Wednesday, 9 December 2015

10 December 2015

So, according to the Security Intelligence Service, increasing numbers of young New Zealand women are off to Syria to become what have been called “jihadi brides.” Well, actually, there are not that many. Of the thousands of foreign fighters in Syria, and assumed to be fighting for ISIL, it is understood that less than a dozen may be from New Zealand. Unless the so-called “jihadi brides” are marrying non-New Zealanders involved in the campaign, the actual numbers are very small, probably insignificantly so, indeed.

Therefore, why raise this spectre of alarm? One reason might be that, small as it is, the number has grown, and is consequently, in a time of increased international tension, worth noting. Possible, but unlikely. After all, whatever way you look at it, the numbers are still very low. And also, there has been no change in New Zealand’s terrorism alert status in the last year to account for it.

Well, it may be that New Zealand is becoming an active recruiting base for such people. Again, unlikely, and in any case, were it so, drawing attention to it would be the very worst thing to do, as it would only serve to recruit more people to the cause.

So perhaps it was just a throwaway comment, made just in passing. Whatever their many lapses, security agencies are not prone to passing throwaway comments, so that defence can be dismissed.

All of which leaves two possibilities. One is that our risk status has increased and this is a coded way of drawing public attention to it. This too is an unlikely scenario for the simple reason our official risk status has not been upgraded in the last year.

That leads to the inevitable conclusion that the comment was part of a softening-up process for the outcome of the independent review of the security services due in the first quarter of next year. After all, heightening the perception of threat would boost the case for increasing the powers of the security agencies. This is a little too obvious and we should be careful not to become too taken in by it.

But there is another, potentially more subtle aspect to this. The softening-up process may not be directed so much at the general public and the politicians, as it is to the review itself. After all, the review could recommend curbs on the way the security services operate, or even worse from their point of view, some rationalisation and reorganisation. That would be anathema to the shadowy practitioners of the craft, who since virtually forever have operated largely as a law unto themselves. But what if a tighter line was to be drawn between their activities, and those of say the Police under the Terrorism Suppression Act, for example?

Now all this I freely concede is but unsubstantiated speculation on my part, but I suspect issues like this will be focusing the minds of the spooks as they huddle furtively around their summer barbecues. They should also be topics for the rest of us to ponder as well.

On that note, Dunne Speaks takes its leave for the year. Best wishes for a happy and peaceful Christmas and a safe and prosperous 2016.







Wednesday, 2 December 2015

3 December 2015

The announcement that Japan intends to resume scientific whaling, as it prefers to call blatant slaughter, in the Southern Ocean this season received surprisingly scant attention last week. There were the ritualistic expressions of outrage, the perfunctory Government statement of concern, and the muted calls to dispatch a naval vessel to the region to “sort things out”, but really that was it.

But Japan’s actions deserve a far greater response than that. After all, not only are they thumbing their noses at international opinion, they are also openly defying the rulings of the International Court of Justice. Indeed, this is the contemporary equivalent of France’s arrogant actions from the 1960s onwards of testing nuclear weapons, first in the atmosphere, and then underground at Mururoa Atoll in the Pacific.

And the comparisons do not end there. In both cases, these environmental assaults occurred in our broad neighbourhood, and in both cases, it was not unreasonable to expect New Zealand to take a leading role in opposing them. We did that admirably against French nuclear testing, from the time Norman Kirk sent a New Zealand frigate, complete with a Cabinet Minister on board, to Mururoa in 1973, at the same as he sent his Attorney-General Dr Martyn Finlay to the World Court to argue successfully the legal case against the French. Our staunch approach caused France to first move to underground testing, then inspired the dastardly terrorist attack against the Rainbow Warrior, but finally forced France under Mitterand in 1996 to abandon all testing, albeit 181 tests later. Along the way, hundreds of thousands of typical New Zealanders had been inspired to join the campaign for a nuclear free Pacific, and an end to nuclear testing.

If our outrage about Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean is as serious, we will need to adopt similar tactics to defeat it. The inclement weather of the Southern Ocean makes it impractical and dangerous to encourage protest flotillas into the area, but maritime patrols by either the Navy or the Air Force are surely an option to keep the focus of international attention and scorn on the whalers. Norman Kirk described the frigate HMNZS Otago as it set sail for Mururoa as “a silent witness with the power to bring alive the concerns of the world”. A modern Naval vessel or Air Force Orion shadowing or circling the whaling fleet could provide the same inspiration today.

At the same time, New Zealand should continue its efforts in the International Court of Justice, alongside Australia and other like-minded nations to hold the Japanese to international account.

From the time Peter Fraser signed the United Nations Charter in 1945, New Zealand has been strongly committed to a rules-based international system. We have consistently and properly upheld the primacy of the international institutions we helped create, so utilising those institutions in the fight against whaling is entirely appropriate.

New Zealand and Japan have a good relationship. Through the Trans Pacific Partnership that is about to become a little closer. We should not be afraid to use that relationship, the power of the international community, and our capacity to be a “silent witness” to bring Japan to end the barbarism of whaling in the Southern Ocean.  






Wednesday, 25 November 2015

26 November 2015

Later this week I will join current and former Labour MPs to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the election of one of New Zealand’s most reforming and innovative governments – the first Labour Government under Michael Joseph Savage. No doubt there will be much reminiscing and catching up with former colleagues, particularly those from the equally reforming and innovative fourth Labour Government in which I was privileged to serve.

Amidst the banter and inevitable backslapping, there will assuredly be reflection on the remarkable Labour Prime Ministers New Zealand has had over the years. Savage, Fraser, Kirk, Lange and more recently Clark come to mind.

For me, the remarkable thing about the Labour Party, which attracted me to join it while still at school, was its ability to continually adapt to the circumstances of the time to promote a new vision for the New Zealand of the future. Savage and Fraser expanded the incipient welfare state Seddon’s Liberals had ushered in during the 1890s to meet the needs of a society recovering from the 1930s Depression. Kirk and subsequently Lange captured the yearning for national identity of the restless baby boom generation and beyond. Lange and Clark oversaw the painful economic adjustment necessary to shift New Zealand from Muldoon’s Gdansk shipyard of the 1980s to the modern dynamic economy of today. Differing circumstances and differing challenges, but the constant was the capacity to develop responses attuned to the time.

Sadly, today’s Labour Party is but a shadow of its bold predecessors. There is no sense of future direction or purpose, and even in its rare positive moments, the Party’s best offerings seem to be a hankering for yesteryear. The boldness in politics is now coming from the National Party – formed primarily to oppose the first Labour government – with no more striking example than its Budget decision this year to lift basic benefit payments, the first such upward adjustment in over 40 years(including the 3rd to 5th Labour Governments). Labour, the traditional friend of the beneficiary, was left gasping in its wake.

Labour’s challenge today is to recover its soul and its place. In this post market age, there is a still a role for a radical reforming party of the left, if it is prepared to be bold. There is the opportunity to pull together the threads of the Labour heroes and promote a new commitment based around strengthening New Zealand’s national identity through constitutional and social reform, and encouraging diversity. There is still a place for a progressive party promising a new, more co-operative economic approach in today’s globally digitally and free trade connected world. And there is still a place for a progressive party to promote new, innovative approaches to education and social services.

But rather than grasp these opportunities, Labour has become predeterminedly negative. While it supports a new New Zealand flag, it opposes the current referendum process, essentially because it is a National Prime Minister’s idea. Its approach to economic policy is stalled because it cannot make up its mind on the Trans Pacific Partnership. Its stigmatising of people with Chinese sounding names buying property in Auckland has robbed it of any credibility in the diversity stakes, and its capacity to champion meaningful education reform is zero while it remains the plaything of the PPTA.

Labour’s great leaders of the past all succeeded because in differing ways they snapped themselves out of the prevailing straightjackets of the time to offer something fresh and dynamic.

Among the canapes and the congratulations this week, there ought to be many still in the Labour Party thinking about these points.

If not, there may not be a similar dinner in 20 years time.        







Wednesday, 18 November 2015

19 November 2015

In the wake of last weekend's horrific terrorist attacks in Paris many are asking fresh questions about what new steps can be taken to curb outrages committed by Daesh extremists and their like. Western intelligence agencies have already warned these types of attacks are likely to become more commonplace, and, as if to reinforce their relevance, have judiciously revealed details of similar projected incidents that have been thwarted already. Countries like France and Russia have stepped up their bombings of suspected sites in Syria and Iraq. And, generally, people in Europe particularly, and elsewhere besides are that much more on edge than a week ago.

There have been warnings that cyber attacks may replace physical attacks, with dramatic potential consequences for things like air traffic control or the international financial system. Given increasing global inter connectivity this is potentially the greatest threat of all. Moreover, it comes at a time when governments are becoming more committed to the delivery of services on line to their citizens, and in their dealings with each other. Ironically, rather than closer global co-operation being a way of enhancing common security, it may actually become a threat to it.

It is against this background that the D5 Summit is taking place this week in Tallin, Estonia. The D5 (comprising Britain, New Zealand, Estonia, Korea and Israel - the five leading countries in terms of online government services) was formed last year to promote digital government and greater co-operation between governments in providing services digitally. For the Estonians, probably the most advanced government in this space, it was a no-brainer: when the Soviet Union fell in the early 1990s Estonia was left with virtually no physical infrastructure, and so a move to digital was a logical step. Now, virtually every government service there, including voting in elections, can be accessed through one's mobile phone. The drivers for digitisation were different in both Korea and Israel where national security has been the obvious focus. In the case of Britain and New Zealand,  delivering public services more conveniently and at a time of people's choosing has been the dominant influence. The D5's focus is not on global security, but on the delivery of joined-up government services services on line.

In short, the D5 looks to the positive use of cyberspace to facilitate governments' interactions with their own citizens, and with other governments. (The recent agreement that Australia's Justice Minister and I announced about sharing cyber data to prevent identity theft is a good example of the type of inter-governmental co-operation we envisage.)

Inevitably, the recent outrages and their consequences will intensify the pressure for greater intelligence sharing, and potentially more surveillance of citizens as the price to pay to preserve public order. (Wryly, the business maxim that doing more of the same just produces more of the same old results seems never to apply when it comes to intelligence agencies and the exercise of what they quaintly refer to as their craft, but be that as it
may.) While that may be an understandable, if not condonable short-term reaction, it cannot be allowed to prevail. (Churchill's wartime warning about "perverted science" leading to a "new dark age" is worth recalling here.) The D5's challenge is to ensure that its positive vision for cyber connection and co-operation is not subsumed by the short-term exigencies we currently face, and that the idea of more on-line government remains something to be relished, not feared.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

12 November 2015
Somewhere along the way this week the plot got well and truly lost. Uproar in Parliament, walk-outs, protests and people shouting at and over each other may be all good theatre, a modern form of gladiators in the arena if you like, but after it is over, the fact remains, nothing has changed as a result.
Moreover, the issue itself seems to have become secondary to the noise it has generated. And the issue here is simple: Australia is treating people in its detention camps – in the main New Zealanders awaiting deportation – in a way that is appalling, no matter which way you look at it. Yes, there are definitely very evil people amongst them who have committed unspeakable crimes, with whom we would not usually wish to associate, but they still have the same basic human rights as the rest of us. The argument should be focussing on how these rights are being upheld in the detention camps. On the strong face of it, the detainees are now worse off than when they were in prison, even though they have presumably paid for their crimes in Australia. This cannot be just.
And that is the real issue here. Are these detainees being justly treated, and if not, what can we in New Zealand reasonably do about it? There has always been a more frontier approach to justice in Australia, as the treatment of their indigenous people has shown, and the current treatment of boat refugees continues to show. I suspect most New Zealanders are far from comfortable with the notion of holding such people captive on offshore islands, and would not let a New Zealand government even consider doing so.
That different approach is where our focus needs to be. The modern concentration camp approach Australia has taken is simply wrong. It was wrong when the British tried it in Northern Ireland in the 1970s; it is wrong in Guantanomo Bay, or in Israel today. Australia is no different. The right to due process and fair and open trials is inalienable. So New Zealand needs to be asserting basic human rights and freedoms, not stooping to the name-calling and abuse that has passed for debate over the last week.
Australia is a sovereign state. We cannot automatically require it to change its laws, just because they affront us. The Prime Minister is right on that score. But we can, and should, be speaking out as loudly and frequently as we can against abhorrent practices, especially given the mantle of family the Australians like to drape upon us. After all, most families are blunt with each other and speak out about what they do not like. We should be as well.
The political civil war of the last week has done nothing at all for any of the detainees on Christmas Island. Rather than turning their guns on each other to pointless effect, the Government and the Opposition need to be turning on the real villains of the piece – Ministers like Peter Dutton and others in the Australian Government who continue to promote and support such savage and inhumane policies.    

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

5 November 2015

National’s plans to ask the Productivity Commission to take a “blue skies” look at rules and legislation that may impede housing development are at one level logical and unobjectionable.

But – and this is a very big but – the timing of this announcement causes considerable alarm and suspicion. It comes at the very time when the Government’s plans to amend the Resource Management Act are going nowhere. UnitedFuture and the Maori Party, who have consistently and unwaveringly opposed any moves to weaken the RMA’s principles since National first announced back in 2013 that RMA change was on its agenda, are usually seen by right-wing critics as the reasons why the Government has been unable to progress its plans. On the basis of that narrow view, there is a logic to bypassing the two support parties and abolishing the RMA altogether – although it would be a real toys out of the cot approach, and it is impossible to see a Parliamentary majority in favour of that. But right-wing ideologues have never been troubled by such practicalities.

However, such a view overlooks the fact that National has passed up many opportunities to date to progress changes to the processes by which the RMA operates, because of what appears to be a stubborn “all or nothing” approach. Several months ago, the Minister for the Environment provided UnitedFuture (and possibly the Maori Party although that is not entirely certain) with a list of 39 headline amendments he wished to make to RMA processes. UnitedFuture’s response, after a brief period of consideration (which the Minister even tried to prescribe by suggesting whom we should and should not seek advice from) was that many of the proposals appeared reasonable, some were clearly objectionable, and others required more information. I suggested the best way forward would be to release a public exposure draft of a Bill so that we could all see how the proposed amendments fitted together and could therefore be assured that the Government was not trying to change the RMA’s principles by stealth. When I discussed this with the Prime Minister in late June he agreed. Indeed, both he and the Minister of Economic Development gave public assurances shortly thereafter that an exposure draft would be released.

That was over four months ago, and nothing seems to have moved since, until the weekend’s announcement. Various attempts have been made to find out where the exposure draft is at. We keep being told it is still being worked on. (It seems strange to have a list of 39 proposed amendments, but with no legal drafting.) But we are also being told it is a huge commitment of resources preparing such a draft without an assurance in advance that the proposals it contains will be accepted. If we do not ultimately support the changes, it will all have been a waste of time, they say.

Well, that is, to put it mildly, a strange and novel approach to policy development and working constructively with support partners. UnitedFuture remains committed to working alongside like-minded parties on constructive amendments to the RMA’s processes, but to do so, we need to see the full details of what is being proposed. Simply handing out lists of proposed changes, like tablets of stone, without the accompanying legal drafting so we can see how it all fits together is not good enough. The devil, after all, is always in the detail.

National can make progress now – if it chooses to do so – but it will need to show its full hand, and work openly with its partners. Threatening or implying to “spit the dummy” is neither credible, nor the way to build a Parliamentary majority. And it does nothing to tidy up the RMA.      







Wednesday, 28 October 2015

29 October 2015

The uproar Westpac Bank has understandably caused by releasing personal details regarding Nicky Hager to the Police highlights once more the fragility of public protections in the age of increasing datafication. No matter how it is explained, it is clear Westpac obviously overstepped the mark and will now have to deal with the wrath of customers and the likely loss of accounts that has unleashed.

While that is its commercial problem, the bigger issue this incident highlights once again is the need to ensure the greatest safeguards are both in place and upheld when it comes to the protection of personal privacy. Of course, there is a tension. Citizens have shown overwhelmingly their growing desire to do their business – with the government and the private sector – digitally. And, of course, they expect there to be a reasonable level of basic information-sharing between agencies to prevent duplication and save their time. But alongside that, they have an equally strong expectation that there will not be abuses, and all reasonable attempts will be made to ensure that fundamental values such as the right to personal privacy and safety are not compromised.

The reality is that the age of information-sharing is here to stay, so the challenge is not so much one of holding fast the ramparts against the sharing of data, as it is one of drawing the boundaries clearly, so that the benefits of more information-sharing always outweigh the costs. Information-sharing needs to be customer driven, rather than at the convenience and behest of institutions. For their part, institutions, private and governmental, must never forget that the information they gather and hold is on behalf of citizens, for their genuine benefit. It is not the institutions’ information to be shared at their whim.

It is too easy for politicians to keep saying that better information-sharing is the answer to every problem. While that is undoubtedly true in a number of instances, it is not universally so. There has to be a purpose to information-gathering and sharing – it cannot be just an end in itself. As citizens, we have a right to expect that, not just to be part of an ever-increasing database. Digital transformation is not just about system upgrades, or greater sophistication – to be sustainable its focus has to be on demonstrating a positive, specific and noticeable benefit to the citizen. Convenience must always be balanced by the right to privacy citizens enjoy.

The Westpac case is a good example of what happens when either systems fail, or more likely, the people operating them seek to make a moral judgement about the worth of the information they hold and how it might contribute to what they see as a greater good.

Incidents like this do nothing to build public confidence in the sustainability of a digital future. New Zealand is at the forefront of nations providing services digitally, and our ongoing ability to make progress and secure greater benefits for our citizens rests on their general support. Every privacy breach threatens that goodwill.

That ongoing tension between the advantage of a more digitally oriented society and the protection of personal privacy will not abate while there is any whiff that institutions are cavalier with the personal privacy details they hold. There have been too many incidents in New Zealand in recent years where personal privacy has been sacrificed for a perceived greater good. While that bias remains, we will not secure the full advantages of digital transformation.

Ultimately, this process has to be about using digital transformation to enhance people’s quality of life, and not just one more way to subjugate and control them.         




Wednesday, 21 October 2015

22 October 2015

Last week I voted for two Labour Members’ Bills and against one Government Bill. Both the Labour Bills and the Government Bill proceeded, and the sun still rose the following morning. But to hear some people, you would have thought the end of the world was nigh. What right had I to vote that way, and how were my actions helping the cause of the National Government, they thundered. All that showed to me was there are a number of commentators out there who now, after nearly 20 years, still fail to understand how a proportional representation system works, and whose reputations far outweigh their abilities.

While it may be a forlorn hope to expect them to acquire the capacity to understand what is going on and change their prejudices accordingly, let me direct my comments to those whose interest is genuine, and not governed by the pursuit of a fee or the sound of their own voice.

Through its confidence and supply agreements with their partners (ACT, the Maori Party and UnitedFuture) the current Government is assured of a healthy majority on matters of confidence and supply, the Budget and all Budget-related matters. Because of its decision not to seek wider agreements with its partners, National has been left having to deal with every other piece of legislation, including Opposition Bills, on a case by case basis, without an inbuilt guarantee of a majority. Rarely, does it get the support of all three of its partners in these instances, but never in the life of the last two Parliaments has it failed to secure sufficient votes to pass its own legislation. So, to paraphrase Mark Twain on hearing reports of his death, claims my votes last week posed any risk to the Government’s stability were “grossly exaggerated.”

I follow a very clear decision hierarchy when deciding my vote on Bills not covered by the confidence and supply agreement. The first consideration is whether the measure has been covered by previous confidence and supply agreements. In 2011, National agreed with UnitedFuture not to sell Kiwibank, so it should have hardly been a surprise that I voted for the Labour Bill prohibiting the sale of Kiwibank without a 75% majority in Parliament. Indeed, the surprise would have been had I not voted for the Bill.

The second level is if a Bill is not covered by any agreements, current or former, how does it accord with UnitedFuture policy? The Government’s Bill to defer restoration of a fully elected regional council in Canterbury till 2019 runs contrary to UnitedFuture’s strong belief in the primacy of local decision-making, so again my opposition was entirely as should have been expected.

If neither of the first two conditions apply, it becomes a matter of whether the proposal males good sense. Labour’s Bill bringing Under-Secretaries under the Official Information Act is just such a case. Ministers and Under-Secretaries are part of the Executive butit makes no sense for Ministers to be subject to the OIA, while Under-Secretaries are not, so I voted for the Labour Bill to resolve this anomaly.

There is another important element in all this. At UnitedFuture’s insistence, all our confidence and supply agreements (2 with Labour and 4 with National) have included a no-surprises clause to ensure stable government. So when I vote against the Government, my intention is made clear to them well in advance, so there can be no subsequent misunderstanding.

This situation will likely occur from time to time during the Parliament, but the Government will continue to govern, and life will carry on pretty much as usual. And no-one should have any reason to be surprised at that.





Wednesday, 14 October 2015

15 October 2015

The developing campaign around medicinal cannabis has eerie overtones of last year’s row about psychoactive substances, where reason and logic quickly gave way to lowest common denominator decision-making, equivalent to mob rule.

So, with eternal optimism that informed debate will always prevail, but tempered by an uneasy fear that once more common sense may be swept aside by public passion, let me set out the current situation as dispassionately as I can.

In New Zealand, medical practitioners can prescribe medicines approved and registered under the Medicines Act. Registration occurs after a rigorous clinical testing process, and PHARMAC separately decides whether to fund the product. One medicinal cannabis product, Sativex, is currently so registered, and PHARMAC is currently considering whether to subsidise it. No other medicinal cannabis products have been submitted for registration in New Zealand.

Where medicines are unregistered and therefore unapproved, there has been a procedure set out in the Medicines Act for many years now to allow the Minister to approve the prescription of such an unapproved product, upon the application of a medical practitioner or specialist. That application has to be lodged with the Ministry of Health, stating the product, the purposes for which it is being sought, the dosage, along with general clinical assessments of its likely clinical efficacy and safety. The Ministry then makes a clinical assessment of the case, and recommends a course of action to the Minister. To date, only one application ever has been made for a medicinal cannabis product, which was the case I approved earlier this year.

I am not a clinician, so therefore, in considering any such applications, I have made it very clear that I will be strongly guided by the clinical advice which I receive. The reason for the decision in such cases being made at a Ministerial level has nothing to do with cannabis, but is simply because the applications are being made as an exception to the existing law.

So, patients seeking access to medicinal cannabis products need to consult their medical advisers in the first instance. If Sativex is not deemed suitable, then they need to discuss what other alternatives might be best for them, and whether an application under the Medicines Act is the appropriate way to proceed. Again, there is nothing unusual or particular to medicinal cannabis in that – we do not make any prescription medicines available without the support of the specialist or medical practitioner, for obvious reasons, and medicinal cannabis should be treated exactly the same way.

However, I would be concerned if it became clear that personal antipathy to cannabis was causing some doctors not to seek approval for medicinal cannabis products for their patients, in cases where it was potentially beneficial. My strong plea to them is to always put the best interests of their patients ahead of any personal views they might hold, when considering such cases.

We are watching closely the clinical trials being conducted in the United States and Australia, but they are not likely to produce results before 2016-2017 at the earliest. It is possible that were the FDA or the Therapeutic Goods Agency to approve medicinal cannabis products as a result of these trials our regulator Medsafe would look to follow suit here, but that is still some time away. What is clear, however, is that any approval is likely to be for a very limited range of products in highly specific and regulated circumstances, and certainly not the open slather situation some seem to be expecting.

Meantime, the provisions of our Medicines Act will continue to apply, including the opportunities for doctors to seek access to these products in the general interests of their patients. For my part, I will consider any case that comes before me on its particular merits, and without any reference to whatever external noise there might be at the time.

Anxious patients and their families deserve no less.  









Wednesday, 7 October 2015

8 October 2015

When I left university I went to work for the Department of Trade and Industry, in import licensing. I was then a true believer in protectionism, in regulating the flow and nature of imports and consequently the choices available to and standard of living of New Zealanders, in the wider interests of encouraging domestic industry, promoting economic stability and maintaining reasonable living standards.

However, I was quickly disillusioned. Not only was the policy ineffective, it was unevenly and incompetently applied, it was fundamentally unfair, and certainly did nothing to build efficient domestic import substitution industries, or to keep unemployment, inflation and the balance of payments under control. Import licensing was widely abused, and served only to entrench the privilege of the wealthy import warehouses and selected merchants.

That early exposure to the failure of protectionism and the folly of trying to insulate the domestic economy from the rest of the world was quickly reinforced by the increasingly erratic economic policies of the Muldoon Government of the time. As a latent liberal, I became an enthusiastic convert to free trade and open market economic policies, and have not wavered in that view over time. But I also learnt that there is no economic nirvana, that every system is far from perfect, and that governments have to strive constantly to uphold the best overall interest of their citizens, to achieve a form of economic justice.

It is a short step from there to the Trans Pacific Partnership, which had its seeds in New Zealand’s economic reforms of the 1980s, including the initiation of the Uruguay Round of talks for freer world trade. That led to the formation of the World Trade Organisation to replace the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) that had regulated world trade since the 1940s.

From the time of the formation of the then nascent European Economic Community (EEC) in the late 1950s, through to the more fully blown version of the European Union in the 1980s and 1990s, the focus has been on economic and political integration as the bulwark of broad stability. Other agreements, like the North American Free Trade Agreement, and our own Closer Economic Relations agreement with Australia, show the moves to eliminate trade barriers have been consistent and widespread over a number of years now. They have been reinforced by a series of bilateral arrangements (like the New Zealand-China Free Trade Agreement, for example).

Against that backdrop, the momentum to develop a broader Trans Pacific Partnership was inevitable, its ambitious nature notwithstanding. From New Zealand’s perspective, it completes the process the Labour Government began in the 1980s through its domestic economic and social reforms, and moves through the Uruguay Round to liberalise world trade. (In many senses, it is the Lange Government that deserves the kudos for the TPP deal, yet its survivors seem hellbent on running away and hiding from that achievement.)

Since frozen lamb was first exported from Port Chalmers to Britain in 1882, New Zealand has been on a quest for economic security, for stable and reliable markets for our products. For almost a century that quest was satisfied by the guaranteed British market, but after it joined the EEC in the 1970s, we had to rapidly diversify our trade through the pursuit of bilateral (and now through the TPP multilateral) free trade agreements. Either way, trade has long been part of our economic DNA, a point today’s economic revisionists would do well to remember.               




Tuesday, 29 September 2015

30 September 2015

Our foreign policy lacks any commitment to human rights. A bold conclusion maybe, but the most realistic one to be drawn from a couple of recent events where New Zealand appears to have been caught on the hop.

First was the appallingly tardy response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Even though the mounting tragedy had been filling our television screens for some days, our government appeared to miss its significance and any sense of obligation on New Zealand’s part to assist. Indeed, it seemed to be only the strong public reaction that finally jolted it to take any action at all.

Now, this week there been the saga of the New Zealanders being held in Australian detention camps prior to deportation here. Our response has been to send a text to the Australians about what is going on. I am not standing up for Australian criminals who happen to have been born in New Zealand, but the treatment being meted out to them is excessive and out of line with the vaunted special relationship between our two countries.

However, these two incidents are not isolated cases. They are symptomatic of a general malaise when it comes to standing up for human rights internationally. There is the case of the New Zealander jailed in Myanmar for insulting the prophet Buddha, or the case of the fugitive Qatari businessman evading imprisonment over the deaths of the New Zealand triplets in the shopping centre fire a few years ago. (And I shudder to think what efforts on his behalf the New Zealander currently awaiting a potential death sentence in China on drugs charges might expect!) Like the latest two examples, these cases all bear the hallmark of New Zealand not wanting to become too involved, until public opinion demands it.

Why? The prevailing view seems to be that as a small trading nation buffeted in the seas of international economic uncertainty New Zealand cannot afford to upset, lest existing markets be threatened, or potential new ones closed off. It explains, but does not justify, the reason for soft-pedalling any criticism of Saudi Arabia’s shocking human rights record, and our timidity on the case of the Qatari businessman, because the greater prize of a potential free trade agreement with the Gulf states might be put at risk. We remain quiet on Myanmar for trade reasons too, and have been pathologically scared of saying critical of China for years now.

While the pursuit of enlightened self-interest is a legitimate foreign policy goal, it needs to be balanced by some objectivity. In recent years though our foreign policy has become too craven and trade-focussed and lacking a moral compass. In short, we have become too silent, lest we cause offence.

But relying on quiet words in diplomatic ears; nods and winks; pull-asides; text messages, or whatever, is not the way to conduct foreign policy. We have a right to expect our foreign policy to be evocative of our independence and nationhood by upholding human rights and dignity, and to stand up for New Zealanders when and where necessary. It is time to abandon the chin-dripping subservience we are lapsing into.             








Wednesday, 23 September 2015

24 September 2015

Four months ago I began a public consultation process on the future of New Zealand’s Fire Service. The reason was simple – the basic structure of the Fire Service has not changed since the late 1940s, despite its nationalisation in 1975. Yet, in that time, the nature and volume of its work has changed considerably. So there is a need to ensure that the Fire Service continues to be fit for purpose.

New Zealand’s Fire Services – urban and rural – are distinct, in that over 80% of our firefighters are volunteers. That is not about to change. Therefore, alongside maintaining the position of our paid firefighters, ensuring the future viability of the volunteer force is critical to the future of the Fire Service.

During the consultation period I attended over 40 meetings up and down the country with members of the public, firefighters, and special interest groups. In addition over 250 detailed written submissions were received by the review team. The results of all these consultations have now been collated. Taken together, they provide a strong mandate for change to a modern, integrated Fire Service, capable of meeting community needs well into the 21st century.

Although a clear preference has emerged for a unified national service, there is also a deep feeling that it needs to be bolstered by a strong regional influence, provided through a series of regional advisory committees. The model we have therefore developed is a deliberate response to the message we received that while people understand the need for a unified service, they also want to ensure there is a strengthened role for community engagement.

Earlier this week I met again with a large group of stakeholders to report back on where we have got to. They expressed support for the direction being proposed, and a real commitment to making it work.

We are still working on the best option for funding the new Fire Service, with ongoing discussions with interested parties but I am confident we will make a great deal of progress over the next couple of weeks or so. Now, of course, there is no perfect solution here, but I have been struck throughout the consultation process by the pragmatism and positive engagement of so many. All this bodes extremely well for the future and reinforces my view that this is the time to progress the changes so many have but dreamed of for so long.

I intend to take a paper to Cabinet in the next few weeks proposing a new organisational and financial structure for the Fire Service. Legislation to give effect to the new system should be introduced early next year, and my intention is that the new Fire Service be launched by the middle of 2017.

I have been encouraged by and am thankful for the input and support that the review has received so far from Ministers, firefighters, local government and community leaders, and key industry groups. We all have a major stake in making this reform work and ensuring that the new New Zealand Fire Service can carry out its role as our premier emergency service effectively and skilfully into the future.

After all, our communities depend on it and rightfully expect no less.  







Wednesday, 16 September 2015

17 September 2015

Guardian political writer David Torrance says the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour Party and the earlier rise of Nigel Farage and UKIP mark the death of moderation in politics and the rise of a new breed of anti-politician, governed more by conviction than pragmatism. Leaving aside the minor point that Jeremy Corbyn has been an MP for over 30 years, so is hardly a fresh face, and factoring in the phenomenon of the Scottish Nationalists which owes more to the uncomfortable artificiality that is the current United Kingdom, does Torrance’s thesis hold weight beyond Britain’s shores? 

The rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as the early stars of the United States Presidential race might suggest he is reflecting an emerging international trend, as might the election earlier in the year of Greece’s radical anti-austerity government under Alexis Tsipras (although on current polls he will lose the snap election he called a couple of months ago, to boost his mandate, suggesting that any phenomenon might be short-lived.)

Canada might also succumb to the Torrance theory. Long-term conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in the electoral fight of his life – a three way contest where the radical New Democrats, until recently the third party in Canadian politics, are leading the field.

But in the southern hemisphere Torrance’s thesis might not be so accurate. John Key has been a comparatively moderate Prime Minister and at this early stage of his third term seems just as popular as ever. Across the Tasman, Tony Abbott has just been ousted as Prime Minister by the more urbane Malcolm Turnbull, because Abbott was seen as too hard-line and gaffe prone. And Turnbull’s first comment as Prime Minister was that he wanted to govern like John Key.

So perhaps the death of moderation is just a northern hemisphere phenomenon, brought on by the failures of successive governments of the left and the right. But the signs here still suggest it is not travelling south – yet. Labour is still pathologically scared of putting any markers in the ground, lest it upset people, and even the Greens under James Shaw suddenly seem and sound far less threatening. The flame of the liberal democratic UnitedFuture still flickers, and ACT’s radical edge has been replaced by the quirkiness of its new leader. The Maori Party remains the quiet achiever for its constituents, who reward it by voting Labour in ever-increasing numbers.

All of which leaves New Zealand First, certainly as racist and nationalist as Farage’s UKIP, but the party both major parties want to avoid to ever having to work with in government because of its disruptive nature. However, its alleged resurgence following the Northland by-election has had no impact, so it is doubtful that it is having any role in the death of moderation in politics here.

Moderate politics seem set to continue in New Zealand, arguably because of our egalitarian society. We just do not have the extremes of wealth or deprivation here to drive masses of marginalised people to mobilise for political representation. While that remains the case, the incentives to upset the apple cart will not be strong. Political parties will carry on pretty much as they are, representing pretty much the people they do today.

John Key well knows that, in the end, all politics are local. So the continuity of moderation here will only be upset by a significant external shock, which may be why the government’s operating mantra seems to be “act only as we need to”.  It certainly explains why it has taken such a pragmatically cautious line in response to the refugee crisis, and to rising sea levels in the Pacific because of climate change.








Wednesday, 9 September 2015

10 September 2015

Every day the government collects information about some aspect or other of our lives. Whenever we interact with a government agency, some sort of record is generated about us. A visit to the doctor, the pharmacist, the local school, the Police, paying a traffic fine, or calling ACC will have a similar effect.

In the information age, there is not much we can do to stop all this. It is difficult to have the advantage of increasingly joined-up government services without acknowledging some of the costs. And in most cases, anyway, privacy law and the rather mundane nature of the information gathered means it is not really a major issue.

What we have to guard against is the government’s desire for information becoming insatiable and overbearing, and its failing to use the information already gathered to maximum positive benefit. This is no more important and relevant than in the case of vulnerable and abused children, and our response.

We all know of the significant problem of child abuse in New Zealand. Over the years, successive governments have poured millions of dollars into agencies like CYFS, and special programmes, yet the frequency of child abuse seems no less and in some cases considerably worse than it was in years gone by. CYFS has undergone frequent reviews, yet is still treated warily by many New Zealanders as an agency of state that interferes unduly in the lives of New Zealand families.

At the same time, through various longitudinal studies, and through the data already gathered by CYFS and other agencies, we have a pretty fair idea of who and where the at-risk families and children are in New Zealand, and in most cases could probably just about name them. Yet because of an understandable fear of stigmatising these families, we have deliberately shied away from a more direct approach, in favour of a broader brush “whole of society” approach, which has left us in the predicament we currently are.

Given the maxim about doing the same things producing the same results, is it not time to change the way we deal with vulnerable and at risk children? Why not utilise the information the government currently holds to intervene directly and early with at-risk families and children to ensure they get the love and care needed to avoid their becoming the victims of abuse later on? While governments cannot legislate to provide love and affection, they can act to ensure their resources are directed towards every child having the chance to be raised and cared for in a stable environment. No child can determine the circumstances of its birth and upbringing, but every child surely has the right to be raised in a stable and caring environment.

We have the capacity to make this change right now – but it may require a few sacred cows to be killed off first. So it is not a question of can we – we most assuredly can – but rather one of will we. Our appalling record demands that we make every effort to do so.