Chief Statistician resigns: But is that the end of the story?


Chief Statistician of New Zealand, Liz McPherson handed in her resignation to Minister of Statistics James Shaw on . Whilst Ms McPherson’s departure is definitely a step in the right direction, can we trust Statistics New Zealand and their treasure troves of statistical data? And if the answer is no, what will it take to restore that trust?

To briefly recap Ms McPherson’s chief task as the boss of Statistics New Zealand was to make sure that the 2018 Census ran smoothly. As is now very clear, that was anything but the case. Ms McPherson is now gone, but there are huge holes in the 2018 edition and considerable uncertainty no doubt exists among the many ministries and departments whose planning for the next few years has been thrown into turmoil.

Would it be better to simply organize a full brand new census for the earliest possible date and assume that the 2018 data is not able to be properly used? Possibly, but a new Census is not a cheap, logistically easy or rapid task to be carried out in terms of organizing it, never mind Census Night.

If not, do we know how much of the data is usable? How much data is missing? What data is missing? Are there minimum data amounts that must be maintained in order for particular data sets to be of use, and if so what are they? No doubt these questions have been taxing a lot of minds in Statistics New Zealand, as well as its Minister in Charge.

Let us assume the worst. The data sets for multiple agencies simply do not permit them to carry out appropriate planning and the next few years will be based on educated guesses rather than hard data. We will assume that it affects the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Social Development among other significant users and providers of data. I cannot help but wonder what health, social, and education programmes are going to be underfunded, under resourced or simply stop working because of this ineptitude.

To be painfully honest, I have no confidence in Statistics New Zealand. Unless Mr Shaw reruns the Census I believe he should hand back his ministerial warrant for that particular portfolio. In April of this year Ms McPherson acknowledged no Iwi related data would be released. She also admitted that that data collection was insufficient for what was expected of the set. She should have handed her resignation in at the same time.

Where is National on this? Where is A.C.T.? I would have expected both parties to be busy making political hay out of this. I would have thought that A.C.T. leader David Seymour would have been left, right and centre telling us what A.C.T. would do and why this Government is not fit for the tasks ahead.

Stuff reporter Thomas Manch suggested that it might take years to restore the level of trust we need to have in Statistics New Zealand and its leadership. Given that even with the handing in of her resignation, Ms McPherson was still trying to play down the gravity of the situation, I am inclined to agree.

Years.

 

National Party reshuffle leaves its climate policy in neutral


Over the weekend, the weekend just gone, the National Party had their annual conference in Christchurch. It was – among other things – a chance for the rural and urban wings of the party to meet as one and see how they are (not)reconciling their differences over climate change.

Until now National Party M.P. Todd Muller (M.P. for Bay of Plenty) had been held the climate change portfolio. Mr Muller, who until today had been No. 31 on the party list, has had a promotion following the resignation of Nathan Guy (M.P. for Otaki), who is standing down at the 2020 election. As a result, but also partially out of dissatisfaction with the efforts to negotiate a deal with the Government on agricultural emissions, Mr Muller has lost the Climate Change portfolio.

The rural wing of the party, it would appear does not believe in climate change and does not want anything done on the issue. This will no doubt concern National Party leader Simon Bridges, who despite Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s tumble in the polls, is still a long way behind her. The need to keep the blue-green wing of the party on board at a time when the Government is trying to make significant inroads into the issue is critical in order to avoid National conceding seats at the 2020 election.

Scott Simpson (M.P. for Coromandel), takes his place as Climate Change spokesperson. Mr Simpson is not known to have the contacts Mr Muller did in the rural community. In 2017 he was appointed National’s spokesperson for the environment. In that capacity he has been critical of Minister for Environment Eugenie Sage, following revelations that 55 micron L.D.P.E. bags would only work 20 times or so instead of the recommended 55 times to pass the multi-use test.

Mr Simpson will need to move quickly on Climate Change whether he wants to or not. The Zero Carbon Bill, which addresses how the Government should try to reach our 2050 goal of being carbon neutral, closed for submissions on 16 July. National will need to achieve some sort of reconciliation soon between its rural and urban wings over climate change, lest New Zealand First whose membership has a significant rural component undermine their vote.

He will be further motivated by the fact that the Government, whilst on one hand is definitely forging ahead with climate policy, on the other is very definitely lacking ideas or a willingness to try anything radical. There are a number of steps that they could be taking fairly rapidly such as compulsorily recycling all aluminium, which is very energy intensive to manufacture at a smelter. There are also a number of longer term initiatives such as developing biofuel from the waste stream to power vehicles, using waste to energy plants to generate electricity and provide hot water to communities.

Can Mr Simpson be the successful bridge between the blue-greens and the rural wing of the National Party, or will he let the work started by Mr Muller slide in favour of other priorities?

 

Assessment of the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon)Bill


As a response to the growing concern about the impact of climate change on New Zealand, and in order to give effect to our commitments under the Paris agreement of 2015, the Government has drafted the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon)Bill. This article attempts to assess the C.C.R. Bill.

The Bill of Parliament is broken into the following parts:

  • Part 1A focuses on the establishment of the Climate Change Commission, its powers/functions/duties, composition and so forth
  • Part 1B focuses on the establishment of the emission reduction targets, the emission budgets and the processes for establishing these budgets, as well as the role of the Commission and the monitoring of the targets
  • Part 1C focuses on adaptation to climate change
  • Part 2 examines consequential amendments

There are good parts in this Bill of Parliament. They include provision for:

  • A Climate Change Commission that will include a range of figures from scientists to people in the business community, as well as those familiar with local government and planning processes
  • Reducing emissions that are not biogenic methane to net zero by 2050; reduce biogenic methane by 24-47% by 2050 and by 10% or more by 2030
  • A sequence of emissions budgets that act as stepping stones towards the above targets
  • Require the Government to develop policies for adaptation and mitigation

There is however significant room for improvement. There does not appear to be any mention of providing for more immediate as well as intermediate steps that do not need substantial policy development and which are already known to work. The lack of urgency around these has been a cause of concern among environmentalists and the Green Party, but are also potentially likely to have useful social outcomes such as improved energy budgets. I have covered all of these concerns in previous articles.

This will need a comprehensive roll out so that all agencies are aware of their obligations, but also the tools and resources at their disposal. One of the biggest problems across policy making in New Zealand and probably true of the world is the number of agencies that do not communicate and whose awareness of where they fit into the larger framework of policy is not new. For policy to be effectively given effect to, this must improve.

I expect that this Bill of Parliament will run into significant resistance when it returns following the closure of submissions. A.C.T. will oppose it point blank. National will want business concessions and be concerned about the impact on the economy and tax payers, some of which might be granted, but not all. New Zealand First as a coalition partner will likely support it, but have significant concerns about the impact on rural communities. Labour and the Greens will support, but will differ over the extent to which they should move, which might cause tensions inside the coalition.

Businesses will have concerns, and some of them will be quite valid. Others will be more about protecting sectors that are considered to be sunset industries, because in a world adapting to climate change they will probably be phased out. As adaptation is the name of the game, technological and procedural innovation are likely to feature strongly in any attempt at staying relevant.

 

National Party reshuffle: Two retirements and a demotion


As happens every so often in New Zealand politics there is a reshuffle of either the Government or the main Opposition Party. Midway through their first term on the Opposition benches, National have decided it is time to freshen up their shadow cabinet, with two retirements and a demotion being the major outcomes.

Amy Adams, M.P. for Selwyn electorate near Christchurch has announced her retirement from politics. Mrs Adams, who came to office when National was elected to govern in 2008 departs after nine years holding some significant portfolio’s, which included Minister of Justice and Minister for Environment. During her tenure in both portfolio’s there were significant milestones introduced, which included expunging the convictions of gay men who have been charged with consensual homosexual conduct.

Mrs Adams however has been a less than effect shadow Minister for Finance and whereas past shadow Ministers for that portfolio have made a significant effort around Budget time, Mrs Adams seemed to be missing in action.

Her departure will be a blow for National. Mrs Adams has served it well and proved to be an effective Minister. I met her in 2016 at an event to acknowledge community radio, and whilst she was reluctant to get involved with the Amnesty International actions I was promoting, she did give me a good hearing without trying to interrupt or change the conversation. The Selwyn seat is one of the bluest in the South Island and National should not have any trouble hanging on to it. Whilst it has come and gone through the years and traded towns with neighbouring electorates, it has remained steadfastly conservative. The seat was formed out of a merger of the Rakaia electorate which used to be held by former Prime Minister Jenny Shipley.

Contrast this with the departure of Alistair Scott, a Member of Parliament who has gained a record for absenteeism, to the point of going A.W.O.L. when he was meant to be appearing with his leader at the Golden Shears International sheep shearing competition. During that time, his Labour Party counterpart Kieran McAnulty has made the most of Mr Scott’s absenteeism, and has in some respects effectively become the Member of Parliament for Wairarapa.

Belated recognition by the National Party that Mr Scott is at risk of costing them a seat, probably helps to explain his abrupt departure.

The other major mover was Judith Collins. As a ticking off for her attempt to unseat her leader Simon Bridges, she was stripped of the Infrastructure portfolio. That goes to list Member of Parliament, Paul Goldsmith, who has proven to be one of the more effective shadow Ministers in the 52nd New Zealand Parliament. Mr Goldsmith relinquished a couple of portfolio’s to make way for Chris Bishop (Lower Hutt)as a reward for Mr Bishop’s work on transport and police.

But is this enough to make National ready for the period from now until the 2020 election, or will Mr Bridges find himself having to make further changes. Who will keep the pressure on Minister for Kiwi Build Phil Twyford and Minister of Health David Clark as both portfolio’s stumble forward not really knowing what they are meant to be doing?

2019 New Zealand Fiscal Budget run down


Yesterday Treasurer Grant Robertson announced the 2019 Fiscal Budget, which is delivered in late May. It sets down the spending priorities for New Zealand.The Government made a promise that the 2019 Budget would be a budget about “well being”. Many people on the centre-right thought that the whole idea was all just fluffy feel good spending with little practical value.

At a first glance there appears to be little unexpected expenditure. Defence, education and a number of portfolio’s that have had recent major announcements knew not to seriously expect much more than what had already been allocated. As noted in other articles, the Defence Force is getting P8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft that can watch our waters, but also perform search and rescue. At some point in the next couple of years a solid decision will be taken on what shall replace the C130 Hercules as our major transport plane.

Not surprisingly the major beneficiaries of Budget 2019 have been those who need social welfare assistance from the Government. One of the several measures introduced is to index benefits to wages, which stands to affect about 339,000 individuals and families.

Schools were a surprise winner. Despite the teachers being on strike and Minister for Education Chris Hipkins being adamant there is no more available, $1.2 billion has been set aside for maintenance and upgrading of school property. This will help fund new class rooms for expanding schools, new/replacement buildings.

Perhaps the biggest loser was health. Few significant announcements appear to have been made. I was wondering if there might be money for upgrading hospitals and a modest top up of the District Health Boards following issues in recent years around funding calculations.

There was a very welcome investment of N.Z.$1 billion for railways, as an acknowledgement of the significant but under appreciated role that they play in our economy. Hopefully it will lead to Kiwi Rail better utilizing the South Island track network, which could easily allow more freight to go on rails instead of via road.

National and A.C.T. invariably cried foul on the apparent lack of regard paid by the budget to the economy. This demonstrates to me that they clearly have not latched in any way onto the fact that from Day 1 this Government has said that it will have a stronger focus on the well being of people. It is an attempt to provide redress for the socio-economic consequences of National’s market drivenĀ  philosophy. From those with family in mental health institutions, to those struggling to get their children through school and retirees concerned about being left behind in the digital era, this Budget appears to try to address their needs.

On a cautionary note though, the budget, whilst nice for those in income poverty and having issues with mental health, does raise – again – questions about the wisdom of removing the Capital Gains Tax from the table. Going into election year with National and A.C.T. nipping on Labour’s heals, the money taken from a C.G.T. would have gone some distance ensuring New Zealand’s debt does not get too big.