Wednesday, 13 September 2017

“Time for a Change” is a mantra often used by political parties seeking office to capture what they imagine to be a public mood of the time. Sometimes the call works, and sometimes it does not. The voter, after all, is always right.
 
But political change and renewal are constant processes, regardless of how the political winds may be blowing, There is a steady turnover of politicians in New Zealand, even if our governments do not change that often.
 
The 51st Parliament was dissolved recently for the 2017 General Election. Yet before a vote was cast in that election, or a single result declared, change had already occurred. Twenty-eight of the 121 MPs elected in 2014 – just under 25%  – have either left during the term or declared they would not be seeking re-election, and that is before the electoral grim reaper has cut any swathe at all. And such a turnover is not unusual. Only 54% of the MPs elected to Parliament in 2011 are seeking re-election in 2017. With regard to Ministers, the turnover is just as strong. Of the 25 Ministers appointed to the Helen Clark Government in 1999, only 10 were still in office when that Government fell in 2008. Of John Key’s original 27 Ministers in 2008, a mere one third (9) are seeking re-election this year.
 
The lament is often heard that MPs have been there too long, and that fresh blood is needed. Well, the facts tell a somewhat different story – only 22 of the MPs currently seeking re-election were in Parliament just 10 years ago (and about five of them have been out and in in that time). Just 12 MPs seeking re-election were in Parliament 15 years ago. Should Labour lead the next Government, it will have a steep experience wall to climb as only 6 of its MPS (including 5 former Ministers) were in the last Labour-led Government in 2008. That is not altogether surprising, since over the years since the election of our first Parliament in 1852, the average length of service of an MP in New Zealand has been a little over 6 years.  
 
What these figures also show is that New Zealand voters are quite good at changing their Members of Parliament reasonably frequently, without necessarily changing the government. Indeed, it may well be that because the turnover of Members of Parliament is so steady, and the process of renewal is so constant, the pressure for more frequent changes of government is mitigated to some extent. As the examples of the Clark and Key/English Ministries show, even the turnover of Ministers is substantial over the life of a government.
 
So, whatever the election outcome, the 52nd Parliament to be elected next week will be vastly different from its predecessor. More young people, more women, and more diversity are likely, even before the possibility of changing electoral fortunes is factored in. But, for all that, it will be sobering to realise that it is likely that the majority of our next set of MPs will have served less three terms in Parliament, and that some of them at least may be running the country.        
  
   
 

Tuesday, 5 September 2017


Are we witnessing the death of MMP? It is not beyond the realms of possibility that after this election Parliament may return to the essentially two-party club (with periodic blips) it was for roughly half a century prior to the shift to proportional representation in 1996.

 

If you believe current polling, the Greens will be lucky to be in the next Parliament. There are mounting rumours that ACT’s hold on Epsom may not be that secure, and with New Zealand First hovering just above the 5% threshold, its hold on Northland becomes all the more critical. There must be a strengthening temptation for National to run an all-out campaign to return that seat to the true-blue status it enjoyed for around 70 years prior to the 2015 by-election (save the 1966-69 Social Credit interlude). In so doing, it would also rid itself of a proven destructive coalition partner. In short, of the minor parties, only the Maori Party seems assured of being in Parliament after the election, and, if the election does come down to a drag-race between National and Labour, the Maori Party’s may be too small to add much to the equation anyway.

 

Under this scenario, National would probably emerge the outright winner, once the high waste vote factor has been taken in to account. A single party, majority National Government would be just as dramatic an outcome as the majority Conservative Government David Cameron was able to put together in Britain in 2105 after the years of coalition  with the Liberal Democrats.

 

The probability of this scenario coming depends on the level of voter discontent t with the multiparty governing arrangements we have had since 1996. While there is no obvious sense of voter disenchantment with multiparty governments, it is arguable that this is because in government both the major parties have been blessed with support parties that have not been sufficiently large in size to seriously threaten to derail the government’s agenda. (In this regard, it must be noted that both the formal coalitions established under MMP – National/New Zealand First between 1996-98 and Labour/Alliance from 1999-2002 – failed to last the full three year term, which underlines the point.) Faced with the prospect that either a continuing National-led Government or an incoming Labour-led one may have to rely on either New Zealand First or the Greens to govern, both of whom are likely to be stroppy partners at best, voters may well decide that it is much easier this time to cut out the middle man altogether, and vote directly for the major party they wish to lead the next government. In which case, we will have come full circle from the mood of disillusionment with the so-called elected dictatorship of the Muldoon era and the Fourth Labour government that led to the switch to MMP in the first place.

 

Now, while all this may be an unlikely scenario to pass, it is nonetheless most likely one that will have crossed the minds of National and Labour strategists as they go for broke in the ever tightening race this election has become. After all, the very best way to ensure you can put all your agenda in place without compromise is to be free of partner encumbrances, who might wish to moderate or stop some policies altogether. So, in the context of the desperate surge for absolute victory both sides are now engaged in, Britain’s SAS’s famous motto “Who Dares, Wins” may yet become the mantra that decides who governs next.            

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 30 August 2017


Since my announcement last week that I was not seeking re-election to Parliament, after 33 years as an MP, a couple of things have taken me by surprise.

 

First, has been the totally unexpected reaction to my announcement. The volume and warmth of the hundreds of messages that I have received from all over the country from so many different people has stunned me. I had not expected that. I felt I was just doing my job, but I have been humbled by, and am extraordinarily grateful to, so many for the very kind sentiments they have expressed. My heartfelt thanks to all of you for your messages.

 

The second thing that has surprised me is how quickly I have disengaged from the active political process. While I will retain my Ministerial warrant and responsibilities until the formation of the next government, and will carry out my duties fully in that time, I have already made the switch from active participant to interested observer, when it comes to day-to-day politics.

 

And, as that has happened, some scales have fallen from my eyes, and I have begun to see politics more from the perspective of the average citizen perhaps, than the active career politician. Already I have come to see many of my soon-to-be former colleagues through a different prism. I smile quietly but cynically at their strutting earnest ways and the egregious ever-so-keen-to-please and not offend tones of the political wannabes, now realising that until recently I too was playing the same games. I watch the news media, taking themselves ever so seriously as they rush breathlessly from one photo-op to the next, pontificating about this bit of trivia or that, as though it really counts for anything, all the while allowing themselves to be manipulated by the absolute worst of politicians focused on nothing more than their own promotion.

 

All this furious activity, chasing political leaders up and down the country, from one day to the next may be great for Air New Zealand, but does nothing for the carbon footprint or the credibility of the political process as a whole. It has all the trappings of a circus rather than a serious democratic event by which we elect our government for the next three years.

 

If this is how a soon-to-be-former politician views things, just over a week after deciding to leave, one can only begin to imagine how long-suffering voters must feel about all this, all the time.

 

I have always treated politics as a serious business, where the great issues of the day were debated properly and thoroughly; where local politicians earned the trust and respect of their communities because of their presence within and immediate connection to those communities; and, where getting to know political leaders was based around personal interactions, not slick media profiles or glossy magazine interviews. In short, in my world, trust was earned through hard work and practical achievement, not manufactured by a public relations profile and other inanities.

 

As this weird election campaign is showing, none of that seems to matter anymore, which is why it is probably time for me to go. A world where the country’s future is potentially determined by vacuous smiles or predeterminedly angry snarls is not for me. Policy debate is seen as boring or a nuisance which detracts from the drama of a succession of mini-scandals which pre-occupy the media. Even when the discussion is about policy debates between the party leaders, it quickly turns into which media personality should moderate the debates, not the substance of the policy issues themselves.

 

One of the reasons why people, young people in particular, switch off politics and voting is because they do not see it has any relevance to them. Given the facile approach being taken to this election, their indifference is hardly surprising. More of the same, through superficial promises, shallow politicians and an indulgent media will not change any of this. Voters will engage only when they see there is a point to it. At the moment, they simply do not.

 

The challenge of the next three weeks until the election is to make politics relevant to the interests of voters again. Politicians and the media are in the same boat here. Victory will deservedly go to whoever can talk to New Zealanders about their real concerns and hopes, not lecture them about what they think those concerns and hopes should be. Through my new unclouded lens, I will be watching developments with considerable interest and a new dispassionate curiosity.              

 

 

 

 

  

   

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 9 August 2017


It may seem strange to suggest it now, but the dust will soon settle on the political turmoil of the last ten days, and a form of normalcy will return, the imminent advent of the formal election campaign notwithstanding. And when that dust has settled, some basic realities will be clear.

 

The Labour Party has replaced a grim and dour leader New Zealanders would never have made their Prime Minister with someone more telegenic and permanently smiling who is likely to staunch the bleeding of Labour’s wounds. Whether she can, or will or be acceptable as a potential  Prime Minister remains to be seen, although the early signs are that style more than substance will be her hallmarks.

 

And, after a contorted public display of political hari kiri, the Green Party’s co-leader finally resigned. This seems due not so much to her truly bizarre admissions of welfare and electoral abuse a quarter of a century ago, as to the defiant and smug arrogance of her subsequent public comments, and the extraordinarily heavy-handed reactions of her colleagues to two Green MPs who dared criticise her. They were summarily dispatched with a brutality reminiscent of the best of totalitarian regimes, while at the same time the Party tried to stick to its long held mantra of being the one Party of principle. The picture that emerged instead – and which subsequent opinion polls confirm – is of a Party that condones welfare and electoral law abuse, particularly by one of its own, and is utterly intolerant of dissent or criticism. The collective moral failure of the Party’s MPs and leadership has been palpable and punished accordingly.

 

With these momentous events now behind the electorate, if not for the Parties themselves, voters’ focus will quickly return to more basis issues. They will be considering whether the reconfigured Labour and Green Parties, with their Memorandum of Understanding apparently still intact, are better placed to form a viable and coherent government than they were a couple of weeks ago. The chaos of the last few days, their apparent euphoria notwithstanding, makes that a much a more arguable proposition. Few would agree these recent events have demonstrated they are now more able to provide good and stable government than before.

 

And how does the current National-led Government, with support from ACT, the Maori Party and UnitedFuture, look by comparison? Has its position as a reliable and stable combination that has served New Zealand well over the last nine years been enhanced or weakened by recent events? On balance, the conclusion would have to be that the contrast between strong, reliable and focused government and unimaginable chaos has never been starker.

 

New Zealand First will be smarting that it has been largely sidelined by the recent shenanigans, despite its solid support in provincial New Zealand. However, its problem is more fundamental. Its current crop of MPs is the most singularly uninspiring and inept to have been in parliament for a while – and believe me, having seen many such groupings over the years, I do not say this lightly. The problem is that it therefore cannot risk exposing them to too much public scrutiny, lest they be found out. And that means having to maintain the focus on the Party leader and his idiosyncratically destructive style of politics.

 

All of which will make for a fascinating few weeks ahead. Expect National and its allies to continue to try sailing in the smooth waters of competence, reliability and experience. There will be a number of business as usual policy announcements to maintain both the image and the sense of a coherent strategy for the way ahead, with allowance for the diversity of views it support partners offer. For Labour and the Greens, excitement and vibrancy will be the dominant themes, but the challenge will be showing a sense of cohesion and consistency, unlike anything they have shown to date, and getting their leaders to answer the hard questions posed of them, rather than just make glib policy pronouncements. For New Zealand First, it will be politics as usual, picking the familiar social and political scabs in an effort to fuel distrust in the system and reinforce its self-sought image as the “you tell ‘em” Party.

 

As politics as usual returns, some voters may be forgiven for yearning for more of the drama of the last two weeks.      

 

 

  

   

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 2 August 2017


 Jacinda Ardern has my warmest congratulations, my best wishes, and my immense commiserations as she takes on the role of Leader of the Opposition, which she herself has described as “the worst job in politics.” She is right – it probably is just ahead of being Leader of the Labour Party today. Unfortunately for Jacinda, this week she inherited both.

 

She has done so at a time when Labour is probably at its lowest ebb since 1931, and unlike then, when the tide would rise, this time the ebb may be beyond recovery. Over the last 100 years or so there has been a natural life cycle for major parties of around 60 to 80 years. Labour today is just over 100 years old – our oldest and longest surviving party. Curiously, minor parties, possibly because of their definition, do not seem caught as rigidly. Their life cycles are far more erratic, perhaps because they are often more likely to be based around a dominant individual, and their destiny consequently linked to that person’s career, even if the philosophies they represent often emerge elsewhere subsequently. But, for major parties, the pattern seems far more pre-destined. Only a dullard, or a “my party, right or wrong” fanatic would deny that reality.

 

In the early 1900s, the Liberals post Seddon, and then in the 1920s conservative Reform post Massey went through this process, culminating in the rise of the Labour Party from 1916 and the advent of the National Party in 1936. Now, since the 1990s, the rise of left-wing alternatives to Labour – first, the Alliance, and now the Greens – are snapping at Labour’s heels. The inevitable outcome, maybe sooner rather than later, is that Labour and the Greens will stop cannibalising each other’s votes and refashion themselves into a modern social democratic party on the left of politics. It may well be that in bringing this together Jacinda Ardern will make her greatest contribution.

           

Labour’s traditional working class base has been shrinking since the advent of containerisation in the 1970s, and the social conservatism of many of those remaining voters today probably sits more comfortably with the populism of New Zealand First anyway. Certainly, the book of the moment, JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which offers a credible explanation of the rise of Trumpism in the United States and the rejection there by working class voters in the Rust Belt of traditional left-wing politics in last year’s Presidential election, supports that thesis. The chasm now emerging between the diminishing traditional working class that Labour has relied on, and the middle class progressives who over the past 50 years have moved from Holyoake’s property owning democracy, through Labour’s social liberalism on issues like racism and nuclear weapons, to now reside comfortably with the Greens, has left Labour increasingly bereft. Now the Greens are the coming force of the left of politics, and it is not inconceivable to imagine a Jacinda Ardern/James Shaw team emerging to lead a new single party in the future. At that point, Labour’s current trauma will end, and the new grouping will at last be able to present itself as the modern viable, left-wing alternative.

 

While National might be safe in the meantime, by virtue of being the very dominant major party in government, it cannot be complacent. Its day will come too, and it will face the same realignment issues that its old nemesis Labour does today. But, in National’s case, it is a little more difficult to see immediately how the realignment might occur. The erratic populism of New Zealand First means that, should it survive, it will probably not be part of this process, although its remnants will most likely remain the Social Credit equivalent that has been a near constant feature of our politics over the last 60 years. By themselves, ACT, UnitedFuture and the Maori Party are probably currently too small, but taken together their particular niches – libertarian laissez-faire; liberalism and aspirational Maori nationalism – could all be valuable additions to the post-National mix whenever it occurs.

 

And then, as these new parties form, so too will their respective challengers, setting off the process all over again. As Andrew Little found out this week, in New Zealand politics nothing is forever.      

 

 

 

 

 

  

   

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 26 July 2017


The recent deaths of eight people in Auckland from using new psychoactive substances are appalling.

 

Inevitably, they have caused much speculation and comment, and a lot of that has been widely inaccurate, and off the mark.

 

At the risk of repeating some of the remarks I made a couple of weeks ago, a brief history lesson is in order. Psychoactive substances, legal highs, have been around for a very long time. Their origins internationally date back to various medical formulae developed in the 1960s as potential cures for common diseases which, although not effective in that role, were found to have a psychoactive effect, and hence created a market opportunity for those wishing to promote them as such. They first appeared in New Zealand in the 1990s but it was during the first decade of the 2000s that the explosion of legal highs on the international market, and the problems they were likely to cause, first became apparent. At that time, they were being sold freely at convenience stores up and down the country, with absolutely no regulation or control over product content, or to whom they were being sold.

 

I took the first significant step to control the spread of these substances in 2010 when I put legislation through Parliament to allow bans of up to two years to be imposed on psychoactive substances considered to be dangerous, or to contain illegal substances. Under the temporary ban regime, 43 substances and many more product combinations were banned between 2011 and 2013. But it soon became clear that the international pyschoactives industry was so extensive that we, along with most other countries, were going to have difficulty keeping ahead of the game.

 

Our 2013 Psychoactive Substances Act set up a system whereby registered manufacturers  must submit their products for testing to prove they of low risk to users, before being permitted to sell them in a highly regulated market. When the legislation was passed, there were around 4,000 convenience stores up and down the country selling more than 300 different legal high products, without any control or restriction. The day the legislation took effect, as an interim step, the 4,000 stores were immediately reduced to around 150 R18 stores only, and the product range slashed to around 41 products. That interim step was always intended to be just that and I removed it altogether a few months later, leaving no legal stores, and no products to sell. Because Parliament prohibited at the same time animal testing as a way to verify the low risk of products (a proper decision in my view), no manufacturers have subsequently applied for manufacturing licences, no new products have been submitted for testing, and none have been approved for sale.

 

However, the absence of a regulated market has had the undesirable – and as I said at the time, inevitable – consequence of driving the psychoactive market underground. What we are now seeing emerging in Auckland are completely unregulated illegal products, the precise composition and toxicity of which are not known, because they are not able to be tested, being sold on the black market. Some concoctions may have been prepared overseas and smuggled across the border, others may be local mixtures, but all are lethal. The claims being made that this awful situation is all the fault of the Psychoactive Substances Act regime, because it opened up the market, when in reality it closed it down, are palpably ignorant, and show a wilful and deliberate misunderstanding of the facts. 

 

Right now, my immediate concern is the current situation, which seems to mirror what has been happening in other countries in recent months. I have set up an emergency response team in Auckland, involving the Ministry of Health, Auckland’s District Health Boards and the Police to work together to identify the particular substances being used, have them tested, and provide appropriate treatment for affected persons.

 

In the longer term, though, we need better information about the flow of new psychoactive substances potentially coming over our borders. There are potentially hundreds more such substances yet to be released. That is why New Zealand is working with other countries to establish an early warning system by which we can share information with others on current developments. That system is likely to be in place next year.

 

And then there is the question of the Psychoactive Substances Act. The regulated market it sought to establish is still the best way forward, but the issue of animal testing has to be overcome. I have therefore asked Ministry of Health officials to review this matter to see if credible alternatives have yet been developed internationally that we can draw upon.


Now my critics say that all this is merely displacement activity – that there would be no problem with psychoactive substances if we simply legalised natural cannabis, and that my efforts are really just flapping around the edges, so I should grasp the nettle of cannabis law reform. Well, I have two responses to that. First, since 2013 I have set out consistently, more so than most politicians, a framework for reforming cannabis law, based around the Psychoactive Substances Act and Portugal’s health centred approach. The Drug Foundation has now proposed a similar approach. My second response is that, contrary to what some might naively imagine, I cannot do this by the stroke of a pen. Change requires support in Parliament, and with National and Labour staunchly opposed, that is unlikely any time soon, no matter what I might think.

 

So, in the meantime, my very strong advice to people is to stay well clear of any psychoactive substances – they are dangerous, potentially fatal, and best avoided completely.

 

  

 

 

Wednesday, 19 July 2017


Watching contemporary political developments over recent days gave me an irresistible urge to read once more Lewis Carroll’s whimsical description of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. The account is as delightful as ever – anarchic craziness at its most sublime with absolutely no sense or credible point to it at all.

 

In the last couple of weeks New Zealand politics has displayed all of the absurdities of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. And a largely sycophantic media has lapped it up – with none being prepared to point out, even sotto voce, that all these would-be parading emperors have no clothes. The whirl of the election merry-go-round has been too alluring. Yet we have seen one political party advocate a return to eugenics as the determinant of social policy; another wants to refashion our industrial relations in the mould of the strike-torn 1970s; another wants to reform social assistance to overcome the ills of almost 25 years ago; while another yearns to take New Zealand back to the divisive, overly controlled, socially restrictive Muldoon era as the new Golden Age to be aspired to. Common-sense, reason and balance have been abandoned in the reckless pursuit of style over substance, the bold and the dramatic, over the systematic and the reliable. Whatever way it is viewed, the look is firmly backwards facing, to a mythical yesterday that was never there. No-one has dared to point out this farce.

 

For the last two centuries, civilised societies have been built around the great values of the Age of Enlightenment: liberty, reason, tolerance, and scientific investigation and rigour. Trust and compromise, and the relentless scrutiny of a sceptical, yet informed, free media have been the mechanisms by which our societies have functioned, indeed flourished. Politicians have been generally held to account; their excesses exposed, and the incompetence of those around them been laid bare. All as it should be.

 

Over recent months, we have looked agog at the rise of President Trump in the United States and have sniggered at the international scorn his election and subsequent conduct have occasioned; we have scoffed at the Brexit mess in the United Kingdom that has already brought down one Prime Minister and is well on track to topple the next; and all with a quiet smugness that it could never happen here. We have puzzled why neither the commentariat nor the general public foresaw either events, and have consoled ourselves with the belief that we would be too smart to fall for the same thing here. Yet, as last weekend’s Mad Hatters’ Tea Parties and the circumstances surrounding them have shown, our optimism may have been misplaced. Of course, the abrogation of reason has always been a small factor in our politics, adhered to by a few crackpot bigots, and antediluvian politicians yearning for a better yesteryear. But, we have never taken them seriously.

 

However, all that may be changing. Our increasingly infotainment society seems to be robbing our watchdogs of their capacity to spot and expose cant when it occurs. Critical analysis is giving way to drooling obsequity. The more outlandish, sensational and vacuous a politician or policy commitment, the more likely it seems to be lapped up. And reason, dispassionate judgement, and evidence all risk becoming secondary to prejudice, populism, and trivialisation, as a consequence.

 

Now, more than ever, is the time for those of us in politics because we believe in the traditional liberal values that underpin our society to stand firm as never before. Public service and commitment to good governance remain virtues to be cherished, and evidence based policies to promote overall community and family wellbeing are as important as ever. We need to be building our society around these values, not smashing it down.

 

This is the positive backdrop against which UnitedFuture has developed its policy programme for this election, and beyond. In short, we want a better deal for future generations of New Zealanders, so that our country remains the best place to live, work and raise a family. Everyone living here should have an equal opportunity to thrive, no matter their circumstances, or where they are from. Our focus is on sustaining our environment, our families and our communities for future generations; and, ensuring that the actions we take today contribute to a better future for those who will follow us. The full details are set out on our website, www.unitedfuture.org.nz, for those who wish to peruse them further.

 

So, as the election campaign unfolds, let us focus on constructive policies to move our country forward, rather than the tawdry shyster-run side shows that appear to be looming. Political  discourse and good government are too important to be reduced to be a mere poor re-enactment of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.