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Monday, October 7, 2013

Debate between Wanganui councillors - James Penn and Michael Laws

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Last night the people of Wanganui were treated to some rare entertainment – a match between ‘David and Goliath’. Ok, better still, David’s son and Goliath. Interestingly, recently Malcolm Gladwell has given new meaning to the tale of ‘David and Goliath’, and this tale is analogous in some respects. The combatants are candidates in the running for Wanganui District Council. James Penn, is a local 19yo graduate of Wanganui High School, and a NZ Debating Champion, who is a 1st year university student in Auckland, studying law and commerce. Michael Laws is a sitting councillor of Wanganui, a former mayor of the city, and a former National Party MP.
It was a match between ‘the old guard’ and ‘a young buck’. There were several interesting issues about this contest:
1. The disparity in values – It struck me as a contest between an old conservative and a young libertarian; though based on Penn’s policy, arguably a conservative with a preference for smaller government  (utilitarianist). Penn looked professional throughout the debate; his open-mindedness plausibly a redeeming appendage to his youthful ignorance.
2. The disparity in debating styles – Penn is strictly correct whilst Laws is intimidating and plays dirty, at times losing credibility and respect with the audience. His attacks were often straw arguments or red herrings, and on one occasion he conflated his discredited argument with Penn's rebuttal. So much for intellectual honesty. He'd on occasion had to temper his outrageousness.
3. The value proposition offered by both candidates – Old people are important because of their historical knowledge; but youth brings new ideas and methods. There is a role for both.

James Penn is a star pupil, so despite his tender years, you’d expect some ‘fight, both in terms of factual content and ‘worldly experience’. James is not without worldly experience. He comes from an upwardly mobile family, has travelled extensively, and lived abroad (UK). More poignant is the following. Ignorance or the lack of experience (as you’d expect in an 19yo) is not necessarily a bad thing. Earlier in the week I was talking to a sitting councilor Rangi Wills. A knowledgeable man whom we could all learn a lot from. You want that type of knowledge on council. The problem I have, conveyed by both Rangi Wills and Michael Laws, is their ‘presumption of knowledge’, whereas a ‘young buck’ like James is less likely to presume facts and arguments. Particularly a star pupil like James, who is less likely to defer to other people’s views. He is more likely to go off and research topics. You can make much of his need to focus on studies, particularly since law is an area of study that requires a great deal of reading. Unless he can make case studies of Wanganui, I wonder if he will be able to serve Wanganui effectively, particularly given the 'role' I see him filling. He will need reading in order to develop 'arguments' against the old guard. One of the reasons why star pupils are stars is because most people don’t develop aptitude in critical thinking. In many schools, its only taught to the best students, if at all. James would have developed these skills as a debater in school. It was evident last night against a formidable and intimidating opponent.
In the case of Rangi Wills early in the week, my topic was ‘waterworks’. I’d read in the Wanganui Chronicle that there was a requirement to spend $40 million-odd on flood mitigation to protect housing/urban areas in Wanganui East. I emailed my solution to Rangi over a year ago. I never got a reply. He said he gets 90 emails a day. I can’t believe its rate payers, so he must have an active social life, or perhaps he is a busy career man. In any respect, he wasn’t addressing my concerns. In our conversation, he played down my suggestion, arguing that there would be a lot of public opposition to a dam on the Upper Wanganui River, and that the area had been investigated in the 1970s, and the area found to be ‘geologically unsuited’ for a hydro storage. Currently there is an oversupply of electricity in NZ thanks to the imminent closure of the Rio Tinto smelter (which I actually foresaw), however irrespective of the market context, a producing/profitable asset is better than simply a flood mitigation scheme that 'protects' what already exists. You could argue a flood would only 'immerse' houses, and not write them off. I'm not in a position to know. They are issues that should be addressed. The fact is that new engineering solutions are being developed all of the time; and we need young people who are prepared to find them. Maybe its not an issue for a 'young prospective lawyer' so much as a 'young engineer'.

Now, this is the useful technical knowledge that you want on council. Local governments need good technical knowledge. It does not have to come from the inside; however outside consultants also have a tendency to offer 'safe' proven solutions. There needs to be a tender and project team to entertain alternative solutions. A mayor hydro scheme might actually win private-national government support; particularly if such a scheme could function as a load balancing reserve like the Snowy River Scheme in Australia. But I’d also be interested in knowing if any technological innovations have occurred in the last 30 years to challenge this ‘accepted wisdom’ because most things are ‘bad ideas’ until a new engineer comes along and proves otherwise.
In this particular debate, Michael Laws, older and more experienced, was telling James Penn that ‘innovation funds always fail’. A woman from the audience cited ‘her evidence’ that micro-finance worked in Africa. I too know that micro-finance has worked very well in third world countries. No idea should be dismissed out of hand, however it must be acknowledged that the context is different. Third world communities are 'low-skill' countries that can afford to work with low-cost capital. They struggle to buy a sewing machine. This is not the nature of the Western 'capital hurdle'. The greater concern is that Western kids, and rural kids particularly, are not as 'commercially astute' or savvy as they need to be. Financial literacy is at a low point. Its not just about 'backing winners'; its about ensuring that your 'youth capital' has the right values to actually want to succeed. As Michael indicated, its little point helping youths if they are inevitably going to leave, and they should leave. I went to Japan and the Philippines, and now in my 40s, I'm in Wanganui as Michael said.

The problem with old people is that they are accustomed to being right; that they can struggle with the possibility that they are wrong. They are always armed with more factual evidence to convince themselves that they are right. Pretty soon they are only reading materials that actually supports their view, if they read at all. Sometimes they'll read contrary views and find some rationalisation to reject it. Michael was adamant that ‘innovation funds never work’. The reality is that ‘government funded custodial funds’ usually do fail, and there is good reasons for this to be the case. The point being that Michael Laws never saw the ‘black swan’ to know that not all swans are white. This is not a justification for James Penn's innovation fund; its reason to look at its merits. This is where youth and critical thinking are useful. Now, you might question whether James is too young. Well, there is another issue and that is context. We live in an internet world now. There is so much knowledge online these days, that youths are exposed to such a diaspora of information, that they are far more knowledgeable than these old folk when they were of equivalent age. More importantly, they are more adept at researching in the modern era. James brings that dynamism as well as critical thinking to the table. He will however have his limits however because he is barely out of school. Don't expect him to be a Fullbright Scholar from the get-go; but does he offer something on Wanganui Council...I think so.

Not everything went well for both candidates. Both candidates failed to pick up on a flaws in their ‘economic policy’. Wanganui Council is struggling with high debt levels. The response of both candidates conveyed some ignorance of finance. Laws wants to ‘peg rates to inflation’ whilst Penn wants to index them to ‘inflation plus’. Penn did qualify that by saying that he would use more discretion. The reality however is that it should only be about ‘cost vs benefit’ to rate payers; most particularly when debt is so cheap. If you are going to use debt, now is the time. You would think debt is therefore an opportunity. The problem is that councils are 'democracies' and democracies are majoritive rather than rational, and the clowns are usually in the majority. We need more critical thinkers like James Penn, Michael Laws and Rory Smith, and fewer populists like Phillipa Baker-Hogan and Hamish McDouall.
You can argue that there is an assessment about ‘which ratepayers’ given some level of cross-subsidisation across the electorate, but inflation is not a good barometer, and it should never have been flagged as a benchmark of suffering because ‘inflation’ is not a benchmark of purchasing power. This is mythology. There is no correlation between inflation and cost of living. Consider:
1. Monetary policy changes need not pass through to ‘cost of living’ inflation; but rather through to ‘asset inflation’. Clearly people on a pension are most vulnerable to the latter; and that people in Wanganui are less exposed to ‘asset inflation’ because of depopulation.
2. There is an over-supply of labour and competition from Asian labour markets, so there is no growth in ‘unskilled’ wage costs. People living on benefits and pensions are therefore vulnerable; so that is probably a starting point for rates. Maybe the selling argument for Wanganui is a 'rates regime that is indexed to the pension', as opposed to inflation. Would that not give certainty to a lot of rate payers and lifetime pension collectors. Of course, these are not high-income recipients, but at least it would fill vacant housing stock and get the construction industry going.
So both candidates did poorly on this issue; and both candidates failed to address the ‘elephant in the room’, which is the poor perception of Wanganui – thanks to crime. Unless any candidate is prepared to address the social issues in the town, then people are simply going to avoid Wanganui. Laws unfortunately has a track record in this arena as former mayor. More problematic perhaps is the fact that he ‘still has a voice’. In fairness to Michael, he is a very articulate and good critical thinker; the problem is that he is not ‘self-critical’. His deference to his own ego is immeasurable. This is a problem for Wanganui because ‘as a leader in the community’ he becomes a ‘significant danger’ for the following reasons:
1. Andrew Wilson was not a threat to Wanganui. Media coverage had ‘exposed it’. Laws took the issue national, and made Wanganui a ‘pedophile haven’ when in a broader ‘weighted’ perspective, we ought to realize that 75-85% of pedophilia occurs within the family.
2. Laws, and others like Hamish McDouall, our local Labour Party candidate gave this a profile it did not need, in order to fight ‘a not-in-my-backyard’ (NIMBY) campaign. They were even prepared to take it to the High Court. This is one way council mayors and councillors have been wasting rate payer money. In James hands, Wilson would have been probably treated as any other paedophile….given that they are all around us. Laws created a false stereotype…but it gets worse.
3. Laws was engaging, along with other councillors, and they should all be identified by the Wanganui Chronicle, in fear-mongering for populist reasons. Philippa Hogan-Baker is out doing the same over illegal highs. Laws actually was critical of Hogan-Baker, and rightly so, but again, he simply lacks the ‘self-critical’ quality that has him ‘pinned as an autocrat’, yet he stands ready to identify Penn as so. Pot...Kettle from Laws. The problem with Laws fear-mongering is that people in the streets of Wanganui are now vulnerable to accusations of incest simply by talking to a child or walking along the street. He has created that much fear. Laws has precipitated a witch-hunt. I know of one case; it would be interesting to know from police if there had been an escalation in ‘reported incests’ since this issue became a national scandal. Awareness is great - but let it be cased on facts and understanding; not fear and loathing.

In terms of debating skills, James Penn was far more dignified and respectful to his counter-party, but Laws was able to land some ‘illegal punches’ so to speak, as well as some 'solid blows'. James did allow Laws to lampoon him on seemingly a simple issue of ‘h’ in Wanganui. He should have more strongly argued that Laws made the ‘h issue’ a national issue by holding a referendum on it. Moreover Penn allowed Laws to attack him as ‘undemocratic’ because he would not have funded the referendum on the ‘h word’. He needed to reiterate that it was a small issue that needed a decision from the council, not populist mandates from  a costly referendum. People don't know what they want until they are educated. Michael Laws rendered a 'straw argument', that its democracy or not. Not that simple Michael; its a question of the 'type' of people participation. So Michael peddling false dichotomies.

Laws did convey a better awareness of the dynamics which shape Wanganui. He correctly realizes, as in other rural cities worldwide, that youth tends to leave for the big cities, and likewise it can be argued that most immigrants tend to prefer cities for the greater support for their respective cultures. Laws therefore wants to target former residents when they have children. Which poses the question – why is he making Wanganui about Wilson? He might well argue that Wilson has a threat to that image. I would argue he blew the issue out of perspective. We are surrounded by paedophiles. Risk is managed; not avoided. Laws created unrealistic fears; precipitated scaremongering (along with other councillors) and failed to even observe the evidence related to paedophilia. He ditched the ‘selling point’ he had identified for Wanganui for populism. He was however right on another issue. Wanganui cannot match the cities for night-life; but by the same terms, Wanganui could do a lot better to cater for youths. Maybe it only requires an inter-city bus at opportune times. i.e. What if drunkards could be taken off the road at night by being given a ‘low-cost bus service’ to and from Palmerston, and vice versa, so that folk here would have a ‘cheap’ means of taking in other restaurants and pubs, and Palmerston can do vice versa. Even if it was a ‘pre-booked’ opportunity offered infrequently. This would partially see more people spending money in other cities, but at least it would mean ‘intra-regional’ opportunity and dynamism, and it might serve to keep people in the community. Maybe it might see people living in Wanganui, but working in Palmerston North. Likewise people in Palmerston North might welcome a trip to Wanganui and its beach. Such a means might even be a means of increasingly services from their respective airports. A one-hour bus to Wanganui airport for a flight to Auckland, or a one-hour bus to Palmerston North for a flight to Christchurch. It might be the better alternative to a poor transfer in Wellington en-route to Christchurch or Sydney for business people who these days don't need to live in these high-cost cities. These are the type of ‘flexible’ work-arounds that allow business and their families to locate in Wanganui. Being from Sydney myself, it is a very hard commute to East Coast Australia. If there were more flexible arrangements for business and regular commuters, Wanganui would attract more people. We already have pretty seemless arrangements to Australia, so better connections might be a precursor to more Australians, and for 'Big Oil' seeking oil & gas offshore NZ, better flight connectivity might actually pip Wanganui over New Plymouth as a regional office serving these offshore fields, given that Wanganui is closer to the centre of government.

I’d love to see James Penn on the council. More concerning however is that he is only one voice. We need 6 other James Penn’s, well perhaps somewhat older, in order to ensure a ‘reflective’ critical perspective of city issues. One of the huge problems for cities in NZ is keeping skilled persons, and Wanganui is more vulnerable than most communities because its small and depopulating.

You can view the entertaining debate at Wanganui Online.

Michael Laws for mayor?
One of the pressing issues with respect to Laws is the fact that he is also one of 3 candidates looking to become mayor. The problem is that he simply lacks credibility for a number of reasons – least of all his track record on mayoral issues. He has supplanted the prospect of a healthy image for Wanganui with a deference for his own ‘pseudo-ego’. On the issue of gang patches and Stuart Murray Wilson, he placed the image of Wanganui in the media for all the wrong reasons. Now, in fairness to him, Wanganui has social issues, but he made no progress resolving those. The greater issue is that no leader is making a difference on this issue. They simply don’t because there is little insight on this issue, inside and even outside the community. Wanganui needs to find its own innovative solutions. Laws acknowledges ‘the lack of leadership in social services’, but he did not deliver as councillor or mayor in this respect. Frankly, the city is without a capable leader, so I'd argue that it needs 'by default' Annette Main with a more capable CEO who can actually tackle those issues. Clearly that is not a person to be elected; its an appointment.
The other problem with Laws as leader is that he is simply an egomaniac who needs to be the centre of attention. Humorous until you receive your rates bill and wonder where does it go. He is a capable contributor as a councillor, but he’s utterly destructive as a community spokesperson. Even his role as a radio host is ominous. For this reason, I’d prefer to see Annette Main as mayor and both Michael Laws and James Penn as councillors. I think there are other capable people as councillors, but I’d like to see Penn elected most particularly for what he can become as a ‘future mayor’? He might instead be a future MP for Wanganui in a few years when Chester Burrows retires. Who knows.

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New Zealand Property Report 2010 - Download the table of contents or buy this 180-page report at our online store for just $US19.95.

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