Tuesday, 23 May 2017

According to media reports, 20 billion litres of pristine New Zealand water are going to be exported over the next fifteen years, with not one cent in royalties being paid here.

By contrast, it has been estimated that the oil and gas industry paid around $230 million in royalties to the New Zealand Government in the last year alone, and has paid as much as $430 million in earlier years, based on products discovered and sold. The oil and gas royalties regime is notoriously complex and uneven, with many tax deductions available, and no levy on exports. It is applied at rates that can vary from 5% to 20%. Nevertheless, petroleum exporters are typically paying about 42% of their profits in taxes and royalties to the government.

Leaving aside the argument about whether oil and gas exploration is a good thing to be encouraged, and the complexity of the regime, it does provide a useful point of comparison to the way in which the likely burgeoning fresh water export trade is treated, all the same.

It is certainly true that New Zealand has an abundance of fresh water, so it is easy to see the attraction fresh water exports pose. And it is not new. For over 30 years there has been steady yet periodic interest in establishing a fresh water export industry. So, at one level, the argument could at least be mounted that fresh water exports are just another form of primary products exports from this bounteous country.

But the argument is not that simplistic. The great debate occurring about water needed for irrigation demonstrates the pressures being placed upon our water resources. The argument over the proposed Ruataniwha Dam in Hawkes Bay and the virtual drying up of Canterbury’s major rivers earlier this year as a result of a high demand for irrigation brought on by dairy intensification highlight the point. And it is also intensely political. Environment Canterbury was sacked by the Government in 2010 over the allocation of water rights; iwi interests have long recognised the power of the ownership of water as the Resource Management Act debate shows; freshwater recreational interests have for equally long sought to preserve their traditional roles and relationships with water; and, the Land and Water Forum has patiently attempted to bring all the groups to the table to try to achieve a coherent policy response. On top of all this comes mounting justified public concern about the swimmability of our major rivers. The response of seeking as a first step to make all major rivers at least wadeable is widely seen as too little, too late.

Against this complexly yet finely woven tapestry, it seems somewhat incongruous that a virtually unregulated and certainly untaxed water export industry is being allowed to develop. At the very least, there needs to be a coherent royalties regime put in place, akin perhaps to that for oil and gas, to ensure that our water resources are not being just given away. But that will not be enough of itself. There also needs to be a clear national policy developed about water exports. For too long there has been a complacency that water will always be abundant in New Zealand, and while that is generally true, recent developments show we can no longer take it for granted. Dirty and dried up rivers, and contaminated acquifers are not what we have usually been used to, nor do we want them to become the norm. Especially, if at the same time, we have to sit and watch the ships sailing away with millions of litres of our pure water for which they have paid virtually nothing.       








Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Recently, the Police, with significant sponsorship from the Ministry of Health, hosted a major Australasian conference on alcohol and drug policy. It attracted an impressive collection of international speakers, including Michael Botticelli (a man whom I have known and worked with for a number of years) who was the head of President Obama’s National Drug Policy unit.

In my own remarks to the conference I spoke about New Zealand’s National Drug Policy, and where it might head in the future. I observed that I was personally interested in, and supportive of,  Portugal’s approach of putting the health system front and centre on drug policy, but I further observed that, unfortunately, whenever Portugal is mentioned, the focus is often solely on the tolerance they apply to the low-level use of drugs, while overlooking the other side of the story about possession and cultivation remaining illegal, and the very strong use of mandatory assessment and treatment programmes in place for all drug use. My interest is in the full Portuguese package, not just the tolerance applied to low-level use of drugs like cannabis. Sadly, far too often, when people cite what is going on in Portugal, they focus only on this point, and not the overall package.

Over the years I have been involved in drug policy I have constantly stressed that we need to be open to new developments, but that any alterations in policy should always be firmly evidence based. Whether it be about access to cannabis based medicinal products, or the general treatment of other drugs, that has been, to the constant annoyance of my critics, my absolute standard, and it is not going to change. It was the logic behind the Psychoactive Substances Act, which was about regulating the burgeoning synthetic drug market based on the level of risk specific products actually posed to the public. (That Act closed that market down, although to my critics, it somehow had precisely the opposite effect – a simply idiotic claim not borne out by even the slightest of facts.)

The 2015 National Drug Policy introduced a number of specific actions to reinforce the central message that drug issues are primarily health, not legal, issues, and foreshadowed a major rewrite of our creaking 1975 Misuse of Drugs Act during the next term of Parliament, once these actions have been completed.

From UnitedFuture’s perspective, now is the time to be looking at what that next set of steps might be. I envisage a two-stage process. First, we should move to an overall approach similar to the full Portuguese model, where the cultivation and possession of all drugs remains illegal, and all drug users are referred for assessment and treatment, but where there is a tolerance exercised for the possession of what are essentially Class C drugs under the current Misuse of Drugs Act. In that event, persons caught with – say – no more than the equivalent of one week’s personal supply would be referred directly to treatment rather the Courts, in an extension of our current diversion scheme. This would require significant additional investment in the provision of assessment and treatment services, but that makes far more sense than investing similar amounts more in the Courts and prison services for the same purpose. At the same time, it would free up more Police resources to concentrate on catching the criminals behind the New Zealand drugs scene.

The second stage of the process, when the Misuse of Drugs Act is rewritten, would be to transfer the current Schedule of Class C Drugs from that Act to the Psychoactive Substances Act. This would mean that they would be regulated the same way as synthetic substances, where the test is evidence based around the risk posed to the user, and where there are clear controls on the manufacture, sale and distribution of any such products that might be approved. For its part, the Psychoactive Substances Authority would be required to determine an alternative to animal testing – the prohibition of which is what currently prevents that Act from working fully.

One issue that is often properly raised in the context of drug law reform is the role of the gangs as producers and distributors of drugs like cannabis. It is argued with some validity that legalising cannabis would legalise the criminal activities of the gangs and deliver them total control, something none of us are in favour of. But, the Psychoactive Substances Act provides a way of resolving this issue. Under the Act, before a product can be submitted for testing, the producer first has to have been granted a “fit and proper person” licence. No criminal organisation will be ever meet that standard or be granted such a licence, which would completely exclude the gangs. Instead, we would have a regulated market for all drugs, synthetic or otherwise, that the Psychoactive Substances Authority considers pose a low risk to users. The possession and supply of all other drugs would remain illegal, and the law would take its course.

The approach UnitedFuture proposes therefore has three key components: mandatory and comprehensive treatment for everyone caught with drugs; a pragmatic approach to anyone caught with minor amounts of low level drugs; and, shutting the criminals out of the cannabis industry. As such, it fits four square with the compassionate, innovative and proportionate approach drug policy I have long advocated.        






Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Mental health ranks as one of New Zealand’s major health issues. While there have been many innovations and improvements over the years, we still have some intractable and serious problems we must get on top of. We have one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world; high rates of seclusion and compulsory treatment; a great deal of variation in access to services for children and young people in particular, and in waiting times for access to mental health and addiction services. We have gaps in services to respond to people with common but often debilitating metal health and addiction issues, and too much variation in the quality of inpatient treatment services available to those who need them.

As the relevant Minister at the time, I was responsible for the development of “Rising to the Challenge”, the Government’s mental health plan from 2012 until earlier this year. It is currently being refreshed and updated by the current Minister. When “Rising to the Challenge” was being developed, I set out my priorities as improving the quality of services and the level of access for families and whanau, and for communities. I wanted more effective linkages and co-ordination between District Health Boards and the large number of community agencies active in the mental health and addictions space, both to develop services better tailored to people’s needs and also to bridge, wherever, possible, gaps in service provision.

Although there has been progress over the last few years and a significant increase in funding for mental health services, too many of the old problems remain. Our youth suicide rates are still intolerably high; the demand for addiction services remains strong, and services generally are still too disjointed and sometimes inflexible.

While all this is properly an issue for the Government, it should not be diminished into a political issue. Of course, it is proper to expect, and pressure, the Government to develop solutions that will address the public’s concerns, but it is most improper to turn this into a shallow political debate, with an arid emphasis on statistics, and who said and did what, way back when. We should never forget that behind every mental health case is not an abstract statistic to be tossed around, but a real, vulnerable human being, often with a family, struggling for a genuine solution to the problem oppressing them. Politicians seeking to capitalise on these situations are really trawling the most murky depths of the barrel and need to be called out as such. There is no honour in trafficking in human misery.

Rather, we need to be listening to the stories of the people and their families, and focusing on solutions that meet their needs. Inevitably, that is going to mean a variety of nuanced solutions, with the flexibility to account to the greatest extent possible for individual needs. This is one area where most definitely one size does not, indeed cannot, fit all.

Yet I remain concerned that we are still far too focused on broad-brush solutions, which fit within the rubric laid down by DHBs. I still believe there is insufficient recognition of the role community agencies can play in helping people overcome their mental health issues, and that we need to be encouraging greater co-ordination between the community and the DHBs on the models of care being developed.

The Government has to meet its obligations in terms of adequate funding, ensuring proper standards, and promoting public awareness, although it needs to do so alongside community agencies that are often much closer to people in their daily lives. But perhaps the most important role the Government can play is to be the listening post for the community’s stories, and then to act on those stories.

Shooting the messenger in such cases is just as bad as those vacuous politicians seeking to make political capital out of the overall situation. Human dignity is too precious and fundamental to be cheapened in this way.

A comprehensive mental health strategy should bring together all elements of society – patients, family and whanau, community organisations and government agencies. It must be as much a social justice strategy, as it is a health plan. It has to be about ensuring everyone’s right to wellness, and working across all agencies and boundaries to achieve that. After all, as the World Health Organisation has stated, “There is no health without mental health.”                 







Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Richard Nixon coined the phrase “the silent majority” to describe the body of Americans he saw as supporting his unpopular policies in Vietnam, while there was protest and unrest in the streets all around. Nixon’s “silent majority” were the classic WASPs – the White, Anglo Saxon, Protestants who duly delivered him one of the biggest ever landslide election victories in 1972, and who supported him loyally until almost the end of the Watergate Crisis that toppled him from power.

Today, around the world, there is a new, vastly different silent majority – the urban liberal. They are diverse, well-educated, informed, successful, internationalist, progressive and tolerant – and now disenfranchised. The rise of populist politics has led the political parties that stood up for them, and whom they traditionally supported in return, to abandon them in favour of the vocal shouting of sectional interests and minorities. Urban liberals, young and old, male and female, of varying ethnic and cultural backgrounds are being left aside as a non-cause because they are seen as doing too well economically and socially to be worried about.

The lack of reaction to last week’s disparaging, almost sneering, comments about “middle class welfare” from a former National Prime Minister shows just how far the pendulum has already swung. Urban liberals are on their own. Unlike other groups in society whose concerns are seen as legitimate and worthy of attention, their issues of concern are dismissed as self-interest. While they may differ in their specifics, social, family and economic issues affect urban liberal families in just the same way as they do everyone else. Moreover, as the group that pays most of the taxes, they have just as much right as every other citizen to the attention and support of the system.

The values they represent – compassion, tolerance, respect, inclusion and commitment to progress – used to be seen as core New Zealand values. Now they are dismissed as some sort of overly vague woolly thinking, out of step with the realities of today’s world. Standing up against discrimination and oppression is held to be soft handwringing, in a world where the threats of terrorism and the flood of displaced refugees are so great that hard-line intolerance has become acceptable. Promoting evidence based solutions to health and social issues is increasingly seen as a cop-out and an excuse for inaction, when it is so obvious what “really” works. Instinct and immediate reaction too often outweigh the calm and considered response urban liberals are used to. The appeal to unreason and prejudice is becoming the new norm.

Sadly, our mainstream political parties have been swept along by this new rising tide of populism, meaning neither of them are the bulwarks of reason and common sense they used to be. Left without a voice, urban liberals are now left having to look for new champions to represent them. Increasingly that voice will lie with the smaller parties – ACT, the Maori Party and UnitedFuture. Yet, for many, ACT is too ideological and flinty faced, and focused on the top income end of the income spectrum for whom whatever the government does is of little consequence anyway because they can afford to pay for the alternative. The Maori Party’s focus is understandably on its core constituency, whose support it seeks, and indeed deserves, as the genuine representatives of Maoridom.

This leaves UnitedFuture, New Zealand’s version of Britain’s Liberal Democrats, as the genuine, if currently small, voice of urban liberal New Zealand. Its stands on tolerance, diversity, support for immigration and refugee resettlement, and its empathy with the trials and tribulations of the middle classes sit comfortably with urban liberal concerns. Its challenge is to attract their support as a credible place to put their party vote to ensure their values are not only represented in Parliament, but can also be brought in numbers to the government table to restore balance and common sense. To do so, the silent majority will have to be roused to act, to use its party vote to affect change. Otherwise the silent majority will quickly become the alienated majority, and at a time of declining political involvement anyway, coupled with the climate of fake news and alternative facts, that could well be a body blow to our democracy.


Disclaimer:  When I wrote last week about Labour’s looming train wreck, I was certainly not expecting it to come as quickly as this week’s list debacle!    





Wednesday, 26 April 2017

For those who follow British politics, the prospect of the coming General Election turning into a major train wreck for the British Labour Party looms large. Barely a day passes without another set of contradictory views or comments emerging from senior members of that Party. Most of the criticism inevitably finds its way back to the Party’s veteran socialist leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a man who, in a long political career has never been chosen to hold any Government office. For afficiandos, it is all fun and games, happening sufficiently far away not to be too bothered about. However, there are some similarities with the New Zealand situation which should not go unremarked upon.

Jeremy Corbyn was never elected leader of the British Labour Party by the Party’s MPs – indeed, only a few months ago, they passed overwhelmingly a vote of no-confidence in his leadership. Yet he remains, having twice been selected by the Party at large and its trade union base to be Labour’s standard bearer. New Zealand Labour has a similar selection system – current leader Andrew Little was installed in his role in 2014 with the backing of well under half his MPs, and then only narrowly because of the union vote. (Hardly surprising given his background as a former President of the Council of Trade Unions. It is tantalising to speculate how different the outcome might have been had Caucus favourite Grant Robertson with running mate Jacinda Ardern – the so-called Grazinda team – been selected at that time instead.)

As with Mr Corbyn, Mr Little knows that the key to his retaining the leadership, lies not with his MPs, but with the Party’s trade union affiliates. He has already shown his recognition of that by his installation of trade union officials as candidates in a number of seats around the country. Many are likely to feature high up on the Party’s “democratically” selected list. And, like Mr Corbyn, he has eschewed any prospect of Labour claiming the centre ground of politics, indeed going so far as to dismiss the political centre and those who occupy it as “irrelevant.” Both Mr Corbyn and Mr Little believe naively that there is a latent Labour majority out there – the missing million voters New Zealand Labour keeps talking about – that has only to be offered a “true” Labour Party for them to return home, and that in the meantime, there is therefore no need to reach out to any other voting group than the missing “true believers” waiting for the restoration of traditional paradise.

In Britain, so far, Labour’s campaign has been marked by public disagreements on key policies – whether it be how to deal with ISIL, or the future of the Trident missile system, where Mr Corbyn’s position seems to be at odds with the rest of his MPs. That is yet to come in New Zealand – principally because Labour seems to have no real policy for its MPs to disagree over – but there are clear signs Mr Little is prone to the same make-it-up-on-the-spot approach as Mr Corbyn. Witness the debacle over immigration policy. Last week, Mr little was reported widely as proposing to cut immigration numbers by 51,000. While the announcement came from nowhere, there was no denial by any Labour MP at the time that this was their policy. Now, over a week later, having been widely criticised for the announcement, Mr Little says he was misreported, that when he said immigration levels should fall from about around 71,000 to about 20,000, he did not mean a reduction of 51,000. It is difficult to know what else he meant, particularly when his defence was to confirm his original figures, and that he was talking about a drop of “tens of thousands” only. It was a pure Corbyn moment. (It came just a week after a similar moment when responding to National’s pay equity decision.) National will be hoping for many more over the next few months.    

As the Antipodean Jeremy Corbyn, Mr Little must have groaned when Teresa May called Britain’s election for early June. New Zealanders are going to be able to watch a preview of his performance and likely fate, well in advance of our own election. And when the inevitable blood-letting takes place after the British train wreck, New Zealand Labour will struggle to avoid the spotlight being turned on its own Jeremy Corbyn, and his journey down the same track.       








Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The formerly cherished and hallowed centre ground of politics seems to have lost its sheen. That special space in our political spectrum that every political leader since Holyoake has sought to capture and occupy suddenly seems barren and forlorn. The rise of post-truth politics, personified by, although not limited to, the Trump phenomenon, has seen reason and common sense, which used to provide the backbone of Western liberal democracies, abandoned in favour of the simplistic solution, the half-truth and the alternative fact. The centre ground of politics suddenly seems to have become everyone’s new favourite non-cause.

The centre ground has traditionally been closely linked to common sense. Common sense politics have usually been the preserve of centrist politicians, able to bring balance and perspective to difficult situations, to set things on an even keel once more. But even those days may be behind us – not just overseas, but in New Zealand too. Only last week, for example, the Leader of the Opposition told a television interviewer that politicians who promoted common sense, what some have called the shared values of a community, were really just demonstrating their own irrelevance!

How has this happened? How has the pursuit of common sense and reason in politics become so unfashionable? A simple answer might be because of the failure of political ideology. The high water of the ideological divide in modern politics was probably the 1980s, with the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions riding high on the capitalist side of the ledger, and Marxism-Leninism still dominant in the Eastern bloc. Economic pressures meant both were in decline from the 1990s, and were finally relegated to the pages of history after the Global Financial Crisis of the early 2000s, but their scars have remained. Whatever the issue, the common response was that the politicians and the political system they operated were to blame. Their emphasis on modernisation and best practice had become ends in themselves, and had ruined many people’s lives, costing jobs and destroying communities in the process. So more of the same and its inherent moderation, were seen as contributing to, not resolving the problem. It was time to break the mould, although what it was to be replaced with was far less clear.

One thing that was clear was that business as usual, common sense and pragmatism, were no longer the part of the solution they had always been. So Brexit, so Trump, so the rise of neo-nationalism and the push-back on globalism, and the headlong outward rush from the centre. Maybe William Butler Yeats’ prophetic words in 1919 in the wake of World War I are coming to pass at last: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

In these swirling international tides, as New Zealand approaches its General Election, political parties here apparently fear being stranded in the centre ground they previously craved. Labour has long since abandoned any pretence of centrism, seemingly preferring a return to an oxymoronic modern form of the 1930s when the government knew best and did everything. The Greens and ACT have never even pretended to embrace the centre, and the Maori Party realises it can win the ultimate prize of being a permanent party of government just by doing its own knitting and ignoring everyone else. New Zealand First will go where it thinks the votes are, regardless of consistency; while post-Key National looks increasingly keen to loosen the centrist shackles he imposed on it. Only UnitedFuture still stands unashamedly in the centre – therefore completely irrelevant to some, or too full of passionate intensity to others.

A similar scenario is about to be played out in Britain with its snap election. Little wonder then that all the parties here will be watching how that, and the French presidential elections which begin this weekend will play out. The rational view cries out for a resurgence of common sense and the appeal of centrism. But with all the current international uncertainties, that reliance on reason may no longer be enough for voters staunch the headlong rush from the centre. There could yet be an eerie chill to the onset of our winter, before the warmth of the sun comes again.     






Tuesday, 11 April 2017

How free should speech be in New Zealand today? This issue has been in the news recently for a number of reasons. Just last week a group of prominent academics called for restrictions on what they termed hate speech against sexual and ethnic minorities. At the same time, the Leader of the Opposition was in Court defending libel allegations. Each raises questions about what limits there are on free speech, and where, if at all, any boundary lines should be drawn.

Of the two, the issue of hate speech (speech which attacks a person on the basis of their gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation) is the more vexed. At one obvious level no such attacks should be acceptable in a free and open society, but the question then arises what sanctions should be imposed when those norms are breached. Recently, a vile, overtly racist pamphlet, purportedly in support of the Hobson’s Choice movement, was circulated in my electorate and elsewhere. Its contents were repugnant to me and many of my constituents, and I took every opportunity to say so. But should it have been banned? I do not think so, because I think that even though the views are despicable, the racists who peddle them have just as much right to do so, as I have to rail against them. In an open society, views and outcomes are shaped by the free expression of ideas, however objectionable or extreme, what an American political scientist once famously called the mobilisation of bias, as citizens weigh up what they have heard or seen against their own values (and biases) a reach a view accordingly. Book-burning and its modern equivalents have never been hallmarks of democracy. Nor should they become so now.

The Andrew Little libel case raises its own set of interesting issues. At the one level, there is the right of the Leader of the Opposition, and any politician for that matter, to speak out without fear or favour on the issues of the day. Indeed, that right is enshrined in the concept of Parliamentary Privilege, and dates back to the 1688 Bill of Rights. Parliamentary Privilege affords absolute protection to Members of Parliament for comments genuinely made in the course of debate in the Parliamentary Debating Chamber. It is a somewhat different matter, as Mr Little found out nearly to his considerable cost, to be so frank outside the confines of Parliament. Whatever else, it is a salutary reminder that although the law can legislate rights, it can never legislate for individual prudence and judgement.

But, as with the case of hate speech, the question of malice and intent lurks in the background. Freedom of speech and the open expression of views, even if wrong or unacceptable to the reasonable majority are properly defensible, if the views are genuinely held. (Society is entitled to its crackpots, benign or otherwise.) What is more difficult to measure in both instances is where genuine belief gives way to malicious intent. Do those, for example, who preach racial intolerance do so because of a genuine, if thoroughly misguided, belief, or are they doing so to impose pain and suffering on the minority they are vilifying? Are those who attack people’s sexual orientation doing so for biological or strongly held moral reasons, or are they more interested in stigmatising and thereby punishing those whom they are opposing? And where malice is determined to be a factor, how far can we reasonably go in imposing sanctions, before we impinge upon an individual’s right to cause offence and infuriate? There are already provisions in our Human Rights and Race Relations legislation covering the most egregious behaviour.

In two weeks’ time we commemorate ANZAC Day, and invoke once more the notion of the spirit of the ANZACs. We will talk sombrely about their heroic and unselfish efforts over a century ago to secure the freedoms we enjoy today, and how their legacy must never be dishonoured. All quite proper and true. Freedom from the tyranny of strutting despots and the right to free expression lie at the core of that legacy. When we intone “Lest We Forget” this ANZAC morn, we should recall equally that commitment to securing freedom for all. And, for good measure, we should not overlook the famous simple but eloquent words of the French writer Voltaire, over 250 years ago:

“I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.

“Common sense is genius in homespun.”

On a separate note, Easter comes along this weekend. Whatever Easter may mean to you, my wish is that you are able to enjoy the weekend with those you hold dearest, and that if you are travelling around the country, you are able to do so conveniently and safely.