Australian values in decline

It is a horrible thing to say about a country that has been one greatest ally, most ferocious sporting rival and at times almost like family. It is even more horrible to have to say it with the 100th Anniversary of the Gallipoli landings in 1915 fast approaching, about a nation that as much as we bicker with over sport and occasionally politics, we visit in huge numbers every year and have over 400,000 of our number living there. And yet as horrible as it is to say, it is true that Australian values are in decline under the governance of Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Since Mr Abbott took power in 2013, the governing Liberal-National Coalition has waged an unprecedented war against the vulnerable sections of Australian society, the  environment, human rights and civil liberties. The list of backward steps taken is too long to list here, so I have outlined the major ones below;

  • The flagrant denial of climate change flies in the face of what most of Australia’s closest allies are doing as does the decision to allow more mining in environmentally sensitive locations
  • The human rights abuses on Nauru Island although not proven, need to be taken seriously because many of them involve women and children and basic sanitary needs that a  first world country like Australia should have no problems at all supplying.
  • His decision to close Aboriginal communities because they are reflective of poor choices by Aboriginal people, many of whom would seriously struggle to adjust to modern Australian norms
  • The attempt to deregulate universities, if the New Zealand experience is anything to go by means steadily worsening fees and no significant increase in the quality of the instruction or the degrees that come out

It is not just the policies that are a problem though. Mr Abbott is well known for being gaffe prone, as have the rabble of ministers under his watch. A few examples are:

  • The then Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison declined all attempts by human rights groups to gain access to Nauru to investigate alleged human righs abuses
  • Mr Abbott’s contempt for Parliamentary procedure are only surpassed by the blinding bias that the Speaker of the House shows in favour of Liberal and National M.P.’s, where opposition Members of Parliament have been thrown out over 300 times since she assumed office to just a half dozen or less instances of Liberal M.P.’s being made to leave.
  • Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop told President Obama that he was wrong to say climate change had anything to do with the accelerating Great Barrier Reef decline when a substantial body of research shows otherwise
  • Much as I despise Russian President Vladimir Putin, he did not deserve Tony Abbott’s threat to shirt front him – no good politician would ever do that
  • Minister of Finance Joe Hockey’s constant flip flopping on funding for various policies, his inability to balance the books and erosion of funding for existing projects of a socially beneficial nature have made him something of a laughing stock

I hope that the recent few months would make the Australian government sit up and take notice of the world around them. Sometimes not everything is as it should be.  Perhaps changing policies might back fire with unintended consequences, but in a Senate where the Opposition are handicapped by a Speaker who cares little for the other side of the House, Ministers such as Scott Morrison can get away scot free from questioning – or simply duck and weave like their New Zealand counter parts.


New Zealand corrupting itself

New Zealand’s transparency is something I take great pride in as a New Zealander. To be in the top five most transparent countries, where accountability of elected officials and those in other high positions of responsibility is paramount is no small feat when one considers the contempt for societal norms and those who abide by them that absolute power can induce. So I am sad to read – but not terribly surprised – that the level of corruption in New Zealand is considered to be increasing.

There is a quote about corruption that is as simple as it is true: Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

A corrupt official is not only not doing their job, but they are potentially very dangerous. Their moral compass is not working. Whatever it takes to achieve their ends they are prepared to do. If it means betraying colleagues, committing criminal offences and sometimes even endangering lives, it will be done.

New Zealand’s transparency is well recognized. Our Government is one of the most stable and accountable in the world. Election results are for the most part full, fair and final. The Official Information Act, a piece of critical legislation governing the accessibility and use of Government held data enables New Zealanders to access data for research, to see what the Government has stored about them and so forth, with fear of harm. In many countries, doing that could get you arrested and charged with treason, or other activities said to be against the State.

But there are some major problems.

Among them is the absence of protection for whistle blowers, people who see corrupt activity for what it is and try to report it to appropriate authorities. The reluctance of Parliament to pass legislation to protect these people and give them confidence that their complaints will be taken seriously is as damning in some respects as the corruption itself. Another problem is the court procedures for charging and trying in a court of law the person/people/business(es)/organization(s) accused of corruption. Again, the whistle blower needs to be confident enough that they will be able to safely testify if required.

A personal concern of mine is that this Government or future Governments might try to undermine covertly the legislative framework that makes the prosecution of corrupt officials possible. Such changes would be slipped in as several legislative changes have been done in New Zealand disguised by passing at the same time as more contentious legislation, which distracts the public attention.

And if they are successfully prosecuted, what does New Zealand law say about corruption as an offence in terms of elected and judicial officials?

For elected officials such as Ministers of the Crown, a sentence not exceeding 14 years can  be imposed. For judicial officials such as Judges, a sentence not exceeding 7 years can be handed down.

In the last 10 years several Members of Parliament have fallen by the wayside for behaviour contrary to the norms with which New Zealand expects its elected officials to conduct themselves. Labour Member of Parliament Taito Philip Field was jailed for several years for getting an immigrant tiler to do work on his home in return for help with his immigration status. Former Minister of Justice in the current Government, Judith Collins was made to resign  after her husbands company was linked to a dinner between Ms Collins and Chinese Government officials. A.C.T. Member of Parliament Donna Awatere Huata went to jail for fraud involving the misuse of public money.

It is not only misbehaving M.P.’s but a growing contempt for transparency of Parliamentary practices. Since National came to office there has been an unprecedented attack on democracy in New Zealand both outside of Parliament and inside. Outside of Parliament I will deal with in a separate post, but internally by 2010 the National-led Government of Prime Minister John Key had already nearly doubled the number of times that the previous Labour-led Government had used Parliamentary urgency to pass legislation in its nine years. It has ignored public feed back completely on a number of Bills that were sent for public submissions – although all Governments can be accused of this, the number of times set by this Government thus far exceeds previous statistics considerably.

It is perhaps becoming a bit rich of New Zealand to call itself the second most transparent place in the world after all.

Restoring democracy in Canterbury

For the last six years Canterbury has been not by an elected Regional Council, but by Commissioners appointed by the Government. Six years on, with suggestions that the already once delayed restoration of democracy might be again further delayed until 2019, perhaps it is time to give the Government an ultimatim to end the Commissioners tenure in 2016 or face a Cantabrian version of people power.

For me the Commissioners are intolerable. They represent an incursion of central government authoritarianism, whose mandate is non-existential. I was an employee at Environment Canterbury when the take over occurred, and found that as time went on, although the Commissioners attempted to reach out to staff, it was only because they were pretty much forced to by a combination of staff pressure and exceptional circumstances. And despite this, the Commissioners and their masters have shown their hostility to transparency and a democratic style of governance of Canterbury in several ways. Notably:

1) The comments by David Caygill in The Press that democratic processes are over rated – maybe to him, but not to others

2) The decision to extend Environment Canterbury commissioners terms until 2016

3) Environment Minister Nick Smith claiming that fully democratizing Environment Canterbury is too risky

We in Canterbury have waited long enough for the Government to restore democracy to Environment Canterbury. The longer that the Government goes without doing so the less sincere they become about helping Canterbury be a better province.

It is not just Environment Canterbury though that has been affected by Government interference in Canterbury. Due to an incompetent Chief Executive named Tony Marryatt, the Christchurch City Council lost its authority to issue resource consents, which is a major part of council regulatory functions. It also severely underestimated the insurance cover needed for churches and other places of religious significance in the city, thus leaving many without cover and putting the recovery of numerous churches from the 2011 earthquake in jeopardy. Despite the outcry over the handling of aspects of recovery from the Canterbury and Christchurch quakes, the Minister for Earthquake Recovery Gerry Brownlee labelled the people of Christchurch “carpers and moaners”.

In 2011, having just been re-elected in the General Election, Mr Brownlee attacked Councillors for not supporting the then Mayor of Christchurch Bob Parker and refused to rule out sacking them. The Christchurch City Council in the end largely cleared itself out, with Mr Parker and several others resigning. A total of nine councillors left at the end of the 2010-2013 Council term. The ones that did not resign suffered heavy defeats in their electoral wards.

In 2015, with the Commissioners at Environment Canterbury still having one more year before their current extension expires to go, the battle for a newly elected council is starting to heat up once more. An issue the Government probably wants dead and buried is more alive than not.

No blog today

The next edition will print at 0900 on 26 March 2015.

Giving justice to victims

Yesterday I opined about the need to put justice back into justice. I gave examples of situations where I thought the justice system in New Zealand had some work to do on rarely considered instances that are quite consequential for those unlucky enough to get caught up in them. But as consequential as they are, and certainly not detracting from the importance of New Zealand criminal law being better set up to deal with such cases, I think the devastation caused to victims of crime where law enforcement and the jury have done their jobs but the judges does not, are much worse.

And unfortunately even though I pay not a large amount of attention to major court cases, I find it all to easy to dredge up examples of where the sentencing judge or the Parole Board has made a call that is as true as it is ridiculous. And I wonder how much fear must be coursing through the veins of the victims; how much the police who arrested the offender, gathered the evidence must be chafing at the bit; how much the jury – if it was a clear cut case – must be wondering about the competency of the judge. And if it was the Parole Board – whose credibility has suffered much damage in the last few years – it will be a sense of outrage; a sense of betrayal that the taxpayer funded system they help fund failed them.

Or maybe the problem is with none of them, but the laws that govern them. Maybe it is time to review the laws that govern how all of these organs of the justice system perform their functions. But is there any political party willing to undertake such a review? Possibly. Some will decry it as an obscene money wasting exercise and others will say what is the point since no one will do anything, but do they who decry it have a plan themselves other than the status quo?

For family and the victims of violent crime – anything sexual, murder, assault, kidnapping, home invasion, anything involving drugs and/or weapons and so forth – they will be fearful for their safety. They will want to know that they can go and do all the things people normally do in public and around their places of residence without fear. Therefore if someone is caught and tried for the crime/s they are accused of and found guilty, the nature of the sentencing must reflect the nature of the crime. If for example it is a murder, clearly jail time with no bail should be inevitable. So too should be a permanent Do Not Contact/Approach/Visit order and compulsory notification of ANY relocation of the convicted offender. The eligibility for parole should be restricted to those classed as minimal risk.

For victims of other crime such as fraud, cyber crime, burglaries and such, it will be the the feeling of violation that governs their reactions. The people who lose money in a fraud will be angry that a person or company was trusted with their money and blew that trust. They therefore are highly unlikely to want anyone convicted for these crimes to be able to practice in any field of employment involving financial transactions – be it a banker, accountant or otherwise. Although I wonder how much difference it would make, since recent examples have shown that often little if any money is recovered, a court enforced written guarantee and a Financial Monetary Authority sanctioned complaints scheme might be a partial answer.

At the end of the day though, a cold, hard to stomach truth remains: the only real way to reduce the impact on victims is to give as little incentive as possible for the criminal to commit the crime in the first place, something we will all agree is much easier said than done. My proposals will cost, but I think doing nothing will cost more.

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