Archive for May, 2008

Right attack health research

May 24, 2008

Political blogger David Farrar posts on Murray McCully’s attack on health research and the increased funding for health research in this week’s Budget.

McCully writes that:

Last year the Health Research Council (HRC) decided to approve a grant of $701,000 to a group of researchers from the Wellington School of Medicine, a branch of Otago University, to study policymaking to reduce smoking around children. The fact that said group of researchers might accurately be described as anti-tobacco activists is underlined by the fact that the application discloses over $1.8 million in grants to members of the group for tobacco-related research over the previous three years.”

Much is made of the research into obstacles in the political process that forms part of this research. Farrar sums up, “this was a $700,000 grant paid to anti-smoking activists for them to research on how they can be more successful activists!!”

McCully’s attempt to cast a shadow over health research funding on the basis of this one grant — and to call this attack “constructive” — is disingenuous and misleading.

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God botherers bother McCain

May 23, 2008

Just watched an immensely satisfying account of John McCain’s rejection of Pastor Hagee’s endorsement on CNN News. Essentially, Hagee described the holocaust as God’s will in hastening the Jews return to Israel: “Then God sent a hunter. A hunter is someone who comes with a gun and he forces you. Hitler was a hunter.”

If you haven’t been following this, Hagee is the powerful televangelist who inter alia has described Roman Catholicism as a “Godless theology”, and Hurricane Katrina as “an act of God”, punishment for “a level of sin that was offensive to God.”

Why so satisfying?

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Neil Stockley blogs on Keys/Cameron

May 22, 2008

Neil Stockley has blogged on the striking parallels between the UK & NZ at the moment, and the lessons for the British (!) from Keys’ success in finding a narrative that is proving more attractive for many than more fairness and prudence.

Does “study” merit so much attention?

May 21, 2008

It really is a good week for media beat-ups. Hot on the heals of Phil Goff’s revelations that his Party could lose the election (see previous post), we have a beleaguered academic struggling against “PC bullies” to raise issues about Pacific Islanders’ economic contribution in NZ, according to the NZPA.

First, just what are we looking at here? The Herald refers variously to a “report” and a “study” by “economist” Greg Clydesdale, of Massey University’s management and international business department. The DomPost even labels it a “discussion document”.

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Goff’s “gaffe” gives grief

May 20, 2008

Audrey Young blogs today about Phil Goff’s statement on fringe TV that he would be a candidate for the Labour Party leadership were Labour to lose and Helen Clark voluntarily to resign. He also allowed on the show that, “sure there is a prospect of defeat.”

Young tries to beat this up into an incredible “gaffe”. Goff is said to have “breached political convention” in an “extraordinary lapse”, and so on. “It is not done speak aloud about alternative leadership or admit the possibility of defeat… That is politics 101”, she opines.

Well, she’s half-right, sort of.

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Immigration Service review: doing it right

May 19, 2008

By moving to set up a thorough, independent enquiry, the Government (a.k.a. Helen Clark) has recognised the seriousness of the corruption revealed at the Immigration Service.

It probably helped that she was very angry, too. She does not like being caught unawares, and her anger yesterday was palpable. “It’s fair to say the confidence of the Cabinet has been somewhat shattered” was the least of it.

It is great to see a quick (as these things go) response. Best of all, this will be a truly independent enquiry, and will therefore go a long way to restoring our bruised confidence in the integrity of our public service.

For one thing, Auditor-General Kevin Brady is nobody’s poodle. He’s the one whose criticism of various parties’ use of public money at the last election caused so much consternation in 2006, not least on the Ninth Floor. At the time the Herald editorialised that, “few public officials have performed their duties more bravely and honourably than … Kevin Brady.”

Also, the Auditor General has the power “to require documents and information to be handed over, and for evidence to be given under oath”, as the Herald puts it.

Importantly, the Auditor General gets to set the terms of reference. This is especially welcome, as much doubt has been cast over various enquiries in recent years due to overly tight terms of reference. Perhaps we have turned a corner here.

[Footnote: Strangely, in view of the praise heaped on Brady just 17 months ago, the Herald barely mentioned these aspects of yesterday’s announcement. Maybe this doesn’t fit the story that the paper is trying to tell?]

The best brew-pub in town

May 18, 2008

I see that the Herald’s Canvas magazine reviews Galbraiths Alehouse this week. It is scored 7 for the food, 8 for service, 8 for value and 9 for ambience. Spot on, in my opinion.

As the reviewer enthuses, “Galbraiths is beer-drinker’s bliss”, listing the range of beers brewed on-site and noting the wide selection of bottled beers (and wine) and guest beers available on tap.

For those unfamiliar with the establishment, it’s to be found at the top of Mt Eden Rd, right next to the convenient carpark on the corner (with Symonds St). The building housed the Grafton Library for many years, and provides a comfortable setting, very reminiscent of your traditional English pub. It’s a must for English tourists missing the comforts of home.

I’ve been frequenting Galbraiths since some time in the last century. Mostly I go there to discuss politics with friends, most recently on Friday and Sunday evenings. This blog is in some ways an extension of these pub debates, so you can judge the quality of the discourse for yourselves.

A New Zealand Liberally Drinking has been started in Wellington. Galbraiths already plays this role for many lefties in Auckland, and is an obvious place to base Drinking Liberally in this town. Anybody interested leave a comment below.

Oh, the beer? Bellringers Best is usually, er, the best. It’s named for the campanologists from a local church who decamp to Galbraiths after practice. For something bitter, there’s Bitter & Twisted, and then there’s Bob Hudson’s for those watching alchohol levels. The latter is named for the man who taught brewmaster Keith Hancock his trade.

I see it’s 4.30pm. Only another hour and I know where I’ll be. Feel free to join me sometime.

Unhappy days are here again… what does this mean?

May 18, 2008

Yes, it’s “about the economy, stupid.” However, there are different views about how that translates into electioneering.

Former NZ political whiz (now resident in London) Neil Stockley blogged recently about what this means in the British and US context. He argues (as I understand him) that it is not just about having detailed economic policies designed to tackle specific economic issues, but about the narrative that frames and makes sense of economic conditions and issues.

Neil quotes John Helleman of New York magazine:

What everyone remembers about Bill Clinton’s race in 1992, of course, is that he focused on the economy ‘like a laser beam,’ as he put it. They remember ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ What they often forget is how cohesive, compelling, and even daring was the story he told about the source of the insecurity so many voters were feeling … Clinton also laid out an ambitious agenda to upgrade the nation’s store of human capital, enabling anyone willing to make the effort to ‘make change their friend’.”

Last month Colin James identified the foundations of just such a narrative. Discussing National’s broadband announcement he wrote:

The electoral strategy behind the broadband big bang is to draw a picture of Key in window-shopping voters’ minds as an action Prime Minister of the future and contrast that with older Helen Clark, a 1980s minister and boss for nine years.

Later in the year, wrote James, the Nats will roll out a spectacular RS&T (research, science & technology) policy. In short, “It’s all about who is the future”.

The Government is at a disadvantage here, not least because it is widely perceived as old and tired. Further, if it has an economic narrative it is that it is a prudent and fair manager of prosperity.

To be fair, economic and social justice was a major concern in 1999, after more than a decade of punishing (for the working poor) neo-liberal policies. Part of Labour’s electoral problem, one might argue, is that its very success in looking after the working poor has obviated this as an issue of voter concern.

Also, as James notes, the Government did make the right noises about the knowledge economy, the importance of science and research, and so on. But it failed to follow up the rhetoric with sweeping reform. Too often, initiative dissolved in the swamp of bureaucratic inertia. (The never-ending restructuring of the Department of Labour over much of the 2000s has been a sorry saga of missed opportunity.)

So, what does “the economy” mean for voters this year, if not distributing the fruits of limited growth a little more fairly? Does it mean, as the egregiously one-eyed Fran O’Sullivan writes in today’s HoS, a “lolly scramble”, where voters weight up their personal advantage from tax cuts?

O’Sullivan’s view seems too narrow. The media, in case anyone hasn’t noticed, have been ferociously pushing the “we’re falling behind” story. It’s near impossible to predict economic trends — ask The Treasury — but by November interest rates may be falling and the economy showing signs of recovery. However, the trans-Tasman wage gap will not have disappeared.

Should we therefore be looking for what Stockley would call an integrated “political story, with good and bad characters, a narrative flow and, crucially, a central myth and morality”? If so, National seem to have stolen the march. Labour has one last chance to build such a narrative, and that may be the most important message to come — or not — from this week’s budget. More prudence won’t do it.

Black sheep & bunk

May 17, 2008

Recently a friend sent me a link to a Spectator piece by Leo McKinstry, “Sorry, but family history really is bunk.” This little rant decries the current surge of interest in family history as an unhealthy “mixture of snobbery and prolier-than-thou”.

It oozes condescension. For those unfamiliar with McKinstry, he writes staunchly “little England” columns for various right-wing media and on sports.

The current “craze”, as McKinstry would have it, is huge. A poll in the UK found that around 30% of the population is not interested in their family history. The runaway popularity of the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? and Oprah Winfrey’s personal family history research have boosted interest.

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On public service

May 16, 2008

This week New Zealanders lost something important. We often boast about the absence of corruption in our public life. After all, we’re not a big and powerful nation, and certainly not rich, but we have our integrity. Or did.

Now, for the first time in our modern history, we cannot feel smug about the propriety of our public services. As Norightturn puts it, corruption in the Immigration Service, “seems to be widespread and pervasive”. The revelation that in a three year period 19 cases of serious offences were proven against IS staff, including theft, bribery and fraud, is staggering. (How many more are pending? Or were dropped for various reasons?)

When I joined the public service in the early 1980s, it was undeniably a cosy, relaxed place to work. These aspects were ruthlessly lampooned in the play Glide Time and the TV series Gliding On. A friend recently suggested that the play and its TV series spin-off may have damaged the reputation of the public service in unintended ways. They reinforced notions of priviledge, laxity and waste, as Ian Fraser’s review of the original production illustrates.

They presented a distorted view. They missed the strong sense of, well, public service, that was very evident at times. Various government departments had contributed in critical ways to building NZ’s society and economy, and there was a genuine pride in being part of that. I never heard the “public” disparaged. We all understood why we were there. We also understood that we must be studiously non-partisan.

I’m not sure that we can show a clear link between the growing prejudice of the time against the public service, and the reforms of the late 1980s, but it certainly felt that way at the time. Further, at that time, some of us warned that destroying the unified public service and letting faux private-sector managerialism loose would diminish much of what was good in our public services.

So it has been sad to watch the State Services Commission straining to explain away so much in recent years, and to see ministers fall. Other factors have played a part in this story, but when we come to look for solutions, perhaps we should look at what we threw away so lightly all those years ago.