Something’s in the water; something’s astray in the Bay

If it did not already have a name, Havelock North might accurately be called Remuera South.

What the Hastings District plan somewhat old-fashionably describes as a “dormitory suburb” housing people who work in Hastings, Napier or elsewhere in Hawkes Bay now has a population of more than 13,000.

Despite that, long-time inhabitants still refer to their home town as the “The Village”.

That is increasingly a myth, but one the local business association is glad to perpetuate in its material promoting the town. Such advertising of the idyllic offers a point of difference from the multiple attractions of busy Napier, Havelock North’s prime competition for the tourist dollar.

Some dormitory suburb; some village.

Having an address in Havelock — the locals also drop the “North” bit — has long been regarded as an indicator that you have arrived.

The plush homes that pepper the hills above the town — and which enjoy panoramic views across the Heretaunga Plains and Hastings — are testimony to the wealth of the town’s inhabitants.

Those who enjoy upward mobility are not necessarily granted admission to the local nobility, however.

Old money matters here more than flash money.

In the unlikely event of a class war breaking out in New Zealand, then Havelock North would be one of the first battlegrounds.

The less well-heeled citizens of Hastings consider their plutocratic brethren in Havelock North to be a bunch of class obsessed phonies suffering from a misguided superiority complex.

But Hastings has long projected an unappetizing image of a city downtrodden.

That has been the case ever since the Labour Party’s free-market policies ripped the guts out of the local economy back in the 1980s.

Two large labour-intensive freezing works were shut down. Likewise other factories, such as fruit and vegetable processing plants, which had provided what was then well-paid seasonal employment for the unskilled.

Labour’s flirtation with far-right economic theory was brief. The damage inflicted by that party’s betrayal of the very people who had remained loyal through thick and thin is still palpable nearly in another dormitory suburb of Hastings more than three decades later.

You won’t find East Flaxmere mentioned in any tourist brochures.

According to an index derived from data produced by Otago University, this urban area is a member of a not-so-exclusive club suffering the worst extremes of social deprivation in the country.

The gap between the rich and poor is widening in New Zealand. But in Hawkes Bay, it has been a chasm for quite some time.

According to the last census in 2013, more than 42 per cent of those living on the Havelock Hills were earning more than $50,000 a year.

In East Flaxmere, there were less than 10 per cent in that category.

A product of the 1960’s, East Flaxmere was built some way out of Hastings on the stones of dried up riverbeds to avoid more and more of some of the most fertile land in the North Island being gobbled up by state housing.

Such town planning restrictions on the housing of the poor do not seem have been applied with the same enthusiasm when it came to house construction in Havelock North.

The town has expanded regardless. The demand for up-market homes has been boosted by virtue of many of Hawkes Bay’s landed gentry living out their retirement years in Havelock North after the time comes to hand over the running of the family farm or station to their heirs.

These aging members of the Hawkes Bay aristocracy pay big money to buy roomy townhouses on small, manageable sections or to purchase villas in one of the town’s retirement villages which are mushrooming like tipsy.

Havelock North is a market leader in something else. No less than three private boarding schools are located within the town boundary. They cater for the agrarians In the rural hinterland of Hawkes Bay and beyond.

If their children gain no other qualification, incarceration in these institutions means their progeny usually exit with a Lord or Lady Snooty accent at the very least.

That is something which can take you far, though not as far as it once could.

Over the past two weeks or so, however, the English twang previously encountered in the town centre’s fashion boutiques, other specialist shops and cafes has metamorphosed into a not-always silent scream.

Privilege counts for nothing when your water-supply is contaminated with a vicious gastro bug. It is not picky about its victims.

Third world-type epidemics simply do not happen in well-to-do boroughs like Havelock North. Safe water is a given. That is why the town’s inhabitants pay higher rates than the hoi polloi down on the flat. End of story. It might happen in East Flaxmere. But Havelock North? Never. Ever.

It will be of absolutely no comfort to those 4000 or so residents struck down by water-borne campylobacter in the town’s supply and those caring for them that they are not alone.

The number of cases in New Zealand of endemic drinking-waterborne gastrointestinal disease has been estimated to be between 18,000 to 34,000 annually. In most instances, the number of cases is small. Many are not reported to health authorities,which is why the estimates vary so much.

However, New Zealand has not witnessed an outbreak on Havelock North’s scale since one in Queenstown in 1984 when an estimated 3,500 people were afflicted.

Unlike Havelock North, the cause was easily traced to a sewer overflow that discharged sewage into a creek which entered Lake Whakatipu within 200 metres of the water intake for Queenstown’s then untreated supply.

In 2012, more than 400 people in the Canterbury town of Darfield became ill with campylobacteriosis following heavy rains, contamination of water with animal effluent from nearby paddocks and failures in the treatment of drinking water which led to pathogens being distributed through the town’s water supply.

Again ,that is cold comfort for Havelock North’s residents who must be asking why such incidents continue to occur more than three decades after the Queenstown outbreak.

Their initial fury at what has happened will be replaced by a steely resolve to ensure those responsible for this calamity are made to pay for it one way or another.

This town’s residents are not people who take no for an answer. They will not be fobbed by public relations film-flam..

That is indicated by the talk of the Hastings District Council being obliged to compensate local retailers and other businesses suffering a drastic downturn in cash-flow — and their taking a class action against the council if it doesn’t

Those are not just empty threats. And the council knows it.
The mayor, Lawrence Yule, is not the only politician very much under the hammer, however.

The local MP, National’s Craig Foss, had looked more frazzled by the day. No doubt he has been ear-bashed almost to death by the locals.

Yesterday’s  announcement that the Goverment and the council will each contribute $100,000 to a promotional fund to resuscitate the village’s reputation as a regional destination for tourists and other would-be vIsitors could not have come too soon for Foss.
Meanwhile, Inland  Revenue has been told to waive interest on any late PAYE, provisional tax and GST payments which have fallen due for local businesses.

Neither move amounts to compensation for loss of business. But no government of any hue would want to set what could end up being an expensive precedent which could result in Cabinet ministers feeling obliged to shell out money every time calamity strikes.

With emotions running so high in the town, other politicians have been loath to exploit the anger for fear of copping a backlash for playing politics with people’s health.

Labour did force a snap debate in Parliament. But that happened because of procedural ineptitude on National’s part.

For some inexplicable reason, National failed to deliver a ministerial statement to Parliament at the first opportunity to inform the House of what had happened in Havelock North and what was being done to remedy it.

That would have negated any granting of a snap debate. But National’s blunder left Speaker David Carter no choice.

Given the scale of the outbreak, there has otherwise been a relative drought of the usual flood of press statements and questions in Parliament that are generated by such calamities.

Labour has instead had much fun taunting Health Minister Jonathan Coleman for once saying “we don’t have these terrible water-borne epidemics in New Zealand”.

There are other reasons why Opposition parties have been so quiet.

All the blame is being directed at the council. Nothing has yet emerged to cast the Government in a bad light.

Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First will have to wait until the debate widens and questions start being asked about drinking water standards across other parts of New Zealand.

There are few votes to be gained in the interim. The party vote for National in Havelock North at the last election was of landslide proportions.

If you add National and Labour’s vote together and ignore other parties, then National’s share of that two-party vote is close to 80 per cent.

The overwhelming majority of these voters back National out of habit.

A fair chunk will be National Party members. If they have a gripe or think National has done the wrong thing, they will say so, but only behind the closed doors of party meetings.

Foss could be in a bit of trouble. But his survival will more likely hinge on the strength of the Labour vote elsewhere in his Tukituki electorate.

What is clearer is that the Government’s somewhat haphazard response to the crisis in Havelock North is an example of the fatal mix of complacency and weariness starting to rot the administration from within.

National appeared to forget a fundamental law of New Zealand politics. No matter how big or small the problem and no matter who else might be responsible, that problem always ends up landing on the desk of the relevant Cabinet minister in some form or other to sort out.

Sooner or later comes the public cry demanding to know “what is the Government going to do about it”.

That is how it has always been. It is a simple fact of political life. Any politician who ignores that reality does so at his or her peril.

Even if you are not doing very much in actuality, it is therefore vital that you appear to be doing something.

John Key and his Cabinet colleagues have generally been very good at doing just that.

But National’s usually slick damage-control machine went on the blink.
By the Monday of last week the vast extent of the gastro outbreak was already painfully clear.

The Prime Minister merely stated the obvious by declaring that the presence of a gastro bug in a town’s water supply was “not acceptable”. He promised an inquiry into what had gone wrong. Later in the week, he confirmed the inquiry would be independent.

But there was little information regarding exactly how central government was helping on the ground.

With the whole of Havelock North collectively holding a gun to the Council’s head, however, maybe National thought there was no good reason to become too involved and risk making itself a target or suffering collateral damage by being seen

This was a local government problem, not central government’s responsibility. And that was the way it was going to stay.

There has been some criticism that the Government did not declare a formal state of emergency.

But the powers that become available through such are mostly simple common sense and were already being actioned by authorities in Hawkes Bay.

Coleman made the correct decision. Whether it was the correct decision politically is a moot point.

National might have handled things rather differently had he been in the country when the outbreak first occurred.

But Coleman was in Rio de Janeiro in his other capacity as Sports minister.

The associate health minister Sam Lotu-liga was delegated as acting health minister.
A Cabinet minister since 2014, Lotu-liga failed to take firm control of the tricky Corrections portfolio and was replaced after little more than 12 months in the job.

He was instead given responsibility for Local Government, a portfolio assumed to be so innocuous that even he could not get into any trouble.

But sometimes fate intervenes in politics and ruins even the most clever and cunning political stratagems.

Lotu-liga failed to get on the front foot to show the Government was maximizing its efforts to contain the water crisis and slow to make the usual visit to the affected area as a symbol of the Government’s concern.

Fortunately for him and National, all of the blame for the campylobacter outbreak is currently being firmly sheeted home to the Hastings District Council.

This was an accident waiting to happen.

It should have been obvious that the now infamous Brookvale bores had major problems.

Bacterial contamination of the town’s water was discovered in 2013 and 2015.

In both cases, the supply was immediately chlorinated. Residents were told there was no health risk.

But alarm bells should have been ringing when the Ministry of Health’s monitoring of drinking water quality gave Havelock North a fail in the 2013-14 year when it over-shot the required standard for levels of bacteria in the supply.

The ministry said “remedial action” had been taken. In the following year, the Havelock North supply got the big tick as being okay.

But the forced closure of one of the Brookvale bores suggested something was seriously amiss.

The latest instance has seen the council scramble all of its public relations resources to grasp tightly any credibility it might still retain.

Yule and the chief executive Ross McLeod have acknowledged the council’s failure and issued their “sincere apologies”. The pair have thrown themselves into the lion’s den by calling two public meetings next week.

Those will be the best indicator of whether the town’s residents have lost all trust in the council and no longer have any confidence in its assurances.

This week’s bickering between Yule’s council and the Hawkes Bay Regional Council, however, is about the last straw. It will have only intensified public despair in what are openly dysfunctional relations between the two arms of local government.

The tit-for-tat behavior says only one thing: that those partaking are more concerned with covering their butts than acting in the public interest.

Regardless, Yule should have stepped down long before now and announced he was not contesting October’s local body elections.

At the very most, he should only stay in the job until the new mayor is elected so that there is some continuity while pressing matters surrounding the water supply are rectified.

Even if he is re-elected, Yule will be a lame-duck mayor until the independent inquiry established by the Government presents its report.

Given the council is most unlikely to end up smelling of roses when the inquiry’s findings become public, he may well have to go at that point anyway.

That inquiry’s terms of reference require it to determine the cause of the current contamination in Havelock North, whether relevant parties complied with their obligations, how local and central government agencies responded, and how to prevent future such occurrences.

The terms of reference go further by instructing the inquiry to also consider “the potential for similar situations to occur in other New Zealand water supplies.”

That goes to the crux of the matter. If Havelock North’s supply was “demonstrably safe” — as the latest version of the previously mentioned Ministry of Health report on drinking water standards attests — how many other councils are literally dicing with death even though monitoring suggests their supply is okay?

Since the Queenstown outbreak, the ministry has put much effort into raising compliance with the standards, including legislation passed in 2007 which declared every network supplier must take “all practicable steps” to comply with drinking water standards.That requirement falls short of compulsion.

Despite that, National still opposed to the-then Labour Government’s legislation, saying there was no evidence of a clear link between drinking water supplies and the majority of the cases of gastro-intestinal infections.

Try telling that now to the thousands of people in Havelock North who became sick after drinking water which from their taps.

Coleman was National’s associate spokesman when he made his emphatic, but extremely rash declaration regarding New Zealand and water-borne epidemics.

This week the now Health minister accused Labour of deliberately not providing the full context in which he had made the remark when speaking during a parliamentary debate on that legislation which became the Health (Drinking Water) Amendment Act.

Coleman added that all that had occurred a long time and, at the time, his comments were “absolutely correct”.

They weren’t then and they aren’t now.

But Coleman’s statement says an awful lot when it comes to explaining National’s on-going refusal since regaining power in the year following the enactment of Labour’s reforms to put real pressure on local authorities and make them lift their game.

Estimates as to how much it would currently cost to ensure suitable water treatment across the whole country are hard to find.

But reports produced for the Ministry of Health by a number of private consultants a decade or so ago contained figures ranging from around $250 million to more than $400 million.

In the interim, other ministry-commissioned reports have ascertained that as many as 770,000 New Zealanders are drinking water which does not comply with current bacteriological and protozoal standards.

That is not altogether surprising in rural areas, small settlements and townships.

What is shocking is that nearly 300,000 people live in cities or towns with populations of more than 10,000 and which have non-compliant water treatment plants.

The independent inquiry into the Havelock North schemozzle will consider the potential for similar situations to occur in other New Zealand water supplies and the lessons for local and central government agencies — and thus whether the relevant regulations are operating effectively.

But while the inquiry will be charged with determining the cause of the Havelock North outbreak, its terms of reference would seem to preclude it from conducting a wholesale review of all potential factors lowering the quality of drinking water across New Zealand.

That was made absolutely clear by the Prime Minister in Parliament on Tuesday.
The Greens co-leader Metiria Turei asked Key why land use was not specified in the terms of reference when it was well known that intensive agriculture was linked to declining water quality and, therefore, could be a factor in this outbreak.

He replied that the terms of reference were very broad, but not to an extent that suited the Greens’ political agenda.

Turei is right. Unless the inquiry examines all possible factors which could cause future contaminations — such as the intensification of dairy farming — its work risks being incomplete.

But this inquiry is just that — an inquiry, not a royal commission.

As the leader of a major party representing rural interests, Key can hardly afford to sanction the kind of review the Greens are demanding.

His fear will be that in setting up the inquiry, National could be opening enough of a Pandora’s box as it is.

But National will have only itself to blame if the inquiry cites central government as complicit in causing the nightmare in Havelock North.

There is a mile-high pile of reports written by hordes of scientists and other experts in recent years dealing with New Zealand’s water quality. Only a few of those documents make for good reading.

National cannot argue it wasn’t warned.

If that sounds familiar, look no further than National’s increasing proclivity for postponing the really hard decisions, be it a capital gains tax to halt sky-rocketing house prices, the unsustainability of current state pension entitlements or protecting water, that most vital of all resources, from pollution or excessive exploitation by its biggest users.

Fox on the run: Marama miscues

Not only have Marama Fox and the rest of the Maori Party made absolutely the wrong call in refusing to back Helen Clark’s bid for the top job at the United Nations. The party’s co-leader has also been incredibly stupid.

Fox was so consumed with climbing onto her high horse of indigenous rights this week that she completely forgot what she had said barely three months ago about Clark’s suitability for the post.

To say that is to be generous to Fox. If she did remember what she told Radio Waatea back in April, then she has displayed a cynicism which makes her unable to preach principle for a very long time.

When asked backed then about the former Labour leader’s credentials for becoming the UN’s new secretary-general, Fox said that as head of the UN’s Development Programme for the past seven years, Clark had been advocating for the rights of indigenous people, women, equity and fairness.

Having been removed from the “burden” of prime ministership and Labour Party policy, Clark had been able to advocate for “the human rights of human existence”.

Fox added that given Clark’s experience on the world stage, she would probably respond differently now to a foreshore and seabed type “situation” – the issue which sparked the establishment  of the Maori Party.

“So I have seen a change in the way she has conducted herself in the UN and I support her as someone who would be credible in the top job.”

That was the exact opposite of what Fox said earlier this week.

She instead attacked Clark for her record on indigenous rights, demanded an apology and – along with the party’s other co-leader Te Ururoa – said she could not back Clark.

Fox is just the kind of feisty MP that the Maori Party so desperately needs to raise its sagging profile. But she is a first term MP. She has to learn how to walk before she can run.  Being provocative is fine. For the sake of your credibility, however, you must still be consistent in what you say. And you have to give yourself some room for flexibility in case you have to change your mind at some point in time.

Fox raised eyebrows a couple of months ago when she stormed off the set of TV3’s The Nation during a debate with Imperial Tobacco spokesman Dr Axel Gietz, during which she accused him of promoting an industry  which made billions of dollars every year profiting off misery and death.

Her sudden exit looked contrived and pre-planned, however.

Fox’s gaffe only compounded the misjudgement already displayed this week by the two Maori Party MPs. In refusing to come in behind Clark, they have been petty and vindictive.

They did get a mild ticking-off from Tariana Turia, the party’s former co-leader, who will be worried by the failure of the party’s leadership to see the bigger picture.

A country of New Zealand’s size requires all hands to the pumps when someone is seeking a top international post, especially when that person already faces huge obstacles in securing the position, despite being the best candidate by a country mile.

The one saving grace is that the UN Security Council will have far bigger fish to fry than the Maori Party’s rotting kai moans when its members determine later in the year who will be in charge of the flawed, but very necessary institution for the next five years at least.

Auckland housing Part One: Not everything is big in Texas

 

PROPERTY FOR SALE

Ranch-style home on set-back section, 3 bedrooms/2 bathrooms. Kitchen has view to heated pool and private outdoor area. Deck on multiple levels. Kitchen has double oven, glass cooktop and microwave. Master bedroom has private outdoor access. Main bathroom has jetted tub, his/hers shower heads & double vanity. Several floor to ceiling picture windows let in the natural light, garage with entry from house Established neighbourhood close to city centre.

PRICE: $565,000.

So much for the real estate agent’s blurb. Given the median price of an Auckland home has now topped $810,000 while the average figure is even higher at more than $950,000, this property sells itself.

There has to be a catch. And there is one – and a rather large one. This house is in Austin, a city in Texas with a population of around one million people.

So what’s the point of all this? Making comparisons with other countries can be highly invalid. But pictures can tell a lot of stories. And the pictures above are really telling.

The price above is not American dollars. It is the New Zealand dollar equivalent of the listed price of US399,000.

There is some downside. Property taxes for this home – basically the equivalent of local body rates – are more thanNZ$11,000 per annum on current evaluations. If the property is Subsequently sold-on, then the sale could be subject to a capital gains tax depending on the size of any profit and other factors pertaining to the United States horrendously complex tax system.

There is nothing out of the ordinary about this house, however.You can find hundreds like it across Austin on real estate agents’ sites. And Austin was just picked at random.
If you were willing to fork out the equivalent of the Auckland median price, you would be on a whole new level again.

Why suburban American houses are cheaper than New Zealand ones is not immediately clear. Like Auckland, there is a shortage of skilled labour, such as carpenters. But there might be fewer restrictions on what kind of land can be used for building houses. Construction materials are likely to be cheaper. And, significantly, property prices have taken some years to recover following the slump which was part of the global financial crisis. However, Chinese investment in American real estate is mushrooming.

Does the following sound familiar?

Austin officials are quoted as saying house supply shortages have reached critical levels throughout the region.

They say the number of affordable-priced homes are becoming smaller and father away from jobs, with homebuyers now looking at homes an hour or more outside The city.

However, the increase in the median price of Austin houses is a lot slower than the rampant rate of the Auckland market. The median rate in Austin has risen from around $US175,000 to nearly $300,000 currently. In the same period, the median wage has climbed far more slowly, from around US$70,000 to about US$95,000.

But, again, the photos tell the story. There is something radically wrong with Auckland house prices – as if you if don’t know already.

Euro 2016 Part Four: the Best and Worst

With France mourning yet more dead from yet another atrocity — committed on the most hallowed day on the French calendar — the patriotism and passion exhibited by the host country of Euro 2016 has been replaced by numbness and fear.

It is but small consolation in the wake of the Bastille Day slaughter in Nice that the month-long football tournament was free of terrorist incidents.
The only violence at Euro 2016 involved English and Russian thugs. And given they were largely fighting one another, that did not really matter that much.

It is somewhat ironic that the supposed supporters of those countries were causing havoc outside the stadiums while their teams were doing the exact opposite inside. Is there some connection between the two phenomena we don’t know about? Both sides were short on commitment and equally deficient in inspiration. In a word, feeble.

But enough of that. The story of Euro 2016 was one of upsets. The underdogs not only barked. They had bite. And plenty of it.

The gap between Europe’s elite and the continent’s supposedly second and third-rate football nations closed in quite dramatic fashion.

The shock results had a perverse effect, however. How did Portugal — officially ranked in the world’s top ten — become European champions despite finishing third in their four-team group? And did they really deserve to get their hands on the trophy?

Had the tournament finals not been extended from 16 nations to 24 for Euro 2016, Portugal would have been on the plane home even earlier than England.

Portugal was seeded into one of the easier groups from which to qualify for the knock-out stage. The drew all three of their group games against Iceland, Hungary and Austria — all teams which Cristiano Ronaldo’s team should have whipped.

Then the complex formula used to work out which third-placed countries in the six groups would go on to the knock-out stages resulted in Portugal ending up on what was by far the easiest side of draw. The other side included the football giants of France, Germany, Spain and Italy. Only one of those teams could make the final.

The surprise success of Wales also worked in Portugal’s favour. The Welsh produced one of the most crucial of the shock results in defeating a star-studded Belgium. The Belgians had shown in their previous game just how good they could be, with Chelsea’s Eden Hazard running rampant in the 4-0 victory over Hungary.

Knocking out Belgium saw Wales make it through to the semi-finals. And a showdown with Portugal, the latter having just squeezed past Poland after a penalty shoot-out.

Without Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey, who was suspended for having picked up too many yellow cards, the Welsh lacked midfield inspiration and basically ran out of steam. Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale, who would be on most people’s list as one of the candidates for the best player in Euro 2016, could not do it all on his own.

Because Wales and Portugal fought out the first semi-final, the latter got an extra 24 hours to recover before the final.

However, Portugal’s good fortune ran out 25 minutes into the final against France — and in the worst possible way,,with an injured Ronaldo stretchered off.

What difference that made was hard to tell.

After that interruption, it suddenly became anyone’s game with both sides creating numerous chances and hitting the woodwork several times before Eder, one of Portugal’s substitutes, settled the matter in extra time.

As the final whistle, Portugal’s horrors during the group stage were ancient history. But enough of that. It is time to hand out a few awards.

BEST TEAM: France. If only by virtue of defeating Germany 2-0 in the semi-finals. The current holders of the World Cup were not at their absolute best. The German team looks to be in transition. But getting the better of any German line-up is the toughest task in football.The French team was stacked with high-quality players who rose to the occasion, though not necessarily all at the same time, and that was a factor in their defeat in the final.

UNLUCKIEST TEAM: Italy. The national team was knocked out of the tournament by Germany following an extraordinary penalty shoot-out which was nerve jangling in the extreme. It took 18 shots from the penalty spot before the Germans prevailed by six successful spot-kicks to Italy’s five. Seven players muffed their shots.

BEST PLAYER: France’s Antoine Griezmann. He was the tournament’s top scorer. He was everywhere and involved in everything. His toe-poke of the ball past desperate German defenders to seal a place in the final was pure magic.

WORST PLAYER:  England’s goal-keeper Joe Hart. There will be some other, lesser known players who deserve such approbrium. And unlike other positions, a goal-keeper’s mistakes are there for all to see. But Hart had looked off-form during the last Premier League season and confirmed his vulnerability with three very costly blunders in three of England’s four games.

BEST GOAL: Switzerland’s Xerdan Shaqiri’s spectacular bicycle-kick against Belgium is most commentators’ favourite. However, it was a speculative effort which came off. The one that sticks in the mind was Italy’s second goal, also against Belgium. Graziano Pelle got on the end of a waist-high cross and with both feet off the ground executed a perfect volley which thundered into net .He would have been embarrassed if he had missed or miskicked the ball. He didn’t.

BEST SAVE: During the final, Portugal’s goalkeeper Rui Patricio somehow got his hand to a French header bound for the top corner of his goal and flicked the ball over the bar with little more than his fingers.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS:  Spain. Never looked like retaining their title. Or even getting close to doing so. And Belgium.  An enigma. They were the pick of many experts making pre-tournament predictions, given they were second only to Argentina in FIFA’s world rankings. They were dissected into tiny pieces by Italy during the group stage. They lived up to expecrtatons — and much more — with a stunning second-half demolition of Hungary. They briefly looked like doing the same against Wales. But Wales had the one thing that Belgium lacked — superb teamwork, total commitment to winning the ball, 100 per cent proof team spirit and, as the tournament progressed, soaring self-confidence that they could make things very tough for any supposedly superior side. And , of course, Bale’s lethat left foot. His energy, drive and ability to alter the course of a match with a flash of brilliance made it possible for a squad full of players which were hardly household namesJust a pity that Ramsey picked up those yellow cards.

BIGGEST EMBARRASSMENT: Not just England’s players. Premier League teams teams may seem full of players from every nation other than England. But that is no excuse. All European leagues are dominated by foreign players these days. So why do England teams fail so often fail to progress beyond the early stages of international competitions? Why do so many players produce such sub par performances when they pull on an English shirt?  Fear of failure is a viscous circle which only results in more failure and thus even more fear. But it is the coach’s job to deal with that. The Football Association needs to be accountable for what happened in France, especially given the the team”s equally abysmal showing at the last World Cup in Brazil. Somerhing is rotten somewhere. England needs to examine why the likes of Germany, Italy and France consistently make the quarter-final stages in the World Cup and the the  just completed competition restricted to European nations. And with just two years until the next World Cup in Russia, changes must happen quickly. If there is anyone doubting a shakeup is needed should ponder the following facts. France’s 5-2 thrashing of Iceland put England’s defeat by the football minnow into truly awful perspective. France was 4-0 up at half-time. The game was over. England was 1-2 down against Iceland at half-time.The game was over.

BEST HEADLINE:: “Cod Save Us”. British tabloid The Sun harks back to the 1970s, last time England buckled to Icelandic — the “Cod Wars” of the 1970s when the two couturiers were in bitter dispute over fishing rights in the North Atlantic.

BEST QUOTE: “I don’t know what I’m doing here.” — England’s now former boss Roy Hodgson  questioning why should front for a press conference, given he had already quit the job. Hodgson was right. He seemed to have no idea of what he was doing.from the moment he arrived in France, if not before.

Shorten-ing the odds on Labour

It would be unwise to draw too many inferences for New Zealand domestic politics from last Saturday’s deadlocked election in Australia. But some things which happened during the marathon eight-week campaign will come under scrutiny by National, Labour, the Greens and other parties on this side of the Tasman.

John Key, in particular, will want to know why Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberals — National’s sister party — did so badly.

The final results in some crucial seats will not be known until later in the week. But Turnbull, who decided to hold an early election with the purpose of securing majorities for the Liberal-National Party coalition in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, is now staring down the barrel of a hung Parliament in the lower one and even more obstacles in getting legislation through the upper one.

Key, however, will be asking why Turnbull’s prime theme that only the coalition could be relied upon to maintain economic stability while promising tax cuts failed to convince people to stick with the status quo. That theme has been a fundamental part of National’s election strategy.

The answer might be two-fold. First, the Lucky Country has not been so lucky over recent years following the end of the minerals boom and cuts in manufacturing, best symbolized by the closure of car plants. For many voters previously getting hefty pay packets, there is no longer any economic stability to maintain.

Second, the 2014 Budget — the first one to be delivered by the newly-elected government led by Tony Abbot — was one tough document which was a brave attempt to get government finances back into surplus as soon as possible.

. It was so stringent that it prompted an across-the-board backlash from which the coalition never really recovered.

That does not answer the question of the political efficacy of tax cuts.

Turnbull, however, was basically outmaneuvered on tax cuts by Bill Shorten, the leader of the Australian Labor Party, who shrewdly avoided slamming all of his opponent’s tax cut plans.

Shorten made it clear that the ALP would not try to block the raising of tax thresholds for those in the middle-impact bracket. However, his party did not support big companies enjoying promised cuts in company tax, saying that such reductions should only apply to small enterprises.

Shorten instead concentrated on bread-and-butter issues by constantly stressing his priorities were more jobs and better provision of education, health and other social services. It was traditional Labour party stuff.

And it seems to have worked. In leading his party to the brink of power, if not power itself, Shorten defied the political pundits who were almost universal in predicting that while Turnbull would lose some seats, he would retain a comfortable enough majority.

Shorten’s success should give New Zealand Labour more confidence to make a similar pitch to voters here at next year’s election. Labour senses that tax cuts are no longer the boon they have been for National. Labour senses a mind shift among voters that the surpluses forecast by the Treasury would be better utilised in tackling growing inequality, especially to help those at the bottom of the economic heap.

Andrew Little can also take some heart from Shorten’s performance during the election campaign. Prior to that, Shorten came across as a machine politician who whined about everything his opponents did just for the sake of it.

But he has since flowered. His relaxed personable style and approachability seemed to hit the right spot with voters. Shorten’s back story as a trade unionist did not appear to hurt him — another potential plus for Little.

Having said all that, too much can be made of last Saturday’s swing to the ALP. That was more down to a plunge in support for the ruling Liberal-National coalition. The ALP’s share of the primary vote rose from the 33.38 per cent recorded at the 2013 election to 35.32 per cent.

Those figures hardly justify cracking open the champagne. In fact, you could seriously argue the result is merely a minor blip upwards in what has otherwise been a major downwards trend in the ALP vote over recent elections,and which is likely to continue unless the party finds a way of stemming the increasing flow of voters switching to minor parties.

In that regard, the Australian Greens have a long-term of strategy to capture inner-city seats from the ALP in the major metropolitan. This threat resulted in so-called “dirty deals” being struck between the ALP and the Liberals, the former party’s traditional enemy. In some seats, Liberal Party voters have beenurged to give their second preferences to the ALP candidate in order to shut out the Greens’ candidate.

New Zealand’s electoral system is less complicated than Australia’s — and thus not prone to such perverse maneuvering. But Labour and the Greens will have to consider electoral accommodations in order to shut National’s governing allies out of Parliament. Doing so will be a test of the strength of the recently-signed co-operation agreement between both Opposition parties.

Boris, Nigel and Michael: The cautionary tale of the Three Brexiteers

 

Treachery upon treachery; back-stabbing upon back-stabbing. Things rarely get as brutal as the raw politics currently on vivid display in Britain’s deeply-divided Conservative Party.

One MP has described the turmoil within the party as making House of Cards look like Teletubbies. There is not just blood on the floor. There is blood everywhere you look. So much, in fact, that commentators and columnists daily reach for Shakespeare as they try to put the extraordinary happenings into some kind of context.

Over the past 24 hours, the preferred text has been Julius Caesar. “Et tu Brute” has become “Et tu Michael” after Boris Johnson’s supposed closest ally, Michael Gove, who is secretary,of state for justice, pulled his backing for the former mayor of London and announced he was entering the race to become the Conservative Party’s new leader.

Realising that he no longer had the numbers to capture the party’s top job — and thus become prime minister by default — Johnson soon after announced he would not be a candidate for the leadership.

By that stage, he had the backing of fewer than 50 of the party’s 330 MPs.

His rise and fall — for the time being at least — is an instructive lesson in political basics.

Johnson is a flamboyant, out-of-the-ordinary politician whose clownish air of wackiness endears him to voters. Despite having a blue-blooded background — he was educated at Eton and Oxford — Johnson is able to cross the barriers of class and reach out to the ordinary British voter.

Last week’s stay-or-go referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union emphatically also showed he is a winner. For centre-right parties like the Conservatives, power is everything. And they are willing to tolerate the eccentricities of a leader who delivers that commodity.

Within the parliamentary wing of the Conservative Party, however, Johnson is in very short supply of two essential ingredients needed to get to the top of politics’ greasy pole — trust and loyalty.

Johnson is hated by a few of his parliamentary colleagues, but disliked and distrusted by many more.

They rapidly turned into a “Stop Boris” lobby. This drew together MPs who had campaigned for Britain to stay in the European Union, along with other MPs who were anti-Europe and read his conciliatory comments after the referendum as a sign he was not serious about implementing the result. Then there were the Cabinet ministers and MPs worrying about their future under a Johnson-led government.

Many questioned whether Johnson was capable  of uniting the party and the country.

Furious  supporters of David Cameron regarded Johnson as a crass opportunist who had used the referendum and his sudden re-discovery of his Euro-scepticism in order to destroy the Prime Minister.

There were those who saw his backing of the Leave campaign as indicating that he was a politician who put self-interest ahead of the national interest and who played politics with such a crucial question as Britain’s rightful place in Europe.

And there were those who simply did not think Johnson was up to handling the job of prime minister.

There is, of course, poetic justice in Johnson having stabbed Cameron in the back, only to feel Gove’s cold stiletto this week doing the same thing to him.

Up to that point, Johnson’s cynicism had gone unchecked.

Stamping his imprimatur on the Leave campaign was a cost-free exercise for Johnson. The referendum was a matter of political life and death for Cameron.

Had the Leave campaign been thrashed, then Johnson would have looked a fool. But the polls showed there was no danger of that happening. It was was all upside for Johnson. Had the referendum resulted in a narrow majority in favour of Britain staying in Europe, Johnson could have still claimed a kind of victory because most people expected the Remain camp to win by a reasonable margin.

In contrast, Cameron had to win — and preferably win big. The victory of the anti-Europe lobby was a de facto vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister. Cameron had to go.

UKIP’s Nigel Farage was meanwhile declaring “Independence Day” for Britain. Having achieved its goal, UKIP had made itself redundant.

But within hours of the final vote count, the full title of Farage’s party — the United Kingdom Independence Party — was looking like a sick joke. The Kingdom was no longer United.

Farage and Johnson could have never imagined that in their moment of triumph that the result would be sliced into tiny pieces by Scotland’s formidable first secretary, Nicola Sturgeon.

Suddenly, the only talk of independence was focussed solely on Scotland’s future in the United Kingdom.

It quickly became apparent that Brexit had achieved much. But none of it could be deemed as being positive. Or in Britain’s national interest for that matter.

The British pound has slumped in value. No-one can claim to know Brexit’s impact on the British and European economies along with those beyond the continent’s shores. There is the likely break-up of the United Kingdom. There has been abuse of migrants from Eastern Europe and the prospect of inter-generational friction between younger voters and the elderly.

Worse, Britain’s two-fingered salute to Paris, Berlin, Rome, Brussels and Europe’s other capitals has given succour to extreme parties on the right peddling variants of the ugly and dangerous brew of ultra-nationalism — the very thing that the architects of a united Europe were trying to eliminate.

Brexit has coincided with those political movements already making strong gains in support on the back of public fears that the tidal wave of economic and other refugees crossing the Mediterranean from Africa and the Middle East will take their jobs, lower wages and increase taxes to fund the extra housing, education, health and other social services that will be required to cope with the sudden influx.

The political casualties of this public panic are the old centre-left and centre-right parties who provided the foundations of the European Union, but who are now paying a price for that.

Those parties largely provided the cement which has made the integration of member nations’ economies possible. The sharp decline in support for those parties, most notably those of the social democratic variety, is bound to weaken the European Union.

Someone else stands to benefit from fracturing of that collective — Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. Having been hit by European sanctions following his military excursions in the Crimea and Ukraine, no doubt the smile on his face is as broad as the one exhibited in public by Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s right-wing National Front following the result of the referendum.

If Johnson did not think through the possible implications of victory for the Leave option, then he is not qualified to be prime minister If he was aware of the possible repercussions, then his silence on those matters shows a bottom-of-the-barrel level of cynicism that likewise disqualifies him from the job.

Those potential implications explain why officials running the European Commission along with MPs in the European Parliament want Britain to exit the European Union as quickly as possible.

They do not want things to drag on.They want to remove the uncertainty surrounding the mechanics of the parting of the ways. They don’t want other member states to catch the British disease.

They have made it crystal clear that Britain will not be allowed to dine a la carte during negotiations on the country’s exit. In other words, Britain cannot expect to get trade-offs and compromises on things that really matter to London.

For example, post-referendum, Johnson’s advisers were floating the notion of not banning completely the free movement of citizens of countries in the European Union by granting work permits to those who had secured a job prior to arriving in Britain while blocking entry to those who were going to Britain merely to look for work.

In return for this supposed concession to European Union rules, Britain would still retain access to the single European market.

The message from a very angry Europe is forget it. You are either in or out.

Euro 2016 Part Three: The Nightmare in Nice

To be a supporter of England’s football team is to be guaranteed a life sentence of disappointment and misery.

Just when you allow yourself the luxury of thinking England might actually reach the latter stages of a major tournament, your optimism is punctured yet again by another abysmal display which culminates once more in embarrassing defeat.

England’s exit from Euro 2016 at the hands of tiny Iceland in their last 16 clash in the Mediteranean city of Nice is not quite as woeful as the national team’s shock 1-0 loss to the United States during the 1950 World Cup. But it comes awfully close.

Where to start? Well, England were unbeaten during the qualifying round for the Euro 2016 finals being hosted by France. England even pulled off a come-from-behind 3-2 win against the might of Germany in a pre-tournament friendly.

But having made the finals, England suffered what can only be described as a crisis of confidence which only deepened as the competition progressed from group play play to the knockout stages.

England’s players have now failed to perform on the big stage with such frequency that its players are obviously now paralysed by the fear of failure. Failure begets failure. It is a vicious circle.

England started the tournament creating plenty of chances in front of goal, but failed to convert them. They ended their sojourn in France struggling to create any decent chances, let alone score, during the crucial second half of the Iceland game.

The statistics tell the story. Four goals in four games was simply not good enough from players earning more than $200,000 a week on their club contactsy.

England manager Roy Hodgson was the ex-England manager within minutes of the final whistle in the Iceland match. His resignation at least saved the trouble of having to sack him.

He made some perplexing decisions during Euro 2016. He kept changing his line-up during the group stage, thereby failing to give his key players the time to combine as an effective and well-drilled unit.

Instead, England’s defence was frail. The midfield was a mess. Its strikers were correspondingly toothless.

Hodgson persisted in picking Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling, who, to be frank, failed to trouble most defences and seemed to lack maturity despite having made frequent appearances at international level.

Sterling’s tournament was summed up by him blasting the ball well over the bar in the match against Wales when it seemed impossible for him not to score.

His overall performance was summarised even better by The Guardian which quipped “the value of Sterling, on the evidence of this, is in decline here as across the rest of the world”.

Hodgson had overly high expectations of Jack Wilshere despite the Arsenal midfielder having barely touched the ball during the last Premier League season after fracturing his ankle, an injury which kept him out of action for many months.

Spurs’ defensive midfielder Eric Dier was one of the few players who looked to be on their game during the group stage. But he was invisible against Iceland and was justifiably replaced at half-time.

Hodgson appeared to have little faith in Jamie Vardy cutting it at this level despite the Leicester City striker possessing the kind of magic form which comes from scoring a swag of goals during the English domestic season.

Hodgson seemed to prefer Spurs’ Harry Kane, who, at the end of the day, simply did not deliver.

Likewise, Wayne Rooney, who was very ordinary and failed to stamp his authority on any of England’s four matches in France.

His Manchester United team-mate, the 18-year-old Marcus Rashford, showed flashes of the raw talent that mark him out as a player to watch. But Hodgson brought him on far too late for him to make any impact in the two appearances he made from the substitutes’ bench.

One could go on. But special mention must be made of Joe Hart.

In England’s first game, the Manchester City goalkeeper gifted Russia an injury-time equaliser, He failed to deal with a cross which ended up being a free header for one of Russia’s advancing defenders. The ball looped over Hart, who was stranded in no-man’s land, and into the goal.

Hart should have been dropped for the next game against Wales during which he made a complete hash of what admittedly was a thunderous shot from a free-kick taken by Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale.

Even that howler was not enough to prompt Hodgson to replace Hart with Southampton’s Fraser Forster.

That proved to be a very costly error of judgement. During England’s nightmare clash with Iceland, Hart muffed his dive in trying to save what was a soft shot. The ball somehow manage to squeeze under his arms and into the goal, giving Iceland a 2-1 lead. England never really recovered from that blow.

Like good wine, some goalkeepers get better with age. Hart does not look like becoming one.
If nothing else, he should never be allowed to pull on an England jersey again for a very long time, if ever.