Upton on Environment

March 24th, 2010 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

Simon Upton writes:

I am shortly to take up a position at the OECD leading its Environment Directorate. …

The OECD was established to help governments with their thinking. While its origins may have been in the reconstruction of Europe after 1945, it has become a genuinely global policy resource with new members (such as Chile) joining as rising living standards dissolve the boundaries of the old “developed” world.

The OECD is one of the more useful global bodies.

As an economics-based institution, the OECD is dedicated to using economic analysis to highlight the tradeoffs its members face. It is easily caricatured (like Treasuries) as an organisation that seeks to reduce everything to dollars and cents. Clearly, not everything can be reduced to monetary values. But many things can be, and to the extent that the costs of alternatives can be placed on a common footing, decision-making should be improved.

To provide one very simple example: work at the OECD has shown that the costs of alternative CO2 reduction policies can vary by several orders of magnitude. Subsidies to biofuels can, in some instances, mean spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars for each ton of CO2 avoided – way above the sorts of carbon taxes that have been discussed and discounted.

And biofuel subsidies or quotas have been shown to have devastating effect on food supply, as land is converted.

Countries may be able offer good reasons for such outcomes. But it is harder to do so when the costs of alternatives are made transparent. This may explain one of the conundrums surrounding much environmental policy analysis. Consistently, the advice is to place a price on scarce resources. If they carry a price, they need to be measured; if they’re measured, they get managed. We don’t tend to waste things we have to pay for.

And this is why I do support putting a price on carbon – either through a carbon tax, or an ETS. It’s the same reason I don’t like tertiary courses which are “free” to the user – you get huge wastage, and the moment people do have to pay for something, you do have an incentive not to waste it.

There is dispute over the indirect warming effects of greenhouse gas emissions, but there is basically no dispute over the direct warming effects. Hence for me the debate isn’t over whether one should have a price on carbon, to cover externalities, but what that price should be.

Upton on Lockwood

November 4th, 2009 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

Simon Upton writes in the Dom Post:

While coalition politics has certainly blunted the arrogance with which big parties behave in power, only Question Time guarantees that ministers are given a rocky ride, which is why I always found it so hard to understand why Speakers hid behind the mantra that they weren’t there to comment on the quality of ministerial answers – thereby giving carte blanche to those lazy ministers who couldn’t be bothered doing their homework or didn’t want to front up. My political awareness was switched on in the early 1970s listening to Question Time during the days of the Muldoon ascendancy.

His devastating control of Question Time as Leader of the Opposition had me enthralled. By the time I arrived in the House in 1981 that mercurial brilliance had turned to stone.

Muldoon was devastating not just as Opposition Leader, but even as Deputy Opposition Leader. Kirk banned Ministers from going on TV with him.

Lockwood Smith did not spend his parliamentary career dreaming of the Speaker’s chair. But the infelicitous comments that sidelined him from ministerial office turned out to have a deeply silver lining: Dr Smith is requiring ministers to answer the questions that are put to them. This seemingly obvious requirement is, for our Parliament, revolutionary. For the first time, Opposition members have an ally when a minister contemptuously greets a serious question with a non sequitur or a put down. Finally, voters get to see ministers held accountable. And it is all thanks to an MP who has decided that if he’s going to occupy the third highest office in the land, he’s going to take that office seriously. Three cheers for Mr Speaker Smith.

It is ironic. Lockwood ended up Speaker partly as a “punishment” for gaffes, but as Simon Upton says it has a silver lining in the way he has taken the job so seriously.

Whether his brave departure from an indefensible tradition sticks will, of course, depend on whoever succeeds him. Labour and its allies will in due course return to office. Will they be prepared to nominate a similarly tough-minded democrat for the job and be prepared to submit to the same treatment? I hope Phil Goff and his colleagues are taking stock of what Lockwood Smith has done for them. He is the best Speaker in living memory – on this one ground alone – and his initiative deserves to be perpetuated.

If Labour were smart they would keep Lockwood on as Speaker, when they return to office. I suspect he may have retired by then.

Let’s assume Labour win in 2014. Who might be their Speaker? King would be good, but I expect both her and Goff will retire between 2011 and 2014. Darren Hughes will want ministerial office first. Maybe David Parker if he is still here – a lawyer can be useful. I presume Barker and Ross Robertson have retired by 2014.  A possibility could be Winnie Laban – she would be dignified. Damien O’Connor might be a possibility also, if he is still there. He would be popular with most MPs.

More on purchase advisors

May 6th, 2009 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

I’ve been reflecting more on the Ministerial purchase advisors, and while Labour have largely stuffed up this issue, there are a couple of aspects where the Government can be legitimately criticised.

First of all, I have to say that Labour are seriously misjudging NZ outside the beltway, if they think they are going to get any resonance by complaining about how Ministers have used some experienced experts to help cut costs in their Departments. Only the PSA think this is a bad thing. In provincal NZ, and Auckland, you could put on a parade and have these advisors celebrated for their service to NZ. It would get more people along than the Santa parade.

Simon Upton writes in the Dom Post about his experience with purchase advisors:

The country learned last week that government ministers have been employing “purchase advisers”. The scoop was portrayed in sinister tones. The advisers were “secret”, “handpicked” and had been “unmasked”. Their employment amounted to an “unusual arrangement”.

Shocked to the core, I sought clarification and was disappointed to learn that the conspiracy only ran to seven such operatives. I rather hoped there would have been more because it is an eminently sensible use of public money.

So sensible in fact (and so “unusual”) that I took the trouble to extol the virtues of this approach to Trevor Mallard back in 1999 when he succeeded me as state services minister. I strongly commended the continued use of purchase advisers, a role I – and some of my colleagues – used extensively during our decade in office.

Upton continues:

Mr Mallard didn’t apparently take much notice of my advice.

Purchase agreements, I understand, became optional and in recent times ministers have contented themselves with negotiating “statements of intent”. A decade of billowing surpluses meant that no- one had to worry too much about priorities. Ministers could afford to indulge themselves with words rather than don overalls and climb down into the engine room of the numbers.

There are those who regard the idea of ministers “purchasing” outputs as an ideological tool to undermine public service and the Public Service. For me it was completely the opposite.

Without transparently negotiated prices there was no way of resisting the call for across-the- board spending cuts. Nothing is more injurious to the professionalism of the Public Service. It is a lazy way in which ministers can make demands of their officials without taking responsibility for the consequences.

Now there is an issue about whose budget do they get paid out of? Should it be Ministerial Services or the Department whose purchase agreement they are advising on? I would have thought it would be easier to have them contracted and paid through Ministerial Services – as does Andrew Geddis. The Government says it has advice that it was proper for Departments to pick up the cost. I presume the rationale is that as the savings they identify will come out of the Departmental budgets, the costs of the purchase advisors should also be reflected there.

Also in the commercial world, when two parties are negotiating a contract, it is not unheard of for the contract to include that one party will pay for an independent advisor for the other party.

I’ve yet to see the advice the Government has as to whether or not they should be funded out of Ministerial Services or each Department. I think it was tabled in the House yesterday so would be great if someone can publicise it.

So what is my criticism of the Government on this issue? That they allowed Labour to portray this as some sort of secret, to be ashamed of. The Government should be proud they have got former state servants of such high calibre to help negotiate purchase agreements that will result in a more efficient public sector. They should have been boasting of the names and front footing what they were doing.

When in doubt, publicise it. It always looks better being released proactively by the Government rather than weeks later under the OIA.

Sage advice from Upton

November 18th, 2008 at 12:12 pm by David Farrar

Simon Upton’s column is always a good read:

And Miss Clark certainly demands respect. Until well into her final term, I was expecting her to win a fourth election. If there is a prime minister in recent history who could have pulled it off, it was she.

There will be all sorts of tipping points and missteps diagnosed with the benefit of hindsight. But right at the outset of the Key administration I would like to highlight an issue of political chemistry that was to my mind insidiously corrosive for Labour.

Very simply, it was the most partisan government since Sir Robert Muldoon’s. And that partisan edge became very wearing.

This is something that has been under-reported.

Miss Clark’s political dna was not predisposed to reaching out any further than the minimum required by MMP’s arithmetic.

Upton suggests four things:

Make it an explicit policy that appointments to the boards of Crown-owned entities will be made strictly on merit. By definition, there will be Labour-leaning appointees who should continue to serve. But it would be entirely reasonable to ask all appointees to be prepared to offer their resignations so that reappointments can be the subject of proper scrutiny. That some of Miss Clark’s egregiously political appointments followed on a long tradition of such appointments by previous National administrations doesn’t enslave Mr Key to that tradition. He could change the game.

I find it incredible Mike Williams has not resigned all his boards yet. How can he serve John Key’s Government when he tried to dig up dirt linking John Key to a massive fraud scandal?

Announce that, from here on, the award of honours will be left in the hands of the governor-general. There can be no harm in our head of state (with some appropriate wise advisory committee) honouring worthy citizens without the party political advice of the government of the day.

Or maybe as a compromise have the very top honours like Order of New Zealand reserved for the Governor-General to decide. However as the PM appoints the Governor-General, this may just result in more partisan appointments as Governor-General.

Decide from day one that there is no need to make every Government press release a partisan declaration. Miss Clark’s media machine turned every announcement into a triumph for “the Labour-led Government”. It was tacky and dreary.

God yes.

Mr Key should make it clear from the outset that he expects public servants to provide free and frank advice that his Government will be happy to accept or reject as it sees fit. This is higher risk because the Official Information Act provides officials with an opportunity to game ministers by offering them explosive material that will swiftly find its way into the public domain. There is no easy answer here, but trust and candour can go a long way. I have reached the view that many policies are best developed in full view, with papers being placed on a ministry’s website before decisions are taken.

I would have all Cabinet papers go automatically on the web after six months.

Other things that would be good for the new Government to do:

  • Not set up sham inquiries designed to find no wrong doing.
  • Actually try and provide answers in the House that have some connection to the question asked
  • Not delay OIA requests for months on end

Upton on Peters

October 8th, 2008 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

I am trying not to blog on Peters much. With the help of my psychiatrist and some happy pills, I even refrained myself from firing off an angry post last night on his incredibly rude treatment of TVNZ’s Jessica Mutch. But the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy Ruling Council has ordered me to try and give Winston less airtime, so I complied.

But Simon Upton’s analysis yesterday of Winston is too insightful to pass up. Some extracts:

I was present 30 years ago when Winston Peters won the National Party’s nomination for the Hunua seat. There was never any doubt about the outcome. His youthfulness, flawlessly fluent delivery, charm and above all self-assurance swept all before him.

And Simon goes on with more examples of the charisma.

Few politicians can hope to hold either the finance or foreign affairs portfolios. Winston has held both. I have, obviously, no firsthand experience of his execution of the latter role (carried out in bizarre isolation from the Cabinet). But I witnessed his reign as treasurer. It was an uneasy, faltering performance carried by the professionalism of his officials and the self- effacing industry of Bill Birch. There was something genuinely sad about watching him arrive at Cabinet meetings with his papers unread, still tightly secured by their green Cabinet Office ribbon.

Winston’s two departments have both loved Winston. Treasury found him a good Minister because he only read the one page summary papers, never the full papers. Birch handled all the details. A Minister who never second guesses officials, makes officials purr.

MFAT love Winston even more. He has been totally tamed and captured to their viewpoint in a manner not even Sir Humphrey could aspire to. Take this story from ZB:

New Zealand First Leader Winston Peters is belittling suggestions a budget boost for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade should be cut.

Both National Leader John Key and Finance Minister Michael Cullen have signaled the extra $600 million set aside for MFAT in this year’s budget could be cut, in light of the poor state of the Government’s finances.

Winston Peters, who lobbied for the spending as Foreign Minister, says it is the wrong move to cut an area that could help grow the country’s exports and wealth, at the first sign of trouble. He says it would be disastrous for the country.

You can;’t get better than that. a Minister who will argue that the way to get out of the economic crisis is to hire more staff for MFAT. And I suspect he actually believes it, so successful has MFAT been at taming their Minister. This can only happen when the Minister doesn’t take independent advice or delve into details.

Winston wasn’t cut out to be a policy wonk, or a detail man. He was cut out to be a leader. That he failed to become prime minister is possibly the singular political tragedy of our time. Perhaps too many people told him that he would be. He believed his trajectory to be unstoppable – and he took the sort of risks (leaving his party, calling by-elections) that only the most self-assured politician would consider.

Winston probably would have ended up National Party Leader in the mid 90s, if he had played a smarter game, and not tried to white-ant Bolger from within Cabinet.

But at the end of the day, he could not win the respect of those of his political colleagues who ultimately mattered – the ones who did the hard work, who read their papers and knew how to temper ambition with responsibility.

As time went on, Winston covered his inadequacies with belligerent counter-punching. He also began to believe his own rhetoric that he was unlike other politicians.

Recent events have revealed a politician every bit as human and flawed as the rest.

Ironically, the flaws he has denied would easily have been forgiven him if he had delivered substance to match his charisma. His failure to do so means his political legacy will be correspondingly meagre. We are all the poorer for that.

This has been WInston’s problem – he never ever admits fault, and thinks he has none. Most MPs know what their weak areas are and will work hard to improve them. But Winston has always though charisma alone will get him through.

Upton on Mapua

August 13th, 2008 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

I have not followed the Mapua fiasco as closely as I should, but Simon Upton does the job in the Dom Post yesterday:

I’ve just read the report of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s investigation into the Mapua contaminated site clean-up. It is a short report – just 49 pages of widely spaced text. But it is a bombshell. It would be hard to imagine a more comprehensive indictment of a central government agency.

Hmmn, I must find this report. A quick Google and here it is.

The ministry appears to have had no understanding of appropriate roles and responsibilities and no technical competence to perform the role it took upon itself.

Maybe the Environment Ministry was too busy purging its ranks of anyone who had a boyfriend who works for John Key?

The problem was not confined to environmental management. The commissioner, Jan Wright, has felt compelled to write to her colleague the auditor- general inviting him to investigate some of the contractual failings she uncovered. The list of shortcomings is breathtaking.

So is anyone being held responsible for these?

As a result, the plant almost certainly pumped toxins into the environment but because of flaws in the way monitoring of the project was set up, we will never know what or how much harm was caused, though the community was almost certainly exposed to dioxins.

Meanwhile, groundwater contamination exceeded thresholds for more than three years. According to the commissioner, the ministry took no effective action to address the discharges despite requests from all those charged with monitoring the process.

And this is not the nasty private sector, but the Government’s own Environment Ministry!

The ministry helped design a sophisticated set of accountabilities and monitoring processes which it promptly flouted, having turned itself into the principal operator. Not surprisingly, the local council had difficulties treating the ministry – which was funding the project and at the top of the statutory hierarchy – like any other resource applicant.

Indeed. One reason why policy and operations are often best in seperate agencies.

Ministers have every reason to be very angry with the way in which the project was handled. How can any of us have any confidence in the ministry’s ability to protect the environment when its own performance has been so woeful? The ministry’s new chief executive, Paul Reynolds – who is in no way responsible for this toxic legacy – should waste no time in completely reviewing the roles and accountabilities of those around him and see to it that he gets some technically literate people on board fast.

I thought the Ministry’s main job was to produce propoganda for the PM’s Office on how NZ is going to be the first carbon neutral nation on Earth. This is far more important than actually protecting the environment!

The case for science funding

July 2nd, 2008 at 9:25 am by David Farrar

Simon Upton makes a strong case for more funding for science:

I support spending taxpayer dollars on science more than most other areas of government expenditure. Extending the frontiers of human knowledge is a legitimate goal of public policy.

To start, two science stories. This (northern) summer, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will be commissioned. In the form of a ring with a circumference of 27km and buried 100 metres below the Franco-Swiss border on the outskirts of Geneva, it is the most powerful tool of its type ever constructed.

The scientific questions it will be targeting are mind-boggling: what happened in the first second following the inception of our universe some 13.7 billion years ago? Why do particles have mass? Does the Higgs boson really exist? What is the dark matter that makes up most of the universe made of?

Every statistic about the LHC is overwhelming. Particles will be accelerated to 99.99% of the speed of light; detectors will sift through vertiginous amount of data created by 600 million collisions per second. The instrument has taken nine years to build. While the Europeans have funded 90 per cent of the 3.7 billion euros the project has so far consumed, it will engage scientists from more than 100 countries.

To which I can only say “bravo” to the Europeans for such a staggering commitment which has no goal other than the quest of understanding why our universe is the way it is.

Like Simon, I think there is a legitimate case for public spending on science. Knowledge is what seperates us from the cavemen.

And now you ask, why do particles have mass??