The Press on SIS report

November 26th, 2014 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

Gwyn found, however, that Tucker, in defending himself, had provided an account of the briefing that was “objectively” misleading, by omissions and failure to provide context. The Prime Minister was also misled by the information Tucker provided. When public discussion about the matter blew up, Tucker failed to correct the situation.

Tucker’s errors were undoubtedly serious. He was not as measured and objective as he was required to be. These failures compromised the service’s obligation to appear politically neutral and the service has formally apologised for them, both to Goff and to the Prime Minister.

But contrary to much of the public debate on the matter, Gwyn found no partisan political motive on the part of the SIS or its director. Tucker’s faults were errors of judgment, no more. She also found that no SIS member had improperly leaked information to the blogger Cameron Slater or colluded with him.

Most importantly for the Prime Minister, Gwyn emphatically rejected any allegation of political collusion or direction of the SIS in its disclosure of information. The so-called “Dirty Politics” conspiracy did not exist.

Indeed.

She did find that information was provided by an employee in the Prime Minister’s Office to Slater for political purposes, but that employee was a political one who was not expected to be politically neutral and the information was not classified.

Political staff have political discussions with bloggers. How surprising.

On an issue of most concern to media, Gwyn found that differential treatment of requests for information from mainstream outlets, compared with one received from Slater, arose not from political partisanship but rather poor process, inadequate resources and lack of political awareness. The picture she paints is of a department unused to dealing with Official Information Act requests and under pressure for a quick response, rather than one seeking to act as part of any conspiracy.

Incompetence rather than malice. As is often the case.

The Herald editorial disagrees and says it is all John Key’s fault.

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The Press on regional air services

November 13th, 2014 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

Air New Zealand’s announcement this week that it will next year end services to Westport, Kaitaia and Whakatane will be a blow to those places. All three are small towns. Whakatane has a population of 15,000, Kaitaia 5000 and Westport 4000. Serving towns of that size in a financially sustainable way is difficult anywhere in the world. Air NZ says it has been losing money on the fleet it has serving those towns. But an air service can be considered nowadays to be as essential as roads and should be judged by more than purely financial criteria.

Why?

It is an easy assertion to make but what is the rational case for saying a town of 4,000 people must have air access?

Do all towns in Australia with 4,000 population have air access?

The airline has often been under pressure about its regional services. An University of Auckland study of air services in similar-sized countries to New Zealand last year found that Air NZ had the most coverage of centres with populations of 20,000 or more and the cheapest fares.

Air services should be on a user pays basis. If enough people in a town are willing to pay enough for air service, then a company will provide it. But I see no case for a subsidy.

But an air service is an essential service nowadays. The Government spends billions providing roads and underwriting the railways. Support for air services, even if unprofitable, to places that need them would not be a big step further.

Roads are funded primarily by petrol tax, on a roughly user pays basis. No case has been made for taxpayers to subsidise air services to small towns.

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The Press on the Christchurch District Plan

November 5th, 2014 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

The Government’s list of concerns about the Christchurch City Council’s Replacement District Plan is worrying.

While acknowledging the considerable work the council has done to produce the plan on a severely shortened timetable and also supporting many parts of the plan, the Government has taken issue with some core elements.

The plan fails, the Government says, to encourage greater housing supply to the degree Christchurch needs. According to the Government, the plan would restrict rather than build on the intensification envisaged in Christchurch’s existing recovery plan. Worse, it would introduce a complex and costly process for subdivision.

District plans are written by town planners, and almost inevitably they increase powers for town planners and make housing and other developments more expensive and subject to the decree of town planners.

The council has done a monumental job in getting it to this stage in such a short timeframe. It is crucial, though, that it is right for the city’s purposes.

If they are valid, the objections by the Government and others are serious and must be fixed. As the Property Council said a few months ago, “getting this wrong has the potential to be catastrophic for our city”.

If any city in NZ should be looking at a less restrictive plan, it is Christchurch.

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The Press on tall poppies

October 6th, 2014 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

One of New Zealand’s tall poppy tendencies is to grumble about the size of executive salaries whenever these are brought to our attention. The disparity between the highest-paid chief executive, on currently a touch over $4 million, and the minimum wage earner on less than $30,000 (excluding overtime or penal rates) is indeed vast. But that doesn’t mean it is unjustifiable.

According to a recent survey, the top five best paid CEOs in New Zealand are David Hisco of ANZ New Zealand ($4.1m), Theo Spierings of Fonterra ($3.5m), Mark Admanson of Fletcher Building ($3.3m), Peter Clare of Westpac New Zealand ($3.1m) and Nigel Morrison of Sky City (just under $3m).

While naysayers will often describe these amounts in a range of adjectives from excessive to extreme to obscene, the figures are not unduly high. They are below the amounts paid in years past, and compare unfavourably to the salaries being paid for top jobs across the Tasman and elsewhere.

Also, while people sometimes balk at the top salaries paid to business people, little noise is heard about the riches to be gained in other areas of endeavour – an All Black captain can earn $800,000 to $1m in a year, a teenage golfer $1.3m so far, and our most famous film-maker has accumulated wealth said to be in the region of $600m. Even the Prime Minister, whose parliamentary pay is a relatively paltry $428,000 a year, wins general approval as a self-made man with a fortune of around $50m, earned as an international currency trader.

The difference, perhaps, is that it is easy to visualise the commitment and drive and sheer guts that goes into becoming an international rugby star, a professional golfer, a film director or a top money-market player. It is less easy to imagine the working life of a chief executive, other than a daily round of suit-wearing, desk-jockeying and general hob-nobbing.

In fact, these people are being paid to take responsibility – often for multi-billion-dollar enterprises involving the investments and livelihoods of thousands – and to keep those businesses running successfully. They have reached their exalted positions often not through a life of privilege, but through hard work. Hisco, the bank boss, is said to have started his career with ANZ by sweeping the car park at a local branch in his hometown, Adelaide.

 

We should celebrate his success, not condemn it.

The truth is that to survive in and compete on global markets, New Zealand’s top enterprises must position themselves as international companies. To attract the talent required, that means paying the sort of money that might seem high here, but is nothing special in the wider world. As one of the most deregulated and open economies in the world, it is unreasonable to think that remuneration can be capped at some sort of imagined and arbitrary benchmark.

Absolutely.

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The Press on offence

October 2nd, 2014 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

EnSoc’s critics, and people generally, need to learn not to be too hasty to take offence. Prejudice and stereotyping are seldom effective humour, but howls of outrage can be a sign that a palpable hit has been made against some sacred cow or other. Even if there is no particular point being made, some leeway should be allowable for youthful exuberance.

Thin-lipped disapproval and the po-faced taking of offence are too often used to shut down others’ freedom of expression.

The claim that something has caused offence can be a veil for censorship and an attempt to create a culture in which a bland homogeneity of thought and opinion prevails.

To put it at its loftiest, one of the rights protected by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act is the right to freedom of expression. That must include the right to express thoughts and opinions others may find offensive, even odious.

It is unlikely any such high-toned notions were in the minds of the student EnSoc members when they thought up their tasteless defamations of women and Muslims and they should certainly act with greater regard for the sensitivities of others, but the principle applies all the same.

Well said. I recall Otago University capping magazines that were stuffed full of absolutely offensive humour. There is no right in NZ law not to be offended,

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The Press on the Dotcom sideshow

September 15th, 2014 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

The much-promised announcement being staged by Kim Dotcom today must be one of the most ballyhooed in New Zealand political history. It is also one of the oddest.

It has been designed for maximum theatrics by a man who, ever since his arrival in this country, has shown he is well-versed in the dark arts of public relations and knows how to manipulate public opinion to his own advantage.

Coming just five days before most voting in the general election will take place, the timing is cynical. It is clear from Kim Dotcom’s signalling of the event more than six months ago that any information he has could have been released at any time since at least the beginning of this year, if not earlier. If today’s information does turn out to be anything of substance, and not just a damp squib, releasing it now leaves little time for effective rebuttal. Today’s exercise could be seen as a blatant attempt by two foreigners – a German millionaire and an American journalist – to influence the outcome of the election.

As The Press says, this info could have been released at any time, allowing time for scrutiny and rebuttal. This is all about increasing the party vote for Dotcom’s pet party, so they will have more influence in the next Parliament.

According to what Greenwald has already said in interviews, the Government Communications and Security Bureau has engaged in mass electronic surveillance of New Zealanders. That would be contrary to the law and, more crucially, contrary to assurances given by Key. Greenwald’s credentials derive from stories he has written, many based on material given to him by the fugitive American National Security Agency worker now living in Russia, revealing questionable surveillance by the NSA and other western electronic intelligence agencies.

New Zealand is connected to those agencies by the so-called Five Eyes agreement. That agreement was established just after World War II and has been maintained by all governments since, presumably because of its value. Difficult as it may be to prove a negative, the Prime Minister has promised to declassify documents about the GCSB that will show conclusively that any allegations Greenwald makes of GCSB wrongdoing are false. Voters will have to judge for themselves as well as they can.

People who believe John Key is lying, also have to believe Helen Clark was lying – along with successive GCSB Directors, Inspector-Generals of Intelligence & Security, and probably half the GCSB staff.

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A train set for Christchurch

September 3rd, 2014 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

Labour leader David Cunliffe promised that if a Labour-led government were elected it would devote $100 million to create a commuter rail service in Canterbury. …

The idea of a rail link has superficial appeal but it is one that needs to be carefully examined. Cunliffe appears to be getting a little ahead of himself in making a commitment before its overall feasibility has been established. Environment Canterbury, which is responsible for public transport in the region, the Transport Agency, and the Waimakariri District and Christchurch City councils, all of whom have an obvious interest in solving the problem, decided earlier this year that a rail proposal they had closely looked at would be too expensive and would not deliver people to their places of work.

But nevertheless Labour will throw $100 million of our money at it!

In general, bright-eyed rail schemes have a terrible habit of incurring huge cost over-runs and turning out to be expensive white elephants. One in Edinburgh recently has crippled the city’s finances. Christchurch people in particular have no great love for public transport. The last commuter trains were dumped decades ago for lack of patronage. Buses are much more responsive to demand than trains and Christchurch people shun buses in droves.

Trains also require a huge commitment of public money. Nowhere in the world do they make money. Cunliffe’s proposal speaks of a $100 million commitment (a suspiciously low figure) but says nothing about extra ancillary costs and running losses. The day of the train might come eventually, but Christchurch’s finances are under enough strain already without the burden of a punt on rail now.

So taxpayers would incur the initial cost, and then ratepayers saddled with the white elephant’s running costs.

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The Press on Labour’s need for discipline

July 23rd, 2014 at 1:00 pm by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

Worse than that, however, the attack on Cunliffe was yet another illustration of the continual indiscipline afflicting the Labour Party at present. It also demonstrates Cunliffe’s inability to get his party inside the House and outside focused on what they must do if they are to have any chance at all in the general election.

The attack, which first appeared in the Sunday-Star Times at the weekend, was done behind a veil of anonymity. The source was described as a senior Labour figure, but it could not be discerned from the story whether it was a person in the caucus, two-thirds of which is said to support someone other than Cunliffe, or someone in the wider party. Either way, it seemed calculated to do the maximum harm.

Labour are suggesting the source was not an MP. But that is hard to reconcile with the quotes in the SST:

“We will be having a talk to David at caucus about his work ethic on Tuesday. We’ll be letting him know he’s got two months to turn this around, and we’re backing him and right behind him but he’s got to lift his game.”

The only people who attend caucus on Tuesday are MPs, the Chief of Staff and the President. I assume it isnt Matt McCarten being quoted or the President, so hence it must be an MP.

It was the latest in a series of stories that has put Labour in the headlines all right, but for all the wrong reasons. From Trevor Mallard wittering on with some harebrained thoughts about the genetic reconstitution of moa, to Kelvin Davis breaking with the party line over a contentious highway in Northland, to a half-baked suggestion about changing the burden of proof in rape trials, to Cunliffe’s own cack-handed apology for being a man, the stories are a corrosive distraction from whatever substantive policies Labour is trying to promote. The party’s message is being swamped by them.

And banning some perfumes and cosmetics.

But if Cunliffe wants to present himself as an alternative prime minister, and the party as an alternative government, he must bring some discipline to it. Otherwise, voters will, quite rightly, write him and the party off.

Sound advice.

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Is the Christchurch Town Hall affordable?

July 10th, 2014 at 9:00 am by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

The Christchurch City Council’s decision to pause its project to restore the Christchurch Town Hall until its financial position is clearer is plainly a wise one. The council had intended to begin seeking expressions of interest from companies who wanted to be involved in the project in May. But that has not gone ahead while the council awaits the outcome of negotiations with is insurers. That makes sense. There would be little point in committing a lot of time and money to the project if in the end there would be no rational way for the council to complete it.

The Council is already struggling with debt.

The Town Hall was insured for $69.1 million, but not all of that is necessarily recoverable. In any case, repairs have been estimated to cost $127.5m, more than it cost, in inflation-adjusted terms, to build.

So the net cost to ratepayers is at least $58 million.But it sounds like they won’t get the full insurance and we all know government construction projects tend to cost more than originally estimated. I would not be surprised if ratepayers end up having to pay over $100 million. That is almost $800 per household. If you asked households if they would rather have the $800 themselves or spend it on the Town Hall, I know what the answer would be.

 

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The Press rejects KiwiSaver compulsion

June 20th, 2014 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

The Labour Party yesterday announced that if it were to win the next election it would seek to change that. It would make KiwiSaver compulsory for all employees aged between 18 and 65. …

It is more likely that those who are not part of the scheme at this point are those who have decided, for good reasons of their own, not to participate in it. Some may, for instance, have decided it makes more sense for them to pay off debt – student loans, mortgages and the like – than to save through a super scheme. Others may not be able to afford to enter it. Forcing them to do so will require them either to borrow or forgo other spending. The spending is likely, at this point in their lives when they are younger, to be more valuable to them than a larger payout would be in old age.

Whatever the situation, it is their own choice not to enter a superannuation scheme. Compulsorily enrolling them is almost certainly going to make them worse off than if they were left to decide for themselves.

It’s patronising big government. Labour is telling people they are incompetent and can’t decide for themselves how best to save for their retirement.

Labour’s proposal is designed to increase what are said to be “chronically low savings rates”. Whether KiwiSaver does that is open to debate. It appears more likely it simply redirects saving rather than increasing it.

The evidence to date suggests exactly that.

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The Press on Labour’s Christchurch policy

June 10th, 2014 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

The idea of extending the jurisdiction of the District Court to create what would amount to a specialist earthquake court is undoubtedly eye-catching.

Its aim would be to provide a faster, less costly (to claimants at least) jurisdiction to deal with the multiplicity of disputes that have arisen over earthquake claims.

Whether it is necessary and whether it would achieve its aims, or achieve them without introducing perverse incentives, needs significant analysis. Insurance disputes can be complex and difficult. A new court is unlikely to make them any easier, though it may have the potential to streamline the process through them.

The High Court has for some time devoted large resources to a specialist list to deal with earthquake cases.

It began in May 2012 following a commitment by the Chief High Court judge that earthquake cases be dealt with as swiftly as the court’s resources permitted.

Most judges in the High Court are experienced and highly skilled commercial practitioners, well equipped to deal with insurance disputes.

A serious line-up of similarly skilled judiciary would be a bare minimum requirement for the newly proposed court.

Labour’s idea would allow claims of up to $1 million to be brought before the District Court, which has less expertise in complex commercial matters and would require expanding its jurisdiction from the present limit of $200,000.

Simply finding judges equipped to handle the work could be a problem. Labour says they would be found from among retired judges (which means they would be 72 or older) or suitably qualified senior lawyers.

What The Press is saying is that cases will be heard by retired district court judges, rather than high court judges.

Labour also says the government would cover all costs which means that claimants would have an incentive to lodge a claim, no matter how weak it was.

That’s the real problem. The courts would get swamped.

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Overstating our road toll

June 5th, 2014 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

By just about any measure, New Zealand driving is worse than in any comparable developed country. When, 40 years ago, the carnage on the roads was much higher it was taken as the price to be paid for road travel. The losses suffered now, while tragic for individuals and families, are looked upon in the same way. They should not be. Just as 40 years ago a very large proportion of them were avoidable, so they are now. We should all be doing more to avoid them.

This is not true. We are near the middle of the OECD.

In 2011 18 OECD countries had a higher road toll per 100,000 population and 18 had a lower one. On 2013 data we would appear to be doing even better with 22 countries having a higher toll and 14 a lower toll.

This is not to say we don’t want to keep reducing the road toll. But an editorial which claims we are worse than any comparable developed country is quite simply wrong. The 2013 road toll was 5.7 per 100,000 population.

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Gower on the dirty deal

May 30th, 2014 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

Patrick Gower blogged:

The Hone-Dotcom-Laila political triangle is one of the dirtiest deals in New Zealand political history.

It is as dirty as National-Act in Epsom.

It is as dirty as the Key-Dunne deal in Ohariu.

Frankly, Lalia Harré made me feel sick today when she said “it’s time for New Zealanders to take back MMP”.

That’s because Laila Harré is wrecking MMP.

Hone Harawira is wrecking MMP.

And Kim Dotcom is wrecking MMP.

They are using Harawira’s seat and MMP’s “coat-tail” rule to get a back-door entry into Parliament.

It is a rort.

It is a grubby deal, made all the worse by the fact Harawira holds the Te Tai Tokerau seat – a Maori seat.

The Maori seats are special. They have a unique constitutional role which is to give the Tangata Whenua a place of their own in the New Zealand Parliament.

The Maori seats have been hard fought for.

Never, ever was it envisaged they would be used as a back-door entry for a German millionaire to get his proxy into Parliament.

His $4,000,000 proxy. We should refer to Laila as the four million dollar woman!

Gower is right to point out that this does weaken the case for retention of the Maori seats.

This will give those opposed to Maori seats ammunition to get rid of them.

A referendum on keeping MMP at the moment would be very interesting. Likewise on the Maori seats!

Sadly, the Internet Mana deal has diminished the mana of the Maori seats.

And even sadder too, this deal involves money.

Harawira wants Dotcom’s money.

Annette Sykes wants Dotcom’s money.

John Minto wants Dotcom’s money.

They are all willing to pervert the MMP system for the sake of money and it is a venal deal.

Don’t try and tell me Laila Harré cares deeply about the internet. She cares about getting into Parliament.

Her first press conference was about pretty much every leftwing issues there is, and almost silent on Internet issues except vague platitudes on the importance of the Internet – something that was dated even back in 1996 – when Harre entered Parliament initially.

I have a lot of respect for Harawira, Sykes and Minto. They have spent their lives fighting for what they believe in – for points of principle.

But that respect has been tarnished.

They are obsessed by power, obsessed by money and will trample over the rights of New Zealand voters to get it.

This Internet Mana deal is so wrong.

I feel sorry for all those who signed up to the Internet Party thinking it was about Internet issues. Instead it is merely a vehicle for Dotcom to fund the Mana Party into Parliament. They should be honest and cut out the middle man, and just have Dotcom give the money directly to Mana. Harre is not a candidate for the Internet Party. She is a candidate for Mana. I bet you there isn’t a single Mana Party policy she disagrees with, and she probably doesn’t even know what policies the Internet Party has.

The Press editorial is no less strong:

There can have been fewer link-ups in New Zealand politics more cynical and crassly opportunistic than the one just formed between Hone Harawira’s Mana Party and the Internet Party, masterminded and financed by the internet developer Kim Dotcom. There is not the shadow of any principle involved in it.

Before he arrived in New Zealand, Kim Dotcom’s public image was of a high-living, luxury-loving party animal. For all his technical skills, there is not the slightest evidence that either now or in the past he has had a serious political thought in his head.

It is almost certain his only contact with the poor and dispossessed whose interests Harawira purports to represent would have been as employees. Indeed he may be a little startled to find that he is financing the far-left Laila Harre, the newly announced leader of the Internet Party.

As for the internet issues the Internet Party is supposedly concerned about, if Harawira and Mana had any particular interest in them before Kim Dotcom and his money came on the scene they kept very quiet about them.

Sames goes for the Internet Party Leader.

The ultimate composition of the next New Zealand government may wind up in the hands of a fringe collaboration bankrolled by a German fugitive from American justice. New Zealand politics should be better than that, surely.

The Dom Post editorial notes:

Harre’s arrival sharpens a dilemma for Labour. If its Te Tai Tokerau candidate Kelvin Davis defeats Harawira, it could cut Internet-Mana’s throat and waste a lot of votes for the Left bloc. The best strategy might be for Labour to go softly on Harawira without actually cutting an Epsom-style deal with him. This would require a U-turn, even if it is done in semi-secret.

I understand there is a huge shit fight in Labour over this. Kelvin Davis thinks that he can win the seat as Hone cuddling up to German multi-millionaires will go down like cold sick with many Te Tai Tokerau constituents. If Davis is allowed to run an aggressive campaign for the seat, he could win it.

But Cunliffe and McCarten don’t want to win it. They need Mana-Dotcom in Parliament. So they’ve decided that they will unofficially not campaign to win the seat. This makes Davis the sacrificial lamb who would love to the MP for Te Tai Tokerau, not a List MP.

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Editorials on polls

May 27th, 2014 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

Political opinion polls come so thick and fast during an election year it is tempting to pass over them with indifference.

The results of two announced at the weekend, though, were so contrary to conventional political wisdom that they demanded attention. …

A well-received Budget took the heat off last week, but the consensus was that the first opinion polls taken while those events were still fresh in voters’ minds would punish the Government.

The outcome was quite different – not only were National and the Prime Minister up and Labour, its leader David Cunliffe and most Opposition parties down, National would, if the results were translated into votes at the election, win sufficient seats not to need a support party. 

The well-received Budget may explain part of it. One of the polls found that even two-thirds of those who identified themselves as Labour supporters backed it.

But another part of the explanation for the poll results may be that what transfixes those in the Wellington political bubble can often be less than earth-shattering in the wider world where most voters live.

I think that is right.  I think Labour especially suffers from Wellingtonitis because so few of its MPs come from provincial areas. The test is what the mums are talking about at the school gates or what the chatter is in the smoko rooms. Almost none of them were talking Oravida.

The Herald editorial:

So much for Oravida, Judith Collins, Maurice Williamson. National’s troubles of the past two months have evaporated in two separate public opinion polls taken since the Budget. Colmar Brunton, for TVNZ, and Reid Research for TV3, both find more than half of their sample intending to vote National. This must be devastating for Labour, whose sustained barrage on Ms Collins in Parliament over the past two months does not appear to have moved any votes.

They have moved votes. From Labour to National.

Four months out from the election, Labour is the party in trouble. It ought to be polling well above 30 per cent by this stage to have much hope of success in September. If its result is not 10 or more points higher at the election, it must be doubted it could lead a credible government.

David Cunliffe said his aim is to poll higher than National – at a minimum get into the 40s. 116 days to go.

Labour leader David Cunliffe said of the latest polls, it is “still fairly early days” and they would “bounce right back again”. It is very late in the day. Most voters make up their minds well before the election campaign begins, though it is true that campaigns restore voters’ usual loyalties. Labour is likely to do better than 30 per cent, National will almost certainly fall short of 50 per cent.

But right now the prospects for Labour could hardly look worse. It has fired its best shots in the past two months and the voters are unmoved. The economy is growing, the Prime Minister is popular and so far there is no prevailing mood for change.

But as both editorial say, Labour might make it through a Labour-Greens-NZ First-Mana-Dotcom alliance.

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Sense from The Press

May 12th, 2014 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

There was something both a little overwrought and naive about the attempt last week to drum up a fuss about the fact that some people had paid large sums to attend functions at which they would have the opportunity to meet and talk to politicians. All political parties put strenuous effort into raising money to keep themselves going and those efforts reach a peak in the period leading up to an election. To try to convert perfectly legitimate fundraising into something more sinister shows a view of the rough trade of politics that is touching but wildly unrealistic.

The ruckus was manufactured out of the publicising of the entirely unsurprising fact that the National Party has been running events which donors pay to attend and socialise with Government ministers. It became even sillier with the reporting of a perfectly ordinary Wellington event organised by a prominent National Party fundraiser that gathered (and properly reported) $45,000 for the party. It was suggested that the fact that Prime Minister John Key was there with his chief of staff somehow turned his presence into an official appearance and amounted to using his office to support the party.

That was probably the most farcical aspect of the Green inspired hysteria (which is designed to get compulsory taxpayer funding of political parties). The PM has two parliamentary offices – the Office of the PM and the Office of the National Party Parliamentary Leader. The chief of staff heads up both, and to say this his attendance at a fundraiser means it is an official appearance is farcical.

This is nonsense. Using high-ranking politicians and ministers as bait at fundraising events is practised by all political parties. As the Prime Minister and others have pointed out, the Labour Party at its last conference in Christchurch offered one-on-one meetings with its MPs for a hefty fee. It is perfectly legitimate and dubbing it “cash for access” and calling it a scam does not make it any less so.

Yet the Greens are silent on Labour selling one on one meetings with MPs. I don’t have a problem with them doing so, but the hypocrisy is massive – they decry MPs attending fundraising breakfasts and lunches – yet say it is fine for their own MPs to be pimped out for one on one meetings in return for a fee.

It is not as though there is anything exclusive in the practice. New Zealand members of Parliament, including ministers, are extraordinarily accessible and open to meeting anyone. Those who pay money to meet politicians are doing so not because the encounter bestows any particular benefit on them but because they are showing support for those of a like-minded political disposition.

Exactly. There isn’t a democracy in the world where politicians don’t attend fundraising functions.

There is, moreover, nothing wrong with ministers having general discussions about political issues at such gatherings. In fact, the more views politicians and ministers hear before they frame policy the better. Even if an individual is able to bend a minister’s ear about some policy or other, the policy must still make it through the meatgrinder of the political process where a thousand other voices are added to the outcome.

“Cash for access” is very far from “cash for favours”, of which New Zealand is blessedly free. New Zealand politicians are undeniably the least corrupt in the world and to suggest scams where none exist is mudslinging for no useful purpose.

The purpose is to get taxpayer funding of political parties, so parties no longer have to worry about relying on their own supporters.

To keep things above board, though, it is important that there is as much openness about what goes on as possible. Some donors to political parties, while willing to part with their cash to support their party of choice, come over all bashful about having their support publicly known. And both major parties unfortunately have been willing to indulge them in their shyness. Parties must declare the gifts they have received, but even after two rewrites of electoral finance law in the last decade it is still possible for an individual to gift up to $15,000 without revealing his or her identity.

I thought the previous limit of $10,000 was about right. Labour incidentally voted for the level to go up to $15,000. But still put that in perspective – $15,000 is less than 1% of the cost of a major party’s election campaign. It may be quite a lot of money to an individual, but it isn’t a lot of money to a major party.

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The Press on Labour

March 4th, 2014 at 1:00 pm by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

Labour leader David Cunliffe perhaps scored one or two electoral points last week when he visited – in her damaged home – an 85-year-old widow who told him she had been “pushed from pillar to post” in her dealings with EQC. …

Unfortunately, it was no substitute for a cohesive and well-articulated earthquake recovery policy from Labour, which continues to look lacklustre when it comes to explaining how it would handle the rebuild.

Cunliffe followed up his photo opportunity with a pledge to set up, if elected to Government, a $2 million fund to help individuals bring test cases against EQC and insurance companies, to “clarify the law, remove blockages and help get things moving”.

There is an immediate perception problem with the amount, which seems almost insignificant given the scale of the problem.

While Cunliffe talks of millions, the Government in election year is bound to keep repeating its mantra that it is funding $15 billion of a $40b rebuild.

Cunliffe’s rhetoric almost invites critique. If elected to Government, it would be better for Labour to clarify the law itself, even if that involves seeking its own declaratory judgments from the courts, rather than relying on citizens bringing test cases.

Paying people to take EQC and insurance companies to court might also create blockages, rather than remove them, at least in the cases of those who become involved in litigation.

It seems to be one of their more stupid policies. We’ll pay people to take our own insurance company to court.

And, given the length of time such cases take to be heard and adjudicated, then potentially appealed, it is hard to imagine how this scheme will help to get things moving to any significant degree.

A great way to delay things. Will they fund cases all the way to the Supreme Court?

It would be inviting them, in some cases, to sue EQC, a government department. What Cunliffe is saying, essentially, is that “if elected to govern, we will give you some money so that you can take our own officials to court, so that they can have a better idea of how they should be handling your case file”.

This is not what electors are looking for in a credible opposition party campaigning in election year.

It sounds like a policy a 22 year old staffer dreamt up the day before the visit. The key word in the editorial is credible. The policy is not credible, and neither is the party promoting it.

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A fail for the press editorial

February 27th, 2014 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

The Press says:

Cynics would say that the latest rise was an easy move for the Government to make. When the minimum wage rises by 50c, the Inland Revenue Department gets nearly 9c extra for every hour worked by a minimum- wage earner as the income tax liability increases. For workers with children, the Government’s Working for Families liability will decrease at the same time. All of this money will be funded by employers directly, and indirectly by the consumers who use the goods and services that those employers provide.

A number of people make this mistake. Putting up the minimum wage decreases the tax take for the Government. They have ignored the fact companies pay tax, and at a higher rate than individuals on the minimum wage.

A full time minimum wage of $13.75 an hour is $28,679 a year. Going to $14.25 an hour is $29,721. An increase of $1,042.

Tax on the former is $4,039 and the latter is $4,221. So an increase in tax of $189.

However the employer pays tax at 28%. Their profit will drop by $1,042 and hence the tax they pay drops by $292. That means a net reduction in tax to the Government of $103.

So a rather big fail for The Press editorial.

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Editorials on “gentlemen’s agreement”

February 26th, 2014 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull is defending the agreement under which former Dunedin North MP Pete Hodgson was paid by Cull’s council to lobby the Government to retain the core functions of AgResearch at Invermay. Hodgson was paid $3400 for duties which included advocating on the council’s behalf, contributing to a letter to Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce and writing a 10-page report for the board of AgResearch.

The council says that Cull was its main point of contact with Hodgson, but it could not locate a single email, contract or any other document relating to the agreement. Cull said: “I could describe it as a gentleman’s way of doing business in the south.” …

In matters involving public money, it is absolutely essential that the principles of transparency and accountability are upheld. There are sometimes good commercial reasons for withholding some information, but they don’t apply here. Cull has done Dunedin ratepayers a disservice with this handshake deal and his cavalier attempt to explain it.

Also an editorial in the Southland Times:

Could you smell the port and stale cigar smoke on Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull’s breath as he defended the “gentleman’s agreement” under which his council paid former MP Pete Hodgson for lobbying?

Mr Hodgson was paid $3400 for his work helping the council advocate that Invermay retain its core Ag Research functions. He was plausibly the best person for the job. But it was done on a handshake with nary a contract – and all that tedious accountability that goes with it – in sight. …

Mr Hodgson says the fact that nothing was written up “would probably reflect their trust in me”.

As far as the public is concerned, what this should reflect is the untrustworthiness of all involved.

A council, a mayor and a former minister of the Crown should collectively and individually know full well that this was dodgy and then some.

The Taxpayers’ Union, while acknowledging that it isn’t an eye-watering amount, detects that the council isn’t applying the most basic internal controls.

It is the principle, not the amount. But when it involves public money with one politician awarding it to another politician, you need to be absolutely transparent.

The good news is that while there was no contract, there was at least an invoice. The Taxpayers Union is pleased with this, but asking the question who then authorised the payment. The Mayor keeps insisting it had nothing much to do with him, while the Council says he was the primary point of contact. So who signed it off?

The ODT reports:

Chief executive Dr Sue Bidrose said yesterday invoices should have been included in the OIA response, but the staff member writing the response ”was simply answering the question ‘was there a contract?’ and the answer seems to have been no”.

It was also a ”mistake” not to write a contract for Mr Hodgson’s services, she said.

”It appears that there have been more than one of these mistakes and it appears that there is a small number of managers who were not aware [of council policy].”

The council did not use ”gentlemen’s agreements” and had reiterated to staff all employment transactions, no matter how small, should be covered by contracts.

Good to see.

As readers will know, I helped found the Taxpayers’ Union. On a modest budget and limited resources we’ve already made a lot of impact with both local and central government in attacking wasteful or sloppy spending, including the $19 million spent by ACC which by their own accounting was at best returning 14 cents in the dollar.  You can join the union for just $5, subscribe to newsletters for free, and/or donate to help keep us going. The board members are all volunteers. As we head into election year expect more of a focus not just on wasteful spending, but making the case for taxes to be reduced as the crown accounts head back into surplus.

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The Press on education reforms

January 25th, 2014 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

Prime Minister John Key, in his first big speech of the year, yesterday chose to focus on a subject that has traditionally been a political minefield and one on which the Government has come a cropper in the past. In choosing to unveil some radical new measures, and substantial new spending, with the aim of raising standards and bringing about what he called “a step change in achievement” in schools, Key also went into territory that Labour has regarded itself as having an ascendancy.

But first reaction from teachers, professional bodies and the teacher unions welcoming the proposals – something that must be unique for a National Party policy – indicates that they will likely be accepted and may be smoothly put into practice. They appear to be a serious-minded attempt to to bring about better performance from teachers and schools, one of the most important issues for the performance of the economy and the long-term good of society generally.

Few things could make a bigger difference to inequality than improving the performance of the tail of those in the education system. No amount of law passing or minimum wage hikes is going to make life particularly good for a kid who leaves school unable to read or write.

It is now widely recognised that school achievement is more strongly related to good teaching than to almost any other factor, including, within certain limits, class sizes. Recent studies have also been able to measure the effect of good teaching on the outcomes for pupils’ lives. A good teacher, the studies have shown, makes a measurable impact on pupils’ incomes (according to one American study up to $250,000 over a lifetime) and also produces better, happier citizens.

Recognising this, the changes announced yesterday aim to improve teaching with significant financial incentives and opportunities for the best principals to supervise more schools and improve their results, and for the best teachers to stay longer in the classroom, rather than move on to management, and to pass their skills to their colleagues. Collaboration across schools so the best practices get spread more widely will be encouraged.

One of the reforms will provide for up to 20 so-called “change principals” to earn an additional $50,000 a year for up to five years running schools that are struggling. This idea of trying to attract the best people to such schools to try to turn them around is obviously far better than allowing them to hobble along producing poor results and sometimes eventually falling over and having to be rescued anyway.

Our tolerance for poor results should be low.

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The Press on Mayoral accessibility

January 18th, 2014 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

With the announcement this week of the appointment of a press secretary for Mayor Lianne Dalziel, along with a number of other appointments, the make-up of the mayor’s office is now complete. The mayor had earlier announced the appointment of a chief of staff to run the office. The mayor will have nine people working directly for her, more than twice the four that the former mayor, Bob Parker, had.

It would be interesting to compare the size of the various Mayoral offices to the sizes of their Councils.

In addition to a chief of staff and a press secretary, the mayor now has a senior adviser, a community adviser, a visits and ceremonials co-ordinator, two information officers and two executive assistants (one of them shared with the chief of staff). It must be hoped this staff will be committed to ensuring robust performance from the mayor’s office. It must also be hoped they will be committed to the greatest possible transparency and openness about the mayor’s work.

The mayor’s community adviser is Nicola Shirlaw, who was Dalziel’s campaign manager for the council election. That political connection is of no great significance by itself but the mayor must take care not to allow her office to become highly politicised or excessively inward-looking.

Of course it will be politicised. The job of the Mayor’s office is to get the Mayor re-elected. There’s nothing wrong with that per se. A Mayor who is doing a good job is more likely to be re-elected, so part of what the Mayoral office does is help the Mayor perform well. But they also of course promote the Mayor and try and get favourable coverage.

The office must also not become a barrier between the mayor and the media and public. Parker was commendably available to the media – replying with remarkable diligence and promptness to emails, texts and phone calls, even at the height of his political travails when there was little benefit to him from doing so. Dalziel is proving to be less accessible.

I didn’t know that about Parker. Good on him.

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The Press on oil exploration

January 9th, 2014 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

It is a long way from the exploration of a promising-looking gasfield and the development of a productive operation, and the outcome is far from certain. But the news that a well-resourced international consortium has committed $200 million to explore the Great South Basin, off the southeast coast of the South Island, is very welcome. Oil and gas production from wells in the Taranaki basin are already our fourth biggest export and generate hundreds of millions in revenue for the Government. The industry has made Taranaki one of the most prosperous regions in the country and created more than 3000 jobs. Finding another such productive area has long been sought. The areas with the greatest potential at present are in the Great South Basin and off East Cape. A successful result in either would be an enormous boost to our prosperity.

Yet one a Labour/Green Government would be against.

The search did not begin again in earnest until three years ago, when Dutch energy giant Shell along with the Austrian company OMV began to explore. Those two companies, along with the Japanese industrial conglomerate Mitsui, believe the seismic results are good enough to warrant the $200m commitment. Good enough means they believe there is 30 per cent chance of a commercial discovery.

30% is pretty high.

Green groups have predictably objected. Last year a meeting in Dunedin at which Shell was to talk about its plans with business owners was abandoned because of interruptions from anti-oil drilling protesters. Their objections are deeply misguided.

I would have thought Green groups would welcome NZ producing more of its own energy, rather than importing it from other countries.

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The Press on whaling

January 8th, 2014 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

The annual antics of the anti-whaling activists Sea Shepherd in the Southern Ocean are under way again.

The routine seems the same every year and is familiar. Japanese whaling ships arrive in the Southern Ocean to begin hunting whales. The pretext for the hunting is that it is for “scientific research” although that is almost universally disputed.

Most impartial observers believe the real reason for the hunting is to keep what remains of the Japanese whaling industry going.

Each year Sea Shepherd vessels track the whalers and aggressively attempt to disrupt the hunting.

Sea Shepherd and the whalers feed off each other. There is almost no commercial market for the whales anymore in Japan. The whalers carry on, because they don’t want to be seen to be buckling to pressure. I suspect if one ignored them, they’d stop within a decade.

This year the Green Party has taken up Sea Shepherd’s cry and called on the Government to send a naval vessel to the area to demonstrate New Zealand’s disapproval of the Japanese behaviour.

It may strike some as strange to hear the Greens promoting a show of military force but in any case the idea is foolish.

Even if the Japanese were breaching some law, New Zealand has no jurisdiction in the area and could do nothing about it.

Normally the Greens insist that military have no role in international disputes, but when it comes to whaling they want to send in a frigate!

Governments, both Labour and National, have said repeatedly that they do not accept Japan’s cover story used to justify its whaling and have called for the Japanese to end the practice.

That is the line taken consistently in international forums such as the International Whaling Commission for many years.

Last year, the present National Government went further and joined an action brought by the Australian Government in the International Court of Justice to have Japan’s whaling declared illegal. New Zealand’s case was strongly argued by Attorney-General Chris Finlayson.

The court’s decision is expected about within two or three months.

That will be eagerly awaited. Hopefully NZ and Australia win.

As Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said yesterday the whaling is being carried out “substantially for the purposes of pride and we’ve got to try and negotiate a way to get past what is a pointless activity . . .”

New Zealand is fully involved in that diplomatic activity.

Sea Shepherd’s Southern Ocean publicity stunt does nothing useful to advance it.

I think Sea Shepherd know that the practice would probably stop, if they were not there highlighting it. But then they would have no reason to exist. They and the whalers have a symbiotic relationship with each other – both needs the other to stay relevant.

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The Press on referendum

December 16th, 2013 at 7:35 am by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

There was never any chance the present Government was going to take any notice of the latest one.

In any case a botch-up by the organisers meant it was delayed so that by the time it was held, the programme it was meant to influence was almost over.

Incredible they had such a high proportion of duplicate signatures.

The latest referendum was not strictly a citizens’ initiated one.

Unlike earlier referendums – on the number of MPs there should be in Parliament, on the proper punishment for violent offending, and on smacking of children – it was not led by any great popular groundswell.

Instead, it was largely promoted by the Green Party.

It spent a significant sum organising the petition for it.

Not sure the Greens spent any of their own money on it. They used their taxpayer funded parliamentary budget. The main purpose of doing so was to collect e-mail addresses from the petition.

To the loaded, if muddled question, a clear majority of voters signalled their opposition to asset sales, although not in such large numbers as some had expected.

In all the previous referendums, the vote for the position supported by those promoting the issue has been won by majorities of at least four to one, and in one case (in the poll on violent offending) by nine to one.

In the latest poll the margin was two to one.

Considering the concerted campaign run by those supporting the no-vote, who would have been expecting better, it was not a striking result.

It was a confusing question. Some of those who voted no might want more than 49% of assets sold. Some might want four of the five companies sold, but not all five. And yes the margin was way less than most expected.

Referendums are a crude instrument for influencing public policy. They require simple yes-no answers.

Most political questions are more complex than that and involve trade-offs.

It is for that reason that few countries bother with them. The latest one was a prime example.

The issue it dealt with was decided with the result of the last general election. Whether voters are still happy about that will be properly judged at the next one.

Labour declared the last election was a referendum on asset sales. They were right.

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Disagreeing editorials

December 13th, 2013 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

The Dom Post says the MFAT leaks were justified:

That is why the leakers could argue they had a wider duty than their narrow duty of loyalty to the Government. Of course bureaucrats should not and must not leak willy-nilly. A broadly impartial public service should be able to be trusted with certain kinds of information. Leakers know they run a risk if caught. They must be quite certain that the public benefit of the leak outweighs the duty of confidentiality. And they must be prepared to face the music if caught.

In this case there was a wider public duty and therefore the leak was justified. No government has the right to demand silence from the victims of a misbegotten purge. No government should expect the “debate” to be confined to the victims and their executioners. No government should seriously expect this sort of thing not to leak.

I note the Dom Post was the recipient of many of the leaks.

The Press has a different view:

The proposed restructuring, which had been ordered by the new head of MFAT to better align the ministry with New Zealand’s evolving trade promotion and diplomacy needs from Europe to Asia, aroused enormous opposition within the ministry. MFAT people had, of course, every right to oppose the changes. But, as Rennie observes, at that stage the correct and professional way to do that was through the proper process, which had then barely begun. In this case, the public servants concerned were not blowing the whistle on any impropriety but were seeking rather to shortcut and sabotage a proper process.

This is key. The Tier 3 managers resorted to sabotage before the process had barely begun.

The motive, at least so far as the leaker of the Cabinet papers is concerned, was ultimately to discomfit the Government. That person could not be identified with certainty but there was a strong suspicion it was a former member of the Labour Party research unit. Other MFAT individuals may have been trying to protect themselves and their own positions in MFAT.

The point about leaking and whistleblowing is that they are justified as serving the public interest by the need to protect the integrity of an institution or a system. In this case, the leakers undermined the system by taking on what amounted to a party-political role. They also undermined the honourable cause of whistleblowing.

I agree with The Press.

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Christchurch planners v developers

November 11th, 2013 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

Friction between property developers and local body planners is to be expected.

Developers want to be able to get on with their separate projects, doing what they need with the minimum of bureaucratic oversight.

Planners are concerned not just with the outcome of any individual project but also with its impact on the bigger picture of what is going on in the city.

Planners also want to see that rules, which have been adopted through appropriate processes for good reasons, are properly applied.

The two groups’ aims are not necessarily in conflict – developers want to get stuff done, planners (ideally) want to let it be done (provided the rules are followed). 

The statement that planners want to let things be done is highly contestable!

After the debacle earlier this year of the Christchurch City Council building consents process, which led to the council losing its status as an accredited consenting authority, it is alarming to hear home builders complaining that red tape and “design palaver” in the council planning process are holding up the construction of apartments and units.

The council has rejected the complaints, saying any delays come from developers failing to come to grips with new, tougher design rules.

But when a developer of the prominence of Mike Greer – owner of the region’s biggest house building company and who presumably runs a sophisticated operation capable of understanding any regulatory requirements – says the council’s bureaucracy is making it nearly impossible to build affordable housing, the complaint must be taken seriously.

As Christchurch has a serious housing shortage, you would think they would be doing what they can to make it easy to build more housing.

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