Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Saving the Church

I had the strange experience of sitting next to a retiring left-wing Auckland local body politician on a plane over the weekend. Her day job was a “landscape architect”. Some of the highlights of the conversation:

IP: Oh, so at which university did you do your architecture degree?

LWALBP: I didn’t do an architecture degree.

IP: Oh, right. So what does a landscape architect do? Are you like a gardener?


IP: So you don’t dig holes and move soil around and plant trees?

LWALBP: (Mindless, incomprehensible babble proceeds)

Then this ripper:

IP: So, given that you’re retiring, what has been the highlight of your years of local government experience? What’s been your greatest achievement?

LWALBP: I was instrumental in saving the Methodist Church in Mount Eden.

IP: Oh, great. Why did it need saving?

LWALBP: Because the Methodist Church was going to sell it.

IP: Why were they going to sell it?

LWALBP: Because people weren’t going to church services anymore.

IP: Oh, right. So you got more people to go along to Church?

LWALBP: No, I secured council money to get a fundraising campaign, and got some money from Council to help keep the Church going.

IP: Why did you want the Methodist Church to keep going in Mount Eden?

LWALBP: Because it’s a pretty building, and people should be able to sit in their cafes and look at it while having their coffee.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Labour's Next Leader?

I tend to agree that Labour's caucus would be bloody stupid to roll HC before the next election. Changing leader never works. I simply don't agree with the revisionist view that Moore helped Labour mitigate an absolute disaster when he was made leader seven weeks before the 1990 election: Labour had its worst result since 1935 at that time.

Helen Clark clearly has the support from Labour's three factions: the unions, the organisational wing, and the rainbow faction. None of them support Goff, and they never will. Helen Clark has successfully, over the last fourteen years, weeded out pretty much anbody who doesn't support her, and has fashioned the Party in her own image. That's good politics, and is a tribute to her political skill, ruthlessness, and longevity.

Goff's faction--the rump that still exists, consists primarily of Clayton Cosgrove, Harry Duynhoven, Annette King, Damien O'Connor, Dover Samuels, George Hawkins, and Paul Swain. Several of them are retiring at the next election. But that's it. Cunliffe could potentially support Goff, and he's politically much more closely aligned to him, but would only do so to see Goff fall flat on his face following a major defeat. Cunliffe aspires to the job himself, and would much rather take the deputy role to a left-leaning leader, see the leader take the hit, and slide into the job himself.

Having said that, Labour's MPs are a mercenary bunch: they don't generally have options outside of Parliament, and will swarm to whomever is most likely to save their skins. Maharey has cooked his own goose, and despite his prior ambition, he's now no longer interested in the leadership, and is most likely to announce in the next few months that he is taking up an academic post at Massey University and not standing at the next election. Mallard has also spoiled his ambitions with his muck-raking backfiring on him.

So who's left for leadership contention? Michael Cullen, a list MP, will retire soon after the 2008 election, rather than serve out a term in opposition. Annette King will be 61 at the next election: she would be a safe deputy leader, but she won't aspire to the role in opposition.

Mark Gosche has the political skills to grab the leadership if he wants it, but he's taken a back seat over the last few years to focus on his family life. He would have the support of the unions if he wanted it, and has the back-door cunning to snaffle the job for the Left in the Party. But there's no indication that he wants it.

Helen Clark will resign after the next election, but not before. Her problem is that there is nobody of the Left remaining who has the skills, and isn't tarnished by her office, to replace her. Pete Hodgson could emerge as an interim leader, which would satisfy the Left of the Party, but his macchiavellian tendencies, and downright human nastiness, will see him fall over quickly. Cunliffe could work as his deputy, hoping to inherit the leadership when Hodgson fails. Goff won't work as Hodgson's deputy.

Goff's only hope of winning the leadership after Clark steps down is to take over finance, and force Cullen out of the deputy leadership before the election. Both are reasonably likely. Goff will have to play a long game to undo Clark's years of stacking her party with her own supporters. If he takes the leadership, he cannot expect to get Labour into Government within the next two terms. That is a demoralising position for any leader.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Bad Nat

One of the temptations of an opposition party running high in the polls, in a relatively strong economic climate, with large fiscal surpluses, is to do as little as possible to damage its political constituency by presenting alternative options to the electorate. There are sound reasons for this. The most important of which, on broad economic policy, is that the flailing Government, short of good ideas, will steal the Opposition’s agenda at any cost to retain office.

For this reason, the Nats aren’t going to announce any broad economic policy until after Michael Cullen delivers his last budget next year. Apart from the risk of copycat policy-making from the government in retreat, the Nats simply don’t know how much money there will be to play with. All the indications are that Labour will throw caution to the wind, and use every resource at its disposal to offer massive bribes to the electorate. Fiscal prudence will be the first victim of Labour’s 2008 budget. I wouldn’t even be surprised if Cullen revises the Reserve Bank’s inflation agreement, to allow Alan Bollard to allow looser monetary policy within Cullen’s massive spending binge.

I simply don’t agree with criticisms of John Key as Labour-Lite. We won’t know what the big ticket policy items are for another ten months. The proof of the accusations of pink toryism won’t have any validity until John Key and Bill English commit to higher government spending in the long term. Frankly, I just can’t see that happening.

While I’m sympathetic to the view that Kate Wilkinson didn't actually endorse the proposal (instead saying it was a "welcome contribution to the discussion"), she should have slammed it immediately. It’s simply bad political practice to encourage a document from the Families Commission that is economically unworkable.

The country simply can’t afford to pay new mothers parental leave for 14 months in the short, or even medium term. And nor should the National Party be welcoming it. Sure, Kate Wilkinson was only publicly stating that she will take the proposal to Caucus. Yet any indication that the Nats are prepared to outspend Labour with taxpayers’ money, is a bloody poor message to be sending to overburdened taxpayers. It’s bloody stupid to be hinting at a massive fiscal injection independently from National’s broader economic policy.

John Key took a much more moderate position on Breakfast TV this morning, and certainly wasn’t endorsing the proposal. But Wilkinson should never have been endorsing it in the first place.

What Wilkinson should have said, and what John Key should have said this morning is:

“Look. The reality is that after eight years of Labour Government, Helen Clark and Michael Cullen have thrown billions upon billions of taxpayers’ money at all kinds of social problems. Taxpayers have paid for it, and the cost has been years of missed opportunity for New Zealanders to grow their incomes. Governments generally don’t spend money better than individuals do. Labour has shown for eight long years that it is ideologically opposed to people becoming wealthier, and instead throws money at people it wants to bribe. National is committed to allowing New Zealanders who aspire to have more, to have the economic independence to make their own choices with their money.

The reality is that New Zealanders simply aren’t wealthy enough to afford such a gold class paid parental leave policy. We aren’t wealthy enough to pour billions more money into health and education, as Labour has done, with no improvement in outcomes. If we’re going to spend more taxpayers’ money, we should expect much better results for taxpayers. We just haven’t had the better results. We can’t afford to be paying 24,000 more civil servants, either. New Zealand taxpayers are struggling to get ahead, not because we don’t have a gold class paid parental leave policy, but because Labour believes in taxing New Zealanders so heavily that they can’t get ahead.

There is a problem in New Zealand with a low birth rate. It is an enormous financial commitment for middle income New Zealanders to have children. Ironically, the state currently encourages many people without the tools to advance themselves economically or socially, to have children they’re not equipped to have. That isn’t a workable policy prescription. The solution is to provide an environment where people take responsibility for the children they do have, and for the state to allow those who do take responsibility for their actions, to have greater freedom to exercise their choices with the money they earn.

This policy proposal from the Families Commission is a precursor to the Government bribing you again with your money at the next election. Michael Cullen will announce another $500 million in his budget, because he is hellbent on doing all he can to expand the size of the state, at your expense. That policy prescription doesn't work. You save and invest your money far better than Michael Cullen does."

It should have been a huge opportunity to slate the excesses of this Labour Government, that they have set up the absurd Families Commission, full of irrational civil servants, who have nothing better to do other than come up with stupid policy proposals that just aren’t affordable. Instead, Kate and Judith have missed the boat by taking a woolly approach that will never be implemented.

Monday, August 27, 2007

When the Poultry Comes Home To Roost...

Politics can be a dirty game. Just ask Don Brash.

Having inherited the leadership of the National Party after its biggest ever election defeat in 2002 to within a whisker of winning the Treasury benches in 2005, it was always clear that Labour’s knives would be out for him.

It is an unwritten convention in New Zealand politics that while politicians themselves are fair game, an attack that is likely to bring harm against the family of the politician isn’t. The Press Gallery generally cooperate with this. Thus when Trevor Mallard and David Benson-Pope claimed under parliamentary privilege that Brash was involved with another woman, Brash decided he’d had enough of politics: that his family and personal life were more important than becoming Prime Minister.

It is the nature of parliamentary life that MPs spend most of their time away from their families. This puts a strain on their relationships. They are also permanently in the public spotlight, and are subject to the kinds of temptations away from home that they simply weren’t exposed to prior to coming to Wellington.

MPs from all sides of the House have, in the past, suffered marital breakdown. It isn’t new in politics. It’s also not uncommon for a jilted spouse, out of spite, to break the story: thus David Lange’s split with his wife hit the headlines in 1989. So too did Don McKinnon’s, some years later, in similar circumstances.

The story is never about the break-up, or the infidelity, for good reason. Gallery journalists are not immune to aphrodisiacs of fame and power, and are frequently too close to the political players to risk damaging media relationships about matters that the public doesn’t want to hear about. Yet when a jilted wife decides to out her husband for having an affair that has led to the end of a long-term marriage, the story gathers a degree of legitimacy.

So too is there legitimacy around a public figure making public, moral statements that are at odds with their behaviour. The hypocrisy of Newt Gingrich, then speaker of the US house of representatives, leading the charge against Bill Clinton, after thrice-married Gingrich had served divorce papers against his critically ill wife while he was having an affair, made Gingrich a legitimate target. Brazen hypocrisy, as Gingrich found, is bad politics.

So too is the story of Trevor Mallard’s marital split legitimate. This is the same man who hounded Don Brash out of public office. It is simply cowardly for the Gallery to put Mallard’s break-up—which they have known about for two months, after Mallard went around the Gallery explaining it to them, and how he expected them to respect his privacy—in the context of all the other failed marriages in politics.

Again, the story isn’t about Mallard’s marital split: it’s about the hypocrisy of a man who deliberately conspired to dirty political life in New Zealand for political gain, engaging in the same kind of behaviour that he alleged of Don Brash.

Trevor Mallard’s family legitimately deserve privacy at this time. Mallard himself doesn’t deserve. It has been well known in Wellington for some time that Mallard’s marital split has not come about simply due to the stresses and strains of political life: there is another person involved. It is time the media fronted up and asked Mallard the hard question: in light of the way he used Don Brash’s personal life to destroy Brash’s will to continue in politics, what right does Mallard think he has to be treated with respect and privacy when his marriage breaks down?

Friday, August 24, 2007

Muckraking Tony Censors Blog--Again!

You would have thought that Tony Milne, Labour Party council member and left-wing candidate for Council, might have learned from his last censorship activities: despite his attempts to conceal the outrageous and defamatory claims he made on his blog about Mayoral front-runner Bob Parker, it appears that Tony still has time to read from Pete Hodgson's song-sheet.

I made a comment on his post pointing out that I expected Tony to censor it, but the fact that Tony got into hot legal water the last time he engaged in muck-raking doesn't seem to have deterred him.

Tony Milne is not a bad guy. He's relatively bright, given the company he keeps. But he does seem to be very misguided. It's clearly not in his nature to engage in this kind of shit-flinging. How much pressure are otherwise good and hard-working Labour Party officials under to attempt to assasinate the character of National's leader?

How long before these otherwise upstanding and loyal Labour Party members see the light, and accept that trying to pull down John Key will only damage their political fortunes further? Or is another strategy at play? Is Pete Hodgson on a suicide mission within the Labour Party: to harm its electoral chances so significantly as to prime the Party for a total purge next year?

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Party Line

Question: What is the connection between David Benson-Pope lying to everybody again about the activities of his staffer, and rules to “enhance the transparency of campaign finance laws”?

Answer: On the face of it, nothing.

Except when you consider this.

It isn’t just Helen Clark, David Parker and David Benson-Pope who are spouting this spineless waffle. All the Ministers are, at any opportunity.

The wonks are in overdrive coming up with this shit. Throughout the public service, sustainability has become the catch-word for more money. Leading the charge is the Ministry for the Environment, with all sorts of useful advice on how to be green.

But it is everywhere. The Ministry of Economic Development--those who never actually create any economic value--tell us how to run sustainable businesses .

Thus, tourism has to become sustainable tourism. Transport, the biggest single industry contributor to carbon emissions, is obviously fronting a big chunk of the work. MAF has come up with a big body of work to look at agricultural sustainability. The Ministry of Education has advisers telling schools how they should go about building “sustainable buildings”. Te Puni Kokiri now exists to promote Maori economic transformation in an environmentally friendly way. Research into sustainability has become a key theme. All in all, there are some 22,000 pages and policy documents on government websites discussing environmental sustainability.

Evidently, it hasn't occurred to anybody in government that government itself would be a whole lot economically, and environmentally sustainable if there weren't so many fucking civil servants blowing so much precious air talking about it.

The communications units of the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Economic Development are being beefed up this year in anticipation of outrageous levels of public spending in the second half of next year on reducing energy use and environmental sustainability. Huge advertising that will echo everything that Labour has said, but done nothing about, its biggest policy platform of this term.

Millions upon millions of taxpayers’ money will be spent by government departments preaching Labour’s dying gasps of office. As a voter, you simply won’t be able to tell the difference between a Helen Clark advertisement for Labour, and a Helen Clark advertisement for sustainability. You will be overwhelmed with so much crap on television telling you to turn off your lights, drive more slowly, wear warmer clothes, shit less often, and swimming to Australia rather than flying Emirates, that you will be oblivious to the noise of any other kind of advertising on television. Except for the one with Jonah, that tells you that you should keep on watching telly and rack up more energy use, and not pay your power bill.

Because the Government hopes that by making a whole lot of noise about what you should be doing to drastically change your lifestyle, you will lose sight of the fact that on sustainability issues, the Government hasn’t actually achieved anything. Transport emissions have flatlined because of rising international oil prices: not because Labour’s done some grand and brilliant thing to magically make people more efficient. Agricultural emissions have climbed. Industrial energy consumption has grown with economic growth. As the government has hired tens of thousands more civil servants to huff and puff their way through analysis, so too does the Crown’s carbon footprint now need a much larger shoe.

The Government also wants you to forget in election year that the one tool that industry has to mitigate its carbon emissions—planting trees—has been wiped out by a greedy, tax-addicted government that is not just confiscating forestry carbon credits from industry, but also penalises foresters for not planting trees in the first place. It is the great nationalisation of forestry by any other name. The result of it is that there are fewer new trees being planted now than in several generations. New Zealand’s forestry stock is smaller now than fifty years ago.

You won’t hear that next year, because this Labour government doesn’t actually care about the reality. To ensure that you don’t hear about the reality of what is happening in the forestry industry, Labour, through Mark Burton, is introducing a piece of legislation banning the forestry industry from promoting its message next year, under the guise of restricting “third party advertising”.

You won’t hear from industry affected by Labour on its all-talk, no-action sustainability message. You won’t hear the contradictions, because only the Government, through its stupendous public information campaigns, will be telling you their side of the story.

The astonishing reality is that the reason David Benson-Pope and Helen Clark needed Madeleine Setchell out of her critical role at the Ministry for the Environment was not because they don’t trust her neutrality. On the contrary, they trust Satchell’s neutrality too much. The last person they need managing the Government’s biggest re-election spend-up is a person who might actually exercise a degree of impartiality and objectivity.

Not at all. For this kind of crusade, Labour needs somebody much more partisan.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Miss Piggy in Pink

Hot on the heels of Labour’s back-down on the Therapeutic Medicines Amendment Bill, there is no good news that Labour’s fortunes will improve in the next six months. Instead Labour is setting itself up for further electoral humiliation by treating taxpayers and democracy alike with contempt.

Mark Burton is a bumbling failure, and waste of political space. October’s local body elections are fast approaching, yet the Local Government Minister presides over a portfolio that has done nothing to radically reduce the unconscionable waste that Auckland’s civic leaders are engaging in. Instead of fixing Auckland’s not inconsiderable problems, Burton responds in the House today with this stunning piece of bureaucratese:

Hon MARK BURTON (Minister of Local Government) on behalf of the Minister with responsibility for Auckland Issues: The Government is working in collaboration with Auckland councils on governance arrangements, because it is committed to promoting Auckland’s future as a world-class, internationally competitive city region. Key elements of this work include a stronger regional governance structure, an overarching regional strategic plan—that is, a “one plan”—and the regional sustainable development forum to develop such a plan.

He says nothing about capping rates, eliminating tracts of public servants who populate the seven local authorities in Auckland, or anything remotely concerning local electors in Auckland: good water systems, good roads, and a transparent and understandable, unified resource management and building structure.

The problem isn’t that Mark Burton is lazy. Instead, Burton is distracted. He has set his sights on silencing opposition to the Labour Party’s more extreme activities, and the moves to squash anybody who disagrees with the Labour Party take much higher priority than reforming the mindless garbage that is local government in New Zealand generally, and local government in Auckland in particular.

Next week, we will see Burton introducing the Electoral (Small Party Bribery and Labour Party Enemy Gagging) Amendment Bill into the House. The Bill will have two parts.

The first part will reallocate the taxpayer-funded slush account that determines how much of your money that political parties can blow during an election campaign on television advertising. The broadcasting allocation model that the Government proposes is a classic example of pork-barrel MMP politicking. In exchange for the support of the Greens, United Future, New Zealand First, and Progressive, Labour will give them a larger share of a bigger pool of broadcasting money to campaign at the next election.

This move is nothing short of corruption. The Labour Party clearly hasn’t listened to voter outrage at how they stole public money at the last election to pay for their campaign: they are extending the model again to give more money to their friends.

The broadcasting allocation model doesn’t need reform. It needs to be scrapped entirely. The model is an anachronism of two-party first-past-the-post electioneering. The only acceptable reform is to remove the funding source entirely, and raise the thresholds of party campaign spending, to allow each of the political parties to spend their own money on television advertising.

The second part of the Bill is even more insidious: it places draconian limits on how much third parties can spend advertising their positions. The Government calls this the “Exclusive Brethren clause”. That is bullshit. In reality, it limits the amount any third party can spend on any measure.

Let’s take the recent example of the well-organised opposition to the Therapeutic Products and Medicines Bill. My own view is that the legislation was a no-brainer. I find it staggering that such a trifling little move as applying the same regulations to voodoo remedies as pharmaceutical remedies stirred so much public debate. In the end, Health Minister Annette King blundered, and allowed voodoo science to mount much better arguments against the legislation than she could.

Yet that is political debate in action. Annette King’s performance was a political experiment rivalling Dr Bunsen Honeydew in incompetence.

To appropriately extend the Muppet analogy even further, Mark Burton has turned himself into Sam the Eagle of New Zealand politics. Having failed to win the argument on supplementary medicines, the Government now wants to ensure that there is no further opposition from interested parties on future legislation. Burton will try and ram this act of political censorship through under urgency.

And there’s a good reason why it wants to do it.

Labour’s problem is that it has left its legislative agenda too late to hold honest, open discussions and bed policies down before the election. As Idiot Savant notes, In November, on the eve of election year, the Government will introduce its policies on climate change.

A big chunk of the policy will involve hammering the forestry industry by placing impenetrable penalties on cutting down trees. Not only do forest owners miss out on the carbon credits that the Government confiscates from them: they will be thrashed for not creating the carbon credits in the first place.

Understandably, foresters are pissed off. So too are the thousands of mum and dad investors who ferreted away a proportion of the money that the government hasn't yet extorted from them as a savings vehicle, only to have it compromised after the fact by a Government that concerns itself more with punishing productive business than creating wealth for New Zealand.

On their behalf, forest owners will launch a major campaign expressing their position. The Labour Party does not want voters to hear the forestry industry’s arguments on the cusp of an election year, because they know they simply no longer has the political capital to win the small arguments, let alone the big ones.

This has nothing to do with "evening the playing field" of democracy. No single lobby group has anything like the power and authority of central government. Cabinet Ministers individually have whole swarms of press secretaries and policy analysts to mount the best arguments. If the combined resources of the $60 billion state cannot beat a $1 million advocacy campaign by a lobby group, then that speaks wonders about the paucity of the state's ideas. There is no place in a civil society for eliminating the competition for ideas in debate.

The last thing the Labour Party needs going into an election year is to lose the major debate about its major platform of its third term: sustainability. Its only means of winning the debate is by using the coercive power of the government to silence other views.

It’s time to play the music, and bring down the curtain on this muppet show of a regime.