• The Armistice Centenary

    The centenary of the Armistice that ended the First World War has rightly been celebrated around the world. The Armistice brought an end to the horrors of a war that had been so terrible that it was described in retrospect, in a triumph of optimism over experience, as “the war to end all wars.”

    The slaughter on the Western Front and the privations suffered by the combatants in other battlefields like Gallipoli were unparallelled. It was not just the casualties, the injuries and the sickness, but the nature of the warfare, and the conditions in which the soldiers fought and died, in the mud and cold of the trenches, pinned down by the relentless shelling, that caused so much public revulsion.

    There was also a public anger at the apparent lack of concern that was shown by commanding officers in sending their men to the front and to their inevitable deaths. The lives of those men seemed to matter little – they were moved and deployed as though they were pawns in a board game. The soldiers in the First World War became known – in a phrase that had first been used by the Russians about the British army in the Crimean War – as “lions led by donkeys”.

    In Flora Thompson’s Larkrise to Candleford, a wonderful memoir of growing up in poverty in rural Oxfordshire, she describes how her brothers learned to work hard and never complain, accepting their lot. When her favourite young brother, Edwin, was killed just outside Ypres in 2016, she says that, when he faced the odds, “he did not flinch”.

    The repercussions of all that pain and suffering affected millions of people around the world; little wonder that the centenary of the Armistice was acknowledged by the leaders of the countries that had been involved and the opportunity was taken to salute the sacrifices that so many ordinary people had made. All the more surprising then that one of today’s self-proclaimed American “heroes” could not brave a shower of rain in order to pay his respects to the fallen; the sacrifices they had made were hardly “fake news”.

    The attention paid to the centenary, not least through the remembrance ceremonies worldwide, but also through television programmes about the First World War and Peter Jackson’s wonderful revival of actual footage from the conflict in his recently released film “They Shall Not Grow Old” will surely have taught a new generation about the dramas and tragedies of our history. The lessons will have been reinforced by the memorial to New Zealand recently created in the French town of Le Quesnoy to acknowledge the rescuing of the town from German occupation by New Zealand troops.

    And nowhere is the attention paid to this shared history more justified than in New Zealand. Incredible as it may seem for our small country at the ends of the earth, half the globe away from the battlefields, no country made a proportionately greater sacrifice than we did.

    Nearly 10% of our tiny population (of just under one million at the time) volunteered to fight in the War. They represented 42% of all men of military age. Of that number, 60% were killed or hospitalised – 18500 died and 41000 were wounded.

    It is important for our young people, in the nature of things inclined to dismiss their forbears’ achievements as of little consequence, to understand what earlier generations sacrificed for them, our country and the world. And they should also understand that “no man (or country – not even New Zealand ) is an island unto itself”.

    In that great and all-consuming conflict of 100 years ago, we proudly took our place as a world citizen and played our part in bringing to an end that horrific and barbaric struggle. New Zealand’s standing in the world ever since – and the role we have continued to play, with an influence that belies our small size – have owed much to those brave young men from the farms and factories who went in search of an adventure but found instead a hell.

    Bryan Gould

    13 November 2018



  • What Makes the All Blacks So Good?

    Both in the run-up to and during the aftermath of the All Blacks’ narrow victory over England at Twickenham, the world’s rugby media posed a frequently asked question – how can a small country with a population of only 4 million produce not only the All Blacks (who have dominated world rugby for most of the last century) but also women’s teams and age-grade teams who have been similarly successful in all forms of rugby.

    The question is not lightly asked – it reflects a genuine puzzlement.  It is assumed that the answer lies in some secret ingredient, an insight or a technique, that could readily be copied by other teams if only they knew what it was.

    The bad news for the inquirers is that there is nothing mysterious about New Zealand’s rugby pre-eminence.  The simple truth is that Kiwis are just better attuned to the game, understand it better and accordingly are usually able to play it better than others.

    For those who know New Zealand’s history and culture, there is nothing surprising about this.  Rugby was the game that could have been invented specifically for New Zealand – and they have returned the compliment by influencing its development so that it now reflects the way they play it.

    Rugby was first introduced at a time when modern New Zealand was in the early stages of development in the mid-nineteenth century.  The remote islands in the south Pacific were settled by “get-up-and-goers” from Britain and Ireland – those who got up and went, because they saw the opportunities offered by a new life in a new country.

    Developing that new country demanded two main characteristics – on the one hand, a huge degree of self-reliance and hard work, supplemented by the determination never to be defeated by by an apparently insoluble problem, and on the other, an understanding of the great value of teamwork and a willingness to trust and rely on one’s neighbours and comrades.

    Miraculously, these new settlers (the pakeha) discovered in the indigenous population – the Maori – similar attitudes and values.  These shared attitudes – a healthy individualism combined with an instinctive readiness to work as a team – helped greatly in the creation of a bicultural society; and they found their most immediate expression on the rugby field.  Maori and pakeha found that rugby offered them the chance to play and learn together and to appreciate the qualities that each brought to the game.

    Rugby became not only the most obvious expression of what were seen as the essential New Zealand virtues but also provided a kind of lens through which Maori and pakeha could see each other.  The game became one of the most important formative influences in the evolution of the new nation.

    When New Zealand teams take the field, their Polynesian players (both Maori and Pasifika) with all their great talents are not expensively imported from far-away countries but have grown up with rugby in their own country.  The game is woven into the fabric of their lives – one that both Maori and pakeha instinctively understand and relate to, and that in part defines them.

    Yes, of course New Zealand rugby teams enjoy an advantage over their rivals.  They grow up in a society that lives and breathes rugby; many of the country’s best athletes opt to play rugby because that is where they can best shine, and where the best sporting brains focus on the game and how to play it better.

    It was somehow appropriate that the Twickenham test was played on the eve of the centenary of Armistice Day – an opportunity to acknowledge the sacrifice made by – amongst others – young New Zealand soldiers who volunteered to travel half way round the world to fight at Gallipoli and on the western front.  A huge percentage of the small New Zealand population went to that war and there was scarcely a family that was not affected by the bereavement and injury of loved ones.

    Those soldiers showed on the battle field many of the qualities that the All Blacks bring to the rugby field.  War, like rugby, was the other great formative influence in the development of the New Zealand identity.

    Our feel for and appreciation of rugby should help us not only to celebrate an All Blacks victory but also to understand the disappointment felt by England supporters who saw victory snatched from them by a contentious (but probably correct) refereeing decision.

    But we should also recognise that, if the try had been allowed, the All Blacks would then have had a few minutes to score the converted try that would have won the game for them – and who would have bet against them doing just that?

  • Good – But Could Be Better

    Labour was, not surprisingly, in good heart at its annual conference last week in Dunedin, as Jacinda Ardern celebrated her first anniversary as Prime Minister.

    The past year has not been without its difficulties for the new government, but the coalition has encountered fewer problems than might have been expected. Winston Peters has performed well in his sphere of expertise – foreign affairs – and has proved to be, as some of us expected, a steadying influence, bringing the voice of experience to the consideration of complex issues.

    The Greens have offered exactly what might be expected of a helpful partner – a distinctive and constructive approach to the green issues that matter most to them, and steady support for the government’s wider agenda.

    Labour has handled its role as the senior partner of the coalition with good sense and diplomacy and a strong and identifiable sense of purpose. Most of the crises which the Prime Minister has had to handle have been relatively minor and have flowed from the deficiencies of individual ministers. The missteps of Clare Curran and Meka Whaitiri, and even of Iain Lees-Galloway, have reflected inexperience rather than incompetence, and pale into insignificance by comparison with the internal travails that have racked the National party.

    The new government’s main difficulty in its first year has been in grappling with what seems to be a long-standing strategy developed by their opponents and one that always poses real problems to an incoming Labour government. It can be simply described.

    When National is in government, it makes a virtue for ideological reasons of cutting public expenditure, preening itself on producing “surpluses” and warning that a change of government would threaten that achievement. When the voters finally decide that the cost – in the form of weakened public services – is too high and a less ideological government is elected, the second stage of the strategy is put in place.

    The new government finds that it has to pick up the bill to meet the backlog of all the essential spending not made, and to make good on its promises to re-build our health services and education and defence capability and environmental protection and economic infrastructure and all those other parts of public provision which have been run down.

    The struggle to reverse the failures of its predecessor and to do so overnight disappoints the new government’s supporters – and their public demonstrations of dissatisfaction (teachers’ strikes and the like) and the consequent inconvenience to the public make it more likely that those responsible for the problems in the first place will be returned to power and the cycle can begin again.

    How well is Jacinda Ardern’s government doing in breaking that cycle? It is too early to say, but Labour have not made it easy for themselves. Their self-denying ordinance to the effect that they will manage the public finances within a monetary and fiscal framework defined by their predecessors has limited their options.

    If the framework of policy remains unchanged, there is an obvious limit as to how much can be achieved by individual decisions taken within (and limited by) that framework.

    Labour’s supporters will be happy in the main with what has been achieved so far, in terms of individual commitments such as the increase in the numbers of teacher aids for pupils with special needs, but there will be some disappointment that there is not more new thinking as to how the shackles of right-wing orthodoxy can be cast aside.

    The great achievements of past Labour governments – such as the building of thousands of state houses by Michael Joseph Savage in the midst of the Great Depression – required a willingness to challenge orthodoxy. Such courage brought great benefits to those who gained jobs and homes they would not otherwise have had, but also cemented Labour’s standing and support, and at the same time strengthened our economy and our social cohesion.

    The acid test for Labour will come in 2020. The task is to persuade voters by then that a different approach pays off, that breaking new ground makes us all better off, and that the real risk lies in returning to the failed policies of the past – so that the cycle starts all over again.

    Bryan Gould
    5 November 2018

  • More Punch – and Judy Too?

    The fall-out from the Jami-Lee Ross debacle no doubt accounts for Simon Bridges’ latest poll rating as preferred Prime Minister, at just 7%.

    Political commentators have interpreted this as the writing on the wall and have become excited at the prospect of a leadership challenge – but not, it seems, as excited as Judith Collins – rating at just 2% behind Bridges. She has wasted no time in seeking the headlines with a mean-minded attack on a young couple who had the temerity to holiday overseas while waiting to move into a KiwiBuild house.

    A couple of cautionary observations should perhaps dampen the excitement. A Collins rating of 5% is hardly a ringing endorsement, particularly when recorded at a time when the incumbent was up to his neck in adverse publicity.

    More importantly, it is less than a year since the National caucus had the chance to survey all the candidates and to make a judgment on each one of them. They decided on that occasion that Judith Collins was not for them. There seems no obvious reason for them to change their minds.

    Any flirtation on the part of the National party with a Collins leadership presumably arises from the sentiment that the party needs, in opposition, more aggression and energy – someone better able to land a telling blow on a popular Prime Minister.

    But that sentiment rests on flimsy foundations. Yes, Judith Collins has carefully cultivated (and probably propagated in the first place) her image as “Crusher” Collins – but does that image, even if it represented some element of reality, necessarily equip her to do a good job as Leader of the Opposition and eventually, perhaps, as Prime Minister?

    For every voter who might respond positively to a supposed bruiser and street fighter as National leader, there will be another who is repelled by that style of politics – and, in any case, Simon Bridges’ deficiencies do not include a lack of aggression. He is marked down because people do not warm to the way he comes across. Who is to say that they would warm to another leader who was even more aggressive and lacking in charm?

    There are many qualities other than aggression that voters seek – as Jacinda Ardern’s popularity demonstrates. A leader of the Opposition who was able to mix it in a roughhouse could still be seen as lacking the poise and judgment that would be needed in a Prime Minister. We should never forget that what makes the job of leading the Opposition so difficult is that the holder of that office must be seen not only as an effective and combative critic of the government but also as a potential Prime Minister.

    It is here that the case for a Judith Collins leadership really starts to crumble. We now know enough about her to doubt whether she is an appropriate, let alone credible, candidate for the top job. A simple rehearsal of some of the high (or perhaps that should be low) points of her political career should be enough to confirm those doubts.

    Her close relationship with Cameron Slater – he of “Dirty Politics” fame – should ring the alarm bells; Cameron Slater regards her as his mentor in the black arts and has said as much. Her refusal to recognise the conflict of interest implicit in a dinner with her husband’s firm, Oravida, when on a taxpayer-paid ministerial visit to China was compounded by the misinformation she offered to explain the visit she paid to its offices – it was, she said, simply for a “cup of tea on the way to the airport”, when the airport was actually in the opposite direction. These malfeasances obliged both the Speaker and John Key, when Prime Minister, to reprimand her and stand her down.

    These elements strongly suggest that what might be seen by her supporters as a commendable willingness to cut corners and to “get down and dirty” should actually disqualify her from offering herself as a potential Prime Minister. The National caucus should think hard before re-considering their earlier verdict on a Collins leadership – if you want more punch, do you really have to have Judy as well?

    Bryan Gould
    27 October 2018

  • The Story That Keeps On Giving

    The Jami-Lee Ross saga is the story that keeps on gIving. There may still be many more twists and turns in what has so far proved to be an unpredictable roller-coaster – the allegations of affairs and harassment, sexual and otherwise, continue to fly in all directions – but we may now be approaching the point when some analysis is possible of the story so far.

    It now seems clear that Jami-Lee Ross, for whatever reasons – perhaps a sense of personal grievance or a genuine sense of moral outrage – has from the outset embarked on a campaign to damage the National party and its leader. His initial claim – that Simon Bridges had broken electoral law in the way that major donations were handled – may not have been the main element in the case he wanted to mount against the National leader.

    It may instead have been bait for the media, to ensure that there would be a keen appetite for what was to be revealed when he played the famous recording of his telephone conversation with Simon Bridges. The point of that recording may not have been to establish that the donations were mishandled (though they may have been) but to reveal to the press and the public what sort of person was seeking to be Prime Minister.

    The damage suffered by Simon Bridges when the recording was heard came, not because of the evidence provided of corrupt practice – on that issue it disappointed – but from what it told us about the kind of politics practised by the National leader.

    It came not just from the language he used – not just the diction on this occasion but the vocabulary as well – but more importantly from the sentiments and attitudes he expressed.
    The revelation that was most serious was surely the unmistakable willingness to offer for sale seats in parliament to those willing to pay enough. This surprising and unedifying admission was compounded by the further comments he made about the ethnicity of those most likely to pay an inflated price for such a privilege.

    At the centre of the claims and counter-claims is the vexed question of a large donation that was – as is admitted by all parties – made by a Chinese businessman to the National party. No one is suggesting that Jhang Yikun did anything wrong in making the donation; the dispute is whether the donation, once made, was handled in accordance with the law and was for a legitimate purpose.

    It is worth pausing for a moment, however, to register the point that, sadly, it comes as no surprise that the donor at the heart of the dispute was Chinese. The reason for this is that in cultures less accustomed than our own to the rules as to how democratic politics should function, it is natural to assume that political support can be bought.

    I recall that when I was an MP in the British city of Southampton, it was common for constituents from immigrant communities who sought my help and advice to approach me bearing gifts of various values. They saw nothing wrong about expressing their gratitude for services rendered or anticipated in this way – I would be obliged, as gently as I could, to decline to accept the proffered inducements.

    It would clearly be a retrograde step and a blight on both our democratic system and our corruption-free reputation if such practices became endemic in our country. Donations on this scale, especially when concealed, can seriously distort our politics. The National party was hugely advantaged by gaining such resources to spend on staff, organisation and advertising that were not available to their rivals.

    The current saga is just one instance of the murky waters in which we could become swamped if the notion became established that the way to political influence lay through political donations.

    What is apparently accepted on all sides in the saga is that a major donation was made to the National party by Jhang Yukin who had earlier been the recipient of a significant honour recommended by a National government and was keen to have an associate elected to parliament.

    There was also a separate question as to whether other significant gifts were concealed by not identifying who the donors actually were. It now seems likely that names were invented to conceal the identity of the true donors who have been revealed as the millionaire businessman Aaron Bhatnagar in one case and, in another, as a group with links to the Exclusive Brethren, a religious group with, as they say, “form” in such matters.

    Again, it is not the donors who are at fault, other than perhaps in their failure to understand the unacceptability in our society of surreptitious gifts being used to buy influence in political decisions.

    The attitudes demonstrated by Simon Bridges have once again highlighted the risks we run as a result of our refusal to contemplate the public funding of political parties. Whether we like it or not, those parties are an essential part of our democratic infrastructure; their proper functioning is central to any democratic system worth the name. Without the structure provided by the political parties, we would not be able to choose between one potential government and another and the whole point of democratic general elections would be lost.

    The opposition to public funding seems to stem from the view that political parties are voluntary organisations which must be responsible for their own welfare and survival, and should not therefore look to the taxpayer for support. But this is unrealistic; their role as public institutions should not be obscured by the fiction that they are private associations.

    As the current scandal demonstrates, that fiction places us all at risk. We cannot afford to tolerate a situation where private money buys influence in public affairs. A properly functioning democracy is the responsibility of all of us; some of us might give up our time and effort to ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place, but others should, as taxpayers, be ready to make a similarly valuable financial contribution to that essential purpose.

    Bryan Gould
    20 October 2018