Lessons from Europe and Singapore: Tourism – Part 1

When one is on holiday, it is a chance to note how the locals live and what one can learn from the experience. As a tourist through the United Kingdom, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands, I kept a photographic record of what I saw. This part focuses on tourism in Europe.

Starting off in the United Kingdom I visited central London over the course of several days. It is a nice city with much history. The congestion in the central city, despite the efforts of the local councils to reduce it is still as present as ever. I found that there were parts that were really clean and lovely and parts that were not so great. The grounds of the attractions were clean and well maintained, but the number of people just casually stubbing out cigarettes on the ground and leaving them there at railway stations like London Paddington was disappointing, as was the sight of full up rubbish bins that obviously needed urgent emptying.

The old town quarters in Stockholm and Goteburg were cleaner. That might have more to do with the banning of non emergency and service vehicles from them. As cars did not exist when the streets were first laid down, it is also too narrow for them to safely manoeuvre. But the great aspect of this was, as a tourist on foot, you did not need to worry about being run over, and it also enabled street artists to perform their crafts and let audiences gather to watch.

These centres also had nice pedestrian friendly squares where much activity was taking place. Again, no cars unless they are service or emergency vehicles. These public areas were being used for concerts and other public events, as well as food, craft stalls and buskers. I saw good examples of this in Amsterdam, Stockholm and Brussels.

Public square in Stockholm, Sweden, with the creamy coloured building housing the Nobel Prize Museum (R. GLENNIE)

Small towns such as Ypres had their own centres of public attention. Each night at Ypres, which spent most of World War 1 within both German and Allied artillery range, there is a short ceremony to acknowledge the huge loss of lives in the five battles that took place around it. The ceremony happens daily at 2000 hours at Menin Gate, which is this huge arch over one of the vehicle entry points into the old town. Roughly 800-1000 people turn up each night. Each panel in the walls of the arch from top to bottom are filled with the names of dead Australians, British, Canadian and other allied nationalities who fought in the battles.

The daily remembrance ceremony at Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium. (R. GLENNIE)

Others, such as Brugge did not so much have a focal point, as a wide range of craft stores. Brugge is renown for its chocolate, waffles and craft beers – all specialties of Belgium. Bars, restaurants and cafes as well museums with rich local histories all help make the flavour of the town. To cap it off, a functional wind mill and historic watch towers also exist in the town limits.

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.

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).


Tit-for-Tat politics do no favours

It is something all politicians are probably guilty of at some point in their career. In their attempt to either score political points or establish their name as a productive elected official, one might propose an amendment to legislation before the House of Representatives. The amendment is rejected possibly simply because it came from the Opposition, possibly because it came out after due process had been followed.

The proponent of the amendment is bitter, grumpy and perhaps feeling short changed. In retaliation for their attempt at a constructive amendment being shot down, they change their vote in an attempt to kill the legislation entirely. In doing so, they shoot down an opportunity to show that they are a good sport and try to understand why it was rejected and do better the next time such an opportunity arises.

The sad fact of the matter is that tit-for-tat politics are really just petulant stupidity. No one wins from politicians throwing hissy fits in Parliament – whether it is in a speech, at a Select Committee or in terms of how they vote.

Thus, National’s decision to yank its support for the Green Party’s medicinal cannabis bill, only to then come up with a near identical version is particularly galling. It essentially says that there was nothing wrong with the Green Party version other than to say that it was the GREEN PARTY that came up with it in the first place. Furthering the petulance, National have rejected the warnings from the Ministry of Health that their Bill will not significantly improve the availability of medicinal cannabis products.

Another example can be found in the National Party attacks on the Government for their fiscal policy. Afraid that their own fiscal management, which saw significant debt accrued – admittedly through testing times including the back end of the Global Financial Crisis, and two hugely costly earthquakes – was under attack, National have seized every opportunity to try to present the Labour-Green fiscal rules agreement as a failure and a joke, despite the spending falling within the limits agreed to and monetary inflow continuing to exceed spending. As Stuff reporter Tracy Watkins notes there is a fine line before highlighting failing policies and deliberately talking down the economy.

It is not just the Opposition parties that do it. Sometimes the Government parties can be equally dismissive. But right now that is not happening. It is the Opposition, struggling as it is to get used to the fact that petulant behaviour instead of quietly dropping an unwinnable argument does not get one very far.