Tuesday, 31 March 2015

1 April 2015

As a country we have never really got the hang of regional development. Labour-led governments have generally been in favour of it, without quite understanding what “it” is, using it instead as an opportunity to pork-barrel popular local projects. National-led governments have been inherently more suspicious (except during by-election campaigns) fearing that it might lead to a form of centralised planning. Relatively frequent changes of government have meant that nothing much ever really happens.

Every now and then regional and local government step into the breach, but they often have less idea than their central government counterparts. Local government-led regional development is like a modern version of the cargo cult – expensive projects developed at ratepayers’ expense in the often vain hope something may turn up.

In Wellington, we currently have two classic examples of this thinking. Our port company wants to dredge deeper harbour channels to make it possible for larger container ships to come into Wellington Harbour, despite the facts their existing wharf capacity is far from fully utilised, and there is no evidence larger ships will want to call here anyway. The driver seems to be more a case of Auckland and Tauranga being able to handle such ships, so Wellington feels it should too, even though Auckland and Tauranga are our major import and export ports.

And then there is the case of extending the airport’s runway which the City Council seems ready to commit hundreds of millions of dollars towards to make Wellington more attractive to long-haul flights, at the very time when the numbers of long-haul flights into and out of airports other than Auckland are being wound back. (In fact, Air New Zealand’s decision to cancel its Christchurch/Tokyo direct service leaves only one long-haul service – Christchurch to Singapore – remaining, outside of Auckland. How Wellington intends to break that trend remains a mystery.)

Regional development is not about a wish-list of regional nice-to-haves, but about ensuring that each region can do to maximum effect the things it is best at. In Wellington’s case, the “Creative Capital” best sums up our capabilities, which are the strengths we should be playing to, around the film production and associated services industries. It will be different things in other parts of the country. Our near neighbour, Marlborough, is at the heart of our food and wine industries, responsible for around 80% of our wine production. Other regions have their own distinctives. Those in turn will drive the growth and development of regional infrastructure, not the other way round.

In short, we need to trust our regions to develop their own opportunities, rather than decide them for them. But then we have to be prepared to back their decisions. A couple of years ago, Hawkes Bay decided to market itself and its produce to the world as GE Free, only to be stopped by the government on the grounds we marketed ourselves as brand New Zealand, not a series of competing brands within it.

Fair enough, up to a point, but it is a dangerous assumption that one size fits all, the capital knows best, and New Zealand – longer than the length of Europe – is all the same from its north to south. While that thinking prevails, no wonder we do not “get” regional development, and why offering during a by-election to build ten new bridges in Northland is seen as an answer to regional economic woes.     








Tuesday, 24 March 2015

25 March 2015

After a slightly shaky start, Dame Susan Devoy is starting to impress in her role as Race Relations Commissioner. Her pronouncements have a strong flavour of common sense and understanding of the real issues and concerns facing New Zealand’s ethnic communities. And her recent call for an increase in the number of quota refugees accepted each year – from 750 to 1,000 – is both timely and correct.

The role of Race Relations Commissioner is a difficult one at the best of times – a balancing act to challenge all balancing acts. New Zealand has been fortunate in the consistently high calibre of its Race Relations Commissioners, since the initial appointment of Harry Dansey back in 1969. Arguably, in today’s diverse global environment where ethnic and cultural stigmatisation has become the new form of discrimination, the role is even more vital than ever, both to protect the rights of the affected minorities, and to stand up for balance and justice throughout the national community.

But all this might be about to change. There is currently legislation before Parliament to “streamline” the role and function of the Human Rights Commission, of which the Race Relations Commissioner is part. One change does away with that specific role, arguing instead that greater mainstreaming of the Commissioner’s role into the overall tapestry of the Human Rights Commission will place race relations issues much more at the core of the Commission’s functions that has been the case to date. The counter-argument, which has far more credibility, is that these changes will remove the specific focus on race relations issues and make it more difficult for ethnic communities to lobby and raise concerns when they feel disadvantaged. At a time when the phobias around various ethnic communities, their religions and cultures are rising irrationally in some quarters because of the perceived tangential link to international terrorism, this has to be a backward step.

Now, at this point, I have a major apology to offer. This legislation was introduced before last year’s election, and frankly slipped by my and UnitedFuture’s radar screens. I voted for the Bill’s introduction and agreed as part of our confidence and supply agreement to support the Bill through to its Second Reading. I state that as a fact, not an excuse. However, I have now advised the Government that I will not be supporting the Bill beyond its Second Reading, unless the position of Race Relations Commissioner is retained.

If anything, given the Government’s attention to “foreign fighters” and related issues, this is the time to be seen to be strengthening the role of the Race Relations Commissioner, not abolishing it. As Dame Susan grows in confidence and assurance in her role, the suspicion otherwise will be she is being silenced early, lest she become too troublesome later. Hardly a good look in a self-proclaimed tolerant society.            


Sunday, 15 March 2015

16 March 2015

Medicinal cannabis was a hot topic at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting in Vienna last week.

Lest there be any doubt, the debate centred around some of the properties of the cannabis plant and their potential efficacy. No-one was suggesting that just smoking the cannabis leaf was some sort of medicinal panacea!

That highlights an important distinction in this debate – there are genuine situations to be considered, and there are those who just want to smoke cannabis whenever they choose to. That latter group is not our concern.

However, the argument for medicinal cannabis is by no means a simple one. The evidence – worldwide – is not as clear as it could be, nor is there any sense of commonality when it comes to the issues of dosage, methods of administration, product standards and so on.

In New Zealand’s case, estimates of the numbers of patients likely to benefit from medicinal cannabis are very low, which is why pharmaceutical companies have no interest in trialling products here. At the same time, for some reason, doctors are loathe to use the existing legal provisions to recommend patients to be prescribed medicinal cannabis products like Sativex.

I recently asked the Ministry of Health to review the issues relating to medicinal cannabis. The evidence provided was, as I said in Vienna, quite underwhelming. So I took the opportunity there to discuss with both the United States Federal Director of Drug Policy and Australia’s Assistant Health Minister work being done in both countries in the area of clinical trials. In both cases, the response was similar: it is simply too early to draw definitive conclusions.

When it comes to approving new medicines, New Zealand has always adopted a rigorous, clinical trials, evidence based approach, and it will be no different with the medicinal cannabis issue. We will gather the reputable evidence, consult widely with other countries, and then take a decision based on the highest professional and clinical standards. That is exactly the way we would deal with any other new medicine becoming available, and there is no credible reason or justification for treating medicinal cannabis products in any way differently. Indeed, we would be failing the public if we did otherwise, and exposed people to unnecessary or even unknown risks as a consequence.

This is not to suggest in any way a change in New Zealand’s current stance on leaf cannabis and its possession. But the issue of medicinal cannabis is a highly specific and particular one we need to address in the light of new and emerging evidence, as we receive it. We will do so against the three pillars of compassion, proportion and innovation I outlined in Vienna, pillars which I hope will more broadly inform debate about the future direction of drug policy.

Of course, that will not satisfy those whose sole interest, dressed up in the false guise of concern for those who might benefit from medicinal cannabis, is using cannabis recreationally. But it will ensure over time that, consistent with the principles of our national medicines strategy I introduced in 2007, New Zealanders get access to new medicines that are safe, affordable and effective.   







Wednesday, 4 March 2015

5 March 2015

Arthur Alan Thomas, David Bain and now Teina Pora are all high-profile New Zealand cases where murder convictions have been quashed after external review, after each had served long years in prison. (An overwhelming argument against the death penalty – but that was the subject of the blog three weeks ago!)

Thomas was pardoned after a Royal Commission; Bain was acquitted after a retrial ordered by the Privy Council, and Pora has just freed by the Privy Council. At the same time, there is continuing speculation about the reliability of other verdicts, notably that against Scott Watson.

Are these cases just very unfortunate coincidences – the type of case that could have happened anywhere – and the outcomes even more unfortunate? (After all, Britain pardoned Timothy Evans and Derek Bentley in recent years, long after they were both hanged for murders they did not commit, and doubts persist about the fairness of Ruth Ellis’ conviction.) Or, is there a more fundamental issue here, and if so, what is it, and how can it be resolved?

It is tempting to suggest that each of the Thomas, Bain and Pora cases benefitted from well organised campaigns to overturn their convictions, which in turn makes a mockery of the New Zealand justice system. I do not accept that argument, although I accept that the subsequent outcomes have severely adversely reflected upon the credibility of our justice system.

The role of the Police needs to be considered. It was well-established in the Thomas case that Police frustration at being unable to find enough evidence against their preferred suspect, Thomas, led to the infamous planting of the cartridge cases that convicted him. The Bain case raised questions about the way the Police focused almost exclusively on him from an early stage, and quickly ruled out other possibilities, including Robin Bain in particular. The Pora case raises serious questions about how statements from Pora were obtained.

So, on the face of it at least, Police practice needs to be improved to prevent similar miscarriages of justice in the future. But that is only part of it – there are always going to be situations analogous to these in cases of this type. That is not an attempt to justify them, but to acknowledge reality. A way to do that would be to require the Police – who are after all are criminal investigators, not prosecutors – to make available to the defence and the Court pre-trial all the evidence they have collected. Trial by one’s peers should be about all the relevant facts being tested, not just the presentation of those which put the case in the best possible light. The presumption of innocence till proven guilty needs to be reasserted as paramount (it has been weakened by the approach of various non-criminal inquiries of late) and the focus has to be on establishing all the facts and circumstances, ahead of the more narrow emphasis of securing a conviction at almost any cost.

All this also raises questions about the Court process itself. It too needs to become more about establishing and testing the facts than simply establishing guilt or innocence, although that is obviously a critical aspect of any trial process. In each of the Thomas, Bain, and Pora cases, had all the relevant facts been before the Court and the jury originally, convictions would have been most unlikely. Therefore, the question that needs to be asked (and resolved for the future) is why that did not happen. 

Trial by jury remains a fundamental component of our judicial system – but to work effectively, juries need to have all the facts before them, not just those the Police, the lawyers and even the Court think suit them best.

Thomas, Bain and now Pora are awful reminders of what happens when they do not.