By Peter Dunne*
The Labour part of this government is extremely weak when it comes to dealing with difficult situations. They are simply letting their bureaucrats and coalition partners run rings around them, more and more often. After over two years in office, they cannot credibly use the excuse of Ministers on trainer-wheels anymore. They have to take control and set the agenda if they are to have any hope of being the government of transformation they say they wish to be.
Three examples this week demonstrate the point. First, is the continuing saga of the name of Wellington’s Victoria University. Next is the Radio New Zealand Concert debacle, and third is the ongoing drama over the New Zealand First Foundation.
Take Victoria University first. The Vice-Chancellor’s obsession with renaming the university the University of Wellington is well-known and unbounded. It appears most of the University’s alumni; its staff and benefactors are strongly opposed to any such change. (I am none of those, so have no direct interest here.) When the University applied, after a fractious and bitter internal debate, to the Minister of Education for approval to change its name, that approval was declined.
That should have been the end of the matter, and the Vice-Chancellor should have got back to his day job of promoting the University’s role as a centre of academic excellence, quality teaching and research. But no, with the densest of tin-ears, he has persisted with his dream, defying his critics and the Minister in the process. Revelations this week that the University has spent almost half a million dollars rebranding itself as Wellington’s University, or the Wellington University and the like, are the ultimate two-finger salute to the Minister of Education.
By standing by quietly, the Minister is not only angering the many critics of the renaming strategy but also demonstrating his impotence. Some may argue that for reasons of the protection of the principle of academic freedom the Minister cannot intervene, but this is not a matter that has anything to do with academic freedom. The Minister has every reason to be concerned about how the University is spending public money on non-core activities.
Therefore, he should call in the University’s Chancellor and make it very clear that the Vice-Chancellor’s ongoing actions do not meet his expectations following his earlier decision to decline the name change. Moreover, if the University Council will not bring the Vice Chancellor to heel, he will replace it with a Council that will. He may not choose to go this far, but the more he sits idly by and lets the Vice Chancellor get away with it and carry on regardless, the weaker he looks.
The still unfolding Radio New Zealand Concert saga is just as puzzling. On the face of it, it appears that Radio New Zealand went ahead with announcing a plan to shift Concert off the FM platform in favour of a youth centred station, even after the government had asked it to hold off, pending further discussion. The Prime Minister’s remarkable decision to step in and decide previously unallocated FM spectrum could be made available to keep Radio New Zealand Concert on air won plaudits and should have been the end of the matter.
However, it seems that Radio New Zealand is still struggling to come to grips with being put in its place so emphatically. All it will admit to is a “miscommunication” over the original announcement – whatever that means – and that it now needs a few days to absorb the impact of the Prime Minister’s intervention. Moreover, it is not prepared to give any guarantees about the future of Concert’s current staff. Yet the public’s expectation (and one suspects, the Prime Minister’s as well) is less ambiguous, that Radio New Zealand Concert will now be retained as it is currently, staff and all.
The remarkable silence throughout of the Minister of Broadcasting to whom the Radio New Zealand board reports is telling. Does he not realise he has been run rough-shod over by them, and made to look quite inadequate by the intervention of his Prime Minister? Even while Radio New Zealand continued equivocating about what this week’s Cabinet decision actually meant, the Minister was still keeping his head well down. Instead, to prove he is still worth his job and that his government is still in charge, he needs to be calling in the Board and leaving them in no doubt of both his displeasure at the way all this has unfolded, and his clear expectation there will be no similar repeat in the future. Otherwise, he will be left looking just as weak as his colleague the Minister of Education.
But the biggest example of the timidity of current leadership looks likely to be the way the Deputy Prime Minister is treated over the New Zealand First Foundation investigations. This is not the place to express any judgment on the allegations that have come to light – they are now matters for the Serious Fraud Office. However, where there have been previous cases of allegations being made against Ministers being investigated by either the Police or other law enforcement agencies, the practice under successive governments has normally been for the Minister to stand aside until the matter has been resolved. Under the Helen Clark Labour-led government, for example, this happened to Ministers Samuels, Field, Dalziel, Dyson, Parker, and even Peters at various stages.
Based on that precedent, it would not be unreasonable to expect it to now apply to the Deputy Prime Minister pending the outcome of the Serious Fraud Office investigation. However, the current Prime Minister is no Helen Clark, so will not act. Indeed, she has gone so far as to express, albeit after some media prodding, confidence in the Deputy Prime Minister, and to reject all calls for her intervention. Of course, it would be extremely politically difficult for her to do so, given the threat potentially posed to the maintenance of her coalition. But it is inevitable that any stench of taint that lingers from the New Zealand First Foundation investigations will eventually envelope her as well, her current distancing and inaction notwithstanding.
The overall impression left by each of these cases is that while Labour talks big about transparency and accountability it quickly retreats into its shell whenever challenged to match the rhetoric with action.
*Peter Dunne is the former leader of UnitedFuture, an ex-Labour Party MP, and a former cabinet minister. This article first ran here and is used with permission.