Wednesday, 28 May 2014


29 May 2014

Who is a migrant?

At one level, all of us are migrants – it is just a matter of when we arrived here. At another, if you believe New Zealand First’s bigots and Labour’s xenophobes, we are being overrun today by hordes of migrants arriving here with the expressed purpose of buying up all our houses.

This is not one of those arguments where the truth lies in the middle – because it does not. The first proposition (that we are a migrant nation) is far closer to the truth than some of us might care to appreciate. The second is merely racist buncombe.  But that is not really the nub of the argument.

Of far more concern is the developing race between various political parties – now from National downwards – to take the allegedly “responsible” line of proposing immigration curbs. (Perhaps the most ludicrous of the many comments so far was that of the Labour leader who said the problem had arisen because too many New Zealanders were returning and not enough are leaving!)

The reality is that immigration is not just a crude tap to be turned on and off to fit the prevailing political mood. It is in fact a core component of population policy, something we have never had, but which should lie at the heart of our environmental and societal sustainability.

In the rather unseemly debate now occurring, where we are just one fragile step away from defying history’s sober lesson and formally blaming migrants for a range of social ills, only one party – UnitedFuture – is so far prepared to stand in opposition to the approaching tide.

This is because of our strong belief that New Zealand does need a dramatic boost in its population over the next few years, if New Zealand is to retain a sufficiently viable economic base to protect its sovereignty. And then there is the contribution that immigration makes to our national diversity.

The mix of immigrants to New Zealand, from Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Pacific, alongside our indigenous Māori dimension, has the unique capacity to shape the New Zealander of the future as a person like no other in the world. Our children and grandchildren can have the privileged opportunity of growing up in the world’s first genuinely equal multi-ethnic society, and in turn being equally at home in the various worlds that compose our national tapestry. Our generation has the chance to make this happen, and it is an exciting challenge we should not shy away from.

But then, the grim reality of the contemporary New Zealand debate arises again – a narrow, increasingly bitter and small-minded discussion focused on securing short-term political advantage.

This is a race to the bottom we do not need, nor deserve. Our country’s future, literally, depends on leadership prepared to be firm and principled, and acting in the long-term interests of our country. We need politicians with the boldness to provide that.    

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 21 May 2014


22 May 2014

Despite constant claims that New Zealand follows an independent foreign policy, the truth is that we have never been far from the cringe factor.

From Michael Joseph Savage’s “where Britain goes, we go” sycophancy at the start of World War II, to Helen Clark’s quick signing up to Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 (although not to the subsequent Iraq war) New Zealand governments have always had an eye to the main chance when it comes to foreign policy, lest it impact too adversely on wider trade relationships. (Even the anti-nuclear Lange government pulled some of its punches and worked furiously behind the scenes to protect trade relationships.) That of itself is no bad thing, and an inevitable consequence of our size and place in the world. But let us see it for what it is – and not disguise it as an independent foreign policy.

So it is against that background that the present government’s attitude to drone strikes and intelligence sharing is best considered. The long game is still about New Zealand’s ability to trade, and gain access to markets through bilateral or multilateral agreements, like the TPP. Extra-judicial killings, particularly of New Zealand citizens, are awkward and embarrassing and not our preferred option. Nor is the use of New Zealand sourced intelligence data for such purposes quite what we might have liked, but, remember, the long game is still more important. To that extent, even though nearly half a century separates them, John Key’s approach is little different from Keith Holyoake’s “dovish hawk” style over Vietnam in the 1960s. 

If television videotape footage brought the Vietnam war into people’s living rooms, which rendered the blind faith implicit in the Savage declaration a generation earlier a nullity (even though Holyoake’s Australian counterpart Harold Holt could still win an election landslide in 1966 on the slogan “All the way with LBJ!”), satellite communications and the revelations of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden make fudging over drone strikes and intelligence sharing an impossibility. So, best to ignore the game that cannot be won and come back to the long game – to paraphrase Bill Clinton: “it’s trade, stupid.”  That is why the visit to the White House is timely to push the TPP agenda and our Security Council candidacy, to secure our trade objectives, and why there will be no discussion on drone strikes and intelligence sharing.

Once that balance is re-established and some optimism kindled that there will be success on those fronts, then the “we don’t really like it, but that’s the way it is” stance can be resumed safely. Fair enough, people at home will say. And any external irritation our occasional grumpiness may cause will be mitigated by the fact that we are still in the camp. Just as it was with Holyoake over Vietnam.

He was often ridiculed at home for being too pragmatic, too consensus driven. Today, he is remembered as a canny operator, with his finger firmly on the public pulse. And, most significantly, as the man who won four straight elections.

Thursday, 15 May 2014


16 May 2014

There is a political dictum not to get involved with animals or children because they invariably upstage you.

Richard III may have found that at Bosworth, when he lost his kingdom, but for a horse. William Huskisson, the British Cabinet Minister, might have wished for a horse when he stepped inadvertently in front of Stephenson’s Rocket in 1830 at the opening of the Liverpool to Manchester line and became history’s first rail fatality. And Winston Peters is probably feeling the same after his links to the racehorse Bellazeel were questioned this week.

There is a more serious point to this. Events in the New Zealand Parliament have shown a most appalling decline in accepted standards of conduct in recent weeks, with accusations and counter-accusations being flung around with willing abandon. And we have seen social media like Twitter being employed to make accusations that are simply extreme, and unacceptable in any other medium. Some MPs have revelled apparently in their slime-wrestling ability, rather than hide in shame at their cretinous behaviour.

It is argued that the immediacy of a general election explains the egregious behaviour we are now witness to, but that is no credible excuse. Oafish, boorish behaviour, misuse or ignoring altogether of established procedures, is never acceptable or justifiable, whatever the circumstances. Yet that is what we are being reduced to.

I am not excusing lapses of judgement by Ministers, or failure to make proper disclosures, but I am saying that the mere suggestion of such does not justify due process being tossed aside in favour of the lynch mob. The political parties themselves have a responsibility here – if not to themselves, but to the nation – to insist on the highest standards of conduct and behaviour of their MPs, at all times, and to stop falling into the trap we have seen too frequently in recent weeks, that perceived failings by one side justify all-out attack by the other, without any regard for accepted standards.

The advent of social media and the immediacy of communication it has led to raise particular issues which Parliament has not yet adapted to dealing with. Spur of the moment inflammatory Tweets ought to be considered in the same way as traditional public or media comments when it comes to considering whether they breach established rules of Parliamentary Privilege.

As an aside, I was reminded of the same issue during the presentation of this year’s Budget, when I was able to read most of it on Twitter, admittedly just after the 2:00 pm embargo was lifted, but long before the Minister of Finance got to those bits in his speech. Where does that sit alongside traditional concepts of Budget secrecy?

So maybe the answer is just to forget about horses and children, where I began, and simply run the whole process on social media and let reputations come and go at a whim to fulfil Alexander Pope’s famous line in “The Rape of Lock” – “At every word a reputation dies.” A 302 year old preview of Election 2014 perhaps?

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday, 8 May 2014


9 May 2014

Among the many extraordinary Parliamentary events this week was the surge of moral hysteria and sanctimony that accompanied the passage of two very simple amendments to the Psychoactive Substances Act.

To recap: I recommended to the Cabinet just over two weeks ago that the interim approvals for some 41 substances be withdrawn because of questions being raised about the level of risk associated with them, and I further recommended to the Prime Minister last weekend that we take the opportunity to make it clear in the legislation that we would not be requiring animal testing as part of the new regulatory regime for the approval of psychoactive substances.

These two simple decisions – which in reality extend the scope of, rather than diminish – the provisions of the Psychoactive Substances Act have been widely portrayed as a ban by any other name on these substances. Politicians, media, and local authority leaders have clambered over each other to be loudest in what can only be described as the shout of wilful ignorance. And, as the promoter of both the substantive legislation and this week’s amendments, I have been pilloried for my consistent comments, to which I hold,  that bans on these substances do not work, and that a better regulatory framework is what is needed. And that is exactly what I have delivered – not once, but twice now.

By now, the remaining psychoactive substances should be off the shelves, pending submission by their manufacturers to the regulatory authority in due course for approval as low-risk. But will the moral panic die? Probably not. The black market and stockpiled products mean a number of the substances will still be around for a while, and then there is always the prospect of at least some of the current products returning to the market, after they have been through the regulatory process. And that is not to mention the strong likelihood that other psychoactive synthetic compounds, not yet known, will be developed, and will pose the same regulatory challenges that led to the development of the Psychoactive Substances Act.

All of which raises the need for calm heads, not grandstanding local and national politicians seeking to make short term capital, as we work our way through the issues. It may be beyond the ability of some of them to comprehend, but this is a far bigger issue than just synthetic cannabis, and my focus has always been on a establishing a viable, future proofed regulatory regime, as I have done. Yes, in retrospect the original legislation last year probably should not have included interim product approvals, and all known products should have been required to be submitted for testing at that time. In the less frenzied atmosphere then, without a pending general election, that would have been a logical outcome of the move to a regulated market, and no-one would have seriously called it a ban. But that was then, and this is now. So, if a week in politics is a long time, a year is an absolute eternity!        

Thursday, 1 May 2014


2 May 2014

Time out is often a great way to refresh one’s sense of perspective.

I have spent the last few days on the Chatham Islands where the problems and issues of Wellington have seemed far away as we discussed the reality of life for the 600 or so souls who inhabit the main island. For example, our visit to Pitt Island coincided with the arrival of the supply vessel, which mean that about 30 or the island’s 50 residents gathered on the local wharf to welcome it and watch as their supplies were offloaded.

Back on the main island much interest in recent days has focused on the towing of a barge containing a large crane over to Pitt to assist with the reconstruction of the island’s wharf. The tow was the main topic of conversation in many of our meetings, and the sense of relief palpable when the tow began, and especially when it was completed successfully.

These stories may appear trivial to some, but their predominance is an inevitable focus of life on small isolated island communities, where the sense of engagement will always be that much stronger.

Discussions with local people drive home a real sense of reality: the quest for opportunity, and the high cost of living. Fuel and energy costs, for example, account for well over half most household budgets, and there is the inexorable drift of population west to New Zealand for education and employment.

In these circumstances one might be forgiven for anticipating a sense of expectation that New Zealand is a sugar-daddy to hand out largesse to the Chathams as required, but that is absolutely not the case. I saw a strong sense of self-determination and pride, with the prevailing wish that the Chathams should shape their own destiny, then work in partnership with New Zealand to achieve that.

Now all this raises questions about New Zealand’s current approach. We have carved out a fine record in recent years in our relationships with many of our Pacific neighbours, with whom we have enduring relationships, based very much on providing practical assistance and material aid to assist them achieve their priorities. We are justifiably proud of what we have done in this space, and rightly so.

This is the same spirit and tangible approach we need to follow with the Chathams. They are, after all, an inalienable part of our country and our closest offshore territory, excluding the islands of the Hauraki Gulf.

My time on the Chathams was enjoyable and inspiring, and a welcome relief to the psychoactive substances drama I have been dealing with in recent weeks. As one of the locals said to me before I boarded the plane, “you’re lucky, we have no legal highs here, we just go for the real stuff!”