22 November 2013

Why the asset-sales referendum is not a waste of time and money

Many people have criticised the referendum for the reasons below (which I set out to refute):
1. The government ran for office in 2011 partly on its asset-sales policy, and so it has a mandate to go ahead now.
Yes the National Party did campaign on that policy, and they did regain office. But voters vote for numerous reasons, and we know for a fact that many who did vote National were not really happy with that particular policy. Furthermore, most voters voted for parties that oppose asset-sales.
2. The sales are underway now, and the referendum is not binding on government anyway, so the horse has bolted.
Instead, I argue it is important that NZ'ers have their say on this issue now, as future governments will take political stock of the results of the referendum. The higher the turn-out, the greater the political impact on future thinking about asset-sales. Keep in mind that the remaining 51% in public ownership still needs consideration.
I won't at this point get stuck in to the merits of asset-sales. It's up to each voter to decide. I have blogged in the past to say that I will not personally be buying any shares, though.
A high turn-out in the referendum will give this and future governments a clearer democratic message about where we stand on this important issue. Sending in your vote is not a waste of time!

21 November 2013

Upper Harbour: crooked as a dog's hind-leg

The Representation Commission has invented the most peculiar new electorate, Upper Harbour, running from west of the northern motorway, taking in a chunk of Glenfield and over the ridge to Greenhithe, and then crossing the Upper Harbour Bridge to Hobsonville, West Harbour and working-class Massey around the upper reaches of the north-western motorway. These suburbs have no close geographical connection or urban community in common with one another.
Paula Bennett has immediately put her hand up to stand in the new electorate for National. That makes sense for her, given that she probably doesn't have a bolter's show in the new electorate of Kelston, formed out of parts of her now-disappearing Waitakere seat.
As Colin Craig was also said to be eyeing Upper Harbour as a foothold for the Conservatives, Bennett's claim on it makes that look impractical. But, given the make-up of the new electorate, Bennett can't take it for granted as a safe National seat either. The beneficiaries out west and in Glenfield won't be happy to see her name on their voting papers.
Strong candidates from other parties could split the votes up and make this new electorate 'one to watch' on election night.

10 November 2013

Dunne takes desperate measures

As I commented two posts ago, the pre-electoral positioning and campaigning is already well under way, and no-one illustrates this better than Peter Dunne. His party, United Future, is a one-seater in Parliament with a history of supporting whichever major party is able to form a government. But Dunne is now fighting desperately for relevance and indeed for survival.
Winston Peters inflicted severe damage on United Future when he accused Peter Dunne of leaking the Kitteridge report into the activities of the GCSB. The subsequent inquiry led to Mr Dunne's resignation as a minister. Now Dunne has made it plain that he wants National to give clearer pre-electoral signals to voters next time around about who will be its preferred support parties. Indeed, Key himself has suggested he will do exactly that. Cuppa-tea meetings are no longer the done thing, it seems, and the voters should get clearer messages.
So Dunne is angling to be one of the parties that National says it wants to work with after the next election. And without such a clear pre-electoral message to that effect, fewer voters in Dunne's electorate will support him. I'm sure he would even kiss John Key's proverbial if National would decide not to stand a candidate against him in Ohariu.
But just to make sure that no-one can have any doubts about where he stands, Mr Dunne took political rhetoric to new heights of absurdity and compared the Green Party to the Taleban. I hope the Greens aren't taking it to heart that a fellow MP has compared them to Islamic fundamentalists who carry out suicide bombings, prevent girls from getting an education and destroy ancient Buddhist monuments. Has 'Mr Commonsense' taken leave of his senses? But Dunne has a history of allergy to the Greens. He announced before the 2005 election that he would not support a Labour-led government if it included a coalition deal with the Greens. Because Winston Peters said the same thing, between the two of them they managed to lock the Greens out of any role in government for that term, while securing for themselves 'the baubles of office.'
Some punters talk at the moment about Key calling an early election after the May 2014 Budget. So, should we be prepared to go to the polls, say, in August rather than November? In 2011, Key announced the election date very early on, timing it after the Rugby World Cup final, and preventing speculation. Will he again end the speculation early in the new year, or will he keep his opponents guessing and, in mid-year, call a snap election?

07 November 2013

State interference in university governance undermines core values

I was impressed by the news that the University of Oslo has admitted into its institution the mass-murderer Anders Breivik, to study politics from the confinement of his prison cell. The university’s rector gave a reasoned and wise explanation for this surprising decision.
‘It falls on our universities [he said] to take responsibility for upholding democratic values, ideals and practices, including when these are challenged by heinous acts. We are on a slippery slope should we change the rules and adjust them to crimes committed.’
Our values should be strong enough to make it unnecessary to change the rules retrospectively every time someone makes a serious assault upon them.
If New Zealanders were to suffer an attack comparable to the atrocities committed by Mr Breivik, would a university that specializes in distance education, such as Massey University, take an equally brave and well-measured approach? If the law permitted it, would we educate the offender in the discipline of politics? Would we patiently expose him to ideas about democracy, human rights and toleration of difference?
I daresay that Mr Breivik is a difficult and opinionated student. He may not be ready and willing to learn. But I hope that we would be prepared to admit such a man into our politics programme, for the same reasons offered by the rector of the University of Oslo.
I know that many prefer to deny Breivik, or anyone in prison, any such 'privilege.' But the genuine task of higher education is not a popularity contest. It should not be determined by focus groups, nor by the fear of causing controversy. What is our reputation for, after all?
On a more cheerful subject, then, in my classrooms I have seen many people who are honest and eminently employable, including many who are in employment as they study. Knowing that they are employable, my job is to lead them through a process of education, in the hope that they will become both employable and educated. As such, they will go on to do more than just fit in to the pre-fabricated roles of a job description written by someone else.
I see Massey graduates as transforming the jobs they take on, and hence transforming (for the better) the organisations they work for. A higher education is a part of what enables this to happen.
So, those are two reflections upon what higher education could be. Such reflections are timely, as the Minister for tertiary education wishes to make changes to the structure of university councils, the bodies that govern the universities.
He argues (without supporting evidence) that smaller councils will respond more quickly and ably to the challenges facing universities, making universities perform more highly and more competitively. The Minister appears already to know, moreover, in what directions these leaner councils ought to lead their institutions. They need, he says, ‘to respond to areas of high occupational demand, attract more international students, and strategically invest to enhance their particular areas of expertise and competitive advantage.’
Nowadays, it seems, universities take their marching orders directly from the government. And the education of young New Zealanders is not the highest priority.
Government expects universities to seek more funding from sources other than the government; and yet central government demands and gets greater control over the activities and strategic directions of universities. The legal principle that universities are autonomous institutions is ‘honoured more in the breach than the observance.’
If you’ve bothered to read this far, I wager that you are the kind of person who is saddened by the thought of universities turning into degree-factories that care more about the almighty dollar than about learning. In that case, I have sorry news for you, as the aim of the present Minister for tertiary education is to make the universities even more economically utilitarian than they have already become.
The way to do this is to starve them of cash, force them to become competitive and ‘entrepreneurial,’ and then narrow down the range of people who will be enlisted to govern them. People selected onto university councils should be people ‘with governance capability,’ he says.
The Minister has yet to spell out what exact set of skills he believes would constitute such a capability. But I guess he wants more people with a background in law and accountancy (useful skills in governance, I agree), and less emphasis on governance as a function that is representative of communities.
Certainly, the ideal of a university as ‘a community of scholars’ is now so far out of political favour as to sound positively old-fashioned. It’s hard to imagine the wisdom of the rector of the University of Oslo ever making the grade down here.