• Where’s the Christmas Spirit?

    When the condemnation by an independent review of “state-sponsored” doping of Russian athletes is reported on Russian television, followed by an assurance from Vladimir Putin’s Minister of Sport that the accusations are groundless and should be ignored, we feel justified in rolling our eyes. “What else do you expect?” we say. Russia may claim to be democracy but we know that Putin has such a hold on Russian opinion that he can get away with murder – and probably does.

    When the Fijian police chief resigns, claiming that he can no longer tolerate interference from the military, but is then immediately replaced by an army colonel, we shrug our shoulders. We know, don’t we, that the army is calling the shots, whatever the claims that democracy has been restored, and that Fijian majority opinion will simply accept what they are told.

    We, of course, live in a proper democracy. We wouldn’t swallow such nonsense. But when our Prime Minister launches an intemperate and unprincipled attack on those who stand up for human rights as “backers of rapists and murderers”, in an attempt to divert attention from his failure to act on abuses committed against New Zealand citizens by the Australian government, what do we do? Nothing. We, or at least many of us, say “well, he’s got a point, hasn’t he?” And “good old John, he tells it like it is.”

    What each of these instances – and there are many more – illustrates is that democracy is about more than form. There are many regimes that parade the trappings of democracy but whose practice actually falls well short of the democratic ideal. The lesson from such instances is that democracy essentially depends on constant scepticism and scrutiny, on not believing everything we are told simply because the person telling us is an authority figure or someone we like or generally support.

    It was Thomas Jefferson who is usually credited with the aphorism that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance”. If that vigilance flags, if we once accept whatever we are told, if we no longer challenge or question, our democracy becomes a mere cipher, and our government can confidently do whatever it likes.

    How real is that threat in New Zealand? No one would argue that our government is undemocratic, in the sense that it consistently ignores or flouts public opinion – indeed, quite the contrary, since there is a strong populist flavour in much of what it does.

    The risk we run is rather different but perhaps just as real. Our Prime Minister is adept at reading the runes and staying closely in touch with public opinion – it is one of his great political strengths. But he has become so accustomed to exploiting that ability, so confident that he will be believed however implausible may be what he says – indeed, he has so often stayed upright while skating on very thin ice – that he can now be forgiven for believing that he can get away with anything.

    On most occasions, he has been able to stay just the right side of credibility and judges correctly how far he can go. But on the Christmas Island issue, his antennae seem to have let him down.

    Even so, he will judge that the furore created by his display of manufactured outrage in parliament has meant that, while the media and others debate the rights and wrongs of what he has said on an issue that has no substance, he does not have to answer the difficult questions. Have these New Zealanders detained on Christmas Island – those with criminal convictions – not served their time? Are they not now being doubly punished? When they are told that they can go “home”, have they not made Australia their home? Are they not being discriminated against because they are not Australian? Are they not being locked up in a prison camp, and denied recourse to protection from the law, and is this not an abuse of human rights? Why does the Prime Minister not raise these questions with his Australian counterpart?

    In a proper democracy, we would demand that these questions should be answered, not just because we need to know the particular answers in this case, but because our leaders should be obliged as a matter of principle to be accountable, by providing truthful and accurate information, for what they do in our name.

    Trusting our leaders to do the right thing, even if the evidence suggests otherwise, is not good enough. In a democracy, we need to keep our eyes – and our minds – open, not closed.

    Bryan Gould

    12 November 2015



  • No One’s Fault But Ours

    Nothing so clearly demonstrates John Key’s contempt for the New Zealand voter as his confidence that we will believe whatever he tells us. He has had ample experience to back up that confidence.

    The course taken by the dirty politics saga is perhaps the most obvious case in point. If the polls are to be believed, the electorate do not want to believe that we have allowed a Watergate – differing from its more notorious predecessor only in that it is just a little more hi-tech than the crude burglary of the Watergate building – to spread its tentacles throughout our public life. They are happy to accept assurances from John Key, accompanied by facial expressions of concern and sincerity appropriate to the moment, that there is nothing to worry about, rather than face the facts that are virtually incontrovertible.

    By the time the various inquiries have reported and the truth is finally established, Mr Key knows that memories will have faded, interest in politics will have subsided, and most people will happily return to what they see as normality – a normality where it is then regarded as acceptable that our political leaders should lie and cheat, and abuse power in order to keep it. They have, after all, been assured that this is just the nature of modern politics and “everyone does it”. Better not to ask awkward questions.

    The most recent instance of Mr Key’s confidence in his ability to manipulate opinion to his advantage is quite different. It is his indication, against the advice of his own Finance Minister, that a re-elected National government might cut taxes. This was surely the most cynical of all the election “promises” we have heard so far.

    Mr Key, on this occasion, has shown himself to be an adept practitioner of what the Australians call “dog whistle” politics – the conveying of a message that is interpreted by the listener (or voter) as meaning more than what is actually said.

    The calculation on this occasion is that the mere words “tax cuts” will convince the voter that a bonanza is in store and that the way to bring it about is to vote National. But this is not a case where the fine print fails to bear out the supposed meaning; there is no fine print.

    All we have is a thought floated by the National leader. The most cursory examination of what that thought is based on shows how insubstantial it is.

    We are invited to believe that the prospect of tax cuts is a consequence of the “return to surplus”. But that surplus has yet to materialise. It has – after a six-year delay – been celebrated in advance, by virtue of some very clever and somewhat misleading public sector accounting, but looks less and less likely with each passing day.

    The brief consumer boom we have enjoyed off the back of record dairy prices is already dissipating; as that balloon deflates, so too do government tax revenues. The forecast surplus, tiny as it is forecast to be, may well not materialise at all in any immediately foreseeable future.

    That has not dissuaded Mr Key from promising to spend it in advance. But it almost certainly explains why – as Bill English no doubt insisted – we will see nothing of any proposed tax cuts, if at all, until the 2017 budget. It might be thought that, if they do materialise at that point, that should be a matter for the 2017 election three years away rather than for one in 2014.

    Nor can we have any assurance that any cuts would mean much. Raising the minimum wage by $1 an hour would provide four times as much help to a hard-pressed family as the vaguely indicated sum produced by the tax cut apparently contemplated three years hence.

    Mr Key’s much-heralded announcement, in other words, has little substance and no detail – its flakiness compounded by the alacrity with which he upped its supposed value when the initial reaction was less than ecstatic. It is a classic example of smoke and mirrors, a piece of expert legerdemain, a construction deliberately built on shifting sands.

    Can we blame John Key for so blatantly trying to mislead us? Yes, but only up to a point. The real culprits are us; we care so little about our democracy that we simply do not make an effort to sort out the wheat from the chaff. We quite literally do not want to be bothered; we would rather be invited to believe than to think.

    Sadly, there is a price to be paid for our indifference – and we will all pay it. We will have acquiesced in a further and damaging debasement of standards in our public life. We will have exchanged at least the goal of decent government in the interests of the whole community for the standards of the snake-oil salesman.

    Bryan Gould

    9 September 2014

  • John Key and the Law

    There are many reasons for concern about the GCSB Bill that has just passed into law, but one we might not have expected is the extent to which the Prime Minister seems unaware of its true implications.

    It must surely have come as a shock, even to his supporters, that John Key seems not to understand some of the basic principles of democratic government. In particular, he seemed to see no distinction between his own personal assurances and the law of the land.

    The great principle of English common law, both foreshadowing and endorsed by the Glorious Revolution, is that no man “be ye ever so high” is above the law. The great Chief Justice Edmund Coke would have made short shrift of any pretension that a mere politician could decide what was and was not the law by his mere say-so.

    Yet that is what our Prime Minister apparently presumes to do. In assurances given in a television interview, he asked citizens to accept his word as to his intentions concerning the new power to intercept our communications that the security service he heads was about to have conferred upon it. He seemed to think that, merely because he had said it, it was equivalent to a legal obligation and could be relied upon in a court of law.

    He was under a similar misapprehension when he proclaimed that he would speak in the Bill’s Third Reading debate so that future courts would know what the Act meant and, therefore, what the law was. He did not seem to realise that it is Parliaments, not Prime Ministers, that make law and that it is courts that interpret it.

    But surely, it may be objected, we can trust John Key? If he says he will use the new power responsibly, why should we not believe him?

    Let us leave to one side the obvious point that, however virtuous John Key may be, he will not be here forever, and we have no idea what view his successors may take, or what use they might make, of the wide powers he has claimed for himself.

    The real point, though, is that liberty can be eroded if power is placed in just one set of hands, however well-intentioned, and is not subject to proper checks and safeguards – and that almost always means legal safeguards. It needs only a temptation to treat as identical or equivalent the interests of a particular party or government on the one hand and those of the whole country on the other to raise unacceptable risks that basic freedoms might be threatened.

    Some of the most thorough-going despots in history have no doubt believed that the fortunes of their country and their own are indistinguishable. I have no doubt that Robert Mugabe, for example, genuinely believes that Zimbabwe would be a shambles without him.

    Our own Prime Minister’s reliability in this regard is surely called into question by his easy assumption that his own (personal, political and partisan) interests are the only guide necessary to ensure that the huge diversity of interests of his fellow citizens is properly served.

    The rationale offered by Peter Dunne for his own support for the Bill offers no more comfort. If the Prime Minister were to misuse these powers, Peter Dunne assures us, John Key would be “punished by public opinion”. Leaving aside the question of how the public would ever know, what makes Peter Dunne think that John Key is deterred by public opinion? If public opinion counted for anything, we wouldn’t have the Bill in the first place – and nor, for that matter, would we have Peter Dunne.

    Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the whole episode – going beyond even the very real fears about our progress down a slippery slope to a surveillance state – is what it tells us about the Prime Minister’s increasingly slapdash way of doing business.

    He seems more and more to believe that he can get away with flying by the seat of his pants – that he is able to resolve any problem with a quick fix or an easy promise. His government seems increasingly to be a law unto itself, answerable to no one but the Prime Minister himself, and he looks to be more and more prone to taking his eye off the ball.

    The literally overnight timeframe of the foreign exchange dealer may have been ideal for the purpose of making a quick personal fortune on the foreign exchange markets, but we surely need a longer and more considered timeframe and a more thoughtful approach from the country’s leader.

    The GCSB saga has been a shambles from beginning to end. Perhaps the only consolation is that it begins to offer us some explanation as to why so much else suddenly seems to be going wrong as well.

    Bryan Gould

    21 August 2013

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 23 August 2013

  • Tipping the Balance

    In his first term as Prime Minister, John Key made a determined effort to be all things to all men – and women. In his second term, however, he hasn’t bothered; he has clearly calculated that he can still win an election while quite overtly tipping the balance of advantage further in favour of the better off and against those who are struggling.

    The evidence for this can be seen, for example, in the alacrity and openness with which he meets the demands of big business; but nowhere is it more apparent than in the burdens he is increasingly ready to place on working people.

    The ranks of the poor in New Zealand have been increased in recent years by the unemployed and their families. The Key government’s indifference to their plight has been one of the least appealing aspects of its skewed order of priorities. But what has attracted less attention, perhaps, is the pressure now being put on families that depend on the earnings of those in work.

    We have come a long way since the heady days of John Key’s commitment to close the wages (and living standards) gap with Australia. Far from trying to lift wages, the government is engaged in an undeclared campaign to depress real wages still further.

    And that is from a starting point where low wages were already the central element in the widening income gap in New Zealand. We suffered the fastest widening of inequality of any country in the last two decades of last century, and remain dishonourably in the top group. The top 10% of income-earners enjoy today an income 9 times greater than the income of the bottom 10%, up from 5 times in the 1980s.

    As Treasury research shows, New Zealand households in the lower half of the income range had no increase in real incomes between 1988 and 2010; all the increase in national income over that period went, in other words, to those who were already better off. Although labour productivity in the private sector rose by 48% over a similar period (1989-2011), the average hourly wage rose in real terms by only 14%.

    The price we have paid for this intensification of inequality is not just financial. As workers’ rights at work have weakened, our shameful record on health and safety at work has worsened. In industries like forestry, where employees work long hours in a virtually deregulated workplace and labour costs as a proportion of total costs have fallen sharply, the rate of industrial accidents remains unacceptably high.

    It is against this background that the government has intensified its assault on the ability of ordinary people to protect their living standards and safety at work. That assault has taken the form of a whole range of measures, such as maintaining the minimum wage at a level that is inadequate to halt the increase in family and child poverty and introducing a young workers’ wage even lower than the minimum wage. Low-paid workers in industries such as aged care are still expected to accept minimal wage increases that mean a further fall in their living standards. The unemployed are forced by benefit cuts and tighter rules about eligibility to try their luck in a labour market where there are few new jobs so that they are forced to try to undercut those in jobs that are already low-paid.

    These factors are not accidental. They seem part of a deliberate strategy to remove the floor under wages and force them lower as a means of re-stimulating the economy. It is an amazingly convenient coincidence, is it not, that our slow recovery from the recession apparently depends on sacrifices made by the poor while we can afford more goodies for the rich.

    The government is still at it. International research shows that the most important factor in determining the rate of wage growth is workers’ ability to use collective bargaining to negotiate wage rates. This is not surprising; individual workers have little bargaining power in the face of powerful employers and in a labour market weakened by high unemployment. It is only by joining with each other that they have any hope of protecting their wage levels and working conditions.

    It is easy for those whose economic fortunes do not depend on collective bargaining to underestimate its importance not only to trade union members but also to a properly functioning economy. The right to organise in a trade union is recognised as fundamental in international conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is an essential element in ensuring that a market economy operates fairly and in everyone’s interest.

    But our government is pressing ahead with so-called “reforms” that in effect remove the right to collective bargaining and allow employers to refuse to engage with their workers other than on an individual basis. Sadly, this is just one more step in the campaign to reinforce the disadvantage suffered by ordinary people when faced with the overwhelming power of their employers in an unregulated marketplace. It turns back the clock to a society disfigured by division and inequality and an economy that fails to fire because it serves an increasingly narrow interest.

    Bryan Gould

    26 July 2013

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 29 July.

  • The New Muldoon

    In August 2011, the Herald published a piece of mine in which I warned that John Key was in danger of posing, by virtue of his dominance of both the political process and the media, a Muldoon-like threat to good government and accountability. Today, in the light of more recent events, there may be a better understanding of the point I was trying to make.

    The most recent of those events is the controversy that has arisen about the Prime Minister’s role in the appointment of Ian Fletcher as head of the government’s security agency. The episode gives cause for concern on a number of grounds.

    What seems beyond doubt is that Ian Fletcher, although no doubt a competent public servant, had no relevant experience to qualify him for the job. It is a mystery, therefore, that – following the rejection of a short list of four people with relevant experience – his name and his alone went forward.

    It is also beyond doubt that this unusual process came about as a result of John Key’s intervention. The Prime Minister’s memory may again have conveniently failed him, but it was his phone call to an old family friend which led directly to Ian Fletcher’s appointment. It is beyond belief that the knowledge that he enjoyed the Prime Minister’s patronage was not a factor in his appearance on a short list of one and his emergence out of left field as the preferred candidate.

    Does this matter, or should we – like John Key – shrug our shoulders and say that that’s the way these things happen? The first point to make is that heading the GCSB is one of the most critical appointments in the public service. An incumbent who lacked the necessary qualities could make mistakes with very serious consequences – and this may have been a factor in what is now recognised as the mishandling of the Dotcom affair, the first major issue faced by Ian Fletcher following his appointment.

    And how convenient it was for John Key that, following his visit to GCSB a month after the illegal raid on Dotcom’s mansion, the video recording of the briefing he received on current issues, and whose details he could not subsequently recall, could not somehow be found. This allowed the Prime Minister to escape censure for his incorrect assertion that he had had no knowledge of the Dotcom affair until much later.

    At the very least, this episode illustrates the danger of what might be perceived as a close nexus between the head of the spy agency and the Prime Minister. A spy chief – possessing as he does the power to spy and report on ordinary citizens – should never be seen as the Prime Minister’s creature.

    It is not only John Key’s role in the appointments process that should raise eyebrows. We have again witnessed an increasingly familiar sequence of events. First, the Prime Minister bypasses proper process and stitches up a secret deal with cronies – either business or political or both. He has grown accustomed to behaving, in other words, as a law unto himself; the Prime Minister’s fiat takes precedence, it seems, over normal process and rules. Then, when he is rumbled, he denies that anything improper has happened, or professes to have no recollection of what was done or said, or passes the responsibility on to someone else, or falsely claims, as in the case of the deal with Sky City over a convention centre, that – in defiance in this case of the Deputy Auditor General’s report – he has been vindicated.

    What is worrying is his readiness to obfuscate, to slip and slide away from taking responsibility for what he has done. His confidence that he can get away with being economical (and in some cases just plain careless) with the truth has led him, it seems, to lose any respect for not only the media but – surprisingly – Parliament as well.

    In the GCSB case, we have seen John Key treating Parliament with contempt, omitting to mention the phone call he made to Ian Fletcher (a call he claims to have “forgotten”) and also giving a misleading and partial account of his relationship with Fletcher.

    Much of this will pass over the heads of most people. They will continue to respond to the Prime Minister’s ready smile and friendly manner. It is, though, one of the hazards of the media age that presentational skills have taken over from honesty and plain-dealing as the qualities we rate in our leaders.

    Democracy is not just a matter of electing people to govern us. It works only if, having elected a government and a Prime Minister, we then hold them properly to account – a task that rests not only on the media but on all of us. The danger is that John Key can now assume that he can escape that test – that he can achieve through obfuscation and glad-handing the same immunity from scrutiny, the same release from the obligation to account to his electors, that Muldoon secured through bullying and intimidation.

    Bryan Gould

    4 April 2013