Wednesday, 30 March 2016

31 March 2016

I have had one or two fractious media interviews of late on aspects of New Zealand’s drug policy. I am not especially proud of that, because my normal demeanour is much more considered and self-disciplined. My plea in mitigation is that my contrariness has been a reflection of my frustration that, for various reasons, the points I was seeking to make have been misunderstood.

I was reminded of all this again this week, when, following a Morning Report interview on the same subject, the media suddenly seemed convinced I had undergone some remarkable conversion and was now advocating a bold, new approach to drug policy, completely out of character with what many of them had long imagined erroneously and in some cases maliciously to be my views, and for which many had pilloried me for years.

Only a few journalists were astute enough to recall that my now apparently radical new calls for drug policy to be based on the principles of compassion, innovation and proportion were in fact a repetition of what I had been saying consistently for some time, most notably, but by no means exclusively, at the United Nations Conventions on Narcotic Drugs meeting in Vienna this time last year. Some even recalled accurately that these same principles underpinned the National Drug Policy I released on behalf of the government last August.

I was simply too stunned by the media volte-face to be grumpy. Indeed, I was literally gobsmacked as to why my message of steady, considered reform that they in their ignorance had sneered at and ridiculed for so long had suddenly become mainstream. It said a lot to me about how shallow so many of they are.

The reason for this turnaround is, I suggest, that drug policy has many levels to it, and it is thus inherently more complex and nuanced than many of them can or want to understand. For some, drug policy is no more than a loud and selfish focus on being able to get their drug of choice when they want it, no matter the consequences or accepted legal norms. For others, drug policy is more specific – access to products that may have a medicinal benefit, for example. Still others see drug policy as no more than cannabis policy.

However, sensible drug policy is multi-faceted, and pays no heed to the extremes. It is about controlling the manufacture and distribution of dangerous substances, and the criminals behind the trade, so it has obvious legal connections; but it is also about the innocent victims and those who suffer from the misuse of drugs, requiring an effective and strong health focus. Above all, sensible drug policy is about a prudent and balanced response. It should address the supply and distribution issues through the law, as well as ensuring good health services are available to assist those suffering from the misuse of drugs. That is the compassion prong.

But sensible drug policy is also about having an appropriate focus. The steps we take to deal with those who manufacture and distribute drugs illegally will be quite different from those we promote to deal with those affected by them. At the same time, we cannot cause more problems than we resolve. That is the proportion prong.

And because this is a dynamic and changing environment, we will also need to be flexible and open to new ways of dealing with emerging problems, like for instance our approach to the psychoactive substances issue. That is the innovation prong.

The war on drugs has been an abject failure. Its rhetoric and approach belonged to a bygone era. Focusing New Zealand’s drug policy on a health centred approach places us firmly in the international mainstream of contemporary drug policy. The recharting of our course in recent years has been as deliberate as it has been subtle. It is no accident, but a conscious recognition of both the deficiencies in previous policy and what is achievable and sustainable in the current political social and political environment. I have purposely ignored the extremists, and I make no apology for that.

Next month I will lead New Zealand’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on drugs in New York. I will be promoting our National Drug Policy there, and expecting to be well-received, as we work with like-minded countries to produce sensible outcomes for the future. I will be proud, not grumpy nor irascible, to see the values of compassion, innovation, and proportion at the forefront of our deliberations.     







Tuesday, 22 March 2016

23 March 2016

Congratulations to Dame Patsy Reddy on her appointment as New Zealand’s next Governor-General. She is another outstanding selection in that now long line of impressive New Zealanders to hold the office, and I have no doubt she will do a superb job and quickly earn the respect of New Zealanders.

However, she should be the last person to occupy the role. It is high time for New Zealand to elect its own Head of State, and for our country to become a republic. We should take the opportunity of the appointment of a new Governor-General to commence the process of public debate, leading up to a public referendum, which if supportive of our becoming a republic, should lead to the installation of our first President, when Dame Patsy’s term comes to an end in September 2021.

The Irish Republic provides the model for New Zealand, with a parliamentary system of government and an elected President as Head of State. The President does not exercise any executive functions and is obliged to act on the advice of his or her Ministers, in pretty much the same way as our Governor-General does now. The difference is of course that Uachtaran na hEireann (President of Ireland) is the supreme Head of State, elected directly by the people, not the representative of a foreign hereditary monarch at the other end of the world, as is our Governor-General.

Opponents of New Zealand’s becoming a republic often erroneously argue that it would mean the end of our Commonwealth ties. That is utter nonsense. 32 of the Commonwealth’s 53 member states are already republics, including major Commonwealth players like India, South Africa and Singapore, amongst a host of others. So there would be no reason at all for New Zealand, upon becoming a republic, to have to reconsider its Commonwealth membership in any shape or form, and nor should it.

As a way forward, a group of leading but informed New Zealanders (often not the same thing!) should be gathered together to begin the process of public discussion about how a New Zealand republic could be structured, including issues such as how that relates to the Treaty of Waitangi. That process should be long-term – running for about three years – and culminating in a binding referendum in mid 2020 on whether New Zealanders wished our country to become a republic. In the event of a positive result, the establishment of the republic would then be timed to coincide with the end of Dame Patsy’s term in late 2021.

I make these comments with no disrespect to Dame Patsy, nor the current and past Governors-General, nor to the high office to which they have all been appointed. So long as the office of Governor-General remains, both it and the person holding the role deserve the respect and loyalty of all citizens. But the appointment of a new Governor-General does establish a finite period. That provides a chance to think afresh about our future constitutional structure. I have long believed New Zealanders are ready for that discussion and that we should therefore give them that opportunity. The appointment of a new Governor-General does just that.          





Wednesday, 16 March 2016

17 March 2016

In recent days, I have been thinking of Pete Seeger’s plaintive line, “When will they ever learn?” from his classic anti-war song, “Where have all the flowers gone?” Not in the context of war and peace I hasten to add, but with regard to the future of the dairy industry.

There has been a consistent strand in our economic history, as a part of our quest for security since the 1960s, of putting almost all our economic eggs in one basket and pursuing the industry of the day to the point of virtual extinction, because of the short term gains it has been perceived to offer. First, there was the Chatham Islands crayfish boom where many dollars were risked and fishermen’s lives lost as the crayfish stocks were plundered because of the attraction of export markets to the delicacy of New Zealand crayfish tails.

After the crayfish boom was exhausted, and some fortunes made and others lost, we moved on to deer, with the same boom to bust enthusiasm. High-fenced deer fences quickly dotted the rural landscape, as we discovered and exploited the potential of cervana and deer velvet. When that boom petered out, goats became the new industry to be in, followed over the years by alpacas and llamas, kiwifruit, orange roughy and now, the dairy industry. The common thread has been the commodity base and the opportunity for quick dollars, so long as the world craves the particular product on offer. And when world tastes change, we always seem to get caught high and dry.

The dairy boom has been the most dramatic of all, building on the solid international reputation for quality production and innovation of the old Dairy Board, now carried on by Fonterra. And, in its wake, there has been an astonishing rate of dairy conversions across the land, in pursuit of the “white gold.” Orchards, sheep farms, and pastoral lands have all been converted at a rapid rate, with, as we are now realising, the attendant despoliation and damage to our waterways. In a country as pristine as ours, it is intolerable that we have become so obeisant to the dairy industry that we talk of a wading water standard as a goal, when we used to pride ourselves on having freshwaters which you could not only swim in, but also drink from as well.

While the dairy sector was booming we seemed to turn a blind eye to the degradation of our waterways because the returns to dairy farmers, and by extension the economy as a whole, were so good (and dare I say it the greed so palpable).

But now the day or reckoning seems nigh. International dairy prices have fallen, and each fortnightly auction price brings little solace to increasingly anxious and debt-burdened farmers. Some may be forced off their land altogether with all the attendant personal and other consequences. Although the Government and the banks are talking staunchly at present, some form of relief seems inevitable, probably through Work and Income and possibly Inland Revenue. As each day passes, Pete Seeger’s haunting warning will assume more and more relevance. The question will then be, this time, are we prepared to heed it?     




Wednesday, 9 March 2016

10 March 2016

The long awaited report of the first ever full and independent review of our security services has just come out. But despite the prudent calls last week from the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Judge Cheryl Gwyn, for as much openness and transparency as possible about the review, things did not get off to a good start. Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee apparently decided that while journalists could be given embargoed copies of the report several hours before its official release, the same courtesy should be not extended to MPs, as the mere representatives of the public, who had to wait until after the official release to get their copies. To make matters worse, it now appears that this constitutional affront was made at the behest of the review panel itself. Hardly a good or confidence-inspiring look for what is to follow.

The report itself is like the proverbial curate’s egg – good in parts and quite bad in others. Overall, though, as the person whose 2013 amendment in Parliament established the concept of the regular independent review, I am generally pleased with the way it has been conducted, and with its very thorough set of recommendations about improving the processes under which the GCSB and the SIS operate, including the stricter and more transparent arrangements for the issue and review of surveillance warrants.

But I am far less impressed with the implicit trade-off of these tighter rules with the proposed broadening of potential surveillance of individual New Zealanders by the agencies. These wider intrusive powers are both unnecessary and unjustified. While the report deals in some depth with the current international situation, it fails to make a compelling case for more surveillance in New Zealand, other than by tenuous extension.

Unfortunately, the reviewers’ terms of reference set by the Intelligence and Security Committee did not empower them to consider whether the GCSB and the SIS should be merged, although by suggesting they be brought under one statute, and that the full merger question be considered at a future point, they pretty much show their hand.

Given that most of the operational side of surveillance is already carried out by the Police and not the agencies, the GCSB and the SIS today are really no more than information gatherers and processors. Their briefings, in the main, are a combination of website links and analysis of overseas sourced data, so it is hard to see why we need to maintain two separate agencies, employing over 500 personnel, to process data obtained from elsewhere. The time for a rationalisation into one leaner, smaller, more focused agency is surely nigh, as the review team “almost but not quite” clearly recognised.

So what happens next? The Prime Minister has already said he will be seeking a bipartisan approach involving the two big parties and that he would be loath to proceed without the Opposition’s support. That is prudent, but Labour’s initial response seems ambivalent, especially around the prospect of more domestic surveillance. The Prime Minister is unlikely to hand Labour a power of effective veto on changes, so may well take some time to work through the next steps. Labour, too, will want to proceed cautiously, lest it be painted as opposing just for the sake of it. However, time is not in endless supply here. The Foreign Fighters legislation passed in 2014 expires early next year, and new legislation will need to be in place by then. So this will be a space worth watching carefully over the next few months.

Overall, the review scores a B in my book – “shows promise and a good understanding of the issues, but does not quite get there.” Nevertheless, I acknowledge the professionalism and thoroughness of the reviewers, Sir Michael Cullen and Dame Patsy Reddy. As the debate moves on from here, I hope it is conducted in the open and candid way Judge Gwyn advocated, as that is the only way to build credibility.  However, the signs from the way the report was released do not offer much confidence in that regard.








Wednesday, 2 March 2016

3 March 2016

Student loan debt has just hit $15 billion and is likely to increase further. Despite various efforts by successive government over the years to curb debt levels, and significant progress along the way in tracking down recalcitrant borrowers notwithstanding, the debt monster rampages on.

The problem is what to do about it. There have been over the years various calls for some sort of amnesty. While that might help clear the debt decks for a while, it would send the most perverse signal to the vast majority of borrowers who pay off their debt within 5 to 6 years of graduation. Those who lay the blame for the burgeoning debt squarely at the feet of interest free student loans may have a point, but have no sense of political reality if they seriously think there is any prospect of reintroducing an interest component on a student loan. In any case, at least in the short term, such a move would be likely to increase rather than reduce debt levels.

The only way to tackle the student debt problem seriously is to tackle the more fundamental problem of the cost of tertiary education and where that falls. Labour’s recent announcement of moving to free tertiary education for a first qualification is a  potential first step in the right direction, but the policy details released so far are too cumbersome and protracted to offer much confidence that the policy will work. But they at least have recognised the right end of the problem tio start resolving.

At the last three elections UnitedFuture has promoted the idea of a fees/allowances swap. This involves abolishing tertiary fees for students and funding the switch through doing away altogether with student allowances, for which not all students qualify anyway, and a modest top-up from the government. UnitedFuture would maintain a loans scheme, but only for living costs, meaning that the current bugbear of costly courses would also be done away with. All students with a loan would carry the same level of debt on an annual basis, probably no more than about $6,000 a year, regardless of the courses they were undertaking.

Parents like the idea; students looking forward to the student allowance as their first real bit of steady independent income do not; and tertiary institutions are wary of another feature implicit in the policy – a subtle control of their costs – a good reason in itself for the policy.

Whatever the outcome of the current debate, it is the time for bold ideas. Strong steps in the compliance area which have made their mark in recent years, and have generally been supported, are sadly not going to be enough to slay the debt monster. And writing off debt just punishes the diligent who complied with and honoured their responsibilities. It is time for all parties to engage in a first principles debate about the future funding of tertiary education.