• 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

  • A New Monetary Policy Needed

    Positive Money New Zealand is a voluntary organisation that campaigns for monetary reform. It is affiliated to other similar organisations across the globe and in particular to Positive Money in the UK. I have the honour to be its patron.

    The founders and prime movers in Positive Money New Zealand have been, however, a Bay of Plenty couple – Don Richards and his wife Sue Hamill. Don confesses that it was Sue who first developed an interest in monetary reform, and then recruited him to the cause. Sadly, Sue died a few weeks ago after a battle with cancer. Her ashes were interred at Hillcrest Cemetery in Whakatane last week.

    One of Sue’s last projects, now carried on by Don, was a petition to be presented to Parliament. The petition, (which can be found at http://www.positivemoney.org.nz/Site/petition/default.aspx), calls for a review of our current monetary system to be considered by a Select Committee in the hope that the resultant publicity (and the education of Select Committee members) might then stimulate the necessary pressure for change.

    The body of the petition sets out the case for change. It takes as its starting point the almost incredible fact – one still contested by many supposed experts, although confirmed by detailed studies produced by the Bank of England and other central banks – that around 97% of our money has been created, not by the government, but by the commercial banks, which create the money by simply making a bank entry in the accounts of those to whom they lend money, usually on mortgage.

    The banks, of course, charge interest on the money they thereby create ex nihilo (or out of nothing) and it is the interest they charge that produces their huge profits of billions of dollars which they then send back, in most cases, to Australia.

    What is really astonishing about this state of affairs is that the money supply – one of the key elements in determining our economic success or otherwise – is almost entirely controlled, not by our government or the Reserve Bank, but by foreign-owned commercial banks which operate entirely for profit and are in no way accountable to the New Zealand public.

    It is, however, the New Zealand public that pays the price and bears the burden of the inexorable and bank-driven increase in the money supply. That price is paid in the form of higher interest rates (which are needed to restrain the ever-increasing level of lending), an over-valued exchange rate (a consequence of the higher interest rates that attract “hot money” from overseas), a crippling level of private debt in our economy, a huge burden on our balance of payments, a diversion of capital away from infrastructure and productive purposes, and constantly rising housing costs – all of which we could do without.

    The petition proposes that we should change this inherently unstable system of money creation to one in which new money is no longer created by private and largely foreign-owned companies whose only goal is profit, but is issued only by the Reserve Bank under the direction of our elected government which would then be accountable to the people for its monetary policy, as it should be, but currently is not. New money could then be directed to productive purposes and would no longer simply fuel asset inflation, particularly in the housing market.

    This approach to monetary policy is not only endorsed by leading monetary policy experts, such as Lord Adair Turner, and applied by governments in overseas countries, such as Shinzo Abe’s Japan, but has a gold-plated pedigree right here in New Zealand, where Michael Joseph Savage’s Labour government in the 1930s authorised the Reserve Bank to issue interest-free credit in order to build thousand of state houses and thereby helped to bring the Great Depression to an end. Let us hope that the Select Committee will take note.

    Bryan Gould
    19 September 2018

  • Coalition Government Working As It Should

    It is increasingly clear that some supposedly expert commentators on the political scene have a poor understanding of how a parliamentary democracy actually works.

    The cardinal principle of such a system of government is that it is parliament – not the government – that makes the laws. If it were otherwise – so that government need pay little or no attention to parliament – we would have a quite different system – one that Quintin Hogg, later Lord Hailsham, characterised as an “elective dictatorship.”

    Under our system, the government must, in other words, be able to command a majority in parliament; otherwise it would not be able to pass new legislation. And it is here that things get a little tricky for countries like New Zealand.

    Like many other countries, New Zealand has a proportional representation voting system (in our case it is one called MMP). It is inherently unlikely that any single party will be able to secure a parliamentary majority under such a voting system all by itself.

    This is not an accident or a disaster; it is how the system is meant to work. The whole point of MMP was to ensure that parliament could not be steam-rollered by a single party and that parliament and government would represent a wider range of interests and views than those of just one party.

    That means that governments must usually be formed on the basis of a coalition agreement between two or more parties – and if the party with the most seats or votes does not itself have a majority, they need not be included.

    The parties which make up the coalition do not lose their identity and their separate view points and interests. They merely agree to work with each other and – by supporting each other on most, if not all, issues – to ensure the the government has some stability.

    But, consistently with the need for a majority if any particular law is to be passed, any one or more of the parties in the coalition can withhold their agreement to a particular measure and thereby prevent it from being passed if they do not support it.

    There is nothing remarkable about this. It is how the system is meant to work and it is entirely consistent with – indeed required by – the principles of parliamentary government. So, in the present coalition government, any one of the two parties to the coalition agreement, Labour and New Zealand First – or perhaps three if the Greens were to be included on the basis of their general stance of supporting the government on most issues were to be included – could withhold their support and prevent the passage of a particular measure, on the basis that without their support there would be no parliamentary majority.

    When the coalition partners occasionally do not agree on a particular issue, here is no reason, in other words, no reason to froth at the mouth, or bemoan the fact that National, with the largest number of seats but not a majority, is not in government, or to ask, who is running the government. A coalition government that has to muster a parliamentary majority to get its measures passed is what both our constitutional principles and the will of the people as represented by the outcome of the election both dictate; it is called democracy at work.

    So, when New Zealand First declines to support a particular proposal put forward by Labour, or if the roles are reversed so that Labour fails support something New Zealand First wants, we should celebrate, not fulminate. We have the best of all worlds – a more representative parliament, a government that has to take account of a wider range of opinion than just its own, and a coalition government that provides stability and a consistent strategic direction.

    Perhaps some of our commentators should pause to reflect for a moment before going into print.

    Bryan Gould
    13 September 2018

     

  • Primary Health Care for All

    I decided a few weeks ago to step down from my role as Chair of the Board of EBPHA, the Eastern Bay Primary Health Alliance. As I confessed to my friends and colleagues at a farewell they had kindly organised for me this week, I had known very little about how the health sector actually worked when I had been asked to take on the role eight years ago.

    Like most people, I had been vaguely aware that primary health care was about visiting the doctor when you felt unwell or needed health advice, and it also provided a range of other nursing and specialist services, all designed to keep you in good health so that you did not need to go into hospital.

    What I hadn’t realised was how complicated were the arrangements that made all this possible. I rapidly learned that primary health care depended on the skill, experience, commitment and sheer hard work of a dedicated team of qualified people, working as a team under the expert leadership, first, of our foundation Chief Executive, Steve Crew, and then of his successor, our excellent, able and young Chief Executive, Michelle Murray.

    My job was the relatively simple one of chairing a Board, comprising clinicians and representatives of iwi and of the wider community, and enabling them to provide to our
    excellent executive arm the strategic vision and leadership that would enable them to perform their important work to the best effect.

    I was fortunate in leading a Board that naturally gelled and was united in its determination to get the best possible results for the community we served. As our title indicated, our focus was the Eastern Bay of Plenty – with a particular emphasis on the “Eastern” – and the particular issues faced by our region were, for us, always front of mind.

    We have in the Eastern Bay a high proportion of Maori patients and we constantly struggle to eliminate the unacceptable disparity in health outcomes between Maori and pakeha. We also have a greater incidence of poverty and of the problems that it throws up. Factors such as these combine to create difficulties that are greater here than elsewhere.

    Poverty often means damp, overcrowded and unhealthy housing, and poor diet, from which flow a number of health risks. It can also mean that people are less able to travel to get medical care and, with less access to modern electronic media, are more difficult to contact. Cultural issues can mean a resistance to immunisation for small children and to breast and cervical screening.

    We have learned that there is no point in simply bemoaning these factors. We have to accept them for what they are and need to work with them and at times to use them to our advantage. We have come to understand, for example, that health care for Maori is greatly more effective if it is made available and delivered in a culturally appropriate way and – as often as possible – by Maori themselves.

    Does any of this matter? Yes, of course it does. If we can reduce the incidence of conditions like diabetes and rheumatic fever, if we can improve the mental health of our young people, if we can enhance the care available to the ill and elderly, then we not only lessen the burdens on our hard-pressed hospital services, but we greatly lift the quality of life of our own people.

    As I give up my own responsibilities, I am absolutely confident that I leave behind a team of friends and colleagues who are totally committed to providing the huge blessing of good health to our whole population. I wish them well in the important and valuable work that they do.

    Bryan Gould
    5 September 2018