• Picking Up the Pieces

    The news that the government is to find $80 million to repair Middlemore Hospital should come as no surprise. This is just the latest instance of the new government having to pick up the tab to make good something neglected by its predecessor.

    It s not just a matter of restoring to an acceptable condition a single long neglected rotting and crumbling hospital. There are, in the health sector alone, other buildings with identical problems, and right across the public sector, wherever one looks, there is evidence of the spending now needed to remedy the failings and omissions of the last National government.

    We are told, for example, that our drinking water is hardly safe to drink – a shocking state of affairs for a supposedly developed country – and that it needs substantial investment if it is to be brought up to standard – and that is to say nothing of the condition of our rivers and waterways. And there are other major parts of our essential infrastructure that are in similarly urgent need of attention and improvement.

    The new government, we learn, has also been able to find the millions needed (but hitherto not made available) to step up the effort to save our native flora from kauri die-back and myrtle rust – problems that were barely addressed by the previous government who seem to have learnt little from the PSA debacle in the kiwifruit industry under their watch.

    At the same time as these infrastructure and environmental issues are demanding attention, our schools are struggling to find enough qualified teachers, carrying an obvious threat to the standard of education enjoyed by our new generation; if that situation is to be remedied we need to find the resources to train the necessary recruits. And teaching is not the only occupation where we have neglected to look to the future; in the construction industry, we have failed to provide the apprenticeships that are needed, and business as a whole identifies the shortage of skilled workers as the greatest impediment to their progress.

    In the public sector, we find that even those who have been trained and are currently working, especially in essential occupations – teachers, nurses, midwives, court staff, civil servants more generally, and many others – have seen their salaries fall in real and comparative terms, all victims of the drive to cut costs by a government giving priority to “producing a surplus”. The current rash of strikes is a direct result of earlier neglect and irresponsibility by those holding the purse strings.

    When spending is cut in this way for ideological purposes, the consequences are all too predictable. The standards we expect in our public administration (and for which New Zealand is renowned worldwide) begin to slip and we find that we can no longer rely on public agencies to do their jobs properly. These consequences are not limited to the big-ticket items, such as health care and education. So, for example, inspections of articulated vehicles are not properly carried out so that potentially dangerous vehicles are let loose on our roads, and warrants of fitness are issued without any real inspection, with possibly fatal consequences for some drivers.

    Services starved of resources become vulnerable to cutting corners, turning blind eyes, and accepting inducements for doing so, so that even our hard-earned reputation as the least corrupt society in the world is placed at risk.

    We have done ourselves an enormous injury in allowing cost-cutting to take priority over maintaining reliably high standards. And, sadly, by the time the day of reckoning has arrived, those responsible have long gone and it is left to others to carry the can.

    It is the successors to the “cut at all costs” brigade who must pick up the tab for past neglect. They have the task of somehow finding the resources that are needed – and they must endure the complaints of those who, in the aftermath of the cuts, now find themselves under-paid and under-resourced, and – in some cases – not employed at all.

    There is of course a lesson to be learned from this sad saga. It is that a government that is hostile to the public sector and to public spending can do enormous damage to our economy and to our country as a whole. Voters, however, are often surprisingly reluctant to cut any slack for a successor government that tries to pick up the pieces and put them together again.
    Bryan Gould
    22 November 2018

  • 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