• Getting Our Priorities Right

    Much of the political debate over the past few months – as we have grappled with the coronavirus pandemic – has centred on the question of whether it is the interests of business or the health of the community that should take priority in policy terms.

    Much has been made of the damage done to business by the focus placed on controlling the virus through measures such as lockdowns of varying severity; but most people have understood that there is not a choice to be made between protecting business on the one hand and dealing with the virus on the other – that the best, indeed, only, way of helping business is to bring the virus under control.

    That conclusion is strongly supported by the unhappy experience of other countries – the US and the UK, among others – which have followed a different course and attempted to protect businesses rather than people. In our case, the issue seemed to have been put to rest by our election result, which could be seen as an endorsement of the government’s current priorities.

    It is therefore somewhat surprising that we now find ourselves threatened with further outbreaks of covid-19 brought about by the relaxed attitude apparently taken to the arrival on our shores of scores of foreign fisherman from countries – Russia and the Ukraine – known to be hotspots for the virus.

    These foreign fishermen, many of whom have been found to be infected and have had to be quarantined on arrival, despite allegedly having been quarantined and tested before they left their countries of origin, are permitted entry, it seems, in the interests of large fishing firms who say that the imported workers are “essential” because there is a shortage of Kiwis who are trained well enough to be capable of working on the technically advanced fishing vessels used by the fishing firms.

    Does being “essential” mean that their threat to our covid-free status can or should be disregarded or overlooked? How is it that the health and safety of the population as a whole (as well as the business interests of many other firms) are being put at risk in the interests of a couple of fishing firms who apparently have neither the foresight nor competence to train the staff they need? And when will they ever train virus-free Kiwis if they are permitted to go on importing trained, albeit infected, workers from overseas?

    What efforts have they made to train Kiwi workers? How did the foreign workers get trained in the first place? And do they offer other advantages – perhaps settling for lower wage rates – as well as their superior training?

    Surely our newly elected government must apply the lessons that they themselves have learned and proclaimed in their successful campaign against the virus? Surely they will give priority to the people who elected them, and will, above all else, take the steps required to prevent any further outbreaks?

    Have we not reached the point when businesses must be told that we – the population as a whole – having made so many sacrifices ourselves, are entitled to expect businesses to accept and act on their own responsibilities; at the very least, are we not entitled to be spared the threat of a resurgence of the virus, merely because a business has been run so incompetently that it cannot function without jeopardising the health of the rest of us?

    And what of other firms that have made so many sacrifices themselves? Are their interests to be put at risk, simply because another firm has lacked the foresight, over a period of twenty-five years, to train its own New Zealand-based crew?

    Come on, ministers and officials! Show some of the clarity and decisiveness that have distinguished your performance so far. The public good must surely be the top priority .

    Bryan Gould
    27 October 2020

  • Lessons from the Election

    This year’s general election has broken new ground – and not just in terms of its outcome, the seats won and votes cast, and – in an MMP environment – the margin of victory. It also suggests that something quite fundamental has changed in New Zealand politics.

    The outcome is not, after all, to be explained – or at least not totally – in terms of errors made by one party or the achievements of, or blandishments offered by, another. But we are entitled to note, in passing, that the principal plank in National’s platform – the claim to have a “strong team” – was difficult to maintain in light of their recent leadership travails and the evidence throughout the campaign of internal bickering and criticism from within of their current leader.

    Nor did that claim stand up well to comparison in the competence stakes with a Labour front-bench that was headed by Jacinda Ardern and then included Grant Robertson – widely regarded as on top of his job as finance minister, Chris Hipkins who played a blinder in handling his twin portfolios of education and health, heavyweights like David Parker and Andrew Little, and well-performing relative newcomers like Stuart Nash, Kris Faafoi, Megan Woods and Carmel Sepuloni, and others too numerous to mention.

    The real significance of the Labour victory and the National failure, however, lies in what it tells us about how we see ourselves and how we now approach our politics.

    National seems to have been stuck in a time warp. Its campaign strategy was based on the age-old belief that every election is a hip-pocket election, and that a party should naturally look for support to particular groups who define themselves by their own apparent self-interest and their own perceptions of where they stand in the socio-economic landscape.

    So, the National campaign had a peculiarly old-fashioned feel to it. It featured the promise of a short-term income tax break (though that seems to have been recognised for what it was), and constant references to the important role played in our economy by farmers and small businesses – nothing wrong with that, but it revealed a belief that economic self-interest was the deciding, perhaps only, factor in how people were likely to vote.

    Labour, by contrast, had moved on. They understood that elections are no longer decided by “the economy, stupid”, but by how people feel about themselves and how they see wider ethical, environmental and social issues – people who did not see themselves as necessarily pre-programmed by self-interest in economic terms to vote one way rather than another.

    They looked for leadership – that is, leadership that leads, and doesn’t merely calculate how best to buy support from the greatest number at the least cost. They saw themselves not just as individuals, but as members of a society that worked well together and in which they could feel pride.

    They wanted to be able to congratulate themselves on their achievements. They wanted to feel an affinity with leaders they liked, trusted and admired. They looked beyond our shores and saw examples and instances of leadership in other countries that they rejected and compared unfavourably with our own.

    It is of course possible to describe and define these changes as signalling a shift to “the left” by the electorate – and I don’t dissent if it is put in that way. What is clear is that if National want to do better in 2023, they will have to adjust to the change, however it is described. It is not so much their policies as the kind of people they are.

    But I prefer to think that what has happened is both a move into a better future – a recognition that what matters is how we treat and relate to each other and to our planet – and that at the same time it is a return to our roots, to the values and principles on which Aotearoa/New Zealand was built.

    Long may it last!

    Bryan Gould
    21 October 2020

  • A Tale of Two Elections

    AS 2020 draws to a close, two very different countries, in different hemispheres and time zones, are holding elections that are of great importance, not only for their own futures but for the future of the world as well.

    The USA and New Zealand differ greatly in physical and economic size and importance, but their two election campaigns inevitably share a number of features; both are dominated by the coronavirus pandemic and its economic consequences, and both campaigns are characterised by debates and disagreements about – among other things – climate change, racism and leadership styles.

    But, the two countries are at opposite ends of the scale in the way that these issues are, and have been, dealt with. In the USA, the pandemic continues to rage and to cost lives, and the economic cost of the virus continues to weigh heavily; in New Zealand, the virus has been brought under control and the focus is now on economic recovery.

    In New Zealand, the competing parties and politicians have arrived at a broad consensus on the threat posed by climate change and they vie with each other as to which has the best plan for remedial action; but in the USA, that issue, despite bushfires and hurricanes, has been downplayed. And similarly, while manifestations of racism are deplored in New Zealand and seen as calling for action, one of the candidates for high office in the USA is accused (with some justice) of fanning the flames of racial prejudice.

    It is when we consider the role and responsibilities of leadership, however, that the contrast is at its most stark. The American election’s focus on electing a president necessarily means that the leadership qualities offered by the individual presidential candidates are at the heart of the debate. This is not to say that New Zealand’s parliamentary system of government means that the nature and style of leadership is not also a vitally important consideration.

    The questions about leadership, however, have played very different roles in the two elections. In the USA, it is no exaggeration to say that the election is entirely about the personality of one of the candidates – and that is how that candidate wants it and sees it. For the American voter, there is really only one issue – is Donald Trump fit to be president?

    It is the candidate himself who makes that the issue. It is his insistence that he is uniquely qualified for the job that defines the election. He offers a leadership style – based on macho posturing and a fantasy image of himself as a superman – that divides people, that turns them against each other, that emphasises difference, that denies social responsibility, that lauds selfishness and privilege, and that is happy to trade on wild conspiracy theories.

    These are not unimportant factors. It is no exaggeration to say that the American failure to grapple successfully with the pandemic has owed much to Trump’s encouragement of confusion about the nature – even the very existence – of the virus, and the fact that he cannot be trusted to tell the truth.

    In New Zealand, we are offered a different concept of leadership. We have a leadership that brings us together, that tells us that we are one people, and that treats us as all in the same waka. We enjoy a leadership that demonstrates kindness, and empathy with those in need and despair, that is straight-talking and “tells it like it is”, that treats us as adults, and that recognises that there is much yet to be done if the challenges of climate change, child poverty and endemic racism are to be successfully confronted.

    We have benefited from a leadership that has united us in the battle against the coronavirus epidemic and that has made us feel good about ourselves. We only wish that we could feel as positive about the future faced by the Americans – because the whole world will pay the price if the Americans get it wrong. Sadly, we cannot pass on our understanding and experience of true leadership to our American friends.

    Some us get confused about the time difference between different parts of the USA and New Zealand. “Is it night time in America?” we ask. Let us hope that it isn’t.

    Bryan Gould
    14 October 2020

  • Managing the Economy

    There has been much discussion, in the run-up to our election, about which party is best able to “manage the economy” – but little attention has been paid to what is meant by the phrase “managing the economy”, and in whose interests is it assumed that it should be managed.

    The economy is, after all, a hydra-headed, multi-faceted beast and it could be managed for a wide variety of different purposes. If we are to judge who is best at managing it, we need to know by what criteria we are asked to make that judgment and, unless we know the goals that are set, we cannot know whether they have been met.

    Is the economy to be managed so as to maximise production? That can so often be just another way of saying “so as to maximise business profits and top salaries”. Or is it to be managed so as to lift employment and wages? Or to make the government’s books look good? That is usually just another way of expressing the intention to cut spending on essential services.

    Might we define the goal of “managing the economy” as minimising its impact on the environment – a goal that many might dismiss as having little to do with what the economy is really about. But others might say that that is exactly what the economy is about – that the economy is what we do to meet our supposed needs as consumers, by making demands on our environment and its resources.

    Or we might want to see the economy managed so that its benefits are shared as widely as possible, though some might say that has little to do with the real purpose of the economy – but try telling that to those who feel left behind.

    Should the goal be an economy that boosts our well-being, rather than boosts Gross Domestic Product? We might register, in that context, Sir David Attenborough’s commendation of our current government, and of Jacinda Ardern, in particular, for their introduction of a budgetary process focused on well-being.

    Is a well-managed economy one that enables us, as a country, to pay our way in the world? If so, we might worry about our perennial trade deficit and how much we owe to overseas lenders.

    Or should we focus instead on the amount of indebtedness that we all, as individuals, take on? In which case, we might be anxious about the volume of money that the banks create out of nothing and then lend on mortgage.

    Or do we take the view that “managing the economy” means that the really important questions, such as deciding how much money there should be in circulation, should be handed over to the banks to decide in their own interests?

    How the economy should be managed, in other words, depends on what we think the economy is for – on which subject, opinions will vary widely, and will usually reflect the political views of those making the judgment.

    We should certainly stop imagining that “managing the economy” is a simple concept, and easily measured, rather as though we were totting up a golf score. We can all be reasonably satisfied that Tiger Woods is good at golf because we can count the number of strokes he takes.

    But the economy is more complicated – and to ask how and by whom it is best managed is to invite a whole range of political, social and ethical concepts to be brought to bear. It might be better to ask, “what is an economy for” and to judge those claiming to be good managers of it according to the answers they give to that question.

    And we should probably be suspicious of those who claim to have all the answers to a question that is undoubtedly more complicated than they seem to realise.

    Nor should we forget that the important people in an economy are not the government, but us. It is, after all, our economy; we should ensure that we have a proper say in how it is run and for whose benefit, rather than leave those questions to politicians with their own axes to grind.

    Bryan Gould
    7 October 2020

  • An Apology, Not A Complaint, Is Now Needed

    Some commentators, and particularly – not surprisingly – those who wished to remain in the European Union, have been making much of the difficulties the UK has experienced in extricating itself from the embrace (if that is the right word) of the EU.

    They cite the difficulty the UK has had in negotiating a satisfactory new arrangement, the problems – still unresolved – thrown up by the withdrawal agreement, the supposed breach of international law that British legislation concerning the withdrawal has brought about, the unresolved issues of rights to fishing waters and the admissibility of state aids to industry, as evidence that the decision to leave the EU was mistaken – and (presumably) should be reversed.

    But another view and interpretation – more in accord with reason and the facts – is also possible. Each of these difficulties arising from the withdrawal process can be seen as further evidence that the original decision to join “Europe” was a fundamental mistake and that the sooner we can get out the better.

    Why would anyone wish to join, let alone remain part of, an arrangement that has not only failed to deliver what was promised but from which it is claimed that it is impossible to leave without paying further heavy penalties and prices?

    Are these problems about withdrawal not simply further evidence of the pressing need to disengage? Are not the intransigence of our supposed “partners”, their unwillingness to negotiate a mutually beneficial new arrangement, the requirement that we should continue to cede important economic rights such as he exclusive right to fish in our own waters, and the loss of the ability to decide our own affairs – all being demonstrated anew as we seek to leave – precisely the kinds of issue that underlay the decision to leave in the first place?

    What is surprising about the commentary from the critics of the decision to leave is that they not only fail to understand how thoroughly the withdrawal process demonstrates the need to leave, but that they show not the slightest awareness of their own responsibility for, or any readiness to apologise for, their role in bringing about, the difficulties that we still face.

    These critics are, after all, those who urged us on into the whole disastrous experiment in the first place. They are the ones who promised us an economic nirvana, who assured us that there would be no loss of the powers of self-government, who pooh-poohed any intention to create a European super-state – let alone one from which it would be virtually impossible to withdraw without heavy penalties.

    How refreshing it would be if they were to acknowledge that they had got it wrong and had sold us a false prospectus, if they would stop treating their allegiance to the European “ideal” as still justifying their selling our interests down the river.

    The Polly Toynbees of this world have much to answer for. Some self-awareness, contrition, humility and perhaps “a period of silence” (to quote Clement Attlee) from them would be welcome.

    Bryan Gould
    30 Septemner 2020