Thursday, 16 November 2017

The politician and commentator Austin Mitchell once described the New Zealand education system as "a complex balance of groups, so nicely deadlocked as to make change impossible." Undoubtedly accurate as it was a description of educational administration at the time, it is also a description that could be applied, just as accurately, to our current health system.

The complex balance between a central Ministry of Health, allegedly policy focused, with service delivery mechanisms relying on twenty autonomous District Health Boards which the Minister has no power to direct to do anything is ready-made to ensure nothing much ever really changes. When the layer of the plethora of professional interest groups, all pushing their particular concerns in splendid isolation from the wider health sector, is added, it becomes a marvel that anything positive ever happens in health.

Yet it does, which is an unqualified tribute to the skills, professionalism and dedication of medical and nursing staffs up and down the country who do their absolute best for their patients, despite the system they are obliged to work within. It is little surprise, therefore, that while the public is often critical of the health system at a general level, they are unfailingly positive when it comes to relating their own individual experiences of it. To that extent, it could be argued that the health sector succeeds in what Mitchell also described as the basic function of any government agency - "to keep its field of operations quiet" - and just let things carry on. This has also been taken to the extreme in recent years of measuring the success or otherwise of the government of the day's health policy by the extent to which the Minister has been able to keep health stories out of the news.

This somnambulant approach might satisfy the short-term political objectives of the government of the day, and make the Minister look good in the eyes of the public and colleagues, but it does not really go anywhere. Because the public demand for health services is insatiable, and the cost of meeting new services, medications and capabilities always greater than our national ability to pay, the health system will always be under pressure and health professionals dissatisfied.

So, the only way to make fundamental change to break this complex balance of inertia is to look at structures. Do we really still need 20 autonomous DHBs, all mini-national health systems, in a country the size of medium sized city state, and in an age where technological innovation is rapidly simplifying the need for complex structures? The duplication, bureaucracy, and parochialism the current system encourages not only smacks of a bygone age, but is stifling the development of a modern, integrated national public health system. The perennial debate over DHB finances and the level of their deficits, and the difficulty of decision-making around the priority to be accorded the redevelopment of major hospitals are proof of that. They are by no means the only examples.

No-one wants to return to the disruption of the late 1980s and the 1990s, when we lurched from archaic, narrowly focused Hospital Boards, to Area Health Boards, to a centralised Health Funding Authority, and then back to District Health Boards. But, equally, there are very few who would say that the current system is working well. The new Minister is reportedly struggling to come to grips with how to make the system work to meet his objectives, and is frustrated by the functioning of the Ministry of Health. Whatever, he now has a golden opportunity to take a fresh look at the public health sector and the adequacy of its creaking structures,  to make it fit for the purpose for the future. Mitchell described the principal qualification of the Minister of Education to be "a complete inability to get anything through Cabinet", thereby ensuring nothing ever changed, which the spin doctors could present as continuity. How the government approaches health policy may determine whether this soubriquet should also be applied in the future to the Minister of Health.           



Wednesday, 8 November 2017

New Zealand is at times an unlikely and certainly uncomfortable colonial overlord. When former Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand referred in his speeches to countries of the "realm of New Zealand", his language was often mocked as grandiloquent, which just overlooked the precision of his description. The realm of New Zealand refers to those countries like Niue, the Tokelaus, Samoa and the Cook Islands which were previously New Zealand's island territories prior to gaining their independence in the 1960s and early 1970s. New Zealand, however, still retains defence and foreign affairs responsibilities in respect of these countries. Also part of the realm of New Zealand are Antarctica's Ross Island Dependency, the Bounty, Auckland and Kermadec Islands, and the Chatham Islands.

Of all the realm, the Chatham Islands are probably the most overlooked and taken for granted. Yet of all the realm, the Chatham Islands are the most directly linked to New Zealand, but for many these windswept islands about 750 kilometres to our east are largely ignored - the last place named in the national weather forecast,  just before outlook for tomorrow. (TVNZ does not go even that far - neither any map nor forecast ever features the Chathams in its national weather forecasts!) Yet the Chathams are home to over 600 New Zealanders, with an average annual per capita income slightly higher than in New Zealand and significant fishing and other natural resources, but a number of privations consequent upon living on offshore islands.. Perhaps it is because of their comparative proximity to New Zealand and their self-reliance that they have been left largely to their own devices.

During my time as Minister of Internal Affairs (and settlor of the Chatham Islands Investment Trust) I was able to oversee some progress in improving the Islands' basic infrastructure. In the last two Budgets I secured substantial funding (over $50 million) to rebuild the Islands' main wharf at Waitangi, and to repair and upgrade the wharf at Pitt Island. These wharves are vital transport links, as virtually everything has to be shipped into and out of the Islands. Work was also begun on planning the upgrade of the runway and navigational aids at the airport to accommodate jet aircraft and become less weather dependent. The Chathams' rugged weather means the current air services (performed with amazing efficiency by Air Chathams' noble and extraordinarily durable 1950s  Convairs) are subject to weather cancellations on a reasonably frequent basis - something which jets with more sophisticated technology and improved navigational aids at the airport would reduce to some extent. And that would also facilitate the export of fresh seafood to New Zealand and potentially east coast Australian markets on a faster basis, thus aiding the Islands' economic development. Other issues facing the Chathams include the high cost of energy generation - most energy is diesel generated as, despite its abundance, wind generation has not proven all that reliable, and other sustainable forms of generation are yet to be fully developed. As it stands, energy costs now account for about 35% of most Island household budgets.

Over the years, New Zealand's approach to the Chathams has been haphazard, focusing on problems as they occur, and not looking too far into the future. But they are a part of the realm in just the same way that other countries and territories to whom we provide significant and more frequent assistance are part of the realm. So we need to develop a more focused and co-ordinated approach to dealing with their issues. For that reason, I obtained Cabinet support earlier this year for a review of the Chatham Islands' overall governance arrangements. This had also been advocated by the Chatham Islands District Council, who saw it as an important opportunity to get a much more consistent, integrated approach to the Islands' future development. However, given the history of benign neglect, making progress has not been easy. One senior Minister at the time vowed to me not to support one cent more for the Chathams, while others seemed quite uninterested. There were those who understood the issues fully who were supportive and encouraging, but I still felt the need to prepare what I called a "Chathams 101" paper for their information, to help get the proposal through.

The first stage of the review should have been completed by now, and officials were required to report back to Cabinet in November. While I appreciate that this will not be top of the new government's agenda, it does represent a significant opportunity, which I hope does not end up being passed up, to make rare progress in clarifying and modernising the relationship. The Chatham Islands are an important part of the realm of New Zealand and deserve to be treated as more than just the footnote before the outlook for tomorrow.            
  



Thursday, 26 October 2017

Our new government has taken office and comparisons are already being made about the circumstances of its accession. Some are saying that the public mood is similar in terms of enthusiasm and response to the advent of the Lange Government in 1984. That government came to office after the grim and increasingly repressive Muldoon Government, and its election was greeted more with a sense of relief that the long national nightmare was finally over, than a sense of excitement about what lay ahead. That is clearly not the mood today. There is no sense that either the country is on its knees and facing imminent economic collapse, or that the outgoing government had become more and more intrusive in people's lives and virtually every aspect of the economy, as was the case in 1984.
A more accurate comparison is 1972, when the Kirk Labour Government swept to power. There was at that time a palpable feeling of "It's Time for a Change", not too far removed from this year's "Let's Do It" slogan now being reprised in so many different ways, as Kirk capitalised on a mood that the long-term National Government had run out of steam and ideas. Like today, the economy was in reasonably good shape - the impacts of the 1974 Oil Shock and Britain's joining Europe in 1973 were yet to come - and there was a growing sense of optimism about the country's future and emerging identity. The "climate change" issues of the early 1970s were French nuclear testing in the Pacific, and apartheid in South Africa (both of which the new government had strong positions on) and there was a housing shortage, in Auckland in particular. All in all, circumstances far more akin to today than to 1984.
But herein lies the challenge for the new government. Leaving aside the particulars of managing a coalition with the serially erratic New Zealand First (the Greens will be far less difficult - they, after all, are just happy to finally be there after 27 years of failure), the new government would do well to study the lessons of the Third Labour Government, lest it similarly succumb in 2020 or earlier and end up just another "what if" footnote in history.
First, it should be careful about promoting and believing in its own invincibility too much. When Kirk was elected in 1972, no-one imagined he would be dead within two years, with his government left wallowing in the wake of his demise. This is most certainly not suggesting nor wishing a similar fate for our new Prime Minister, but using the drama of the most unexpected circumstance of all to highlight the priority need to establish a credible, broad based, competent leadership team.  Next, no-one also envisaged in 1972 the economic shocks that lay ahead, with the dramatic oil price increases and supply limitations after the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the catastrophic impact they were to have on fortress economies like ours. The domestic cocoon of complacency always shatters quickly in a crisis. In the 1970s New Zealand was clearly caught short by not only the Oil Crisis but also the impact on our trading patterns and the need to develop markets and diversify products that British entry to the Common Market had caused. So, the government needs to be wary of trying to shelter New Zealand too much from global influences, over which it has no control. A cautious embrace of globalism, rather than a wholesale rejection would be prudent. We are part of, not apart from, an increasingly interdependent world. And finally, the government needs to know and understand the value of flexibility and pragmatism. It will not always be right, no matter how much it will wish to be. Kirk's refusal to budge from costly manifesto commitments, despite the international economic shocks, was short-sighted and blinkered, and allowed Muldoon, aided by the Dancing Cossacks, to storm to victory in 1975 on the promise to "Rebuild New Zealand's Shattered Economy".
Last week, one Australian newspaper stupidly and wrongly labelled our new Prime Minister a "commie", which clearly she is not. But, as an educated and literate person, she will be well aware of Karl Marx's observation that the thing to learn from history is that people do not. So I wish her well as she sets out to disprove that dictum.      
 





Wednesday, 27 September 2017

In 1940, the notorious Labour politician, John A. Lee, was expelled from the Labour Party after writing a sensational article, "Psycho-Pathology in Politics", a thinly veiled attack on the dying Labour Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage.

The article's essential argument, drawing on examples from the United States, Britain and New Zealand, was that ailing politicians can have a disproportionate and distortionary impact on the affairs of nations. At the time it was published in late 1939, Savage was dying of cancer, but that had been concealed from the New Zealand public. Indeed, barely two months before Savage's death, Acting Prime Minister Peter Fraser was assuring the country that the Prime Minister "had never been better."

While "Psycho-Pathology in Politics" was a product of its time, one passage within it struck me as having particular relevance today as the our various political leaders seek to put together the next coalition government. Perhaps presciently, Lee referred obliquely to his target this way- "... sycophants pout flattery upon him ... Like a child, he will only play if he gets his own way ... He becomes vain of mind and short of temper, and believes that anyone who crosses his path has demoniac attributes."

Negotiating government formation arrangements is a serious business. It is not an occasion for settling old scores, satisfying particular fantasies, or tails wagging dogs. The starting point has to be a broad agreement that the parties in the negotiation have a similar view about the direction of travel. They may well disagree about priorities, or particular policies, but for the outcome to be sustainable, they have to at least agree they want to travel in the same direction. Governing arrangements thrown together on the convenience of numbers, but an absence of commitment on direction, are doomed to fail.

All of which brings us back to "Psycho-Pathology in Politics". Establishing the various party negotiating teams on the basis of who is least likely to cause offence, rather than policy expertise, smacks of "sycophants (who) pour flattery". At the same time, taking umbrage at apparent negative descriptions has an air of "vain of mind" about it. Worst of all though is the risk the coalition talks focus far less on policy and the country's future direction than a child-like obsession on getting one's own way, and the baubles of office.

On a different note, one of the saddest aspects of the recent election was the general demise of the smaller parties ACT is now a barely relevant toe-hold, and the Maori Party and UnitedFuture have gone altogether. Whatever one's view of these particular parties, they each represented a distinct point of view which will now be heard only faintly in Parliament, or not at all. That is neither a triumph for MMP, nor broader democracy, but it is the will of the people.

Congratulations to all, especially the newcomers, who were elected to the 52nd Parliament. Your enthusiasm as you begin your roles is to be admired, although reality suggests it will be quickly dashed for many of you. Some of you will go on to be great leaders of our country, but many of you will be but short-term visitors. Whatever your fate, I acknowledge your commitment to serve, and wish you well for the next three years. Whether in Government or Opposition, you have a vital and responsible role to play. I hope you can achieve that and rise above what John A. Lee described as the "vanity of old men going downhill."    
  
   
  

 





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.

 

        

 

 

   

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 12 July 2017


Martin Luther King once observed that “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

 

I was reminded of that remark by some of the media comments that followed last week’s Drug Symposium at Parliament, especially around the suggestion our Psychoactive Substances Act might play a wider role in future drug reform. In particular, two editorial comments caught my eye as classic examples of the dangerous combination of ignorance and stupidity Martin Luther King’s remarks referred to.

 

First was an editorial in the New Zealand Herald which opined that New Zealand had “flirted with legalising synthetic cannabis in 2013, with disastrous results. Sellers … took advantage … to sell dangerous drugs such as Kronic to teenagers at corner stores.” This was followed a few days later by the Listener’s comment that “Our disastrous experiment with so-called legal highs” meant “More young people used drugs than before.” The common link in both editorials was the complete lack of anything even remotely approaching a fact to back-up the anonymous writers’ fulminations.

 

Well, here are the relevant facts, uncomfortable and all as they may be for the purveyors of this ignorance and stupidity.

 

Psychoactive substances, legal highs, were around long before the advent of the Psychoactive Substances Act. 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. In the New Zealand, the most well-known legal high was Benzopiperazine, or BZP, as it was commonly known, which first became available here in the 1990s, and was eventually banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act in 2008, well before I became the responsible Minister.

 

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. Here, 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. What the New Zealand Herald describes as a 2013 “flirtation” was already a well-established romance long before then, with more and more products becoming freely available as the years went by.

 

I took the first significant step to control the spread of these substances and the burgeoning market 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 contain illegal substances. The reason for these temporary bans was simply that products were being constantly reformulated, so that a product banned today, could emerge with a different formulation tomorrow and be back on the shelves for sale. It was under this regime that Kronic and its derivatives were banned in 2011, making a nonsense of the New Zealand Herald’s ignorant claims that they were legally introduced to the market in 2013! 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. Many countries effectively surrendered at that point, opting for unenforceable, pseudo-bans that took products off the shelves, and so satisfied at a superficial level public concern, but turned a blind eye to the explosion in their respective black markets that occurred as a result. They are struggling with the consequences today.

 

New Zealand’s Psychoactive Substances Act was a credible response to these cynical approaches. It shifted the onus of proof to manufacturers and suppliers to demonstrate their products were of low risk to users, in return for being able 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 3,000 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. The 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.

 

At the time, there was a lot of noise, reflected again in the recent Listener editorial, that the passage of the legislation saw many more young people being rushed to Emergency Departments with severe problems as a result of using legal highs. Yet surveys of Emergency Departments at the time showed that an overwhelming majority experienced no increases in the numbers of young people presenting with psychoactive substances problems. Even amongst the minority that did note an increase in presentations, the numbers reported were very low indeed, and, across the board, alcohol intoxication remained far and away the primary drug-related reason for young people ending up in Emergency Departments.

 

So, rather than the disastrous results the ignorant editorialists allege, the facts tell a rather different story. There was no “experiment” with legal highs, nor did I “introduce” them to New Zealand. The reality was quite the opposite. It was my 2010 and 2013 pieces of legislation that removed them from the New Zealand market.

 

But then, perhaps I should not be surprised at displays of ignorance and stupidity like these editorials. We live in the “post-truth” age, after all. It is not new – Voltaire foresaw it centuries ago when he wrote that “The more often a stupidity is repeated, the more it gets the appearance of wisdom.” The facts are, once more, reduced to inconvenience.

 

Those of us who like evidence and facts obviously have to get used to the fact these apparently do not matter anymore. Perhaps Dennis Denuto was right – it is all about “the vibe” after all.

                

   

  

 

 

 

Wednesday, 5 July 2017


Claims this week that no-one seems to know how many affordable homes have been built in Auckland have re-ignited the housing debate in a shallow, unhelpful way of silly political point scoring which houses no-one, but more importantly, has also highlighted one of the basic flaws in our current approach.

 

Everyone, it seems, is flapping around bemoaning a housing crisis, and calling for something to be done. Things, we are told, are happening; new home approvals are allegedly at record levels; the construction industry is crying out for labour as it struggles to meet the demand; yet, now we hear banks are tightening lending criteria, even for first home buyers, to dampen demand.  Meanwhile, in Auckland, a number of previously designated special housing areas have been abandoned without one house ever having been built on them. And there are still too many stories of people who are at worst, homeless, or at best, living in grossly inadequate accommodation.

 

So, how can this be, despite all the apparently frenetic activity to the contrary? Ever increasing activity like a gyroscope out of control and without a clear purpose does not a crisis solve. Yet that is precisely what is happening at present. So it is hardly surprising that no-one seems able to say exactly how many affordable houses have been built, or even what constitutes an affordable home.

 

To stop these ever rapidly decreasing circles imploding there needs to be, as UnitedFuture has long argued, a clearly defined national housing strategy. And that strategy can only be developed after a special summit bringing together all the major players to design it, and then agree to abide by it. Central and local government need to be working far more closely together, with each other for a change and not against each other as has too often been the case. The banks and the building industry need to be at the table too to develop the plans for genuinely affordable homes for young families, and to ensure that the funds and the workforce are there to meet the demand. Social housing providers also need to be involved, both to ensure there are homes for those in need, and to work alongside private landlords to provide transitions from  emergency housing to affordable rental properties, and then ultimately to a home of one’s own. Without all these elements working in concert we will not make progress, and the current problems will simply multiply.

 

Worse, the sense of induced panic this will cause will produce extreme solutions – like Labour’s ill-fated plan not to sell homes to people with foreign-sounding names, or the thinly disguised anti-immigration of xenophobia of the likes of New Zealand First.

 

We need to life our sights above that negativity and become much more innovative in helping assist young families into their first home. UnitedFuture wants people to be able to capitalise in advance their Working for Families entitlements each year to assist with home ownership. There are other things we should be looking at as well. We believe half the homes the government will build over the next few years should be set aside as rent-to-buy homes, where families could use their rental payments to build up equity in their house to the point where they can buy it outright. We are also interested in share equity schemes whereby people might buy a portion of a house – say 40% – and rent the remaining 60%, using the equity built up by the portion they own to buy a greater shareholding as time goes by, until they have bought 100% of the home. Another option we are interested in is allowing people to convert their student loan repayments for up to the first ten years to a Kiwisaver scheme and to use those repayments and the interest earned as a housing credit towards a first home.

 

The combination of a coherent national housing strategy to which all the major players are signed up, and innovative funding arrangements of the type we are proposing will go a long way towards addressing our national housing crisis, and restoring dignity and hope to ever despairing young families. These ought to be priorities for a compassionate society that cares about ensuring a better deal for future generations.