• Toughness When We Need It

    These are tough times – and many of us are doing it tough. Fortunately, we have a leader whose toughness has matched what our problems demand, if they are to be confronted and overcome.

    I wonder how many people have marvelled, as I have, at the sheer mental and physical toughness shown by our Prime Minister as she has negotiated her way through the many challenges of the coronavirus pandemic – day after day, week after week, and month after month?

    As one who has had personal experience of the mental and physical toll exacted by leading a life in the public gaze, by public speaking, by doing repeated television and radio interviews, and by giving regular press conferences, I can only wonder at how Jacinda Ardern has kept going, given the pressure she is under for every minute of the day. The mental and nervous energy required to expose oneself repeatedly to public scrutiny in this way is enormous.

    Surveys have shown that being faced with having to speak in public is the prospect that people find most frightening – but she takes it in her stride.

    How does a young woman and mother, with a little toddler to look after, find the time to get herself briefed daily by her science and health advisers, consult with her Cabinet and individual ministers, front up in parliament, report daily to the nation on radio and television and have herself grilled by commentators and journalists every day, and then reach critical decisions on the hugely important issues she has to face. How does that young woman find the inner strength to make tough decisions on issues that would have daunted most ordinary people – and most world leaders as well?

    Where does that sheer stamina and self-belief come from? How does she get to re-charge her batteries, day after day?

    How many of us would be able to think clearly and act decisively when faced with our own pressing problems, let alone those of the country as a whole?

    We have a Prime Minister who is renowned worldwide for her kindness and empathy but who has shown, in addition to that, an ability, unmatched by any other world leader, to take the tough decisions.

    A Donald Trump, for all his macho posturing, has quailed, and failed to meet his responsibilities. He has been overwhelmed and shown himself categorically to lack the qualities needed in a leader at a time of national emergency. He has no plan, no strategy, to defeat the pandemic. Bluster is no substitute for decisive action.

    There are other leaders too – Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and even Boris Johnson of the UK – who have talked in a macho way and then failed miserably to take any effective action.

    Which of us, and which of other world leaders, would have had the sheer audacity to commit a whole country to lockdown overnight – but she did!

    That audacity saved tens of thousands of lives and, since the one is the corollary of the other, helped to protect our economy as well.

    She has shown, in other words, that she can bear on her slight shoulders the heaviest of burdens.

    The lesson we must draw is that “toughness” is not to be established by just claiming to be tough, or by being a bruiser, or by bullying and throwing your weight around, or by treating people harshly, without courtesy and respect.

    The toughness we need is of a different kind; it is the readiness to face up to and deal with the harsh realities and unprecedented challenges of a pandemic that has reached a scale and severity unique in human history; it is the energy and bravery and self-confidence, the guts and determination, to find a way through and around it on behalf of all of us.

    Bryan Gould
    3 September 2020

  • Our New Outbreak

    Even six months or more into the global pandemic, we are still struggling to come to terms with its dimensions.

    It is not just the breadth of its global spread, or the huge numbers of cases and deaths worldwide. It is, rather, the number of impacts it has on our lives that continues to take us by surprise.

    As a country, we have – as is universally recognised – been more successful than most in restricting the number of fatalities, the number of families it has left bereaved, and the number of those whose health has been permanently affected.

    But, as the virus rampages outside our borders, we continue to underestimate the cost and effort required to limit its impact on our daily lives. And that impact is measured not only in its direct and potential health effects.

    We must also take into account the impacts arising from the steps we must necessarily take to restrain it and to prevent it from rampaging amongst us uncontrolled.

    Those steps necessarily impose their own costs, on top of those imposed by the virus itself. They all require us to restrict the freedoms we normally enjoy. They all mean cutting down the social and economic space into which the virus can be allowed to expand and seek out its victims. They all exact a cost – a cost that many find irksome, others onerous.

    Nor do the efforts we must make to keep it in check impact on us all equally. They are variable in the severity of their consequences and as to where, how, and to what extent their effects are felt.

    They will also vary in the practical and technical problems they present for those (usually described as “the government”) attempting the difficult task of putting them in place. And they all depend for their efficacy on the cooperation of every one of us and on the avoidance of human error.

    All of this provides fertile ground for those whose natural tendency it is to complain. There will be those who will claim to have been unfairly disadvantaged, by virtue of their own personal circumstances – those, for example, who will plead, on compassionate grounds, to be released from restriction, or those who bemoan their bad luck in falling one side of a boundary rather than another, or those whose business is claimed to be peculiarly vulnerable.

    Then there will be those who dispute the reasons for a particular restriction, claiming to know better than the experts what is required. And there will be those – often more generally out of sympathy with the efforts we and the government are making – who will, as a means of undermining our shared efforts, seize upon and magnify any perceived oversight or mis-step or practical failure. Such people will make little allowance for human frailty or for the unpredictability of the virus and the gaps in our current knowledge as to how it behaves.

    This latter group will be keen to lambast “the government” as though it is an entity in itself, separate from the rest of us; they will, while no doubt disputing the value of government as a whole, nevertheless expect it to offer an immediate solution to every problem as it arises. They will also see any unwelcome consequence of the measures to restrain the pandemic as the fault of “the government” rather than as part of the price imposed by the virus.

    The result of all this is a field day for those who are able to sit on the sidelines and exploit the perceived grievances of the disgruntled. Donald Trump, welcoming any distraction from his own failures, is not the only one to exult in and exaggerate our new outbreak. And we should always remember that solutions are easier to come by in a theoretical world – that is, one in which one has no responsibility – than in a real one.

    We have done wonderfully well in controlling the virus; we cannot expect to escape totally unscathed from the all-pervasive and unprecedented threat to our way of life and our economy presented by the pandemic. And governments are, let us remember, not infallible, pre-programmable mechanisms; they are, like the rest of us, only human.

    Bryan Gould
    25 August 2020

  • The Rule of Law

    Over the course of what is becoming, I am glad to say, a fairly long life, I have tried my hand at a range of different things. I have been a diplomat, a politician, an Oxford don, a television journalist, an economist, an author, a columnist and Waikato University Vice-Chancellor.

    But if I were asked to identify the central element in my career, I would answer that I have been a lawyer – and I choose that characterisation for a variety of reasons.

    It is partly that the law was my area of study when I first went to university – first, at Victoria University and then at Auckland – and the learnings I acquired then have stayed with me through the rest of my life. I have carried with me the intellectual training and mental habits inculcated by the study of the law – “once a lawyer, always a lawyer” one might say.

    It is not just that legal studies equip one for a variety of different careers, as indeed they do. It is rather that the law is such a constant and beneficial part of our national life, and one whose importance is so often overlooked, that it is a duty and a privilege to claim adherence to it.

    The law is by far the most significant and successful attempt we have made to regulate our social behaviour in the general interest. It is, as a consequence, the glue that holds us together as a society and that enables us to act together effectively.

    The experience of many people with the law may have been, as they saw it, of falling foul of irritating rules, seemingly made to be broken, or of paying apparently exorbitant bills to have the sale and purchase of property validated. But these perceptions understate and mistake the true value and purpose of the law.

    The law operates on the social level to outlaw disruptive and therefore unacceptable behaviour, so as to restrain violence, dishonesty, untrustworthiness and deception. And, it provides some ground rules so that we can conduct certain kinds of relations on a secure basis of honesty, trust and reliability. These purposes combine to provide valuable building blocks for a properly functioning society.

    But its value goes beyond those elements. The most important function of the law is, in many ways, to place limits on the exercise of what would otherwise be unbridled power – what is usually called the application of “the rule of law” – the principle that no man or body, however powerful, is above the law. It is that principle that was used to defeat the claim in England centuries ago that kings had a “divine right” to govern and were therefore above the law. And it is that principle that is currently being challenged in the US by Donald Trump.

    The law exists essentially to protect the rights and liberties of ordinary citizens. It is the bedrock on which our democracy is built.

    My own special interest as a law student and teacher was in a body of law called administrative or public law or the law of judicial review – the law that restrains the actions and powers of public bodies and government agencies and provides remedies to the ordinary citizen if the limits to that power are exceeded. It is a body of law to whose development I can claim to have made a small but significant contribution, through proposing a comprehensive and coherent definition of the concept of jurisdiction and replacing the complexities of the ancient remedies of certiorari and mandamus with an all-purpose modern remedy called a declaratory judgment.

    The law, as a scholarly and professional focus, has played an important role, not only for me but for my family as well. My brother was a judge in Hong Kong, my daughter is a respected defence lawyer in Tauranga, and my grand-daughter has recently completed law degrees in both New Zealand and France.

    We can, as a family, claim to be “upholders of the law”. But the value of the law extends well beyond me or my family; it is there to benefit us all.

    As I wrote this, I had news that my old Oxford tutor, Don Harris – also a Kiwi – had died. This column is in part a tribute to him.

    Bryan Gould
    19 August 2020

  • A Shonky Poll

    What to do to improve the public perception of the newly elected National party leader, when her performance so far has no doubt disappointed the expectations of her supporters?

    The answer is to get a National-supporting newspaper (the Herald) to organise a poll that could be guaranteed to provide an acceptable answer.

    The poll was not – in other words – just any old poll. It asked a very specific question to which there was only one answer. The poll – of only 500 people – didn’t ask, as such polls usually do, whether Judith Collins was doing a good job, or was the preferred Prime Minister, or whether people warmed to her.

    It asked instead whether they thought that National’s prospects had improved with her as leader.

    Those polled were asked, in other words, to compare National’s prospects today with how they had been during the disastrous period of changing leaders repeatedly and of the resignations occasioned by irresponsible leaks of private data and the sending of pornographic messages.

    Not surprisingly, those polled thought that anything was better than those dark days for National. Poor old Todd Muller was apparently required to deliver one last service to his party – to act as the fall guy, the benchmark against which Judith Collins was to be measured.

    We must conclude that it is a measure of National’s desperate need to boost their fortunes that so much care and planning was put into such an artificial operation as this Herald poll.

    It also prompts the question as to what National’s own private polling is showing. It suggests that it shows that the public’s perception of Judith Collins is some way off favourable, and that desperate measures are needed to turn things round.

    Polls must always be taken with a pinch of salt – but, beware, this one is particularly shonky.

    Bryan Gould
    11 August 2020

  • Gearing Up for the Election

    Yes, an election is in the offing – and we all know that elections can be polarising, as parties of the left and right square off against each other.

    But we should not allow our party and political allegiances to obscure the fact that, in a properly functioning democracy like New Zealand, what unites us is more important than what divides us.

    And party allegiances are not set in concrete. Even for the individual, they can change over time; and my own experience offers a case in point.

    The conventional view is that people are more radical in their views when younger and that they grow more conservative as they grow older. My progress was in the opposite direction.

    I grew up in a family that took it for granted that “people like us” voted National. I was brought up to believe in the right-wing values – that individual effort should be properly rewarded because it was what held society together and allowed us all to progress, that everyone had their “proper place” in society, that property rights were sacrosanct, and that respect for authority (not to say hierarchy) was the necessary basis on which an orderly society operated.

    It was only as I grew up and my life experience extended that I began to see further and to understand more. I began to see that a society that was happy with itself, because everyone had a stake and an equal chance in it, was not only morally required and appropriate, but also delivered a great practical benefit to all of us, both collectively and individually. I saw that serving the interests of the “have nots” as well as the “haves” was the proper business of government.

    Even today, when my current views are conveniently but not always accurately described as left-wing, I think I understand that most of those on my right are – while misguided – not necessarily ill-intentioned but seek in broad terms the same outcomes as I do. I am satisfied that, if the levers of power were to pass into their hands, no irremediable damage would be done to the fundamentals of a free and democratic society – not least because there would soon be another opportunity to persuade my fellow-citizens that there is a better way.

    There is no need, in other words, to demonise one’s political opponents. From the left, the right might well be attacked for being uncaring and selfish; from the right, the left could be accused of relying on others to fund their ambitions. But in neither case need we be too despairing if we lose the argument for the time being – the emphases and directions may differ but the fundamentals will remain the same.

    We are in the happy position in New Zealand, unlike those in many other countries, of being assured that most of those seeking the powers of government have no intention of seizing that power and keeping it in perpetuity. We are all – or almost all – democrats, and we engage in an entirely proper and productive competition for popular support. It is, after all, that need to please the voters that keeps our governments in check and doing the right thing.

    We might even learn that the terms “left-wing” or “right-wing” are, or should be, descriptive, rather than terms of abuse, and that their application to this or that opinion does not invalidate it or deny its legitimacy, and tells us as much about their user as about those to whom they are applied.

    So, let us welcome the firing of the starting pistol. It signifies that we are once again invited to engage in a decision that billions of people worldwide would give their right arms (and even their left arms too!) to have the chance to enjoy. And, when we express our personal preferences for one person, party or policy rather than another, we are exercising our democratic rights, rather than seeking to deny them to others. We are all entitled to warm to one politician, rather than another, and to think there could be a better way.

    So, let the battle begin – and let us be ready to salute the victors, and to live to fight another day if we lose.

    Bryan Gould
    5 August 2020