In John Key, has Big Government found its most devoted servant?
by Gordon Campbell
Elect a centre-left government in a modern Western democracy and chances are, this won’t usher in a socialist nirvana. Ask the French. Similarly, centre-right parties may campaign on a promise to reduce the clout of Big Government and the dinosaurs of commerce – but once elected, they seem happy to preside over the extensive growth of Big Government and the entrenchment of corporate power. It happened in the US under Ronald Reagan, and has been occurring here under John Key. So far, our political polls seem to indicate that the creeping centralisation of power and wealth that has been occurring under National, is still widely seen as a fairly benign process. Nothing to be alarmed about, move on.
That’s rather surprising, in the light of what came before. During its final term of office, the Clark government was successfully demonized as an authoritarian regime, a rampant nanny state. Yet from today’s vantage point, the prime examples of “ Helengrad” look positively benign in comparison with what has come in its wake. Yes, on Clark’s watch, the government did attempt to regulate the energy efficiency of shower heads, and did try to phase out some types of energy-wasting light bulbs. Yes, Clark did sign a painting for charity that she didn’t actually paint. On one occasion, her motorcade did drive imperiously through a stretch of the South Island in order to catch a plane.
When Clark’s alleged sins spread to where they encompassed the financing of political parties, the NZ Herald cried “ Enough!” and railed editorially against her government on its front page.
So far, no sign of the Herald feeling similarly stirred to defend democracy against the Key government’s empowerment of the GCSB to (a) carry out surveillance of the guilty and innocent alike (b) share this information with foreign powers, and (c) spy on the public at the behest of other agencies of the state. Even before the GCSB Bill becomes law, the fears about its potential misuse have been substantiated. The private electronic communications of an MP and a Press Gallery journalist were accessed by an inquiry ordered by the PM, concerning the security services for which he is directly responsible. If Clark had her handiwork all over a similar exercise, one can safely predict there would have been an editorial thundering loud enough to wake the dead. Yet this extensive expansion of state surveillance has occurred under a centre-right government with a libertarian coalition partner, and in the absence of any discernible threat to justify it. So, what is going on here?
Image: Tim Denee
Well….. on closer examination, this latest expansion of the powers of the spies and the spooks turns out to be entirely consistent with business as usual. Meaning: there has been a relentless extension of the powers of the state during the life cycle of the Key government, and it is all too easy to pick out the main examples. Before the GCSB Bill even hove into view, the government had passed legislation to formalize and extend the state’s search and surveillance powers, across a range of some 70 state agencies. We have had legislation that severely restricts the right to protest at sea, and major penalties can now be levied against individuals and organizations who persist in exercising their right to dissent. The government is currently engaged in “reforming” the Resource Management Act, in a way that will restrict the public’s ability to challenge resource consents. The state has also imposed a range of highly intrusive, punitive and discriminatory obligations on beneficiaries and their families ; we have seen a sustained attack on bioth the criteria and funding for legal aid, and on the consequent ability of defendants to contest prosecutions mounted by the state.
Moving right along, the state not only selected SkyCity Casino as the only bidder for its national convention centre, but saddled taxpayers with a 35 year long obligation clause to compensate the casino. The government has passed retrospective legalisation to validate illegal spying by the Police. It has scrapped local democracy in Canterbury in order to further its own agenda for water utilization; it has granted itself sweeping powers to over-ride local democracy in the wake of the Chrristchurch earthquake ; it has stripped workers of many of the key protections they previously held during their first 90 days of employment ; it has acted to privatize the ownership and the profits in energy companies previously owned by all New Zealanders, for the prime benefit of a small minority of them. That shortlist would give nightmares to most civil libertarians, yet it contains only a few of the more obvious examples that come to mind.
There are more. In this article, Werewolf has sought to identify the ways that the current government has systematically undermined the sovereignty of Parliament and freedom of the individual over the past five years. (To be fair, the Clark government was not averse to using some of the same methods, but the scale of the difference is striking.) There have also been a few examples of de-centralisation over the same period. New Zealanders for instance, will shortly have the “ choice” of sending their children to a charter school – but even so, this option will be available only so long as parents accept that the charter experiment will be conducted after the state has imperiously waived the teaching qualifications otherwise seen as necessary to safeguard children in New Zealand classrooms. In that sense, the “ choice” being offered by charter schools is the educational equivalent of the Pike River mine shaft.
For some people of course, civil liberties are merely the icing on the economic cake. (They’re nice if you can afford them.) In line with that logic, it is worth examining how much the Key government really has done to alter the weight and the balance of the tax burden – given that many people probably voted National in 2008 and again in 2011 on the expectation that a National-led government would provide relief for them on both those fronts.
Well, not so much, as it turns out. At least, not enough so that you’d notice the tax take being reined in. True, total core Crown revenues that stood at $59.48 billion in 2009 did dip briefly during the Global Financial Crisis, but they’re now forecast to rise again to $63.8 billion this year. (Viewed as a percentage of GDP, Crown revenues are on the rise, from 29.05% last year to 30.16% this year.) Meanwhile, the role of income tax and sales tax within the tax haul has barely flickered. Income tax and GST accounted for 82.9% of core revenues in June 2009, and is forecast to be 82.2% in the same quarter this year. No relief there for taxpayers as earners and consumers.
In addition, there has been little discernible change in the ratio of government spending to GDP, a point on which the conservatives in the Key administration seem almost indistinguishable from their New Labour cousins. To cope with the recent GFC recession, the state-to-GDP ratio actually grew from 34.5% in June 2009 to 35.2% by June 2011 – before falling back this year to 33.5% of GDP. In other words, there has been a tiny one percentage point change in the economic footprint of Big Government from the one that Key faced midway through his first year in office.
Supposedly though….the centre right is really about shrinking the rampant bureaucracy, right? Alas for the libertarian wing, there have been few signs of rollback on this front.,either. Under Key, the public service has shrunk from being a minuscule 1.93% of the labour force in June 2009 to an even more miniscule 1.81% in June 2012. That’s a sizzling 0.12 % change. Are you feeling freer yet? In job numbers, that amounts to 1,327 jobs lost across the entire public service – roughly the same number of jobs lost at Telecom alone – and that’s before you consider the offsetting (and unmeasurable) rise in expensive, short term contractors brought in to do the work of the people who lost their jobs. Public servants, it turns out, are essential – regardless of whether they’re on the front lines, or in the back rooms.
Before listing the names and the content of laws passed by the Key government that have tilted the balance in favour of state and corporate power, the modus operandi involved should also be noted. At least four undemocratic trends have been evident during the term of the Key government :
1. Urgency provisions. The Key administration has repeatedly bypassed the normal democratic processes of Parliament by making extensive use of urgency provisions that (a) prevent Bills from receiving proper scrutiny by select committees, and (b) prevent the public from attending hearings and making submissions on the contents. Two years ago, the ChenPalmer law firm noted that between 2008 – 2011, the Key government had moved 70 Bills through at least one of their legislative stages under urgency, and had passed 20 Bills into law without referring them to a select committee, because urgency had been taken. While the Clark government had also abused urgency provisions, the pace had picked up since then, and did so from the moment the Key government took office. In its first full year 2009, the government moved the most urgency motions since 1998.
2. The ousting of the judiciary. On a regular basis, the government has passed legislation that explicitly forbids the courts from intervening on behalf of the general public and/or the groups and individuals who stand to be most affected by the statute in question. For example :
The New Zealand Public Health and Disability Amendment Act 2013 managed to wrap both the above dodges into one singularly nasty package. Briefly, this law prevents any legal challenge (on the basis of discrimination) to what the government has decreed to be an appropriate level of payment – if any – for the people who provide health and disability support services to some of their family members. Thereby, the state ensures that it can act with impunity, free of troublesome scrutiny in future by the courts – as the Court of Appeal had done once before, when it ruled that a blanket policy against such payments contravened the Bill of Rights. To rub the salt in, this Bill was bulldozed into law under urgency in a single sitting day, shorn of select committee scrutiny and without opportunity for public debate. The Law Society has described this ousting of judicial review and the unjustified use of urgency as something “quite alien to our expectations of the parliamentary process.” Solid critiques by Otago Law professor Andrew Geddis can be found here and also here.
This is not the only example where judicial review has been ousted. In the appendix to its 2013 report to United Nations, (and to which this article is deeply indebted) the New Zealand Law Society cites a few other examples. Such as :
Environment Canterbury (Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management) Act 2010
This law denies access to the Environment Court for the resolution of environmental and resource-management matters in the Canterbury region.
Taxation (Tax Administration and Remedial Matters) Act 2011
This law requires taxpayers to obtain the Commissioner of Inland Revenue’s consent before commencing proceedings to challenge an assessment. (!)
Immigration Amendment Bill 2012
This law further restricts judicial review of any decisions of the Immigration and Protection Tribunal.
Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act 2010
This law prevents challenge to, or review, of exercises of ministers’ power to exempt, modify or extend provisions of primary legislation.
That’s not all. There are two other methods that the Key government has developed into something of an art form, as it has gone about its business of centralising power in the hands of the executive :
Henry VIII provisions. By the use of so-called Henry VIII measures, the executive branch gets to change laws by regulation, without taking the issue back to Parliament. In effect, such provisions are at odds with the basic principle that legislation should be enacted by Parliament, and not by decree. Like urgency provisions, they are constitutionally acceptable only when used sparingly, and in exceptional circumstances. Instead, they are becoming what the British Chief Justice, Lord Igor Judge, has called a ‘pernicious habit’ of the executive. His 2010 speech on the subject is worth reading for this passage alone:
I am, I suspect, not the only member of the judiciary who is troubled by the extent of the power granted [to officials] to enter peoples’ houses without a warrant. Or the way in which apparently sensible powers – directed to the prevention of terrorism, appear on occasions to be used to control activities which by no stretch of the imagination, have anything to do with terrorism. But my deepest concern at the moment, is directed at the increased use of what are described as Henry VIII powers..You can be sure that when these clauses are introduced they will always be said to be necessary.[But} the proliferation of these clauses [ Lord Judge counted 120 examples passed or amended by regulation over the course of a single session of the British Parliament] will have the inevitable consequence of yet further damaging the sovereignty of Parliament and increasing yet further the authority of the Executive over the legislature…”
Henry VIII measures, Lord Judge concluded, should be consigned to the basement of history. Yet in its 2013 UN report, the New Zealand Law Society cited several instances of the Key government’s resort to Henry VIII decrees. Among the examples :
Environment Canterbury (Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management) Act 2010
This enables the Minister for the Environment to choose what law will or will not apply to Commissioners appointed to replace the Canterbury regional councillors.
Immigration Amendment Bill 2012
This empowers the state to suspend the processing of refugee and protection claims by regulation.
Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act 2010
This gives government ministers wide powers to exempt, modify or extend provisions of primary legislation, and prevents anyone from challenging or reviewing in the courts the state’s exercises of such power.
4. Token Bill of Rights Act (BORA) Reports. Routinely, the Attorney-General vets new Bills as to whether they comply with the Bill of Rights. Just as routinely, the government ignores the conflicts that ther A-G identifies. Here are a few examples of where the Key government has ignored its legal puppet and passed laws that violate human rights supposedly protected by BORA, and/or by international conventions that New Zealand has signed :
Criminal Investigations (Bodily Samples) Amendment Act 2009
This Act enables the state to take and to store DNA samples without the consent of the people involved, and without a judicial warrant. The government has given itself the power to use reasonable force to do so, against people charged with a broad range of offences. In the Law Society’s view, these powers contravene section 21 of BORA ( which deals with protection from unreasonable search and seizure) and article 17 of the UN’s International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, which protects against arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy. The provisions of the Act that apply to 14 to 16 year olds, the Law Society adds, are “difficult to reconcile with New Zealand’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.”
Coming down the pike in this area are the further encroachments on civil liberties contained in the Land Transport (Admissibility of Evidential Breath Tests) Amendment Bill.
Under this Bill, if any person fails an evidential breath test but who chooses to take a blood test instead, the evidential breath test result will be admissible against them if a blood specimen is not taken “for any reason”. As the Attorney-General noted in his report, the Bill appears to be inconsistent with the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty that is affirmed by section 25 of the Bill of Rights, and would narrow – witho0ut justification – the safeguard against error. The Law Society agrees, pointing out that the option of a blood test is an important safeguard against mechanical error and there is no principled basis upon which to fall back on an evidential breath test for reasons other than a motorist’s non- compliance.
Parole (Extended Supervision Orders) Amendment Act 2009
This Act empowers the Parole Board to impose residential restrictions such as electronically monitored home detention on offenders for up to 10 years following conviction. The Bill was inconsistent with the rights against retroactive penalties, double jeopardy and arbitrary detention that are affirmed in sections 26 and 22 of iyr Bill of Rights. It would punish offenders twice for the same offence and authorise arbitrary detention.
Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Act 2010
Probably the Key government’s most craven pitch for the talkback radio vote. This Act effectively removes the right to vote from every New Zealander who happens in prison at the time of a general election. Incredibly, while someone sentenced to home detention can vote, someone imprisoned for exactly the same offence cannot. Those lucky enough to have their release co-incide with election day retain the right to vote. The unlucky do not. And so on. Werewolf analysed this Act in detail in a 2010 article that interviewed Rick Sauve, the Canadian former prisoner who successfully took the crucial case through the Canadian courts that found such laws to be unconstitutional. Our version is not consistent with the right to vote protected by section 12 of BORA, and by article 25 of the UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights. As the Law Society has pointed out, our law creates a kind of blanket disenfranchisement of prisoners that has been held to be inconsistent with electoral rights by the Supreme Court of Canada, by the European Court of Human Rights, by the High Court of Australia, and by the South African Constitutional Court..
Sentencing and Parole Reform Act 2010
This Act empowers the state to create and wield its notorious “ third strike” sentencing weapon. Again, as the Law Society argues, this provision for a life sentence to be imposed for a third listed serious offence appears inconsistent with the right not to be subjected to disproportionately severe treatment, and may result in disparities between offenders that are not rationally based and where gross dis-proportionality occurs in sentencing. In particular, the Act breaches section 9 of BORA and the provisions against cruel or inhuman punishment set out in article 7 of the ICCPR and in the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Corrections Amendment Act 2013
This Act extends the state’s power to strip-search prisoners to a broader range of circumstances, and in a more invasive manner and with fewer safeguards. Arguably, the Act breaches the right not to be subjected to degrading treatment and the right of persons deprived of liberty to be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the person as affirmed by sections 9 and 23 of our Bill of Rights. The related de-humanising of prisoners and the blanket authorisation of humiliating searches, the Law Society concluded, “is not part of New Zealand’s legal and human rights heritage.”
Prisoners’ and Victims’ Claims (Continuation and Reform) Amendment Act 2013
If and when the state culpably breaches the rights of prisoners, this Act ensures the government will not be liable to pay them compensation for doing so – rather than leaving such matters to the Supreme Court to decide.
Evidently, the problem goes a lot further than spooks, spies and feathering the nest of the government’s corporate cronies. Five years on, much of the legislative agenda has had a common theme – the removal of public interest constraints, and the subsequent concentration of political and economic power. The trajectory of authoritarianism goes beyond the sponsoring of laws that disproportionately benefit its traditional allies, within business, defence and foreign policy. Other examples above, affect the civil rights of New Zealanders in general, and those in paid work and on benefits in particular. To take each of those dimensions in turn : while the GCSB Bill has received a good deal of attention, rather less notice has been taken of its evil twin. Namely :
The Telecommunications Interception Capability and Security Bill 2013
This Bill (erroneously) assumes that Internet Service Providers and telecommunications companies will know and can be made to hand over to the gendarmes the encryption codes their customers may be using to protect their private content. Thus, it requires ISPs to install equipment that would allow the GCSB to intercept all telecommunications being carried, and require them to furnish the GCSB with the requisite code breaking information. Explicitly, the Bill establishes the GCSB as the overlords and security guardians of this country’s telecommunications system. In his oral submission on the TICS Bill, Thomas Beagle of Tech Liberty (pictured left) patiently explained why this isn’t a good idea, or a feasible one ; and why this draconian law ( as currently drafted ) would even require New Zealand to ban Apple products from this country as one of our contributions to the war on terrorism.
Alarmingly, the TICS Bill as drafted would allow a court, in proceedings related to the administration or enforcement of the Act, to receive and hear “classified security information” in the absence of the defendant and/or the defendant’s counsel.
There has been at least one other blockbuster piece of legislation with wide ranging implications for civil liberties. Namely:
The Search and Surveillance Act 2012.
This Act extends police powers of search and surveillance, allows searches without warrants, reduces the right to silence aznd self incrimination, makes mandatory the handing over of documents ( a power previously pimited to Serious Fraiud Office investigations) and bestows Police – like powers of entry and search to some 70 state agencies.
Many of the above examples break new ground for a National Party fond of depicting itself as a champion of individual freedoms. No surprise to find that, at the same time, it has stepped up its command and control powers with respect to a few traditional targets : such as beneficiaries and paid workers. This is in line with the role that centre-right governments routinely play on behalf of the chieftains of commerce. They pass tax laws that disproportionately benefit the wealthy, they pass labour laws that erode the power of employees to bargain for their wages and they pursue free trade deals that reduce the incomes of millions of workers – all in order that the rich may grow even richer, at everyone else’s expense. As they are doing.. Since the US provides most the models for the policies that are driving this process, we need to be paying attention to the US outcomes. What we find on page four of this data from Professor Emmanuel Saez of UC Berkeley is that between 2009 and 2011, the incomes of the top 1% grew by 11.2 %, while the incomes of the bottom 99% shrunk by .4%. “ Hence,” Saez says, the top 1% captured 121% of the income gains in the first two years of the recovery.” In other words, the empowerment and enrichment of the few and the disempowerment/impoverishment of the many is very much a zero sum game. Space does not allow a full discussion of the onslaught against beneficiaries, but the main legislative weapon in the government’s campaign to “reform” welfare has been this intrusive, morally judgmental and discriminatory piece of nanny-statism :
The Social Security (Benefit Categories and Work Focus) Amendment Act 2013.
Under this law, the state has imposed a fresh set of social obligations on beneficiaries who have dependent children. Henceforth, they must enroll their dependent children in early childhood education or school, sign them up with a primary health care provider and keep them up to date with a list of Well Child checks. (Beneficiaries required to meet the related costs have to meet them out of existing household budgets.) If not, the state will impose a range of penalties for non-compliance, including the deduction of social security benefits. Work testing and work readiness of beneficiaries have been made mandatory for beneficiaries, a particularly pointless exercise given that unemployment us currently on the rise, and the positive signs on the job market are being driven almost entirely by the Christchurch rebuild and not by a healthy national economy. Regardless, the welfare reform measures taken to date have been a pointless form of harassment from which even grandparents (serving in the role of primary caregivers to their grandchildren) will not be exempt.
In its UN submission, the Law Society noted that the discrimination enshrined in the Social Security Amendment Act was “serious, not justified on the evidence, risked stigmatising the beneficiaries concerned and their children, and that there appeared to be other reasonable and less intrusive means available to achieve the stated goals.” Besides breaching section 19 of the Bill of Rights, this Act is inconsistent with the right to social security contained in article 9 of the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and with the right to an adequate standard of living set out in article 11 of the same document – not to mention the right of children to an adequate standard of living cited at clause 27 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Beneficiaries have become accustomed to being a political punching bag, for both of the two major parties. A chronic flaw in the Working For Families package of income support introduced by the Clark government was that it discriminated unfairly against needy children on the basis of whether or not their parents were in paid employment. The public appears to support the idea of extending the WFF package to all needy families. However, the Key government has not only kept the WFF discrimination against beneficiaries firmly in place, it has launched a raft of new measures that will badly affect the rights of those in paid employment as well. To be fair, all of its efforts on the labour relations front have not been negative. The Key government has introduced positive changes to do with work conditions on foreign charter vessels and has shored up the rights of migrant workers. It has also – in the wake of damning findings by the Royal Commission Pike River inquiry – made positive noises about new health and safety provisions, and its response has just been released and are due to be in place by the end of next year.
However, such examples have easily been outweighed by what it has done to reduce the rights, wages and work conditions of paid staff. Here are a few examples. I apologise that some of it is not easy reading but then, the devil does tend to lurk in the fine print :
Employment Relations Amendment Act 2008
This law ushered in the controversial “90 day trial” provisions whereby in firms employing fewer than 20 workers, the employer could dismiss staff dismiss staff at any time within the first three months on the job, without needing to give a reason. The Act also removed the right to bring a personal grievance if say, the employee was treated differently by dint of belonging to Kiwisaver.
Taxation (Urgent Matters and Annual Rates) Act 2008
This Act reduced and capped the KiwiSaver employer contribution at 2% and repealed the employer tax credit. It also removed the requirement that compulsory employer KiwiSaver contributions must be paid on top of gross salary or wages
Employment Relations Amendment Act 2010
This Act extended the 90 day provisions to all employers, and reduced the rights of union access to workplaces. It also removed getting your job back as a primary remedy for unjustified dismissal. This provision has made union delegates or stroppy staff more vulnerable to dismissal, since the employer is less likely to have to reinstate the worker, even if the Court finds the dismissal was unjustified. This Act also broadened the range of reasons why an employer could justifiably dismiss a worker by changing the test from what a reasonable employer ‘would’ have done, to what a reasonable employer ‘could’ have done – a one word change that significantly alters the landscape of employer (ir)responsibility.
The Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Act 2010
This is the infamous Hobbit law, passed under urgency as part of a package gifted to Warners and Peter Jackson, from a supine Key government This Act effectively removes the right of all workers in the film industry to query whether their contract was in fact a contract of employment (i.e. one where they were really an employee) rather than that of a contractor. As a result, all workers in the film industry have less protection than workers in other industries – who retain the right to argue that because of the pattern of their employment as a contractor they are in fact an employee, and should therefore enjoy basic rights such as the minimum wage, holiday pay, sick leave and other health and safety entitlements. The film industry likes to depict itself as being a 21st century industry – which makes it all the more strange that it has sought to enforce 19th century work conditions.
Employment Relations (Secret Ballots for Strikes) Amendment Act 2012
This Act requires union rules to provide for secret ballots for any strike. It does not require any such rule for Boards of Directors in a lockout.
Minimum Wage (Starting-out Wage) Amendment Act 2013
This Act has reduced the minimum wage to 80% of the adult rate for workers aged 16 to 19.
Employment Relations Amendment Bill 2013
This Bill – introduced to Parliament on 26 April – seeks to remove any obligation on the employer to conclude a round of collective bargaining. It also removes the wording in the Act that prevents employers from specifically refusing to collectively bargain if they happen to prefer individual agreements. Such measures stand to have a major impact on collective bargaining as it will mean employers will be able in future to merely through the motions. So much for the ‘good faith’ requirements. One can safely predict the result will be fewer collective agreements.
The Bill also allows a ‘free hit’ period, when bargaining is deemed to be concluded. If the Court deems bargaining to be over, there is a 60 day period when the union cannot initiate bargaining, the existing collective agreement is deemed to be gone, and the employer can therefore promote individual agreements. They will also during that time (as they are not covered any longer by ‘good faith’ bargaining rules) be able to restructure. In a nutshell, the Bill would enable employers to do exactly what Ports of Auckland wanted to do, and sack the workers in the middle of bargaining.
The Bill also allows employers to opt out of bargaining on a multi-employer agreement. This measure is expected to have a major impact in the state sector. It also repeals the so called “30 day rule” for new employees. This will allow employers covered by a collective agreement to employ new workers on terms that are inconsistent with the collective. The current rule is that even non-union workers must be paid at least the collective agreement rates for the first 30 days, while they find out about the workplace, get some advice and so on. This Bill will also make it easier for employers to undermine the collective agreement and to employ casuals on lower rates. The Cabinet Paper on the Bill specifically mentioned that this will permit wages lower than the collective agreement.
In addition, the Bill removes automatic entitlement to meal and refreshment breaks. (This has arisen because of a case involving an airline company.) It removes automatic entitlement, but says that the employer must offer compensatory measures. Yet if the employer and worker cannot agree on those measures in terms of other breaks, then the employer can unilaterally decide. Crucially, the Bill also envisages the removal of existing conditions and protections for workers in small and medium size businesses, when new owners come on board. This change is expected to give a competitive advantage to small employers, and to encourage larger employers to franchise. Thus, the atomisation of the workplace that makes effective health and safety standards so difficult to develop and enforce, is likely to be accelerated.
Oddly for a government supposedly keen on cutting red tape….this Bill has deliberately expanded the already complex requirements for giving notice of an intention to strike in essential industries, and now seeks to apply them in future to all strikes, of whatever duration and form. In a further restriction by the state of the right to withdraw one’s labour, the Bill will introduce pay deductions for partial strikes. This will mean an employer would be able to deduct an estimated amount of pay if and when (say) workers decided as a form of strike action over bargaining, such as not answering phones for a period of time. The union would be able to challenge the rate of deduction through a legal process , but the employer could instead opt for a standard 10% deduction. This will penalize and deter workers from taking even limited strike action. The employer can already suspend striking workers or lock them out – so this measure merely adds another weapon to the arsenal an employer can utilize in a strike situation.
Finally, while the Key government has had few qualms about expanding the entry, search and surveillance powers of the state, in this context the approach is the reverse, for employers. The government has chosen to empower employers to with-hold information. By sidelining the “good faith” requirements in bargaining, the disclosure requirements have all but gone out the window. Meaning : the employer will in future be able to withhold the evaluations basic to the dismissals of staff, whether those dismissals were on the grounds of redundancy, or for any other reason.
So, to go back to where we started….Clearly, there is compelling evidence that Big Government has become a far more threatening and intrusive presence in the lives of most New Zealanders under John Key, than it ever was under Helen Clark. When it comes to presiding over a nanny state – if that term is to mean an ever-expanding network of unchecked powers, wielded in the service of elites seen as being somehow more deserving – the Key government makes Helen Clark look like a piker.
The outward style has been different, of course. Some of her critics could readily sense in Clark an air of superiority, even of moral disdain. That’s not quite so evident with Key. He has his own superiority complex – and it has come out more often during this term of office, when he’s been under greater stress – but most days, he hides his disdain fairly well. I’m not sure that’s an improvement. Does it make these sweeping and selectively applied actions of the state seem any less threatening, just because it looks like they are being deployed in a moral vacuum?