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.    



Tuesday, 24 January 2017

24 January 2017

Congratulations Donald Trump! I do not support anything you stand for, and certainly would not have voted for you, had I been an American citizen eligible to vote last year. Nor do I think you will be a good President for the United States or the world. No, congratulations are due because in less than week in office you have arguably changed the nature of political discourse for years to come, and so are already probably already the most influential American President of recent times. In classic Orwellian doublespeak, you will succeed, even if all your policies fail, because you will be constantly telling us what a success you are. Your supporters are already so disillusioned and embittered that they do not expect you to be able to make things better for them, even if you serve the full two terms. They support you because they think you understand their pain.

We know a little about this in New Zealand, especially those of us who went through the Muldoon years. He promised to “rebuild our shattered economy” and create 410,000 jobs “for your children and your children’s children”. Yet during his time, debt, inflation and unemployment all rose to near record levels. No matter, he still proclaimed his belief in the “Muldoon economic miracle”, and lectured the world on economic reform. But, to be fair, he paled alongside you. And it has taken us only a generation to get over the damage he wrought.

Even all these years later, and after pretentious academics, economists, business leaders and others have written so many terrible things about him, he still has his admirers – politicians prepared to deny reality if they think there is a heart string to be plucked, or a vote to be gained. They share your distaste of science and evidence because it can be awkward. We have some calling for the reopening of a mine where 29 men died so tragically over six years ago, even though all the evidence says the mine is still unstable and unsafe to enter. We have a major housing problem in Auckland, our biggest city, and some politicians are calling for a ban on sales of houses there to people with foreign sounding names to solve the problem, even though the facts show only about 3% of Auckland homes are sold to real foreigners. Your idea of a wall of just building a wall to stop foreigners entering in the first place sounds so much bolder.

Your intelligence agencies may have told you we have an election in a few months. (Oh, I forgot, you do not trust them because they found out about the Russians hacking computers to swing the election your way.) But, anyway, your imitators here are likely to try the same tricks you did last year – you know, all the post truth politics stuff, and, the one I really like, that your staff released last week – the alternative facts idea. However, I do not think they will do as well as you. Partly, because they are not as bright as you keep telling us you are (some of them try to tell us how bright they are, but it does not really wash, because we know they are just narcissists and bullies, something you would never let anyone accuse you of.) But the bigger problem is New Zealanders are a bit too cynical. We are a nation of bargain hunters, and are much more likely to see how something works and whether it will last the distance before actually buying it.

Our political charlatans and snake-oil merchants will be watching you closely over the next few months, to see how you keep getting away with it, and then trying to do the same here.

The problem is our media is still not completely cowered yet, (we do not have an equivalent of Fox News here) and has not quite got the hang of alternative facts, although some are trying hard to. They may not choose to see things the way you do, which will be inconvenient, for your imitators here, but you will be pleased to know the charlatans will still be given plenty of air time because trivia is what counts for news these days, apparently.

On their behalf, I am not worried. I am very confident that as you get into your second and third weeks in office, the art of governing the most powerful nation on earth will be so much clearer to you, and so much more of a breeze that you will have easily found new and convincing ways of making white look black, and no crowds at your inaugural parade look like the greatest public turnout ever in the history of world.

Congratulations, Mr President. You have shown up those of us who believe in politics based on evidence, reason and common sense (the shared values of our community) to be part of the problem. Far better, perhaps, to follow your lead and throw reason and evidence out the window, and rely on simple slogans, and gut prejudices instead. After all, we all only live once, and, anyway, it will be the next generation who have to pick up the pieces from our folly.            






Tuesday, 13 December 2016

So, Bill English is now our Prime Minister. It was an extraordinary turn of events, from John Key’s shock resignation, to a brief 75 hour leadership contest, that saw Mr English quickly prevail, and an only marginally longer contest for the Deputy’s position before it was similarly bloodlessly decided in favour of Paula Bennett.  Barely a week from start to finish. How other parties with more cumbersome and tortuous processes for determining new leaders must have looked on with envy!

Now, a cottage industry has developed trying to work out what Mr English stands for and the direction he will take the National Party and the government. The analysis is made more difficult because of the Key phenomenon. John Key was an intuitive, not an ideological leader, who trusted his instincts and who had an acute sense of the pulse of New Zealanders. He was the man who snapped the National Party out of its post 1990s torpor, and made it electable again. Having achieved that, and not spent too much of the political capital acquired along the way, he has left the party in a position where it can now redefine what it means to be a modern conservative party. 

Bill English is exceptionally well placed to lead this next stage of the National Party’s development. Politically blooded in the hard-line era of the 1990s, and being intimately involved in the unsuccessful attempts to rebuild in the earl y 2000s, he can capitalise on the refresh of the Key era to define anew what the National Party stands for today. Over the years as Minister of Finance he has formed a clear and comprehensive view about the suffering of dysfunctional families, and more importantly how the levers of government can be used in a more strategic way to give them some hope and uplift. He understands that the old arguments about cutting expenditure to let enterprise flourish are sterile and do not work, in just the same way that throwing more and more money at complex problems in the hope of smothering them into submission does not work either. The English approach is more fundamental – clearly understand what the basic problems are and then focus policy and resources on addressing them. It is methodical, thorough and painstaking. And it means National becoming a more socially and strategically interventionist party in a way that parties of the left never could be.

Of course, his more immediate challenge is that there will be an election within a few months. Only two governments in the last nearly 100 years have won the fourth straight term in office National will be seeking. Here is where the political capital built up by John Key becomes important. While the English government will almost certainly make bold and unexpected moves in a number of key areas, it simply will not have the time to complete the social and economic transformation Mr English seeks, before the country goes to the polls. But it will be able to paint a very clear picture of its ongoing vision, and use some of the capital built up by Mr Key in doing so. With Labour likely to focus its campaign on a few particular flashpoint issues, as Mr Little has already indicated, the space will be there for National and Mr English particularly to appeal as the government of substance, mixing achievement with vision, leading New Zealand forward. It will not be easy – the rarity of fourth term governments shows that clearly – but it is eminently possible. And Mr English, who has spent most of the last twenty years or so watching closely the ebbs and flows of New Zealand politics understands that opportunity better than most.

The ease of National’s dramatic leadership change shows a party comfortable with itself and its soul. It is a stark contrast to the protracted leadership campaigns Labour has had in 2011, 2013, and 2014, which have really been battles to reclaim the party’s soul, and still have an unfinished air about them. While voters are often critical of this party or that’s particular policies, they can tolerate them, if the mood is right. The one thing voters revile above all else is infighting and disunity. If they cannot get their own act together, how on earth can they run the country, the maxim goes. National’s seamless change passes the unity test, compared with continued rumblings about what is going inside Labour.

So while all the stars may appear to be aligning in National’s favour, it is perhaps sobering to realise that everything is subject to the glorious uncertainty of politics today. After all, at the start of this year, who would have imagined that by year’s end Britain would have voted to leave European Union, Donald Trump would be President-elect of the United States, and John Key would have abruptly walked away from his job as our Prime Minister?

On that sobering note, Dunne Speaks takes its leave until later January. In the meantime, best wishes to everyone for a happy and peaceful Christmas and a 2017 that allows you the opportunity to fulfil your dreams.     










Tuesday, 6 December 2016

What a difference a week makes! It was former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson who coined the adage in the 1960s that a week is a long time in politics. And that has certainly been the case in New Zealand in the last week.

A week ago, Labour was facing the prospect of a tight race in the Roskill by-election and continuing leadership ructions over Andrew Little’s lack-lustre performance, while John Key was riding as high as ever in the polls, seemingly untroubled as he sailed relentlessly towards a fourth straight election victory next year. Today, all that has changed. Labour has had a resounding victory in the Roskill by-election (mainly because National voters saw it for the formality it was, and since the fate of the government was not at stake, chose to stay home and mow the lawns instead) thereby apparently relieving the pressure on beleaguered leader, Andrew Little. And John Key has, as dramatically as unexpectedly, decided to step aside as Prime Minister. National faces the uncertainties of having to find a new leader and Prime Minister, and adjusting to life post John Key. Labour’s glee, though restrained thus far, is barely disguised. As they see it, their nemesis has been removed, and it therefore should be plain sailing under spinnaker on the downwind leg in the race home to next year’s election.

But despite the hoopla, nothing much has actually changed. Labour is still the party it was last week, wracked by division and uncertainty (remember Nick Legget’s defection?) and Andrew Little is still the same leader he was then, failing to connect with the public or articulate a vison which resonates with middle New Zealand – the people who decide elections. A win in Roskill – a seat held firmly by Labour for all but three of the last 60 years – and John Key’s departure change none of that.

As for National, it is still the government it was last week, following the economic course so carefully steered by Bill English over the last eight years. The captain’s departure from the bridge changes nothing in that regard, nor does it suddenly obliterate the political capital the government has banked over the last eight years. In short, the election is still National’s to lose.

To be blunt, despite its brief relief induced excitement, Labour is no more a credible government-in-waiting than it was a week ago, when most commentators were writing it off. It is still the same old policies and people, nothing has changed. And given its own  succession of drawn out messy leadership challenges over the years it is in no position to point the finger at National’s far more truncated (if now a little crowded) process.  Its grim reality will return once the new Prime Minister is installed, and the momentarily jubilant MPs realise the mountain is still there to be climbed.  But this reality presents both a threat and an opportunity for National.

National’s opportunity is to pick-up and continue the lines from the John Key playbook, providing sensible, inclusive government that does not pander to the extremes. But any attempt by the new leadership to rebrand National post-Key as something else, perhaps to pander to its right wing, or to deviate towards embracing populism and extremism as the road to power would be a foolhardy risk that would deservedly doom it.  Despite some wistful dreaming amongst Parliament’s resident backwoodsmen, New Zealanders are showing no inclination to follow the Brexit and Trump mantras. National needs to remember that.

Speculation beyond that is essentially pointless at this stage. New Zealanders will take the new leadership in their stride – the summer barbecues will be the mulling grounds for their assessment and reaction, with the initial critical verdict to be known in the first round of opinion polls next year.

In the meantime, watching passively but passionately as ever from the sidelines will be John Key – a remarkable New Zealander and an extraordinary Prime Minister. He served New Zealand extremely well, and helped expand our country’s self-confidence and belief in itself. In that, he unleashed an enduring change in our society, the influence of which will be felt for generations. Very few, if any, Prime Ministers can boast that achievement, and no other Prime Minister has been able to leave office at a time of his own choosing, neither deceased, defeated, nor deposed.

As they count their Christmases, Both National and Labour need to reflect long and hard on that.