• 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

  • Dumping Simon Bridges May Be Just the Easy Option

    Simon Bridges may seem to have been around for a long time but, in truth, he has been leader of the National party for a matter of only months rather than years.

    The qualities that persuaded his colleagues to vote him in to the leadership must surely, in other words, still be there and front of mind for National MPs who had every chance less than a year ago to survey the field and make their choice. What they saw in Bridges was, presumably, that he was a personable young part-Maori family man, with an excellent academic record, and was a proven (and combative) political warrior with a good grasp of parliamentary procedure and an ability to more than hold his own in debate.

    Those qualities are still there – and their value has presumably not faded away in the minds of his supporters. Yet it is undeniable that he is now in trouble and that some commentators are saying that if he does not fall upon his sword soon, someone else will pick it up with violence in mind.

    It is certainly true that he has failed to commend himself to the wider electorate who have not, on the whole, warmed to him. And he has on occasion made matters worse for himself, as in the case of the “leaker” from within his own party – an issue that he has seriously mishandled by letting it drift on unresolved and unnecessarily extending its life.

    Politics is of course a tough business – and if National’s private polling is telling them that Simon Bridges has failed to fire, then it is only a matter of time before they pull the trigger. But before they do so, they should perhaps pause and reflect.

    The most important question they must address is – what has changed since they elected Bridges as leader? They had every chance to survey the available options last year, and no new options have presented themselves in the meantime. If Bridges was the best choice less than a year ago, who has emerged to lead them to a different conclusion this time?

    That question has no obvious answer, but it gets more difficult still. Politicians are able to persuade themselves of almost anything – so someone who was rejected last time might suddenly seem to be the answer to their prayers now. The danger now, though, is that they would not be making that judgment in isolation but would be looking for someone who was not Simon Bridges – with the result that someone who seemed unqualified, even unelectable, last time might suddenly seem the right choice on the simple ground that he or she was not the current leader with his admitted failings.

    In that situation, a political party can all too easily make a decision for negative rather than positive reasons. They could end up with someone who does not share Bridges’ shortcomings (or his strengths) but who has a different (but equally, or even more, damaging) set of limitations.

    The frontrunners in any new leadership contest would, in other words, almost certainly run on the basis that they could offer an option that promised a remedy to the current leader’s problems. But a fresh start could simply mean a set of fresh and even more intractable difficulties – a moment’s thought and a consideration of the most likely contenders will quickly establish what they might turn out to be. The temptation may be to overlook what was previously seen as a disqualification in the make-up of someone who had earlier been found to be wanting. A new leader may be different, but in the end just differently deficient.

    The lesson to draw is this. A political party that is having difficulty engaging with the voters should not imagine that changing the leader will solve the problem. It would do better to look at itself – at its record in government, at what it is seen to stand for, at its understanding (or lack of it) of the issues facing the country.

    Simon Bridges may not have been able to resolve overnight the problems that led to National’s election defeat – but he at least understands by now that a defeat is what it was. Supporting the leader, rather than changing him, may be National’s best chance of reversing that result next time.

    Bryan Gould
    9 October 2018

  • The All Blacks Aren’t Done Yet

    The All Blacks may have retained the Bledisloe Cup, won the Rugby Championship with a game to spare, and beaten both the Wallabies and the Pumas twice in a row, but their single loss to the Springboks and their dramatic last-minute, come-from-behind win in the second match against the Boks has, predictably enough, sparked speculation in the northern hemisphere rugby press that the end of the All Blacks’ dominance of world rugby is now in sight. And even their narrow win over the Boks, according to the critics, was achieved only because they scored more points!

    As Steve Hansen remarked, there is no shortage of those who want to see the All Blacks fall from the top of the tree. But those of us who have followed the All Blacks for a lifetime and who can therefore take a longer view might advise that any celebration of the All Blacks’ impending demise is premature.

    I was brought up to celebrate All Black victories, and those victories have come with impressive regularity over a period of more than 110 years. But that should not obscure the fact that over that long period of pre-eminence, spanning virtually the whole of the history of modern rugby, there have been peaks but, comparatively speaking, troughs as well, from all of which the All Blacks have aways re-asserted themselves as the world’s leading and most successful team.

    Inevitably, it is the troughs that make the greater impact and that stick in the memory. My first recollection of test rugby is of 1949, when a brilliant All Blacks team toured South Africa and lost the series 4-0, courtesy of a Springbok forward called Okey Geffin who took advantage of some home-town refereeing and kicked goals from all parts of the park.

    The Springboks visited New Zealand in 1956 and I recall sleeping out on the Wellington pavement to get tickets for the second test. The All Blacks lost that test but won the series 3-1. Proper order was restored.

    Despite the current fancy that the Wallabies are our major rivals, I have alway believed that it is the Springboks who are our most dangerous challengers – a view borne out by their beating us in the 1995 World Cup final, and by years such as 2009 when they beat us three times in a row.

    It is worth making the point that these reverses did little to change the overwhelming reality that the All Blacks remained for virtually the whole of the period the world’s pre-eminent team. Neither our occasional and painful losses to the Springboks and our even more infrequent defeats by other teams like Ireland – in Chicago, on a rare occasion when the All Black management took a match too lightly and paid the price – did anything to dent the All Blacks’ record of superiority.

    However good the All Blacks are, however, international rugby is, as it should be, highly competitive and the slightest stumble from their high standards by the All Blacks can mean defeat. That is why each All Blacks victory is worth so much and is so much to be celebrated. These victories are hard-won and their regularity is testament to the immensely high standards achieved by the team, decade after decade.

    Is there really any sign that the All Blacks’ dominance is about to end? I think not. Yes, there are challenges, not so much on as off the field, where the lure of high salaries paid in the northern hemisphere could mean a haemorrhage of top players from the New Zealand game.

    But the New Zealand conveyor belt that delivers new and talented players to the game every year, the structure of the game and the prestige of the All Blacks, and the fact that we have the best coaches and thinkers in the game all continue to function and to keep us ahead of the pack.

    Let our rivals and critics take what comfort they can from our occasional reverse. The history of the past 110 years should give us the confidence to believe that the strengths and virtues of All Blacks rugby will endure. Our opponents should concentrate on trying to catch up. The time for them to celebrate will be when, and if, they do.

    Bryan Gould
    9 October 2018

     

  • They Do Things Differently There

    “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” So said the English writer, L. P. Hartley, in the first sentence of his famous novel, The Go-Between.

    In the light of recent events in the United States, we might make a similar observation about the US. Despite the familiarity of so much of American culture to New Zealanders, via Hollywood and the television screen, we can hardly avoid the conclusion that they do indeed “do things differently there.”

    Do you recall the last time a new judge was appointed to the New Zealand Supreme Court? Do you even know the name of the new appointee or the nature of the process that was followed?

    Yet the appointment of a new judge to the US Supreme Court hit the headlines and kept the American nation – and the world – transfixed for weeks on end.

    It was on prime time news day after day and was surrounded by a swirl of political intrigue, allegations of sexual impropriety and public demonstrations. The President of the country was deeply involved and directly campaigned at election-style rallies to support his nominee and to discredit and mock one of the witnesses who opposed the appointment.

    Opinion polls were conducted on a daily basis to measure the degree of support or otherwise there was for the nominee and his critics. Any shifts in opinion were said to be likely to influence the outcome of the mid-term elections and, as a result, to decide which political party would control Congress, and perhaps even indicate whether Donald Trump would or could win a second term.

    The public – that is, society as a whole – was revealed to be deeply divided, not just about the nominee himself and his suitability, but about wider questions as well. On the one hand, there were those who applauded the courage of the woman who gave evidence about an alleged assault on her by the nominee and were satisfied that she should be believed. Her courage and credibility became an article of faith for large numbers who saw the episode as further evidence of the treatment suffered by many women at the hands of sexual predators.

    On the other hand, were similarly large numbers who professed to see the allegations as politically motivated – “she was paid by the Democrats to say those things” according to some Trump supporters – and who agreed with the President that men were being unfairly targeted and themselves needed protection.

    In the end, then, the controversy may have produced a victory for the nominee and for the President, who now has a Supreme Court (as his supporters wanted) with a majority in favour of conservative social attitudes – on abortion, gay marriage and women’s rights. Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment was, incidentally, the second appointment in a row, following the appointment of Judge Clarence Thomas, of a judge who holds such views but who was also, as a nominee, accused of similar sexual behaviour.

    Brett Kananaugh’s appointment was, in other words, achieved at the cost of laying bare and exacerbating the deep and visceral divisions that rack American society. A President and a process that should have tried to heal those divisions succeeded in doing the opposite.

    Yes, they do things differently there. Despite our admiration for so much that is American, we can at least be grateful that, at least in this respect, we do not model ourselves on everything they do. The Kavanaugh episode should at least teach us that highly politicised processes can be deeply damaging and that short-term political victories can sometimes be achieved at a cost that is too high to pay.

    Bryan Gould
    8 October 2018

  • #Me Too Must Become We Too

    New Zealanders who have followed reports of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s consideration of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the US Supreme Court may well have experienced a sense of deja vu.

    They will have heard accounts of alleged encounters between Kavanaugh and his friends on the one hand and young women on the other hand who report being sexually assaulted by the Supreme Court nominee and his associates a number of years ago. Whatever the truth of these allegations (and let us hope that the truth can indeed be established) the ingredients of the alleged incidents are all too familiar.

    Whether Kavanaugh was or was not one of those responsible, what seems clear is that both the complainants and Kavanaugh grew up in a social milieu, both at high school and college, in which it was common practice for young men to deliberately ply young girls with alcoholic drinks at social gatherings with the intention of having sexual relations with them.

    The story will no doubt ring a bell with many New Zealand viewers and readers. It is, after all, only five years ago that the Roast Busters scandal burst upon the New Zealand scene.

    The Roast Busters story exhibited many of the same features as we now see in the allegations against Kavanaugh. There was the same involvement of young women complainants (some, in the Roast Busters case, under age) alleging that they had been offered drinks or drugs designed to render them incapable of “saying no” to sexual activity, the same male bonding and boasting on the part of a group of young men of school age, the same refusal to believe the complainants, and the same lack of action and blaming of the victims on the part of the authorities.

    In the Roast Busters case, the young complainants were apparently told by the police that, even if the offences had been committed, they had only themselves to blame – that they should not have been drinking or should not have been enticingly dressed. As with the Kavanaugh case, there was also a strong sense that the assaults were no more than a bit of “teenage mischief”. The question implicit in the public comments made in both cases was “who wasn’t involved in such situations when they were young”?

    But, while men may feel that they should not be responsible for mistakes they made as teenagers, and while behaviours may change and improve with growing maturity, attitudes rarely do.

    In the Roast Busters case, no one was ever charged and the perpetrators escaped without sanction. We are seeing in the Kavanaugh case the same sequence of events unfolding – complainants struggling to be heard, to be believed, and to have any sanctions applied against their assailants.

    What is surprising is that in two societies – the US and New Zealand – so geographically distant from each other and so culturally distinct, there are so many common features to the two stories. The assertion of male seigniorial rights by young men and the assumption that young women are simply sexual playthings, the unwillingness of the authorities to believe the complainants but their readiness to blame them, and the acceptance that such behaviour is par for the course and therefore free from blame, are apparently features of both societies – and no doubt of others as well.

    Little wonder, then, that the Prime Minister, in her speech at the United Nations, focused on the continuing issue of the denial to young women around the world of basic rights and opportunities. She effectively encapsulated her view of that issue when she said, “ ‘#Me too’ must become ‘we too’.”

    It is surprising, and sad, that some female commentators back home in New Zealand profess not to understand what the Prime Minister meant by this remark. The meaning seems very clear to me. What Jacinda Ardern is saying is that it is not just the victims but all of us, society as a whole, that must refuse to accept that sexual assaults on young women are normal and just a bit of fun.

    Young women, like everyone else, have the right to live in a society where they are free from the threat and reality of unwanted sexual advances.
    Bryan Gould
    1 October 2018