• Ideology and Foreign Investment

    As in so many other areas of public policy, attitudes towards overseas investment in New Zealand – and anywhere, for that matter – boil down in the end to ideology.

    For proponents of the “free market”, there is really no issue. The market, in their view, must never be second-guessed; it must always be allowed to do its thing. It will always produce the optimal outcomes; any attempt to inhibit it or even just to guide it will inevitably mean sub-optimal outcomes.

    And such purists go further. The market recognises no limitations or boundaries; it will go where it will, with a supreme indifference to considerations of geography or sovereignty or democracy. It crosses national boundaries without a care or thought; its proper sphere of operation is the whole world, and any wish or attempt to constrain it within man-made or political boundaries must be resisted.

    I was led to these truths when I read, a few weeks ago, an opinion piece published in the Herald. It was written by a New Zealand businessman and self-described “entrepreneur” named Andrew Barnes. He took as his theme the futility and impropriety of the attempts by the Overseas Investment Office to regulate the level of foreign investment in our country.

    Barnes is not a fool or a troglodyte. He is a leading advocate of a shorter working week and is doing good work to gather support for this possibility. But, on the subject of foreign investment, he revealed himself to be a prisoner of free-market ideology.

    When he contemplated the prospect and reality of increased overseas investment, he saw nothing but the proper and beneficial operation of market forces. For those of us who see a little further, and perhaps think a little deeper, he had nothing but contempt – and perhaps something approaching sympathy. We are, he seemed to suggest, starting at shadows, frightened of phantoms.

    He was airily dismissive of (in the sense that he did not even recognise) the concerns that many of us have. If the ownership of large tracts of land or of substantial business enterprises passes into foreign hands, he thought, we should have no legitimate cause for concern; we should instead congratulate ourselves on the price we had secured for these assets – and to forestall such deals would be an unacceptable interference with market forces.

    The possibility of downsides was simply not recognised. Yet, does a change in the ownership of an asset not carry with it the power of decision as to what should be done with that asset and with any income it produces, and does foreign ownership not mean that those decisions will be taken by those who have no primary concern for or interest in the welfare of the inhabitants of this country?

    Does foreign ownership of an asset not mean that it could be put to purposes that are quite inimical to the future wellbeing of this country? Does a significant proportion of foreign ownership not mean that the national interest is substantially at the mercy of those who do not necessarily share it or recognise it?

    What would be the impact on the objectives of social or environmental policy, if the income produced by foreign-owned resources and needed to implement those policies were siphoned off overseas, or if the resources themselves were put to counter-productive purpose by their foreign owners?

    What would be the point of electing our own government if institutions, such as banks, that fulfil a central role in our system of government are answerable to the government of another country?

    The ideologues are nothing if not single-minded. Questions such as these, if Andrew Barnes is anything to go by, simply do not occur to them.

  • NZME and Trump

    The televised hearings into the storming of the Capitol are revealing to the American public a truth that was obvious to some of us from the outset – that the Trumpian “big lie” about a “stolen” election was part of a determined attempt at a coup that would have been – if successful – a total denial of the democratic process.

    The violence of the assault on the Capitol and the threat (apparently endorsed by Trump himself) to “hang Mike Pence” show without any doubt how far Trump and his supporters were prepared to go.

    I was, in the period leading up to that fateful day, contracted to write a weekly column for the NZME-owned Bay of Plenty Times. I had written several columns that were critical of Trump, and I had, as the events unfolded surrounding Trump’s claim that the election had ben stolen from him, sent in a column that warned that what we were seeing was a “slow-motion coup” happening before our very eyes.

    I was surprised to get a phone call from the editor, in which he said that he would not publish my piece. I stuck to my guns and the outcome was that my contract was terminated.

    I don’t expect, now that the accuracy of my observation has been vindicated, to have my contract restored or to receive an apology. But I do wonder why NZME (and I assume that it was their decision that had been relayed to me by the editor) were so solicitous about protecting Trump’s good name?

    The question is worth asking because the sickness arising as a consequence of Trump is still doing its damage around the world. American politics (and especially the Republican Party) are still in thrall to Trump’s lies – and the “far right” across the globe still derive their undesirable influence and crusading zeal from their endorsement of his anti-democratic attitudes. We need to know why New Zealand’s most powerful media organisation should find it necessary to protect him from criticism.

  • Hosking and Brash

    It is somehow appropriate that in today’s Herald, Mike Hosking, in his anxiety to pin the blame for inflation on the government, should ignore the evidence from around the world of world-wide inflation rates and supply-side constraints occasioned by the pandemic and the Ukraine war, and should go further – by calling in aid the former Governor of the Reserve Bank, Don Brash.

    Brash, it might be recalled, was a major player in subjecting this country to Rogernomics and “the mother of all budgets”. He also distinguished himself by repeatedly demonstrating in the pages of the Herald that he was completely ignorant on the question of what money is and where it comes from – even to the point of disputing and even (so far as one could tell), refusing to read, a detailed paper produced by the Bank England, which set out precisely how the banks create money out of nothing, principally by lending on mortgage.

    As both Hosking and Brash demonstrate, virtually any position is tenable – if your starting point is unassailable ignorance.

  • Hold On to the Ball!

    For supporters of New Zealand teams, the Super Rugby Pacific competition has produced some entertaining matches (entertaining in terms, at least, of the closeness of the results, rather than, so much, the skill and quality of the play). But, all too often, we have seen – even from the Crusaders, on occasion – a weakness that is increasingly apparent in New Zealand rugby – the predilection of New Zealand backs in possession to kick the ball downfield, not to create an attacking position or to gain valuable territory, but (so it seems) simply to present the opposition with the ball and challenge them to do something with it.

    It is an affliction that seems to have struck all of our teams to varying degrees – the Blues, not very often, and the Chiefs, only on occasion. But it has characterised most of the Super Rugby games involving New Zealand teams, and it would be surprising if, given how much it seems to have become part of our game, it does not rear its ugly head when it comes to the All Blacks.

    The worrying aspect of this development is not just that it is so obviously counter-productive, but what it tells us about the state of mind of some of our leading players. The willingness to give up the opportunity to use the ball and instead hand it over to the opponents suggests that our midfield backs in particular have lost faith in their ability to run the ball back when it is kicked into their territory. They seem to want easy metres and to doubt their ability to beat a man or to break a tackle; they prefer instead to hand the responsibility of making an attacking play over to their opponents – something the opponents are, all too often, only too happy to do.

    We cannot expect to win matches against top-class opponents if we are willing so often and so easily to give up possession, and to ignore the age-old adage that you cannot score tries and win matches unless you have the ball. Coaches, please do something to counter this disastrous development!

  • Media v. Government?

    Why are the New Zealand media so hostile to the government – not just this government, but any government?

    The media I have in mind are not NZME-owned outlets like the Herald or Newstalk ZB, whose bias is overtly political and directed at getting rid of the current Labour government. No, the media whose anti-government hostility is worth remarking upon are the public service broadcast media, like TVNZ and Radio New Zealand.

    Journalists and interviewers on both of these channels seem to believe that a story is only worth reporting if it can be given an anti-government twist. Individual journalists and interviewers seem to think that, if they are to make a name for themselves, the best way to do so is to “take down” a government spokesperson.

    As a consequence, their daily news programmes are almost always dominated by stories that show the government in a bad light – and if, by chance, the story could be seen as commending the government for some step it has taken, the journalists seem to feel an obligation to find critical voices so as to take the gloss off anything that could otherwise be seen as showing the government in a good light.

    So, we find that, in a report on a major news story like the Budget, where the government could be seen to have taken a number of positive and helpful steps, there is a plethora of dissenting voices, and constant complaints that the measure “is too late”, or “does not go far enough” or “is misdirected” or “has left me or some other deserving person out”. And if a government spokesperson has the temerity to be interviewed on the subject, the interviewer will find it necessary to show their mettle by behaving in the most aggressive manner possible.

    What explains this extraordinary approach to the news? It is not a party-political bias, since it is a feature of news bulletins, whatever government is in power. No, the bias is against government itself, the very concept of government, rather than a particular government.

    Its origins seem to lie in a belief that the function of the media is to act as an offsetting force, so as to use their power to restrain what they believe would otherwise be the unchallenged and unchallengeable power of elected politicians. It is this view of the media’s role that has led to some describing it as “the fifth estate”.

    But this is to misunderstand how our democracy works. The people themselves decide, at election time, who should exercise the power of government. No one, on the other hand, has elected the media. Journalists, quite rightly, see their role as to “keep tabs” on what the government does – but that does not require them to be unremittingly critical; there could well be issues or occasions on which the government has faced unavoidable problems and has made a good fist of grappling with them. Shouldn’t responsible media, in that circumstance, see it as their role to help people understand what the issues are, and why they are difficult to resolve?

    Nobody is being done any favours if people form the view, by virtue of their intake of news programmes, that, as Ronald Reagan said, “government is not there to solve the problem – government is the problem.” This kind of nihilistic sentiment can do nothing but weaken our democracy.