• The Incoming Tide

    The 2017 election was a roller-coaster ride – and it’s not over yet.  The special votes, yet to be counted, could well – in an election of such tight margins – make all the difference, and that’s to say nothing of the post-election coalition negotiations yet to come.

    In the meantime, some player ratings.  The star of the show was surely Jacinda Ardern.  Her charm, energy and intelligence lit up the campaign.  She resurrected Labour, from a standing start less than two months ago, when Labour support stood at 23%, to the real possibility of forming the next government.  Whatever the outcome, she will live to fight another day.

    The National party achieved the creditable feat of winning the largest number of votes after three successive terms in office, but the loss of two of their coalition partners (and the Epsom indulgence of ACT having gained them nothing more than an irritant) has left them exposed, without visible means of support – and more people voted against retaining the government than voted for it.

    National’s achievement was, of course, tainted by their readiness to resort to “attack politics”, supported as it was by deliberate misrepresentations about Labour’s plans which not one reputable economist could be found to endorse.

    The acceptance of, and susceptibility to, such tactics by New Zealand voters leaves our politics all the poorer.  We must hope that this distressing disregard for principle will not be carried into government.

    The collapse of the Maori party suggests that Maori voters have realised that the issues that particularly matter to Maori cannot be safely entrusted to a government that sees its priority as serving the interests of business.  A large number of similarly placed pakeha voters have been much slower on the uptake.  Labour, and Labour’s Maori MPs, must now show that they are worthy of the trust reposed in them.

    The Greens held on, surviving mistakes of their own making, and remain in play as a possible coalition partner in a progressive government.  They continue to bring a valuable dimension to our politics.

    As always seemed likely, the final decision as to who will form the next government rests with Winston Peters and his New Zealand First MPs.  I make no predictions and offer no advice.  But I do express a hope.

    I think the election shows that there is an appetite and a momentum for change that is likely to grow rather than subside.  “More of the same” is not sufficiently inspiring to claim new adherents.

    We have a real chance to make a fresh start.  And remember that, in MMP politics, votes for the largest party carry no additional weight.  What matters is whether a majority exists in parliament, not where the votes come from.

    The chance arises to bring fresh minds to bear on old and neglected issues.  Rather than act as a mere adjunct to an existing administration, Winston could play an important role, as an elder statesman in, and foundation member of, a new government – one that catches the incoming tide.

    Bryan Gould

    24 September 2017

     

  • What Do the Chinese Pay For?

    The Herald’s readiness to alert its readers to the important conclusions of the University of Canterbury research into the links between China and past and present New Zealand politicians and their family members is to be commended, not because there is anything necessarily sinister about such links, but because we need to know about their extent and their possible significance.

    At the very least, we might regard their number and extent as flashing a warning light.  Why is it that so many influential Kiwis, with entrees nto the heart of the political, economic and trading establishment, find themselves in such demand from Chinese interests?

    There is no reason, of course, why China – a global power of growing diplomatic and economic significance – should not seek to extend its influence by any means legitimately available.  In assessing that legitimacy, however, we need to take account of factors that many might be inclined to overlook.

    There are aspects of China’s relations with other countries, such as New Zealand, that may not easily be appreciated without a deeper understanding of the Chinese world view.  We may not, for instance, fully grasp that China’s objective in its economic relations is not merely to secure essential supplies (and dairy products these days fall into that category) but to become self-sufficient – to control and own the whole supply chain so that they are no longer dependent on trade deals that may have only a limited life.

    So, when we see the Chinese interest in buying up dairy farms, and setting up dairy factories to produce finished goods, and sending those products exclusively to Chinese markets, is this merely the consequence of individual business decisions being made by independent Chinese companies?

    Or is it, rather, part of a much wider and centrally driven (as befits a centrally planned economy) strategy?  Is it not realistic to see the whole process as the equivalent of physically integrating a chunk of New Zealand real estate and productive capacity into the Chinese economy?  Those farms – whose production is totally directed to the Chinese market and whose profits are with equal certainty destined for Chinese pockets – might as well be re-located, as I said a couple of years ago in the Herald, into Zhejiang province.

    Whether or not we think this is a desirable development, we would be naïve not to recognise it.  And we would also be naïve not to see that, for almost all purposes, no distinction is to be drawn between the objectives and initiatives of Chinese business and businesses, and those of the Chinese government.

    Chinese businesses understand very well that the only way they can operate successfully is through acting as the agents and as an arm of the Chinese government.  They will do deals with foreign interests only if they are in line with the government’s objectives, and the deals they make should always be judged in that light.

    Add to that the – sadly – well-documented information about Chinese attitudes to business dealings.  There is little regard for ethical considerations or legal rules, a readiness to get around restrictions and regulations to protect the public interest, and  a willingness to buy what is seen as necessary by way of influence and the inside running.

    New Zealand businesses and individuals, operating as they do in a country that regularly tops international ratings for business probity and honesty, and for the absence of sleaze and corruption, are ill-prepared to function in a different cultural climate.

    The willingness of prominent New Zealanders to sign up with Chinese paymasters should accordingly be judged in the light of these factors.  They – and we – should ask what it is that they are selling that is worth the remuneration they receive.

    Is it their special business or professional expertise?  Or is it rather their closeness to the seat of power, their knowledge of how and by whom decisions are reached, and their ability to influence the decision-makers?

    New Zealand will surely do better in the long run if we retain some sense of our own identity and of precisely where our own interests lie.  Our early days as a colony are surely well behind us.  There is no future for us in returning to that status in relation to China or anyone else.

    Bryan Gould

    21 September 2017

     

  • Will We Go Forward with the Clocks?

    When we wake up next Sunday morning, the clocks will have moved forward.  This annual event always reminds me of the probably apocryphal story of the house-proud woman who objected to the introduction of daylight saving because she feared that an extra hour of sunshine would mean that her new curtains would fade more quickly.

    But this year, the “great leap forward” of our clocks might be accompanied – faded curtains or otherwise – by an even more significant shift, this time in our politics.  As the sun rises (we hope) on Sunday, we could well awake to a brave new world.

    The difference between the two steps forward is that, unlike the annual and programmed arrival of daylight saving, the possible move into a new political era is very much dependent on decisions we take.

    The pundits (and the polls) are divided in their “guesstimates” as to whether or not we will see a change of government.  But the prospect of someone different in charge, after nine years of the same party in power, is intriguing enough to stimulate speculation as to what we might expect from a change of direction and energy.

    There will of course be a substantial body of opinion that is satisfied with the status quo and that sees nothing but downsides from any prospective change.  But for those of us who think we could do better, and that change and innovation could be welcome, what is it that we might hope for?

    There are probably two kinds of change that we might foresee.  First, we might think of those policy issues which might best be described as “errors and omissions” – those areas of policy which appear to have been either mishandled or neglected over recent years, so that there is a pressing need for more attention to be paid and more resources to be devoted to them.

    There is, for instance, the urgent need to clean up our rivers before they become further degraded.  And, in case the inability of our kids to swim in our rivers without getting sick is not shocking enough, there is the inadequacy of our efforts to confront the reality of climate change and to save endangered species on land and sea.

    We have surely had enough of giving automatic priority to private profit ahead of the survival of the natural world we share and the planet on which we live.

    And then there is the crisis of homelessness and housing unaffordability – again, a regrettable part of the price we pay for allowing the interests of speculators to prevail over the needs and hopes of young families.

    These are severely practical problems that cry out for solution by a government brave and determined enough to tackle them.  But there is a second order of change that we might also think should be addressed.

    There will be many who have concluded – sadly – that a country that was founded on a lofty vision of what democracy and a healthy and happy society could mean has let its standards slip.

    They will regret the poverty that now afflicts so many young Kiwis – and young Maori and Pasifika in particular – so that they are unable to share fairly and fully in the great benefits that New Zealand’s combined effort and enterprise can produce.

    They will regret the loss of that classic Kiwi commitment to a fair deal and opportunity for all, and to a helping hand for those who need it.

    They will regret the mean-mindedness that has now seeped from individual selfishness into social policy, so that those who need help find themselves deprived not only of the basics of life, but of good health, education and even of self-respect.

    They will regret the reduced standards represented by those in public life – the growing tendency to lie and misrepresent – so that the New Zealand that was once a byword for probity and honesty has seen its international reputation slip.

    Above all, we might hope for a government that is more ambitious in its quest to create a good society that attends to the needs of everyone in it and that accordingly sets its sights higher on their behalf.

    Could we perhaps move forward with our clocks?

    Bryan Gould

    15 September 2017

     

     

     

  • How to Make Up Your Mind

    With just over a week to go till polling day, the rival parties have now presumably finished setting out their stalls.

    There may still be the odd attempt to lure the floating voter, (or to cynically misrepresent what other parties are saying), but we now have a pretty good idea as to what we will get – or, at least, what they are promising – if they are elected.

    For many voters, however, the parties’ promises relate to issues that are of little relevance, or involve sums of money that are so large and incomprehensible or targets and dates that are so far in the future as to be meaningless.

    Offering policy goodies, in other words, may not be as effective in attracting votes as some politicians seem to think.

    My perception is that voters are more likely to vote according to whether or not they think that the country is in good hands and heading in the right direction.

    That may be so, perhaps, but in the end it will always boil down, experienced (not to say cynical) politicians will say, to “what’s in it for me?”

    I choose to believe, however, that people (or enough of them) are more thoughtful than that, and that for many there is a fundamental choice to be made.

    It was Mrs Thatcher who famously said that “there is no such thing as society”.  She apparently thought that we are just an agglomeration of individuals, who happen to be living in the same place at the same time, each one focused only, in the unlovely phrase, on “looking after number one”.

    In expressing this opinion, she was reflecting the views of some very influential thinkers – people like the philosophers Hayek and Nozick, economists like James Buchanan, and even (not very good) novelists like Ayn Rand.

    They argued that not only do we all always act in our own individual interests but that this is how it should be.  They took this view on two grounds – that to restrain individuals from doing what they want, even at the expense of others, would be unjustifiably to limit their freedom, and that society as a whole would in any case be better off, and everyone would benefit, if individuals – particularly powerful individuals – were free to do whatever they liked, without any restraint imposed on them by “society”.

    Those who disagree like to point to what they see as the adverse economic, social and environmental consequences of a free-for-all, not only for those individuals and families who lose out in the rat race (and they are all too easily identified), but also for the health and happiness of our society as a whole, and for the sustainability of the natural world we share and of the planet on which we live.

    These philosophical arguments may mean little to many voters.  But the issues can easily be translated into more comprehensible terms that are closer to everyday life.

    We can all recognise, in our day-to-day dealings with our fellow-citizens, different kinds of attitudes and behaviours.  We understand selfishness, greed and lack of compassion on the one hand, and kindness and willingness to share on the other – and we know which we like better.

    If we understand these individual qualities in our personal lives, why not in our politics as well?  Why would we choose to align ourselves with those who recognise no shared interest with their fellow citizens, but see them instead (perhaps as employees or tenants) as simply there to be exploited or pushed aside?  Why endorse those who resent paying the taxes needed to create a well-functioning society and to help those they regard as “losers”, and who then complain about the social consequences of the fractured society they have helped to create?

    On the other hand, why not seek a kinder, gentler society, one where we recognise that we are all in this together, and that we all benefit when everyone is treated fairly and with respect.  That, after all, is what our democracy is about – the democracy our forefathers fought for.  They saw an effective democracy as essential if power is not to concentrate in the hands of the greediest.

    I like the sound of “kinder” and “gentler”.

    Bryan Gould

    6 August 2017

     

  • The Choice Before Us

    With just days to go till polling day, the rival parties have now presumably set out their stalls.

    There may still be the odd attempt to lure the floating voter, (or cynically misrepresent what others are saying), but we now have a pretty good idea as to what we will get – or, at least, as to what they are promising – if they get elected.

    It may be that these promises will do the trick. But for many voters, ploys such as these relate to issues that do not concern them individually, or involve sums of money that are so large and incomprehensible and dates that are so distant from today as to be meaningless.

    Offering policy goodies, in other words, may not be as effective in attracting votes as some politicians seem to think.

    My perception is that voters are more likely to vote according to whether or not they think that the country is in good hands and heading in the right direction.

    That may be so, say experienced (not to say cynical) politicians, but in the end questions such as these will always boil down to “what’s in it for me?”

    I choose to believe, however, that people (or enough of them) are more thoughtful than that, and that there is a genuine and fundamental choice to be made – a choice which many voters are willing to consider as they vote.

    It was Mrs Thatcher who famously said that “there is no such thing as society”.  She apparently thought that we are all just an agglomeration of individuals, who happen to be living in the same place at the same time, but that we each pursue our individual interests with no regard for anyone else.

    In expressing this opinion, she was reflecting the views of some very influential thinkers – people like the philosophers Hayek and Nozick, economists like James Buchanan and even (not very good) novelists like Ayn Rand.

    They argued that not only do we all act in our own individual interests but that this is how it should be.  They took this view on two grounds – that to restrain individuals from doing what they want and grabbing what they can would be unjustifiably to limit their freedom, and that society as a whole would be better off and everyone would benefit if individuals – particularly powerful individuals – were able to do whatever they liked, without any restraint imposed on them by “society”.

    Those who disagree prefer to look to what they see as the adverse economic, social and environmental consequences of a free-for-all, not only for those individuals and families who lose out in the rat race, but also for the health and happiness of our society as a whole and for the sustainability of the natural world we share and the planet on which we live.

    These philosophical arguments may mean little to many voters.  But the issues can easily be translated into practical terms that are closer to everyday life.

    We can all recognise, in our day-to-day dealings with our fellow citizens, different kinds of attitudes and behaviours.  We understand selfishess, greed and lack of compassion on the one hand, and kindness and willingness to share on the other – and we know which we like better.

    When we project these behaviours on to the wider social or political scale, we can see those who recognise no shared interest with their fellow citizens but see them instead (perhaps as employees or tenants) as simply there to be exploited.  These are the people who resent paying taxes to help those they regard as “losers” and who then complain about the social consequences of the fractured society they have helped to create.

    On the other hand, we can see a kinder, gentler society, where we recognise that we are all in this together – and that we all benefit if everyone gets a fair deal.

    In the end, we can ask ourselves whether or not we place any value on our democracy.  Our forefathers, after all, fought for our democracy because they saw it as essential if power was not to concentrate in just a few hands.

    I like the sound of “kinder” and “gentler”.

    Bryan Gould

    6 August 2017