• Politics, As Well As Personality

    As the election campaign gets into its stride, it is already apparent that the 2017 contest is going to be very different from its three predecessors in 2008, 2011 and 2014.


    Those three earlier elections were all dominated by the personality of John Key – to such an extent that opposition parties despaired of their chances of overcoming what was seen as his virtually unique ability to appeal to uncommitted voters.  The elections became mere popularity contests – the hard issues of politics hardly reared their heads, ugly or otherwise.


    But 2017 is different.  In place of the easy assurance and relaxed manner of John Key, Bill English presents a much more uptight and less confidence-inspiring image.  He presents as a safe pair of hands, but there are times when he seems to be having to work very hard just to get that message across.


    With the cameras on him, he struggles to seem relaxed.   Even a simple statement seems to require every muscle in his face to work overtime – and not always in sync with each other – just to get the words out.  And he seems unable to suppress an expression that suggests that he is enjoying a private joke at the expense of his interlocutor.


    And that is not the only change from earlier elections.   Labour leaders, from Helen Clark to Phil Goff to David Cunliffe, each had excellent qualities, but none was able to match Key’s capacity to take the politics out of politics.  But 2017 offers the chance to a new Labour leader to change all that.

    For the first time in a decade, in other words, the personality factor has at least been nullified and, at best, turned into a Labour advantage.


    If the polls have it right, a fresh face and a different approach mean that Jacinda Arden may well lead quite decisively in the personality stakes, and that means that – for once – the election is not decided even before it has started.


    This reversal of what had threatened to become the natural order means, in other words, that the 2017 election could become one in which politics – by which I mean principles and values as well as policies – really do matter.  Jacinda Arden seems to understand that, however well received she has been for her personal qualities, it would be unwise for her to rely on that to carry her through to victory on polling day.


    The very qualities which have so far intrigued and pleased the voters – her relative youth, her gender, the departure from the norm that she represents – will also mean that she is likely to come under greater scrutiny than a more conventional candidate for the Prime Ministership would expect.

    That is not to say that she will not handle that scrutiny very well, as she has done so far.  Her launch of the policy on water was well done and the policy itself was well-judged, combining as it did two issues on which voters are known to have strong views – the controversial concession to foreign companies of the right to obtain fresh water for free in order to bottle and sell it overseas, and the imperative need to clean up our rivers.


    But policies – even those which make a particular appeal to particular groups of voters – do not, on the whole, win elections.   What really does determine the way many people vote is whether they are happy with the way their country is going.


    That is usually thought to mean, as Bill Clinton’s campaign of some years ago had it, “it’s the economy stupid.” – and of course the economy quite rightly matters.  But the economy is about more than Gross Domestic Product.  It’s also about full employment, opportunity, equality, and how well and on what we spend tax revenues.

    It is here that Jacinda Arden has the chance to lay out a vision of an economy – and more importantly, a society – that is moving in a more socially and environmentally aware and responsible direction.


    This is territory that is tailor-made for a young leader in tune with the hopes of those whose lives lie before them.  If she can convincingly articulate a set of values which will guide her on issues yet to be confronted, she will have taken a huge step towards winning, not just on personality, but on the hard issues of politics as well.


    Bryan Gould

    20 August 2017


  • The Real Reason for Housing Unaffordability

    The news that the number of houses being sold is falling and that prices are rising more slowly has been greeted in some quarters with responses that are – sadly – all too predictable.

    The consensus is that these shifts have been brought about by the Reserve Bank’s introduction of restraints on lending by the commercial banks.  The real estate agents have been the first to complain at this threat to their rising profits, but have no doubt been supported by all those others – speculators, landlords, banks – who have prospered by virtue of the crisis of affordability that has afflicted so many of our fellow-citizens.

    The Reserve Bank has been urged to relax the loan-to-value ratios that have restrained bank lending on mortgage and, as a result, have cooled the housing market – and even the government, in the person of the Prime Minister, has weighed in with advice that the Reserve Bank should back off a bit.

    This is a bit rich coming from politicians who have not themselves had the courage to do anything at all to grapple with unaffordability, and who – now that the Reserve Bank has at last taken a few first steps – choose to snipe from the sidelines when those steps prove effective.

    The critics have camouflaged their obvious self-interest in a housing market that continues to inflate – a self-interest, in the case of the property industry, in profits, and in the case of the government, in votes – by shedding crocodile tears for first-time buyers who find it difficult to raise the deposit that is now necessary.

    There may well be a case for relaxing the constraints specifically for first-time buyers trying to buy a (comparatively) inexpensive house in which they intend to live; but the case would be even stronger if the critics showed some awareness that the problems for first-time buyers – and for many others – have been caused by the very failure to act on excessive bank lending that has made it inevitable that housing prices would soar.

    A failure to act now – and, now that we can see how effective the Reserve Bank’s measures can be, to continue to act – can only mean that the housing market would become even more unbalanced and top-heavy, and future first-time buyers and others would be even more priced out of the housing market.

    We can at least celebrate one significant step forward.  The debate about what has really caused house prices to rise so fast can now be assessed in the light of these latest developments.  The conventional view, shared by opposition as well as government politicians, is that the problem is one of market failure – the failure of supply to keep pace with demand.

    But that is to ignore the fact that the housing market is not like other markets.  What makes it different is that, for as long as bank lending on mortgage is unconstrained and the banks can find people to lend to, there is virtually unlimited purchasing power in the hands of purchasers.

    It is that tidal wave of unlimited new money created by the banks washing into the housing market every day that makes it inevitable that house prices will rise and rise.  The only way of slowing it down is to restrict the amount of bank lending, and that is what the Reserve Bank has now done.

    It is to the credit of the Bank and its governor that they have acted on their understanding of what is really happening, and that they have been able, with the effectiveness of the measures they have introduced, to demonstrate the correctness of their analysis.

    But why should we continue to allow our politicians to disclaim rather than accept the responsibility that is truly theirs?  How refreshing and wonderful it would be if Labour’s new leader were to emulate the great Michael Joseph Savage who, in the late 1930s, used “quantitative easing” – not to bail out the banks – but to build thousands of new state houses.  He thereby not only created a long-term and income-producing asset for his government, but provided low-rent, good quality housing for young families.

    I know about this from first-hand experience.  My parents married as the Second World War was about to break out.  When I was born, they moved with their new baby from private rented accommodation into a new state house, which is where I grew up and enjoyed a happy and secure childhood – to which every child is surely entitled.

    Bryan Gould

    16 August 2017

  • The Real Reason for Housing Unaffordability

  • A Tale of Two Citizens

    This is a tale of two citizens.  The first, let us call him Citizen A, is a middle-aged pakeha male who has enjoyed a long career in politics and has, even from his younger days, clearly been destined for great things.  That promise was almost fulfilled when he became leader of his party at a relatively young age, but his bid to become Prime Minister at that point ended with a record general election defeat, and he was as a result replaced as leader.

    He recovered from that setback, however, and after patiently waiting for some years, regained the leadership of his party.  His patience was finally rewarded when he became Prime Minister last year, an office he still holds.

    His story is not one, however, that is unblemished.  In 2009, it was revealed that he had improperly claimed a housing allowance of $900 per week in respect of a house in Wellington that was owned by his family trust, and in which his family had lived for some time, while at the same time claiming that his principal residence was in Southland.  He repaid $32,000 that he should not have received.  The revelation did not, however, dissuade his colleagues from electing him a few years later to the party leadership.  The polls show that he continues to enjoy widespread support from the voters.

    The second of the two protagonists of our story – let us call her Citizen B – is a younger Maori woman who has also enjoyed a successful political career.  She was elected as co-leader of her party and has commanded widespread respect for the efforts she has made to draw attention to environmental and social issues that she thinks are important.

    In a perhaps misguided attempt to highlight one such issue – the struggle for those dependent on benefits to provide (especially for families with young children) food on the table – she revealed that she had more than a decade ago (and as a solo mum) lied to the authorities so as to claim a larger benefit (larger by $50 per week) than she was entitled to.

    This revelation created a storm of protest – from the media, from the public, from fellow politicians and even from her own party colleagues, some of whom declared that – as a matter of principle – they could not continue to represent their party while she remained as co-leader.  She eventually felt obliged, as her revelation (and the storm that followed it) seemed to have provoked a sharp fall in her party’s poll ratings, to resign as co-leader of her party.  Her transgression – and her decision to confess to it – may well have put an end to her political career.

    The two protagonists have, in other words, both behaved in a way that is inappropriate for those seeking the trust and support of their fellow citizens.  But one has been made to pay a heavy price; the other has emerged unscathed and continues to enjoy public esteem.

    Citizen A, of course, committed his error while already in a position of responsibility, and earning a good salary; Citizen B, on the other hand, did so when she was yet to seek any public role.  Citizen A apparently enjoyed the financial support of a family trust, while Citizen B was a penniless solo mum.  Citizen A gained, by virtue of his failure to abide by the rules, a useful, substantial (and no doubt enjoyable) addition to his purchasing power; Citizen B gained a much smaller sum which she applied to buying food for her child.

    Citizen B confessed her mistake and was willing, for the sake of those she was trying to help, to endure the opprobrium that she knew would come her way, while Citizen A’s error was disclosed only when official scrutiny revealed a breach of the rules.

    Citizen A continues to enjoy the prestige, esteem, salary and support from colleagues to which a Prime Minister is entitled.  Citizen B has, as the consequence of an unrelenting media campaign and her abandonment by her colleagues, been hounded out of her wish to continue serving the public because she is apparently unfit to seek their support.

    Charles Dickens himself could not have invented a more inventive and bizarre story line.  It is truly a tale of two citizens, and of how differently fate – and we –have treated them.

    Bryan Gould

    10 August 2017



  • What Stops Us from Housing the Homeless?

    What is your reaction when you read or hear about families (especially those with young children) sleeping in cars or in garages or simply on the streets in this cold weather?

    Do you, as I think many do, feel a brief flicker of concern but reassure yourself that the adults who find themselves in such a plight have to be feckless or inadequate or irresponsible, and therefore deserve no better?  Do you say to yourself that anyone who cannot organise their lives to provide a roof over their heads cannot expect others (and particularly the taxpayer) to bail them out?  And do you stick to that view, even while reluctantly agreeing that it is a little rough to make children pay the price for their parents’ assumed deficiencies?

    If your answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’, then you are in good company – because that is broadly the government’s answer too.  But then, are you happy with a government and a Prime Minister who could, with the stroke of a pen, authorise the expenditure that would get these families and children off the streets, and into safe, warm and healthy accommodation, but refuses to do so?  Are you happy to stick to what might loosely be called your principles and to let the dice lie where they fall, come what may  – even if the dice are the only cover that some of your fellow citizens might have available?

    Is there no room in politics for a simple human reaction to the plight of another – for a simple act of compassion and kindness?  What is it that makes us think that governments cannot, and should not, be expected to behave as any ordinary decent human being would do?

    And what conclusion would you reach if, after a moment’s thought, you realised that these benighted homeless families were not actually the authors of their own misfortunes but were in fact the victims of forces over which they have no control – that they were paying the price for the unceasing quest for ever higher profits by banks, landlords, developers, all of whom have played a significant part in ratcheting up  purchase prices and rents to levels that cannot be afforded?

    Do you think that you have any power to hold the government that we elected to account, presiding as it does over the disposition of the billions we provide to them as taxpayers, for their failure in a wealthy country to ensure that some small part of our riches is devoted to ensuring that children have somewhere warm and safe to sleep at night?

    Have you imagined what it would be like to have nowhere to lay your head, on the coldest nights of the year?

    What is to stop a Prime Minister from saying to himself, if not to others, that it is an affront to live in a society that pretends it cannot afford to provide a simple roof over the heads of our most vulnerable?  Why does he not listen to his conscience and instruct his ministers and civil servants that an immediate solution must be found today, and that a long-term solution must planned for and financed tomorrow?

    And why do we not stop to question a system that leaves the vulnerable defenceless against the depredations of the greedy?  Why do we not say that this is not the New Zealand we wish to live in or thought  we lived in?  Why do we not make sure that our political leaders understand that we elect them to do our bidding, and that our bidding is that decent housing is the minimum that every child has a right to expect and that it must be made available?

    Or would you prefer to find refuge in the thought that the homeless do not deserve to be helped, that it would cost too much to do so, that they should learn to help themselves, that they would waste any opportunity given to them, that the government cannot afford it and needs to protect its own surplus, and that you would in any case prefer to enjoy some tax cuts?

    Solving the homelessness crisis is a matter of political will.  Do you have that will?   And will you make sure that your will prevails?

    Bryan Gould

    17 July 2017