26 August 2012

John Key's Waterloo?

Having enjoyed a dream-run in its first term, based largely on the popularity of their leader, the National-led government is now forced to do battle on grounds not of its own choosing, and the outcome of which can only be either bad or very bad, if not fatal.
The Waitangi Tribunal has obligingly hurried up its process and released an interim report, the findings of which lob a well-placed mortar into the very middle of National's defenses, potentially rendering them defenseless in any court. Perhaps Key should have told the Tribunal to take as long as it likes over its deliberations. In any case, an awful lot of water has flowed under the bridge since Key declared that no-ones owns the water and the Waitangi Tribunal could be ignored! (And add to that the problems posed by Rio Tinto threatening to close down the Tiwai Point smelter, which would free up 15% of our national power supply, drive down prices, and affect the profitability of the generators!)
Let's face it: the asset-sales programme was the only 'big idea' that the government had left over from its election manifesto. A bland personality may have won the last election, but asset-sales were crucial to National's credibility as a government that can get some serious points on the board. Furthermore, the Minister of Finance has already booked in the proceeds of the sales to his fiscal projections, and hence they are vital to his promise to balance the books by 2015.
Key and co. will no doubt try to brazen their way through this by saying that they will consider the Tribunal's findings 'in good faith', but they would prefer to carry on down their pathway to sales undeterred, if they can. Anything less would be a sign of weakness, and a 'giving in to Maori interests' which would look bad to many white middle-class voters, including the vital centrist voters whom National cannot afford to alienate.
If National do try (recklessly) to 'stay the course' on the sale of Mighty River Power shares, a now probable result will be a High Court injunction to delay the asset-sales. A while ago, one might not have rated the Maori Council's chances of getting an injunction all that highly. After all, the government had a strong case to allow it to complete its legitimate plans. But the strength and cogency of the Tribunal's findings now give the Maori Council plenty of ammunition to take to the courtroom. The Tribunal makes a direct recommendation to delay the sales, and it finds that Maori have 'residual proprietary rights' in water, and that to proceed without negotiations with Maori would amount to a breach of the Treaty. If the sales go ahead and the state-owned enterprises are restructured to include private shareholders, the Tribunal finds that the Crown's options for providing remedies or compensation to Maori, after the fact, would then be too limited. The best route (according to the Tribunal) is the very one that National will not want to follow: that is, stop the sales process, enter into negotiations with Maori, reach a settlement, and then proceed with the asset-sales from that basis. One can see that process lasting till well after the next election, and National having to kiss goodbye to the one and only big policy idea of its second (and hence possibly last) term in office.
Key has the choice between a long losing battle or a quick retreat followed by a losing battle later – unless the Crown's lawyers can somehow recover the ground they've lost at the Tribunal and prevent a High Court injunction. Looks like this fight's heading to the courtroom.
Unless the government is prepared to back down!

23 August 2012

The ACC Blunder-Bus

Ooops! An inadvertent click and drag by an ACC manager attaches a file of the names of 6,748 claimants to an email to a claimant who had been complaining about the behaviour of a medical adviser.
It appears that the claimant doesn't realise what she's been sent for some time to come, but, in the meanwhile, she in turn inadvertently forwards the attachment as part of a further set of complaints about ACC to the State Services Commission.
In her battle with the ACC, the claimant looks up an old acquaintance, who is now ACC's deputy chairperson. She raises concerns about the Corporation's compliance with its own code of claimants' rights and about its so-called 'independent' medical assessors. The chair and deputy chair agree that they can kick the matter downstairs to management, thinking it's a purely operational issue. According to the Report put out by the Auditor-General, the directors should have recognised that some of the issues raised by the claimant were more than merely operational ones concerning her particular claim - but rather they implied reputational risks to the Corporation that the Board should have taken a more direct responsibility for. At least the report clears them all of any suggestion that the contact with the claimant led to any material advantage for her regarding her claim.
Once the claimant meets with the managers tasked with sweeping things under the carpet, however, it's revealed only then that there's been a massive privacy breach. ACC ask her to return the file of private information and to delete it from her computer, but they fail to make sure that this has been done until after the whole affair gets blown up in the media a few months later. Clearly ACC have some work to do on their privacy policies - and let's not forget that they do keep files on most of us, arising from one thing or another, including some very sensitive personal matters.
I would say that the rest is history, if it weren't for the fact that there are more revelations to come.
At least the Privacy Commission's report on 'the story so far' is independent, thorough and apparently robust. The Minister seems determined to implement the many recommendations. But we have yet to find out who leaked the identity of the claimant to the media...
And we have yet to find out about a few other things too: Like how the ACC plans to ensure that its medical assessors are genuinely independent (rather than deeply in the Corporation's pocket), and how the Corporation plans to avoid turning rehabilitation into a battle with claimants (as compared with a collaborative client-centred process).
And there's a question too for Ms Pullar: Exactly when did she become aware that the file of personal information had been sent to her?

16 August 2012

America. Who will lead it?

The announcement of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's Republican running-mate for the US presidential election now sets the tone for the upcoming debate. Unlike the laughable choice of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice-presidential candidate in 2008, Ryan is someone who has to be treated seriously, and his selection tells us something about the Romney presidential 'story'. We all know that Romney is conservative (politically and in his personal demeanor) and that he's wealthy etc. Ryan adds a defining agenda to the Romney campaign, however. Basically, this is the Republican Party declaring war on America's poor and standing up for the interests of the top 0.1%. Ryan has a track-record in Congress for pushing radical alternative budgets (that would slash taxes for the wealthy and government spending on social and medical entitlements, but not on warfare and weapons - or so-called 'defence'), and for conservative positions on abortion. Knowing that Obama is politically vulnerable in any debate about the economy (due to the ongoing effects of the global financial crisis and the stubbornly high unemployment rates in the US), the choice of Ryan means that the Republicans want to put the economy at the centre of the debate leading up to the election.
But even though Rupert Murdoch described Ryan as 'almost perfect' as a candidate, he (Ryan) does, in turn, leave the Republican campaign open to counter-punches, especially due to his push to move Medicare (medical entitlements for the elderly) onto a voucher system. This policy, had it got through, may have dealt with the federal fiscal liability for future health-care of an ageing population, but the vouchers probably would lose value due to inflation, leaving many future elderly people having to self-finance health-care, or having to forego it. OK if you're rich, but not if you're poor, or even in the middle. Obama's strategists are already getting that message about Ryan out there.
Like many on the Republican far right, Ryan stands in that awkward ideological divide between economic libertarianism (competitive free markets, less government, and devil take the hindmost) and social conservatism (freedom to choose, so long as you don't choose abortion). He is known to have been a fan of arch-libertarian Ayn Rand – famous for her atheism – but, of course, no-one gets far in a presidential race in the US without making a public confession of private faith. Romney is a Mormon, and Ryan is Catholic, and so the latter's belonging to a more 'mainstream' denomination was perhaps a factor in his selection, as it balances out the narrowly sectarian basis of Romney's faith. But Ryan's past enthusiasm for Ayn Rand is now an embarrassment, and he will have to distance himself from her more radical views about personal choice in moral questions.
But will the Romney-Ryan story be a winner for the Republicans? So far, it looks unlikely to greatly improve their chances. As a distant outsider, it looks to me like Ryan was chosen to please an internal party audience – basically, the Tea Party faction. The announcement of his selection is bound to generate short-term interest in the Romney campaign. But I'd guess that he's more likely to be a 'scare' factor for many Americans: people who might not otherwise have bothered to vote and/or were supportive of Obama in 2008 but now feel disappointed with his record in office. For instance, the Hispanic voters who helped sweep Obama in last time may do the same again once the message about Ryan's extreme right-wing economic ideology starts to get through.

06 August 2012

The costs of war

Dreadful news regarding NZers killed and wounded in Afghanistan. The nation's sympathies will  come in behind those families who have received the worst possible news for them.
Our political leaders naturally make the necessary expressions of support and sympathy on our behalf, and they avoid using this moment tastelessly to score political points.
Having seen plenty of flag-waving in London, there'll now be more restrained uses of the flag back home, and the words 'heroism' and 'sacrifice' will appear in numerous speeches.
It's instructive to have a quick scan of the international media to see what the rest of the world are saying about the kiwi casualties in Afghanistan. The NY Times, BBC and Guardian....? Nothing. That's friends and allies for you!
I haven't looked everywhere, but the only story about the NZ casualties in the international on line media that I've seen so far has come from Al Jazeera English (although they didn't head-line it on the website). AJE is of course followed in the English-speaking world, and also evidently in the Muslim world. It was 'interesting', to put it mildly, to read some of the comments from readers on the facebook feed from AJE. Now, I know people write all sorts of awful rubbish on those comment boxes, but honestly I wouldn't quote some of the things being said about NZ on the web at the moment.
So, at home we can comfortably ignore all that hatred out there, wrap ourselves in our colonial flag and talk about 'sacrifice'. But there is a different view about us brewing elsewhere, and it's not a very nice one.
I know there are times when risks need to be taken and conflicts can't be avoided. But, in this case, we should long ago have decided it's better to let the Afghan people sort out their own problems, and advised our friends and allies (who would certainly have ignored the message) to do likewise.