile execution squads. Currently a large (on going)crackdown against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province; re-education camps, harassment of human rights activists including indefinite detention and surveillance and a massive dystopian profiling project are in progress.

Many politicians around the world want to promote economic trade with China, but are loathe to acknowledge the cost to human rights, communities and the environment that goes with it. To them the spectre of Tiananmen Square and the ongoing assault on human rights is a nuisance that they try to distance themselves from. Whilst not getting involved militarily China has spent billions of dollars arming regimes in countries with large mineral resources, especially valuable commodities such as oil, gold and rare earth minerals to make electronics with. In return China gets easy access to those resources.

Tank man and the many other brave people who made a statement on that horrible night or in the days before might be people Chinese Government officials desperately want us to forget about and move on from. But we will not. They did not do this for the laughs. They did this for China. For freedom. For humanity. We should remember that.

190531 C2A letter – Tiananmen


New Zealand Police have the balance right

Over the last few weeks, I have become aware of concerns that the New Zealand Police are being too cautious and can afford to lower their guard. I have become aware that people believe they are hiding something and that we should be suspicious.

I do not claim to speak for the authorities by any means. Nor do I claim to be a blind sympathizer who thinks the authorities can do no wrong. The can, but no law enforcement agency ever ever wants to be caught off guard by undesirables in the way the Sri Lankan authorities were caught off guard. Whilst Sri Lanka is going to have an inquiry into how the authorities managed to not pick up on the warnings being provided, potentially lasting damage has been done by that glaring failure.

But no law enforcement agency worthy of being such wants to become a reactionary, society fearing force that starts urging all kinds of restrictive measures. It does not want to be like the French following the November 2015 terrorist attack in Paris where events started being cancelled on a whim, where a radically beefed up police force far out stayed its welcome as a protecting force. That is a danger that Sri Lankan authorities are in grave danger of enacting themselves. Their move to ban social media points to a panic that runs the risk of making the Sri Lankan public panic. Too much and the story of the boy who cried wolf becomes applicable, so that when there really is an emergency, no one listens.

It is a tight rope to walk, a judging act where the tight rope walker has a long way to fall if they make a mistake. Right now the Sri Lankan authorities have just fallen off the side marked “overly cautious”.

It is for these reasons I am so glad I live in New Zealand. Our Police make mistakes and they know it. Like in every Police force there will be a few rotten apples who do not deserve to be commissioned officers of the force and should be dealt to forthwith. But, and I cannot really stress this enough, they are accountable. They are accountable in ways the vast majority of police forces simply are not. Their rapport and honesty with New Zealanders is a comparative joy and we show this through simple gestures such as getting cops manning the lines on crime scenes coffee or helping out in public events – recently a police officer said what really made his day was being on cordon duty at a crime scene and a kid came up and gave him a hug.

New Zealand Police I am fairly confident do not want to bear arms longer than they need to and that they are acutely aware of the implications that go with having visible automatic weapons for too long. This is why the terrorism alert has been downgraded to medium – it is still higher than the designation we had on 14 March 2019, but it acknowledges that at this time there is no good reason for maintaining an alert level that is physically and psychologically draining as well as financially.

I am sure that the Police are making an honest effort to do as good a job as they can in the circumstances. Are they going to get it absolutely perfect? No. There will be mistakes, like the failure to arrest the guy blasting off hate speech near the Christchurch mosque. There will be times when we wonder whether they took public sentiment on board, such as around the Louise Nicholas case, where they have considerably improved, but still have room for improvement. But compared with their Sri Lankan authorities, the work currently being done by our Police force looks pretty damn good to me.

In solidarity with our Sri Lankan brothers and sisters

Over the weekend devastating attacks against western targets occurred in Sri Lanka. The devastating bombings at the weekend of hotels and churches in Sri Lanka by militants comes at the end of a a 10 year lull in violence following the end of their civil war in 2009. Thus far 300 are known to have died and another 500 have been wounded.

Unfortunately the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka has admitted that his Government failed to heed warnings that militant violence was being planned. It is too early to really contemplate what punishment Sri Lanka will place on him and other relevant officials for failing to act.

It is also too early to determine what the impact will be on a country that is trying to turn the page after a bloody and brutal civil war. Recent tourists groups to visit had reported a hope that the tourism industry could look to the future, rather than over its shoulder at the legacy of past events.

There is concern that there might be communal violence in Sri Lanka following this. Sri Lanka has a history of scattered harassment of its Hindu, Christian and Muslim minorities, but the known violence on Sunday far exceeded any prior anti-Christian harassment. Six near simultaneous blasts occurred on Sunday and were followed a few hours later by two more.

What can I say that did not get said after Christchurch?

Arohanui (big love). Assalamu alaykum (Peace be on you). Big love to the Sri Lankan community one and all. May peace be on you in these dark hours. We in Christchurch can understand your pain, your grief. We stand with you just as you did with us a bit over a month ago.

I hope that we invite Sri Lankan officials to New Zealand so that they can see how we are handling the grieving process following the Christchurch attacks. It would be a chance for Sri Lanka, a country that has experienced terrorism in the past – numerous cricket tours of the country have been abandoned because of bomb blasts over the decades – to see how an approach built on empathy, a police response that is balanced and careful reform of intelligence is working. In return New Zealand officials might gain insight into how to deal with co-ordinated attacks should the unfortunate day arise when we have such horror.

Kia Kaha Sri Lanka.

The year in which the Government must deliver

There is such a vast broad platform of policy on which this Labour-led Government is promising to deliver, that it is a bit difficult to know where to start. There are some Ministers holding substantial portfolio’s such as Social Welfare and smaller yet critical ones like Local Government who have yet to pop their heads above the parapet. Maybe they have significant work in progress that is simply not ready to face the harsh glare of the voting public, but it would be good to know that they are not “Missing In Action”.

This is a year in which Labour and its New Zealand First and Green Party cabinet colleagues will need start delivering significant policy. Reviews can only go for so long before they start to imply that the incumbent government is frozen on policy making.Such a freeze tends to send a clear signal to the voting public that the Government does not know what it is doing, which 18 months into its first term would be a really dangerous sign.

It has so far been a year where the major call has been to scrap a capital gains tax which will give attempts at equality reform the wobbles. This move will pile on the pressure in terms of expecting the minimum wage increases the state of a living wage to perform. It potentially locks away billions of dollars in tax that could be used to help fund projects that might now struggle to be seen or heard. And it is a move I am disappointed to see happen.

There are things that I am expecting the Government to deliver or start work on in this term:

  1. A comprehensive waste recycling programme that covers wood, paper, glass, plastics and aluminium – we have the know how, but do we have the will?
  2. Announcing how it will reform New Zealand’s schools 30 years after Tomorrow’s Schools, which was seen as a visionary programme in 1989, but is not so now
  3. Reform of Ministry of Social Development – I have mentioned in the past, the failings of this Ministry, which is straight jacketed by a legislative framework
  4. Reform of the justice system, which has lost the confidence of victims of crime and seems to be failing to address the reoffending of youth
  5. Sustainability – we might be phasing out oil and gas, but is electricity able to sustain New Zealand’s energy needs on its own; the reduction of carbon emissions affects the marine ecosystem; fresh water quality and usage is not sustainable
  6. Transport – a much larger investment in railways is needed; New Zealand also needs to look at a long term plan for the sea going merchant ships

Of course the terrorist attacks have overtaken all of this and we need to revisit how we gather and use state intelligence. We will need to revisit our constitutional arrangements sometime in the next decade or whenever the Head of State, Queen Elizabeth II passes on. And if that is not enough the West Coast flood event of 25-27 March 2019 raised some alarming questions about the readiness of the West Coast for a bigger disaster.

Much going on, but how is the Government going at delivering? Find out this year (and next).