2017: A year of hard truthsby Graham Adams
Our national mantra of “She’ll be right” looks to have backfired. Graham Adams reflects on 2017.
It’s been a rude awakening – and one that shaped the election, resulting in a new government of Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens, dedicated to rectifying the shameful tally of social and environmental problems built up over nine years.
Key had managed to keep a lid on growing concern over a host of problems such as high house prices, homelessness, polluted rivers, and the effect of mass immigration on infrastructure, but the jig was clearly up at the end of last year. Louder and louder criticism was being aired, including from business leaders.
Key had gone as far as he could as the pump-and-dump prime minister. He managed the economy as if it was a business he was looking to sell in a few years rather than a long-term investment. Anything that brought in money was fine by him – whether it was over-intensive dairy farming, third-rate education for overseas students, foreign trusts hiding ill-gotten loot, asset sales (including state houses), offshore buyers snapping up land and houses, or massive immigration.
Consequently, the government accounts show a surplus, although that has been achieved in part by underfunding health and social services for a burgeoning population. Economic growth looks good too, but it is mostly the result of stuffing tens of thousands of immigrants into the country each year, who raise GDP overall but do little to improve per capita GDP.
Private equity firms often operate like this – slashing costs and boosting revenue by any means until the company can be flicked on to another buyer who believes the hype or who perhaps imagines even more fat can be cut and the books pumped up even further. Key was smart enough to flick his responsibilities and role to Bill English before the going got too tough while he escaped into the night (undoubtedly with the expectation of a knighthood, which was duly granted in June).
This year, the chickens came home to roost. English tried the same tricks of papering over problems as Key had done but with less success. After the election, he trumpeted National’s dominance as the biggest party, but it was hardly a triumph for the centre-right overall. In 2014, the total vote for National, Act, United Future and the Conservatives was around 52 per cent. This year, the centre-right got 45 per cent, which made negotiating with Winston Peters a necessity.
The negotiations didn’t go National’s way but, nevertheless, after three terms in office, it was astonishing English managed to counter the whirlwind rise of Jacinda Ardern and convince so many voters that a new National-led government would address the many problems the election campaign had highlighted after years of denying they existed.
Commentators predicted early on that the election would be fought mostly over immigration and the high cost of housing, but it ended up focusing in large part on poverty, the failings of the public health system, polluted waterways and tax.
Integral to the debate around poverty was homelessness. It wasn’t this way even a decade or so ago. In 2004, American writer Jeffrey Masson told me that one of the reasons he decided to move here was that he saw so few homeless people on Auckland’s streets – unlike his home city of San Francisco. Now the difference between the two cities would be difficult to spot.
A pointed reminder of the problem early in the year was the shiny new state house on Auckland’s Queens Wharf designed by Michael Parekowhai and officially unveiled on February 9. It was a cheeky nod to what we have lost – an egalitarian society where the poor could always find shelter in the embrace of a benevolent state. Now, as the stock of state housing has diminished, a lot of people are forced to find shelter in cars or garages or outside shops under their awnings.
Poverty became a hot topic this year in part because Green co-leader Metiria Turei confessed in July that she had defrauded welfare agencies as a young mother by claiming more money on a sole parent’s benefit than she was due, to feed her baby. The topic became so contentious that Bill English suddenly announced during one of the leaders’ debates in September that, if re-elected, he would lift 100,000 children out of poverty by 2020.
He was late to embrace that subject. For a long time he had denied it was a problem, arguing that child poverty could not even be measured, but the realisation that far too many children in New Zealand are growing up without adequate food and shelter finally became unavoidable – especially after Amnesty International and Unicef both highlighted our unenviable record this year.
Turei’s confession and subsequent resignation as co-leader forced us to discuss poverty, but subsequent events revealed another unfortunate truth: while we cared very deeply about a politician lying about her living arrangements when she was a sole mother 20 years ago, we didn’t mind when Minister of Finance Steven Joyce invented an $11.7 billion hole in the Labour Party’s fiscal plans, or when Prime Minister Bill English bent the truth about Labour’s intention to cancel planned income tax cuts and instead insisted the party would raise them.
The difference may be partly to do with prejudice against a Maori woman, but the virulent reaction to her confession was perhaps mostly because Turei is a Green. In the popular imagination, as revealed on social media, Greens are watermelons – green on the outside but hiding a screaming red interior of socialism – and only too ready to take other people’s money via taxes.
Yet we discovered in mid-September (thanks to a collaborative investigation by the Financial Times and Newsroom) that the National Party actually has a list MP in Parliament who was a member of the Chinese Communist Party before he moved to New Zealand and that he had links to military intelligence. Blue-Reds is not what we normally associate with the National Party – and we have to assume that the farmer who held up a sign referring to Jacinda Ardern as a “pretty communist” during a protest in Morrinsville was unaware of Dr Jian Yang and his background.
Apparently, most New Zealanders don’t care too much about this, even though Dr Yang has never hidden his admiration for the repressive regime of his homeland and, in fact, has publicly extolled its virtues, including in his maiden speech in Parliament in 2012. He also sat on the foreign affairs, defence and trade committee until he was removed, without explanation, in March 2016. The SIS allegedly took an interest in him last year. He has denied being a spy, although he has admitted he taught English to spies.
Winston Peters called for an inquiry, and as part of the new coalition government he can make sure he gets one. So far media coverage of Yang’s background has been sparse, but even if New Zealanders aren’t worried about the ramifications of our close links with China, our allies may well be.
In October, the New York Times quoted Rodney Jones, a Beijing-based New Zealand economist who has worked in Asia for 30 years. He said that an “unrepentant” former member of the Communist Party should not be eligible to be a New Zealand lawmaker. He said Yang’s ascension showed that New Zealand had become a “tributary state” of China and that he should resign from Parliament.
Yang defended himself by calling the accusations a smear campaign and racist. Astonishingly, economist Michael Reddell recorded on his blog Croaking Cassandra that he was told in September by Chris Finlayson – the then Attorney-General, no less – that his questions in a public forum about Yang were racist.
When our most senior legal officer and a high-ranking National Party minister resorts to playing the racist card, it’s obvious that any analysis or criticism of who is allowed to settle or work in New Zealand – or even initiating a reasonable debate about the cultural composition of our society – is impossible.
It also seems unlikely that we will have a reasonable debate about assisted dying when David Seymour’s member’s bill is debated in Parliament later this year or early next. In September, Simon O’Connor, who chaired our health select committee inquiry, publicly conflated youth suicide and assisted dying. Bill English said his backbench MP was wrong to make the comparison but didn’t ask for a retraction, which gives a fair idea of the sorts of tactics that will be employed when the bill is discussed.
Opposition will be fierce, despite a Horizon poll in June showing that 75 per cent of respondents supported assisted dying for the terminally ill and those with irreversible unbearable suffering, with only 11 per cent opposed. A 1 News online Vote Compass poll in September showed 68 per cent supported assisted dying for those with a terminal illness. Only 19 per cent were opposed, but the debate will nevertheless be deemed, as usual, to be “divisive” and “contentious”.
Some things weren’t nearly as contentious this year as they deserved to be. The debate over Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson’s allegations in March’s Hit & Run about what our elite troops got up to in Afghanistan was closed down quickly by the Defence Force asserting the journalists had put the position of a village 2km from where it is, as if that completely invalidated all the revelations about the possibility of war crimes having been committed. However, it’s clear we really don’t care anyway – any more than we care about police unlawfully accessing blogger Martyn Bradbury’s banking records, as he revealed in August.
Likewise, police tapping the phones of a New Zealand human rights activist group barely raised an eyebrow when it was reported in September, yet we cared deeply that a young politician in Southland may have recorded an employee’s phone conversations – the Todd Barclay debacle dominated news headlines for weeks mid-year. And the bugging of an All Blacks’ hotel room in Sydney in August last year similarly hogged media attention.
We appear also not to care about the high-handed and cynical attitude some politicians take towards citizens. In May, Cabinet minister Alfred Ngaro threatened to cut off funding to charities if they bagged the government on the campaign trail, but he suffered no penalty.
In July, after three-quarters of the foreign trusts in New Zealand abandoned their operations, Revenue Minister Judith Collins said it shouldn’t be assumed that it was evidence of their being involved in dodgy business. Instead, she appeared to suggest that the fall-off was due to the onerous demands of the new paperwork that obliged them to give the IRD basic details of their setup.
In August, Parliament refused to release the report by Sir Maarten Wevers that led to the resignation of Auditor-General Martin Matthews over his handling of a Ministry of Transport fraud case while he was the CEO. The Auditor-General stepped down just an hour before the report was due to be submitted.
The Speaker of the House, David Carter, refused to say whether there was a deal to keep the report secret if Matthews resigned. Again, there was no public outrage.
We can only hope that the new government takes a much less aggressive and high-handed approach to information we have a right to know. And that the media holds them to account if they don’t.
This year it became clear that the homegrown philosophy of “She’ll be right” we have adopted as a mantra for decades has never been so disastrous or so doomed. Nevertheless, it seems that the political debate has been reset in the wake of the election and people really do want solutions to a raft of pressing problems – youth suicide, dirty rivers, homelessness, poverty, educational underachievement, and overburdened infrastructure, whether roads, hospitals or schools.
When actor and director Taika Waititi said as much after the election, singling out several of these issues and saying he was ashamed of New Zealand, he came under fire. Broadcaster Duncan Garner labelled him “treasonous”, despite the fact the problems Waititi had mentioned were all widely canvassed during the year.
In response to Garner, Waititi tweeted: “I’m sorry NZ! I wasn’t thinking and spoke in haste. I forgot to mention domestic violence, sexism, homophobia and racism. My bad!”
It is a hard truth for us to accept but the belief that our nation is exceptional (the best little country in the world!) is increasingly true for as many dismal features as it is for uplifting ones. But, after nine years of the National-led government denying that any of our myriad problems constituted a crisis, we are finally talking about them and the new administration is looking to address them.
That’s got to be good.
This was published in the December 2017 issue of North & South.
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