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.


Climate change emergencies grow, but where is the political will?

The other day Auckland Council became another New Zealand local government body to declare a climate change emergency in the hope that it will bring the focus on the need for urgent action. And as more councils do start considering whether to declare, the spotlight’s glaring vision is focussing on the central Government’s (relative non)response.

Every single elected council in New Zealand could declare a climate emergency. Whilst the symbolism is great and would have impact if all councils actually did declare an emergency, the real leadership must come from central Government.

And such regional leadership appears unlikely. There are still, no doubt, regional, city and district councils around the country who do not believe that climate change justifies an emergency being declared. One of them is West Coast Regional Council, which is dominated by rural councillors. Despite significant storms visiting the West Coast on a more regular basis and despite increasingly large rainfall tallies being racked up, West Coast Regional Councillors have demanded evidence that climate change is occurring.

Six councils around New Zealand have now declared a climate emergency. Whilst their number compared to the total number of elected territorial authority bodies is small, they represent a very substantial chunk of New Zealand’s total population  at more than 2.1 million New Zealanders. Those councils are Auckland Council, Christchurch City Council, Environment Canterbury, Nelson City Council and Dunedin City Council.

This brings me back to the central Government. When it announced it was walking away from oil and gas in the coming decades, the left wing spectrum celebrated. New Zealand was taking a step towards sustainability; there might be hope yet for controlling anthropogenic climate change.

Yes and No. The far fringes of the political spectrum are absolutely convinced beyond a shred of doubt that there will be a catastrophe either way, but for entirely different and irreconcilable reasons.

The concern on the moderate right stems from several notable factors that I have described in greater depth elsewhere such as:

  • The affordability of carbon neutral vehicles
  • Long term transport priorities still based on a carbon heavy thinking
  • Unless there is a major effort to overhaul our transport system New Zealand will continue to need oil and gas
  • Some hospitals, and large public utilities continue to use fossil fuels for purposes such as heating with no plans to change their fuel type
  • Impracticality of having an entirely electric vehicle fleet – to say nothing of the sheer number of batteries that will need highly toxic components recycled

The concern from the moderate left also stems from factors I have already acknowledged.

  • The level of carbon is climbing rapidly and is now at 418 parts per million according to the Mauna Kea atmospheric observatory in Hawaii
  • Massive loss of biodiversity from ecosystem destruction has the potential to end humanity in 100 years or less
  • There is no Planet B within reasonable travelling distance of any space going craft

And then there is perhaps a third group, who have to try to reconcile the two moderate factions and make a case that central Government will listen to. They might include planners in local councils who have to make sense of the Resource Management Act and other pieces of law in determining what the council they work for can reasonably do. Others are scientists who could be looking at the sustainability of large scale biofuel from the waste stream or whether hemp can be used on a large scale as a building material.

It might be this third group that helps to make the case. By gathering the inputs from the left and the right  it can try to reach some sort of compromise. It would be between the need for some sort of economic continuity and need to hurry up and start putting promises into actions, but in a way that the public can buy into.




ACT: The leopard thinking it can change its spots

Yesterday it was announced that A.C.T. was changing its party branding. A.C.T. Leader David Seymour announced that his party has changed its branding in an attempt to change public perceptions of a party that has struggled since 2011. From a party with 5 Members of Parliament in 2008 including the man behind Rogernomics, Sir Roger Douglas, to a one man band that has consistently polled at 1-2% and only exists at all because of Mr Seymour’s hold on the Epsom seat, why has A.C.T. consistently struggled?

In recent years Mr Seymour, as the public face of A.C.T., has tried to soften the party’s image. A quite successful stint on Dancing With The Stars, which many people had thought was an April Fools joke – aside from some twerking – showed him as an under dog, given he was expected to exit early and perhaps ungracefully like his predecessor Rodney Hide did (after dropping his partner on stage). And New Zealanders do admittedly like an under dog – one who does better than expected.

Unfortunately for all of A.C.T.’s rebranding, the leopard is not going to change its spots. Deep down A.C.T. will still be A.C.T. – a party being kept alive out of convenience to the National Party. It can change its spots dozen times. It can make them pink the rest of it markings white. It could paint itself orange or some other bright colour, but deep down nothing has changed all is still the same.

It is still the party trying to undermine our checks on speech so that it is not responsible for its undisguised bigotry. Golriz Ghahraman will still be Golly to Mr Seymour, and still a Iranian refugee M.P. who is apparently trying to boss New Zealand around. It will still be the party that Louis Crimp, an avowed disliker of the Treaty of Waitangi who thinks Maori are savages and wanted to scrap funding for Te Reo Maori, supported.

A.C.T. will still be the party that refuses to recognize the necessity of tightening up controls on semi-automatic weapons. These include the availability of accessories and modifications such as the one that has enabled mass murders including the Christchurch mosque attacks. It did not want to know about the fact that there would be further opportunity to comment when the second tranche of law comes before Parliament towards the end of this year. Concerns that become all the more stark when one considers that the primary lobby organization for gun ownership in the U.S. – a country A.C.T. and to a lesser extent National think can do no wrong – the National Rifle Association is struggling in the face of several recent mass shootings, and students saying that they have had enough.

A.C.T. will still be the party that thinks climate change is a hoax and that the best approach is the business as usual approach. It will ignore the massive loss of biodiversity around the world, the rapidly worsening number of carbon particles per million. In the name of lesser regulation it will stonewall attempts to create a collaborative approach that brings business on board. Instead of relying on “market forces” that neither know nor care for environmental or social well being, which A.C.T. espouses, knowledge of the environment, technology and society would be put left right and centre and driven by the urgency of knowing time will be needed to adapt and therefore major steps have to be taken now.

Mr Seymour would be well advised to wind up the A.C.T. Party and start over. A.C.T. is a leopard. A leopard cannot change it spots and no amount of painting over its colours will change that. When their initial leaders resigned or left under a cloud caused by acts of stupidity that they brought upon themselves, A.C.T. should have taken the opportunity to under go a rebranding then to either be something other than a failed corporate party that pretended to be about responsibility and liberty.


The nine lives of Phil Twyford

A cat has nine lives, or so the old saying goes. When I think about current Cabinet Ministers of the Labour-led Government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, none fit that description more accurately than Minister of Housing and Minister of Transport, Phil Twyford. And whilst I do not think it is possible to accurately account for the number of Ministerial lives lost by Mr Twyford, one might guess he is well on the way to his ninth.

Since coming to office as Minister for Transport, Minister for Housing and – until Ms Ardern stripped him off it – , Mr Twyford has really struggled with his portfolio’s. The shadow spokespeople for Transport and Housing in the National Party have managed to land a number of hits on the good ship Twyford, though none yet appear to be fatal.

But damaging they are. The two most notable fires on the M.S. Twyford are in the handling of the Kiwi Build programme and the handling of the Warrant of Fitness scandal.

The Kiwi Build programme, was meant to promise 100,000 affordable homes for New Zealand. A lofty target to meet and one that we are falling a long way behind on. Not only has Mr Twyford bitten off far more than he can chew, it would appear that he is being a proverbially messy eater, some of the specifics that Mr Twyford has mentioned have themselves turned into botch ups. For example Mr Twyford appears to have a quite different interpretation of the word “affordable”, which to most New Zealanders in terms of housing would be a two bedroom house costing no more than $350,000 instead of the $500,000 price tag he is offering. As for the rate of houses being built, only a few thousand have been put up so far in the first term of this Government.

The other damaging problem that Mr Twyford has to deal with is the W.O.F. scandal. This is a scandal which has left New Zealand Transport Authority red faced and having to admit thousands of people may have had Warrants of Fitness issued to their vehicles which should never have been certified. Not only that, no one seems to be really certain of how many registered garages have been issuing substandard W.O.F.’s and for how long. It begs several serious questions of the N.Z.T.A.:

  • Where has their regulatory unit been among all of this?
  • Are the W.O.F.’s issued by suspect garages going to be null and voided?
  • Do we know who all of the potential victims in this are?

Among others.

Combined these two problems make me wonder how long Mr Twyford can hang on to his job. It is clearly obvious that he has significant issues on his plate and very soon some serious answers are going to have to be given. N.Z.T.A. need to come clean immediately on the scale of the problem. The problem garages are going have to have their registrations suspended until they can prove they are fit to certify peoples cars, and the head of N.Z.T.A. regulation is going to have to be prepared to quit if this does not happen.

Equally seriously, Kiwi Build is obviously not going to work.  The range of issues faced extend beyond just the exaggerated promises and the massive over pricing of units. Do we actually have enough builders and other trades people to reach such a lofty goal? Does Kiwi Build actually have its priorities worked out? Or should we simply scrap it and start again?

Is neoliberalism holding New Zealand back?

Recently commentator Tracy Watkins wrote a column about the absence of big bold new policies being announced by the Government. It came after a Fiscal Budget where Treasurer Grant Robertson announced the loosening of expenditure limits, but with a clear lack of ideas as to what the more readily available finances would be used for and why.

Ms Watkins pointed that in today’s world big and bold are the key names of the policy game. The policy needs to be substantial in that fluffy, airy fairy stuff that is loaded with rhetoric but no detail is out, and bold in that new ground is broken and preferably with a vision of what might be the outcome. That does not seem to be happening readily in New Zealand politics.

As a former New Zealand First member I find this disappointing. I note that at N.Z.F.’s annual convention many great ideas would get put forward with an appropriate degree of detail released given the size and nature of the receiving audience, only for much to never see the light of day. The ideas were both internal (ones to do with party structure and governance) and external (policy that would benefit New Zealand).

Perhaps Ms Watkins was thinking also of the absence of direction in New Zealand scientific research, how it contributes to society and where it gets its funding from. Just by chance if she was, another commentator named Peter Griffin has penned a column addressing exactly that. And although Mr Griffin is correct, he is not the first person to bemoan the lack of direction or funding for science. I have written columns about it as I believe that New Zealand has still not developed the “knowledge economy” that Dr Michael Cullen talked about in 1999 or the “a brighter future” that former Prime Minister John Key had in mind for New Zealand when elected Prime Minister in 2008.

Where I think the problems lie are:

  • A war on science – an undeclared one, but ultimately one that parties on both sides of the House of Representatives are jointly waging – has been going on for over a decade, with little new funding or initiatives to encourage researchers to conduct their work here and little effort to encourage science at high schools
  • Declining academic standards – I still think that N.C.E.A. has a part in this, but in fairness the rot had probably started earlier than that and may have more to do with teacher workloads, which have taken a quantum leap in complexity since the “Tomorrow’s Schools” outlook came out in 1989
  • Neoliberalism – the trend towards free market capitalism has had only modest gains at best for New Zealand with a huge increase in socio-economic disparity between the lower and higher income quartiles in terms of quality of life, ability to afford the basics and understanding of their place in society
  • Socio-political messaging about priorities have made environment; poverty; democracy lower priority issues and have combined to create a toxic combination of health, judicial and human rights issues – which in turn have undermined the democratic foundations on which this country is supposed to be built on

New Zealand needs to wean itself off neoliberalism or at least take a really hard look at how it is impacting on New Zealand society. To me ultimately getting off this addictive “Me, me, me; Now, now, now” where short term individualized gains trump long term collective benefits is probably a bit like trying to roll over whilst the body is in a deep slumber – it will take perhaps a couple of Governments to build up enough inertia that the public mood swings against neoliberalism. However in the end the collective gain that makes New Zealanders across the board feel a part of the same society, instead of a multi-tiered one where the elite and lowest echelons are so far removed that the rest of society is being dragged down, will far outweigh any “Me, me, me; Now, now, now” capitalism.

Enabling the flow of big and bold new ideas might actually start with the biggest and probably the boldest idea of them all – changing the system.