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On this site you'll find posts and pages from recent years. The site began as part of my public law practice after leaving Parliament in 2005. Accordingly it records my opinions, not necessarily those of Franks & Ogilvie of which I am a principal, or any client, or the National Party for which I contested the Wellington Central electorate in November 2008.

From the Wellington Writers’ Walk:

“It’s true you can’t live here by chance, you have to do and be, not simply watch or even describe. This is the city of action,the world headquarters of the verb”

– Lauris Edmond, from The Active Voice

Prices in New Zealand

  • August 4th, 2015

Several weeks in Europe have been humbling, as travel usually is.

Among the surprises was how cheap it was to eat and drink well, even in Germany, one of the richest countries in the world. In Spain 8 of us could regularly have a generous evening meal, with drinks, for between Euros 110 and 140.
Why are our prices so high in comparison to wages, even under hospitality’s intense competition?
This problem has been exercising the Productivity Commission. Their answers on housing costs do not really satisfy. Why are excess margins not being competed away on materials? Do we have a uniquely New Zealand form of conspiracy that needs no organising?
The Commerce Commission’s prosecution of PGG Wrightson (where I was a director long ago) and others could help. The Commission alleges illegal price agreements on the NAIT tags and services farmers are obliged to buy. I hope there is a clear outcome. If collusion is proved there should be a seriously deterrent level of sentencing.

Takamore v Clarke and death focused cultures

  • June 16th, 2015

What a tragedy that New Zealand pretends respect for people fighting over where bodies should decompose.

Takamore v Clarke, the last highly publicised fight went as far as the Supreme Court. Hundreds of hours of legal and law enforcement intelligence spent without laying down a clear principle to tell the Police and other authorities promptly and exactly who decides a dispute over where a body will be buried. Hundreds of official hours spent delicately imploring people to be reasonable, who were apparently culturally bound to display conspicuously that they were driven beyond reason.

Martyrdom, sacrifice of valuables, suttee and law breaking are common extravagant signalling activities. They conspicuously display extreme emotion. Activists need prosecutions for law-breaking if they are to acheive their purpose of showing the depth of their convictions by willingness to suffer penalties.

If the courts were not so apologetic, they might have objectively seen the advantage for all concerned of a legal bright line determining process, triggered at a very early stage of dispute. Then those who need to make a signal display of willingness to transgress, can do so early and relatively cheaply, and save the community the costs of pointless attempts to compromise when the fight is the real objective, not the outcome.

Presumably, for the families involved in our recent fights, it is working.

With official New Zealand doing back flips to avoid enforcing court orders the Takamores showed the world (the story went beyond New Zealand) that they were so grief-ridden (or guilt or pride-ridden?) that they would deny normal courtesies to a widow and children, and thumb their noses at the law, to assuage their grief and loss (of a family member who had been out of close touch for years).

This rot of exaggerated respect for the dead is not confined to lawyers. The Prime Minister fell into a trap when he left the Pike River families with the impression that no resource would be spared in recovery of their loved ones’ bodies. Instead of instinctively drawing the line a secular government should always draw, to preserve fairness vis a vis the daily losses of other families to arguably preventable deaths, he descended into a competition to show maudlin compassion.  Since then Bernie Monk has become too boring to listen to. Yet he and the Pike River families have been almost bound to keep accusing the government of heartlessness in not spending more millions on dangerous recovery missions. Understandably they could feel that they were some-how disloyal to their dead if they did not at least try to keep the government to its word, however pointless.

It has never been the role of an intelligent secular state to promise the return of citizens’ bodies for family funerals, however dramatic the circumstances.  Fishermen, soldiers, hunters, aircraft crew and passengers frequently disappear. For Christians, Jesus’ suggestion that we let the dead bury the dead (Luke 9:60 thanks Brendan), should be excuse enough to avoid the lure of death focused cultures.

Official New Zealand is now wallowing in hind-focused ‘celebrations’ of historical courage and sacrifice. My father and grandfather who spent more than 4 years each away fighting wars, were deeply suspicious of the types who liked public commemorations. Dad’s term was ‘base wallahs’ – people good on parade but who steered clear of the front. Dad and Grandfather would have valued being thanked and celebrated if they thought the speechifiers milking these exercises actually respected their values.

But a government that leaves today’s service-people with no air defences, and could fine a farming couple $40k for not obediently kneeling to commands to wear safety helmets on their own bikes,  would have struck them as the kind of rulers they were fighting. They would not have listened long to speeches from politicians trying to wrap themselves in lost historical glory, paid for by people whose values they now despise.

Our service-people did not demand or expect to have their bodies returned.

New Zealand rulers have lacked the intellectual courage to defend secularism for a very long time. Our national museum has been wasting treasure funding the repatriation of shrunken heads of slaves killed by Maori expressly for the purpose of selling those heads. Ostentatious wailing parties accompany the heads at taxpayer expense. A state organisation that should be absolutely dedicated to preserving and communicating objective knowledge of culture and history is essentially propagating a lie. The affected piety and mourning that attends the return of those artifacts (for destruction in the ground) falsely implies that they left New Zealand in some gross contravention of indigenous culture, for which modern westerners should feel guilty, and for which modern compensation is due, and useful.

Only pitifully useless cultures reward and steer their people into conspicuous displays of their ‘love’ (or pride or guilt?) by fighting over and spending treasure on anonymous long dead parts of bodies. Successful cultures spend their treasure, their emotions and their time on the future, not wailing pointlessly over the dead.

Some of New Zealand’s rulers are leading our culture into the past as fast as they can drag us.


Investment Advice

  • June 11th, 2015

On Q & A on Sunday I predicted the Reserve Bank’s drop in interest rates. Most commentary I’d seen before (and since) suggested the Bank would hold off change for a little longer.

I had no inside information – the RBNZ does not leak in my experience. But I reasoned that if there was near universal expectation of a reduction, market pricing and planning and spending decisions would reflect that expectation. Accordingly no behavioural benefit was secured from deferring the reduction, and the Bank would know that.


Next time you need currency advice watch to the end of Q & A when I’m a commentator.

Instead of the Wellington Super City

  • June 9th, 2015

How many commentators on the Local Government Commission decision will waste the minutes of scarce public attention to a local government issue? The public decided long ago that an Auckland-style uber-government for our region was not their idea of improving local democracy.

So they’ll have little patience for whining that the people got it wrong. I’ve heard astonishing contempt from believers in amalgamation. They thought the ‘ignorant’ proles should have been grateful that their betters were working to ensure they could be governed remotely by them, instead of by locals they might know in their neighbourhoods.

But there are serious improvements that the region should be working on. In my opinion the greatest need is to improve the chances of getting more good councillors and fewer passengers and nutters. The current election process can involve thousands of serious voters in voting decisions they know to be farcical. Even close followers of public affairs end up voting on  name recognition, not sure whether it is from mere repetition, notoriety (even for idiocy) or because of a previous media career.

Unstructured democracy is fantastic at one thing – ejecting people who have lost the public’s confidence. But it can be terrible at finding good people. Modern ‘politics as tournament’ journalism dissuades nominations from the eminent people of proven acheivement outside politics who would in the past have served (for no pay) as city fathers and mothers.

So the LGC should start debate on moderating the risks. Aspects of our current election system can result in councils few sensible people would choose to join. Majorities can ride on the backs of a few public-spirited competent members.

There is a risk that today’s LGC announcement will spur those who are convinced that ‘someone must do something’ into calling for a reflex transfer of fresh powers and assets to the regional council. Unfortunately, the GWRC is exposed to the worst risk (after the ludicrous DHBs) of lurch voting on name recognition.

That is not because it is a retirement home for former mayors and MPs. I think their experience can mitigate the risks of poor perfomance. Without some of them, and the tight control of Fran Wilde in particular,  the GWRC would have looked chaotic, and been more wasteful than it has been.

But it is still largely bereft of the kinds of experience needed to run businesses with hundreds of millions in assets and turnover. In particular it is not a suitable owner for the regional network services that should be amalgamated:

1) Most analysis suggests that scale efficiencies can be obtained from amalgamating region-wide network services, such as water and transport.

2) The very large and capital intensive businesses thereby created need more reliable governance than comes from the accidents of local government elections. No prudent director wants to serve on a board without enough other members with the professional knowledge and experience to hold sophisticated management to account;

3) Assembling such boards needs systematic shoulder-tapping, and succession planning. They can’t risk being suddenly left without someone who knows where to look for the bodies in financial information, or who can smell consultant bullshit dressed in engineering or planning jargon.

4) Succession planning is unreliable in democracies. Yet publicly owned agencies need the healthy discipline of involuntary ejection of members from time to time, by voters, or at least by people who themselves are subject to voter control.

5) The regional network agencies should balance those needs. They should have nominated members of regional constituent territorial authorities, who go if they lose electorally, plus coopted directors appointed for their recognised qualifications and experience.

Nearly two years ago I urged that the effort going into foisting a super-city on us should instead go into more focussed reforms.

Gareth is right – lets kill all the cats

  • May 18th, 2015

Though it says that is not the conclusion, an absolutely fascinating article in The Atlantic should lead to a much greater drive to rid New Zealand of feral cats. Toxoplasmosis may be far more sinister than we’ve thought.

We’ve long known it could be bad to let cats nest in the hay shed. Fouled hay caused abortions in stock. And we knew pregnant women should avoid cats.

But now toxoplasmosis, that needs cats for its life cycle, is implicated in schizophrenia, promiscuity, traffic accidents and increased suicide rates.

If you like your beef rare, you should be on Gareth Morgan’s side in this one. Read the article in full to find out why, and to be amazed.

Mad Max

  • May 16th, 2015

Great entertainment for me, nephew, brother in law, and son in  law - with the Spectator review capturing the appeal.

Organ donor veto – disqualifying beneficiaries – stop faffing

  • May 14th, 2015

David Farrar neatly shows why low organ donation rates are not a complex issue, though Peter Dunne says they are.

But Labour’s new found enthusiasm for ‘tough love’ incentives suggests the solution.

Labour want benefit entitlement suspended for failure to register to vote. National should have seized that with both hands and extended it to other normal social obligations of decent citizenship, like not  preying criminally on your neighbours, and getting your kids to school after a good breakfast.

But Labour’s rediscovery of the power of incentives also points to a simple way to get family wishes on organ donation rapidly lining up  with the wishes of their dear departed would-be donor.

New Zealand has a disgraceful shortage of donated organs. Under rationing it should be elementary, and widely known, that those in the queue who have ticked the donor box themselves rank ahead of those who have not. Those who tick more recently should rank behind those who have always been donors.

And donors whose families have not irrecocably waived their veto power should know that it is likely to disqualify them, or at least put them at the end of the queue, and possibly also affect the chances of their dear pre-departed.

Reciprocity is the basic element of social obligations, and mutual respect. What could possibly be more fair, more simple and more speedy than to announce reciprocal generosity as the basis of future policy. Once free-riding on the anticipated generosity of other families ceased to look so likely, New Zealand’s shameful organ donor statistics would rapidly turn.

Research shows that a feeling that social cheating or bludging  is rewarded is among the most corrosive factors in loss of social or civic capital.

Mr Dunne you could probably fix this without needing to lift a legislative finger. The current organ rationing criteria are not legislated. That does not need to change. It would just require the doctors concerned to announce that they will take reciprocal fairness into account, and to act accordingly.

Hippocrates would approve. I researched the current medical culture’s resistance to ’moral judgments’ some years ago and found it to be of very recent development.


Obama’s TPP pitch to Democrat voters

  • May 13th, 2015
Here’s how Obama is trying to rescue the TPP by direct pitch to his grass roots supporters. Impressive. I can’t imagine H Clark or J Key putting their personal capital at risk like this with party members, over the heads of the party bosses and legislature representatives.

“[first name] – I want to set the record straight. Right now, we have an opportunity to set the most progressive trade agreement in our nation’s history — with enforceable labor and environmental protections we simply can’t count on other nations to pursue.

Here’s why this means so much to me: I want to make sure that any deal we reach reflects our nation’s values, in a way that hasn’t always been true in the past. That’s why I’ve said I’ll refuse to sign any agreement that doesn’t put American workers first.

But as long as 95 percent of our potential customers live outside our borders, we don’t have the option to sit back and let others set the rules. We need to take this opportunity to level the playing field — because when we’re competing on equal ground, American workers win.

If you agree it’s important for America to lead on trade, join OFA supporters by adding your name today.

I’ve staked my presidency on middle-class economics, and fought hard for policies that ensure that anyone who’s willing to work hard and play by the rules can get a fair shot.

We’ve made a lot of progress over the past six years — rebounding from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, strengthening our manufacturing sector, and growing forward-looking industries like renewable energy.

We can’t go back — and we can’t leave it to nations like China to write the rules for the global economy.

This is personal for me. I understand the skepticism about this, or any, trade deal. I’ve met folks across the country who still feel burned by agreements of the past. Those are the people I came to Washington to fight for.

That’s what this is about for me. This is our chance to do better, to get it right.

I hope you’ll agree. Over the last few months, OFA supporters across the country have stood up to ask the hard questions on this issue — to make sure the outcome is good not just for our economy, but for working families. If you want to see America lead the way to establish a truly progressive trade agreement, add your name with OFA today:

Thank you,

Barack Obama

Paid for by Organizing for Action.

So why would Wellington businesses want to subsidise more ratepayers?

  • May 8th, 2015

John Milford of the Wellington Employers’ Chamber of Commerce criticises the rates intentions in Wellington City Council’s long term plan. It all looks sensible, but for one great puzzle.

It collides head on with the Chamber’s fervid support for amalgamation to add Porirua’s ratepayers to the subsidised householders already bludging off  Wellington’s businesses.

Here is how the Chamber explains the problem:

“….Wellington City businesses – commercial ratepayers – in total own 21% of Wellington City’s rateable properties but pay 46% of the rates. …We believe the Council’s rates increase is too high, it’s higher than both CPI and LGCI. When you compare the rates collected in the year 2014/15 to the amount projected to be collected in the year 2024/25, it is an increase of 61.28% or nearly $148 million.”

Interestingly it does not go on to call for less cross-subsidisation. But it does observe:

“Of this increase just 80% is for ‘business as usual’ and in addition the plan is to increase total debt by 101%. The Council argues there’s a need for a greater increase in rates to fund ‘invest to grow’ projects. … This ‘increase’ must be ring-fenced to only those big ideas – not base lined for other activities or councillor’s pet projects. And the project’s got to stack up – robust business case, cost benefit analysis, return on investment… “

This proper concern contradicts the Chamber’s faith in amalgamation because:

a) the LGC has purported to justify amalgamations (across the country – not just Wellington) on the grounds that ‘demographic’ [read poverty] problems can only be dealt with by locking rich communities with poor ones, so the poor ones get services they are not expected to be able to pay for.

b) Porirua enthusiasts have made no secret of their reasons – they want a share of the golden eggs they see as being laid by the ‘high rises’ in Wellington.

c) The serious embarassment for the LGC in the resolute rejection of amalgamation by Wairarapa, after the LGC said Wairarapa was not ‘viable’ on its own, without a subsidy stream it says is worth up to $11m per year. The law makes if very hard for the LGC to come out now with a revised scheme leaving Wairarapa without the subsidy, if it is in fact ‘not viable’.

Truth is, all communities should cut their coats according to their cloth. As Selwyn showed Christchurch the less rich can find ways to enjoy services more efficiently. As the Wairarapa has sensed there is more satisfaction in that than in begging for crumbs from their patronising richer neighbours.

Urban beekeeping – tomorrow on RNZ

  • April 29th, 2015

My urban beehive is a cautionary tale. Wellington City Council told me to remove my hive because of neighbour complaints. Their demands and orders would have scared me if I had not been a lawyer.

It is like with chooks and dogs. People are no longer expected to tolerate the minor inconveniences that once went with living alongside neighbours. They demand that the Council use its coercive powers to keep them safe, even from fears and irritations our ancestors would have scoffed at.

Bee flights over the houses below us on the hill left little yellow waxy spots on their windows (which we also got). That is a particular issue in spring when they are gearing up for the big pollen feed to grow the colonies and produce new queens and drones.
In years past when most people dried their laundry outside it was a known downside of having bees nearby. I do not diminish the issue. It would be irritating if you derived no benefit from the hive.
I offered honey to the people I thought were complaining  though the Council would not tell me who, even so I could go and offer honey.
I surveyed the neighbours. Our nearest neighbours were all in favour of me resisting the Council threats. One was sensibly direct about her unhappiness with the spots. A couple did not respond.

I tried to get a nearby site or two, where I could move the hive so the flight path would not cause the problem. I think the Hawker St Monastery garden would have been perfect, and troubled nobody. But they were scared of liability if the bees stung someone.
Eventually friends volunteered from a 10 acre block but I wanted the bees handy. I liked looking into the hive.  I loved the pohutukawa honey from our neighbourhood. I wanted our feijoas fertilised. A hive on the other side of the harbour would not do that.
Still, I could understand the neighbours’ upset. Despite the honey as recompense, one became very unsweet, so I gave the hive away. Respect for neighbours trumps.

I have to satisfy myself with the 500 or so hives on my land in the Wairarapa. I sold my hives to the beekeeper two years ago, so don’t own them now, but we are fairly involved in making it a good bee habitat. We are planting trees to feed the bees protein in spring, and placing hive sites where they might thrive.
Eventually we will be planting selected manuka seedlings, to extend the flowering season.

RNZ wants to talk to me about bees early tomorrow afternoon. Maybe we’ll discuss the story above.

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