VIEWS FROM OUTSIDE THE APIARY: IAN FLETCHER
By Ian Fletcher
With the election looming, I thought it might be helpful to set out some of the big issues voters should be thinking about. Politicians should be thinking about them too, but I’m not optimistic. It’s not too late, but there are real crisis points ahead.
First, the obvious stuff:
Domestically, public services are a mess. The one shared characteristic is that they can’t attract and retain people. The health system, and schools are the obvious pressure points. (The really immediate crisis is in the armed forces, which are arguably not needed until it’s too late. But they serve as a warning). Some of this is money. Some of it is the lure of better paid – and often just better – jobs in Australia. But much of it is really shockingly poor management. The health system and the recent-merged polytech sector are stand-out examples of botched changes that harm the system.
Housing was the core issue the Ardern-Hipkins governments were elected to solve. Fail. There seems to have been the fundamental inability to see that a policy of encouraging immigration (to juice up the economy and ease the skills shortages) necessarily means you have to build lots and lots more houses. The government has failed to even see the scale of the problem. National is no better: their recent urge to go backwards on medium density housing in Auckland will mean there will not be a market solution, and the supply/demand mismatch will stay. Ordinary people will suffer. It’s avoidable, and thus utterly unacceptable.
Crime is a new, big issue. There are two strands here – the arming of gangs (and their brazen willingness to use weapons), and the emergence of incompetent but dangerous teenage criminals. Some of the gang conduct has been accelerated by criminal deportees from Australia. The teenage crime wave seems to a toxic brew of social media, drugs and a complete lack of meaningful sanctions. In both cases the police have been caught flat-footed. A much tougher attitude to guns, and a serious move to stop children having smart phones will be the eventual answer (the US Surgeon-General has already pointed to the harmful link between teenagers and social media). But I doubt New Zealand’s political parties really have the stomach for either move, until things get much worse, as they will.
But behind those headlines are three much more serious issues.
Firstly, Inequality. I’ve written before about the need for higher taxes, and the growing economic evidence (from the US Federal Reserve, not known for its socialist views) that low taxes on wealthy people contributes directly and unavoidably to the housing crisis. In New Zealand the debate is around tax policy and is a race to agree to do as little as possible to change things. The result is growing inequality, and the emergence of a few super-rich, but also the relative impoverishment of the middle of society (the nurses, teachers, tradespeople), and the absolute immiseration of the very poor. Unequal societies do badly. We harm ourselves. Equality matters at the top, as well as at the bottom, of the income pyramid. Just ask Marie Antoinette.
In New Zealand’s case, Australia beckons. It has higher taxes, a better standard of living, and a government determined to make it as attractive as possible for educated and motivated New Zealanders. Either we solve our inequality problem (by at least taxing to Australian levels), or Australia will solve it for us through a skills crisis that never goes away. Against that analysis, I have to write a sentence I never thought I would ever utter: The Māori Party’s tax policy is quite good.
Secondly, a self-imposed slow-moving constitutional crisis. I started out thinking the debate over co-governance with Māori was a distraction. I have come to see it as a serious error by the current government, as for many people it entrenches the sense that the legitimacy of our democracy can be given away to – as they see it - placate a minority.
In a democracy there need to be rules to slow down the majority from running away with the rights of any minority (so we have proper courts, and we ought to have a proper Upper House of Parliament). But it can never be right to appear to entrench the minority so the majority view is permanently thwarted (even if the reality is different – appearances matter). I’ve expressed this very carefully because this is a sensitive debate, and because many Māori suffer serious actual discrimination which is intolerable, and a disgrace on our society. But the solution – whatever it is – needs more thought and a lot more explanation than the concept of co-governance as it has emerged.
And finally, government (and public service) incompetence. The excellent American philosophical writer Philip Bobbit once said, in a moment of clarity, that governments need legitimacy (see above) and competence. My dealings with MPI, the health system, and others suggest New Zealand’s government is long on complacency, but woefully short of competence (and humility). If ex-colleagues’ comments to me are anything to go by, the core public service increasingly rewards mediocrity and yes-people, and punishes innovation and actual thought.
I haven’t mentioned foreign policy. It’s a mess, with war potentially looming in the North Pacific, a really major demographic and economic crisis in China (our biggest market), and a very real chance of both a Russian victory in Ukraine (face it, it’s Putin’s to lose) and a Trump victory in the US. Too much to expect Wellington to have given that any thought at all. Thank God the Aussies will save us.
Overall, it’s a failing grade from me for the Ardern-Hipkins lot. But I have to say I’m utterly unconvinced that the other lot even understands the question, let alone has a fair stab at an answer. Einstein said that it was much more important to really understand the question than to know the answer. Sadly, our politicians don’t even know there is a question.
Ian Fletcher is a former head of New Zealand’s security agency, the GCSB, chief executive of the UK Patents Office, free trade negotiator with the European Commission and biosecurity expert for the Queensland government. These days he is a commercial flower grower in the Wairarapa and consultant to the apiculture industry with NZ Beekeeping Inc.