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.

      

 





  

   

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 28 June 2017


We are a pretty self-effacing lot as a nation. We do not stand on too much ceremony; we have an innate sense of equality and trying to see everyone gets a “fair go”; and the absolutely worst thing we can say about a person is that they are “up themselves”. Often we are seen as taciturn and perhaps a little dour, far more comfortable doing things, than talking about them. We pride ourselves on our practical, considered approach to issues – and our uncanny ability to develop solutions tailored to our needs, no matter the ridicule or criticism of others.
 
The people we look up to in all fields of endeavour – from our great-grandparents and grandparents who fought so stoically in two World Wars and other conflicts, through to sport and politics, the arts and sciences, and business and the outdoors today, all fit that mould. We are wary of the flashy extrovert, with the ever-present smile, the cocky, arrogant “don’t pull the wool over my eyes sunshine, I didn’t come down in the last shower” demeanour and the cheap, instant answer to everything. We generally despise them as fake – shallow, inveterate fraudsters and charlatans who, despite all their bravado, can be relied to always fail badly when the crunch comes, and then blame someone else. We far prefer the quiet, level-headed doer, who just gets on with the task at hand, and makes things work.
 
Sometimes we make the mistake of putting the New Zealanders we admire on pedestals as remarkable, and different to the rest of us. But, in doing so, we fail to recognise that the reason for their success lies often not in their difference, but rather in their quintessential New Zealand approach. John Mulgan came closest to capturing that essence in the seminal New Zealand novel, “Man Alone”, and it is probably no coincidence that the men and women we admire the most have always had more than an element of that in their make-up.
 
The word that underpins the New Zealand character is reliability – the archetypal safe pair of hands in a crisis. Peter Burling constantly demonstrated that in the recent stunning America’s Cup Series. Taciturn, almost to a fault, yet the symbol of reliability and dependability, and ultimately the winner. Until the explosion of the Barclay crisis the same thing could have been said of Prime Minister Bill English. While the lasting extent to which that may have been damaged by recent events is probably too premature to assess as yet, there is no doubt that the Prime Minister’s historic strengths have been his perceived dependability, and focus on performance ahead of superficiality.
 
The test of leadership comes with the ability to deal with crisis situations. Just a few weeks ago, Emirates Team New Zealand’s boat pitch-poled dramatically during the start of a challenger semi-final race. It was severely, almost fatally we now know, damaged and could have put paid to New Zealand’s efforts. Similarly, Barclay has become Bill English’s pitch-pole moment. Yet sheer guts, determination and hard work not only saw Team New Zealand back on the water in a day or two, but Burling and crew going on to win the challenger semi-finals and then the final, and ultimately the America’s Cup itself, without ever conceding the merest whiff of their dire predicament to their opponents. In political terms, Bill English now has to do likewise.
 
When the schooner America beat the best British yachts in the International Race off the Isle of Wight in 1851 to win what became known as the America’s Cup, Queen Victoria inquired about the fate of other yachts in the race, only to be informed “There is no second.” Those four words have endured in cup history ever since. They are also the words the Prime Minister needs to put front and centre now as he mounts his recovery from the Barclay affair. 

Tuesday, 20 June 2017


Like most New Zealanders, I was shocked that November weekend in 2010 when the reality struck that 29 men had perished in the Pike River Mine. My initial reaction was like that of so many people – that everything possible should be done to retrieve their bodies, and bring a sense of closure to their loved ones.

Over time, as the scientific and specialist evidence was gathered, then presented to the Royal Commission established to investigate the disaster, and the apparently ever so saddened and seemingly reassuring Mr Whitall kept appearing on television, I came to the view that the awful reality was that it was probably too dangerous to risk re-entering the mine to retrieve the bodies of the men. A large part of me still holds to that view, but then I am not directly affected. However, the drip-feed of revelations over recent years about documentary evidence that was either known at the time, but not accorded weight by the Royal Commission, or perhaps not even presented to the Commission at all, and has become available subsequently, leaves me questioning increasingly the received wisdom that the mine was best left sealed as a permanent memorial to the men who died there.

First was the exposé of Mr Whitall and the company that owned Pike River at the time, which raised substantial questions about the what had been going on, and how safe the mine had been all along. Then came the now constant refrains every time apparently new documentary evidence was revealed that it either “contained nothing new” or “was known to the Royal Commission at the time”, but “in any case does not change anything”. It is all starting to wear a little thin, after all these years. There still seems to be either a lack of clear facts about what went on, or at least a lack of full public access to the full story that may be known by some.

As a bottom line, I do not think it appropriate to put lives potentially at risk to retrieve the remains of the victims of Pike River. That has always been the argument put forward for not attempting to re-enter the mine. On the face of it, and the official facts available, it is hard to argue against. But the continuing revelations about the state of the mine now and then raise many questions about the accuracy of that advice. And while that spectre of inaccuracy remains, so will the perfectly understandable anguish and frustration of the families grow.

Instead of the essentially cat and mouse game that has been going on for now nearly seven years continuing, surely it is time to put all the relevant information – audio-visual, technical, safety and otherwise – into the public arena where it can be properly and thoroughly assessed. I, for one, do not like learning of relevant “previously unreleased footage”, or the like. If the material exists, it should be made public, so that everyone can know and understand exactly what the issues are, and can reach their judgements accordingly.

Of course, it may well be that at the end of such a process nothing much changes. The mine might still be considered unsafe to enter, and the status quo will remain. But at least there will be an obvious evidential base established to either confirm or debunk the findings of the Royal Commission. At present, we seem left increasingly, rightly or wrongly, with the suspicion that there is more to this story that has hitherto been acknowledged publicly. And that is a completely unsatisfactory way to resolve an issue that has troubled people for so long.

Now, I appreciate well that there will be those who will criticise me for not having expressed these views earlier. A fair cop, maybe, but I suspect I have been no different to many considered New Zealanders who felt appalled by the horror of the original tragedy, and believed that, hard and all as it would have been for the families, the official investigations would come to the right conclusion, having had the opportunity to consider all the known facts and expert evidence. I am one of many who have become more uneasy over the years about the apparently ever shifting sands of how the Pike River case has been handled.

Of course, my heart goes out to the families who suffered the loss of husbands, sons and brothers. I have felt for them at every stage as they have hoed the difficult road to recovery, and have hoped time would heal their wounds. I used to feel that, tough and all as they were, the decisions taken not to go back into the mine were probably correct, sadly, and an inevitable consequence of a tragedy of this type. But today, I can no longer feel that way with any confidence.       

  

 

 

 

 

Monday, 12 June 2017


We used to talk about the “cultural cringe” in New Zealand. That was the old notion that if something came from overseas, it was automatically superior to any local equivalent, and therefore had to be embraced almost uncritically. Those days have largely gone – thankfully – although every now and then the malady that Austin Mitchell once diagnosed as “overseasia” returns.

The most recent reported outbreak has been in the wake of the British General Election. For the second time in three elections no party has won an absolute majority in the House of Commons. By contrast, that has been the norm in New Zealand since the advent of MMP in 1996, yet we have not been seriously threatened by political instability subsequently. A large body of constitutional, academic and political knowledge – and experience – has built up here as a consequence.

For her part, Teresa May, seems to have acknowledged that experience, however grudgingly, with reports that she has consulted our Prime Minister about the mechanics of running stable, minority governments. But she seems to be alone in the sea of lost for words analysis that our media has reported in the wake of the British result. We have a long-established process of running effective and stable minority governments in this country, under both National and Labour leadership, yet few seemed interested in drawing the parallels, preferring instead the sometimes befuddled speculations of dumbfounded British commentators. It was a return to “overseasia” at its best.

A small point that was overlooked in the British result was the performance of the Liberal Democrats – the unambiguously anti-Brexit, pro-immigration centrist party that increased its representation by 50% (from 8 to 12 MPs), arguably the best performance in proportionate terms of any party, and an oasis of reason in the midst of chaos. Indeed, had the election been conducted under an MMP type system, they would have won at least 45 seats, and the hitherto largely obscure (outside Northern Ireland at least) but extremely weird Democratic Unionists (who now seem set to control Britain’s destiny until the next election) no more than 6 or 7  seats.

A notable casualty of the election was the right wing, racist extremist UKIP party which has been virtually obliterated. Conventional wisdom would suggest the Conservatives should have been the beneficiary of this meltdown, but the surge to Labour implies a significant number of those UKIP votes must have gone its way. Maybe that is the thinking behind New Zealand Labour’s recently announced immigration policy, which seeks to cleave into territory occupied by New Zealand First? While Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First are running here as a loosely connected troika-in-waiting, the risk for Labour has always been it might not end up in a strong enough position post-election to be able to dominate the other two in any governing arrangement, making for an “In the Thick of It” omnishambles. So, the rationale for launching a pre-emptive strike into New Zealand First territory was clear. Not only will it help staunch the flow of traditional working class votes to New Zealand First, it also provides the opportunity to try to put New Zealand First back “in its box” as it were, and strengthen Labour’s potential to dominate a still unlikely post-election governing arrangement. The complicit silence of the Greens in this regard is telling. But will they be Labour’s next cannibalisation target?

One lesson that has been learnt in New Zealand over the years is that the worst of days in Government, always far surpasses the very best of times in Opposition. Bloodied, humiliated and chastened as Teresa May’s Conservatives may now be, they will quickly knuckle down to that reality, and make their situation work, the eccentricities of the DUP notwithstanding. Just as we have learned to do after every election since 1996. “Overseasia” in reverse, perhaps?      

          

           

     

  

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 7 June 2017


Over the years, a media myth of my intractable negativity towards the Greens has developed. While I have been properly critical of the Greens at times, and may regret some of my harsher criticisms in the cooler light of day, I have nonetheless worked constructively with a number of Green MPs during those years. Keith Locke and I raised more than a few eyebrows when we made a joint submission to a select committee calling for the repeal of New Zealand’s antiquated sedition laws, but we succeeded and the laws were repealed. Kevin Hague and I maintained a very good common-ground dialogue over a long period on drug-related issues, and even though the media liked to pit us against each other, Nandor Tanczos and I worked fairly closely together on law and order and broader justice issues. During this Parliament, I kept in close contact with Eugenie Sage during all of the debate around the changes to the Resource Management Act, and I work closely with Kennedy Graham on climate change policy through the multi-party GLOBE group.

Recently, the Greens have attracted criticism from the more staid corners of the political spectrum over their selection of some very young candidates on their Party list. I do not know any of them personally, but I do not share that criticism. More than that, I welcome their selection as a sign of renewal within the body politic, and I wish them well.

However, it is not going to be easy for them. I say so from experience, having been one of the youngest MPs in the House when first elected, and therefore knowing first-hand how difficult it is to break through the glass ceiling. Young MPs quickly discover that the system is loaded against them. Passion and enthusiasm go only so far, when the opportunities to express them within the Parliamentary system are so limited. Speaking opportunities in the House are not spontaneous, but predetermined in advance by the Whips and the Business Committee; and the hours spent grinding worthily away in a select committee seldom attract much public attention. Yet, the public expects these new MPs to make their mark quickly, and becomes frustrated and unforgiving (“you have sold out, just like all the rest”) when they do not immediately do so. Few do – it often takes years of hard work for a young MP to overcome some of the prejudice they encounter and to be noticed, and more importantly to be taken seriously, for their achievements, rather than constantly pigeon-holed for their age. Little wonder their attrition rate is high, with their enthusiasm either extinguished by frustration, or boredom. A few survive, and an even smaller number prosper.

While these facts may seem brutal, they should not in any way be seen as a discouraging of young MPs. On the contrary, I believe the system needs a healthy influx of young MPs every election to refresh both it and the political parties. The vibrancy and enthusiasm they bring can be infectious, and their presence alone serves as a constant reminder to the rest of us that our core mission as Members of Parliament is to build a better and more sustainable New Zealand for those who are to follow us.

But if young MPs can be accused of sometimes being a little wide-eyed and with unrealistic expectations of what they can achieve immediately, they are far preferable to those who turn to Parliament after a lengthy career elsewhere, in the vain belief that they have something special to offer in the twilight years left before they retire. There have been many examples from all parties over the years, from all different backgrounds, from diplomacy, the media and local government and a few others besides, but each with the common expectation that not only will Parliament and the country be better off for their presence, but that it is also extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to be blessed by their talent. Their ultimate frustration and alienation is even more pronounced, because their sense of entitlement was far greater to begin with, while their time horizon is far shorter than their younger counterparts’.

So, good on the Greens for their boldness. Parliament needs to be a balance of all the faces that make up New Zealand today. Promoting young MPs is a healthy step in that direction.