Wednesday, 30 October 2013

31 October 2013
A sure sign of looming danger is when a politician opines the eerie words, “I’ve been thinking.” It is usually a warning some new crackpot idea is about to be unleashed, or hobby horse indulged. In fact, politicians’ “thinking” lies at the heart of many of the problems we face today.
Now, of course there are exceptions to every rule. There have been occasions when politicians’ thinking has led to profound positive social and economic change, or times when the lofty aspirations outlined by a politician have inspired a nation or a generation. (Nelson Mandela’s struggle against apartheid is the obvious contemporary example.) But generally speaking these occasions are the exception rather than the rule.
So, against that background, and with a fair measure of trepidation, let me share some of my current thinking about a contentious issue.
Just over a couple of months ago, the Psychoactive Substances Act of which I was the principal architect was implemented. It provides for the first time for a regulated market for the sale and supply of psychoactive substances, based on the level of risk they pose to the user. It is attracting interest from around the globe, as an innovative solution to an international problem, and, after a few not unanticipated teething problems, seems to be settling down quite well.
Now, here is where I have been thinking. Although the Psychoactive Substances Act was intended to deal with that issue only, and not to have wider application, it does occur to me that, if after a period of time, it is shown to be working effectively, it could well become the model by which narcotic drugs, currently controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act, are regulated for the future. The yardstick of level of risk – based on sound pharmacological and toxicological evidence – would become the determinant of availability, not public sentiment or prejudice.
I am not suggesting a revolution, but simply observing that the regulatory regime introduced for psychoactive substances could well have wider application and that we should not be averse to that possibility. After all, most experts now concede the so-called “war” on drugs has failed, and new initiatives are required.
So, is this another crackpot idea from a politician with time on his hands to be “thinking’? Or is an idea with merit worth considering further?
You be the judge.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

24 October 2013
Many years ago, when I was a Labour MP, there used to be a weekly debate in Caucus about the theme for the week. If it was a quiet week, or one the government would rather forget, the default theme was always splits and divisions in the Opposition.
I do not know whether Labour still operates that way (it is over 19 years since I left the Labour Caucus) or whether National does likewise, but it seems that the news media certainly do.
Last week was proceeding quietly enough, with all the focus on the Auckland Mayoral circus, until John Banks’ resignation after being committed for trial on electoral fraud charges. A media feeding frenzy quickly developed (reminiscent of David Lange’s reef fish) about the government’s consequent apparent instability. One commentator referred to the government as “as stable as a blancmange”; another had me packed off to Canberra as High Commissioner, despite my having no interest in the job at all; and, they all had John Key throwing out a desperate lifeline to Colin Craig to be his saviour.
Amidst all the panic, a couple of small but significant facts were overlooked. The government still has a 64-57 majority on confidence and supply measures in the House; and there is over a year to run before the next election. A lot can change in that time. After all, as they keep reminding us in other circumstances, a week is a long time in politics, as Len Brown was discovering. So today’s drama is tomorrow’s fish and chips wrapping.
Now I am not criticising the Press Gallery. Theirs is a thankless job, at the best of times, trying to report coherently on events that often just happen, in an environment where cock-up beats conspiracy every time, and where the wonderful irrationality of humankind is frequently demonstrated. So, their attempts to spice up dull and turgid times are perfectly understandable, but it is a pity when in their enthusiasm for a fresh angle a few basic facts get lost.
Whatever happens to Mr Banks, the government will retain its majority and stability and will go on to at least the next election. There will be inevitably be more alarums and excursions along the way to be reported with breathless excitement, and splits and divisions will continue to be the default debate when the going gets quiet.
Just as our weather patterns are predictable anticyclones from the west, pushed away by depressions from the south, all within a few days, our political weather is follows the same pattern – big highs chased away by the lows. But at the end of it all, the worst day in Government still far outstrips the very best day in Opposition.
Enjoy the coming long weekend – Christmas is less than nine weeks away!

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

17 October 2013
In the 1980s the Wellington retailer Alan Martin of L.V. Martin & Son became a cult figure for his idiosyncratic television advertisements where he proclaimed, “it’s the putting right that counts”. The slogan became part of the national lexicon and a byword for after sales service.
In 1995 when the United Party was formed cartoonist Tom Scott lampooned the hurried circumstances of the party’s launch with the line,” it’s the getting it about right that counts”.
I thought of that line again last week when Mark Lundy was released on bail pending a new trial for the murder of his wife and daughter. His case follows in the footsteps of David Bain, Arthur Alan Thomas and a few others over the last 40 years. The common thread has been that each of the original convictions was found to be unsafe in some way or other. To date, in each case, subsequent processes have led to either their acquittal or the quashing of the original convictions. It remains to be seen whether Mark Lundy will join that list.
In each case, the “getting it about right” approach to justice has been the problem. Too often, the innocent till proven guilty maxim that supposedly underpins our justice system has given way to the lesser and far more unreliable “they probably did it” approach. While that fits well with our national pragmatism and is probably likely to be right more often than not, it is still a fundamentally haphazard and far too casual way to dispense justice, especially in serious cases.
Unfortunately, and probably more worrying, that approach also influences the ways crimes and other misdemeanours are now investigated by the Police and others. Instead of painstakingly and impartially investigating all aspects of a case from the ground up, New Zealand’s approach is increasingly focused on finding someone responsible, or more likely than not to be responsible. That is based on a sifting sand approach of shaking the issue to see who can be eliminated, and then building a case, often no more than strongly circumstantial, around them in such a way to convince a Court of guilt. The pursuit of truth and justice are often the first casualties. Finding someone on whom the crime can be “pinned” is a far more immediate focus and satisfies the public that the investigators have done their job properly.
But while that remains our focus and while those who gather the evidence remain responsible for prosecuting the cases, situations like the Lundy case and others will continue to occur.  That may satisfy the public pressure for crimes to be solved, but the pursuit of justice will be the casualty. Getting it “about right” in these circumstances definitely does not count!

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

10 October 2013
The greatest football game in town kicked off again this week – and I am not referring to the epic All Blacks/Springboks test at Ellis Park last weekend.
Rather, it is the ongoing Superannuation football, which has been a tedious, unresolved struggle between National and Labour for the last 40 years. The latest round kicked off this week with the release of the Retirement Commissioner’s periodic review of superannuation policy.
And all the traditional responses were there, as predictable as ever. The Retirement Commissioner was preaching the normal doom and gloom unless the eligibility age was lifted. The Prime Minister and National were saying it is staying at 65, and that is that. Just as predictably, Labour wants it to be 67, and not to be outdone New Zealand First had to allege it was all a conspiracy with the private pensions industry to privatise the state’s superannuation obligations. Greypower was, as it is with everything these days, just outraged and opposed.
For the spectators in the grandstand, who have the greatest stake in the outcome, and who are literally growing old waiting for some resolution, it was all just like it has been ever since this test series was kicked off by Norman Kirk back in 1973. Same old, same old, with nothing changing and uncertainty remaining.
And just like the stodgy IRB over the years, the Retirement Commissioner did not even look at some of the innovative ideas the spectators are interested in. UnitedFuture’s Flexisuper proposal, which according to some polls is the most popular future option by far, and which the government is currently consulting upon, was not even mentioned in the Report, and the question of making Kiwisaver compulsory – as it should be – was literally kicked for touch.
So, sadly, this now rather pointless test series looks set to carry on into the future, just as it has in the past. Statistics will continue to be collected and quoted knowingly. Yet the various players will stick to same old tactics and stratagems. Nothing will change. Lost opportunity will be lamented by everyone. The spectators will steadily come to the realisation that they need to look out for themselves, because no-one else is likely to.
And the cynic will conclude, that maybe that was the way it was meant to be, after all