• Democracy Under Threat

    My wife and I are at an age when we have begun to think (and worry) about the kind of world we will leave behind for our children and, particularly, our grandchildren.

    We have experienced during our own lives, like others of our generation, our fair share of hard times and unpleasant experiences – a world war, a polio epidemic, today’s covid pandemic, a holocaust, massacres and other acts of violence fuelled by extremism – so we are not strangers to a world that is somewhat less than ideal. But we fear that there may be worse to come.

    We think of global warming and climate change, the degradation of our environment, the bushfires and floods and rising sea levels, the loss of fresh air and clean water and of whole species – but, serious as they are, these are not the main cause of our concern; they are natural (or, rather, unnatural) events and environmental changes. Our real concern is with unwelcome changes in our society and the way we treat each other and conduct ourselves.

    One obvious cause for concern arises when we observe the USA, a country that claims to lead the world, engaged in an election that might return to the presidency someone who is surely unfit for leadership and who – not just as a leader, but as a human being – exhibits some of the worst characteristics one can imagine. Whatever the outcome of the U.S. election (and we can but hope), how is it that, having had a four-year-long opportunity to judge their leader, the American people can place so little value on their democracy that they can even contemplate re-electing Donald Trump – a President who admire dictators and wants to be one himself?

    It is the answer to that question that really troubles us. American democracy seems to have been undermined and to be now threatened by a toxic combination of wild conspiracy theories, irresponsible social media, ignorance about what constitutes a democracy, a distrust of one’s fellow citizens, a rising tide of prejudice, the lies of a perennial liar, and a fear and hatred of anyone different and of anyone who thinks differently. It is that climate of opinion that explains what is best described as the American disease.

    It is bad enough that the country that may have been seen once as democracy’s standard-bearer should have been afflicted in this way. It is not just the Americans but the world as a whole who are likely to pay the price if the flame of democracy is snuffed out in the U.S.

    Even more worrying are signs that the disease might be contagious. Even here in New Zealand, there is the whiff of Trumpism in the air. Our own election has seen the arrival of new political parties, inspired (if that is the right word) it seems by the same mad conspiracy theories, by the same contempt for democracy and the rule of law, by the same aggressive me-first attitude and lack of social concern, by the same appeal to ignorance, prejudice and suspicion.

    My wife and I have grown accustomed, since returning to our home country, to viewing New Zealand as a haven of good sense and good practice, even while the rest of the world goes mad. What a tragedy if the country we bequeath to our descendants falls victim to the same malaise that has afflicted others.

    The antidote, fortunately, is always available, if we choose to use it. It is that we should stay vigilant and use our common sense and learn to trust each other. And we should seek accurate information, on which we can rely, from trusted sources with reliable track records, rather than from chancers, and self-styled psychics and prophets on social media and in so-called “town hall” meetings.

    By comparison with the rest of the world, we have it made. We have a working democracy. Let’s not un-make it.

    Bryan Gould
    30 September 2020

  • Anyone for Collins?

    In the absence of national public opinion polls, we have had to make do in recent weeks with other guides to voter intentions. Those guides, such as the Auckland Central poll, the incidence of google enquiries and the responses to Vote Compass questions, have suggested, not unexpectedly, that Labour is ahead and that Judith Collins continues to trail well behind Jacinda Ardern as preferred Prime Minister.

    This will not have come as a surprise to the National party. I have a hunch (shared by other observers) that their own private polling has been telling them for some time that Judith Collins is not going down well with the public.

    As further evidence of this, we have not seen or heard as much from the National leader, and she has not been as prominent, as we might have expected during an election campaign. The problem she poses for National is that they are uncertain as to how best to deploy her; when she is seen and heard, she turns the voters off, but if she keeps out of sight, National fails to get its message across.

    It is a reasonable assumption that the public’s failure to warm to Judith Collins as potential Prime Minister is at the same time a serious constraint on their readiness to vote National.

    None of this should come as any surprise. It was always a mystery – and a measure of National’s desperation, following their leadership travails – that Judith Collins should have been seen as the answer to their prayers. It was always odds on that her obvious drawbacks – her association with “dirty” politics, and her cultivation of the “crusher” image – would be a turn-off.

    And so it has proved. When she has been herself, that is, conforming to her image as a “tough” operator, the public have responded with a decisive thumbs-down. But when she has tried to soften her image, she has been seen as unauthentic and as merely pretending to be friendly and warm-hearted.

    If this interpretation of events is accurate, the response of right-wing opinion to the dilemma will be of great interest. Keen-eyed students of the political debate will have noted some cooling recently towards Collins in her treatment by the right-wing media.

    The corollary of that has been increased attention to and support for ACT and their leader, David Seymour. The ACT leader certainly deserves some credit for the work he has put in on euthanasia, and the polls suggest that he is garnering some reward for those efforts.

    He might also reasonably expect to be the beneficiary, in the event that Judith Collins has lost the confidence of right-wing commentators who would normally support National. He will hope and expect that those commentators, despairing of Collins’ ability to pull off an election victory, will decide that ACT is their best chance of getting a right-wing government.

    They will calculate that if ACT can win even a few seats in parliament, those seats have nowhere to go but National; so, a better than expected performance from ACT, and the contribution of a handful of seats, would be the best chance of making up for the now expected shortfall in National seats. An improved performance from ACT might offer, in other words, the best chance of National being able to form a government.

    The interesting (and critical) question is whether the voters will be happy to go along with that scenario as it plays out. The central question certainly remains. Why would disaffected National voters, unhappy with the prospect of a government headed by Collins, be prepared to switch their support to ACT, once they realise that a vote for ACT is in effect a vote for Collins as Prime Minister?

    National must hope that the voters won’t immediately see these implications of a vote for ACT. My guess is that the voters will not be so easily bamboozled. We should not overlook the fact, either, that although we live in a parliamentary democracy, the general election is for many voters somewhat presidential in nature. People cast their votes increasingly for the person they want to lead them.

    Bryan Gould
    23 September 2020

  • 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