• Our Democratic Process Worked

    The formation of a Labour-led coalition government will be celebrated by many – and even for those who would have preferred a different outcome, there are grounds for optimism and satisfaction.  The new government may not please everyone, but we can all feel encouraged that democracy in New Zealand worked well and is in good heart.

    MMP, contrary to the views of some, did what it was supposed to do.  It allowed each community (for which read electorate) to elect the representative of their choice.  At the same time, it ensured that we have a representative parliament in which a party that could not command even a one-vote  majority was not allowed (as it would have done under first-the-past-the- post) to walk off with all the spoils and under no obligation to take account of anyone else.

    Small parties that could not clear the threshold of at least one elected MP or at least 5% of the total vote fell by the wayside and were therefore unable to affect the final result.  The result?  Parties with a significant level of support, but none of which had an actual majority, were able to talk to each other about which combination of them stood the best chance, on the basis of common policies and most accurately reflecting the will of the people, of forming an effective and stable government.

    Yes, the process of discovering the identity of that optimal combination took some time, as it needed to, if the detailed and hard work needed to arrive at the outcome with the best chance of success was to be thoroughly carried through.  By comparison with how long other countries habitually take over such a process, ours was completed in the blink of an eye.

    Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the eventual outcome, at least from the viewpoint of a former professional politician (and, I think, reasonably dispassionate observer), is that the outcome accords with the political logic.  This was no maverick toss of the coin.  It was always in my view most likely that New Zealand First would opt to work with Labour.  They share many of the same policy perspectives and, most importantly, both declared themselves to be deliberately focused on change.  The outcome they have produced is in tune with the majority mood – the sense that we can do better.

    Winston Peters was surely right to warn that, unless we make some changes, tougher times lie ahead.  Much of our claimed economic success rests on consumption, asset inflation and borrowing – even our modest GDP growth looks less impressive on a per capita basis once new arrivals are stripped out of the statistics.

    Perhaps the most significant statement of the whole campaign was the reason Winston Peters gave for his decision.  Capitalism (for which read “neo-liberalism”), he asserted, has failed many of our people; the fruits of what passes for our success have passed them by.  He seems to have tried quite specifically to identify the best chance of overcoming that growing, divisive, and potentially dangerous problem.

    It is not just that we should welcome the recognition by our leading politicians that so many of our fellow-citizens feel that “the system” does not work for them and serves only the interests of an elite.  We are all entitled to congratulate ourselves on the fact that this potentially ticking time-bomb has produced in New Zealand, not a Donald Trump or some other extremist, but a broadly based and secure government that is committed to considered policies that will address the problem.

    There will be those who, given the chance, will pull faces and roll their eyes to emphasise their view that the outcome is “a mess”.  One can understand that their disappointment – even anger – at the outcome might lead to such unthinking reactions.  But most of us, even those who may have voted for a different outcome, should take comfort from the fact that the good sense of the New Zealand voter and the strength of our political institutions have again prevailed.  We remain a country that deserves to head international ratings for the effectiveness of our democracy.  Let us all now work together so that we can reap the rewards.

    Bryan Gould

    20 October 2017


  • Time to Use the Remedy Provided by the Constitution?

    We have now had three-quarters of a year in which to form a judgment of Donald Trump’s fitness to hold office.  That judgment cannot help but be adverse – and the only remaining question is, how much more damage will he be allowed to do?

    The judgment as to his unfitness can hardly be doubted – and it is not ours alone.  Eminent psychologists – who have focused specifically on what they have seen of the President’s mental frailties and personality traits – are agreed that he exhibits a range of disturbing conditions.

    In a collection called “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President,” edited by Bandy X. Lee, a psychiatrist at the Yale School of Medicine, contributors find Trump to be cognitively impaired, a sociopath, a malignant narcissist, and a hypomanic suffering from delusional disorder.

    He is, they say, a fantasist, unable to tell the difference between the world as it really is and how he wants or imagines it to be.  The layman will recognise the truth of this in his compulsion to assert that what he is or does is the biggest or best, even when the facts are clearly against him (as in the case of the size of the crowds that turned out for his inauguration or as to whether or not he won the popular vote in the 2016 election).

    The psychologists point to another worrying characteristic – the irrational rage he shows when his fantasy is challenged or contradicted.  His fantasising combines at this point with his narcissism – his insistence that he must always be right, and recognised and admired for being so.  The psychoanalysts conclude that these deficiencies mean that he “will lack the judgment to respond rationally.”

    We have again seen ample evidence of these aspects of his personality.  We saw it in his handling of the Charlottesville episode, when he could not bring himself to correct his initial error in failing to condemn white supremacists – and again in his over-the-top response to the protests about police brutality against young black men, carried out by sportsmen who kneel rather than stand during the national anthem.  What is remarkable about these instances is his lack of self-knowledge – his insensitivity to the impressions that his actions and utterances inevitably create, even among his own supporters as well as the population as a whole.

    Such failures to comprehend the consequences of what he does or says, such blithe self-confidence that he can always carry the day with another couple of tweets or a hastily arranged rally, are at odds with the calm and rational thought processes that are surely needed when the chips are really down.

    His inability to retain the loyalty of his staff, even in the case of his longest serving colleagues and most senior appointments, and his notable failure to build the kind of consensus, even among his own party, needed to carry through a legislative programme in a democracy, both deliver a worrying message about how isolated he is, how difficult he finds it to relate in ordinary human terms to those whose cooperation he needs – in other words, how neatly he matches the definition of a sociopath.

    There can surely be nothing that more pointedly (and sadly) demonstrates his lack of judgment in human relations than his response to the natural disaster in Puerto Rico.  How could it have seemed appropriate for a US President, visiting the victims of that disaster on American territory, to demonstrate his concern (when he wasn’t lambasting local administrators or bemoaning the cost of aid to his budget or belittling the number of fatalities suffered), by lobbing into the crowd assembled to meet him a couple of dozen paper towels as an indication of the “aid” provided by his administration.  He seemed to have had no idea of how contemptuous that seemed to be of the people of Puerto Rico and their tribulations.

    Here, it seems, is a “world leader” who is driven, not by rationality and careful analysis, but by phobias of various kinds.  He “hates” the White House and cannot bear to be there.  He resents the thought that credit might for any reason be given to his predecessor, so “Obamacare” must go.  He cannot bear criticism, so the purveyors of “fake news” must be threatened with being stripped of their licences to publish.

    The dangers that a sociopathic personality can bring – in terms of deepening divisions and exacerbating tensions – to the integrity and safety of a society that is often at risk of fragmenting hardly need stating.  And that is to say nothing of the international arena.

    He is a President who seems happier making enemies rather than friends.  His repeated intemperate tweets about North Korea, and the insults delivered as well to countries like Iran in his speech to the United Nations, are hardly likely to cool heads and temperatures.  And he seems to glory in the possibility of using the nuclear arsenal he is so keen to build up.  He places us all at risk.

    The 25th Amendment to the US Constitution allows a President to be removed if he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.  Are we not now at the point that the drafters of the Amendment had foreseen?

    Bryan Gould

    12 October 2017


  • How MMP Is Meant to Work

    There will no doubt be many who will be outraged if Winston Peters agrees to join Labour and the Greens in a coalition government.  But they will be wrong – reflecting a first-past-the-post mentality that should have no place in an MMP environment.

    The objectors will argue that New Zealand First’s obligation is to join the party securing the greatest number of votes (and seats).  But – however strongly they may feel that the National party, as the largest party, somehow has a moral claim to be in government – there is no such obligation, either in principle or in the rules.

    On the contrary, MMP is specifically designed to ensure that the largest party does not necessarily walk off with all the spoils.  One of the great weaknesses of a first-past-the-post election is that it ensured that the “winner” – even if falling short of a majority of the votes cast – can in most cases secure a parliamentary majority, and can then proceed to treat parliament as its poodle, paying little attention to the interests of that wide range of opinions not represented in government.

    It was this kind of outcome that led Quintin Hogg, later the British Conservative peer, Lord Hailsham, to describe such a government as an “elective dictatorship”.  MMP was designed to ensure that a party would, improbably, have to win an outright majority of votes and seats before it could govern without reference to any other party.

    The essence of an MMP government is, in other words, not that it has more votes and seats than any other single party.  The only thing that matters – as it always does under any voting system in a Westminster-style parliament – is that it must be able to win crucial votes in parliament – that is, it must have a parliamentary majority.  How that majority is made up, and whether or not it includes the largest party, is completely irrelevant.  A coalition of (let us say) the five smallest parties in parliament would be perfectly legitimate, as long as it commanded a majority.

    The point of the MMP reform is that it should produce a parliament that is more representative of the various interests and opinions in the country, and that the government of the day should have to pay more attention to the views of the whole of parliament rather than just those of its own members.  It is not unrealistic to say that, in our experience of MMP, those goals have largely been achieved.

    Today’s parliament, by comparison with those of a couple of decades ago, boasts a greater representation of women and minorities of various kinds, and governments are more likely to be compelled to negotiate for support from smaller parties rather than being able simply to over-ride them.

    The delay as we await the formation of a coalition government, in other words, is not some unforeseen and unfortunate and quixotic malfunction.  It is the intended and positive outcome of a constructive and planned reform.

    The interesting aspect of MMP, though, is that it has produced for us a beneficial combination of outcomes that may not have been fully foreseen.  In what we might flatter ourselves is an expression of the genius of the New Zealand voter, we have succeeded in not only bringing about a more representative and fairer parliament and a more responsive government.

    We have at the same time managed to retain for the voters a genuine and recognisable choice between two main groupings – in conventional terms, one on the left and one on the right.  So, we have in effect the best of both worlds – a fairer system but also one that does not preclude the emergence of an effective majority government that is more or less in line with the public’s wishes.

    In our current situation, the two competing blocs are perhaps less to be described in conventional terms of left and right (it would not be clear where New Zealand First might fit in such a dichotomy). The distinction is rather between those favouring the status quo and that majority who are looking for change.  New Zealand First’s position on that spectrum is pretty clear – and they deserve no criticism for acting on that preference.

    Bryan Gould

    8 October 2017





  • Are We As Brave As Labour in the 1930s?

    New Zealanders like to think that we are, in most respects, up with – if not actually ahead of – the play.  Sadly, however, as a new government is about to emerge, there is no sign that our politicians and policymakers are aware of recent developments in a crucial area of policy, and that, as a result, we are in danger of missing out on opportunities that others have been ready to take.


    The story starts, at least in its most recent form, with two important developments.  First, there is the now almost universal recognition that the vast majority of money in circulation is not – as most people once believed – notes and coins issued on behalf of the government by the Reserve Bank, but is actually created by the commercial banks through the credit they advance, using bank entries rather than cash, and usually on mortgage.


    The truth of this proposition, so long denied, is now explicitly accepted by the Bank of England, and was – as long ago as 1994 – explained in a letter written by our own Reserve Bank to an enquirer, and stating in terms that 97% of the money included in the usually used definition of money known as M3 is created by the commercial banks.


    The proposition is endorsed by the world’s leading monetary economists – Lord Adair Turner, the former chair of the UK’s Financial Services Authority and Professor Richard Werner of Southampton University, to name but two.  These men are not snake-oil salesmen, to be easily dismissed.  They have been joined by leading financial journalists, such as Martin Wolf of the Financial Times.


    The second development was the use by western governments around the world of “quantitative easing” in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis.  “Quantitative easing” was a sanitised term to describe what is often pejoratively termed “printing money” – but, whatever it is called, it was new money created at the behest of the government and used to bail out the banks by adding it to their balance sheets.


    These two developments, not surprisingly, generated a number of unavoidable questions about monetary policy.  If banks could create billions in new money for their own profit-making purposes, (they make their money by charging interest on the money they create), why could governments not do the same, but for public purposes, such as investment in new infrastructure and productive capacity?


    And if governments were indeed to create new money through “quantitative easing”, why could that new money not be applied to purposes other than shoring up the banks?


    The conventional answer to such questions (and the one invariably given in New Zealand by supposed experts in recent times) is that “printing money” will be inflationary – though it is never explained why it is miraculously non-inflationary when the new money is created by bank loans on mortgage or is applied to bail out the banks.


    But, in any case, the master economist, John Maynard Keynes, had got there long before the closed minds and had carefully explained that new money could not be inflationary if it was applied to productive purposes so that new output matched the increased money supply.  Nor was there any reason why the new money  should not precede the increased output, provided that the increased output materialised in due course.


    Those timorous souls who doubt the Keynesian argument might care to look instead at practical experience.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt used exactly this technique to increase investment in American industry in the year or two before the US entered the Second World War. It was that substantial boost to American industrial capacity that was the decisive factor in allowing the Allies to win the war.


    And the great Japanese (and Keynesian) economist, Osamu Shimomura, (almost unknown in the West), took the same approach in advising the post-war Japanese government on how to re-build Japanese industry in a country devastated by defeat and nuclear bombs.


    The current Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is a follower of Shimomura.  His policies, reapplied today, have Japan growing, after years of stagnation, at 4% per annum and with minimal inflation.


    Our leaders, however, including luminaries of both right and left, some with experience of senior roles in managing our economy – and in case it is thought impolite to name them I leave it to you to guess who they are – prefer to remain in their fearful self-imposed shackles, ignoring not only the views of experts and the experience of braver leaders in other countries and earlier times, but – surprisingly enough – denying even our own home-grown New Zealand experience.


    Many of today’s generation will have forgotten or be unaware of the brave and successful initiative taken by our Prime Minister in the 1930s – the great Michael Joseph Savage.  He created new money with which he built thousands of state houses, thereby bringing an end to the Great Depression in New Zealand and providing decent houses for young families (my own included) who needed them.


    Who among our current leaders would disown that hugely valuable legacy?


    Bryan Gould

    2 October 2017


  • Time for Progress on Gender Equality

    Events in Saudi Arabia do not often hit the headlines in New Zealand.  But the news that, following a new dispensation issued by the Saudi king, Saudi women can now acquire driving licences, and are therefore allowed to drive, will have been applauded by all those who have been aware of – and shocked by – this longstanding and extraordinary instance of gender discrimination.

    For those who have only now, by virtue of that news report, become aware of this abuse, it may seem incredible that such an egregious example of the subjugation of women should have existed in the first place and survived for so long.  Nothing better exemplifies the attitudes of a male-dominated society and their ill-treatment of their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters, than their insistence for so long that women should be denied the right to move around as men do as a matter of course and that they should lose as a consequence the ability to participate fully in the social, cultural, sporting and economic life of the society of which they are in every respect, and – as biology dictates – in one respect in particular, indispensable members.

    Not only was denying Saudi women the ability to drive an assault on their freedom, but it begs the question – how did it ever seem acceptable that men could and should, as a statement of their own perceived sense of superiority, refuse the usual rights of citizenship and membership of society to more than half the population?  Where did such a belief come from?

    These attitudes are particularly obnoxious and unacceptable in the eyes of a society like our own.  We are proud of our record in advancing the interests of, and removing discrimination against, women.  We led the world in extending the franchise to women – and there is probably no other country that has ever seen the four major offices of state (in our case, those of Governor General, Speaker of the House, Prime Minister and Chief Justice) all occupied at the same time by women.

    But let us not kid ourselves.  Despite our long and commendable history in such matters, we still fall far short of true gender equality.  The most obvious area of discrimination is, of course, in the field of employment.  Pay rates and opportunities for promotion for women remain at a level much lower than that for men.  And we continue to live with high rates of domestic abuse of women – both physical and psychological.

    These quantifiable aspects of discrimination do little, though, to capture the more subtle forms that it can take – the unspoken assumptions, the “old boy” networks, the pressures on girls and young women to conform to male-defined stereotypes, the cultural practices that figuratively consign small girls, in their early upbringing, to dolls and pink booties.

    We have seen, even in the last few weeks and months, striking examples of the ways in which women who enter public life are treated differently from men.  Jacinda Ardern, for example, applauded as she has been for the qualities she has shown in turning round the fortunes of the party she now leads, was not spared intrusive questions, when she acceded to the leadership, about her plans, if any, for motherhood.  Not many men are quizzed at job interviews on their intentions as to fatherhood.

    And consider the case of Metiria Turei.  She was hounded out of the deputy leadership of her party for an offence which she admitted and to which she had indeed drawn attention herself.  Her treatment was in stark contrast to that of another leading politician – a male party leader who had wrongly claimed a substantial housing allowance from parliament and who paid it back only when the mistake was uncovered.   That man not only escaped censure but now seeks to be re-affirmed as Prime Minister.

    There is always, though, hope for the future.  If Jacinda Ardern is able to form a government, she will be our third woman Prime Minister, and the second of two to have taken office following a general election.  As Helen Clark did before her, she will no doubt reinforce, by what she does as well as says, the message that running the country is not just a male prerogative.

    Bryan Gould

    29 September 2017