Western politics sink to a new low as New Zealand looks to 2020


In just over 2 weeks one of the most turbulent decades in generations around the world will come to an end. A decade of wars, filthy geopolitics and greed. A decade in which Western politics both in New Zealand and abroad sank to what might well be an all time low. But as we here look to 2020 and the up coming election, the world is taking stock of the massive victory of Boris Johnson and nervously starting to think about what impeachment could – or could not – mean for that former “arsenal of democracy”, the United States a year from its own election.

In New Zealand scandals and alleged scandals rocked the 2008 election (N.Z. First allegations over donations); 2011 election (the tea tape); 2014 election (Dirty Politics). Whilst much gratitude and respect has been shown towards incumbent Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern over her handling of the Christchurch mosque shootings and more recently the lethal eruption of White Island, the A.C.T. and National parties will attack her economic record, her perceived softness on crime and gangs.

As New Zealand looks towards 2020 there are a number of potentially dirty elements that may come into play in terms of politicking and outside influences. The gun lobby, angered as it is by the change in the gun laws following the Christchurch mosque attacks will be likely to try to undermine Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, depicting her as anti-freedom and a Communist. The oil and gas lobby will be active in trying to portray the Government that Ms Ardern leads as anti-business, tree hugging greenies.

But compared with the firestorm likely to engulf the American political spectrum over the next 11 months, ours might not even be a beach bonfire. There are certainly worse political spectacles than the triennial New Zealand political mud slinging competition. The constant fundraising, the hugely partisan media, the degrading personal attacks and the outside influences are just a few things that the American politicians deserving – or not – of (re)election, must contend with.

Before then though, given the nature of the fallout from Boris Johnson’s massive victory in the U.K. elections, it seems probable that the constituent parts of the United Kingdom – Wales exempt – may have a go at breaking up the union. It just might be that we are seeing the first birth pangs of the U.K.’s dissolution into separate nations. Despite Mr Johnson’s call for unity, Scottish nationalism has enjoyed an almighty rev up in the past few days with the Scottish National Party taking 47 of the 59 seats in Scotland. Meanwhile Ireland, facing the prospect of a hard border with the United Kingdom may feel compelled to demand an independence vote with a view to merging with the Republic of Ireland.

But before even that happens, if Mr Johnson’s promise to be all done on Brexit by 31 January 2020 succeeds, Britain will be out of the European Union by the end of January. Then, with Scotland dominated by a party that explicitly wanted to stay in the E.U., and Ireland fearful of a hard border and a return of “The Troubles”, the disintegration of the United Kingdom and an deeper loathing, might get underway.

Watching on from two relatively small islands in the South Pacific might not be a bad thing after all.

Election results don’t bode well for United Kingdom


In England, the Conservatives led by Boris Johnson have swept to power in a vote that has rocked Labour and the Liberal Democrats. After almost completely losing their majority under former Prime Minister Theresa May to the Labour Party in 2017, Mr Johnson stormed back into office on the back of his “Get Brexit Done” message and increasing his party’s representation in Parliament to 365 seats. In a 650 seat Parliament that is a 39 seat majority

For Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his party the election was a disaster on a scale that one has to go back decades to find a similar size rout. His party only scored 203 seats. Not surprisingly Mr Corbyn resigned from the Labour Party, which will elect a new leader in early 2020. Where Labour goes from here, I am not sure, but it will surely be looking at other Labour parties around the world and wondering how they managed to so utterly mess it up for the wider Labour movement.

For Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, the failure to take her own seat and the near complete lack of progress in the party across the country – up a paltry 1 seat in Parliament – has led to her stepping down. The Liberal Democrats are a far cry from the victorious middle party of 62 seats that forged a coalition with the David Cameron edition of the Conservative Party in 2010.

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party swept to victory, strongly suggesting that Scotland’s desire for independence is hardening. With 48 seats out of 59 it was a decisive showing of the party that will lead any moves to make Scotland independent. This is despite Mr Johnson saying that Scotland would not be allowed to hold a vote on leaving. As Scotland voted to remain in the European Union, to have the Conservative Party romp to victory on a LEAVE platform is directly contrary to Scottish ambitions. Thus in the days and weeks ahead we can expect to Scotland begin pushing for a referendum on whether to leave the U.K. or not.

In Ireland the expanding centre ground of Irish politics is overshadowed by the likelihood that Britain will exit the E.U. in a few weeks with some sort of hard border forming. Many will be wary about the potential return of the “Troubles”, the stormy period in Irish-English history rocked by violence. But it also means that the union between the four constituent parts of the U.K. might be finally coming to an end, which may open the way for northern and southern Ireland uniting after many painful years.

In Wales, the only part of the U.K. that does not appear to be wracked with separatist spasms, politicians are probably most likely to wait to see  how Ireland and Scotland behave over the several weeks..

What does this mean for New Zealand?

New Zealand will likely continue to enjoy good access to the United Kingdom. Given our historic closeness to the U.K. I cannot imagine a really radical change coming except that crossing the border might change somewhat. How the probable break up of the union that made the United Kingdom possible goes, I am not entirely sure.

Irrespective of whether the United Kingdom disintegrates, I believe New Zealand’s good relations with all factions mean that we will be a high priority for negotiating trade deals and establishing diplomatic relations with. But before then we need to see how Brexit goes – will the next seven weeks whilst we wait for Mr Johnson’s version of Brexit to play out go smoothly or will Britain be plunged into Parliamentary infighting like it was over the northern hemisphere summer? Will Ms Sturgeon conclude the time for a Scottish independence referendum has come and demand it from London?

Our national attitude is a national disgrace


She’ll be right

It is a favourite New Zealand and Australian phrase. Normally used to mean everything is going to be alright, “she’ll be right” it has long been a commonly used by people in an optimistic or apathetic tense to dispel what might be perceived as unjustified concern about something. But after the White Island eruption, people are asking whether we are too casual in our outlook and understanding of risk. Has the time come to rein in our laid back attitude to safety and well being?

I have long been concerned about this attitude. In fact it was the primary inspiration for the name of this blog. I wanted an attitude or something else that would have a definitive  aspect of New Zealand culture in it, something catchy or likely to make people stop and think about the purpose of the blog.

We have long been too casual in many respects in my opinion when it comes to a whole range of issues. From racism towards new arrivals in New Zealand to how we prepare for natural disasters; from understanding how our constitutional framework operates to whether we are serious about ending poverty in this country – underlying the ad hoc efforts made by successive governments with no real idea about what they need to do or the rationale for those steps is a deep seated undercurrent of “she’ll be right”, that New Zealanders ought to stop worrying.

New Zealand was found to be short on mining expertise, proper enforceable regulations to ensure that due monitoring is carried out. The Royal Commission found a host of problems, many of which could be linked to years of mismanagement that had given rise to a culture of unaccountability, dollars being more important than humans. Nine years later though I am not sure how much attention has been paid to making sure the recommendations are being followed through. Was this the “she’ll be right” attitude kicking in because people just wanted it to come to a close, or because they genuinely honestly things had come to a close?

Then we had the Christchurch earthquakes. Buildings that were meant to have been evacuated following the Boxing Day 2010 aftershock or earlier events, collapsed killing people devastating families and prompting ourselves to undergo an examination of how we address such events. Both the authorities and land lords were found to have short comings. But nearly 9 years on because the apathy strand of our “she’ll be right” attitude is still carrying influence, slowly eroding the meaningful progress. Some people it turns out just do not want systemic changes to happen.

So, I am calling it out for what it is: a national disgrace that is dragging the country and its reputation through the muck. A few decades ago when this country was still relatively unknown to the world and the reputation, how we present ourselves as a nation might have been embarrassing, but if the world did not get a hold of news about the blemish, we might live to fight another day in the same state. With globalized 24 hour saturation media coverage – if an event that happened here is not being mentioned in New Zealand media, Al Jazeera, C.N.N., the Guardian, B.B.C., or an Australian media outlet could well be picking it up and broadcasting it to unknown millions.

So, if I may put the question to you, the reader, upon reading the above, do you agree with the statement below:

New Zealand will not be right if we allow the “she’ll be right” mentality to function at the highest levels.

Focus on the essential following White Island eruption


A few days after the White Island eruption, the blame games, the speculation and the conversations that need to wait a bit longer yet, are getting underway. I have seen people commenting on matters such as whether tourists will be allowed back on the island; what this means for activities with an element of risk attached. I am seeing people – the ones commonly known as “armchair critics” – passing judgements that are in many ways, premature, ill informed and most probably detracting from the more immediate conversations.

New Zealand, the media and the public need to focus on the essential aspects:

  • The families of the dead, injured and missing
  • The dead and the injured
  • Retrieval of the missing from the island
  • The fact that White Island is still at an elevated alert, still capable of having another explosion

The families of the dead – what a horrible situation this must be for them. Irrespective of whether they are locals or not, knowing that their loved one/s are dead and that some of them might be still stuck on an unstable, venting volcano really is the stuff of nightmares. For them this will be a conflicting mass of emotions. Fear and anger, an insatiable appetite for answers, grief and pain all potentially happening in a horribly chaotic and random emotional spectacle.

How could this have happened in New Zealand? What were their loved ones doing in such a dangerous location? Why are the authorities not trying to get them out? Which hospital do I contact and how?

The dead will have suffered horrible injuries – a mixture of impact injuries from being struck by ballistics (rocks ranging from fist size up to small cars)and burns from being caught in what appears to have been a surge cloud generated by the explosion, and most likely a couple hundred degrees celsius. Identifying them will be a pain staking process and involve a different set of observations to those taken of the 15 March 2019 terror attack victims in Christchurch or victims of the Christchurch earthquake on 22 February 2011.

The Disaster Victim Identification team, who have the difficult, horrible and painstaking task of trying to identify the victims have assembled in Whakatane. This will be a brand new problem never to have happened in New Zealand before. With no prior experience of D.V.I. on victims of volcanic activity this is all potentially uncharted territory in terms how to go about the work. I wish them luck.

Right now White Island is still at an elevated level of unrest – at Alert Level 3 it is still experiencing minor unrest, and conditions exist which are considered favourable for another explosion.

Whilst this is the case there is no prospect for getting the remaining bodies off the island without putting those involved in undue danger. No doubt this will upset and possibly anger a few people, but safety is absolutely paramount – given the lack of warning in the minutes immediately prior to the eruption that one was imminent, were one to happen whilst the rescue team were on the island, they themselves could easily become casualties.

Later on the time will come for a bunch of conversations, which will need to include:

  • How we communicate natural hazard risk in New Zealand
  • Reform how we teach natural hazards in New Zealand schools – earthquakes aside New Zealanders are poorly informed about tsunami, volcanoes and a range of other hazards
  • How ready we are for a major volcanic eruption
  • At what point do activities become too risky and who takes responsibility for the risk

The time for these conversations is coming. They are important ones to have and when the time comes it needs to be an honest conversation. But that time is not now.

 

The worrying case of the ousted Auditor General


Over the last two days in The Press, journalists have been retracing the events that lead to the Auditor General being ousted by Parliament in what is potentially one of the most worrying challenges to an official who is supposed to be left alone. They are retracing events that potentially call into question the independence of the most powerful watch people in New Zealand. And which is being called an unprecedented breach of the constitutional framework.

When the Auditor General’s office is tasked with a job, the outcome of it is something New Zealanders – apolitical or not – should pay attention to. It is the work of an office whose primary role is to ensure that New Zealand public entities do their job, are accountable for the work they do and are at their most efficient – so says the official description on the website for the Office of the Auditor General.

Martin Weavers was effectively made to resign to preserve himself after Members of Parliament told him the alternative was to be labelled disabled. It stems from a fraud case that happened at a Government department he had been head of prior to becoming Auditor General, a role which Mr Matthews is meant to act as the chief watch dog for fraud. Parliament thought he was not fit for the role. A hearing where he was not allowed to have any witnesses speak for him was considered hostile and when he was informed the following day that he was not fit for the role and that Parliament wanted him gone, his lawyer challenged the then Speaker of the House David Carter on the grounds. Mr Carter said because he was disabled – which Mr Matthews said is simply not true.

In 2018 Mr Matthews’ legal team consisting of former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, his lawyer Marie Scholtens and former National Party Attorney General Paul East continued fighting for him. Mr Palmer said that in effect the case had led to a “weaponised” environment in the Officers of Parliament Committee.

Current Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard has refused to reopen the case. But Mr Matthews is now petitioning Parliament to reopen his case. National Party Member of Parliament Nicola Willis accepted the case after Labour M.P. Grant Robertson failed to do so.

I believe Parliament have in effect attacked the independence of the watch dog in treating Mr Matthews in the manner that they have. It appears that Members of Parliament seem not to understand this is a matter that might affect Mr Matthews’ rights under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, 1990. Furthermore, only four grounds are set out as potential grounds for removal of the Auditor General and none of those were obviously met in making Mr Matthews’ resign in 2017.

This leads to questions which need to be asked of Parliament:

  • Will Parliament account for its actions in an appropriate setting
  • If Parliament is found to be in the wrong for having treated Mr Matthews like that will they accept the findings
  • Will moves be made to strengthen the Office of the Auditor General so that future such attacks cannot happen
  • Who will make sure that this happens