A clean out needed at Russell McVeagh?

A report came out yesterday about Russell McVeagh’s toxic work culture. And it was a damning one at that.

The firm, which has handled legal duties for a range of Government departments, will be doing some considerable soul searching over the next several days as it comes to grips with the news that sexual harassment is a major problem in its offices.

So will the chair of Russell McVeagh, Marttin Crotty now apologize to the staff, to the legal profession in full? if he does, will he also step aside or follow as directed any recommendations made by the report of Dame Margaret Bazley who was assigned responsibility for investigating the claims?

That remains to be seen.

Action is inevitable if New Zealand’s legal profession wishes to avoid significant damage to its overall reputation. It is not acceptable to be enabling or giving the appearance of enabling the culture of behaviour that Russell McVeagh stand accused of. From groping junior female staff, to making sexually suggestive comments and gestures; from turning a blind eye to complaints of such inappropriate behaviour to suggesting that its the way to advance a career in law, clearly a major problem exists at R.M.

There might well be a culture of excessive drinking which needs to be curved, but that is not an explanation or justification for the abuse that has been alleged to have gone on. Drunk or not, it is not okay ever to grope or otherwise feel up someone in a sexual manner without their permission. It is not okay to make lewd remarks about a persons body in a professional environment.

And this is 2018. It is not the middle of the 20th Century. It is not a time when such behaviour was simply ignored, or a time when a whole profession should be able to behave as if sexual harassment is not an issue.  It is a time when #MeToo is making people in nations big and small, rich and poor, wake up and realize that sexual harassment is a major and ongoing problem in the film industry. Will it be fully resolved in my lifetime to everyone’s satisfaction? Unlikely, but do nothing is not an option. It is a time that is long overdue.

No doubt the last few days have been hugely embarrassing for Mr Crotty as he takes stock of the cutting criticism. Sitting in a room telling the media with hand over his heart that there is not a sexual harassment problem, as Mr McVeagh first did in 2017, only to be found otherwise is hugely damaging. I sincerely doubt Mr Crotty did not know at least some of what was going on.

I will wait to see what happens, but my guess is that he will be made to walk.

But simply making the Chair walk might not be enough. What about the senior partners who supposedly knew better than to harass those female workers? None of them should survive this. What about the people who knew stuff was happening but failed to report it? Should they go as well?

But even if all of these resignations/sackings happen, will that clear out the toxic elements of the work environment? If not, then Russell McVeagh might be in bigger trouble than we thought.

Rebuilding forestry in New Zealand

Re-establishing the New Zealand Forestry Service is a noble move. As one of the larger primary industries in New Zealand, having a purpose built agency to maintain our forests in a sustainable manner is a no brainer. With a plan to plant 1 billion trees over the next several years, the likes of Carter Holt Harvey and other major companies with an interest in timber need to be on board.

Perhaps also the Forestry service can stop more events like the recent flood in Tolaga Bay, Gisborne where clear felling in a plantation left a slope overly exposed. The slope then failed disastrously during prolonged heavy rain and swept mud, floodwaters and timber debris through several properties. Could a forestry agency with oversight have foreseen the danger and taken steps to mitigate it? Quite possibly.

There are not only potential economic gains to be had, but also biological gains. Plantation forestry has been found to support a wide range of biodiversity on its floor. This has been found in the Kaingaroa Plantation on the volcanic plateau of the central North Island where pumiceous soils readily support pinus radiata.

In terms of climate change, whilst the pledge to plant 1 billion trees is very welcome, little has been revealed about how, when and where this is going to happen. Who is going to fund it; do the work; source the appropriate trees. So, I have come up with a solution:

  1. Give prisoners at Rangipo and other rural prisons something to do by getting them to plant the trees – in return this may contribute towards rewards such as extra visits; more R&R time inside the prison grounds and so forth
  2. Buy back land that is too damaged or unstable as a result of hydrothermal activity, or man made activity to be built or developed on and stabilize it with some sort of plantation
  3. Talk to Iwi about possibly allowing them to have buy-in into the forestry
  4. If economically permissible build a railway line to somewhere like Kawerau to get the logs onto rail and sent straight to the Port of Tauranga
  5. Examine whether restoration of native forest can lead to a minor scale logging operation, acknowledging the value of our Totara, Kauri, Rimu and Rata

At least one of these plantations should be a large carbon sink to soak up as much of New Zealand’s carbon based gas emission as possible. Whilst carbon emission trading schemes have constantly run into political or economic problems, perhaps that is more because the politicians and economists are not looking at the larger picture – politicians primary jobs are to represent their constituents and get the best deal possible for them (and of course get re-elected); economists as their titles suggest are better trained to look at the picture from the perspective of how it will affect a country’s economic performance.

Whilst one might say, that is where environmentalists step in, and it is, again, they are advocates. I guess one could say the same for the planners caught in the cross fire, but planners have to look at the overall picture and weigh up the differing arguments. In this case, is a National Policy Statement or other planning instrument on Forestry needed? I think so. No such instrument specific to forestry exists at the moment and having one would enable regional councils to give direction on how they envisage related.

Unacceptable risk posed by quake prone hospital buildings

Staff working in Christchurch hospitals have expressed concerns that the buildings they are working in pose an undue risk in an earthquake. Furthermore the staff are concerned that they have only one option: accept the risk or resign.

It is all the more unacceptable to have these buildings in such a state as they are in a city still recovering from New Zealand’s worst seismic disaster in 80 years. The Canterbury District Health Board should not be treating this in the manner that it is, as C.D.H.B. will bear responsibility for any failure of duty of care to all those working and around the buildings on a day where they fail or suffer significant structural damage in an earthquake.

The staff are right to be concerned. It is not paranoia or anything else – aside from a duty of care to their patients to make sure that they are in as safe an environment as possible during their time of care there, staff also have the right to know that they will be safe in delivering that duty of care.

I am concerned that Christchurch as a city, and the C.D.H.B. as a Government entity are not recognizing and upholding that unspoken promise many of us would have made in mourning the passage of those who died, to learn the lessons of 22 February 2011. What example are we setting for future generations by failing in this relatively simple yet fundamentally important task?

Regions need an economic boost

One of the key economic themes at the election was getting New Zealand’s regions moving again. For decades a slow, but steady drift of people to the urban areas has been going on. Some how the regions have soldiered on, wondering what it will take to be noticed in the corridors of power. but with living costs in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch getting expensive pushing people out to smaller centres around the country, what is there to help these places get growing again?

The traditional answers have been “lets get dairy projects going – everyone likes dairying” or “lets get services back into these communities, like banks, and so on”.

However the economic boost should be looking at diversifying the product coming out of the regions, rather than further stoking a select few industries. For too long New Zealand has had a habit of focussing on primary industries, that whilst they have given us huge returns on what we have put in, have also come at significant cost. Also, there is a risk that goes with not having spread the proverbial eggs through sufficient baskets – if one collapses and all of the eggs are in it, there goes the economy. New Zealand has its eggs largely in tourism, dairying and a few others. Neither the Labour-led coalition Government of Prime Minister Helen Clark, nor the National-led coalition Government of Prime Ministers John Key and Bill English made sufficient effort to diversify.

But there are ideas as to what could be done. What needs to happen though is a willingness to look outside the quite enclosed box that severely limits our ability to envisage a long term future.

One idea for example, noting that a Chinese company wants to build a Waste to Energy plant on the West Coast, is explore the feasibility of putting the waste that it would consume on rail. It would serve a two fold purpose. Aside from taking more than the equivalent of trucks of waste off the road, it would help pay the for the cost of helping to keep the Otira railway tunnel open.

In East Cape and around Gisborne I note that provisional plans are being put in place to grow marijuana that could be used for medicine in the event that marijuana be legalized. This, again, would help people who might otherwise spend their lives on the dole, or in and out of jail get some legitimate employment. It would also help decrease drug crime in the communities. A similar project could be launched in Northland too, if the demand exists.

In smaller urban areas, where large or heavy industrial or commercial development might not be so feasible, thought should be given to developing niche industries that are specific to those areas. These could be many and varied, ranging from developing ecological and/or historical sites of interest into tourist attractions, to small localized gold mining businesses – mining does not need to be open cast or done in a tunnel, as opportunities for alluvial gold mining are known to exist in places such as the West Coast.

Dunedin is a unique case. Significantly smaller than Wellington or Christchurch and about as large as the Napier-Hastings metropolitan area, it is possible to sometimes feel forgotten by the Government if one lives in the university town. Built on mining in the 1800’s, made world famous in New Zealand by the movie “Scarfies”, and unique for its strong Scottish heritage, Dunedin’s population has until recently either been static or in slow decline. The loss of the Southerner passenger train in the 1990’s, the closure of the Hillside railway workshops and the Cadbury factory closure all cost Dunedin hundreds of jobs. What would it take to get some of these industries back there?

New Zealand and European Union begin formal trade negotiations

Whilst most people were more interested in Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s baby girl being born, I was watching the arrival of the European Union chief negotiator Cecilia Malmstrom. Mrs Malmstrom is from and is visiting New Zealand to formally launch trade negotiations with a view to completing a trade agreement between New Zealand and the E.U.

I do have some reservations about the potential F.T.A. that the European Union is likely to seek. They include but are not limited to:

  • the concessions that New Zealand will be asked to make, and what we will be granted in return.
  • that the competing factions inside the E.U. will make it difficult for New Zealand to get a level deal across all of the E.U. member states
  • That provisions around the Euro will leave the New Zealand dollar at a disadvantage

In terms of the member states, there are 27 separate countries, each with their own agenda. Some like France will be highly unionized economies with a degree of reluctance to shed the protective cloak that tariffs and subsidies can offer sectors that are not performing so strongly – their propensity for a good riot when some decision or another goes against them is well noted.

I also wonder if Mrs Malmstrom is the best suited person for this job. The first is she had a major role in promoting the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T.T.I.P.), which is the European equivalent of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership. Like the T.P.P.A./C.P.T.P.P. it has run into significant opposition over issues ranging from enacting laws that are allegedly going to harm corporate profitability to human rights, the environment and international copyright laws. The second is that despite claims made by her that the European Commission for Trade has unprecedented transparency, it is not possible for many European politicians to read important documents.

The European Union, however, are serious. This is a serious chance for New Zealand to negotiate a trade agreement that can help the economic development of this country. The shared respect we have for human rights and environmental issues will hopefully help to undermine the concerns that are held about Mrs Malmstrom’s past record.

So soon after their role in negotiating the damaging Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement which will undermine New Zealand sovereignty, it is rather rich of National to be talking about the need for a “fair” agreement. This is all the more so when an interpretation of “fair” presumes to mean no undue concessions by either side, respect for the others negotiating position and understanding of public concerns. None of this was recognized by National or A.C.T. when they were leading the negotiations on the Trans Pacific Partnership between 2010-2017.

New Zealand is lucky enough that although we lack constitutional safeguards to stop the undermining of our natural sovereignty, we have a degree of transparency that is not enjoyed in other nations. Had we had the transparency of a country such as Singapore, a semi-authoritarian nation-state, I doubt New Zealanders would know nearly as much as they do because of the mechanisms that protect our right to know.

So, whilst there are potential opportunities for New Zealand, there are potential pitfalls as well. Due caution around these negotiations is well advised.