Wednesday, 24 June 2015

25 June 2015

This is a special extra edition of Dunne Speaks, because I need your help. Last week I wrote about the review of the Fire Service, and how I am getting out and about at the moment, listening with an open mind to people’s views on the future direction our fire services should take.

Over the past three weeks, I have talked to firefighters from the different services in Canterbury, Manawatu-Whanganui, Northland, Southland, Bay of Plenty, Wairarapa and Wellington. And I have more visits to make yet. I have also heard from the wider community: from forest owners, farmers, council representatives and business owners.

There is a clear message from all these stakeholders that the time is right to address the issues that are putting our fire services under pressure. They have all given really useful feedback on the discussion document released last month. 

I have shared with them my thinking about the way ahead and I am encouraging them put their ideas into a submission.

Some stakeholders are comfortable with Option 2: Coordinated service delivery. Others have suggested that it is time to move towards Option 3: one national fire service.

If there was to be one national fire service, stakeholders say it would need to incorporate local decision-making, be an organisation that was responsive to local needs, and would need careful transition planning.

So I have made it clear in my conversations that active community engagement is going to be a cornerstone of any new model.  A new way of managing and delivering fire services will need to take account of the wide variety of local conditions and circumstances in each community. 

I have therefore asked officials to think about how community engagement could be part of our fire services. A supplementary paper to the Discussion Document (attached$file/Feedback-from-stakeholders.pdf) might help you in preparing your own submission on which option, or combination of options, is going to give us the best way forward.

Under either Option 2 or Option 3 we need to ensure skilled and capable staff have minimal disruption to their work.  We need to keep skilled and capable leaders for our fire services and communities as provided in roles such as principal rural fire officers and chief fire officers.  We need to make sure that any change is well managed.

Please make a submission by clicking on  discussion document. That will help us design the best future fire services for New Zealand. 

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

24 June 2015

The right to be a citizen is one of the most fundamental rights we possess. Be it something we acquired because of our birth in this country, or because it was subsequently awarded to us, or whether it be the citizenship of another country, it is an inalienable characteristic of who we are. Throughout history the assertion of the right to citizenship has been paramount in the fight for equality. It cannot be easily cast aside or removed. The French Revolution, the American Civil War, and more recently President Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, and Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom have all in their own way emphasised the importance of citizenship.

The quest for citizenship makes moves like those currently under consideration in Australia to remove citizenship from Australian foreign fighters abhorrent. While New Zealand properly retains the right to cancel a person’s passport for security or other reasons to restrict their rights of movement, we would never contemplate stripping a New Zealander of citizenship and leaving them stateless, nor should we.

But there is another far more positive aspect to citizenship to consider. Citizenship is a badge of belonging – a recognition that the country of which one is a citizen is not just the place where one lives, but the place one can properly call home. And with that goes a certain amount of pride. Citizenship helps bind us all together, no matter the diversity of our origins and circumstances. Every week, I approve the applications of hundreds of people, from all over the world, who have met the 5 years residency requirement to become New Zealand citizens. On many occasions throughout the year, local Councils up and down the country hold ceremonies at which new citizens take the oath of allegiance as citizens of our country. (It is now hard to imagine that up until the mid 1990s citizenship certificates were just routinely mailed out to new citizens without any other fanfare. I was also the Minister back then and I made it mandatory for there to be proper locally run citizenship ceremonies that all new citizens were required to go through. Despite the grizzles from some Councils at the time at the additional costs they would incur literally for tea and biscuits, it was the right decision, and we are clearly the better for it.)

Today, I think there is scope for further changes to better promote citizenship. In short, I want to see more of those who come to live in New Zealand encouraged to become citizens once they qualify. I have therefore asked officials to look at ways we can better promote the advantages of citizenship to residents, and encourage more of them to apply to become citizens once they qualify. The diversity of our citizens makes us stronger, and the infusion of their languages, cultures, histories and traditions into ours makes us a better, stronger nation, more able to make an effective contribution in the international community.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

18 June 2015

One of my responsibilities as Minister of Internal Affairs is the New Zealand Fire Service. This organisation of around 12,500 personnel, of whom over 80% are volunteers, is not only New Zealand’s premier emergency service, but its paid staff and urban and rural volunteers consistently rank very highly amongst our most respected occupations. Whatever the community incident – structure or vegetation fire, urban search and rescue, roadside assists or cutting people out of cars, and yes, even cats in trees – the New Zealand Fire Service is there to help.

Yet like all venerable institutions, the Fire Service needs to change to remain an effective service in the years ahead. And here is the rub: although it was nationalised in 1975, the Fire Service has remained basically unchanged since Ballantyne’s fire in 1947. (Ballantyne’s is the iconic Christchurch department store destroyed by fire with the loss of 41 lives in November 1947 – still our biggest fire tragedy.) Much of what the Fire Service does has changed since then, yet its basic structure is still rooted in those times. So we are currently undertaking the biggest review of the Fire Service since the Commission of Inquiry into Ballantyne’s fire.

In the last couple of weeks, I have been at meetings of firefighters and community stakeholders from Kaikohe in the north to Invercargill in the south and points in between, with more to come, to hear what they think the Fire Service of the future should look like. Everywhere I have been so far I have been struck by an undeniable mood for change, but also by a couple of important conditions people want to attach to change, however big or small it might be.

The first is that because of the overwhelming reliance of the Fire Service on its volunteers – urban and rural – the fundamental emphasis has to be on building a better experience for the volunteers, as well as the paid staff, in terms of training, respect and equipment, both to ensure all our firefighters today are as well equipped, prepared and resourced as they can be, and also to attract the volunteers we will need for the future.

And the second flows from the first. If we move to a genuinely unified national Fire Service, or make steps towards that, people want to be assured that the particular interests and differences of our regions are reflected in the new structure. And they are right – New Zealand is a diverse country where one size does not fit all. The needs of Otago/Southland, or Northland, or the West Coast, for example, are as different from each other as they are from Wellington or Auckland. To succeed, the new structure will have to reflect that and ensure that the interests of local communities, from where our firefighters have traditionally sprung, are recognised and valued.

The Government has deliberately (and wisely) not stated a preferred outcome at this stage. Our consultations are based on wanting to hear what communities think, so we can devise a system that meets their needs. Once the public consultation process ends in mid July, my officials and I will work to develop the new model, which I want to put before Cabinet later in the year. My aim is to get the necessary legislation through Parliament next year, and to have the new Fire Service in place by April 2017.      






Wednesday, 10 June 2015

11 June 2015

Earlier this week I approved the use of a medicinal cannabis product (actually a hemp derivative) in the case of a critically ill teenager.

The decision was an unremarkable, as it was fair and obvious. To have done otherwise in the particular circumstances would have been heartless in the extreme. The public protests and the sentiments of the well-meaning worthies counted for nothing with me in this case. It was much more a matter of plain old common sense.

In the wake of that decision there have been many wrong and naïve conclusions from the enthusiasts and the antagonists that the floodgates have been opened, and that the widespread availability of medicinal cannabis of every type for all manner of aches and pains is now just around the corner. How wrong they are!

Nothing has changed. No precedent has been created. All that has happened is that a long available procedure by which doctors can seek approval for the use of a restricted product in the treatment of a particular condition has been utilised for the first time to access a medicinal cannabis product in an extreme case.

As for the wider issue, I said a couple of months ago that I had sought advice from officials on developing international trends and their relevance to New Zealand. That work is ongoing, and we are monitoring developments in a number of jurisdictions, Australia and the United States in particular, to determine the best approach to take in the public interest of New Zealanders.

Whatever we do, it is important to note that we will treat medicinal cannabis no differently to other new medicinal products seeking entry to the New Zealand market.  Medsafe employs a rigorous evidence and clinical trial based process for registering and approving new medicines, and that will be followed in this instance. It should also be noted that there are no pharmaceutical manufacturers currently seeking to introduce cannabis based medicines into New Zealand. It is not the Government’s role to overturn or upend an established process for any prospective new medicine in any circumstances, so any medicinal cannabis based products will be treated no differently in that regard.

It is important too to note that medicinal cannabis products are in the main sprays or oils. No-one is talking about the cannabis leaf, so those who argue that just a few puffs have a medicinal benefit and they should be allowed to cultivate what they need are woefully out of touch. Whatever else may happen, changing the legal status of the cannabis leaf is not on the Government’s agenda, nor even its distant horizon.

Some have hailed this week’s decision as the start of a “sensible” discussion of drug policy. I am deeply suspicious of that pejorative approbation – those making that call are invariably cannabis legalisation advocates, best ignored as just one more vested interest.

No, this week’s decision was simply the practical exercise of compassion and balance in an extremely tragic and unusual case.    

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

4 June 2015

For a moment earlier this week I found myself in agreement with the Greens’ new co-leader James Shaw and his call for the government to work with other parties towards an agreed emissions reduction target as part of our approach to curbing the impacts of climate change. After all, Shaw seems such a sensible chap, and many other countries are moving in this direction, so it seemed a not unreasonable idea to try to work towards such a consensus in New Zealand. At last, I naively thought, the Greens are shedding their dogmatism and have worked out that the way to work with other parties is to co-operate with them, not to badger and harangue them.

But it was only a brief lapse on my part. The more Shaw pushed his ideas before a clearly uninterested Prime Minister, the more it became clear that John Key was not being asked to sit down and talk about a commonly agreed target, but to just adopt the Greens’ pre-determined target. The Greens, after all, as they smugly keep reminding us, are a party of principle, so can never be wrong. All of which explains why as the oldest of our newer political parties they are the only ones never to have been part of a government, and why both National and Labour have been extremely wary of working too closely with them. Their sanctimony would simply be too much to bear. Those who had hopes Shaw might be the circuit breaker will have been sorely disappointed by the outcome of his first foray. Nothing has actually changed, it seems, and the Greens are as isolated as ever.  

The big loser out of all this is the environment – the cause the Greens profess to care so passionately about. New Zealand needs an influential Green Party, but will probably now go in to the next round of climate change discussions with a very modest emissions reductions target. UnitedFuture and the Maori Party have shown some environmental credentials, as their stands on seeking to prevent National’s attempts to gut the Resource Management Act have shown, but with only three seats in Parliament between them cannot at this stage sustain the influence a mainstream environment party would have.

Here is the problem in a nutshell. Many New Zealanders care passionately about preserving our environment and worry that successive governments have not been doing enough in that space. Yet these same New Zealanders do not want to put their heads above the environmental parapet, because some of the extreme (and often not-environment related) positions the Greens have taken over the years have attracted so much ridicule and scorn.

I think James Shaw instinctively understands this conundrum, and wants to change the perception, but I doubt the wider Green Party will let him. He has already discovered this week that the moral high ground is not always the place to be if you want to make real change in politics. It is fine if you just want to make a statement, and never be held to account for it, something the Greens have thus far been past masters at. But if you want to achieve things in politics, you have to be prepared to get on the same ground as others, and work alongside them patiently, compromise by wretched compromise if need be, until you finally achieve your objective. Moving the Green Party onto that space will be James Shaw’s biggest credibility challenge.