Wednesday, 1 April 2020

A recurring theme in contemporary literature is of the plague that appears suddenly from nowhere and takes hold of the world, destroying or severely damaging life in the process. In 2003 acclaimed author Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake was premised on a super-pharmaceutical cutting loose and causing a global pandemic. The 2011 movie Contagion focused on a global pandemic that jumped from animals to humans and spread around the world. Perhaps most eerily of all though the American science fiction writer Dean Koontz predicted in a 1981 novel the emergence in 2020 of a man-made virus called Wuhan-400 with a 100% kill rate, which had been developed in Wuhan as a biological weapon but got out of control.

Although all these accounts are fictional, and while the tolerance for conspiracy theories should be limited even at the best of times, they do draw attention to situations that could become reality at some point. Yet, despite various occasional national and international warnings from researchers and clinicians, the Covid-19 outbreak has shown overall that the world was in a relatively poor state of preparation for such an occurrence.

This was notwithstanding the fact that in the last decade alone a number of global disease threats had appeared – Ebola, Zika and coronaviral diseases like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, known more commonly as SARS-Cov-1, to name just a few. Add to that, the constant threat of influenza related epidemics, and bioweapons, and the world should have well and truly been prepared for an event like Covid-19.

The New Zealand Influenza Pandemic Plan was published by the Ministry of Health in August 2017. It is a thorough and comprehensive document, but it does not appear that all that much has been happening since then to implement it. As early as late 2017, in the wake of the Ebola crisis health professionals were warning that New Zealand’s preparations for dealing with global disease outbreaks needed to be stepped up, both in terms of clinical and research capacity, and wider community response strategies.

The Pandemic Plan calls for “a nationally consistent monitoring and surveillance system during the period between pandemics” as an “essential component of preparedness.” It urges that “overseas trends must be monitored and analysed and surveillance systems in New Zealand maintained to enable the early detection of a novel influenza virus following announcements by WHO, and these systems must be capable of tracking the progress of a pandemic in New Zealand.”

But it is not clear what notice the government has taken of all the warnings. The difficulties we now hear reported almost daily of tracking Covid-19’s spread around New Zealand, and the initially slow and chaotic response, the shortage of essential items like ventilators, masks and gowns, not to mention the confusion over community testing, all confirm that the Plan has not been given the priority it deserved.

While not much can be done about that now, there are lessons for the future about the need to ensure that neglect never happens again, and that we are better prepared for the next global pandemic, whenever and in what form it may occur.
Because, as we have seen, the response to a major pandemic is a whole of government and not just a Ministry of Health issue, the way we deal with it needs to be similarly broad-based. Although the Plan acknowledges that, the response it suggests is a little narrow. It suggests the Ministry of Health should be the lead agency, but these issues are simply too big to leave to any one agency as the lead as is the case now. There needs to a single standing all of government agency, reporting directly to the Prime Minister on a quarterly basis.

That agency needs to have the capacity to review from time to time the overall state of future preparedness, and to be able recommend changes as necessary. It needs to be able to suggest to universities, research institutes and Ministers areas for future desirable research and to recommend appropriate levels of investment to ensure they occur. Also, it needs to be empowered to challenge the operational autonomy of District Health Boards to ensure a consistent range of clinical response is available across the country in such situations. PHARMAC needs to be in this loop as well to ensure funding is available to keep up the appropriate level of medicines and medical devices.

At the civil level, the pandemic co-ordination agency should set the parameters of any Police operations, both at the national and individual levels. For example, it is neither good enough nor acceptable for the Commissioner of Police to be able to say as he did this week, that while detailed operational instructions have been issued to individual Police officers during the current emergency he is not prepared to make those public. The Covid-19 response is not just another (albeit bigger than normal) Police operation so cannot be conducted that way. It involves many more public organisations than just the Police, so in these instances it needs to be clear that its traditional “constabulary independence” from the government has to become both subservient and accountable to the whole of government process.
While the immediate focus is on getting rid of Covid-19 in New Zealand, it would be foolhardy in the extreme to treat this as a once in a lifetime situation.  Rather than filing plans like the New Zealand Influenza Pandemic Plan on a shelf, we need to be ensuring they are constantly updated and kept in a state of readiness so that when next required they can be given effect to at a moment’s notice.   

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

The enormity of the government's task in defining the scope of the national lockdown has been highlighted by the confusion over what constitute essential services to be permitted to remain open.

After to-ing and fro-ing on whether the likes of The Warehouse could remain open, or liquor stores continue to trade or whether home deliveries of takeaway food would be permissible, the government finally offered some clarification. But anomalies remain, and almost certainly more will come to light over the next few days as the lockdown takes hold. Unless the relevant government officials move quickly to tidy these up, as and when they occur, the whole effort risks falling apart.

That would be an outright disaster. Every one of us, from the Prime Minister downwards has to take every reasonable step we can to eliminate the Covid-19 virus from New Zealand. While we should not be afraid to employ extreme measures during this critical time, we should equally not be afraid to modify them or abandon them completely if it becomes clear that they are not working out as intended. The worst thing we can do in such situations is to try and make running repairs to the regulations as we go along.

While our experience with occurrences of this magnitude is thankfully limited, we do know that mass restrictions, invariably designed hurriedly in response to a crisis, crash not because of their well-meaning intent, but rather the devil in their detail. Too often we make the mistake of assuming simple, broad-brush solutions can be universally and fairly applied, when clearly that is not the case. In the end, they fail not because the policy intent behind them was wrong, but because the anomalies and exceptions overwhelm them. They then become the major focus of public attention at the expense of the problem they were trying to resolve. Invariably, those who have no option but to comply become more and more resentful that “everyone else” seems able to get around the regulations, but not them.

Even under a state of emergency, and the unprecedented peacetime powers that confers, the democratically elected government still has ultimately to rely on the goodwill of the citizenry to make its plans work. That will be forthcoming so long as everyone continues to feel their contribution to the national sacrifice is an even one and that the sanctions being imposed are reasonable. The swift public rejection of The Warehouse’s suggestion that it should remain open as an essential public service was a good example of people sensing that one organisation was trying to push its luck too far. But it is also a salutary reminder to officials about the level of assurance and deftness they will need to show in dealing with the unexpected situations the lockdown is bound to throw up over the next little while. Government in New Zealand, even in these difficult times, remains a partnership between the governors and the governed.

The range of individual situations that will be affected here is massive, and probably not fully appreciated as yet. Struggling families worrying about their accommodation and the whether the breadwinner’s job will remain; people caring for elderly dependent relatives and those with terminal illnesses; the young mum about to give birth, or the family on the point of breaking up – all these are very real situations for many, many New Zealanders today. They are by no means exclusive, there will be many similar examples. The last thing any of these people can be reasonably expected to cope with alongside everything else at the moment is excessively rigorous, inflexible and intolerant administration of the lockdown which tries to fit their particular square peg into the officials’ pre-determined round holes.

The various natural disasters we have endured in recent years have shown us two things. First, New Zealanders rally round each other in a crisis, and do what they can to help those who are suffering. But, second, sadly, there have also been occasions where rigid and petty-minded officialdom has got in the way of what the community was trying to achieve.  We cannot allow that to derail what we all have to do as a community to stop the spread of Covid-19.

The immediate reaction to the Prime Minister’s call for us all to live within our “bubble” for at least the next little while will be one of acceptance – we fully understand we must all comply, no matter the depth of the personal disruption, to play our part. Initially, at least, there will be no tolerance shown for those shown to be or seeking to flout the rules or create mischief about them. However, that initial wave of support will start to evaporate steadily if questions of fairness and equity begin to occur and gather pace in the community.

Latest opinion poll tracking shows most New Zealanders now support the government’s actions on Covid-19, although only a minority think they will be successful. So, there is still work to be done to bring everyone completely on-side.

The apparent confusion between the Prime Minister and Police Commissioner over the extent to which you can use your private car is a silly distraction the government just does not need at the moment.  In these troubled times one of our best assurances of prudence and stability must be that the elected civilian government is in control and making the decisions, not the Police or the military.

It would be a massive pity if over-zealous policing, nationally and locally, upset the public’s acceptance of the government’s comprehensive and to date responsible efforts to see New Zealand through this crisis. Right now, a deep breath followed by a solid dose of common sense might well be in order for all those administering the lockdown. Keeping focus clearly on the bigger picture is far, far more important.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

This is pre-eminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

So spoke Franklin Roosevelt when giving his first Inaugural address to the American people in March 1933. He was, of course, speaking about the Great Depression which had wracked his country and the world since the great share market crash of October 1929, but his words are just as apposite today as the world confronts the Covid-19 pandemic.

Governments, businesses, health professionals and citizens everywhere are reeling as each new revelation about Covid-19 occurs, or as the daily explosion in the numbers of cases around the world is announced. While all these agencies are genuinely doing their best to respond appropriately, none of them really knows what the duration of the virus will be, how severe it will get, or what the long-term consequences will be for world economies and social cohesion. Suddenly, those television series popular in the 1970s and 1980s about small groups of survivors from either a nuclear holocaust or a global pandemic trying to re-establish social order and functional communities do not seem that fictional anymore.

This is just the type of environment where the best endeavours of governments and civil authorities can be easily and quickly derailed by rumour, gossip, idle speculation and ignorance that unchecked gives rise to the “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” that Roosevelt was so keen to quell. While governments can act responsibly to stimulate their economies to keep as many of their citizens as possible employed and businesses afloat, to lay the ground work for recovery, and while they can endeavour to ensure the best possible medical services are available, it is almost impossible for them to manage the spread of public opinion. That is a virus of itself.

Private views about what is happening, formed on whatever basis, pass the same way as the virus from one person to the next, to form a community perspective. Any suggestion that access to medical care is not being offered even-handedly, or that some groups in society are missing out, or that people are not being told the full story can multiply rapidly and become  ultimately unqualified fact in the eyes of at least some sections of the community. At that point, the fear Roosevelt referred to sets in, and breeds envy, hatred and division, which, now unlike then, will be fomented and spread by social media, as we have seen in other areas.

But governments cannot manage all this by themselves. In fact, stentorian government messages on how people should behave are likely to have precisely the opposite effect. Even in a crisis, people do not like being told what to do, but they will respond positively to what they think were all their own ideas, or at least the suggestions of those around them. Peer pressure to conform remains the most powerful incentive of all. Public messaging from governments and health authorities needs therefore to be simple, consistent, positive and repetitive, as not everyone will be hearing them at the same time, or as often.

The messaging also needs to be co-ordinated and evidence based. The news media has a huge role to play, focusing on the information people need to have to be able to go about their daily lives securely and confidently, rather than the latest angle on the ongoing situation. In this environment, the drama of the event must give way to the wellbeing of the citizen, and the protection of public calm.

The Prime Minister struck the right tone when she told Parliament “Be strong, be kind, we will be ok”.  But that message cannot be left as just a one-off, a catchy line at the end of a speech in the House. It has to become almost a new mantra, for the government, business, the health sector and the community as a whole, to be constantly repeated and upheld. That way, assuming the maintenance of consistent and co-ordinated policy responses, we will overcome fear, prejudice and ignorance.

We will “revive and prosper”.

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

The first anniversary this coming weekend of the brutal, tragic Christchurch mosque slayings will be a difficult and bitterly sad occasion for so many people – the families of the victims, obviously, but also the recovery and medical teams involved, the Police and the other community leaders who played their part on that fateful day. For most of us, it is still hard to imagine events like that taking place in New Zealand, even though they were now nearly a year ago.

In the immediate aftermath, the country seemed to come together as one, with the near universal vow that something like that should never be allowed to happen here again. Much was said at the time about how we needed to unite as never before to make that a reality, and there seemed to be a genuine spirit about doing so.

Now, as we mark that first anniversary, it is worth looking at the progress made, and how we as a society may have changed to prevent a repetition of such awful events in the future. Sadly, despite the bold proclamations of the time, the resulting scorecard has been somewhat mixed.

The most dramatic commitment made was to clean up New Zealand’s cumbersome and lax firearms laws, to prevent dangerous weapons falling into the hands of cold-blooded terrorists like the Christchurch attacker ever again. A ban on semi-automatic weapons – the easiest bit of the jigsaw – was quickly achieved, but the rest of the package has struggled somewhat. The weapons buyback scheme appears to have had mixed results – a significant number of weapons have been handed in, but the suspicion remains that a large of numbers of weapons and components are still out there, unaccounted for. The next phase, the firearms register, has gone nowhere. Proposals to establish the register have stalled and are unlikely to be passed through Parliament any time soon, if at all. So, at best, the promised bold firearms policy gets a bare pass mark, and is unlikely to deter a determined terrorist from a similar attack in the future.

Next was the promise of a comprehensive Royal Commission of Inquiry to examine all aspects of the tragedy, including the performance of the security and intelligence services and whether they were paying sufficient attention to the presence and activities of extremist right-wing groups. Because of the perceived urgency, the Royal Commission was told to report back its findings by the end of last year. However, not surprisingly, the enormity of the task has proved impossible to achieve according to the original timeframe and the deadline for its report has now been extended to April 2020. To use NCEA parlance, the Royal Commission gets a “Not Achieved” at this point.

Meantime, disturbing claims have emerged from the Islamic Women’s Council about how various concerns of rising Islamophobia and the risks it posed they had been raising with the State Services Commission and other official agencies have been ignored. This, and the lack of apparent change in the way the intelligence services are now going about their business, raises important questions about official attitudes before and after the attacks. This in turn puts further pressure on the Royal Commission.

Another element that was focused on immediately after the attacks was the role of online communications and websites. While the Christchurch Call has made some progress on the international front in drawing attention to the concern and seeking the engagement of the likes of Google and Facebook to better moderate the content on their platforms, there still remain too many instances where objectionable online material has been able to be streamed in exactly the same way as before. So, while the Christchurch Call probably rates at least a B+ for its intent, the unsatisfactory practical consequences rate at around a D, leaving the overall rating on this score at about C to C+.

On top of this, and despite the pious good intent of the time, it is now clear that not a lot has changed in terms of improving public tolerance and respect for diversity over the last year. This week alone there have been reports of neo-Nazi groups becoming more active, and there was the incident of alleged homophobic conduct by a police officer in the wake of Wellington’s Pride Parade. Last week, there was the Court case involving the person who had made fresh threats against the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch. Over the course of the last year there have been a number of incidents reported across the country of racial slurs being cast, or discrimination made against people on ethnic grounds. And there has even been the case of a senior Cabinet Minister making racist and inflammatory comments on a number of occasions and suffering no sanction for his remarks.

Our society still seems to be as challenged as it ever was in terms of accepting the need for tolerance and diversity, with the brief coming together after Christchurch being clearly no more than a mere blip.
So, it will be another D on that account.

Overall, then as we reflect upon last year’s horrific attacks, the scoresheet is not especially promising, barely a pass mark and probably a fail on the commitments made a year ago. As we recall the events of March 15 2019, we should also realise that collectively we have so far failed the memory of all those who were killed, wounded and otherwise scarred for life. For the second anniversary in 2021 to prove worthy and pay true tribute to them, we all need to improve our response considerably. More action, less pontification would be a good starting point.      


Wednesday, 4 March 2020

After all, they have had a tough time in recent weeks defending the apparently indefensible way their party funds itself, so might welcome the party making the headlines for other reasons. What better way therefore to make the party troops feel positive again than trotting out some good, old core message rhetoric as light relief? No matter the offence the comments understandably and justifiably caused the Indian community, because although they were the group attacked, they were not the group at whom the remarks were aimed. Playing minorities off against the rest of the population in this way is a classic New Zealand First tactic and is the height of electoral cynicism.

But it is also much more than that.  It is a blunt expression of New Zealand First’s beliefs. Moreover, what it really shows is that racially motivated criticisms by New Zealand First MPs are not just some casual occurrence to be brushed aside as “their personal views”. There have been too many instances of this type of behaviour over the years for them to be dismissed credibly as just coincidence.  Rather, they are at the heart of New Zealand First’s monocultural, anti-immigrant message, which the party is unashamed and unabashed in promoting. It is a deliberate pitch to that segment of the population that holds similar views.

One only need recall Winston Peters’ quarter century of attacks on non-white migrants; former deputy leader Peter Brown’s outburst that there were too many Asian immigrants coming to New Zealand; former MP Richard Prosser’s references to people from “wogistan”, Ron Mark telling a Korean born MP to “go home”, or Clayton Mitchell’s anti-Semitic comments in  Parliament. The list goes on and on. Shane Jones is no different – he is just playing the same old tune his party has scratched out for years.

But it is not just the frequent attacks on foreigners and their values that mark New Zealand First out as racist. It has also been the party most consistently opposed to correcting Treaty of Waitangi imbalances, or enabling greater power-sharing with, or public participation by, iwi in the nation’s life. New Zealand First has always opposed moves in this direction as encouraging separatism, an anti-social justice and equality tactic frequently employed by white-supremacy groups elsewhere.

New Zealand First has consistently and deliberately played the race card in New Zealand politics like no other party in the last quarter century. And given its electoral success in that time it has to be conceded, sadly, that the strategy has succeeded. Unfortunately, its overt racism has legitimised the latent prejudices of a small group of New Zealanders who have supported New Zealand First as the public expression of their own private bigotry. And, at three of the eight elections held under MMP, that support has been sufficient to put the party in a key position which it came to government formation.

However, this year, the party is locked in a real battle for political survival. There are steady signs that New Zealanders may be tiring of the New Zealand First presence in Parliament. But, as previous elections have shown, the party often performs best when its back is to the electoral wall. And it does so by playing to its traditional appeals. Therefore, during this year’s election campaign, all ethnic and cultural minorities are likely to be targets of some type or other of New Zealand First’s hostility, if it considers that fomenting such division is in its selfish political interests. After all, it has worked for them in the past, so why would it not do so again? Unfortunately, therefore, any hope that New Zealand First will moderate its racism in the slightest in the lead-up to this year’s election seems likely to be extremely forlorn.

All the while, it is becoming increasingly ironic and incredible that the Labour Party which professes itself to the world as progressive, compassionate and kind should be propped up in office by such a regressive, racist coalition partner. Sadly, while National has already reduced New Zealand First’s relevance for the future by ruling out working with it, Labour is too electorally reliant on New Zealand First’s potential numbers to do likewise. And with the Prime Minister’s do-nothing response to New Zealand First’s racist attacks likely to continue, the country seems set to endure yet more ignorant and intemperate outbursts from Shane Jones and his colleagues over the next few months until the election, when the majority of New Zealanders will have the opportunity to finally put an end to this racism in politics once and for all.


Wednesday, 26 February 2020

In a tough battle for re-election as President of the United States in 1948, which many predicted him to lose, Harry Truman decided the best way to defend his record was to attack those preventing him from fulfilling his agenda.  So, he took to lambasting the Republican-controlled Congress as the “Know nothing, do nothing” 80th Congress whenever and wherever he spoke. The tactic worked and was a strong contributor to his stunning victory in the election.

Harry Truman’s example came to mind recently when the newly elected Wellington Mayor Andy Foster all but apologised for not being able to achieve some of his plans, like a return to free weekend parking, because of a lack of support within his Council. That looks like the first of many battles the centre-right Mayor will lose with his left-dominated Council over the next three years, which could seriously affect his re-election prospects in 2022. Unless, of course, he changes tack and seizes the initiative.

Mayors are always in a difficult position – they are only one vote of many around the Council table. Mayor Foster’s problem is compounded by the fact that he was not really expected to win the Mayoralty last year, the unrecognised latent unpopularity of his predecessor notwithstanding. However, many of those elected to the Council were more in step with the views of the former Mayor and seem to be taking some time to get over his defeat. Although their disappointment is no justifiable reason for their apparent intransigence to many of Mayor Foster’s plans, it is at least an explanation of their position.

Wellington City Councils in recent years have had a history of being dysfunctional, often because of disruptive and unreasonable personalities around the Council table. Indeed, the last Mayor to be able to ride above all the pettiness and achieve what she wanted was Dame Fran Wilde nearly 25 years ago, and it is no coincidence that some of Wellington’s biggest attractions today – the waterfront, the stadium and Te Papa – were products of that time.

Since then, successive Mayors have been to a greater or lesser extent hostages to often hopelessly splintered Councils. A measure of harmony was reached during the term of Mayor Lester, but that was mainly because a majority seemed in step with his vision, even if the citizens of Wellington showed at the election they were not. The current Council which still seems to consider itself surrogates for Mayor Lester’s dreams seems destined to restore the dysfunctionality of the past. All of which compounds Mayor Foster’s challenges.

Despite having considerably far more Council experience (he has been there since 1992) than any other Councillor of recent times, he has always seemed somewhat of a loner, without a clear base of support around the Council table. There is no doubt he has the experience and skills to do the job required, but he now needs to demonstrate those to the Wellington public, as well as his Council colleagues.

However, Councillors’ reactions to the Mayor’s 150 Days Plan show he is likely to get little of their support. As the city’s leader, directly elected by the people, he might reasonably have expected some co-operation, if not support, from his Councillors. So, rather than apologise for their lack of reason, and appear defensive in the process, the Mayor needs to go onto the front foot, so to speak, and campaign directly to the people of Wellington for his agenda, over the heads of his unresponsive Council. He needs to make his causes the public’s causes.

In short, Andy Foster needs to become Wellington’s Harry Truman – the people’s champion against a stubborn and unresponsive Council. He needs to be seen taking the citizens’ fights, on which he campaigned at election time, constantly to a Council which he can increasingly portray as arrogant, aloof and out of touch as they knock him back. While he is a product of the system, he cannot afford to be seen as the captive of the system.  By being the Mayor of Wellington for Wellington who is standing up for his city against a Council that often seems more worried about not upsetting the Beehive, he can succeed.

A quiet chat to Dame Fran Wilde and adopting the Harry Truman approach to his “do nothing” Council should set him on his way.    

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Recent opinion polls have suggested the recreational cannabis referendum later this year might not succeed. While there is a still a flood of water to move under the bridge before the referendum, there are nonetheless some early warning signs that those promoting change should be wary of. Once early trends become apparent in referenda like this, they can become locked-in and very difficult to reverse.

The referendum was a product of the confidence and supply agreement between Labour and the Greens and has been enthusiastically and diligently promoted ever since by the Greens’ drugs spokesperson. That is its biggest problem – it is seen by too many people to be little more than a sop to the Green Party, not to be taken all that seriously. And that view will persist to the referendum’s detriment while the issue is being left solely to the Greens to run.

What is needed now to get the referendum back on track is for the Ministers of Justice and Health to take ownership of it and drive the campaign based on the legal and health evidence, not the resort to popular emotion. However, Labour seems to have adopted a position of neutrality, neither for nor against, but prepared to be bound by the public outcome, whatever it may be. All well and good, but once more reinforcing the impression that the Labour part of the government is not really all that interested in taking the matter seriously. A cynic might say that this is a deliberate distancing strategy, and that Labour would not be unhappy if the referendum were to fail. The more Labour declines to get involved and leaves it all to the Greens, the more likely such failure becomes.

All of which raises the question of what happens next. If the legal regulation of recreational cannabis fails at the referendum the issue is unlikely to secure prominence on the political agenda any time soon thereafter. That brings everyone back to square one and the existing Misuse of Drugs Act. The one thing they all agree upon – no matter whether they support or oppose the referendum – is that the now 45-year-old Act is no longer fit for purpose. But it, if the referendum fails, it will still be the law of the land that a newly energised public will expect Parliament, the Police the Courts to uphold and enforce, not just pay lip service to.

New Zealand’s National Drug Policy which I released in 2015 when Associate Minister of Health focused on a “compassionate, innovative and proportionate” approach to drug policy issues. When I addressed the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in early 2016, I added “boldness” to those three pillars, saying then that, “responsible regulation is the key to reducing drug-related harm and achieving long-term success in drug control approaches”. Implicit in all this was beginning a major review and rewrite of the Misuse of Drugs Act during the current term of Parliament. However, the present government’s attention has, understandably, been focused more on the referendum, albeit without much obvious enthusiasm, than those wider and more important issues.

Whatever the fate of the referendum, the next government will have to turn its attention to the Misuse of Drugs Act. But its rewrite will be a major task in itself, meaning it is quite possible that the existing Act will live to celebrate its 50th birthday in 2025, before it is replaced by something more fit for purpose.

Meanwhile, the current uncertain state risks just stumbling on. If this year’s referendum fails, the government (particularly if it is National led) will be extremely reluctant to do anything substantive. For their part, the Greens will be tarnished goods, linked to the failed referendum, so their capacity to advocate credibly for change will be considerably diminished. In short, the prospects for credible reform will be at their lowest ebb for a long time.

Having agreed to the referendum as part of its confidence and supply negotiations with the Greens, Labour cannot now wash its hands of it, and imply that the onus of its success or failure rests entirely on the Greens. By accepting it in the post-election negotiations Labour also accepted that the referendum (and by implication a successful result) became government policy. It is not just one more item to be picked up or left on the smorgasbord of policies passing by.

If Labour supports legalising recreational cannabis, it should say so and be upfront it in campaigning for it. If it opposes it, it should be equally upfront in spelling out what changes if any it will make to the Misuse of Drugs Act to uphold the restored status quo if the referendum is defeated. But it is simply not fair to leave it all to the Greens to make the case for change. Everyone knows where they have long stood, and the risk is they conclude that the referendum is more about pandering to those long held views than serious reform.

The recreational cannabis debate is an important one that deserves to be taken seriously by Labour. If the Ministers of Health and Justice do not take over the leadership of the debate, and spell out all the ramifications, including the alternatives, it will most likely fail. And, aside from the Greens, the big losers will then continue to be those vulnerable New Zealanders suffering daily from the consequences of the misuse of drugs.