• Minimum Wage? Property Investors? Don’t Touch Our Profits

    It has never ceased to surprise me that those who profit at the expense of others are so unaware of the harm suffered by those they exploit, and are so convinced that they have a right to do the exploiting and that their profit is a proper and justifiable reward for doing so.

    There have been two cases in point over recent days. The first was the introduction of measures to restrain the impact of property investors on the housing market. The government extended the “brightline”test for property investors, (so that their tax exemption in those cases where they made a quick profit by selling on was reduced), and the government removed the concession whereby investors could set interest costs against their tax liability. The squeals of protest that greeted these measures were matched only by the unlikely claims of investors that their activities in reality provided a social service and that their real concern was not for their own interests but for their tenants and for first-home buyers.

    Do they not realise that an investor could typically use the rules (as they previously existed) to walk into any auction room and effortlessly outbid a roomful of first-time buyers? Property investor could obtain virtually unlimited and cost-free credit from their banks, and use it to buy almost any property, secure in the expectation of a substantial and tax-free capital gain – which was virtually guaranteed as a result of their own activities – within a short time. Little wonder that first-time buyers stood little chance.

    The consequence was that first-time buyers were increasingly priced out of the market and that there was constant upward pressure on prices. When investors squeal about how hard done-by they have been, do they not realise that the government correctly recognised that there could be no relief for first-time buyers and no slowdown in property prices unless the advantages enjoyed by investors were limited?

    Their response shows instead that they believed that their “right” to go on making large tax-free profits at the expense of others should remain intact and take precedence over the distortion of the housing market that was inevitably the consequence. They were angry that a government elected to serve the needs and interests of the whole population should step in to alleviate a problem that was bringing misery and disappointment to many young families.

    The second instance was the raising of the minimum wage. The air was thick with warnings about the damage to the prospects, not just of small businesses, but also to employees themselves (whose jobs, it was said, would be lost) and to shoppers, who would have to pay higher prices – and all because employers would be obliged to pay their employees something approaching a wage that could support a family.

    As with investors, the response was one of outrage – how dare the government intercede in an attempt to mitigate the shocking child poverty that disfigures our society? The mindset – again – was one of entitlement – our ability to maintain our own living standards must be left untouched, even if the price of that is the impoverishment of others.

    In both cases, terms like “communism” were carelessly and inaccurately flung around. It is evidently hard for those with vested interests to understand the democratic concept of a government that is ready to act in the general interest. Differential privileges, arising from the ability to bid up house prices or to take profits from a business that cannot afford to pay its employees a living wage, must, it seems, be maintained at all costs.

    Bryan Gould
    3 April 2021

  • The Concentration of Media Ownership

    I was recently asked by the Fabian Society in the UK for an article about our Prime Minister. The piece I wrote and that has now been published can be found at https://bryangould.com/jacinda-for-a-british-readership/.

    I am satisfied that the piece is reasonably balanced, but – on reflection – I realise that I omitted to make an important point. I register in the piece that Jacinda is remarkably popular but I do not make the further point that she has achieved that level of support, despite having to face a constant barrage of sniping and criticism – not just from her political opponents – but also from New Zealand’s most powerful news organisation.

    NZME (New Zealand Media and Entertainment) are the owners of New Zealand’s most widely read daily newspaper – the Auckland-based New Zealand Herald. NZME also own a large number of provincial newspapers, as well as the most important commercial radio stations. They therefore have a virtually unassailable ability to dictate the news agenda.

    They make no bones about using that ability to produce a constant diet of anti-government coverage for their readers and listeners. Any daily edition of the Herald could be picked at random and found to feature a familiar range of news reports and opinion pieces from equally familiar authors, all writing from a shared viewpoint that is hostile to the government.

    Those authors are in some cases employed by the Herald as part of their ordinary journalistic staff, but others are “guest” columnists who – surprise, surprise – are also gainfully employed by NZME as hosts of the company’s commercial radio news programmes. In that capacity, they have built such reputation as they enjoy by virtue of their right-wing prejudices and willingness to criticise the government as a matter of course.

    The outcome is that the average (and non-political) reader or listener can find no refuge from a constant diet of anti-government news reporting – and worse, is likely to be unaware that their news (and opinion) consumption is so deliberately skewed. This unhappy trend has, if anything, intensified as a response to, and over, the period during which Jacinda Ardern’s leadership of the Labour Party has commended itself to the electorate.

    I should declare my own personal interest in the matter; over a period of some years, I wrote, on an unpaid basis, an occasional column for The Herald, and, for a shorter period, I was a paid weekly columnist for a range of NZME-owned daily papers. Both of those engagements were terminated by NZME as the New Zealand electorate swung in favour of Ardern and Labour.

    My purpose in bringing this (so far as I can) to the attention of the wider public is to alert them to the dangers confronting a working democracy when such a major part of our media is under single ownership – and an ownership that makes no bones about its willingness to be a player itself in the political debate.

    In most democracies, such a concentration of media ownership would be regarded as an unacceptable threat to the democratic principle – a threat that was recognised by New Zealand’s Commerce Commission when it recently refused to allow a merger of NZME and another (smaller) media group. That issue might need to be re-visited.

    Bryan Gould
    25 March 2021

  • Jacinda For A British Readership

    I was recently asked by the Fabian Society in the UK to write a piece about our Prime Minister for their annual publication. Here is the piece that has now been published.

    Jacinda Ardern is the most popular leader New Zealand has ever had. She established her domestic popularity and her international reputation by virtue of the calmness, decisiveness and empathy she brought to bear in enabling New Zealand to withstand and confront the coronavirus epidemic with more success than any other country.

    This success – remarkable for a young woman with no previous experience of government – came on the back of her similarly sure-footed handling of the murderous attack by an Australian terrorist on Christchurch mosques, and her empathetic reaction to the loss of life when a volcano erupted in the Bay of Plenty.

    She proved herself in each of these scenarios to be a leader who could be trusted, not least because she was a brilliant communicator. Her televised daily press conferences and grilling by the media in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak were master classes in how to build public trust and understanding.

    Her “team of five million” were prepared to follow her to the ends of the earth (which is where most of the rest of the world would place her anyway). As the plaudits began to roll in from around the world, New Zealand enjoyed the experience of becoming – for once – the cynosure of all eyes.

    The reward for her efforts came in the general election in late 2020. An electorate that might have been expected to punish a government that had imposed on them all the economic disruption and uncertainty of successive lockdowns reacted instead with gratitude and affection. Ardern’s Labour government became the first to secure, under New Zealand’s proportional representation system, an outright majority in parliament without any need to seek coalition partners.

    During the campaign, I lost count of those whom I knew to be lifelong supporters of the right-wing opposition National party, who said no more to me than “she’s done a good job” and who then felt it unnecessary to elaborate further on their intention to vote for her.

    Her crushing victory undoubtedly owed much to her ability to unite the country and to render party differences beside the point. But that could prove to be far from an unalloyed benefit.

    Some of her critics on the left – and there are some – fear that her success in attracting support from the centre-right could mean that she has become their prisoner. New Zealand’s short three-year parliamentary term means that there is precious little time to enact a truly transformative programme and to carry the country with it. The critics fear that, rather than risk losing the support she has gained from those who would not normally vote Labour, she might soft-pedal on the need for change.

    It is not that Jacinda – she is one of those politicians who is best identified and widely known by her first name alone – lacks ambition for what her government might achieve. She has been clear in setting her goals – combatting climate change, reducing child poverty, solving the housing crisis by building more houses. Her critics doubt, however, her ability to achieve these goals, given that she has boxed herself in through her pledge, given under pressure from the opposition during the campaign, not to introduce a capital gains tax.

    The critics say, not without reason, that there is no solution to growing inequality without taxing the rich. Her defenders might respond by pointing to the unexpectedly positive performance by the New Zealand economy as it bounces back from lockdown – an outcome much helped by the quantitative easing put in place by the Finance Minister, Grant Robertson. As a result, the prospects for increased government spending are surprisingly bright.

    Time will tell – but it would be a brave person who would bet against an extended term in government for a leader who reads and represents the New Zealand psyche so well. Jacinda Ardern has discovered and demonstrated that politics is not just about “the economy, stupid”, but is also about emotion, empathy and personality; the key word in Ardern’s politics is “kindness”. She has created a new version of left-wing politics which distinguishes itself from its right-wing opponents not only through sheer competence and what it thinks, but through what it feels as well – its sympathy with, and regard and respect for, all of our fellow-citizens.

    Bryan Gould
    25 February 2021

  • Jacinda’s Decision

    I recall being amused, as a newly elected MP, at a story, possibly apocryphal, of another newcomer to Parliament who had been very excited at being invited for the first time to appear on a national news programme. He was told, so the story goes, that “the fee is fifty pounds”, and his response was instantaneous. “My cheque is in the post,” he is supposed to have said.

    I was reminded of this story by the furore following the Prime Minster’s decision to give Mike Hosking the push. The petulant reaction of Hosking himself was only to be expected – the sound of ego being deflated is always unpleasant.

    What was less expected was the plethora of comments to the effect that Jacinda’s decision was somehow undemocratic – as though she somehow had a duty, as an elected politician, to appear on a particular – or any – news programme simply because she was invited to do so. Those commentators seem to have overlooked the fact that she was doing no more than responding to an invitation to appear on the Hosking programme and, as with any invitation, she had the option of accepting or declining.

    The Hosking broadcast is after all a commercial undertaking and the Prime Minister is a major potential selling point. She has no obligation to add to the profits of Hosking’s employers.

    If she had announced a decision to do no more media interviews at all, the reaction of her critics might have had some basis. But no one can accuse the PM of avoiding public scrutiny; there is probably no politician worldwide who has been as available to the public as Jacinda Ardern has been.

    So, the supposed “issue” comes down to this. Is she obliged to appear on a programme simply because the interviewer asks her to do so? Is she not entitled to exercise her own judgment as to whether it would be worth her time and effort?

    In the case of the Hosking programme, it is not hard to see why the minuses might have outweighed the pluses. She might have concluded that the real point and purpose of the interview was not to enlighten its listeners but to cast her in the most unfavourable light possible. Mike Hosking has after all built a career on parading his own opinions and prejudices week in, week out, and he has not bothered to hide them, least of all since Jacinda’s decision to opt out; it is not surprising that the PM might conclude that he could pursue his own purposes for the time being without her help.

    So, it comes to this. The Prime Minister has decided that she need not put up with, and can do without, Mike Hosking. He, on the other hand, does not seem so confident that he can do without her.

    Bryan Gould
    9 March 2021

  • Party Games

    As I rose for the first time to speak from the Despatch Box in the House of Commons, I had the comfort of seeing that the Despatch Box had on it the inscription “A Gift from the People of New Zealand”. But I was also a little daunted, like so many before me, at the prospect of speaking to the serried ranks of hostile faces and the equally hostile noises confronting me – so close that I could almost touch them.

    I recalled the famous advice tendered by Harold Macmillan to a young front-bencher on a similar occasion, when he had confessed to a certain apprehension at facing, for the first time, his “enemies” at such close quarters and in such numbers. “Don’t worry,” Macmillan had said, “those are your opponents. Your enemies are behind you.”

    The story makes the point that politics is, in some senses, the best of all competitions. It is partly a team game, party against party – but it is at the same time an individual game; within each team, there are dozens of ambitious individuals, each vying against the others for advantage and preference.

    Now that I am only a spectator, I still find interest in detecting how these individual games are being played. They tend to be played wth the greatest energy when the party concerned is in opposition; this is because a party in government will constantly offer, on an almost day-by-day basis, as it launches new initiatives, opportunities for individual members of the party opposite to make an attack.

    Even the newest arrival can score brownie points by discomforting a minister opposite, with a well-timed and accurate sortie – and doing so is a fail-safe way of attracting attention and support from one’s colleagues. That support is hugely necessary and valuable when it comes to internal party ballots on issues like leadership contests and the pecking order for ministerial positions.

    That is why the careful student of politics will have noticed that any new government initiative will always be met by a comment – usually hostile – from an opposition spokesperson. The comment may or may not be to the point, but it is not what is said that counts. The purpose is often simply to get one’s name into the public eye and ear, and to register with one’s colleagues (and the party leader) that it has been made – that way lies promotion.

    The next time, dear reader, that you hear such a comment being made, you should reflect on the possibility that it may have little to do with the subject, or with the fortunes of the political party of which the commenter is a member, and much more to do with the internal games being played against each other by the individual members of that party.

    It is also possible to discern patterns – the same names will often crop up repeatedly, and that is particularly true when the party leadership may not be entirely secure or settled. There is nothing like the prospect of a leadership contest to stimulate a frenzy of activity from hopeful potential candidates.

    You will gather from all this that a certain cynicism is useful and appropriate when assessing the course of a public debate on a particular issue. Not all is always what it seems – politics in a parliamentary democracy is a game played by a range of participants for a variety of different reasons – and often their own.

    Bryan Gould
    21 February 2021