Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Mighty Totara: The Life and Times of Norman Kirk

A Mighty Totara
During the whole selection/election campaigns there were a number of books that came out which I'm now catching up on - apart from Dirty Politics (of course) at the top of the list was The Mighty Totara: The Life and Times of Norman Kirk by David Grant. I've just finished the book and I'm very impressed.

Coming from a fairly Labour oriented family on my fathers' side I know how venerated and fondly remembered Kirk is. Grant has gone beyond the veneration and myths and given a well balanced account of Kirk's life. Grant gives a fair assessment of the nature of New Zealand politics and doesn't stoop to simple charactarisations of anyone - including the Opposition, even noting the fact that Kirk was the only Labour leader Rob Muldoon said he respected, because of the poverty they both experienced growing up.

The overview of Kirk's life is very well set out and very well researched. The extensive references and footnotes (which are interesting reading themselves) are indicative of this.

Having said this though, a number of points about the book did disappoint me. The first was the fact that Grant left a lot of material about Kirk's private life - specifically his "unhappy marriage" - right up until the end. It is almost as if Grant is embarrassed to have it in the book. It is a shame that the impact of his frenetic workrate is only discussed whenever his health issues are mentioned.

The second point is broader, and my main criticism of the book. I've always been fascinated to know why it was Kirk took up the cause of an independent identity for New Zealand, accepting the geopolitical reality we were faced with in the early 70s with our relationship to the 'mother country'. (Fortunately Grant does note correctly that his view wasn't unique to Kirk, who worked in a bipartisan way while in opposition with Jack Marshall, who himself understood the implications of Britain's EEC membership). To my mind this was his greatest legacy, and certainly the longest lasting.

Kirk was someone who left school at age 12 to find work, and as Grant clearly sets out was always suspicious of anyone with a formal education. So it could not have been a philosophical position for him, but a practical one. There are some cues on this - in Margaret Hayward's book Diary of the Kirk Years (Hayward was Kirks private secretary) it's recalled that Kirk referred to the portraits of the Queen and Prince Phillip in the Prime Minister's office disparagingly and had them removed. Another book of Kirk's quotes mentions the need for New Zealand to re-orient away from trading with Britain towards Asia. I would've liked to have read more about why Kirk specifically took up this cause.

It was not as if - as Grant sets out - Kirk took a great interest in economics. It because clear in The Mighty Totara that this was a critical weakness for his government. Grant appears to lay the blame for Labour's defeat in 1975 largely on the economy. This was a product of Kirk's refusal to listen to his Minister of Finance, Bill Rowling, on the need to take actions to combat galloping inflation (one interesting tid-bit was that Rowling wanted to float the New Zealand Dollar after the end of the Bretton Woods system, something Kirk was dead against). Declining exports (due to our dependence on Britain) and oil shocks didn't help, and Kirk's governments responses (carless days, more public spending) were certainly the orthodox responses - which were of course carried on by the incoming government in 1975.


I'd actually go so far as to say you could make this book into a TV mini-series (New Zealand's answer to The Kennedys perhaps?). In tracking Kirk's life from his tough upbringing to his early start in the workforce, his hobbies (including shooting pigeons at parliament from his office!) and the development of his political career without leaving out the warts makes for compelling reading. I throughly recommend Grant's book to anyone interested in New Zealand politics and history.

Next up is Richard Seddon: King of God's Own by Tom Brooking.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Re-writing founding myths

Bryce Edwards has a good round-up in the National Business Review of the various opinion posts and pieces on the Waitangi Tribunal's report last week from the Te Paparahi o Te Raki Inquiry dealing with sovereignty (chocolate fish for best blog post title goes to No Right Turn for "There was no cession in New Zealand".)

It turns out though that the hysteria I had predicted (and predicated my post on) didn't eventuate. The usual suspects - Dr Paul Moon, Muriel Newman, et al, took issue with the report. But in the main we haven't seen the sort of backlash of, say, 2004. This is a good thing, as it shows perhaps we've either matured as a country, or the Tribunal's ruling was a confirmation of what was known for a while (although the Prime Minister's comments do seem to contradict this!).

The question though, is where to from here? As Morgan Godfery points the report means:
The Crown should – whether out of constitutional, political or emotional necessity – prove its de jure sovereignty.
This is an issue that has been traversed by academics such as Jock Brookfield (especially his book Waitangi and Indigenous Rights), which I suggested to Morgan as an authority on this subject.

In my view it means the acceptance of a different, and maybe uncomfortable for some, founding myth of New Zealand.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

SH58: another upgrade needed.

I'm very pleased to see in the Upper Hutt Leader that SH58 (Hayward's Hill Rd) is to get a $30m upgrade. This is a dangerous road that needs to be upgraded.

 However, it would have been better if NZTA accept that SH58 will become the Hutt Valley's major link to Transmission Gully, when it is due for completion in 2020.

This will be because the proposed Petone-Grenada link won't be completed (even if construction were to start next year) until at least three years after Transmission Gully is completed. If they did then they would need to start planning to make sure that there is another upgrade in the pipeline for SH58 to handle this traffic.

This would include the long proposed grade-separated interchange at Manor Park between SH2 and SH58.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Waitangi Tribunal: hysteria versus nation building

On Friday the Waitangi Tribunal published its first report on Te Paparahi o Te Raki Inquiry. The media immediately declared it to be a "landmark decision". I'm sure there will be a lot of ink spilled over this report (it's hardly a "decision" - the Tribunal issues reports, it doesn't make decisions like a court of law, although it has mana).

Unfortunately the media have now framed the report as being a major shift, as if it changes the nature of sovereignty in New Zealand. It doesn't. It greatly frustrates me the media don't seem to be able to distinguish between an acknowledgement of history (i.e. that the Maori rangatira signing the Treaty did not see it as ceding sovereignty) and contemporary reality. 

As Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson said:
"The Tribunal doesn't reach any conclusion regarding the sovereignty the Crown exercises in New Zealand. Nor does it address the other events considered part of the Crown's acquisition of sovereignty, or how the Treaty relationship should operate today."
I haven't read the full report yet (I've only read the summary) but it addresses the issues around the Declaration of Independence of 1835 (He Whakaputanga) and how it relates to the Treaty of Waitangi, Te Tiriti o Waitangi. I'm going to read the report over this coming week, as I expect thanks to the hysteria now generated by the media, it will be getting a lot of attention...

What saddens me most about all of this is that this report is really a chance to engage in nation building. Accepting that the Rangatira who signed the Treaty (not all iwi did) believed that they would be equals to the British-appointed Governor, as representative of Queen Victoria, is hardly a revolutionary step. The Government of New Zealand is still legitimate in its assumption of sovereignty, as the Treaty Negotiations minister notes, because of other events.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Smart meters essential for a smart grid and smarter economy

The media create certain stereotypes about each political party. There is a stereotype - albeit largely untrue - that the Greens are tin-foil hat wearers. This is why the Greens' remain stuck on the c. 11% party vote mark. Like most stereotypes there's an element of truth to it, which the media are always on the look out to validate whenever they can.

The recent actions of current Green MP Steffan Browning signing a petition on using homeopathy as a cure for Ebola and this article by former Green MP Sue Kedgley only reenforce this stereotype. I'm sure Russel Norman is fuming.

I won't go into the detail of what Sue has said and why it's wrong (just read the comments). It's worth stating though that not only are smart meters required for there to be a smart grid (something we need for solar energy generation, because it's distributed), they're also critical to building a smarter economy. You know, the one the Greens like to talk about.