Tuesday, 20 June 2017


Like most New Zealanders, I was shocked that November weekend in 2010 when the reality struck that 29 men had perished in the Pike River Mine. My initial reaction was like that of so many people – that everything possible should be done to retrieve their bodies, and bring a sense of closure to their loved ones.

Over time, as the scientific and specialist evidence was gathered, then presented to the Royal Commission established to investigate the disaster, and the apparently ever so saddened and seemingly reassuring Mr Whitall kept appearing on television, I came to the view that the awful reality was that it was probably too dangerous to risk re-entering the mine to retrieve the bodies of the men. A large part of me still holds to that view, but then I am not directly affected. However, the drip-feed of revelations over recent years about documentary evidence that was either known at the time, but not accorded weight by the Royal Commission, or perhaps not even presented to the Commission at all, and has become available subsequently, leaves me questioning increasingly the received wisdom that the mine was best left sealed as a permanent memorial to the men who died there.

First was the exposé of Mr Whitall and the company that owned Pike River at the time, which raised substantial questions about the what had been going on, and how safe the mine had been all along. Then came the now constant refrains every time apparently new documentary evidence was revealed that it either “contained nothing new” or “was known to the Royal Commission at the time”, but “in any case does not change anything”. It is all starting to wear a little thin, after all these years. There still seems to be either a lack of clear facts about what went on, or at least a lack of full public access to the full story that may be known by some.

As a bottom line, I do not think it appropriate to put lives potentially at risk to retrieve the remains of the victims of Pike River. That has always been the argument put forward for not attempting to re-enter the mine. On the face of it, and the official facts available, it is hard to argue against. But the continuing revelations about the state of the mine now and then raise many questions about the accuracy of that advice. And while that spectre of inaccuracy remains, so will the perfectly understandable anguish and frustration of the families grow.

Instead of the essentially cat and mouse game that has been going on for now nearly seven years continuing, surely it is time to put all the relevant information – audio-visual, technical, safety and otherwise – into the public arena where it can be properly and thoroughly assessed. I, for one, do not like learning of relevant “previously unreleased footage”, or the like. If the material exists, it should be made public, so that everyone can know and understand exactly what the issues are, and can reach their judgements accordingly.

Of course, it may well be that at the end of such a process nothing much changes. The mine might still be considered unsafe to enter, and the status quo will remain. But at least there will be an obvious evidential base established to either confirm or debunk the findings of the Royal Commission. At present, we seem left increasingly, rightly or wrongly, with the suspicion that there is more to this story that has hitherto been acknowledged publicly. And that is a completely unsatisfactory way to resolve an issue that has troubled people for so long.

Now, I appreciate well that there will be those who will criticise me for not having expressed these views earlier. A fair cop, maybe, but I suspect I have been no different to many considered New Zealanders who felt appalled by the horror of the original tragedy, and believed that, hard and all as it would have been for the families, the official investigations would come to the right conclusion, having had the opportunity to consider all the known facts and expert evidence. I am one of many who have become more uneasy over the years about the apparently ever shifting sands of how the Pike River case has been handled.

Of course, my heart goes out to the families who suffered the loss of husbands, sons and brothers. I have felt for them at every stage as they have hoed the difficult road to recovery, and have hoped time would heal their wounds. I used to feel that, tough and all as they were, the decisions taken not to go back into the mine were probably correct, sadly, and an inevitable consequence of a tragedy of this type. But today, I can no longer feel that way with any confidence.       

  

 

 

 

 

Monday, 12 June 2017


We used to talk about the “cultural cringe” in New Zealand. That was the old notion that if something came from overseas, it was automatically superior to any local equivalent, and therefore had to be embraced almost uncritically. Those days have largely gone – thankfully – although every now and then the malady that Austin Mitchell once diagnosed as “overseasia” returns.

The most recent reported outbreak has been in the wake of the British General Election. For the second time in three elections no party has won an absolute majority in the House of Commons. By contrast, that has been the norm in New Zealand since the advent of MMP in 1996, yet we have not been seriously threatened by political instability subsequently. A large body of constitutional, academic and political knowledge – and experience – has built up here as a consequence.

For her part, Teresa May, seems to have acknowledged that experience, however grudgingly, with reports that she has consulted our Prime Minister about the mechanics of running stable, minority governments. But she seems to be alone in the sea of lost for words analysis that our media has reported in the wake of the British result. We have a long-established process of running effective and stable minority governments in this country, under both National and Labour leadership, yet few seemed interested in drawing the parallels, preferring instead the sometimes befuddled speculations of dumbfounded British commentators. It was a return to “overseasia” at its best.

A small point that was overlooked in the British result was the performance of the Liberal Democrats – the unambiguously anti-Brexit, pro-immigration centrist party that increased its representation by 50% (from 8 to 12 MPs), arguably the best performance in proportionate terms of any party, and an oasis of reason in the midst of chaos. Indeed, had the election been conducted under an MMP type system, they would have won at least 45 seats, and the hitherto largely obscure (outside Northern Ireland at least) but extremely weird Democratic Unionists (who now seem set to control Britain’s destiny until the next election) no more than 6 or 7  seats.

A notable casualty of the election was the right wing, racist extremist UKIP party which has been virtually obliterated. Conventional wisdom would suggest the Conservatives should have been the beneficiary of this meltdown, but the surge to Labour implies a significant number of those UKIP votes must have gone its way. Maybe that is the thinking behind New Zealand Labour’s recently announced immigration policy, which seeks to cleave into territory occupied by New Zealand First? While Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First are running here as a loosely connected troika-in-waiting, the risk for Labour has always been it might not end up in a strong enough position post-election to be able to dominate the other two in any governing arrangement, making for an “In the Thick of It” omnishambles. So, the rationale for launching a pre-emptive strike into New Zealand First territory was clear. Not only will it help staunch the flow of traditional working class votes to New Zealand First, it also provides the opportunity to try to put New Zealand First back “in its box” as it were, and strengthen Labour’s potential to dominate a still unlikely post-election governing arrangement. The complicit silence of the Greens in this regard is telling. But will they be Labour’s next cannibalisation target?

One lesson that has been learnt in New Zealand over the years is that the worst of days in Government, always far surpasses the very best of times in Opposition. Bloodied, humiliated and chastened as Teresa May’s Conservatives may now be, they will quickly knuckle down to that reality, and make their situation work, the eccentricities of the DUP notwithstanding. Just as we have learned to do after every election since 1996. “Overseasia” in reverse, perhaps?      

          

           

     

  

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 7 June 2017


Over the years, a media myth of my intractable negativity towards the Greens has developed. While I have been properly critical of the Greens at times, and may regret some of my harsher criticisms in the cooler light of day, I have nonetheless worked constructively with a number of Green MPs during those years. Keith Locke and I raised more than a few eyebrows when we made a joint submission to a select committee calling for the repeal of New Zealand’s antiquated sedition laws, but we succeeded and the laws were repealed. Kevin Hague and I maintained a very good common-ground dialogue over a long period on drug-related issues, and even though the media liked to pit us against each other, Nandor Tanczos and I worked fairly closely together on law and order and broader justice issues. During this Parliament, I kept in close contact with Eugenie Sage during all of the debate around the changes to the Resource Management Act, and I work closely with Kennedy Graham on climate change policy through the multi-party GLOBE group.

Recently, the Greens have attracted criticism from the more staid corners of the political spectrum over their selection of some very young candidates on their Party list. I do not know any of them personally, but I do not share that criticism. More than that, I welcome their selection as a sign of renewal within the body politic, and I wish them well.

However, it is not going to be easy for them. I say so from experience, having been one of the youngest MPs in the House when first elected, and therefore knowing first-hand how difficult it is to break through the glass ceiling. Young MPs quickly discover that the system is loaded against them. Passion and enthusiasm go only so far, when the opportunities to express them within the Parliamentary system are so limited. Speaking opportunities in the House are not spontaneous, but predetermined in advance by the Whips and the Business Committee; and the hours spent grinding worthily away in a select committee seldom attract much public attention. Yet, the public expects these new MPs to make their mark quickly, and becomes frustrated and unforgiving (“you have sold out, just like all the rest”) when they do not immediately do so. Few do – it often takes years of hard work for a young MP to overcome some of the prejudice they encounter and to be noticed, and more importantly to be taken seriously, for their achievements, rather than constantly pigeon-holed for their age. Little wonder their attrition rate is high, with their enthusiasm either extinguished by frustration, or boredom. A few survive, and an even smaller number prosper.

While these facts may seem brutal, they should not in any way be seen as a discouraging of young MPs. On the contrary, I believe the system needs a healthy influx of young MPs every election to refresh both it and the political parties. The vibrancy and enthusiasm they bring can be infectious, and their presence alone serves as a constant reminder to the rest of us that our core mission as Members of Parliament is to build a better and more sustainable New Zealand for those who are to follow us.

But if young MPs can be accused of sometimes being a little wide-eyed and with unrealistic expectations of what they can achieve immediately, they are far preferable to those who turn to Parliament after a lengthy career elsewhere, in the vain belief that they have something special to offer in the twilight years left before they retire. There have been many examples from all parties over the years, from all different backgrounds, from diplomacy, the media and local government and a few others besides, but each with the common expectation that not only will Parliament and the country be better off for their presence, but that it is also extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to be blessed by their talent. Their ultimate frustration and alienation is even more pronounced, because their sense of entitlement was far greater to begin with, while their time horizon is far shorter than their younger counterparts’.

So, good on the Greens for their boldness. Parliament needs to be a balance of all the faces that make up New Zealand today. Promoting young MPs is a healthy step in that direction.        

            

          

     

  

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 31 May 2017


For most of my time in politics I have belonged to liberal democratic UnitedFuture (or the United Party as it was previously known). Prior to that, however, I spent more than 22 years as a member of the Labour Party – possibly a longer time in the Party than many of its current Caucus, and virtually all of the fly-by-night candidates dragged together for this election. Although all that was a long time ago, I still cherish many happy memories of my years with Labour.

However, the Labour Party today is vastly different from the Party I joined as a university student, or even that which UnitedFuture supported on confidence and supply matters during the Helen Clark years. The sense of optimism and enthusiasm for New Zealand that pervaded Labour previously in even the darkest of times now seems to have deserted it completely. Labour appears these days to be against everything, and for nothing. Maybe it is the permanently grim, dark disposition of its current leader, or maybe it is the length of time the Party has spent in Opposition. (Nine years is a long time, and should Labour fail at this election, it will be facing its longest period in Opposition in half a century.) Whatever, the effect is that Labour and its image seem more and more out of time and irrelevant.

The reaction to the recent Budget was but the latest example of this. Labour was the only Party to oppose outright the tax and benefit changes in the Budget. Other Parties certainly expressed their misgivings and offered alternative ways by which families could be uplifted, but, at the same time, supported the Budget legislation because they recognised the incongruity of opposing outright a set of measures from which many New Zealand families will benefit. By its blanket opposition, Labour simply revealed its sourness and churlishness, and the fact that under its current leadership, at least, it has lost the capacity to appreciate that other Parties can have good ideas too.  (It seems to think that only it can do things to assist the less well-off, and it is unreasonably affronted when others make what it sees as a raid on its traditional territory. This bitter, graceless approach smacks of the worst of envy politics (even the CTU welcomed aspects of the Family Assistance Package!) and is a pathetic throwback to the cloth-cap politics of a bygone era.

France’s new President, Emmanuel Macron, is worth considering in this regard. He arrived from nowhere, on the basis of a telling critique of the traditional major Parties in France. Macron’s strong point was that people were tired of being told by the traditional Parties what their view of the world was, and how citizens should fit into that. Rather, he argues, people today are seeking a more responsive form of politics where political parties tune their policies to the public’s perception of needs, and see things through their prism, not the other way round. It is a version of the Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul’s observation that “common sense reflects the shared values of a community.”

For its part, Labour still seems trapped by having a singular view of the world which they believe voters will come to accept, then embrace, once they hear more of it. In this world, compromise and pragmatism are unwelcome dirty words, lest they dilute the “true” message. Add to that, Labour’s deliberate courting of a variety of lobby groups over the years. While a fundamentally wise strategy to grow the Party’s support base (what American civil rights leader Jesse Jackson once called the knitting together of individual peggy squares to form a blanket), Labour has managed to end up becoming no more than a hostage to its vested interests’ various demands in policy and candidate terms. As such, it is far from the blanket, and much more a set of loose, discordant, jarring peggy squares, lacking a leadership thread to weave them together. For New Zealanders living in today’s post-ideological world, their primary expectation of a Government of any hue is that it does its best for them in the circumstances. They judge it on that basis, not the extent of its forelock-tugging to the interests that lie behind it. They expect Governments to be outward looking and flexible, not forever looking backwards over their shoulder.

The story of Budget 2017 is simple – a substantial Family Assistance Package from which most households will benefit to some extent or other, supported up to a point by every Party bar Labour. When it comes to deciding which Parties are on families’ sides, and which are not, the result is stark. Labour’s “we know best” attitude stands defiantly and forlornly all by itself. Labour – for so long the party of reform – is now but a hollow shadow of itself. Saddening to some, but surprising to few. 

            

          

     

  

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, 23 May 2017


According to media reports, 20 billion litres of pristine New Zealand water are going to be exported over the next fifteen years, with not one cent in royalties being paid here.

By contrast, it has been estimated that the oil and gas industry paid around $230 million in royalties to the New Zealand Government in the last year alone, and has paid as much as $430 million in earlier years, based on products discovered and sold. The oil and gas royalties regime is notoriously complex and uneven, with many tax deductions available, and no levy on exports. It is applied at rates that can vary from 5% to 20%. Nevertheless, petroleum exporters are typically paying about 42% of their profits in taxes and royalties to the government.

Leaving aside the argument about whether oil and gas exploration is a good thing to be encouraged, and the complexity of the regime, it does provide a useful point of comparison to the way in which the likely burgeoning fresh water export trade is treated, all the same.

It is certainly true that New Zealand has an abundance of fresh water, so it is easy to see the attraction fresh water exports pose. And it is not new. For over 30 years there has been steady yet periodic interest in establishing a fresh water export industry. So, at one level, the argument could at least be mounted that fresh water exports are just another form of primary products exports from this bounteous country.

But the argument is not that simplistic. The great debate occurring about water needed for irrigation demonstrates the pressures being placed upon our water resources. The argument over the proposed Ruataniwha Dam in Hawkes Bay and the virtual drying up of Canterbury’s major rivers earlier this year as a result of a high demand for irrigation brought on by dairy intensification highlight the point. And it is also intensely political. Environment Canterbury was sacked by the Government in 2010 over the allocation of water rights; iwi interests have long recognised the power of the ownership of water as the Resource Management Act debate shows; freshwater recreational interests have for equally long sought to preserve their traditional roles and relationships with water; and, the Land and Water Forum has patiently attempted to bring all the groups to the table to try to achieve a coherent policy response. On top of all this comes mounting justified public concern about the swimmability of our major rivers. The response of seeking as a first step to make all major rivers at least wadeable is widely seen as too little, too late.

Against this complexly yet finely woven tapestry, it seems somewhat incongruous that a virtually unregulated and certainly untaxed water export industry is being allowed to develop. At the very least, there needs to be a coherent royalties regime put in place, akin perhaps to that for oil and gas, to ensure that our water resources are not being just given away. But that will not be enough of itself. There also needs to be a clear national policy developed about water exports. For too long there has been a complacency that water will always be abundant in New Zealand, and while that is generally true, recent developments show we can no longer take it for granted. Dirty and dried up rivers, and contaminated acquifers are not what we have usually been used to, nor do we want them to become the norm. Especially, if at the same time, we have to sit and watch the ships sailing away with millions of litres of our pure water for which they have paid virtually nothing.       

         

     

  

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 17 May 2017


Recently, the Police, with significant sponsorship from the Ministry of Health, hosted a major Australasian conference on alcohol and drug policy. It attracted an impressive collection of international speakers, including Michael Botticelli (a man whom I have known and worked with for a number of years) who was the head of President Obama’s National Drug Policy unit.

In my own remarks to the conference I spoke about New Zealand’s National Drug Policy, and where it might head in the future. I observed that I was personally interested in, and supportive of,  Portugal’s approach of putting the health system front and centre on drug policy, but I further observed that, unfortunately, whenever Portugal is mentioned, the focus is often solely on the tolerance they apply to the low-level use of drugs, while overlooking the other side of the story about possession and cultivation remaining illegal, and the very strong use of mandatory assessment and treatment programmes in place for all drug use. My interest is in the full Portuguese package, not just the tolerance applied to low-level use of drugs like cannabis. Sadly, far too often, when people cite what is going on in Portugal, they focus only on this point, and not the overall package.

Over the years I have been involved in drug policy I have constantly stressed that we need to be open to new developments, but that any alterations in policy should always be firmly evidence based. Whether it be about access to cannabis based medicinal products, or the general treatment of other drugs, that has been, to the constant annoyance of my critics, my absolute standard, and it is not going to change. It was the logic behind the Psychoactive Substances Act, which was about regulating the burgeoning synthetic drug market based on the level of risk specific products actually posed to the public. (That Act closed that market down, although to my critics, it somehow had precisely the opposite effect – a simply idiotic claim not borne out by even the slightest of facts.)

The 2015 National Drug Policy introduced a number of specific actions to reinforce the central message that drug issues are primarily health, not legal, issues, and foreshadowed a major rewrite of our creaking 1975 Misuse of Drugs Act during the next term of Parliament, once these actions have been completed.

From UnitedFuture’s perspective, now is the time to be looking at what that next set of steps might be. I envisage a two-stage process. First, we should move to an overall approach similar to the full Portuguese model, where the cultivation and possession of all drugs remains illegal, and all drug users are referred for assessment and treatment, but where there is a tolerance exercised for the possession of what are essentially Class C drugs under the current Misuse of Drugs Act. In that event, persons caught with – say – no more than the equivalent of one week’s personal supply would be referred directly to treatment rather the Courts, in an extension of our current diversion scheme. This would require significant additional investment in the provision of assessment and treatment services, but that makes far more sense than investing similar amounts more in the Courts and prison services for the same purpose. At the same time, it would free up more Police resources to concentrate on catching the criminals behind the New Zealand drugs scene.

The second stage of the process, when the Misuse of Drugs Act is rewritten, would be to transfer the current Schedule of Class C Drugs from that Act to the Psychoactive Substances Act. This would mean that they would be regulated the same way as synthetic substances, where the test is evidence based around the risk posed to the user, and where there are clear controls on the manufacture, sale and distribution of any such products that might be approved. For its part, the Psychoactive Substances Authority would be required to determine an alternative to animal testing – the prohibition of which is what currently prevents that Act from working fully.

One issue that is often properly raised in the context of drug law reform is the role of the gangs as producers and distributors of drugs like cannabis. It is argued with some validity that legalising cannabis would legalise the criminal activities of the gangs and deliver them total control, something none of us are in favour of. But, the Psychoactive Substances Act provides a way of resolving this issue. Under the Act, before a product can be submitted for testing, the producer first has to have been granted a “fit and proper person” licence. No criminal organisation will be ever meet that standard or be granted such a licence, which would completely exclude the gangs. Instead, we would have a regulated market for all drugs, synthetic or otherwise, that the Psychoactive Substances Authority considers pose a low risk to users. The possession and supply of all other drugs would remain illegal, and the law would take its course.

The approach UnitedFuture proposes therefore has three key components: mandatory and comprehensive treatment for everyone caught with drugs; a pragmatic approach to anyone caught with minor amounts of low level drugs; and, shutting the criminals out of the cannabis industry. As such, it fits four square with the compassionate, innovative and proportionate approach drug policy I have long advocated.        

    

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 10 May 2017


Mental health ranks as one of New Zealand’s major health issues. While there have been many innovations and improvements over the years, we still have some intractable and serious problems we must get on top of. We have one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world; high rates of seclusion and compulsory treatment; a great deal of variation in access to services for children and young people in particular, and in waiting times for access to mental health and addiction services. We have gaps in services to respond to people with common but often debilitating metal health and addiction issues, and too much variation in the quality of inpatient treatment services available to those who need them.

As the relevant Minister at the time, I was responsible for the development of “Rising to the Challenge”, the Government’s mental health plan from 2012 until earlier this year. It is currently being refreshed and updated by the current Minister. When “Rising to the Challenge” was being developed, I set out my priorities as improving the quality of services and the level of access for families and whanau, and for communities. I wanted more effective linkages and co-ordination between District Health Boards and the large number of community agencies active in the mental health and addictions space, both to develop services better tailored to people’s needs and also to bridge, wherever, possible, gaps in service provision.

Although there has been progress over the last few years and a significant increase in funding for mental health services, too many of the old problems remain. Our youth suicide rates are still intolerably high; the demand for addiction services remains strong, and services generally are still too disjointed and sometimes inflexible.

While all this is properly an issue for the Government, it should not be diminished into a political issue. Of course, it is proper to expect, and pressure, the Government to develop solutions that will address the public’s concerns, but it is most improper to turn this into a shallow political debate, with an arid emphasis on statistics, and who said and did what, way back when. We should never forget that behind every mental health case is not an abstract statistic to be tossed around, but a real, vulnerable human being, often with a family, struggling for a genuine solution to the problem oppressing them. Politicians seeking to capitalise on these situations are really trawling the most murky depths of the barrel and need to be called out as such. There is no honour in trafficking in human misery.

Rather, we need to be listening to the stories of the people and their families, and focusing on solutions that meet their needs. Inevitably, that is going to mean a variety of nuanced solutions, with the flexibility to account to the greatest extent possible for individual needs. This is one area where most definitely one size does not, indeed cannot, fit all.

Yet I remain concerned that we are still far too focused on broad-brush solutions, which fit within the rubric laid down by DHBs. I still believe there is insufficient recognition of the role community agencies can play in helping people overcome their mental health issues, and that we need to be encouraging greater co-ordination between the community and the DHBs on the models of care being developed.

The Government has to meet its obligations in terms of adequate funding, ensuring proper standards, and promoting public awareness, although it needs to do so alongside community agencies that are often much closer to people in their daily lives. But perhaps the most important role the Government can play is to be the listening post for the community’s stories, and then to act on those stories.

Shooting the messenger in such cases is just as bad as those vacuous politicians seeking to make political capital out of the overall situation. Human dignity is too precious and fundamental to be cheapened in this way.

A comprehensive mental health strategy should bring together all elements of society – patients, family and whanau, community organisations and government agencies. It must be as much a social justice strategy, as it is a health plan. It has to be about ensuring everyone’s right to wellness, and working across all agencies and boundaries to achieve that. After all, as the World Health Organisation has stated, “There is no health without mental health.”