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.