Book Review: In Search of Consensus: New Zealand’s Electoral Act 1956 and its Constitutional Legacy, by Elizabeth McLeay

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_in_search_of_consensus.jpgThis is an easy to read book on a very specific subject, New Zealand electoral law, and the Parliamentary process by which it changes. Although somewhat dry, for anyone interested in the political process, with Parliament at the centre, it will be of interest. But in the end it just highlights the constitutional vacuum in which the New Zealand system of government functions, and the lack of interest in political history.

Dr McLeay is a retired ‘political scientist’, and active collaborator with constitutional law experts at Victoria University. The subject matter of the book also extends some thesis work undertaken by James Christmas. The specific area of their interest is the 1956 Electoral Act, and clause 189 in particular. This concerns the manner in which electoral law, the rules governing voting in elections, can be altered in a consensual manner. The key term is ‘entrenchment’, and the decision to make any electoral law subject to a substantive hurdle, whereby changes can only be made through referendum or a ‘super-majority’ vote in Parliament. But since the Electoral Act itself can be altered by a simple majority in Parliament, we then have a discussion of whether there should be a ‘double entrenchment’, to protect the existing rules.

This may make sense to those reading the book, but it is actually contradictory, as it is impossible to entrench the rules in anything other than a moral sense. Since the idea of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ is supreme, and it is not possible to bind future elected parliaments, the existing rules are as vulnerable as any other piece of legislation. In practice the vulnerability only really comes up in the debate over the Māori seats.

So what is the point of the book? Well, the point is exploring the somewhat wider political context and historical significance of the constitutional changes during the 1950s. The historical significance is really because of it being the first National Party ministry, and with some specific constitutional changes that it imposed, such as the removal of the upper chamber of Parliament, known as the Legislative Council. This marked the beginning of the two-party system, and the ‘unicameral’ system of government, in which the party with the majority of seats takes Executive power. The ‘winner takes all’ mentality is still seen in the National Party campaigns, despite the change to MMP.

Focussing on the historical context is central to the early chapters of the book, and the use of archival papers, particularly those of the National Party leader, Sid Holland. It has to be said that Holland is not a favourite subject of study for political scientists or biographers. Most do not get past the repressive legislation imposed by Holland during the waterfront industrial dispute in 1951; and the author mentions that the Official Secrets Act was also part of Holland’s legacy. Indeed, she concludes that section 189 of the Electoral Act was the result of a ‘tiny political elite [playing] around with the New Zealand constitution behind closed doors.’ The undemocratic nature of the process for the new act emphasises the ‘boys club’ mentality of the time.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

In Search of Consensus: New Zealand’s Electoral Act 1956 and its Constitutional Legacy
by Elizabeth McLeay
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561841

 

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Book Review: Phoney Wars – New Zealand Society in the Second World War, by Stevan Eldred-Grigg with Hugh Eldred-Grigg

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_phoney_warsThis book is intended to be a maverick account of the Second World War, a kind of anti-military historian view. As a chronicle of dissent in New Zealand during World War Two it might have some value. However, I think that the writers get the tone wrong, if indeed, Hugh Eldred-Grigg is also one of the authors. He certainly writes the introduction, which states what the book is not about – not what it is about.

The younger Eldred-Grigg states: ‘our rejection of New Zealand’s participation in the war is not prompted by some juvenile contrarianism that draws satisfaction from puncturing common conceptions…’.

While it may not be juvenile, I certainly believe that the book is based on contrarianism, rather than principle. I also don’t find it very well researched for something that claims to be a history. Hugh Eldred-Grigg adds a note on method, in which he claims that conventional sources, what historians call primary sources, have weaknesses that he can offset. This is how he justifies the use of literary texts to supplement the main source, which are contemporary newspaper articles. Although the concentration on secondary sources, i.e. previously published sources, may be standard in political science, it does not work in a detailed history.

This is obvious from certain errors of fact and interpretation in the first chapter, which examines the prelude to the war in the 1930s. This period has now been covered very extensively, and in great detail with regard to political history. The obvious errors include referring to Henry Cornish, the Solicitor-General, as a government minister. The Solicitor-General is a civil servant, whereas the Attorney-General is a Cabinet minister. This seems to have been an example where a printed publication was not relied upon. A more general problem is the habit of referring to contemporary writers and commentators with their perceived political affiliation. This might be alright if it was always accurate. However, using an obvious example, they state that A.N. Field wrote for Social Credit, whatever that connotes. In literal terms, Field wrote for Sir Henry Kelliher’s publication; and he also wrote many anti-Semitic letters to friends.

One of the other misinterpretations involves the financing of war. The authors claim that printing money was involved to finance the war in the First World War, if not the second. In fact, this is not logically possible. There was no New Zealand currency extant in 1914, the legal currency was sterling; and only the trading banks could actually print money. But later in the text the authors refer to the War Expenses Account in the 1940s. The detail comes from contemporary newspaper articles, as do the figures on the sale of War bonds to the public. It is difficult to see how the press articles shed more light on the subject than departmental records would; nor does it solve the question of exactly how the war was funded, and how much currency was created by the central bank.

The book has two basic premises: one is that there was no compelling reason for New Zealand to go to war with Germany or Japan; the second is that, since New Zealand could not make a substantive difference to the outcome, it shouldn’t have really bothered at all. And a third, perhaps, is that historians should acknowledge the cost to German and Japanese citizens. This was illustrated among the contemporary cartoon and artworks reproduced in the book, which were the highlights of the book for me.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Phoney Wars: New Zealand Society in the Second World War
by Stevan Eldred-Grigg with Hugh Eldred-Grigg
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522230

Book Review: The Death and Life of Australian Soccer, by Joe Gorman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_death_and_life_of_aust_soccer.jpgThis is primarily a book about sport, but it is also so much more than that. It tells us a lot about recent Australian history, especially about post-war migration, and its urban setting. Although it is about football culture, it is also about Australian society, and the cultural place of sporting success; as well as a real insight into its urban history.

Joe Gorman is a journalist, but mostly comes across as an enthusiastic sports fan, and a lover of soccer. Or should that be football. The central part of the book is that the soccer culture of post-war Australia was fundamentally ethnic, founded in the clubs created by mostly continental European migrants. The most successful soccer clubs, prior to the creation of the A- League, were unashamedly ethnic. Indeed, most of the soccer clubs attached ethnicity to their names, especially for the Croatian and Greek teams of migrants, but the Italians and even Jewish clubs were also prominent.

But two basic things went wrong. Firstly, the Australian football federation always had a problem with ethnicity, especially when nationalistic identity led to violence between supporters. The second was that the national competition, the NSL, was never a viable commercial product that could compete with other football codes, especially once television coverage was involved. Moreover, the issue of the role of multiculturalism became a political one, and soccer exemplified the ethnic tensions in urban areas. So, eventually, administrators from other codes came along to solve the old soccer problem, and create a football league, one based on clear commercial lines.

Gorman’s historical account also explains some of the more odd features of the A-League. Some of these aspects had developed over time, such as the idea of playing a winter sport over summer, in the Australian heat. Other aspects were borrowed from other codes, especially rugby league, in having a grand final at the end of the year, rather than the winner being the top team on the points table. But rugby league also has long-standing clubs with histories of participation, whereas the A-League was started from scratch, and would effectively rub out the old club system and rivalries. It turns out that most of the stalwarts of the game see this as a backward step, and, at best, a necessary compromise to increase popularity. Gorman calls it gentrification.

Indeed, Gorman is as good at using metaphors and hyperbole as any sports journalist. He describes the A-League as a ‘membrane’ that seals off the elite game from the grassroots, and the development of individual players and club-based identities. Moreover: ‘the story of soccer in Australia…is a vast mess of shattered dreams, colonised tribes and forgotten heroes, splayed out like a Jackson Pollock painting across the landscape of Australian history.’ (page352)

He, of course, has tried to reinvigorate the memories of the forgotten heroes, both on and off the pitch. He also paints a picture of desolate former club grounds in ruins.

All of which makes one wonder what a New Zealand team is doing in the A-League. Certainly the Wellington Phoenix has been far less successful than the Breakers in basketball, for example. And Australian football is focused on Asia, having left the Oceania federation as losers. But rather than look at the elite level, reading the book makes one think of the New Zealand club system. Where I grew up, in Lower Hutt, the key figures were all migrants; but almost all were Anglo-Saxon, not Slavic. And no one had a problem with a New Zealand team that sounded like an English side.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

The Death and Life of Australian Soccer
by Joe Gorman
Published by University of Queensland Press
ISBN 9780702259685

Book Review: Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature, 1908-1945, by John Newton

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_hard_frostThis is the first instalment of a projected three-part series on New Zealand literature. It’s a rather curious project, if John Newton’s preface is to be accepted. He claims that New Zealand literature, as he knew it, is complete and increasingly remote, or a “finite chapter.” Really? New Zealand literature no longer exists, apparently. What an odd premise. His justification for this is similar to that which is given for the apparent demise of the music industry: the young people don’t accept the old format.

In fact, this book is caught within a crisis in the academy. The heyday of New Zealand literature courses is over, and the demand is not there. Newton seems to feel this acutely, having written about the key ‘nationalist’ authors for some time, but without being able to interest his students. Giving up a teaching role, it is a rather odd enterprise to write three long books all about the crumbling edifice. And why should it be the academics who define what New Zealand literature is anyway? This is a bit like the American academic who decided the fall of communism signalled the ‘end of history’, except that was a piece of triumphalism rather than an acknowledgement of defeat.

This first book is not so much about the historical context becoming irrelevant. That is still to come, presumably. Hard Frost is actually based on the premise that New Zealand literature did not begin until Allen Curnow and the Caxton Press created it in the 1930s. The ‘hard frost’ comes from a Charles Brasch quote, in reference to a Curnow edited anthology, claiming that the chosen writers had “killed off weeds, and promoted sound growth,” at least in the South Island. This mythology is analogous to making the inhospitable mountainous country possible to inhabit: some sturdy blokes conquer the mountains and then see the promised land. The mountaineering was both figurative and literal, and it was also largely a masculine activity, as the later literary critics have pointed out.

A lot of the book is about this gender issue. Some great female writers were marginalised along the way; and a number of the blokes are limited by their own masculinity, and implicit homophobia. It has to be said that the issues of gender and sexual identity may be topical, but are not necessarily of great moment. Newton notes that the new interpretations involve a re-reading of Frank Sargeson, and the intervention of theoretical positions adopted from the international literature. Of course, Newton does this too, but also reverts to his own student background in choosing to resurrect an obscure part of Raymond Williams’ canon, the Welsh doyen of cultural studies. This is where he gets the phrase ‘structure of feeling’ from, but it’s more of an organising concept than academic theory.

The theme of the book, if one can abstract from all the derivative quoting from the literature, can be observed in the front cover. This involves a rather curious photo of three men trying to hold up some fossilised bones in a paddock, in North Canterbury, circa 1949. The caption on the back cover indicates that the men are archaeologists, including Jim Eyles and Roger Duff, who wrote a 1952 book on the discovery of Moa bones in Pyramid Valley. Newton does not mention the photo in the text, but does quote from Curnow’s famous poem ‘The Skeleton of the Great Moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch’. The poem refers to the moa egg that was reconstructed, and the much repeated phrase about a child, born in a ‘marvellous year’, that “will learn the trick of standing upright here.” Newton has spent much of his academic career trying to explain to his students how this phrase launched the new, nuanced, form of nationalist writing by Curnow. But he now makes the point that Jim Eyles had made a more important discovery as a 13 year old at the Wairau Bar.

Newton now admits that the ‘nationalist position’ of Curnow was not really teachable anyway; and that he had already read it from a ‘post-colonial’ frame, in effect. That is fine as an admission of a literary critic, but Newton has an enhanced idea of his project as literary history. This goes beyond the role of writing a history of the key texts, to that of the inverse, i.e. writing history by way of the local literature and related texts. This is quite perplexing, apart from the contextual evidence he introduced about the archaeologists, and some of the photographic research. The key ones are in the chapter about gender and mountaineering, including the photo of Blanche Baughan trying to climb an ice face in 1916. She appears to be wearing completely impractical clothing, but the reproduction is poor, it has to be said, as are the other photos in the chapter, which seem too small.

The only other contextual material of historical significance involves the two key blokish poets in the nationalist frame, A.R.D. Fairburn and Denis Glover, as representative of settler manliness. Thus, Fairburn and Glover are both subjected to literary criticism and as blokes, being too partial to boozing and bravado, and not accepting their role as literary poets. However, there is a very interesting discussion of Glover, on a very personal reading, in which Newton makes a comparison between him and his own father. Despite this personal insight it just makes Glover more of a romantically tinged nationalist. But still a nationalist, just not on the same level as Allen Curnow.

As I write this review the 375th anniversary of the ‘discovery’ of New Zealand by Abel Tasman is being celebrated in Golden Bay. Gifts are being exchanged between Maori and Dutch dignitaries, rather than there being a clash of boats in the bay, as in 1642. Allen Curnow commemorated this in his ‘Landfall in Unknown Seas’, in true modernist style, which remains relevant. A combined and inter-weaved post-colonial history goes on, but is there now really no one to tell our islands’ story?

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature, 1908-1945
by John Newton
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561629

Book Review: Sugar, Rum and Tobacco: Taxes and Public Health in New Zealand, by Mike Berridge & Lisa Marriott

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_Berridge_Marriott_Sugar_rum_and_tobacco_TIP_02This book is a very short treatise on the perils of sugar consumption, and the possibilities of taxing it. The title refers to the view of classical economist, Adam Smith, that all three commodities are proper subjects of taxation. The authors agree that it being universally consumed, but not a necessity of life, makes the difference.

But whereas government appears to have had great success in taxing alcohol and tobacco consumption, it has not been willing to tax sugar as such. The book begins by making a scientific case for the deleterious effects of sugar consumption, based on statistical links to obesity, to build a case for a targeted tax. Most of the rest of the book is a review of the attempts to tax soft drinks in particular countries, and a review of the literature on the effectiveness of targeted taxes used to curb demand. As with any book based on economic theory there is a reliance on terminology, some of which is inconsistent – sometimes they refer to the ‘elasticity’ of demand, and at other times specify the price inelasticity. This is probably confusing to most potential readers.

But the economic theory is secondary to the science. An early chapter describes the role of sucrose, glucose and fructose in human digestion. The main message seems to be that what the authors term ‘added sugar’, as in the average can or bottle of Coke, immediately raises the level of intake beyond that recommended by health authorities. In New Zealand the World Health Organisation guideline has been adopted, which is 9 teaspoons for adults per day, when the average intake is apparently closer to 40. So, unless one is a professional cyclist riding hundreds of kilometres, that means no Coke.

The medical case that the authors put up may seem convincing, but also hopelessly unrealistic. To stay in the guidelines would mean cutting out virtually any treat food completely. Indeed, if the effect of added sugar is so bad, and the health impacts are so great, it would seem better to regulate rather than try to tax soft drink products. Most of the discussion is spent examining how to make a tax effective in economic terms, and create a permanent effect on consumption. But the specific parts referring to elasticity and income effects involve dependent variables, i.e. the fact is that the pattern of consumption of low income households is determined by their poverty. It would seem that just raising poor people’s household income would improve health.

This particular book would have done better to look more closely at retailing in New Zealand, rather than exhaustively review the international literature. Those that shop in supermarkets often notice the sale of 1.5 litre soft drink bottles at 99 cents, which makes it less expensive than an average imported orange or locally produced tomato. Local dairies and 4 Squares also have permanent specials of soft drink cans at $1 or $1.50, depending on the size or number purchased.

And, though the authors briefly mention the lobbying by the retail industry groups, and the political impact of this on the previous government, the profit motive is not questioned in the book. So, instead of micro-designing a new tax to target consumption, the real issue is the retail sector, the supermarket duopoly, and the fact that small dairies rely on Coca-Cola Amatil’s discounting for their survival. Since the authors don’t recommend other measures, such as removing GST from healthy food, they also put economic efficiency first.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Sugar, Rum and Tobacco: Taxes and Public Health in New Zealand
Mike Berridge and Lisa Marriott
Published by BWB
ISBN 9780947518301

 

 

 

Book Review: The 9th Floor, edited by Guyon Espiner and Tim Watkin

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_9th_floorThis was quite a difficult book to review, with the election campaign all over bar the shouting. I almost feel like we need to know who the next Prime Minister is, to put it all in context. It is also quite difficult to assess the book as a book, because the ‘conversations’ with the former PMs are also running on Face TV at the moment, after playing on RNZ.

So do we really need to read the book, given that the conversations are still available on-line at RNZ’s website, and playing on a TV channel? The short answer is no. While the introduction to the book adds some context, the reader does not get the same amount of information about the interviewee as the visuals provide. And some of us may feel that we have already heard enough from the former PMs anyway.

Another issue is that the conversations are effectively verbatim, with some tidying up of the transcripts, and are mostly opinion. In other words, there is no attempt to clarify any points involving detail, or expanding them with the help of statistics. Then there are the interviewing and personal idiosyncrasies: Guyon Espiner knows most of the subjects from being a press gallery member for TVNZ, which meant reporting in soundbites rather than lengthy interviews, and his approach to radio is similar.

But the main problem is with the former PMs themselves. Only two out of the five were elected as Prime Minister. Both Geoffrey Palmer and Mike Moore were effectively caretakers, and Moore’s tenure was so brief he rarely made it into the office. Palmer is quoted as saying the whole thing was a nuisance for him, and Moore’s opinions remain scattered and often risible. By contrast, Jenny Shipley was the first female Prime Minister, but it is difficult to find the substance in what she says, and the rhetoric is often completely adrift from the substance of what actually happened. The central part of the conversation remains what she did to welfare policy before becoming the Prime Minister, in a rather unseemly move to unseat Jim Bolger.

The Bolger conversation is the most interesting, even to those who don’t wish to recall his tenure in office. It is obviously the most significant to Espiner, who has used one particular comment in his campaign interviews with the current leaders of the National and Labour Parties. Bolger is probably the only political leader, and perhaps the only right wing politician, to confess to having adhered to the neo-liberal doctrine. This seems interesting but does not accord with the facts, particularly since the term was not invented when he was elected. He actually won a massive majority under the previous electoral system, and therefore got to implement his party’s agenda without any impediment. This was not simply a case of following a theoretical doctrine.

Some of what Bolger talks about is significant, even while unconvincing. The key part, perhaps, is the question of the fiscal hole creating by the BNZ losses up to 1990. The issue seems important, as the journalists state that they also interviewed the previous finance minister, David Caygill, about the BNZ debacle. But none of this information is presented in the book, and nor is it related to the Winebox saga, which was the biggest story of the 1990s. So, while Bolger comes across as sincere and something of a maverick as a conservative politician, not much new is being added. This also applies to the conversation with Helen Clark, which is disappointing in not providing much insight, perhaps because she is still active in public life. All in all, this book highlights an era of unstable government, and rather mediocre political leaders.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

The 9th Floor: Conversations with five New Zealand Prime Ministers
Edited by Guyon Espiner and Tim Watkin
Published by BWB Books
ISBN 9781988533223     

Book Review: Tax and Fairness, by Deborah Russell & Terry Baucher

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tax_and_fairnessTwo well-known tax experts try to write a concise and intelligible book about tax. For the most part they succeed. This book is also intended to be part of a moral conversation about why we pay tax. In fact, its main contribution is to highlight some of the more technical aspects of tax in New Zealand, and make some useful comparisons to overseas practice.

The central part of the book involves explaining why the taxation of savings has gotten so complex and arbitrary. This affects both Kiwisaver and the Government’s Superannuation Fund, which appears to pay an inordinate amount of tax. Meanwhile, the country’s ‘love affair with property’ sees that go effectively untaxed, while the regular reviews of tax put a comprehensive capital gains tax (CGT) in the ‘too hard basket’, and the Treasury and IRD can’t agree on how to formulate a CGT in any case.

These chapters on the taxing of investment, and absence of tax on land and housing, are essential and could have been expanded. As it is there are many unfamiliar concepts to explain, and there is a risk of getting confused in all the acronyms. After learning about the ‘financial arrangements regime’, there is Tax, Tax, Exempt (TTE) policy; the Foreign Investment Fund (FIF) regime; the fair dividend rate (FDR) method; and the Portfolio Investment Entity (PIE) regime, before we get into Kiwisaver.

In particular, the FIF regime appears to have been rather baffling from the start in the 1980s, and has had to be re-booted a number of times. This points to the underlying theme within the narrative of the book. A lot of the key changes stem from the mid 1980s when there was supposed to be a simplification process, and the basic principle was to have a ‘broad base and low rate’ across all forms of income. However, examples like the FIF regime appear to be based on a theory of their own specific to the idiosyncrasies of New Zealand policymakers, especially in Treasury, as does the trust law change from the same period.

The trust law is mentioned a few times in the text, and both authors discussed the foreign trust regime in public debates during 2016, after the release of the Panama Papers. They seemed to agree that this had created a tax haven operation, but, rather curiously, they do not use the term at all in this book, even when discussing the tax-dodging multinational corporations. There is instead a nuance, when referring to the forms of income in ‘foreign trusts’ that goes untaxed; and this is apparently due to a loophole in the law. In truth, it was not a loophole at all, as the creation of the ‘foreign trust’ category was quite deliberate, and went against the advice of overseas experts in the crucial 1987-8 period. The only real question is why it remained unnoticed for so long, and why it was not reformed as well.

Although the book is apparently about fairness, the familiar terms for this – tax being more or less ‘progressive’ or ‘regressive’ – are never actually used in the text. Instead the concepts of ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ equity are introduced, and are mentioned a few times in the detailed chapters. However, it is a pity that the concepts in the opening chapters, and the ‘moral conversation’ idea in the final chapter, are not necessarily integrated with all the technical detail.

Nonetheless, this short book is a credible effort in a very tricky conceptual minefield, and makes a good case for reforms.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Tax and Fairness (A BWB Text)
by Deborah Russell & Terry Baucher
Published by BWB
ISBN 9780947518608