Wednesday, 22 March 2017

A constant in politics over the last couple of decades has been the National Party’s dislike and distrust of local communities making their own decisions about their own futures. National really does believe the Beehive knows best, despite a lot of obvious evidence to the contrary.

In recent years, this prejudice has manifest itself in many different areas (for example, debates about local health services and/or the location and number of local schools in places like Christchurch come to mind) but the most obvious and constant area has been that of environmental and resource management. The current debate about the future of the Resource Management Act needs to be seen in this light. National is determined to resist any attempt by regional communities to have any real say in major planning and environmental decisions that affect them.

A consistent pattern of central government intervention in local decisions has emerged in recent years. (National had been suspect in this area in previous times with the famous allegation that its paring back of the role of Regional Councils in resource management in the early 1990s was driven more by the prejudice of the then Local Government Minister against the way his local Council has treated a motel development application he had been involved in, than sound principle.) One of the first actions National took during its current term of office was to remove the power of general competence that had been previously delegated to local government, ostensibly on the grounds of preventing local government becoming too profligate in the expenditure of ratepayers’ money, but really more about stifling the capacity of Councils to act independently.

When Environment Canterbury (the Canterbury Regional Council) refused to play ball with central government over the allocation of waters rights for dairy intensification on the Canterbury Plains, the government stepped in and dumped the Council in 2010, and it will not be until 2019 that full local democracy is due to be restored. (Shades of Bainimarama in Fiji?) And then there is the notorious section 360 of National’s current Bill to change (hardly reform) the Resource Management Act which gives the Minister for the Environment a virtual power of override on just about everything. A few weeks ago, once more consistent with the bulldozer approach to local autonomy, National declared that henceforth all decisions about the application of the 1080 poison  would be made nationally, and no longer at a local level. The apparent justification was that a national decision making process would allow for much greater consistency and certainty, which, while plausible at a superficial level, belies the real reason. National could not simply afford the risk of rural and provincial communities (still its heartland support base) making their own decisions against the application of 1080, and contrary to stated government policy. Most recently, National has confirmed what it has been threatening for some years that, if any region (Hawkes Bay is the immediate example) declares itself to be GE free and markets its produce internationally as GE free, the government will step in to stop them doing so.

There is a strong case for amending and updating a number of the processes of the Resource Management Act, with every party in Parliament agrees with, and which could have been achieved relatively easily about four years ago had National chosen to go down that path. The simple reason National’s plans have faltered to date is because of its wider history in this area, and a deep concern that, based on its past, its real agenda goes way beyond having effective resource management law and is much more about controlling the scope and practice of regional government.

They say that leopards do not change their spots. In this case, the spots on the leopard are far more striking than usual. It would take a mighty change of heart on National’s part to satisfy the concerns about its real agenda. Only a na├»ve optimist or a fool would dare think this may happen.  









Wednesday, 8 March 2017

From the mid 1980s until the late 1990s the one certainty about superannuation policy in New Zealand was its uncertainty. Every government played around with it, to the detriment not just of superannuitants of the time, but also of those approaching retirement and hoping to be able to plan their futures with some certainty. National promised to repeal Labour’s infamous 1984 surcharge, only to replace it with something just as draconian in 1991. That was gradually watered down during the 1990s, and a multiparty accord established, which Labour then walked out of when it had succeeded in taking superannuation off the political agenda and Labour found it no longer had a weapon to beat the government with. Then National reduced the relativity of the rate of superannuation to the average ordinary-time wage, which was subsequently overturned by Labour and the current formula arrived at. A period of superannuation peace and stability was to ensue for about fifteen years.

It has to be said that none of us who were involved in superannuation politics of the time covered ourselves with any glory and that at least one generation of New Zealanders was given no reason to trust politicians on superannuation policy. It is probably true that Sir Robert Muldoon’s overly-generous 1975 election bribe of 60% of the average wage at age 60, developed as a simple reaction to the Kirk Government’s much more complicated contributory 1974 scheme which would have taken until 2014 to reach full maturity, was to blame for all this, but that was of little consolation at the time, or now. Superannuitants simply felt betrayed.

Over the last 15 years, a measure of stability has returned, and retirees, near-retirees and their families have been able to plan their futures with a measure of certainty. All of which raises interesting questions about National’s surprise announcement this week, that as a response to the ageing population, it plans to shift the age of entitlement from 65 to 67 between the years  2037 and 2040, affecting everyone born after the start of 1974. In an eerie throwback that suggests we could be about to get on the superannuation merry-go-round all over again, Labour now finds it convenient to renege on the raising the age policy it promoted at the last two elections.

It could be said that National has learned a lesson from the past with the long time-frame it has for the changes it is now proposing , although those affected, now in their early 40s and younger, may see it differently, having just paid off their student loans, and now raising their young families and meeting the mortgage costs. They probably will not feel downright betrayed as their grandparents did in the 1980s and 1990s, but they most likely will feel somewhat cheated.

The bigger risk is that National’s signalled intent – that is all it is at this stage, with eight general elections due before it takes effect in 2040 – sets off a further round superannuation uncertainty, the last thing anyone wants or deserves. And that raises the wider question about whether age adjustments are the best way to manage future superannuation policy. While it is true people are living – and working – longer, it is also true that the advent of Kiwisaver in 2007 has enabled many people to build up large retirement nest eggs, making them less reliant on New Zealand Superannuation in the future. At the same time, the focus now comes on the demographics of those with short lives post about 60, and how poorly they are catered for at present, In short, despite having paid their taxes all their lives, there are many who die worn out and exhausted before ever reaching 65, or shortly thereafter. And they get no, or very little,  superannuation.

That is why UnitedFuture’s focus is on Flexisuper (the option to take a reduced rate of superannuation from the age of 60 if one wishes, or a higher rate if uptake is delayed to age 70) and compulsory Kiwisaver, rather than adjusting the basic age of entitlement from 65. That package addresses the issue of those worn out at 60, and also sends a clear signal about the value of long-term personal savings, and less reliance on the state pension. But, most importantly, it places control of retirement choices and income back in the hands of the individual, not the state. Under Flexisuper and compulsory Kiwisaver, people will be able to back their own choices and know they will not be interfered with by governments changing their minds.

The one constant in the superannuation debate of the last couple of generations has been that people have craved certainty. They opted for Muldoon’s unrealistic “too good to be true” scheme in 1975 because it was simpler and more immediate than the Kirk scheme. They berated Labour and National governments in the 1980s and 1990s for “mucking up” their retirement plans. Now, when the superannuation spectre is being raised again, many may well see it as too far in the future to get exercised about immediately. An irritant, rather than a body blow, but certainly an opportunity for people to take control of their own retirement destiny, regardless of what the state might impose.            






Wednesday, 1 March 2017

New Zealanders care strongly about their environment. That is evident from general conversations, and even the most casual perusal of the stories produced by major news outlets. Environment issues always feature prominently and usually sympathetically.

Yet New Zealanders are currently being short-changed when it comes to environmental policy. The debate over swimmable rivers water quality comes to mind. How can it be that in a country like pristine, green New Zealand (as we like to style it) we have over time allowed our waterways to become so degraded that it is now going to take at least 20 years of concerted effort to restore 90% of them to a swimmable standard? And do we really believe that housing shortages in our major cities are all the fault of our concern for the environment? 

Equally, on the other side of the ledger, environmental dogmatism, often from the Left, frequently gets in the way of progress. The “my way, or the highway” approach they are fond of simply alienates potential support for a particular cause. (A notable exception at the political level is the cross-party GLOBE group, ably chaired by the Greens’ Dr Kennedy Graham, which is working alongside the Minster for Climate Change Issues on New Zealand’s response to global climate change.) But such co-operation, sadly, remains the exception, rather than the rule. Too often, environmental issues – which should be pervasive – are reduced to the politically partisan level which means that frequently no progress is made on their resolution, lest political credit has to be shared with Opposition parties. It is remarkably and nigh irresponsibly short-sighted.

The prospect – however remote and unlikely according to every opinion poll, published and unpublished so far – of a Labour/Green coalition taking office in September has had a number of spin-off consequences. (In Ohariu, for example, early indications are that the deal between Labour and the Greens has backfired, with support galvanising around the incumbent, and many previous Green voters saying they will cross the line because of their misgivings about the Labour candidate they are now being told to vote for.) More broadly, the Labour/Greens prospect has raised questions about the future direction of environmental policy, given Labour’s likely economic profligacy (few days seem to pass without another expensive spending promise being made) and the Greens’ increasing focus on broad social agitation, at the expense of their traditional advocacy for the environment.

For the many New Zealanders with a strong interest in sound environmental policies the picture is now very depressing – and confusing.  National’s environmental shortcomings are clearly and regularly displayed – and their communication usually mis-articulated. But the Left are no better. After nearly a decade in the wilderness (more than two decades in the case of the Greens) they are so desperate for power that everything else, including environmental integrity, now pales into insignificance. Labour has no environmental vision, nor does it show any interest in what the Greens have to offer on that score. Both seem to agree that, for this election at least, more traditional social democratic issues should be the focus, to the detriment of the Greens – and the environment.

Nevertheless, there is a need for a political voice for New Zealanders passionate about their environment, but at the same time committed to policies that will stimulate sustainable economic growth to support the social infrastructure a progressive and compassionate society requires. Or to state it more simply, a political party with a clear head, matched by a soft heart.

UnitedFuture has strong credentials in this regard. Not only has it used its political influence, through its centrist position of support for orthodox economics balanced by compassionate social policy to moderate both National and Labour Governments over the last 15 years or so, it also has a strong environmental pedigree, based around its support for the retention of the principles of the Resource Management Act, and its practical policies to future proof our environment for coming generations. The likelihood that the National-led Government will be returned at the election is reason enough for UnitedFuture be strongly represented there to provide the environmental balance, and to ensure the strong environmental concerns of New Zealanders are well represented at the decision-making table. No other party can offer that prospect.       








Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The 6th anniversary this week of Christchurch’s devastating earthquake, and the horrific fires that have been fringing the city in recent days are timely reminders of the vulnerability we have to natural disasters.

One extraordinary constant at times like this is the dedication and commitment of all our emergency services personnel – our firefighters, ambulance officers, civil defence, Police and all those who pitch in to help. They are overwhelmingly volunteers, giving of their time and expertise to help others in a serious situation. They deserve our eternal thanks and gratitude for what they do.

But thanks and gratitude alone are not enough, and no basis on which to build viable emergency services for the future. We need to ensure that our volunteers and career emergency staff are equally well trained and resourced to meet the challenges varying natural disasters are likely to throw upon us in the years to come.

Inevitably, there will be some form of overall inquiry into the Christchurch fire. After the earthquakes, a special Royal Commission was established to review all aspects of the earthquake, including response and recovery performances, and to make recommendations for future improvements. The Fire Service has already advised it will be carrying out its own operational review of its performance in the fires, and there have been many calls for an independent investigation of the overall civil defence response. Such inquiries need to be seen as steps towards learning lessons and improving performance, rather than blame-chasing witch-hunts.

Civil Defence has been the poor relation for too long. Even though there has been a national Ministry of Emergency Management, it has been pitched uncomfortably for too long between central and local government, with no-one too sure where responsibility really lies, as a consequence. There are some notable exceptions – Wellington’s Emergency Management Office, which does a fantastic job promoting community resilience and safety, comes to mind – but for too many, the image of men with clip boards is still too prevalent.

My own experience as Minister of Internal Affairs bringing together our new national Fire and Emergency New Zealand from 1 July this year has been instructive. My personal view, not necessarily that of the Government at this stage, is that the move to Fire and Emergency New Zealand presages a model that will become the overall response to civil defence in the future. Over time – years rather than months – I see Fire and Emergency New Zealand being expanded to include civil defence, and in a little longer time frame, potentially ambulance services as well. Already, as the Christchurch fires, and before them the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes have shown, the current Fire Service is being looked towards to provide the response leadership in such cases, so it seems to be only logical in time that the new national Fire and Emergency New Zealand, once properly established, will be expanded to also include wider aspects of civil defence and emergency response.

One of the great strengths of our society is that in times of travail we all pitch in to help, often with secondary regard to our own circumstances. That is the spirit we need to capture when it comes to the future of civil defence and emergency management. This is not about developing the large “standing army” some are fearful and so scornful of, nor is it about building empires. Much more pragmatically, it is much more about ensuring that our communities are at all times best placed to protect themselves.         









Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The Ohariu electorate has been very much in the news in recent days. There has been the usual amount of breathless hype and exaggeration from political commentators about what they think is going on. Most of it has been wildly inaccurate, ridiculously sensational, and so devoid of any factual basis that it could not even be described as “alternative” facts.

So, leaving aside as largely irrelevant the argument about whether the Greens and Labour have done a deal in the electorate (of course, it is a deal – to claim otherwise is as ignorant as it churlish, but describing it as “dirty” is simply puerile), and in the absence of much informed comment, here are some basic facts about Ohariu.

At the last election, just under 54% of Ohariu voters voted for either the UnitedFuture or National Party electorate candidates, with around 37% supporting the UnitedFuture candidate. About 42% supported either the Green or Labour candidates. On the party votes side, just over 51% of voters supported National and UnitedFuture, with about 38% backing Labour and the Greens.

The Greens and Labour are saying now that one of the reasons for having just one candidate between them this year is because their combined candidate vote from 2014 is greater than the UnitedFuture candidate’s support, which, were it to come to pass, would deliver them the seat. In so doing, they say, it would help them achieve their stated aim to “change the government”.

But here is where their argument starts to fall down – on two points of fact, at least. First, they make the heroic assumption that in that situation the 16% of voters who supported the National candidate will all continue to do so again. Yet, if only a third of those voters shifted their support to the UnitedFuture candidate, the Labour/Greens dream would be all over. Ohariu voters are very intelligent, and capable of working out very easily what is in their strategic best interests.

Moroever, in both the candidate and party votes in 2014, Ohariu voters showed a clear majority preference for supporting the current governing arrangement. This is not a “change the government” electorate, so appeals to vote for the Labour/Green candidate to “change the government” are likely to fall on deaf ears. If anything, they are more likely to drive voters to the National/UnitedFuture side, and, as the dominant candidate of that bloc, the UnitedFuture candidate is likely to be the beneficiary.

If, as is claimed, Ohariu is to be the electorate that determines the fate of the government, then, given National’s current dominance in the polls, the lines will be drawn even more clearly – namely, the way to keep the current government in office will be to re-elect the UnitedFuture candidate. In that scenario, a vote for any other candidate (including, perversely, the National candidate) will effectively be a vote to “change the government”, something Ohariu voters have shown no inclination towards.

There is another potential spin-off too. If Ohariu is to hold the key to the election outcome, then party votes for UnitedFuture in other electorates now become so much more relevant. Given UnitedFuture’s stated objective this election of stopping the extremists from running amok, voters anxious for reassurance on this score will be able to give party votes to UnitedFuture elsewhere in the country, confident they will not be wasted. The likelihood of UnitedFuture holding Ohariu and with it, the prospect of winning perhaps 2% to 3% of the party vote, and thus maybe 3-4 seats in its own right, emerges.

So whatever its status, the Labour/Green “arrangement” in Ohariu will be seen as a game-changer, although it is unlikely to be in the way those parties expected.








Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Earlier this week I announced that applications to prescribe non pharmaceutical grade cannabis based medicinal products would no longer require my approval as Associate Minister of Health. I further announced that I would be advising medical authorities of a list of known such products that were of a sufficiently reputable manufacturing standard to be available for prescription for New Zealand patients.

Those two announcements have been generally welcomed as a step forward. Indeed, they build on a progressive series of steps I have taken to facilitate access to these products since the issue first came onto the public agenda a couple of years. First, was the development of a specific set of clinically informed guidelines for the prescribing of such products; then there was the decision last December that Sativex (the only pharmaceutical grade cannabis medicine available in New Zealand) could now be prescribed for multiple sclerosis patients by specialists without reference to the Ministry of Health; and now, this week’s announcements. I have made it clear that throughout I have been following a deliberate, evidence based process, drawing on emerging international best practice, and that further evolutions are inevitable.

What has become clear, however, in even the reporting of this week’s developments is that some considerable misconceptions still remain. While most people now seem to understand that what we are talking are medical products based around extracts from the cannabis plant, rather than the raw leaf itself (for which there is absolutely no political appetite across parties for change), there is still confusion about how such products ought to be treated.

Presently, medical products that are not registered in New Zealand as pharmaceuticals are effectively unregulated – which is why there is the provision in the Medicines Act for them to be approved on a case by case basis by the Minister (which has been the case up until my decision this week for cannabis based medicines – so the call by some editorial writers to just treat cannabis based medicines the same way as other pharmaceuticals is misplaced. That cannot happen until and unless such products are registered as pharmaceuticals, something that the composition of most of them makes very unlikely. At the same time, it would be grossly irresponsible to allow such products to be prescribed on a totally unregulated basis, and I can only begin to imagine what the public outcry would be were that to happen and things go wrong. The ill-founded hysteria that accompanied the attempts to create a regulated market for synthetic cannabis products a few years ago is a classic reminder in that regard.

Another issue that is often raised is that of protection of people with terminal conditions who chose to use some form of cannabis to ease their suffering. The New South Wales regime where terminal patients can go a register which means they will not be harassed by the Police over their cannabis use is cited as an example of what we should be doing here. In New Zealand, both the Police and the Government have made it clear over a long period of time that we have no interest in pursuing people using cannabis in such circumstances, so the practical difference between the New South Wales and New Zealand situations is essentially cosmetic. However, it may be worth further consideration, if it is seen as giving vulnerable, suffering people a little more assurance at a very stressful time of their lives.

Overall, my intention all along has been to establish an environment within which cannabis based medical products can be prescribed for patients with conditions where it has been shown that there would be benefit from having access to such products. That requires an open and pragmatic response from medical practitioners, and I am very keen to ensure that doctors are fully aware of the options and willing to discuss these with patients. For patients, my advice is equally clear: if a patient feels they might benefit from a cannabis based medicine they should talk to their doctors in the first instance.

As I have said many times, this is an evolving area internationally. There are potential benefits for certain categories of patients. We need to be open to facilitating these possibilities, with falling prey to the emotionalism, misinformation and self-interest of those with a wider pro-cannabis agenda.       








Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, wisley observed that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. It is a point that the world should perhaps have pondered more when candidate, and now forty-fifth President, Donald Trump pledged during the last Presidential election campaign to ban Muslim immigration to the United States. No-one then took the pledge to be anything more than empty campaign rhetoric, and outside of the United States even fewer people expected him to be elected to office anyway.

Well, now it has happened, and to confound matters, this most unusual and unpredictable of Presidents seems hell-bent on keeping his election promises, at least the more outlandish of them. All this puts the rest of the world, especially America’s allies and close friends in a quandary. Do they turn a blind eye to what he is doing, in the hope, perhaps, that after the flush of excitement wears off, the President will “come to his senses”, or do they speak out now to possibly circumvent the next move? The Statue of Liberty does still bear the legend “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” after all!

What is currently happening in the United States is certainly contrary to the principles its Founding Fathers espoused so eloquently. George Washington’s famous aspiration, “I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong,” has defined the United States for nearly 250 years. It has been given constant effect in American history from the nineteenth century migrations, through to the German and Jewish refugees of the 1930s, and the Asian refugees of the 1970s. The United States have been the world’s great melting-pot. Until now.


So, what, if anything, should New Zealand do? Fulminating against the President (while possibly good for the soul) ultimately goes only so far. So, for a start, we obviously need to clarify quickly any potential impact the new American policy might have on New Zealand residents with passports from the affected countries, and to offer them whatever support is appropriate. (Reports dual nationals are not affected unless they have visited one of the seven banned countries in the last five years are still concerning and confusing.)

As to the wider question, as a small nation, we have historically played our part, albeit parsimoniously at times. The resettlement of the Polish children under Peter Fraser is our shining light, but we have responded well on other occasions as well. We have always acted on the basis of perceived need, rather than the political views or religious affiliations of those in strife.  We have always upheld the value that former President Obama promoted just this week, “We do not have religious tests to our compassion.”

An obvious move we could make is to increase the number of refugees we accept each year. A doubling in our refugee quota has long been argued for. That would be a good start, but our overall approach to immigration also needs to change, because we do not fill the annual quotas we have now. Resettlement policy should no longer just be the preserve of central government, a tap to be turned on and off as it suits, if you like. Rather, we need to involve local government, business and the community far more than is currently the case, as part of an overall long-term population strategy.

At another level, the events of the last week – in New Zealand as much as in the United States – have reinforced the place of a party like United Future in our political spectrum, with its overt commitment to keeping our country open, tolerated and united. We need to be unafraid of upholding diversity, and supporting creativity, innovation, and New Zealand’s place in the world. These are enduring liberal values, under a pressure they have not faced for at least two generations. Although they are common sense, reflective of the shared values of our communities, they cannot continue to be taken granted, and so need their champions.

We need to give those New Zealanders who share them an explicit place in our political discourse which they can rally around.  After all, Thomas Jefferson’s observation is as relevant now as it ever was.