Wednesday, 29 July 2015

30 July 2015

Much of the debate around the events at Auckland Remand Prison have centred on the fact it is run by the international giant, Serco. There has been the attendant implication that had the prison being state-run none of this would have occurred and all would have been sweetness and light. And some have tried to extrapolate that even bigger disasters lie ahead when the government outsources the delivery of certain social services.

Leaving all these ideological and long bows to one side, there are some universal issues that we ought to be considering. The first is how endemic a culture of violence is within our prison system and what are we doing to stem that. It is hard to believe that violent practices are not ingrained within other prisons, particularly given the high numbers of gang members behind bars.

It would be instructive for some comment from the Corrections Department about what incidents there have been in other prisons and, more importantly, what steps are being taken to curb their incidence. It is simply not credible to allow the belief to take hold that what happened in Auckland was an isolated and rare set of events. So we need to know how widespread institutionalised violence is within prisons, and what steps are currently being taken to eliminate it.

We also need to know who the victims are. Is the violence random, or more organised, and are there patterns in how it is inflicted? Do we have confidence that Corrections Officers have the support, training, and inclination to identify and curb violence, and, if not, what are we doing about it?

But there is a bigger question that the sway of the vigilante groups like Sensible Sentencing make it difficult for us to have a rational discussion about. Our prison population is burgeoning (is that itself a contributory factor?) but is prison necessarily the right place for minor offenders, often the young, the disadvantaged and the first time offender? Or are we just enrolling them in the University of Crime?

We need to be making more use of the alternatives to prison for minor offenders. Home detention is one option. Long-term community service with perhaps evening curfews or weekend detention is another. After all, for many, including white collar criminals, the real punishment is the humiliation of being caught and sentenced in the first place.

And then we can start to consider what the proper role of prisons should be, whom they should be incarcerating, and under what circumstances. If prison was the place to where only serious offenders were sent, then not only would the numbers of prisoners reduce, but also we could better ensure that the prisons were better equipped to deal with the hard core which reside there.

The horror of what has been revealed at Auckland Remand Prison should not be left as just the fault of Serco. It should be a wake-up call for the way our prisons are operating and a wider spur for change. But, unfortunately I fear, wallowing in the ideological blame game will prove the far easier option, and therefore the outcome most likely to prevail.

Until perhaps the next violent outburst.     






Wednesday, 22 July 2015

23 July 2015

Labour’s crass playing of the race card over property sales in Auckland will have shocked many decent, middle of the road voters. Sadly, it will have also emboldened many of our closet racists to believe their latent prejudice has been given new credibility. At one level, it will have inflamed a little further public debate about the Government’s handling of the Auckland housing issue, and whether it is doing enough to deal with the situation.

But, at another deeper and more important level it is a further symptom of a more profound debate that is beginning to bubble and which may eventually come to a stronger boil. From the advent of the Fourth Labour Government in 1984 the consensus has developed and solidified that free and open markets and a commitment to what became the globalisation revolution of the 1990s and 2000s was the right space for New Zealand to be in. While we are a small country, we should not feel constrained by our size when it came to taking a full part in the world’s affairs, or so the argument went.

We were quite happy when our allegedly “not for export” anti-nuclear policy became an international talking point. We relished receiving the plaudits associated with our championing of the Uruguay Round of the GATT Talks to free up world trade in the late 1980s, culminating in Mike Moore becoming Director-General of the World Trade Organisation a decade later, at the same time as Sir Don McKinnon took over as Commonwealth Secretary-General. New Zealand Judges took their places on the World Court and the International Court of Justice; Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Sir Paul Reeves became international peacemakers, while Helen Clark ended up running the United Nations Development Programme. We were a champion of the international institutions and played a full role within them.

At the same time, as we have liberalised our economy and migration policies, our population has increased by almost 40% since 1990, making us a far more culturally and economically diverse nation in the process. Another outcome of the more internationalised economy has been the emergence of the so-called brain drain, with the freer movement of peoples and greater ease of travel meaning our young people, in particular, are more likely to be scattered around the world, a phenomenon most similar developed countries are also experiencing.

Irish President Michael D. Higgins’ recent observation that Ireland’s modern economic history was one of depression interspersed with brief periods of prosperity could just as easily apply to New Zealand. We suffered the effects of the 1987 Sharemarket Crash for longer than most; we were no sooner out of that than the Asian Financial Crisis struck in the late 1990s, to be followed by the Global Financial Crisis towards the end of the first decade of the 2000s.

These events have all placed pressure on the hitherto stable 1980s consensus. Xenophobes and racists who railed against more open markets and immigration had been generally marginalised as extremists and ignored. However, this may be under challenge. A possible explanation for Labour’s extraordinary volte-face could be that it senses that in the anti-Europe feeling emerging in Britain, and for different reasons in countries like Spain and Greece, there is a similar opportunity to mine the discontent of New Zealand’s disaffected working class voters, especially those uncertain what the changes of the last 30 years are coming to mean for them, particularly if they are poorly educated or lowly skilled. New Zealand First’s quirky, xenophobic small-New Zealand approach fits well into this milieu too.

It is too early to say whether this is no more than the writhings of the politically desperate and opportunist, or whether they are the first still small but significant signs that fears previously the preserve of the extremes are becoming more mainstream. Either way, they cannot be ignored. The liberal campaign to protect tolerance and dignity may only be just beginning.   








Monday, 13 July 2015

14 July 2015

I was reminded of Mark Twain’s aphorism “Lies, damn lies and statistics” in the wake of last week’s announcement of New Zealand’s new emissions reduction target, as part of our response to climate change.

For the record, our existing target is to reduce carbon emission levels by 5% of their 1990 levels by 2020. The new target is to achieve a 30% reduction of 2005 levels by 2030, which at first glance seems somewhat more ambitious. But here is where Mark Twain’s observation becomes relevant: the new target is actually the equivalent of more than doubling the original target regarding 1990 levels (11% instead of 5%), but achieving it over a 25% longer time frame, by 2030.

All up, as the critics point out, it amounts to little change, with things left pretty much where they were at the outset. The wording has been reframed to take account of the fact we are now in 2015 – not back in 1990. Indeed, some critics actually say that all this verbal legerdemain means our new emissions target is really weaker, rather than stronger than its predecessor.

Sifting through the morass of statistics and counter-statistics, it is a little difficult to divine exactly what a realistic, achievable and responsible target should be. The percentages and years keep shifting around, while the settled science about the impact of climate change is becoming more defined and conclusive. Be all that as it may, the global consensus appears to be that reduction targets of around 30% by 2030 should be what we are aiming for. In other words, almost three times more ambitious than the target New Zealand has currently settled for.

Climate change is arguably the most important issue facing us today. Its impacts are profound and will affect the future of our planet and species like no other contemporary issue. To that extent, it transcends all the normal political hullaballoo. Consequently, our policy response needs to go beyond the normal confines of consideration by Ministers and officials behind closed doors, with announcements of actions made at times of political convenience.

It is fashionable to call for multi-party accords on various vexed issues, for the laying aside of narrow political interest in favour of a wider national interest, but these are usually issues where one side or other is seeking a way of more gracefully getting off a political hook or high horse, than a serious attempt to resolve serious issues. However, climate change is probably one issue where this call can be made with true justification.

A very good case exists for there to be a full Parliamentary debate on this issue, with all parties given equal access to all the scientific and economic data available to the government on the matter, and for Parliament to then make the ultimate decision regarding emissions reductions targets.

It might disappoint the Mark Twains of this world – but it would give the public straight answers on a serious question that politicians seem a little too willing to confuse over.        






Wednesday, 8 July 2015

9 July 2015

The issue of end-of-life care is on the agenda again. I am not one who believes that doctors should be able to kill terminally ill patients, but then I doubt many New Zealanders do either. In any case, the issue is far more complex than that, which is why a wider inquiry is justified.

All of us who have experienced the pain of watching someone close to us suffer a lingering and often painful death have felt the anguish and powerlessness of wanting to do more to help, but being unable to do so. We have admired the dedicated and compassionate efforts of those involved in palliative care and know of the medications now available to ease pain and make the last stages of life more comfortable, and are hugely appreciative of that.

But, at the same time, we are becoming more aware that end-of-life care is but one aspect of overall health care. Advanced care planning, where people discuss with family at earlier stages of life what their expectations are when they become old and/or frail or suffer from a terminal illness, is becoming equally important. Similarly, understanding people’s expectations is also a significant consideration as well. At a time when the bulk of health spending occurs in the last five years of a person’s life, are we certain that is what they want, or do they simply want a dignified, managed exit?

Medicines management is another factor. For years now it has been an open secret that doctors manage the demise of terminal patients through adjustment to medication levels to ease suffering and assist gentle death. Nor is it a new practice – King George V’s doctors reportedly managed his death nearly 80 years ago so that it could be announced in the morning papers. But doctors managing life as it ebbs away is different from actively securing its end.

Nevertheless, the moral argument about the sanctity of natural life and that no-one has the right to interfere with it begs the question somewhat. While I have sympathy with that view in an absolutist sense – hence my vehement, unwavering opposition to capital punishment – I acknowledge that in many terminal cases, it is questionable (as a consequence of medication and other life support measures) whether a patient is actually living a natural life any more. Therefore, the morally absolutist argument may no longer be relevant in all cases.

And then there is the question of free will. I was always taught that the most precious gift we possess – which defined us as human beings – is free will, the right to be able to decide for ourselves. Any debate about the end of life cannot overlook this fundamental point. What a patient “wants” should rank ahead of what “we can do” for the patient in such circumstances, provided the patient’s decision is rational and informed, which brings us back to the advanced care planning argument. In such instances, do the rest of us have the right to override a patient’s wishes? Providing a patient who requests it with the means to end life in such circumstances is arguably different from another person deliberately ending that life. The ultimate recognition of free will is, after all, respecting people’s exercise of it.

A public discussion about all these issues would be welcome and timely. Ideally, an independent expert panel should be established, with a wide-ranging brief to consider and advise upon all aspects of end-of-life care and how it should be managed. This inquiry should undertake widespread public consultation leading to the presentation of full and thorough recommendations to Parliament for action. For its part, Parliament needs to show its willingness to both lead and respond.         






Thursday, 2 July 2015

3 July 2015

Sometimes politics can be a frustrating business.

The debate about social housing and the possible interest of a Queensland social service provider in purchasing around 400 Housing New Zealand properties is one such example. All sorts of outlandish claims are being made, most with little relation to reality.

I start from the perspective that the state has a basic obligation to ensure its people have the opportunity of being adequately housed. In New Zealand we accept that as a national responsibility, whereas in other countries it is more likely to be a local government function. Be all that as it may, the concept of State Housing dates from the time of the first Labour Government, although Seddon toyed with the idea almost 40 years earlier, and successive governments have maintained that legacy. Only a brave – or foolhardy – government would tamper with that fabric.

Now here is where the argument becomes a little different.  The current government is looking at how it can uphold its housing obligations, in a way that is appropriate to the circumstances of our times. Much of the State Housing stock is old and run down, over many years, and arguably, given the way our cities have developed, not necessarily located in the best places. To upgrade and modify it would cost a small fortune, money the government simple does not have, and at the end of the day would leave us with about the same level of public housing stock as we have now, with no great impact on reducing the demand for social housing.

So, it has decided to sell a significant proportion of its old stock to non-government providers to upgrade and manage for clients, while using the proceeds to develop additional modern stock to meet needs. That strikes me as a pragmatic approach, smacking of the type of innovation New Zealanders generally like to be proud of.

Now, of course, it is early days, and a little too soon to become focused on particular potential buyers, but the prospect of sales to overseas operators should be neither surprising, nor concerning. After all, the properties cannot be shifted from New Zealand, and the government will be able to impose whatever conditions of sale it chooses to ensure that its objectives are met. So a case can be made for at least considering the idea further.    

My frustration arises when I hear blanket opposition expressed to the very idea on the most spurious of grounds – like privatising the stock, yet successive Labour and National governments have been selling off “surplus” state houses for years.  What I have not heard are too many credible suggestions of how our public housing shortfall might otherwise be met. During a recent television debate, a particularly ignorant and boorish Labour MP claimed the answer was for the government to just build 100,000 more houses. When I challenged her as to how they would pay for them, her response was to call out to one of her colleagues in the audience, “how are we going to pay for them?” which shows the shallowness of her position.

I doubt the government's proposals are flawless, and a lot of work needs to be done yet, but the legislation implementing the policy will go to a select committee where it will no doubt be thoroughly examined and tidied up.

However, I have no doubt that the challenge to provide affordable housing requires bold and innovative solutions and that the approach is one worth considering further. A roof over one’s head is after all, a roof over one’s head, no matter how it is provided.