UK PM Boris Johnson meeting Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon in 2019 (Getty Images)

The Bulletin: Scottish independence moves a step closer

Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Scottish independence moves a step closer, government revives plan for Fair Pay Agreements, and children in Oranga Tamariki care being strip-searched.

We’ll start today’s Bulletin with some fascinating world news, because it could lead to a very significant geopolitical development. Amid local elections in England, Scotland and Wales, the Scottish public has elected a parliament that is in favour of a second referendum on independence. That includes a seat share for the strongly pro-independence Scottish National Party that is just one short of an outright majority – for context, Scotland uses a slightly different version of MMP to New Zealand, so overall majorities are rare. The SNP is expected to be supported by the Scottish Greens, who are also pro-independence, and between them have a clear majority in the (Scottish parliament) Holyrood.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has asserted that she now has a mandate to press ahead with a second referendum, at least after Covid has been quashed. Reuters reports her comments came before the final results were in, but the likely outcome was clear. An analysis from pro-independence paper The Scotsman argues that voters knew exactly what they were choosing, and so there’s now a mandate to at least hold the vote. What’s less clear is whether the public will back it. Scots voted heavily against Brexit in 2016, and had that outcome forced on them. But there isn’t exactly an overwhelming popular consensus for independence from the UK – opinion polling bounces around a bit, but only ever with a narrow lead for either side. Some even within the SNP argue that polling needs to show a clearer independence majority before a referendum can be held – after all, nobody wants a repeat of the 52-48 Brexit vote that left those on the losing side feeling robbed by the slimmest of margins.

For his part, UK PM Boris Johnson has dismissed the possibility of a referendum.He may not be able to stop it, but his position reflects wider sentiment in Westminster, the seat of the UK parliament. The BBC reports he’s made initial moves to bring together the leaders of the various national parliaments, to talk Covid and implicitly demonstrate that “Team UK” is worth sticking with.

But more generally, there could be a shift in the country from Great Britain to Little England. As Guardian columnist George Monbiot points out, the UK is in danger of breaking apart along several fault-lines. Welsh independence is still a long way away, but nationalist party Plaid Cymru slightly increased their seat share in the Welsh parliament. And post-Brexit, the idea of Irish re-unification is on the march once more, amid the difficulties and complications of the border that cuts across Ireland.

Meanwhile, if you’re wondering how the rest of the elections went, the main story is that UK Labour is in deep trouble. Despite being in opposition, the party lost huge numbers of councillors, along with a once-safe working class seat in a byelection, and responded by reigniting the civil war inside the party. For Johnson, the election has been interpreted as something of a referendum on his leadership during Covid – for example, this from CNN – and English voters have largely continued to back him.


A process for Fair Pay Agreements has finally been set out, four years after being a manifesto commitment taken into the election by Labour.The Spinoff’s Justin Giovannetti reports the agreements would seek to create standard work conditions across whole industries, provided unions can demonstrate enough support. That point is crucial, because it entrenches unions as a force in workplace relations in a way they haven’t been for decades. Stuff’s political editor Luke Malpass has written about it in those terms – as a win for the political wing of the wider labour movement.

Meanwhile controversy has continued to rumble over the public servant pay freeze. If you read the feedback piece, you may have noticed some suspicion from insiders about what this would mean for contractors. Well, as Radio NZ reports, the already-generous rates paid there could still go up. Minister Chris Hipkins said the government will be watching closely to make sure that doesn’t end up happening. Stuff reports many public servants found out about the pay freeze through the media, rather than through their employers. That story contains details of the “sheepish” internal comms that have since been fed through to workers.

And it’s somewhat outside of the scope of this particular issue, but in related news: The NZ Herald’s (paywalled) David Fisher reports ACC paid out about a million bucks in bonuses to executives during the peak of the Covid crisis. For those with a keen sense of irony, eight top execs received bonuses between $60k and $100k. Minister Carmel Sepuloni has told the ACC board that it needs to reconsider its bonus policy.


Children in the custody of Oranga Tamariki are being forced to undergo strip-searches, reports Newshub’s Anna Bracewell-Worrall. An OT official defended the practice as only being used in last-resort circumstances, but admitted it was traumatising for those kids who go through it. In light of the findings, calls have been made for the practice to be halted altogether, including from those who went through it.


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Internal pleas by climate change minister James Shaw for massive recovery spending on decarbonisation last year were ignored by the government. Newsroom’s Marc Daalder has analysed what Shaw was asking for, and confirmed that Shaw still sees it as a missed opportunity. Part of the issue with climate change policy is that any new developments take years to filter through the economy, so starting earlier is better. The budget is next week, so we’ll see if there’s anything in that.


The government has announced funding for a cervical screening self-test, which will reduce the need for smear tests. Radio NZ reports $53 million will be put towards the programme, which will be running within two years. Associate health minister Dr Ayesha Verrall said deaths from almost all cervical cancers can be prevented if they’re caught early, and the programme is expected to save many wāhine Māori lives in particular.


A bit of media criticism about some misleading headlines: Multiple outlets reported over the weekend some variant on the wording that the “deaths of two people after receiving the Covid-19 vaccine had been reported to the Centre for Adverse Reactions Monitoring”. This is technically true, but wrong in spirit. Because the most important detail of this story is that there is as yet no evidence to suggest that receiving the vaccine caused or even influenced the deaths of either person, both of whom were in their 80s. Generally that crucial detail was in the second paragraphs of stories, so it wasn’t being totally ignored. And for context, it is totally normal for deaths after vaccines to be referred to monitoring agencies for investigation – what is far more unusual is any connection being found.

But everyone in media knows that headline selection plays a huge role in getting people to click on stories, and any implication that there may be a cause and effect between the vaccines and the deaths will deliver huge numbers. We also know that a lot of social sharing happens on headlines alone. So the question then becomes – is the surge in clicks that comes with headlines like this worth it, given the risk of spreading false perceptions about vaccines? I would have hoped not.


Got some feedback about The Bulletin, or anything in the news? Drop us a line at thebulletin@thespinoff.co.nz

Image: Tina Tiller

Right now on The Spinoff: Michael Andrew has a wonderful piece about the economic revival of Reefton, particularly through gin. Paul Ward writes about the decades of work that has gone into bringing the birds back to Wellington. Author and intensive care specialist Alex Kazemi stares out at the world amid and beyond the plague. Duncan Greive reports on plans at TVNZ to go post-linear TV, particularly with the news they’re considering an ad-free subscription service. Josie Adams has a guide to the Mangawhau byelection, in the heart of Auckland and its issues. Justin Latif asks around South Auckland to see how the free school lunch programme is going down. Michael Andrew reports on a small NZ advertising firm that was just named the best in the world. Charlotte Muru-Lanning reviews the new film James and Isey, from the director of Kaikohe Demolition. And our telly experts try and figure out who the various Masked Singers are.


For a feature today, an incredible parody of a particular kind of political reporting. The piece on The Critic is ostensibly a preview of the UK elections that have been taking place in the past few days, but really it’s about the idea of a heartland, and who is a “real” voter. I won’t give too much more away – here’s an excerpt:

London voted strongly against Brexit, and many say their votes have been ignored. “Bloody Conservatives only care about Redwall, wherever that is,” says Katie Garfield, a nurse who lives in East Ham. She is voting Labour this Thursday. Some find it surprising that Labour leader Keir Starmer, son of a toolmaker, graduate of Leeds University, should have such a wide appeal in this affluent, southern city. But Jocasta’s friend Thomas Reeve is a fan. “It feels like he’s one of us,” explains the corporate lawyer.

Many in London also struggle with Johnson’s character. “All those oh-so-sophisticated people in Hartlepool might not care if he’s running around fathering kids everywhere and trying to get his rich friends to buy him wallpaper,” says Faith Anstee, a social worker in Brixton, “But we have traditional values here. We know the difference between right and wrong, and we still think it matters.”


Another one for the Crusaders. The pre-eminent NZ sporting franchise of the professional era has won back to back Super Rugby Aotearoa trophies, this time having to get their via a final against the Chiefs. Rugby Pass notes their 24-13 win came despite two yellow cards, which the Chiefs failed to capitalise on. As for the season, Radio NZ contributor Jamie Wall wrapped the big ten takeaways. Incredibly enough, they’re all about to jump straight into a trans-Tasman competition. Stuff reports an opening fixture is looking a tiny bit dicey with travel bubble concerns.


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