Political donations issues highlight need to change the law


Over the last few months, questions have been raised about how New Zealand First has handled political donations with regards to the Electoral Finance Act. That has been referred to the Police, who promptly sent it to the Serious Fraud Office. It has led to the Leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges and his Deputy Paula Bennett both saying that the Government needs to stand down New Zealand First Leader Winston Peters as happened in 2008.

A couple of days ago it emerged National had received two significant donations of $100,000 which had to be declared but are alleged to have been broken into substantially smaller chunks to avoid disclosure laws. Now former Member of Parliament, Member for Howick Jami-Lee Ross has been charged along with three Chinese nationals by the Serious Fraud Office over them.

Mr Ross was hospitalized in 2018 following a mental break down during which time he levelled damaging allegations against the National Party. They after it was revealed that National might not have declared a significant donation from one of the three Chinese nationals, Zhang Yikun. Mr Ross was expelled from the National Party and became an independent whilst continuing to hold the seat of Howick, but as an independent M.P.

These two cases, separate as they are, highlight clearly the need for decisive action on the subject of electoral finance law. Is the Act, which was passed in 2006 following revelations nearly every party in Parliament misused money in the 2005 and had to pay it back, no longer working? If so, what needs to be changed?

These questions and others about our E.F.A. will be asked by more people as we approach the 2020 General Election. With confidence in politicians and the system that elects them to office falling, being seen to want positive changes that make the Act fairer and more accountable to the New Zealand public, is not so much a “good idea” any more as it is essential. Minister of Justice Andrew Little appeared to realize when he told New Zealand that he might bypass the Justice Committee in order to get changes through the House before the 2020 General Election.

The Electoral Commission says that parties must report immediate donations and/or loans in excess of $30,000.

Parties may keep up to $1,500 of any anonymous donation, and up to $1,500 of any donation from an overseas person.

If an anonymous donor gives more than that, the party must pass the extra amount to us within 20 working days. If an overseas person gives more than that, the party must return the extra amount to them or, if that isn’t possible, to us within 20 working days.

However, a party can keep more of an anonymous donation if it is a ‘donation protected from disclosure’. These are payments that we make to the party on behalf of donors that want to remain anonymous. Between two successive elections, parties can receive up to $307,610 in donations protected from disclosure. If a donation will take a party over their limit, we will return the excess to the donor.

Along with the two donation issues mentioned above, there is also concern that China is trying to buy influence in New Zealand politics by getting Members of Parliament involved with Chinese Communist Party activities. At some of these events, I have little doubt that donations are being talked about in a broad sense.

Planning challenges in the 2020’s


Over the course of my Planning Theory paper in the second half of 2019, I had 12 core readings (one a week) and on average two additional readings. Some were dry, Northern hemisphere papers  written in the context of post World War 2 Europe. One or two – in the words of another student – “just about broke my brain”. And there were others that were rather dark, such as that by Kamete (2012), which talks about how planning law was used to aid Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe’s Operation Murabatsvina, which cleared out large slum areas of Harare in 2005.

And then there were a couple that resonated with me. One came from Australia and the other one was from Harvard University. The Australian one (Lane, 2005), examined an idea I have committed to memory because it is where I think some councils are failing badly. Sherry Arnstein (1969), who was an American social worker noticed how out of tune authorities seemed to be on social matters. Arnstein developed the “Ladder of Participation”, concerning how councils involve the public in planning matters, which I want to explore a bit.

Lane drew upon Arnstein’s idea and explored it further. Lane suggested that planning fell into three schools – blueprint; synoptic and pluralist. The blueprint type which most western countries abandoned from about the late 1960’s, was basically about developing new settlement forms with question or interference. This triggered some interesting discussions among the students on the course. One said that her parents live in Poland and have no concept of civil planning. They have only ever known “blueprint” type and synoptic and pluralist planning ideas that western countries have gravitated towards were completely foreign to them.

The Harvard paper by Beckert (2016) looks at “Fictional expectations and the crisis of contemporary capitalism”. Beckert argues that capitalism is about expecting to be bettered by a competitor and therefore trying to continuously come with new ideas, products or services. What one is trying to develop has to be of greater value than what was invested so that a return can be made on it. But Beckert noted a potential crisis of confidence caused by the growing disparities that undermine the motivation to participate, which might hinder long term market development.

In a planning context one might suggest that planning is in part about attempting to provide a framework for a future that we do not yet know about – and which might not happen. The 1991 Resource Management Act was born out of concerns about the Brundtland conference about the future of the planet. Climate change had not become the massive issue it is now, but there was enough confidence about the unsustainable trajectory of economic development to say we have a major problem.

Another paper that struck me as possibly being useful was one by Joe Painter (2006) called “Prosaic Geographies of Stateness”. A striking paper this one because it sought to understand the impact of the everyday bureaucrat – whether a planner, an enforcement officer or gathering/collating data – and their actions. It drew on literature from Britain, but I am going to put this in a New Zealand context.

We have the Resource Management Act. The planner, that some of you refer to as bureaucrats has a testing job. Juggling the obligations of the Act is not as easy as it looks, and friends who have processed resource consents have told me it is a never ending conveyor belt. Speed it up then, some of you say. Okay, but are you prepared to see more ratepayer dollars spent on staff you call bureaucrats? No, stuff it some of you will say. The planner in the middle then finds themselves struggling to meet R.M.A. imposed deadlines. In carrying out the mundane actions Painter describes, we see how the ordinary job of the planner and the mundane decisions they make actually wield power in our lives. A planner finding a developer wants to build inside a set riparian margin can send the developer away to reset their boundary, or the developer may ask for a plan change. If the applicant does not supply sufficient info the planner can exercise S.92 which requests more information under the R.M.A.

Before anyone grumbles about processing times, I understand 90-95% get issued. But it might pay to check the quality of the decision. This is one reason why we get so many inane council decisions that seem to be half cooked. Another is because city/district/regional councils hire people who have a narrow planning background. As a result New skills are not being brought to the fore. But also a staff that do not have time for due diligence, are going to be the first to make a mistake.

As the new decade starts, it is worthwhile asking yourself and ourselves collectively, what is expected of a council planner, and based on what I have discussed, the sort of theoretical influences they should be drawing upon.

References:

  • Beckert J., “Fictional expectations and the crisis of contemporary capitalism”, 2016
  • Kamete A., “Interrogating planning’s power in an African city: Time for a reorientation?”, 2012
  • Lane M., “Public participation in planning: An intellectual history”, 2005
  • Menzies M., “A partial history of futures thinking in New Zealand”, 2018
  • Painter J., “Prosaic geographies of Stateness”, 2006

Minister of Social Development not enabling social development


I find the Government’s inaction on welfare to be quite baffling. Sure they have only been in office for 2 years and National had 9 years, but by now I would have thought that some substantive policy at least would be starting to make itself known to the voting public. By the same time in the Government of Prime Minister John Key several basic policies existed in outline form, which would be fleshed out over the following year.

In 2011 a person on an unemployment benefit got $204 per week. A student on a study allowance was paid $180. Thus, as I found out when I started studying for a Certificate of Business Applications at Vision College, I took a $24 per week cut in income, which across 20 weeks would have been about $480 less.

In June 2018 there were 277,000 people on the benefit. We will assume it was still $204 per week for the unemployment benefit and make that the median benefit. For 52 weeks, that is about $2.94 billion across those people. If we increased that to $250 per week across them it would come out at about $3.6 billion, which is an increase of $662,584,000.

With a surplus of $7.5 billion I think we can comfortably afford to do that.

Respectfully Minister of Development Carmel Sepuloni might mean well, but she is a Minister with completely the wrong priorities. Yes, I get that mental health is important and that we need to invest more in programmes that address its effects. Yes I get that losing someone because they committed suicide is a horrible thing.

But this is more like ambulance at the bottom of the cliff kind of stuff, when the accident – the mental health emergency – has already happened.

Ms Sepuloni would do much better to increase the benefits for several reasons, not least:

  • National did not top them up during their 9 years in office
  • Rents have significantly increased in that time and benefits have not kept pace
  • The benefit increases will help found mental health assistance for those on low incomes that might not be affordable currently

But not only should the benefits be increased substantially, they should also be indexed so that they adjust with inflation and not get slowly eroded away.

National recycling old ideas, expecting different results


We are less than a year away from either Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern starting second term in office or Leader of the Opposition Simon Bridges becoming Prime Minister. As one has a disappointingly average term in the halls of the Beehive, the other is reviving policy in order to look tough for the elections that look decidedly unoriginal, old and boring.

The old ideas thus far include:

  1. A crack down on gangs in New Zealand, including denying members social welfare benefits if they cannot prove they hold no illegal income or assets
  2. A crack down on welfare including a time limit on the dole for under 25’s

And they have added some new ones, which follow the trend set by the old benefit bashing routine National is well known for. They include fines for parents of school drop outs and truants.

Many of the truants and drop outs come from families where schooling was never a high priority in the first place. They might well be students with parents who work all day until dinner time or later, who are not around to help with homework, cook dinner or organize supervision for under 14’s. The punitive fines that National are proposing fail to recognize a simple fact: the parents or caregivers might not have the money, or if they do it might well have already been sucked up by other expenditures.

Unless National recognize this, which I have no reason to believe Mr Bridges will, there will be only quite limited positive impact on truant and drop out numbers.

As indicated in earlier articles, one of the best ways to reduce the gang issue is to first understand the how and why of their existence in the first place – gang’s do not simply exist because someone got out of bed one day and say “I’ll start a gang today”; the disenfranchised people who join them generally do so because there is no love, no guidance in their lives. When this gets tackled we can start to take National seriously on dealing with gangs.

If National continue this trend of old social policies getting recycled in the hope of different outcomes, there are others we can expect to see Mr Bridges and company reconsidering.

  1. The punitive 3 Strikes regime will get tougher to act as a deterrent, whilst running the risk of becoming like Washington State in the United States where a person on third strike went to jail for 25 years for stealing a car. Yes, it was a dumb thing to do and yes one might reasonably expect a person to have learnt from their previous strikes, but it does not change the fact that 25 years for stealing a car is manifestly unjust.
  2. The badly needed and long overdue changes to the Social Welfare Act and other legislation that the Ministry of Social Development and its umbrella agencies operate under will remain rigidly archaic, which will increase the risk posed to W.I.N.Z., Housing New Zealand and other social agency staff
  3. Employment contracts legislation will try to reverse gains made under Labour

I hold little hope for National whilst they maintain this archaic outlook on policy making. Are they really so bereft of new ideas as to not be able to come up with anything that has not already recycled three or four times? It is almost like they do not want to be in the 21st Century where ideas that were fine in the 1960s-1990s are now well and truly out of date.

 

The $7.5b question: tax cuts; election spend up; something else?


The biggest government surplus in a decade has political and economic commentators thinking: What will Treasurer Grant Robertson do with a $7.5 billion surplus?

A few certainties arise even before that question can be considered:

  1. 2020 is election year and there will no doubt be thoughts of holding at least some of it to throw at election promises in a years time
  2. Certain parties who do not need to be named are going to want – and indeed have already promised – tax cuts, specifically income tax cuts
  3. With a shaky world economy getting ever more jittery with every passing month and the domestic economy not looking so hot, economists and some politicians are suggesting that the government needs a spend up to get things moving

I have long had ideas about what to potentially spend on in the past, which have been largely social areas such as health, education and social welfare. My understanding is that the calls in 2019 are for greater investment in infrastructure critical to the 21st Century.

This suits me fine, as I have a few ideas of what it could be spent on:

  1. Research and development of a potential biofuel programme relying on the waste stream for an appropriate fuel source – take several years to get this started, but if successful modest scale biofuel plants could be established in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch
  2. Research and development of a Waste to Energy plant for the West Coast, which would be self sufficient in terms of electricity use
  3. Examine electrification of the South Island segment of the Main Trunk Line
  4. Invest in 5G technology nation-wide instead of letting the telecommunications companies do so for reasons of national security
  5. A substantial acceleration of the billion tree programme that was announced by the Government in 2017
  6. Support a mini-home scheme

But what if the Government decided on tax cuts? Whilst there might be enough to justify some I am personally against income tax cuts because the wealthiest are always the winners, when all should be able to gain fairly from them. Such a move would certainly not be welcomed by the left wing of New Zealand politics, who believe with justification that this would only favour the very few.

A more intriguing alternative is one that almost never seems to be up for discussion. Despite the right talking about fiscal responsibility, under the last several New Zealand governments significant debt has been accrued and much of it is still outstanding. Has the ever so radical idea that New Zealand should actually pay more  of it back not strike one as a useful idea?