Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns


Reflections on New Zealand

16/08/2005

The redoubtable Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore took no appointments before midday, preferring to spend the morning surrounded by newspapers. He constantly thought about his small country's place in the world and the decisions he needed to take to position it advantageously. Quality time reading and thinking always clarifies minds. This year I found two months in the Northern Hemisphere let me think about New Zealand's place in the world. Watching the BBC and Sky, and regularly reading the International Herald Tribune, and the Financial Times gave me in-depth analysis on world problems. Apart from the Lions' tests, New Zealand rated scarcely a mention, yet without fail everyone responded warmly, albeit with surprise, when learning I came from New Zealand. Truth is, we are off the world's radar map. That's good in one sense: if we had anything like the security problems afflicting most, we'd be in the news alright. Relative peacefulness makes for obscurity. This country teeters precariously along a fine line of relevance in the rapidly globalising world.

Arriving home to an election campaign had me rubbing my eyes in disbelief. Is this the best we can do? On the day I returned Phil Goff valiantly tried to shift the spotlight from Helen Clark's motorcade by attacking Lockwood Smith who had asked American senators whether they might help educate New Zealanders about nuclear ships. Goff's speech would have done justice to Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, and I was ashamed to recall that he was a former student and a trustworthy colleague. "I have in my hand a piece of paper that incriminates the honourable member and reveals he was cozying up to the Americans" is a rough paraphrase of Goff's speech. "Can we see the full text?" "Of course not, just the bits I choose to release". It was on a par with McCarthy's assertion in 1950 that the State Department was full of communists, then refusing to release names. Goff intended to imply that National was guilty of being close to the Americans who helped defend us between 1941-5. Worse, he also intended to divert attention from our outmoded anti-nuclear legislation when he knows most naval vessels aren't nuclear armed, and that nuclear power is now safer than it was 30 years ago. In effect he was muddying a debate because it suits Labour to pander to emotional isolationists.

The collateral damage from Goff's attack is serious. No politician will ever again talk frankly to overseas counterparts with a Foreign Affairs officer present for fear the notes will be misused. The Secretary of Foreign Affairs appears to have turned a blind eye to the damage done to his officer's reputation. His failure has brought discredit on the ministry.

On a different topic, I heard Annette King trying to blacken her opponents who want to revisit the health services' community card. King has shown a safe pair of hands in the difficult health portfolio. It helps, of course, to be able to get a budget increase of 11%. But if she'd been following trends in the wider world she would know that health dollars are not inexhaustible, and governments everywhere are looking at means tests to ensure that more goes to people in real need, while those who can afford to pay, look after themselves. Over-taxing people then returning some of the money through subsidies is called "income churning". Bureaucrats skim off much in the process. Subsidies should always be kept to a minimum. National's promise to revisit health subsidies, and bureaucratic institutions such as health boards and primary health organisations is no more than governments are doing, both left and right, everywhere in the world.

While we are on about integrity, isn't it time the Government told us just how much more of our money they intend to spend buying their way back into office? Three months ago Michael Cullen told us New Zealand couldn't afford tax cuts. Now he's heaving money around by the sack full, some of it to people who haven't even asked for it. Direct bribes to voters with their own money ends up in tears everywhere in the world.

Mickey Savage told us in 1938 that New Zealand could insulate itself. Fifty years later we realised that shutting the world out of this corner was a confidence trick. We have no option but to understand world trends and relate to them. The sooner we do so, the faster will be our economic growth, so vital to everyone.