02 March 2015

MPs' salary raise: Now you see it, now you don't.

John Key is taking desperate measures to kill the negative public reaction against 5.5% pay-rises for MPs as set down by the Remuneration Authority.
The Government's hastily announced amendment of the Remuneration Authority Act will link MPs' salary increments to those in the wider public sector. It will be retrospective (to block the back-dated 5.5% increase), and will be passed under urgency. Mr Key and his Cabinet may genuinely believe that the Remuneration Authority's determination was unmerited, too large compared with average income trends in the economy, and hence only advancing inequality in society. But this sudden reversal smacks of desperation. A politically embarrassing pay-rise for MPs has to be blocked, it appears, without delay.
Ironically, the Remuneration Authority was set up to make politicians' pay determinations independent of the politicians themselves. Now we see the most heavy-handed political interference possible in a democracy: parliament will just legislate the embarrassment away. Proposing retrospective legislation shows that Key is willing to break constitutional convention to achieve his aims. And yet, no-one has bothered to prove that the Authority got it wrong and made an unreasonable decision. It just sounded bad on TV, that's all. So, Parliament will simply over-ride it, retrospectively. It will be interesting to see if any party dares to vote against the proposed amendment!
It's still a moot point, though, as to how much MPs should be paid. They are not employees; there is no job description and no person specification. They are not hired; they are elected. They work long hours, are almost always 'on call', and sacrifice a lot of family time. They have to 'reapply' for the role every three years, so there's no long-term job security. Mr Key makes a good point that one doesn't go into public life just for the money, but, on the other hand, it is a demanding job that requires many skills. It does seem to warrant a higher income than most of us get.
The Government wants to legislate away the Authority's discretion and to peg future increases solely to the average public sector pay increase for the previous year. This sounds quite reasonable – at first hearing. But one can foresee a problem: If, for some reason in future, it is widely agreed that MPs' salaries have not risen fast enough (say, for recruitment and retention reasons, and given the responsibilities entailed), then Parliament may want to repeal the presently proposed amendment and loosen up the Authority's discretion again. But no political party will have the courage to propose that, due to the inevitable public backlash. As they say, rushed law is likely to turn into bad law.
We want to see our most talented people in Parliament, but the best candidates are not all independently wealthy. So, will the proposed amendment to the law aid in encouraging the best leaders to run for office in the future?

01 March 2015

Northland voters carry big responsibility

The Northland by-election happens on 28 March. Under normal conditions, the National candidate, Mark Osborne, could sleep-walk to victory, given the 9,300 majority for former National MP, Mike Sabin, at the 2014 General Election. But, now that Winston Peters has put his hat in the ring, things have changed. If Mr Peters were to win, and were then to resign as a list MP, he would re-enter Parliament as the MP for Northland, and his list seat would be taken by the next willing candidate on NZ First's party list. Hence, NZ First's seats would increase by one, and National's decrease by one.
That would change the balance of power in the House, leaving National more heavily reliant on United Future and Maori Party for passing laws. (I assume that ACT is pretty much National's lapdog.)
But what are Mr Peters' chances of winning? He has the charisma and the name recognition, and the advantage of being a Whananaki boy.
NZ First didn't run a candidate in Northland at the last election, but they picked up 4,500 party votes anyway. That's not a bad start. But it looks like most of those NZF voters gave their candidate vote to Labour's Willow-Jean Prime (who is re-contesting at the by-election).
Assuming Northland gets the same level of voter turn-out at the by-election, then we could generously assume that Winston starts with 4,500 voters in his pocket. (And that's also assuming that none of those will vote for the Labour candidate). To win, then, Peters has to take roughly 7,000 voters away from the National candidate, reducing National's vote from 18,200 to 11,200, and increasing his own from 4,500 to 11,500.
Once Northland's more conservative, National-supporting voters realise the consequences of voting for Winston, it seems highly unlikely that 7,000 of them will follow him like some Pied Piper. There is not enough popular discontent with the Key government at this stage for those otherwise loyal to Key to want to stymie him, or 'to send him a message', at a by-election.
Of course, Peters could pick up a good number of those who otherwise vote Labour or Green, seeing in him an opportunity to undermine the Key government. But, at the last election, the Labour and Green candidates added together got about 12,600 votes. That's considerably fewer than Sabin's 18,200. Even if we assume that Mr Peters' 'handicap' starts at (a very generous) 8,000 voters taken from the left, he still has a huge job winning more than 5,000 from the right at the same time.
One learns from the past not to underestimate Mr Peters. But, on this occasion, I doubt that he can pull it off. The safe money would be on a National win. IPredict says it all.
If he loses, Mr Peters at least gains a chance to attract attention to himself. That may help him to build up some support for the 2017 general election, by which time his embarrassing defeat will have been forgotten anyway. It will be interesting to see whether he pitches to the left or to the right of the Northland electorate. He can lean either way.

27 February 2015

Politicians' pay rises an annual embarrassment

How much should Members of Parliament be paid – and who decides anyway?
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key has openly disagreed with the recent decision that lifts the basic salary of a backbench Members of Parliament 5.5 per cent, from $147,800 to $156,000, while his own salary rises by $23,800 to $452,500.
So, the Prime Minister still earns less than many chief executives, including many of those in the state sector. But these salary rises are above both inflation and increases in the median income, and they come just after the minimum wage has been raised by a mere 50 cents per hour (3.5 per cent). Public cynicism towards politicians and resentment about inequality have caused a political backlash against the announcements of rises in MPs’ salaries.
For very good reasons, though, MPs’ salaries (and those of judges and elected local government politicians) are set by an independent Remuneration Authority. For obvious reasons, we do not want politicians setting their own salaries. And therefore, for exactly the same reasons, politicians should not interfere in the decisions of the Remuneration Authority, regardless of whether they think an increase is too small  – or in this case, too large.
But Mr Key has told reporters that he wrote to the authority urging it not to give MPs any salary increase at all. He argues that one should not be in politics for the money, and that there is no valid comparison with senior roles such as chief executives.
It is utterly inappropriate for the Prime Minister to attempt to influence the authority’s salary determinations, however. Mr Key is eager to dodge any political bullets that may be aimed at him due to his massive pay-rise. But he should not be trying to influence the authority’s decision, even if his aim is to have no pay increment at all. The point of having the Remuneration Authority is to keep this decision out of the hands of politicians themselves and to distance it from political interests.
For many taxpayers, it might be more satisfactory to give MPs no salary rise, or only one that aligns with average income increments in the economy at large. But the Remuneration Authority employs a widely recognised "job sizing" method, and it is required by law to take into consideration salaries for comparable occupations, fairness to the MPs and to taxpayers, the nature of the job itself, and the state of the economy. To make an informed judgement on the pay-rise determination of the authority, and whether it is reasonable and lawful, we would have to read through the information that the authority had before it.
Parliament could amend the law that governs the Remuneration Authority to more tightly restrict future pay increments. The Prime Minister has hinted at exactly that. One can imagine the interesting debates that would occur in the House over such a Bill. It would amount to political interference again.
Given though that future circumstances are not always foreseeable, it may be unwise to tie the Authority’s hands any more tightly than they are at present. And repealing such an amendment, if it turned out to be impractical, would only add to the political wrangling.
The whole idea of having a Remuneration Authority was to prevent political interference in setting the salaries of elected representatives and judges.
If Mr Key and other MPs feel so strongly about the fact the increases they receive are regularly larger in percentage terms than those received by ordinary New Zealanders, including pensioners, beneficiaries and those on the lowest pay rates, then they might like to consider the means by which that disparity occurs. That would include the National-led government’s recent amendments to employment law, its discouragement of collective wage bargaining, and the decisions Ministers make on pensions, welfare and minimum pay rates.
Until then, if the Remuneration Authority makes a determination that happens to embarrass the Prime Minister, that is just too bad for him. He will have to take the money and smile.

10 February 2015

The Big Issues for 2015

Waitangi Day being behind us means that the political 'On' button has been switched to 'Full'. So, here is my pick of the 3 big political issues for 2015:
1. Housing, housing, housing. This means housing supply and affordability (especially in Auckland and Chch), of course. Can government do anything serious at all to get Auckland off the 'world's most unaffordable' list? But, 'housing' also means the Key government’s plan to sell off 'social housing' (aka state houses) to NGOs and iwi. This will make the government a target for the opposition. State housing is ‘close to the heart’ for Labour, and it's a critical factor in getting people out of poverty, ensuring good health and education, etc. But, it's essentially a ‘welfare’ issue for middle NZ. So, Labour will also have to push hard on housing supply and affordability for those on lower to middle incomes who are struggling to own their own homes. The election and leadership change put paid to Labour's capital gains tax policy. Will they stick to the 100,000 homes 'KiwiBuild' policy?
2. Security and identity. Every nation must ask itself how it presents itself, symbolically and militarily, to the world at large. The ANZAC centenary and the first flag-change referendum (in late 2015, to choose from 3 or 4 alternatives) will lead to reflection on national identity. The PM has staked a lot of political capital (and $26million of taxpayers' money) on the two referenda. ANZAC ceremonies have a 'motherhood' tone to them, and not much opportunity for the Opposition to attack Key. So, this is his 'legacy' moment coming up. But it will also lead to debate about NZ at war, meaning normally other people's wars. (As an aside, I'd like us not to forget the centenary also of the Armenian genocide, which happened at the same time.) This links with the question of NZ's participation in the fight against ISIS. Recent diplomatic pressure from the UK shows that NZ’s contribution, while small, has an important political/moral supporting role. And especially with NZ on the UN Security Council at the moment. Opponents of NZ involvement will point to the critical situation that now prevails in Libya, for instance, to question the wisdom of western bombing raids against corrupt regimes. Similarly, they will argue that the US/UK invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to the power vacuum in western Iraq that, in turn, led to the success of ISIS, etc., and hence that further bombardment is futile and puts NZ at risk of retaliation. Why do we keep following the UK and US into futile wars? Key is already pointing to the barbarity of ISIS as his case for war: “We can’t stand by and watch…”. But, we have stood by watched other instances of barbarity… It's a predictable debate, and one on which the Greens will have the strongest running as an opposition.
3. The main political story to watch will be in the polling of the Labour Party and the performance of their new leader, Andrew Little. There have been some early positive opinion-poll results, but nothing to threaten Mr Key so far. Most Labourites are probably just relieved that, so far, Little hasn't stuffed anything up. The Key-Little contest has yet to play out, and punters will be watching them closely as they face off in the House over the coming weeks. It will be a long way back for Labour after their electoral disaster last year, and the next election is a long way off, but steady progress in the polls (at National’s expense) would be what they’re looking for. Good results for Labour, though, could also mean that the Greens (who are losing Russel Norman) stall at the 10% level, or decline, so the potential red–green coalition may be not much better off overall by year's end.

31 January 2015

Is NZ becoming like Russia?

The highly acclaimed (in the west) movie Leviathan depicts life in a Russian village as immoral, brutal, corrupt and despairing. It is nonetheless a beautifully realised movie. I highly recommend it.
The negative and bullying reaction to the movie from prominent figures in Russia is unfortunate, of course, but it does ironically reinforce the very issue that the movie successfully depicts. Because it drags in both the Orthodox Church and the State, Leviathan has been described by one critic as a "filthy libel against the Russian church and the Russian state." It has been described as "evil" and as having no aesthetic merit. Because of Russian law, the swearing in it now has to be censored for Russian audiences (who I'm sure never use such words, ever.)
According to the Guardian, the Russian culture ministry was 'considering a ban on any films that “defame the national culture,” threaten the country’s unity or “undermine the foundations of constitutional order”.'
The movie did receive some state funding, moreover. That fact, along with the negative responses from authorities, reminds me of the way in which state apparatchiks and National sycophants in NZ were so swift and so nasty in reacting against comments made recently by Eleanor Catton about NZ being led by profit-hungry, anti-intellectual neoliberals etc. Even the Taxpayers' Union had to get in on the act. The resemblance with Russia is too close for comfort.
The only problem I have with Eleanor's comments is that she should have used the term "neo-authoritarian" rather than "neo-liberal".

13 January 2015

Reasons not to publish images of Prophet Muhammad

While in my last post I upheld the freedom of expression, I also alluded to the responsibility we all bear to exercise restraint when it comes to publications that might offend or humiliate others based on religion, cultural practice, gender, etc.
So, for example, I won't be reading Little Black Sambo to any child. I won't use the N-word. I will challenge anyone who denies the Holocaust or who tries to minimise the effects of rape. And I don't need a law to force me to make these choices. Nor should it take the barrel of a gun.
In a civilized society, we temper our freedom of speech with respect for the harm that has been done through discrimination, violence or genocide. As a university teacher, I do not regard it as a restriction on my academic freedom to abide by such norms, nor is it 'political correctness'. Offending people or giving voice to harmful opinions has no educational value. The examination and critique of such of offences to humanity may, on the other hand, have value for making us better human beings.
To get to this point requires that we pay attention to others. If moderate Muslims can persuade us not to publish images of the Prophet because of the offence it causes to their faith, then is it really a problem to desist from doing so? For me, it's not.
Defending the right to publish such images is not necessarily doing anything much to uphold freedom of expression, given that we do abide by some restrictions already – mostly voluntarily, but sometimes by law. I note that French law has banned Holocaust-denial, and that may be appropriate given the magnitude of that mass-murder and the history of anti-semitism in France. (And they also initially banned Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth (1961) because it advocated violent opposition to colonisation, e.g. by the French in Algeria.)
The trouble is, some people say that if we now concede to 'pressure' not to publish images of the Prophet, then we are being cowardly and letting terrorism win. So, should such images be published just to make the point about liberty and to defy terrorists? And never mind the effects on those Muslims who prefer to use words and not guns?
A voluntary restriction on such images can be made out of respect, rather than fear. And there is nothing wrong with doing so.
Pity, though, the city of Bologna where the Basilica of San Petronio's 15th-century frescoes include an image of the Prophet being tortured in Hell. This in turn is an illustration of Canto 28 of Dante's Inferno. The Basilica has been threatened by terrorists more than once. What would you do about that?

Update: I note that the survivors' issue of Charlie Hebdo features an image of the Prophet in conciliatory mood. Quoting from the Guardian: "Newspapers around Europe, including Libération, Le Figaro and Frankfurter Allgemeine have used the image online. The BBC showed it briefly during a newspaper review on Newsnight. In the US, USA Today and the LA Times ran the cover but the New York Times did not. The Guardian – which has not published other Charlie Hebdo covers with images representing the prophet – is running this cover as its news value warrants publication."

Given that my point above was about the voluntary avoidance of using such images, I am not in disagreement with the principled choices that these newspapers have made.

09 January 2015

My right to make you look ridiculous

Regular readers of this blog (both of you!) will know that it is definitely not my habit to ridicule or satirise others. I’m just not that witty. But the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris causes me to consider our dearly-held freedom of expression (and of the press), a freedom that permits publications that may cause offence to, say, a religious or ethnic minority group.
Mainstream western media channels are of course universally condemning the attack in Paris, and people are protesting in order to defy the terrorists’ intentions.
We’re kind of lucky, in a weird way, to have at least one New Zealander who is prepared to stick his head above the parapets and fire off a differing point of view. Derek Fox, former broadcaster and local-body politician, has made good use of his liberty and public profile to express this opinion: “The editor of the French magazine has paid the price for his assumption of cultural superiority and arrogance, he was the bully believing he could insult other people’s culture and with impunity and he believed he would be protected in his racism and bigotry by the French state. Well he was wrong, unfortunately in paying the price for his arrogance he took another 11 people with him.” (From NZ Herald).
That makes it sound like the editor of Charlie Hebdo deserved what he got, and was to blame for the deaths of the others.
Does one deserve to be killed for insulting someone else’s religion? Certainly not, although this would not be the first time that it’s happened. Some extremists use ‘blasphemy’ as their excuse for this kind of brutality.
Perhaps Mr Fox is just exasperated with racist attacks on Maori, and hence he has no sympathy for those who ridicule Islam either. Racism and bigotry are certainly not what we should be sticking up for. Killing people for it is quite another matter, of course.
So, Mr Fox has freedom of expression, and has published his opinion online, and the Herald has given it a further airing. Regardless of his colour or creed, a liberal-democratic country like NZ or like France defends Mr Fox’s right to express those views. Religious and ethnic minority groups benefit from this in particular, as it means that the majority are not allowed to suppress their cultural practices, religious doctrines, languages, etc. Indeed, minority groups can and often do savagely criticize the dominant culture. Victims of oppression are free to express their grievances, as they should be, and that may include ridiculing or satirizing ‘western’ or ‘capitalist’ values.
What the Mr Foxes of the world need to learn, though, is that their liberty cuts both ways. If you want to be protected from oppression and to express your culture and your resistance freely and openly, then you just have to take the odd occasion of satire and ridicule on the chin, because others enjoy the same freedom.
If you feel offended by someone’s cartoon or statement, then you are also at liberty to say so. And may the best argument win.
Now, it is only playing fair if society’s elite or members of the majority culture refrain from ridiculing minorities. The powerful or privileged should be confident and secure enough to brush any off any that comes their way, what’s more. John Key, for example, gets a lot of, often quite savage, criticism and satire. He’s sensible enough not to comment on it if he can avoid it. Muldoon was different, as witnessed by his attitude to the cartoonist Tom Scott.
Perhaps Mr Fox is still upset over the notorious cartoon by Al Nisbett that caused such an outcry in 2013, for being perceived as racist. But, after the murders in Paris, those who drove that outcry might want to think carefully next time about what they may be encouraging.
Yes, let’s continue to condemn racism and religious prejudice. But invoking force (of law or otherwise) to close down that which we believe to be racism and bigotry is ultimately hypocritical and is bound to fail in the long run.