Science versus ‘populist voice’ on criminal justice

It is often said that populist public pressure has pushed politicians into tougher penalties, and this has pushed the prison population to the extent that New Zealand has one of the highest incarceration rates in the developed world.

David Fisher has a ‘big read’ at the Herald on Justice path and bulging prisons – will NZ listen to scientist or sceptic?

Here is a little read of some of the main points.

  • It’s science sceptic versus scientist in the debate over our criminal justice path
  • Garth McVicar says academics and scientists shouldn’t be involved
  • The Prime Minister’s chief scientist says the choice belongs to the public
  • The verdict from Justice Minister Andrew Little

Science in crime and justice is bunkum and politicians should discard “academics and those type of people” in favour of the public voice, says the Sensible Sentencing Trust’s Garth McVicar.

That’s his take on the heavily researched, deeply referenced report published by the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, into our criminal justice system.

In an extraordinary interview, McVicar ridiculed scientifically backed evidence and told Minister of Justice Andrew Little he had his “ammunition ready” to bring the Government down after a single term if bail and sentencing changes were rolled back.

McVicar and the questionably named ‘Sensible Sentencing Trust’ probably have a more extreme take on punitive punishment.

It comes as the Government prepares to unveil plans for a “justice summit” after Little declared “tough on crime” approaches followed by New Zealand for years did not work.

Little’s comments were supported by Gluckman, whose recent evidence-based review of our approach to criminal justice found our rising prison population has not made New Zealand safer.

In fact, he said “tough on crime” had nothing to do with our falling crime rate and “dogma not data” had actually made everything worse.

The article pits the different views of ‘the lobbyist’ McVicar…

As McVicar tells it – and this is in contradiction to the graphs, statistics and peer-reviewed research in Gluckman’s report – academics and scientists had led New Zealand into a crime-ridden society until the “evolution” of the Sensible Sentencing Trust.

McVicar says – and Gluckman’s report says this is not true – longer sentences, tougher bail laws and making parole more difficult to obtain have led to the fall in our crime rate.

…against the scientist Gluckman…

“Science isn’t about a single person or a single bit of data – the process of science is trying to understand over a good period of time what is going on in the world.”

As for public opinion, he says: “I think public opinion changes when it is informed by intelligent reflective conversation.”

Gluckman said the prisons report – as an example – gives the public information to make a decision. If we choose to continue to run our justice system the same way, more people will be locked up who will eventually be released, “brutalised” by prison and “over time we will escalate the crime rate”.

…the politician Little…

“In the end the whole criminal justice system is about taking people who have done things wrong and trying to stop them doing things wrong again.

“That will work for many of them. It won’t work for all of them.”

“In the end, the fewer offenders we have – particularly violent offenders – and the less recidivism we have, the better it is for community safety.”

Contrast this, he says, with increasing levels of incarceration, longer sentences and people who are inevitably, eventually released only to reoffend.

The policies of the past 30 years have not made New Zealand better, Little says.

“You’ve got to look at particularly our violent offending rate, which is going up.”

Little says: “There must be other options available that deal with the issue and keep us all safe.”

…and another politician, Opposition spokesperson Mark Mitchell:

The idea that “dogma” driven by lobby groups and magnified by media influenced politicians to create laws that didn’t work is a notion that doesn’t sit well with former police officer Mark Mitchell, now National’s justice spokesman.

“I completely agree that data and science should be a big driver of good policy decisions but I completely reject the notion that dogma has not only been an approach our Government has taken but previous Governments as well.

Mitchell says: “This is my own personal view, it’s too much of a simplistic and easy view to take that it’s just populism. It’s not actually populism – it’s people need to be safe.

The idea of “feeling” safe might be “emotive”, he says. “There’s nothing wrong with having emotive feelings. It’s always going to be the responsibility of the Government that they are doing the best that they can to keep good, law-abiding citizens and communities safe.”

Asked if jail works, Mitchell says it is “necessary in terms of making sure first and foremost communities remain safe and people remain safe and aren’t exposed to violence, in particular”.

But he does say more work needs to be done on rehabilitation and reintegration, so prisoners can “engage in a positive way with communities and rebuild their own lives”.

Back to Gluckman:

He cited evidence showing “successive administrations on both sides of the political spectrum” were “encouraged by vocal, professional lobbyists”.

It’s a phenomena dubbed “penal populism”, also seen in Britain and United States, where “politicians offer vote-winning, simplistic solutions for selected law-and-order problems”.

Choices made – not on evidence – led to rocketing prison costs and prisoner numbers but no sign of a safer public or crime rates falling.

Andrew Little and the Government have a big challenge dealing with escalating prison numbers, but also making the general population feel safer.

It isn’t sensible to just keep reacting to crime with longer and tougher sentences.

Perhaps there is a need for a Sensible Prevention Trust, and a Sensible Rehab Trust.

Jenny Marcroft tainted but protected (so far)

Serious allegations were made against rookie NZ First MP Jenny Marcroft. Claiming she was under the instruction of a Government Minister she threatened National MP Mark Mitchell.

After Mitchell went public her party leader Winston Peters remarkably instructed her to apologise, something he is unfamiliar with doing, and put it down to ‘a misunderstanding’.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she sought assurance from all NZ First ministers – Peters, Ron Mark, Shane Jones and Tracey Martin – that they were not involved and has accepted their denials.

RNZ: Nats out for blood over Marcroft-Mitchell dust-up

Mr Mitchell said NZ First MP Jenny Marcroft told him over the weekend to stop supporting a project in his Rodney electorate if he wanted it to get public funding.

He said he was also asked for an assurance National would not ask questions about the Mahurangi River Restoration Project in Parliament if it went ahead.

“Ms Marcroft told me this was because the government was unhappy with me revealing the illegitimate use of Defence Force aircraft by Defence Minister Ron Mark.”

Speaking to RNZ, Mr Mitchell said Ms Marcroft – who entered Parliament last year – had revealed she was acting on behalf of an unnamed minister.

Ms Marcroft declined to comment when contacted by RNZ, but New Zealand First leader Winston Peters said in a statement Mr Mitchell had “misunderstood her underlying point”.

“After the conversation had got out of hand [Ms Marcroft] consulted with me late on Saturday afternoon and was advised by me to issue an apology,” said Mr Peters.

“Ms Marcroft was not under instructions by any NZ First Ministers regarding funding … New Zealand First does not seek to constrain opposition MPs from criticism of the government.”

That is not a full denial that a Minister was involved – “not under instructions by any NZ First Ministers regarding funding”.

It is a very big stretch to think that Marcroft, the most junior NZ First MP, would do anything like this one her own. It is also a stretch to believe that Peters was not in the know to some extent, given his influence and control in NZ First.

Mr Mitchell rejected the response and said he had yet to receive an apology.

“There was certainly no misunderstanding at all … I was very, very clear on the message I’d been given and I was also very clear with Jenny with what I thought about that.”

He said the only response he’d had from NZ First was a text message from Ms Marcroft an hour after the meeting at Orewa Surf Club.

“Hi Mark, on reflection I have considered the substance of our conversation to be incorrect and would therefore ask that you kindly disregard it. Thank you for your generosity in this matter.”

That’s remarkable – not an apology, but also not a denial. It appears that, at best, Marcroft ‘misunderstood’ instructions from someone in NZ First and then retracted.

Stuff: Junior NZ First MP trying to use Govt fund to heavy Opposition ‘acting alone’ – PM

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she had sought assurances from every NZ First Minister that they had not sent NZ First MP Jenny Marcroft to do their bidding, when she threatened Mitchell that funding for a local river restoration project would be in doubt if he did not cease his involvement.

Ardern said the matter had been resolved and she would not be looking into it further.

She has said that as she is satisfied that a Minister wasn’t involved it is not her problem, it’s a NZ First matter. It is still a serious matter.

Ardern was questioned about it in Parliament yesterday by Simon Bridges.

Hon Simon Bridges: Was the discussion where the Prime Minister “sought assurances” from Tracey Martin regarding Jenny Marcroft and the provincial growth fund carried out by her in person; if not, how was it carried out?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: The member will know from the sequence of events that I outlined that I intended to seek assurances from each member on the Tuesday morning.

Hon Simon Bridges: Intended?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: Yes, at that point, I hadn’t done that. Immediately after, I phoned each of those Ministers and spoke with them directly. Of course, the phone was a quicker way for me to be able to do that.

Hon Simon Bridges: So how long was that phone call with Tracey Martin?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: Seeking an assurance from a Minister that they were not involved in a situation doesn’t take that long.

Hon Simon Bridges: Has the Prime Minister or her office done any further checks to corroborate Tracey Martin’s version of events?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: I take Ministers who work within Cabinet at their word, as, I’m sure, the leader takes his members at their word. That is how Cabinet operates.

Paula Bennett also asked Winston Peters about the matter.

Hon Paula Bennett: Why did the Deputy Prime Minister put out a statement on Monday under the heading of “Deputy Prime Minister” when now we are informed that he has no responsibility for the content?

Rt Hon WINSTON PETERS: I think, with precision, I was seeking to help out my friend Mr Mitchell and make sure he was on the straight and narrow.

Hon Paula Bennett: So what does he mean, then, by saying that Mr Mitchell needs to be on the straight and narrow?

Rt Hon WINSTON PETERS: Ah yes, well, given how wide the parameters of behaviour are in that party, I know that’s a great stricture, but what I’m really trying to ensure is that he gets the correct story before he wantonly goes public with it.

Hon Paula Bennett: So the question is, then: what is the correct story when he was approached by a member of the Deputy Prime Minister’s party who informed him that he had been sent by a Minister; so is the correct story that he was sent by one of your Ministers?

Mr SPEAKER: No, I can deal with that very, very easily. The responsibility for the member of the party is not that of the Deputy Prime Minister, and responsibility for the Minister is not either. That is the responsibility of the Prime Minister, but there is no ministerial responsibility for the actions of backbench members of Parliament.

Hon Paula Bennett: What was the underlying point that he refers to frequently, and what is the message that Mr Mark needed to get on Saturday afternoon?

Rt Hon WINSTON PETERS: The underlying point would have been that this was about a conversation to do with the provincial growth fund; that because of the previous Government having thrown Warkworth and Wellsford against their wishes into the super-city, they could not qualify; but that because we are an open-minded party it would not pre-empt us trying to see our way through it in the future to help the people from Warkworth. [Interruption] But it’s what I’m saying and it’s a fact.

Hon Paula Bennett: Does he still believe that “transparency and openness” is the middle name of this Government, as he’s said previously, when both Minister Tracey Martin and MP Jenny Marcroft avoid media questions?

Rt Hon WINSTON PETERS: Mr Speaker—

Mr SPEAKER: No, no, the member cannot answer it, because he—I don’t care if he wants to. The member cannot answer it because that is not an area that he has any ministerial responsibility for.

It is obvious where National are looking for responsibility for Marcroft’s approach to Mitchell.

If a National back bencher had done anything like what Marcroft had done while in government it is easy to imagine how Peters would have acted.  Typically he would have implied he had evidence, he would have demanded resignations, and he would have pursued the matter for some time.

National may be taking there time with this. Marcroft has not been held to account properly yet, and if someone did instruct her then there is more holding to account would be appropriate.

This is potentially a far more serious matter than the Curran meeting, but which took most of the media’s attention yesterday.

This may or may not be a Government problem, but regardless, it adds to an appearance of the coalition government being out of control. With the other problems Ardern is having to deal with, and some of them not very well, this could end up being a big deal early in their term of government.

I wouldn’t be surprised if National took this further in Question Time today. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Tracey Martin found she had more important ministerial business elsewhere.

NZ First claims ‘misunderstanding’, Peters instructs apology to Mitchell

An unusually contrite NZ First has apologised for what they describe as a misunderstanding over a conversation between one of their first term MPs, Jenny Marcroft, and Northcote electorate MP, Mark Mitchell.

Yesterday Mitchell put out a claim in a press release:

Labour’s coalition partner NZ First has threatened to withhold regional development funding for an important economic development project in Rodney unless local National MP Mark Mitchell ends his advocacy for it and stops criticising NZ First ministers.

In an extraordinary request over the weekend, NZ First MP Jenny Marcroft – who said she was under instruction from a Minister – also requested that National pledge to not ask Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones questions about the project, should it go ahead.

“Ms Marcroft said she had been sent to tell me that the Mahurangi River Restoration Project would be considered for funding from the Government’s Provincial Growth Fund, but for that to happen I would have to end my involvement with it as a local MP.

“Ms Marcroft told me this was because the Government was unhappy with me revealing the illegitimate use of Defence Force aircraft by Defence Minister Ron Mark.

“She also said if I ended my involvement and the money was granted, that they did not want National’s Regional Economic Development spokesperson Paul Goldsmith asking Shane Jones questions about it in Parliament.

“Finally, she implied my work as an Opposition MP would be a factor in funding any projects in my electorate I was involved in.

“I immediately told Ms Marcroft this behaviour was unacceptable, and that she had been put in a very compromised position by her colleague. She refused to name them so I said she had two hours to have the Minister call me before I took the matter further.

“She sent a text message an hour later asking me to forget the conversation.

NZH – National MP Mark Mitchell: ‘Rotten politics’ from NZ First MP over regions fund

Mitchell included screengrabs of texts in which he and Marcroft agreed to meet at the Orewa Surf Club on Saturday.

A text from Marcroft at 6.10pm that night read “Hi Mark, on reflection I have considered the substance of our conversation to be incorrect and would therefore ask that you kindly disregard it. Thank you for your generosity in this matter.”

That sounds like an attempted backtrack from Marcroft.

NZ First have since responded.

Jones said he had not known about Marcroft’s alleged actions and was not the minister referred to.

“This is the first I’ve heard of it. If you’re asking me am I monstering anyone over the Growth Fund, absolutely not.”

A straight denial of knowledge or involvement.

Winston Peters put out a statement:

“After the conversation had got out of hand she consulted with me late on Saturday afternoon and was advised by me to issue an apology. Ms Marcroft was not under instructions by any NZ First ministers regarding funding, and while Mr Mitchell may have misunderstood her underlying point, she was apologetic over the matter, and conveyed that to him.”

Misunderstandings can easily happen in conversations. Misunderstandings are also possible when junior MPs are instructed by senior MPs.

There is no dispute that the conversation took place, just a claim of a misunderstanding, a backtrack and an apology.

That Peters advised Marcroft to apologise seems an unusual NZ First action. It looks like an attempt to dampen down the claims. Peters far more commonly uses attack as a form of defence.

Jones:

He said such political arguments did not compromise their ability to put up proposals.

“If there are National MPs promoting proposals just get ready and stand in line like everyone else and go through the bureaucratic system.”

Mitchell has asked the Prime Minister to take action. Jacinda Ardern has also responded. RNZ – NZ First MP instructed to apologise to National Party

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appeared to be blindsided by the news when questioned by reporters at her weekly press conference this afternoon.

She said she wanted to get more details before responding, but stressed the Provincial Growth Fund was not a political process.

“The process … is not contingent on support for this government at all and there is plenty of proof of that.

It will be interesting to see how the Mahurangi River Restoration Project fares now in the Regional Economic Development fund handouts.

 

National MP claims threat from NZ First

Mark Mitchell claims that NZ First has threatened him to keep away from an electorate project, and NZ First have sent a new MP to request this and that they (NZ First) not be questioned in Parliament.

This is just one side of a story, but if it is close to accurate it is seriously concerning – akin to the Australian cricket cheating scandal, where team leaders got a team newcomer to go dirty.

Mark Mitchell (MP for Rodney):  Minister using taxpayer cash for political gain

Labour’s coalition partner NZ First has threatened to withhold regional development funding for an important economic development project in Rodney unless local National MP Mark Mitchell ends his advocacy for it and stops criticising NZ First ministers.

In an extraordinary request over the weekend, NZ First MP Jenny Marcroft – who said she was under instruction from a Minister – also requested that National pledge to not ask Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones questions about the project, should it go ahead.

“Ms Marcroft said she had been sent to tell me that the Mahurangi River Restoration Project would be considered for funding from the Government’s Provincial Growth Fund, but for that to happen I would have to end my involvement with it as a local MP.

“Ms Marcroft told me this was because the Government was unhappy with me revealing the illegitimate use of Defence Force aircraft by Defence Minister Ron Mark.

“She also said if I ended my involvement and the money was granted, that they did not want National’s Regional Economic Development spokesperson Paul Goldsmith asking Shane Jones questions about it in Parliament.

“Finally, she implied my work as an Opposition MP would be a factor in funding any projects in my electorate I was involved in.

“I immediately told Ms Marcroft this behaviour was unacceptable, and that she had been put in a very compromised position by her colleague. She refused to name them so I said she had two hours to have the Minister call me before I took the matter further.

“She sent a text message an hour later asking me to forget the conversation.

“But this is rotten politics. It goes to the core of our democratic processes and the National Party will not let such behaviour stand.

“This billion dollar Provincial Growth Fund is taxpayer money and should be used to benefit New Zealanders, not buy an easy ride for the Government nor to try and convince local MPs to stop supporting local projects, because they have annoyed the Government.

“The Prime Minister needs to find out which of her Ministers is attempting to use public money for political gain and she needs to quickly explain what she intends to do about it.”

The buck may stop at the Prime Minister’s desk, but initially at least it is mainly up to NZ First to front up and explain.

If Mitchell’s claims are accurate this is more than dirty politics, it is an abuse of power and of the Regional Development Fund.

Marcroft is a first term NZ First list MP, ranked 9th. If she was instructed to do this by NZ First leadership it has put her in an awful position, a bit like the newbie Australian cricketer asked to cheat by his team’s leadership.

 

Mark Mitchell confirms leadership bid

As signalled, Mark Mitchell has confirmed he is putting himself forward fort the leadership of the National Party.  This will put him up against Amy Adams, Simon Bridges and Judith Collins.

Mitchell is 49, and has been the MP for the Rodney electorate since 2011 after taking over from Lockwood Smith.

He has some interesting things to say in an RNZ interview with John Campbell – he came across reasonably well but needs to gains some confidence talking to media.

He promoted his leadership skills gained working in the police force and in private security business in New Zealand and overseas.

He was asked about his connection with Dirty Politics. He was adamant he had not engaged Simon Lusk and Cameron Slater to attack opponents when standing for the national nomination to stand in a safe electorate. He said that Nicky Hager’s claims were wrong, and could have been cleared up if he had taken the time to talk to Mitchell (Hager didn’t approach anyone fore verification or rebuttal).

Mitchell was asked how conservative he was given he had voted against the Marriage Equality bill. I was impressed by his response.

He said that as it was a conscience vote (meaning MPs can vote however they like, with no party whipping), he polled his electorate, had electorate meetings, and then voted for the majority view of his electorate. If that’s actually how things worked I applaud him for that – MPs should represent their constituents, not their own personal beliefs.

Both Mitchell and National have had huge majorities in the last three elections so it would be no surprise that the electorate view is relatively conservative. Rodney results in the last few elections:

  • 2005 (Lockwood Smith) – 20,651 votes (55.27%
  • 2008 (Lockwood Smith) – 22.698 votes (60.41%)
  • 2011 (Mark Mitchell) – 20,253 votes (53.54%) – Colin Craig got 21.23%
  • 2014 (Mark Mitchell) – 24,519 votes (63.00%)
  • 2017 (Mark Mitchell) – 28,140 votes (63.14%)

Mitchell is probably the outsider at this stage but gives the National caucus another option to ponder.

RNZ:  Mark Mitchell joins the National leadership race

 

National leadership speculation in full swing

There hasn’t been much change to the list of National leadership contenders – Jonathan Coleman has confirmed he won’t stand, Steven Joyce and mark Mitchell are reported to be interested but haven’t yet confirmed either way, so Amy Adams, Simon Bridges and Judith Collins remain the current confirmed contenders.

There’s a lot of pundit positing for various candidates, which is unlikely to influence the MPs in National’s caucus who will make the decision, so is more like attempts to be seen as able to guess who the winner will be before it is announced.

Bryce Edwards tweeted:

A notable omission from the endorsement list is himself, given his clearly stated preference:

I’m not going to endorse or pick any of them, I’m still quite ambivalent about who I’d like to see lead National, I don’t care very much who gets the job. But here’s some musings.

Amy Adams – seems to have been a very capable Minister who managed a large workload in the last Government. I’m not sure she has the media appeal that, unfortunately, seems to be demanded by media.

Simon Bridges – he is rated by some, and his relative youth may help against Ardern, but I haven’t seen he has what it needs yet. Perhaps he could rise to the position, but that is a risk.

Judith Collins – I really think she looks the best prepared and most capable of the bunch, and could be a very good contrast to Ardern, but she will need to get the support of the caucus, something she has failed to do in the past, and one of her biggest impediments is the rash of dirt mongering against her opponents and promotion of her at Whale Oil – the risk of her being connected to that, justified or not, may be causing some MPs some concern.

Should they stand:

Steven Joyce – in some ways he has been a very capable lieutenant to Key and English, has made misjudgements in the last two campaigns (Northland and general election). If National want to rejuvenate and set a new course into the political future Joyce is not the one, that will count against him unless National MPs think more of same old is what they want.

Mark Mitchell – seen as a dark horse candidate that few of the public will know. He has seemed ok to me in the little I have seen of him, but too little to judge. He would certainly be a breath of fresh leadership, and would contrast with Ardern, but will be hammered for his military contracting past, just like Key was hammered (to little effect) on his money market past.

Whoever takes over will have two years to build their profile and support before heading into the 2020 campaign – presuming the current lasts that long (the odds must be it will).

It’s worth keeping an eye on Kiwiblog. So far David Farrar has done individual posts on Collins and Mitchell. They could make a good looking leadership team, and Labour have shown that two geographically imbalanced (Auckland or north) leaders doesn’t seem to matter any more.

National emergency housing problems

There is an escalating emergency housing problem, and escalating risks for the Government as embarrassing details emerge.

Newshub: Government blows the budget on emergency housing

The Government has had a massive blowout in emergency housing grants, spending almost four times its annual budget in just three months.

As part of an overall $345m investment in emergency housing, the Government only budgeted $2m per year for an estimated 1400 emergency housing grants – which pay for urgent motel stays for families in need.

But in the December quarter alone, the Ministry of Social Development spent $7.7m on emergency housing grants.

There were 8860 grants in the final three months of 2016 – which is more than six times the Government’s expectations.

Social Housing Minister Amy Adams says funding will be topped up from Crown funds in the same way benefits are.

“We’re not going to run out of money, nor will people miss out,” she said. “While demand has been higher, which we’ve been very upfront about, the grant will be available to anyone who is eligible.”

The December quarter was the first to be properly recorded by the Ministry of Social Development.

“The $2 million was what officials predicted might be needed – remembering that this was the first time we’d established the grant, so it was always going to be a forecast,” Ms Adams said.

In a briefing to the Incoming Minister of Social Development, MSD warns the additional demand is “creating pressures”.

“The high level of demand for emergency housing has seen higher than expected numbers of households being supported to stay in motels and other forms of commercial accommodation,” it said.

This is embarrassing for the Government. They didn’t do enough soon enough.

The pressures on housing are also creating funding pressures plus pressures on National in an election year.

Newshub: Government counts homeless in tourism stats

The Government has been counting homeless people living in motels in its tourism statistics.

Statistics Minister Mark Mitchell has confirmed official tourism numbers include people who are being put into hostels or motels through emergency housing special needs grants.

The Statistics New Zealand Accommodation Survey is used as a measure of tourism levels, with the definition used to define the domestic tourists “one New Zealander spending one night at an establishment”.

However when Newshub asked tourism minister Paula Bennett if homeless were included, she said no.

“No, because they’re not tourists. Sorry, I’m not sure what you’re asking.

“No they’re not included in the tourism stats for accommodation.”

The Government are looking increasingly out of touch and too slow to respond to housing issues, especially emergency housing.

RNZ: PM responds to criticism over housing crisis

English can’t easily talk down the severity of the problems or the embarrassment.

Political awards

I’m not going to dish out political award – like that vast majority of New Zealanders I have no idea how our MP’s actually work beneath the vanity veneer of PR and the fog of media wars.

Journalists have been somewhat distracted this month with actual political news to deal with but some have managed to review the year.

Tracy Watkins and Vernon Small: Didn’t see that coming: A year of political bombshells

It was the year no-one saw coming. A year when everything we thought we knew about politics was tipped on its head. Brexit. Donald Trump.

No one sees what’s coming, but Brexit and Trump certainly went against most predictions.

Brexit means major changes for the UK and for Europe.

Trump looks like meaning major changes for the US and potentially for the world.

John Key quitting. So much for a quiet year between elections.  There wasn’t a Beehive staffer or Press Gallery journo who wasn’t wilting in the final week before Christmas.

While Key’s resignation excited the local pundits in what is usually a wind down period it is not anywhere near being in the same league.

So far the only changes are a few tweaks to Government under a Prime Minister who was already a major influence, and a few tweaks to ministerial responsibilities that most people won’t notice.

It perhaps opens up next year’s election a bit, but despite Labour’s glee it may not end up making much difference in what was already regarded as an uncertain election. Everyone is still predicting Winston will be ‘king maker’ – and even that’s no change from the last couple of elections.

Watkins and Small name Key as Politician of the Year – for resigning?

Apart from that it was a fairly uneventful and unremarkable year for Key. Most notable was his lack of success in changing the flag and despite getting the TPP over the line it now looks to be dead in the US  water. I wouldn’t say that Key had an award winning year.

They dish out a number of corny awards, but there is one that looks to be a deserved mention:

Backbencher of the year. National MP Mark Mitchell. He chaired the Foreign Affairs and Trade select committee through the divisive Trans Pacific Partnership legislation and helped turned hearings from being fractious to respectful, and even good-natured. On top of that he seems to have earned a reputation as an all-round nice guy, even from his political opponents, and got his reward with a ministerial promotion.

Most of the public probably haven’t heard of Mark Mitchell let alone are aware of his quiet achievements in Parliament.

There are 121 MPs in Parliament most of whom (if not all) are working hard and doing their best. Voters get to see little of this – all we usually see is a few attention seekers granted coverage by media who tend to accentuate the absurd and exaggerate a few issues and events.

If I was to do any award it would be not singling out a single person, it would be for the quiet achievers in Parliament who make a difference without being noticed by most of the people most of the time.

These MPs are the unsung backbone of our democracy.

TPPA timeframe change “an attack on democracy”

MPs considering submissions on the TPPA have had the available time slashed from a month to five days. This is bad process and appalling PR from the Government on a very contentious issue.

The select committee public submission process is an important part of our democratic system, despite efforts by parties and activist groups to manipulate it.

It’s a common tactic to try and flood submissions with a particular stance and then to claim that it’s a measure of public opposition. Numbers of submissions are not a measure of opinion.

But the Government has poked a stick into a wasp nest by slashing the time Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee members have to consider submissions on the TPPA.

Radio NZ reports: New TPP timeframe an ‘attack on democracy’

MPs have been given just five days to consider hundreds of submissions on the controversial TPP trade deal after the timeframe was drastically cut from four weeks.

The select committee was originally give a month to write its report and present it back to Parliament.

The Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee had been hearing submissions on the TPP from hundreds of people across the country and that will continue until the end of the month.

National MP Mark Mitchell, chair of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee, strongly rejects the view that the timeframe undermines the democratic process and says there will be plenty of time for robust debate.

But a last minute slashing of time to consider submissions is an awful look – what did key say about National’s need to avoid appearing arrogant this term?

Opposition MPs are understandably up in arms.

But opposition members on the committee say they were told yesterday the government wanted to cut down the time they had to analyse the submissions, so the legislation could get through by the end of the year.

They said they were stunned by the news and felt angry and frustrated.

Labour MP David Clark…

…said he wouldn’t be surprised if the people who made submissions felt the same way.

“Submitters will be horrified if they learnt that the committee is curtailing a process of consideration of the very serious issues they have raised,” he said.

“It seems very reasonable to expect them to be frustrated and to question whether there is integrity in the process at all.”

It’s fair to question motives and integrity.

Green MP Kennedy Graham…

…said he and other opposition MPs on the committee had thought the original timeframe of a month to write the report was too short.

“It’s just a slap of indifference and dismissal of some very sincere, very capable and hard-working New Zealand people,” he said.

“It shows it up for what it is – which is essentially a roadshow with a predetermined end.”

It gives opponents plenty of cause to ridicule the consultation process as a sham.

New Zealand First MP Fletcher Tabuteau…

…said what made it worse was that the tight deadline meant the draft report would be written before the committee had finished hearing all the submissions.

The TPP has been a farcical process from the beginning, he said.

“The whole negotiation had been undertaken in secret to start with. The submission time has been months in contrast to the six years it has to write [the TPP deal],” Mr Tabuteau said.

“This is clearly an attack on democracy – it’s unacceptable.”

It looks unacceptable to me.

This is likely to stir up the TPPA opponents yet again and give them a good reason to stir up protests again.

Is this just arrogant abuse of the democratic process, or is the Government deliberately stirring up anti-TPPA protest?

Whether the latter is their intent or not it is likely to be the outcome.

Sabin issue getting murkier

While media and Andrew Little are quibbling about a few days before and after the start of December more news keeps leaking into the public domain.

But One News pulls the story back to August – Police asked questions about Mike Sabin six months ago

ONE News has tonight confirmed that in early August police started looking into allegations against Mr Sabin. Two months later, on October 22, he was appointed chair of law and order select committee.

ONE News started making inquiries to government agencies and Mr Sabin on November 25. December 1 is now when Mr Key says he first heard Mr Sabin had family issues. Then, last Friday, January 30, Mr Sabin resigned.

ONE News political reporter Katie Bradford says police are not expected to inform the Prime Minister of every investigation. “That is of course an operational matter. But it is the duty of Mike Sabin, under what’s known as the ‘no surprises agreement’ to tell his boss just what’s going on,” Bradford said.

Key would have been mad to have appointed Sabin to chair the Law and Order Committee knowing there was a police investigation under way without at least making sure that it wasn’t serious (by all accounts this is serious to very serious).

And he would have been mad to have claimed to not known about it until December when it could be proven he knew early.

So either Key has acted madly, or he has been very poorly informed by staff and MPs.

One MP who confirms he did get the early heads up is Rodney MP Mark Mitchell, who admits he and Mr Sabin speak daily. “Yeah, he was pretty candid. He confided in me, yeah, as a mate would do,” Mr Mitchell told reporters.

It’s known that Mitchell is close to Cameron Slater so it’s not surprising Slater has been getting tip-offs.

Why would Mitchell not have passed on to Key or his office how serious it could potentially be?

Perhaps he was committed to confidentiality.

Otherwise this could get very messy for Key in a number of ways. It’s growing murkier by the day.

UPDATE:

A wee exchange at Whale Oil:

caochladh
Amongst all this rhetoric, supposition, innuendo and second guessing, where is the primary evidence to prove any of it?

Pete
We aren’t allowed to tell you.

stanace
Well if you are not allowed to tell us, would JK not have been in the same position, ie would not be allowed to do anything about it?

UPDATE 2: Now out from behind the NBR paywall – this passage (ex The Standard):

NBR understands the PM was first made aware of the assault complaint in April last year, months before the September 20 ballot – and that the National Party knew before the 2011 election.

The Northland MP resigned on Friday, citing personal reasons.

Mr Key said this morning he knew about Mr Sabin’s resignation “a day or two prior”.

Asked, “Can we absolutely say you knew nothing about this before the election?” the PM replied “No … I was aware of the personal family matters for about the last week of Parliament last year [Dec 8 – 12]. So that’s the timeframe.”

Openly calling it an assault complaint and stating Key knew in April.