• Why Pay Taxes?

    My wife and I, through a combination of good luck and good management, have managed to retire in comfortable circumstances. We celebrate our good fortune by making relatively small but regular donations to a range of good causes – to rescue services like the rescue helicopters, St John’s Ambulance and the Coastguard, to organisations dealing with various afflictions like cancer, Alzheimers, heart disease, intellectual handicap and blindness, and to others providing help to the needy, like the Salvation Army, the SCPA and Plunket, and international bodies like Oxfam, Save the Children and Red Cross.

    We are under no illusion, however, that our donations are anything other than a drop in the bucket. Private charity, we know, cannot take the place of adequate public funding to support the essential services on which so many depend. Those services require large sums of money and those sums can be obtained only from the public purse.

    This is not to overlook, of course, those wealthy philanthropists who donate large sums to particular causes – but even then, welcome as they are, such gifts tend to be one-off windfalls and do not form a reliable basis for future planning and expansion.

    The public purse is, in practice, the only basis on which an effective strategy and programme can be built; but it, in turn, needs to be financed from somewhere – and that inevitably means from taxes, taxes levied by a government elected to do precisely that. Accordingly, my wife and I do not begrudge the tax we pay; we are satisfied that our tax payments are applied to worthwhile purposes.

    Funding public services is not of course the only purpose of levying taxes. Levying a tax can discourage or regulate particular forms of behaviour which are thought to be socially undesirable or harmful to public health; or a tax can be used as a means of redistributing income or purchasing power, so as to achieve a more effective level of demand in the economy.

    And let us not forget that distributive taxation is a response to the fact that our economic system distributes its rewards in a somewhat haphazard and unequal way. But the principal purpose of taxation is to provide the resources needed to sustain essential public services.

    We also know what happens, and the price that is paid, if those taxes are not levied and are not then available in sufficient quantity to finance public services. Those services – the hospitals, the schools, the support and social services – become run down and fail to meet their true purpose – and, sooner or later, their deficiencies have to be remedied at considerable expense, with the taxpayers in the end picking up the tab, even a tab they thought they had avoided.

    We know, too, that when we are invited to congratulate a government on “running a surplus”, we are really asked to celebrate a government that has spent less on essential services than it should have done and than it has raised from us in taxation.

    My wife and I draw comfort from the realisation that there are so many of our fellow citizens who share our willingness (I can’t honestly say our pleasure!) at paying the taxes asked of us. It is heartening that so many of those best able to afford it have indicated that, especially in these extraordinary pandemic times, they are ready to pay a little more for the general good.

    One of the satisfactions, surely, of succeeding in life and, as a consequence, having the wherewithal to benefit one’s fellow citizens, is to do so by paying one’s taxes with a good heart.

    A civilised society is one that can pull together when needed to meet shared and worthwhile goals – and especially goals that make us all stronger as individuals and allow us to function better as a society. New Zealand is built on such values.

    Bryan Gould
    16 September 2020

  • Community Values

    Most mornings, when we’re at home, my wife and I will have coffee on our deck. I am the barista of the household and I make the coffee, the way we like it, on our espresso machine.

    This winter we have sat with our coffee, day after day, in glorious sunshine, looking at the Pacific ocean spread out in front of us and watching Whakaari (White Island) behaving itself and puffing gently.

    Winter sunshine is one of the great benefits of living in New Zealand. Add to that the fresh sweet air, the dozens of goldfinches pecking on our lawn, the pigeons gorging themselves on the young leaves of our kowhais, and the tuis steepling and tumbling, just for the fun of it, and there is little wonder that we judge our return from overseas twenty six years ago to have been a success.

    But it is not just the physical manifestations of kiwi life that endear themselves to us. We also appreciate the social aspects – the friendships and the sense of living in a caring community.

    Throughout the tribulations of the pandemic, we have had the comfort of knowing that our friends and neighbours have kept a special eye out for us, on account of our age. A kind neighbour, for example, did our supermarket shopping for us, picking up a shopping list from us in the morning and bringing our shopping back to us by lunchtime.

    But the kindness that prevails in our community is best exemplified by the experience of an elderly friend who, having filled her shopping basket in the local supermarket, found, when she came to pay, that she could not remember her credit card pin number. She was naturally embarrassed and distraught, in tears, and at a loss as to what to do.

    A woman in the queue behind her, a complete stranger, seeing her distress, stepped forward and paid her bill. When our friend, having thanked her profusely and taken her name and address, went later to that address so that she could repay her benefactor, she was astonished to discover that the woman had recently suffered a bereavement and that she lived in circumstances that indicated that she had little cash to spare.

    It is that spirit of kindness and generosity that warms the heart and that – we like to think – animates our society. We see it not only in our own immediate interpersonal relationships, but also in the wider sphere. It animates, we think, the whole of kiwi society, whether it is in the response to the Christchurch mosque massacre, or in the efforts of the “team of five million” to defeat the coronavirus.

    These experiences bring back to me what it was like to grow up, as I did all those years ago, in the New Zealand of my childhood. We took it for granted, during the years of the Second World War and the post-war re-build, that we were “all in this together” and that we and our neighbours were all on the same side.

    It is only in recent years that we have seen, in some parts of society, the growth of a somewhat different ethos – the belief that it is the individual alone that must prevail and that, as Mrs Thatcher would have it, “there is no such thing as society”.

    The future of our country depends on finding and living again the values on which it was built. If we want to rediscover and re-assert the New Zealand qualities that have made us, in so many respects, the envy of the world, then we must remain true to its founding principles.

    And, before we become too self-congratulatory, we should also recognise how much is yet to be done to meet the challenges – climate change and racism amongst others – of the modern age. We may enjoy the sobriquet “Godzone” but we must constantly strive to earn it.

    Bryan Gould
    9 September 2020

  • 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