“The most open government in history”

Journalists continue to complain about the government not living up to it’s promise to be the most transparent government ever.

There was no pledge of transparency in the Labour-NZ First coalition agreement. From the Labour-Green Confidence and Supply Agreement:

20. Strengthen New Zealand’s democracy by increasing public participation, openness, and
transparency around official information.

Claims of a lack of transparency began early under the incoming Government late last year.

Stuff (26 November 2017):  Labour promised transparency in Government, but they seem to be buckling on that early

The Government is facing a mountain of questions – more than 6000 to be exact. They’ve been lodged by an army of National MPs with nothing but time on their hands and it should be no surprise to Labour Ministers, who have so far refused to release much detail, if any, about their first actions in office.

In a 100-day programme, where major reform is being pushed through at break-neck speed, that is cause for concern.

…and it might be early, but on the current trend those accusations aren’t far from being squarely levelled back to Labour. They and the Greens made much of their desire to “bring transparency back to Government” on the campaign trail.

Labour is also yet to release what’s known as the ‘Briefings to Incoming Ministers’ – or BIMs. They are the documents prepared by the experts and officials, delivered to ministers in their first week to give them a crash course on the portfolio they’ve just been handed – in some cases rendering them responsible overnight for the spending of public funds totalling billions.

Stuff (2 December 2017): For a Government vowing to be more transparent, it really is stuck in the mud

For a Government vowing to be the most transparent and open the country has ever seen, it really did get stuck in the mud this week.

The problem with this document is not necessarily what’s in it, but the message it sends by not releasing it after Peters insisted it would be made public.

Ardern has spent the week arguing it isn’t a “live document” or a work programme the Government is bound to.

The new Government has an opportunity to pave a new path on transparency, it just needs to get out of the mud its bogged itself down in over the last few weeks and accept sometimes it’s better to just admit that you’re wrong.

RNZ (4 December 2017): Jacinda Ardern on ‘secret’ documents

Speaking to Morning Report today, Ms Ardern defended the new government’s reluctance to reveal the details of its coalition agreement.

“When something becomes an official part of our work programme, then that’s the point at which, absolutely, we have to be transparent about that. But when it comes to documents that sit behind a negotiation, that aren’t necessarily going to be pursued, as soon as you release it, that gives an expectation that it is a hard and fast policy, when it might not be at all.”

“We are actively at the moment looking at ways that we can make sure there is greater transparency around briefings that ministers receive, cabinet papers, whether we can routinely release documents after decisions are made, these are conversations I have never heard governments have before, and we are having.”

She said the government was still dedicated to greater transparency.

Jump forward seven months and this is looking like a ‘same old’ secretive government.

Stuff: ‘Secretive’ Shane Jones won’t release Fonterra texts

Regional economic development minister Shane Jones is refusing to make public messages backing his criticism of Fonterra chair John Wilson.

Self-styled “provincial champion” Jones launched a blistering attack on the long-serving dairy co-operative boss last month. Defending his remarks, Jones then claimed 365 people had sent messages supporting his stance.

But the NZ First Minister is now refusing to release those text messages. And that raises questions about the Government’s official record-keeping processes.

“The messages I was referring to were received predominantly on my private phone and not in my capacity as a Minister. They therefore do not fall within the scope within the scope of the Official Information Act 1982,” Jones said in a letter to Stuff.

@HenryCooke from Stuff: “In Politically Correct this week I recounted some recent OIA fun we’ve had with “the most open government in history”

But it looked like “We will be the most transparent government ever…unless it doesn’t suit us.

The cost of outsourcing Government

A few people from the ruling class get paid handsomely for their expertise in helping the Government make decisions, but many people wait and struggle.

It’s important that any Government reach out and utilise the expertise of non-elected people. However it is fair to question the amount they do this, and the amount they spend on it.

It’s well known that the current Government was not well prepared to take over, despite spending nine years in Opposition (in which time the did a number of inquiries/investigations).

It’s also well known that they have set up many reviews, working groups, inquiries, teams, committees and whatever else they call them. It will be some time before we can judge whether the cost is justified.

There are various claims about the cost of outsourcing Government decisions.

Andrea Vance – Outsourcing Government: The $55m cost of reviews

A bumper number of Government working groups, reviews and inquiries has a $55m price tag – with some consultants raking in $1400 a day.

An analysis by Stuff puts the number of reviews at 31, with 10 inquiries, and 27 working groups.

In Opposition National has a more liberal interpretation.

The National Party puts the cost even higher – with a $114m price tag for 122 working groups and 45 reviews. Leader Simon Bridges said that’s bringing about “a slow death by consultants.”

His party’s costing, released on Thursday, includes the establishment of government departments like the Pike River Recovery Agency and the Social Investment Agency, and reviews that are required by legislation or enacted by the previous government.

Of course the Government PR plays the other way:

The Government has pushed back, saying it counts 38 reviews. Of those, 29 are costed with a $34m price tag. They say that in the long-run, it works out at four cents for every $100 of government spending.

Their $34m claim doesn’t include all of their ‘reviews’. Their ‘four cents’ claim is meaningless.

When homelessness and poverty are constantly in the news the amount paid to those co-opted onto the many committees looks obscene:

Former Ombudsman Ron Paterson will earn $1400 a day chairing an inquiry into mental health and addiction.

Retired Supreme Court Judge Sir Terence Arnold will get the same for leading the year-long inquiry into controversial Afghanistan military Operation Burnham.

Former Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer will net a $1300-a day fee for the inquiry into Defence Force actions.

Ex-Governor General Sir Anand Satyanand will be paid $1400 for each day he works chairing the Royal Commission into State Care abuse.

Ex- Labour Finance Minister Michael Cullen is getting a daily $1062 fee for heading up the Tax Working Group.

And Helen Clark’s former chief of staff Heather Simpson will get the same for leading a review into the health and disability system.

Many struggling New Zealanders wil barely be getting that sort of money per month.

And most of the above members of the ruling class will also be getting Government superannuation.

Ardern said there was a lot for her Government to fix.

“These aren’t things are being done because everything is fine. Where we have decided to take a second look, it’s because something isn’t working.”

The Government made quick decisions on some things – like the $billions committed to fee free tertiary education where it is debatable that anything has been fixed, and the $billions committed to regional handouts with a rush to dish out the dosh.

But many people in real need have to wait on a review or inquiry, and some will have to wait on the election in 2020 and then help is still in doubt.

The cost of outsourcing Government isn’t just in monetary terms, it is a cost to the quality of life for many of us.

Party leaders made oil and gas decisions, not Cabinet

Theoretically in New Zealand’s democratic system the Cabinet of the day makes Government decisions. But when governing arrangements are made before the Cabinet has been formed decisions are effectively made by party leaders and whoever is a part of their decision making processes.

It is being reported this is what happened with the decision to end the issuing of oil and gas exploration permits, but that was not a specific coalition or confidence and supply agreement. Cabinet was not involved in the decision anyway.

Stuff: No Cabinet paper written, no Cabinet decision made, in “political decision” to ban new oil exploration

Cabinet has made no decision on ending oil exploration, documents being released today will show, with April’s announcement made on the basis of a political agreement between the coalition parties.

On April 12, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern led a group of ministerial colleagues into the Beehive theatrette to confirm news that the Government had decided it would offer no new offshore permits for oil and gas exploration, with onshore permits offered in Taranaki for as little as three years.

Although the news was delivered by ministers affected by the decision and in a forum usually used to discuss decisions made by Cabinet, politicians made the decision in their roles as party leaders.

Today the Government will release a series of documents generated in the making of the oil and gas exploration decision, but it has already confirmed to Stuff that no Cabinet paper was created and that Cabinet has not voted on the matter.

“There was no Cabinet decision,” a spokesman for Energy Minister Megan Woods said.

“The decision not to offer future offshore oil and gas exploration permits was made between the three coalition parties, and the Minister [Woods] was simply notifying Cabinet of that decision as well as noting that future cabinet decisions would be required to implement that decision.”

The spokesman added that there was no requirement for Cabinet to make a decision, but a Cabinet paper would be developed on implementing the decision.

“Officials are currently drafting advice on implementing the offshore decision and alongside this work, we’ve also begun discussions with industry about protecting rights of existing permit holders.”

There has been justified criticism of making a decision that potentially could have a major impact before spending time considering and deciding how it might be implemented.

In a statement, Ardern defended the handling of the decision, but said it was not how most decisions would be made.

“The decision on future oil and gas block offers was a political decision made by the government parties. It was consulted on and agreed between the parties and taken to Cabinet for confirmation,” a spokesman for Ardern said.

“This is a normal decision making process when it comes to coalition wide matters, but does tend to be the exception rather than the rule.”

So some major decisions are made by three party leaders and their negotiating teams, with Cabinet expected to just ‘confirm’ it – that sounds like rubber stamping.

In this case it seems that the Minister of Energy, Megan Woods, was instructed on decisions made outside her Ministry.

A spokesman for Ardern said the exploration permit announcement was usually made around the time of the oil industry summit and “had nothing to do with the Prime Minister’s trip to Europe”.

Just a lucky coincidence for Ardern to be able to take the decision with her on her European trip.

Perhaps big decisions being made by Government party leaders is a practical reality of our form of MMP democracy, but it does have risks of diktat be a self selected few.

This is a particular risk when a new Government is formed, and the checks and balances seem alarmingly limited.

It is unlikely a newly appointed Minister would feel free to speak up against an imposed decision.

In the case of the oil and gas decision, going by the obvious discomfort shown by Shane Jones at the announcement, the cessation of issuing of exploration permits seems to have been a decision made by two party leaders and imposed on the other party in Government with just a whimper in protest.

No cost benefit analysis of oil and gas policy

Matthew Hooton is suggesting that James Shaw has done no Cost benefit Analysis of the Government’s oil and gas policy.

The response from James Shaw to an Official Information Act request:

Dear Matthew

I write regarding your Official Information Act request of 15 April 2018 for

all advice to you or other ministers from Treasury, MBIE, MfE or other relevant departments on the effect on New Zealand and global CO2 and CO2 equivalent emissions of the new oil and gas policy announced by the Government last week. This includes short-term, medium-term and long-term effects.

I have been advised verbally by MfE that not exploring for more oil and gas would prevent emissions from oil and gas rising any further than they would anyway if all known reserves of oil and gas are burnt. I cannot speak for other ministers.

It took over three weeks to effectively say ‘none’. What Shaw has responded with is vague verbal waffle.

More important is what Shaw doesn’t say – this indicates he received no advice on the short term, medium term or long term effects of the oil and gas policy announced by the Government last month.

This is what Shaw said after the oil and gas policy announcement:

The Green Party is heralding today’s announcement ending new fossil fuel exploration in New Zealand’s oceans as a massive step towards a stable climate and to protecting our marine life and beaches.

“The Green Party and thousands of New Zealanders have been working for decades towards this day and this decision – that fossil fuels are not our future,” said Green Party Co-leader James Shaw.

“Ending deep sea oil and gas exploration has long been a key goal of the Green Party and today, in Government, we’ve delivered on it.

“This is truly the nuclear free moment of our generation, and the beginning of a new and exciting future for Aotearoa New Zealand,” said Mr Shaw.

The Green Party have been working for decades towards this, however Shaw effectively admits he has received no advice from any Government department on the effect on New Zealand of the policy.


Ministers rated, too soon to judge Government performance

While it’s possible to make an early assessment of early assessments of the performance of Ministers – Andrew Little and David Parker have stood out as competent achievers – it’s too soon to judge the overall performance of the Government, as I suggested in this post yesterday: The Government graded.

More media and journalists followed Newsroom and gave the Government a 6 month report card, but have focussed on the out the performance of Ministers.

Newshub – Six months in: The new Government’s report card

Jacinda Ardern 

On the global stage, Ardern shines.

But back at home, her Government has faced a series of scandals. There were the poorly handled Young Labour sexual assault claims, a Deputy Prime Minister who keeps making Kremlin-adjacent comments and there was the weird case of Carol Hirschfeld’s resignation from RNZ after meeting with Cabinet Minister Clare Curran.

But has her team been cracking on and transforming New Zealand?

…For almost everything else, it’s hard to say how transformative this Government will be, because most issues have been relegated to reviews and working groups.

Parker and Little rated well, while Clare Curran and Kelvin Davis were put at the bottom of the class.

Stuff: How has Cabinet scored?

  • Andrew Little – 9
    Little has a lot of portfolios, which is indicative of how competent he is, and he has really hit the ground running.
  • Jacinda Ardern – 8 (generous if substance and Cabinet management are taken into account)
    The Prime Minister has had a big start to the toughest gig in town.
  • David Parker – 8
    Parker had an early win getting the CPTPP signed and also pulled off a ban on foreign buyers purchasing existing homes.
  • Shane Jones – 8 (very generous)
    If he was being measured on headlines and sound bites Jones would be well in the lead.
  • Winston Peters – 7 (generous)
    The deputy prime minister has a mixed score card.
  • Grant Robertson – 7 (premature)
    It’s been a good six months for the Finance Minister (but the May budget is his big test).
  • James Shaw, Julie Anne Genter – 7
    Shaw and Genter have had a solid start and have clocked up some big wins for the Greens in the first six months.
  • Megan Woods, Iain Lees-Galloway, Damien O’Connor, Stuart Nash – 6
    All four ministers have their heads down and are getting the work done without causing too much of a stir.
  • Phil Twyford – 5
    Twyford has made some bold moves with transport – not all have been well received – but on housing it’s a bit of a slow grind.
  • David Clark – 5
    He’s got a lot of work on his hands and has some serious questions to answer over issues at Middlemore Hospital.
  • Ron Mark, Tracey Martin – 5
    The NZ First ministers have had a pretty low profile.
  • Nanaia Mahuta, Jenny Salesa, Carmel Sepuloni – 3
    The invisible trio.
  • Kelvin Davis – 2
    His stints as acting prime minister haven’t gone too well and he hasn’t really stamped his mark on the Corrections portfolio at this point.
  • Clare Curran – 1
    The Broadcasting Minister has had a terrible run of late and looks to be struggling to bounce back from it.

Stuff have an online poll: How do you rate the Government’s first six months?

  • Fantastic – 10%
  • Good – 25%
  • Average – 25%
  • Poor 24%
  • Horrible 16%

That’s a fairly balanced result, not surprising given that it is early in the term with a lot of policies deferred to committees. I’d give them an ‘Average’ at this stage.

Barry Soper gives an overall assessment: The successes and failures of Labour’s first six months

The fails:

  • the drunken Youth Labour camp revelations where Ardern was kept in the dark,
  • the embarrassing blunders of their Broadcasting Minister Claire Curran,
  • allowing themselves to be the blind eye of the Five Eyes countries when it came to condemning the misdeeds of Russia
  • the cancellation, without consultation, of all future offshore oil and gas exploration even though it’ll cost billions and do nothing for climate change other than sending production offshore.

The successes:

  • paid parental leave extension,
  • the families package instead of tax cuts,
  • lower winter power bills for the elderly,
  • the inquiry into historic child abuse
  • multiple handouts to students.

The fors and againsts tend to balance each other out, but the real tests are to come, starting with the Budget next month.

An RNZ also says Budget the real test of new government

Six months into the new government and the real test will be May 17th – the Budget.

Labour and its governing partners have been laying the groundwork for a Budget that will signal new priorities for spending, after building the case for significant increases to public sector funding.

Under the self imposed deadline of its own 100 day plan the government launched into an ambitious programme to implement, or start the ball rolling, on key policies and initiatives.

The first was the fees free tertiary policy, in the first year for those who had not studied before.

The jury is still out on whether that will actually achieve better access to tertiary study as intended; what is clear is that at $2.8 billion over four years it does not come cheap and is a commitment that will limit what the government can do in its first term.

Other big ticket items like the Provincial Growth Fund and the Kiwibuild Programme will also take up a fair amount of room in Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s first Budget.

Political management is another test of the government and most of the responsibility lies on the shoulders of the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Domestically, it has been a rough couple of months – on the whole it has been up to Ms Ardern to defend the failings of some of her ministers, and balance the interests of Labour against those of its coalition partner New Zealand First, and of the Greens.

Labour also had to deal with the damaging headlines of sexual assault claims at a party camp, a story only halted by the announcement of the inevitable review.

Inquiries into mental health, abuse in state care, Hit and Run allegations and effectively into a possible Pike River re-entry have put off the need for any immediate action on complex and sensitive issues Labour made a lot of noise about in opposition.

Ms Ardern is a ‘girly swot’ in her own words and easily handles questions about policy detail. But is she exhibiting the steel voters look for in a Prime Minister?

Ms Ardern will be judged on how she handles ministerial misdemeanours and while a new Cabinet will initially be given a bit of latitude as they settle into their roles, that time is past.

All in all she has weathered a stormy few months and has come out relatively unscathed. Rounding off the six months with a high profile overseas trip making progress on crucial trade deals for New Zealand has not been unhelpful.

The next big challenge will be to demonstrate the Government has the economic chops to deliver on the promises made to voters, while sticking to the budget principles it insists it will not abandon.

It’s the economy that makes the most difference, and how the Government wants to influence that will become known in three weeks when their first budget is announced.

The Government graded

Newsroom has had a go at Grading the Government

  • Economy: B
    GDP growth is on track for around three percent in 2018 and positive signs for businesses’ own activities have kept the economy on an even keel.

I think it’s too soon to call on the Government’s effect on the economy.

  • Budget: B
    The Government inherited a Budget and an economy benefiting from strong income tax and GST receipts.
    …it also uncovered through the 2018 Budget round that it had inherited health and education budgets stretched by years of restrained capital spending and very fast population growth.

What they inherited is fortuitous. Stretched health and education budgets should have been obvious before the election when they made spending promises. Their rushed and large tertiary education spend seems to have had little effect but commit to a large increase in spending to limit other spending increases. Their budgeting can’t be judged until at least their first budget, due next month.

  • Open government and transparency: F
    Perhaps its biggest failure.

So far, yes, one of it’s biggest failures. OIA abuse is disgraceful, and Minister of Open Government Clare Curran has had an awful and opposite start.

  • Immigration: D
    The annual net migration numbers remain close to those assailed in opposition as disastrous and uncontrolled. 

Labour and NZ First talked big on slashing immigration and have changed little. Last year net immigration peaked at about 72,000, the most recent figure was 68,000, nowhere near the promised 30,000 (Labour) and far less promised by NZ First.

  • Foreign Affairs: C
    It’s difficult to get a sense of Winston Peters’ guiding principles when it comes to New Zealand’s foreign policy.

C is generous. One of the few things Peters has not been vague about is his promotion of Russian trade. And Ardern seems to have poor communication with Peters.

  • Trade: B
    An early trade test for Ardern and company came in the form of the Trans Pacific Partnership, but political veteran David Parker… has handled the portfolio largely well. The bizarre Russia FTA proposal is now off the table, although not before causing some damage.

So Parker good, Peters bad on trade.

  • Environment: B
    The Prime Minister made headlines across the world with the announcement there’d be no new oil and gas exploration permits.  A more substantial move was setting up an interim climate change commission to advise on the shape of a Zero Carbon Act to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. 

The oil and gas permit announcement was poorly managed and seemed poorly prepared for – see No cost analysis, no consultation, no idea on oil and gas ban.

James Shaw has started quietly but confidently on net zero emissions by 2050 but it’s far too soon to tell what the reality of this target will mean.

  • Education: B+
    Chris Hipkins is a capable minister…While still early days, his ambitious plan to review and overhaul the entire school system should be applauded. Suggestions the introduction of a fees-free first year of tertiary education has had little impact on student enrolments will be worrying for the Government.

Generous. Hard to judge Hipkins ambitious plans that are subject to a review. Fees-free looks like it could have been a rushed and expensive commitment which was poorly thought through. No mention of Hipkins rush to scrap Partnership Schools with poor consultation.

  • Health: B+

I have no idea how a B+ is warranted. Most possible changes have been put to committees. Serious questions should be asked Minister David Clark over the Middlemore claims. If he doesn’t deliver on a promised new Dunedin hospital he will be in trouble down here (and decisions have been delayed despite his prior claims of urgency being required). And the Government has been running a softening up PR campaign blaming the last Minister for making budget decisions difficult.

  • Transport: B-
    There’s a lot to like in the Government’s transport policy, but its announcement and delivery was badly bungled and left people either scratching their heads or seriously brassed off.

There’s a lot many people are concerned about in what Ministers have been saying about transport, especially on higher fuel excise (claimed to be not a tax increase by Ardern) and the rush to shift people out of cars and into expensive to implement trains, and very contentious cycleways.

  • Political management: C+
    In the grading system used for the NCEA, the coalition Government has scored an ‘achieved’: one-sixth of the way through its first term and the cabinet and wider executive are intact. No one from New Zealand First has had to be jettisoned, no Labour or Greens ministers stood down or inquired into.

But is that good management? There are unanswered questions about Ardern’s political management, and Ministers working on related policies seem to have communicated poorly.

Effort on PR management: A
Implementation on political management: D

Ardern is at real risk of being exposed for a fixation with personality politics absent substance.

  • First 100 Days: A
    Sneaking in just two days before its self-imposed deadline, it’s hard to view the 100-day checklist of to-dos as anything but a resounding success.
    A year of free tertiary education – check. Ban foreign home buyers – success despite claims it couldn’t be done.

A success as a PR exercise perhaps, with many of their promises deferred to working groups and committees.

As sound policy it is much more questionable. Both free tertiary education and foreign home buyers now appear to have lacked effectiveness and have created problems.

  • Housing: B-
    Labour had a clear plan to launch Kiwibuild, ban foreign buying of homes and extend the two-year bright-line test to five years.

The foreign buyer ban has proved problematic, it’s too soon to tell what effect the extension to the bright-line test will have, and the ‘clear plan to launch Kiwibuild’ still looks a long way off any actual plan let alone results.

As with other policies the Government is finding implementation much harder than talk. Minister Phil Twyford is also looking less than solid.

  • Families Package/child poverty: B
    Axing National’s tax cuts in favour of a families package designed to lift children out of poverty was a key pre-election policy for Labour.
    More controversial is a winter energy payment to help people pay their heating bills.

They have delivered on promises, but it’s too soon to see whether this will have much effect on ‘poverty’ numbers. They have taken a political risk scrapping tax cuts for all low and medium paid people in favour of families and rich pensioners.

  • Strong regions: B
    The Provincial Growth Fund continues to surprise. Some of its investments – an expensive roundabout in Northland, the ‘Chardonnay Express’ in Gisborne, and the Cathedral restoration in Taranaki – seem to stretch the remit of provincial economic growth but the fund has yet to cause serious damage to Regional Development Minister Shane Jones’s reputation.

This could turn out to be a boost for regions and a boost for Jones’ and NZ First’s re-election chances, or it could be seen as a cynical slush fund. Too soon to call.

  • Workplace Relations: B-
    In its first tranche of employment law announcements in January, Minister Iain Lees-Galloway surprised many by softening, rather than abolishing, the often-criticised 90-day trial periods.
     A coalition concession means the minimum wage will rise rapidly to $20 by 2020.
    But generating the most talk are plans to introduce Fair Pay Agreements.

There have been warnings about the flow on effects and unintended consequences of rapidly increasing the minimum wage. Far too soon to call.

‘Fair Pay Agreements’ look like being a very contentious return to imposed union power.

Not mentioned are the wage claims and threats of industrial action in the expensive health and education sectors.

A first six months is scant time to sort out substance from PR and pre-election promises.

The Government has so far survived intact, but faces many challenges – a big one being getting next month’s budget right, or at least an acceptable and safe balance.

A big unknown looming is Ardern’s birth and baby break – the timing must be uncertain, as are possible complications (modern child bearing has relatively low risks but  they aren’t zero). And how Peters will perform as acting PM, currently planned for 6 weeks, could be interesting.

And Labour’s deputy Kelvin Davis has failed to step up so far so is a possible weak line.

But this will be judged later – like many of the Government’s policies and ambitions, some of which will be difficult to judge for years.

Ardern – different style, but out of her depth?

Since the highs last year of a stellar riser to Labour leadership, and later to Prime Minister, and a PR friendly start to the year – the annual Ratana ritual, a full week getting positive coverage at Waitangi, and then a cruise through Pacific islands – the realities of being in charge have exposed Jacinda Ardern to some testing situations.

The Young Labour camp scandal, Russian trade and undeclared spies, Curran/Hirschfeld and RNZ, and the odd NZ First/Jenny Marcroft approach to Mark Mitchell have created a succession of awkward situations to deal with. None of them are over, except perhaps the Marcroft muddle.

This has raised real concerns over the competence of Ardern and her government (and the Peters problem).

Illustration / Guy Body

Ardern will be learning from this, or she should be. It is a real test of her character as leader, and a test of the coalition with NZ First and the confidence and supply agreement with the quirky Greens.

Questions are being asked, as they should be.

Duncan Garner: Government’s Easter report a B minus and increasingly worrying

Jacinda delivered on her genuine promise last year and it was a pleasure having her leading this country.

But in recent weeks she has struggled to stay on top of things and her usually sharp radar is not what it was  –  have you noticed?

But Ms Ardern impressed us greatly at the end of last December. She led the pack. She was by far the best and most articulate among the place.

But since then things have got loose.

The prime minister needs a short chocolate break then she should return and read the riot act to her caucus and kick their butts. Then she should send Grant Robertson and H2 (Heather Simpson) over to NZ First and the Greens and remind them what usually happens when they cause trouble for a PM.

Heather du Plessis-Allan: The buck stops with Jacinda Ardern

You have to question the Prime Minister’s judgment. How good is she at running this ship? It’s now impossible not to ask that question.

The Government has had three weeks of car crash problems and Jacinda Ardern dropped the ball virtually every time.

The list of cock-ups in three weeks is astounding. International headlines over the PM’s refusal to kick out Russian spies. National headlines over the Radio New Zealand snafu. Allegations of blackmail threats over regional slush fund money. The PM’s mixed messages on the future of oil and gas exploration. The Labour Summer Camp stuff up.

The impression is the new Government is at best naive, at worst (in at least one situation) potentially corrupt. Every crisis has created the sense Government MPs are still trying to figure out how to be in Government, still acting like they’re in Opposition.

At times like these it’s easy to blame those who give the PM advice. Her officials, her media people, Winston Peters. But again, the buck stops with the PM. She must take advice, then decide the right course.


Audrey Young: Ardern Govt not on the ropes yet but not match fit after just one round

Today marks the end of the first quarter of the political year, or the end of Round One if you like, and the red and black team of Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters are not as match fit as they looked just three months ago.

They look relieved to have the respite that Easter offers.

Ardern has lost her smile in the past few weeks because of the burden of events she is dealing with on a daily basis, most recently around the Russians and Clare Curran respectively.

It looks set to get worse before it gets better.

Some of these problems will fade away, but Winston Peters won’t.

But it is Winston Peters’ ambivalence towards Russia – as evidenced in the coalition agreement to a free trade deal with Russia- which has left the Government exposed to accusations of being ambivalent towards old allies.

There is no great public clamour to show solidarity, or expel a Russian.

But amid the heat on the issue, the Government has lost the narrative because the simple perception is that it has been soft on the Russians because of Peters.

What has gone unnoticed is that in a few short months, any notion of bipartisanship between Labour and National on issues of foreign relations and intelligence matters has been shattered.

Labour and New Zealand First are reaping what they sowed on that score.

They are not quite on the ropes but they will need to show some improvement for Round Two.

Stacey Kirk: Government comedy of errors belies serious questions of credibility

There was always a risk of NZ First-induced migraines when the Prime Minister signed on the dotted line to form a Government with Winston Peters.

And political soothsayers have all had short odds on Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran being one of the weaker links within Labour’s own ranks.

In a triple bill of unnecessary political dramas this week, Jacinda Ardern has been forced to battle two fires that go to the heart of her Government’s transparency and one that has left New Zealand the butt of international jokes. They’ve likely exacted a toll in the currency of Ardern’s political capital.


So the weekend opinion pieces are highlighting a number of warning signs.

There will no doubt be some positives and wins, but there is a danger that Ardern may get bogged down by the growing number of negatives.

Ardern has shown some competence at times, but there are growing concerns her main strength is  PR posing – see Ardern does more homely interviews. That worked for a while, but there is a risk of a glaring gap growing between celebrity style superficiality and decisiveness and strength as a Prime Minister.

Ardern has time to turn things around – she can’t prevent Ministers mucking up but she needs to be seen to be dealing with their messes much better.

She has obvious strengths, but her weaknesses or winning at the moment.


More on the media and murky lobbying in politics

Bryce Edwards has continued to question the relationships between paid lobbyists and politicians, but also points out that relationships between lobbyists and media mean it isn unlikely ton get much exposure.

Political Roundup:  Lifting the lid on lobbying in politics

Recent revelations that a lobbying firm owner and director was recruited to work over summer as Chief of Staff for the Prime Minister, with the expectation he would then immediately return to lobbying, barely raised a mention in our media.

What should have been a major political scandal, was the subject of a must-read investigative report last week on The Spinoff website – see Asher Emanuel’s Conflict of interest concerns over lobbyist turned chief of Jacinda Ardern’s staff. Emanuel’s article is important because it raises unanswered questions about ethics and procedures in the hiring of lobbyists to work for the government.

One explanation for this extraordinary situation going largely unreported, is that Wellington political insiders often operate as a “political class” who are careful not to step on each other’s toes. For the media, in particular, a symbiotic relationship can make it problematic to report on powerful individuals who they depend on for stories and access.

Danyl Mclauchlan earlier this week pointed to a second, very important, factor in why so little public scrutiny had been applied to this lobbyist. He writes, “a jaw-dropping conflict of interest” such as this could have been massive: “If such a thing happened during the Key government there would have been a huge outcry: protests, online petitions, Twitter hashtags, Radio New Zealand flooded with academics lamenting the death of our democracy. Instead there was an indifferent silence” – see: Simon Bridges and the opposition vacuum.

Partly, Mclauchlan attributes this to partisan bias. But, crucially, he suggests that another important component of New Zealand’s “political class” – Parliament’s Opposition – decided not to make the issue a scandal. He says “Most government scandals need opposition leaders asking questions in the house, crafting lines so that the voters can understand what’s happening, providing optics for the TV news, and having their research units breaking new angles to keep the story live. If none of these things happen then there’s no scandal.”

The Opposition is supposed to be a check on Executive power – it’s their job to expose the government’s ethical transgressions such as any misuse of power or willingness to allow conflicts of interest to occur at high levels. So why didn’t National push the issue? According to Mclauchlan: “National has no interest in progressing such a story because they in many ways spent the last nine years acting as a vertically integrated lobbying and fundraising operation, and their former chief of staff is now a consulting partner with the same lobbying firm as Labour’s former chief of staff.”

More here from Edwards:

But with the primary means of holding power to account – the media and the Opposition – both complicit it is unlikely this will be given much scrutiny.

Good on Edwards for having a crack at it. He could be putting his media access at risk.

German government to be formed after nearly six months

Germany held a national election at about the same time New Zealand did last September. After four weeks complaining about Winston Peters holding the country to ransom and playing to his ego an agreement was reached here to form a government.

It has taken five and a half months to reach a coalition agreement in Germany, and a fourth term Merkel led Government should be up and running in a couple of weeks.

Deutsche Welle: Germany’s SPD members approve coalition with Angela Merkel’s conservatives

More than five months after Germans went to polls in the September 24 national election, Germany will be getting a new government. The final hurdle was cleared when the Social Democratic Party (SPD) rank-and-file sanctioned the coalition deal that party leaders had negotiated with Angela Merkel’s conservatives.

Sixty-six percent of party members who voted supported a continuation of the grand coalition, while 34 percent opposed it — a clearer margin than many in the party had expected.

“This wasn’t an easy decision for the SPD,” said acting party Chairman Olaf Scholz. “In the discussion [about the deal], we’ve come closer together. That gives us the strength for the process of renewal we are embarking upon.”

The coalition agreement can now be signed, and the Bundestag will elect Merkel chancellor of Germany for the 19th legislative period. It’s thought the vote will take place on March 14. It will be the third grand coalition in Merkel’s 13 years as German leader, but it only came about after efforts to form a coalition with the Greens and center-right Free Democrats (FDP) failed.

Former SPD Chairman Martin Schulz initially ruled out another grand coalition and was forced to resign after he flip-flopped on the issue. Social Democratic leaders were persuaded to conclude another deal after winning key concessions from Merkel and her Christian Democrats (CDU), as well as earning consent on these posts from the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). The SPD will have control of Germany’s powerful Finance Ministry, among other things.

The decision about whether to form a new partnership with the conservatives divided Social Democrats, many of whom blame the SPD’s participation in grand coalitions for the party’s slide to historic lows in opinion polls.

Minor parties in coalitions have problems retaining support under MMP in Germany too. Voters seem to have little tolerance for parties that are not in a dominant position and therefore can’t  implement many of their preferred policies, but that’s something that can’t be avoided in coalitions.

Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU)  sanctioned the coalition agreement last week at a party conference. And the chancellor was quick to express her pleasure at Sunday’s announcement.

“I congratulate the SPD  on this clear result and look forward to further cooperation for the welfare of our country,” the CDU tweeted in Merkel’s name.

In a statement, CDU General Secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer welcomed the Social Democrats’ vote.

“This is a good decision by the SPD and especially for our country,” Kramp-Karrenbauer wrote. “With it, after the conservatives, Social Democrats have declared that they’ll willing to accept responsibility for the country in a joint government.”

There is probably some relief there. The alternative was probably going to the polls again.


Treasury warnings about minimum wage, youth rates

It isn’t surprising to see a warning from Treasury about possible adverse effects of pushing up the minimum wage too much, and of abolishing youth rates.

Stuff: Labour warned if economy turns, minimum wage plans will hit the young and unskilled

Treasury is urging the Government to ditch its plan to abolish the youth rate, warning that minimum wage pledges will hit the prospects of younger, unskilled workers if the economy cools.

Advice from Treasury officials released under the Official Information Act shows Treasury expressing concerns that a commitment to a substantial increase in the minimum could harming the prospects of the very people the rate was meant to protect.

While Treasury explicitly said it supported hiking the minimum wage by 75 cents an hour to $16.50 in April, as the economy and labour market would see little impact, officials warned the three-year plan to get the minimum wage to $20 could have a series of unintended consequences.

These ranged from hurting the local economy in already slow growth regions, the risk that once New Zealand’s minimum wage was on a par with Australia’s, fewer young, low-skilled worker would cross the Tasman for work and that higher minimum wages “has been shown” to attract young people to leave education to enter the workforce.

But the advice provided a key policy challenge for the Labour-led Government, warning that should the economy turn, a world-leading minimum wage would harm young people, so the youth rate, also known as the starting-out rate, should be maintained.

I would replace “should the economy turn” with an inevitable “when the economy turns”.

Treasury said that in economic downturns, employers tended to keep existing workers on without cutting wages, but cut costs by not hiring and employing new staff on lower pay rates.

“This concentrates the minimum wage impact on the groups entering the labour force, like young workers, and those with low skills. The higher proportion of young people on the minimum wage in New Zealand will exacerbate this effect and magnify its impact on youth unemployment.”

“Young workers with low skills are particularly hard hit, and this could impact on those ethnic groups with many young people with low qualifications like Maori and Pacific,” Treasury warned, noting that even during the current buoyant job market, unemployment for young people generally, and especially young Maori and Pacific people, was far higher than for the general population.

There is a problem when unskilled workers remain on low wages.

But many people get onto the employment ladder at minimum wages and youth rates and work their way up.

If those low wage starting opportunities are scrapped it can make it harder for young people and unskilled people to get a start.

Set at 80 per cent of the minimum wage, the youth rate can be paid to workers aged 16-19 in certain conditions including when they first enter the workforce, are coming off a benefit or are in industry training.

Treasury urged the Government to consider maintaining the system, saying it provided “a safety valve in weak economic conditions”.

“We are aware that the starting-out rate is currently not widely used by employers (so currently the consequences on young people of keeping it are low) but it provides a safety-valve of enabling increasing use in an economic downturn.”

Has the Government listened to these warnings?

While Labour has consistently promised that within 12 months of being elected that it would abolish the youth rate, on Saturday Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway was non-committal.

“It’s something that we will include in our policy development and we will work with our Government partners on.”

Or is this another case of walking a different walk to their campaign talk?