Thursday, February 17, 2011

"This Government is Pro-Choice"

Not wishing to be outdone by Tony Ryall's curious views on children's nutrition, that well-known Mubarakian John Key decided to use the same 'other people's choices' line when asked why exactly his government was buying a new fleet of luxury limousines. Betraying his irritating lack of originality, he then did it again when queried about the increasing number of families reliant upon food parcels.

Ryall stated that children's nutrition was "an issue for parents and families" rather than the government. In other words, an issue of choice for which the Government could not be held responsible.

Key argued that he "[couldn't] take responsibility" for the behavior of his Internal Affairs ministry, blamed the exercise of a rollover option in 2011 on the previous Labour government, and then refused to rule out whether he'd have ok'd the sale if he'd known about it. Other people's choices, other people's fault.

He then responded to a question about our rising use of and dependence upon food parcels by attempting to answer a different question altogether - why were more Kiwis out of work and on benefits. This was blamed upon the global recession rather than any indigenous failure of policy; and topped off with a supposition that the only reason one would be reliant upon food parcels would be as the result of "poor choices". Like this government?

Given the cap-handedness of these responses, I can only assume some keen journalist managed the rare feat of capturing senior National ministers outside the protective range of their spin-doctors. Caught off-guard by having to think up an excuse for themselves for a change, they've reverted to type and started spouting what passes for Nat philosophy these days.

Put in terms rather more articulate than the Ministers themselves, their thinking appears to run thus:

'Some problems are beyond the ambit of government to solve. Impersonal quasi-natural forces govern unemployment, and bad things only happen to people who make bad budgeting choices. When things go wrong it's someone else's fault - whether parents, workers, the hungry, or Labour. And since it's someone else's fault, government doesn't have to fix it. So we won't.'

This misses the point on several levels.

As a far greater National Prime Minister (the Right Hon. Sir Robert Muldoon) once put it - "The whole concept of government is based on intervention." Even if Key's flawed economic management were not responsible for lost jobs, higher prices, and some seriously debatable growth in wages, I'd still prefer a government with the gumption to get involved in giving long-suffering Kiwis a leg-up - rather than writing off difficult situations as being the poor outcomes of 'other people's choices'.

That's an excuse, not an answer.

Know this, Key. Votes are 'other people's choices' too.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"Let Them Drink Milk"

Earlier this evening, 3 news ran a story about the rising cost and reduced consumption of milk by our Nation's youth. Noting the vital role the substance in question plays as a source of calcium for Kiwi kids, and in a rare feat of critical journalism, they asked the Health Minister Tony Ryall what he thought of the issue. His response?

"What children eat and drink is an issue for their parents and families."

Now I could have some fun with this axiom and take it to its logical conclusion - that beer and malnourishment are apparently acceptable parts of a Kiwi upbringing ... but I won't. The health of our kids is far too serious a matter for the frivolity habitual of the Minister of Silly Ties. What I will note is that it's rather odd to see a Health Minister taking such a hands-off approach to the nutrition of our youth. Effectively, Ryall has decided to cast this as an issue of choice and pass the buck on to families. What he ignores is that the prohibitive cost of milk renders this an issue of choice only for those who can afford it.

With this in mind, I'm reminded of another bold axiom delivered by a failed public figure on her way out. When informed that her people were starving, Marie Antoinette allegedly proposed to "Let them eat cake!"

It genuinely saddens me to see a Kiwi staple (and, after all, what's more Kiwi than milk?) priced out of reach of ordinary consumers. There have been calls from some quarters to rectify the nutritional issue by bringing back milk in schools. It needn't be so complex. Why don't we start by taking GST off Milk. And continue by finding a Health Minister less prone to 'bovine scatology' who actually gives a damn about the health of some of his most vulnerable charges.

God Defend New Zealand from Bad Journalism

God Defend New Zealand from Winston?

The Herald on Sunday's editorial of the 6th of February heaps praise on Prime Minister John Key for so boldly announcing that he would not be a part of any government including that scourge of MMP, Winston Raymond Peters.

Winston Peters, we were warned, had done more to discredit MMP than any other individual. Apparently he's a skilled practioner of language, too. It's a pity the HoS editor wasn't. Verily, it was a piece of journalism as Yellow as Hide's abominable jacket.

But what of the claims made? They do warrant a response. The central claim is that Peters' style of politics is negative. Voters, we're told, have a stark choice: the aspirational and 'forward-looking' style of John Key; or the 'divisive' and 'inflammatory' style proffered by Peters. It's almost as though the secretive cabal of vested interests and media personalities regard the presence of Peters as an affront to the democratic process. How ironic.

We're told that Peters, in 1996, campaigned to topple the National Government of Jim Bolger – only to return Bolger and National to power. We're told that Peters 'dawdled' through post-election talks, keeping the country waiting for eight weeks. Then there's the curious claim that Peters is somehow responsible for making our political discourse 'vituperative'. And finally, we're told that in 2005 Peters promised to reject the 'baubles of office' – only to become the Minister of Foreign Affairs in a Labour-led government. This, we're supposed to believe, points to Peters being the scourge of MMP. More than any other individual, Peters is believed to have brought our electoral system into disrepute. But has he really? This is a rather big call to make.

Not surprisingly, what's missing from the Herald editoral is context. There is no sober analysis of the facts. Just vehemence and hostility – more personal than political. But then, that's exactly what we would expect from a newspaper.

First, the circumstances around the 1996 post-election negotations are well documented. The oft-repeated claim that Winston Peters ever ruled out a coalition with National in the lead up to polling day is false and any serious journalist would surely appreciate this.

What commentators tend to forget (or would prefer to forget) is that in May 1996, New Zealand First reached its then zenith in public opinion polls. A Heylen-One News poll at the time placed party support as high as 28 per cent – effectively pushing Labour into third place. The prospect of a New Zealand First-led government was a real one in 1996. Peters' deputy, Tau Henare, publicly ruled out ever sitting at a cabinet table with Jenny Shipley and Bill Birch. Not only did he break this promise but later went on to join the National Party itself. Peters himself was reported at the time as saying the price of a coalition with National could be Bolger's head. Peters' intention in 1996 was not simply to topple National, but to displace it as the main conservative party. By all accounts, he believed he could be prime minister. A resurgent Labour party dashed these hopes.

Post-election realities inevitably brought National and Labour to the negotiating table with Peters. NZ First's 17 seats gave it considerable bargaining power, but not the leverage it needed to bring down Bolger. A Labour-New Zealand First coalition, while possible, still needed the support of Jim Anderton's Alliance to get the crucial numbers. For his part, Anderton early on ruled out a coalition with Labour and refused to commit his party's support on all matters of supply and confidence. As political commentator Chris Trotter observed at the time, Anderton's obstinate position gave Peters and his MPs 'all the excuse they need for throwing their support behind National' (Independent, 25 October 1996, p. 13). Of course, Anderton's role is today forgotten by most - as one assumes the man and his 'Progressives' will soon also be.

The length of time taken to negotiate New Zealand's first MMP government has also been the subject of much criticism. But as political scientist Barry Gustafson noted at the time: “Things aren't being done in an alarmist or crisis way. This is a much more orderly and rational process than the pandemonium of the 1984 and 1990 elections, which people have conveniently forgotten. Those elections seriously damaged confidence” (The Dominion, 29 November 1996, p. 7). Few experts were prepared to criticise the parties for acting cautiously, and responsibly as they navigated their way through new and uncharted territory. Fifteen years on, MMP has proved remarkably stable - probably somewhat due to the fact that there was such an orderly transition the first time around. Indeed, the only hints of instability to the system seem to be introduced by minor parties in crisis who would in all likelihood still be returned to the House under an FPP system.

Peters takes a disproportionate amount of blame for the collapse of the National-New Zealand First government. The reality is the National Party and a conspiracy amidst its internal factions was far more culpable. Jenny Shipley's ascent to office can, in part, be attributed to the bitter resentment many in National felt towards their New Zealand First colleagues. Unlike Bolger, Shipley had no willingness to work with Peters. The fate of the coalition was sealed from the moment she took office.

Peters' acceptance of the 'baubles of office' in 2005 may have riled some of his supporters, and frustrated his opponents, but he wouldn't be the first politician to realise that changed circumstances might result in changed positions. Peters' archnemisis, the yellow-jacket wearing perkbuster Rodney Hide must surely take the prize for that in this current Parliament. And, indeed, a cursory examination of Peters' record in that office indicates that it was a positive outcome for the Nation.

Besides, if we're going to look for Parliamentarians who've brought our House into disrepute, Peters is not the most obvious target. The troughing by people like Roger Douglas, Rodney "Perk Buster" Hide and Bill English, the party-hopping of Alamein Kopu and numerous others, Clark's 'Paintergate' and Key's Tranzrail shares, National's broken promise not to raise GST, Hone Harawira's outright racism, and numerous other post-MMP examples spring instantly to mind. Yet according to the Herald, somehow Peters is the biggest threat to the credibility of our electoral system. Just how any journalist can state this, and then claim – with a straight face - to be 'dispassionate' is incredible. If we are to search for the most obnoxious and abhorrent ways in which our electoral system has been brought into disrepute, nothing compares to the broken promises and economic vandalism of Labour and National between 1984 and 1993.

The most bizarre allegation the Herald throws at Peters' is that he is a 'demagogue'. As if appealing to popular discontent is somehow anti-democratic. One of the things that sets Peters apart from others is his staunch opposition to elitism. But underlying this populism is a deeply conservative political philosophy which has pitted him against both the liberal milieu of the post-Rogernomics era. Peters is often criticised because we know what he's opposed to, but not what he's for. This is a mistake. Peters is for the opposite of everything he is against. Perhaps this is the reason Peters' opponents find him so frightening.

The Herald might well claim that Peters' style of politics is "rearward looking". And yes, Peters does appear to have a great respect for the better elements and values of our National heritage. However, not only was the original utterer of the 'rearward looking' jibe the same man employing familiar faces like Gerry Brownlee, Bill English and Roger Douglas, but his plan “to move on into the future” bears a disconcerting resemblance to the discredited policies of previous Labour and National governments. That strikes us as less "Path to Prosperity" and more "Shining Path".

In short, then; God Defend New Zealand - and if He doesn't, Winston will.

- Curwen Rolinson & Josh Van Veen