Wednesday, 9 August 2017

It may seem strange to suggest it now, but the dust will soon settle on the political turmoil of the last ten days, and a form of normalcy will return, the imminent advent of the formal election campaign notwithstanding. And when that dust has settled, some basic realities will be clear.


The Labour Party has replaced a grim and dour leader New Zealanders would never have made their Prime Minister with someone more telegenic and permanently smiling who is likely to staunch the bleeding of Labour’s wounds. Whether she can, or will or be acceptable as a potential  Prime Minister remains to be seen, although the early signs are that style more than substance will be her hallmarks.


And, after a contorted public display of political hari kiri, the Green Party’s co-leader finally resigned. This seems due not so much to her truly bizarre admissions of welfare and electoral abuse a quarter of a century ago, as to the defiant and smug arrogance of her subsequent public comments, and the extraordinarily heavy-handed reactions of her colleagues to two Green MPs who dared criticise her. They were summarily dispatched with a brutality reminiscent of the best of totalitarian regimes, while at the same time the Party tried to stick to its long held mantra of being the one Party of principle. The picture that emerged instead – and which subsequent opinion polls confirm – is of a Party that condones welfare and electoral law abuse, particularly by one of its own, and is utterly intolerant of dissent or criticism. The collective moral failure of the Party’s MPs and leadership has been palpable and punished accordingly.


With these momentous events now behind the electorate, if not for the Parties themselves, voters’ focus will quickly return to more basis issues. They will be considering whether the reconfigured Labour and Green Parties, with their Memorandum of Understanding apparently still intact, are better placed to form a viable and coherent government than they were a couple of weeks ago. The chaos of the last few days, their apparent euphoria notwithstanding, makes that a much a more arguable proposition. Few would agree these recent events have demonstrated they are now more able to provide good and stable government than before.


And how does the current National-led Government, with support from ACT, the Maori Party and UnitedFuture, look by comparison? Has its position as a reliable and stable combination that has served New Zealand well over the last nine years been enhanced or weakened by recent events? On balance, the conclusion would have to be that the contrast between strong, reliable and focused government and unimaginable chaos has never been starker.


New Zealand First will be smarting that it has been largely sidelined by the recent shenanigans, despite its solid support in provincial New Zealand. However, its problem is more fundamental. Its current crop of MPs is the most singularly uninspiring and inept to have been in parliament for a while – and believe me, having seen many such groupings over the years, I do not say this lightly. The problem is that it therefore cannot risk exposing them to too much public scrutiny, lest they be found out. And that means having to maintain the focus on the Party leader and his idiosyncratically destructive style of politics.


All of which will make for a fascinating few weeks ahead. Expect National and its allies to continue to try sailing in the smooth waters of competence, reliability and experience. There will be a number of business as usual policy announcements to maintain both the image and the sense of a coherent strategy for the way ahead, with allowance for the diversity of views it support partners offer. For Labour and the Greens, excitement and vibrancy will be the dominant themes, but the challenge will be showing a sense of cohesion and consistency, unlike anything they have shown to date, and getting their leaders to answer the hard questions posed of them, rather than just make glib policy pronouncements. For New Zealand First, it will be politics as usual, picking the familiar social and political scabs in an effort to fuel distrust in the system and reinforce its self-sought image as the “you tell ‘em” Party.


As politics as usual returns, some voters may be forgiven for yearning for more of the drama of the last two weeks.      












Wednesday, 2 August 2017

 Jacinda Ardern has my warmest congratulations, my best wishes, and my immense commiserations as she takes on the role of Leader of the Opposition, which she herself has described as “the worst job in politics.” She is right – it probably is just ahead of being Leader of the Labour Party today. Unfortunately for Jacinda, this week she inherited both.


She has done so at a time when Labour is probably at its lowest ebb since 1931, and unlike then, when the tide would rise, this time the ebb may be beyond recovery. Over the last 100 years or so there has been a natural life cycle for major parties of around 60 to 80 years. Labour today is just over 100 years old – our oldest and longest surviving party. Curiously, minor parties, possibly because of their definition, do not seem caught as rigidly. Their life cycles are far more erratic, perhaps because they are often more likely to be based around a dominant individual, and their destiny consequently linked to that person’s career, even if the philosophies they represent often emerge elsewhere subsequently. But, for major parties, the pattern seems far more pre-destined. Only a dullard, or a “my party, right or wrong” fanatic would deny that reality.


In the early 1900s, the Liberals post Seddon, and then in the 1920s conservative Reform post Massey went through this process, culminating in the rise of the Labour Party from 1916 and the advent of the National Party in 1936. Now, since the 1990s, the rise of left-wing alternatives to Labour – first, the Alliance, and now the Greens – are snapping at Labour’s heels. The inevitable outcome, maybe sooner rather than later, is that Labour and the Greens will stop cannibalising each other’s votes and refashion themselves into a modern social democratic party on the left of politics. It may well be that in bringing this together Jacinda Ardern will make her greatest contribution.


Labour’s traditional working class base has been shrinking since the advent of containerisation in the 1970s, and the social conservatism of many of those remaining voters today probably sits more comfortably with the populism of New Zealand First anyway. Certainly, the book of the moment, JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which offers a credible explanation of the rise of Trumpism in the United States and the rejection there by working class voters in the Rust Belt of traditional left-wing politics in last year’s Presidential election, supports that thesis. The chasm now emerging between the diminishing traditional working class that Labour has relied on, and the middle class progressives who over the past 50 years have moved from Holyoake’s property owning democracy, through Labour’s social liberalism on issues like racism and nuclear weapons, to now reside comfortably with the Greens, has left Labour increasingly bereft. Now the Greens are the coming force of the left of politics, and it is not inconceivable to imagine a Jacinda Ardern/James Shaw team emerging to lead a new single party in the future. At that point, Labour’s current trauma will end, and the new grouping will at last be able to present itself as the modern viable, left-wing alternative.


While National might be safe in the meantime, by virtue of being the very dominant major party in government, it cannot be complacent. Its day will come too, and it will face the same realignment issues that its old nemesis Labour does today. But, in National’s case, it is a little more difficult to see immediately how the realignment might occur. The erratic populism of New Zealand First means that, should it survive, it will probably not be part of this process, although its remnants will most likely remain the Social Credit equivalent that has been a near constant feature of our politics over the last 60 years. By themselves, ACT, UnitedFuture and the Maori Party are probably currently too small, but taken together their particular niches – libertarian laissez-faire; liberalism and aspirational Maori nationalism – could all be valuable additions to the post-National mix whenever it occurs.


And then, as these new parties form, so too will their respective challengers, setting off the process all over again. As Andrew Little found out this week, in New Zealand politics nothing is forever.      















Wednesday, 26 July 2017

The recent deaths of eight people in Auckland from using new psychoactive substances are appalling.


Inevitably, they have caused much speculation and comment, and a lot of that has been widely inaccurate, and off the mark.


At the risk of repeating some of the remarks I made a couple of weeks ago, a brief history lesson is in order. Psychoactive substances, legal highs, have been around for a very long time. Their origins internationally date back to various medical formulae developed in the 1960s as potential cures for common diseases which, although not effective in that role, were found to have a psychoactive effect, and hence created a market opportunity for those wishing to promote them as such. They first appeared in New Zealand in the 1990s but it was during the first decade of the 2000s that the explosion of legal highs on the international market, and the problems they were likely to cause, first became apparent. At that time, they were being sold freely at convenience stores up and down the country, with absolutely no regulation or control over product content, or to whom they were being sold.


I took the first significant step to control the spread of these substances in 2010 when I put legislation through Parliament to allow bans of up to two years to be imposed on psychoactive substances considered to be dangerous, or to contain illegal substances. Under the temporary ban regime, 43 substances and many more product combinations were banned between 2011 and 2013. But it soon became clear that the international pyschoactives industry was so extensive that we, along with most other countries, were going to have difficulty keeping ahead of the game.


Our 2013 Psychoactive Substances Act set up a system whereby registered manufacturers  must submit their products for testing to prove they of low risk to users, before being permitted to sell them in a highly regulated market. When the legislation was passed, there were around 4,000 convenience stores up and down the country selling more than 300 different legal high products, without any control or restriction. The day the legislation took effect, as an interim step, the 4,000 stores were immediately reduced to around 150 R18 stores only, and the product range slashed to around 41 products. That interim step was always intended to be just that and I removed it altogether a few months later, leaving no legal stores, and no products to sell. Because Parliament prohibited at the same time animal testing as a way to verify the low risk of products (a proper decision in my view), no manufacturers have subsequently applied for manufacturing licences, no new products have been submitted for testing, and none have been approved for sale.


However, the absence of a regulated market has had the undesirable – and as I said at the time, inevitable – consequence of driving the psychoactive market underground. What we are now seeing emerging in Auckland are completely unregulated illegal products, the precise composition and toxicity of which are not known, because they are not able to be tested, being sold on the black market. Some concoctions may have been prepared overseas and smuggled across the border, others may be local mixtures, but all are lethal. The claims being made that this awful situation is all the fault of the Psychoactive Substances Act regime, because it opened up the market, when in reality it closed it down, are palpably ignorant, and show a wilful and deliberate misunderstanding of the facts. 


Right now, my immediate concern is the current situation, which seems to mirror what has been happening in other countries in recent months. I have set up an emergency response team in Auckland, involving the Ministry of Health, Auckland’s District Health Boards and the Police to work together to identify the particular substances being used, have them tested, and provide appropriate treatment for affected persons.


In the longer term, though, we need better information about the flow of new psychoactive substances potentially coming over our borders. There are potentially hundreds more such substances yet to be released. That is why New Zealand is working with other countries to establish an early warning system by which we can share information with others on current developments. That system is likely to be in place next year.


And then there is the question of the Psychoactive Substances Act. The regulated market it sought to establish is still the best way forward, but the issue of animal testing has to be overcome. I have therefore asked Ministry of Health officials to review this matter to see if credible alternatives have yet been developed internationally that we can draw upon.

Now my critics say that all this is merely displacement activity – that there would be no problem with psychoactive substances if we simply legalised natural cannabis, and that my efforts are really just flapping around the edges, so I should grasp the nettle of cannabis law reform. Well, I have two responses to that. First, since 2013 I have set out consistently, more so than most politicians, a framework for reforming cannabis law, based around the Psychoactive Substances Act and Portugal’s health centred approach. The Drug Foundation has now proposed a similar approach. My second response is that, contrary to what some might naively imagine, I cannot do this by the stroke of a pen. Change requires support in Parliament, and with National and Labour staunchly opposed, that is unlikely any time soon, no matter what I might think.


So, in the meantime, my very strong advice to people is to stay well clear of any psychoactive substances – they are dangerous, potentially fatal, and best avoided completely.





Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Watching contemporary political developments over recent days gave me an irresistible urge to read once more Lewis Carroll’s whimsical description of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. The account is as delightful as ever – anarchic craziness at its most sublime with absolutely no sense or credible point to it at all.


In the last couple of weeks New Zealand politics has displayed all of the absurdities of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. And a largely sycophantic media has lapped it up – with none being prepared to point out, even sotto voce, that all these would-be parading emperors have no clothes. The whirl of the election merry-go-round has been too alluring. Yet we have seen one political party advocate a return to eugenics as the determinant of social policy; another wants to refashion our industrial relations in the mould of the strike-torn 1970s; another wants to reform social assistance to overcome the ills of almost 25 years ago; while another yearns to take New Zealand back to the divisive, overly controlled, socially restrictive Muldoon era as the new Golden Age to be aspired to. Common-sense, reason and balance have been abandoned in the reckless pursuit of style over substance, the bold and the dramatic, over the systematic and the reliable. Whatever way it is viewed, the look is firmly backwards facing, to a mythical yesterday that was never there. No-one has dared to point out this farce.


For the last two centuries, civilised societies have been built around the great values of the Age of Enlightenment: liberty, reason, tolerance, and scientific investigation and rigour. Trust and compromise, and the relentless scrutiny of a sceptical, yet informed, free media have been the mechanisms by which our societies have functioned, indeed flourished. Politicians have been generally held to account; their excesses exposed, and the incompetence of those around them been laid bare. All as it should be.


Over recent months, we have looked agog at the rise of President Trump in the United States and have sniggered at the international scorn his election and subsequent conduct have occasioned; we have scoffed at the Brexit mess in the United Kingdom that has already brought down one Prime Minister and is well on track to topple the next; and all with a quiet smugness that it could never happen here. We have puzzled why neither the commentariat nor the general public foresaw either events, and have consoled ourselves with the belief that we would be too smart to fall for the same thing here. Yet, as last weekend’s Mad Hatters’ Tea Parties and the circumstances surrounding them have shown, our optimism may have been misplaced. Of course, the abrogation of reason has always been a small factor in our politics, adhered to by a few crackpot bigots, and antediluvian politicians yearning for a better yesteryear. But, we have never taken them seriously.


However, all that may be changing. Our increasingly infotainment society seems to be robbing our watchdogs of their capacity to spot and expose cant when it occurs. Critical analysis is giving way to drooling obsequity. The more outlandish, sensational and vacuous a politician or policy commitment, the more likely it seems to be lapped up. And reason, dispassionate judgement, and evidence all risk becoming secondary to prejudice, populism, and trivialisation, as a consequence.


Now, more than ever, is the time for those of us in politics because we believe in the traditional liberal values that underpin our society to stand firm as never before. Public service and commitment to good governance remain virtues to be cherished, and evidence based policies to promote overall community and family wellbeing are as important as ever. We need to be building our society around these values, not smashing it down.


This is the positive backdrop against which UnitedFuture has developed its policy programme for this election, and beyond. In short, we want a better deal for future generations of New Zealanders, so that our country remains the best place to live, work and raise a family. Everyone living here should have an equal opportunity to thrive, no matter their circumstances, or where they are from. Our focus is on sustaining our environment, our families and our communities for future generations; and, ensuring that the actions we take today contribute to a better future for those who will follow us. The full details are set out on our website,, for those who wish to peruse them further.


So, as the election campaign unfolds, let us focus on constructive policies to move our country forward, rather than the tawdry shyster-run side shows that appear to be looming. Political  discourse and good government are too important to be reduced to be a mere poor re-enactment of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.













Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Martin Luther King once observed that “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”


I was reminded of that remark by some of the media comments that followed last week’s Drug Symposium at Parliament, especially around the suggestion our Psychoactive Substances Act might play a wider role in future drug reform. In particular, two editorial comments caught my eye as classic examples of the dangerous combination of ignorance and stupidity Martin Luther King’s remarks referred to.


First was an editorial in the New Zealand Herald which opined that New Zealand had “flirted with legalising synthetic cannabis in 2013, with disastrous results. Sellers … took advantage … to sell dangerous drugs such as Kronic to teenagers at corner stores.” This was followed a few days later by the Listener’s comment that “Our disastrous experiment with so-called legal highs” meant “More young people used drugs than before.” The common link in both editorials was the complete lack of anything even remotely approaching a fact to back-up the anonymous writers’ fulminations.


Well, here are the relevant facts, uncomfortable and all as they may be for the purveyors of this ignorance and stupidity.


Psychoactive substances, legal highs, were around long before the advent of the Psychoactive Substances Act. Their origins internationally date back to various medical formulae developed in the 1960s as potential cures for common diseases which, although not effective in that role, were found to have a psychoactive effect, and hence created a market opportunity for those wishing to promote them as such. In the New Zealand, the most well-known legal high was Benzopiperazine, or BZP, as it was commonly known, which first became available here in the 1990s, and was eventually banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act in 2008, well before I became the responsible Minister.


It was during the first decade of the 2000s that the explosion of legal highs on the international market, and the problems they were likely to cause, first became apparent. Here, they were being sold freely at convenience stores up and down the country, with absolutely no regulation or control over product content, or to whom they were being sold. What the New Zealand Herald describes as a 2013 “flirtation” was already a well-established romance long before then, with more and more products becoming freely available as the years went by.


I took the first significant step to control the spread of these substances and the burgeoning market in 2010 when I put legislation through Parliament to allow bans of up to two years to be imposed on psychoactive substances considered to be dangerous, or contain illegal substances. The reason for these temporary bans was simply that products were being constantly reformulated, so that a product banned today, could emerge with a different formulation tomorrow and be back on the shelves for sale. It was under this regime that Kronic and its derivatives were banned in 2011, making a nonsense of the New Zealand Herald’s ignorant claims that they were legally introduced to the market in 2013! Under the temporary ban regime, 43 substances and many more product combinations were banned between 2011 and 2013.


But it soon became clear that the international pyschoactives industry was so extensive that we, along with most other countries, were going to have difficulty keeping ahead of the game. Many countries effectively surrendered at that point, opting for unenforceable, pseudo-bans that took products off the shelves, and so satisfied at a superficial level public concern, but turned a blind eye to the explosion in their respective black markets that occurred as a result. They are struggling with the consequences today.


New Zealand’s Psychoactive Substances Act was a credible response to these cynical approaches. It shifted the onus of proof to manufacturers and suppliers to demonstrate their products were of low risk to users, in return for being able to sell them in a highly regulated market. When the legislation was passed, there were around 4,000 convenience stores up and down the country selling more than 3,000 different legal high products, without any control or restriction. The day the legislation took effect, as an interim step, the 4,000 stores were immediately reduced to around 150 R18 stores only, and the product range slashed to around 41 products. The interim step was always intended to be just that and I removed it altogether a few months later, leaving no legal stores, and no products to sell.


At the time, there was a lot of noise, reflected again in the recent Listener editorial, that the passage of the legislation saw many more young people being rushed to Emergency Departments with severe problems as a result of using legal highs. Yet surveys of Emergency Departments at the time showed that an overwhelming majority experienced no increases in the numbers of young people presenting with psychoactive substances problems. Even amongst the minority that did note an increase in presentations, the numbers reported were very low indeed, and, across the board, alcohol intoxication remained far and away the primary drug-related reason for young people ending up in Emergency Departments.


So, rather than the disastrous results the ignorant editorialists allege, the facts tell a rather different story. There was no “experiment” with legal highs, nor did I “introduce” them to New Zealand. The reality was quite the opposite. It was my 2010 and 2013 pieces of legislation that removed them from the New Zealand market.


But then, perhaps I should not be surprised at displays of ignorance and stupidity like these editorials. We live in the “post-truth” age, after all. It is not new – Voltaire foresaw it centuries ago when he wrote that “The more often a stupidity is repeated, the more it gets the appearance of wisdom.” The facts are, once more, reduced to inconvenience.


Those of us who like evidence and facts obviously have to get used to the fact these apparently do not matter anymore. Perhaps Dennis Denuto was right – it is all about “the vibe” after all.







Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Claims this week that no-one seems to know how many affordable homes have been built in Auckland have re-ignited the housing debate in a shallow, unhelpful way of silly political point scoring which houses no-one, but more importantly, has also highlighted one of the basic flaws in our current approach.


Everyone, it seems, is flapping around bemoaning a housing crisis, and calling for something to be done. Things, we are told, are happening; new home approvals are allegedly at record levels; the construction industry is crying out for labour as it struggles to meet the demand; yet, now we hear banks are tightening lending criteria, even for first home buyers, to dampen demand.  Meanwhile, in Auckland, a number of previously designated special housing areas have been abandoned without one house ever having been built on them. And there are still too many stories of people who are at worst, homeless, or at best, living in grossly inadequate accommodation.


So, how can this be, despite all the apparently frenetic activity to the contrary? Ever increasing activity like a gyroscope out of control and without a clear purpose does not a crisis solve. Yet that is precisely what is happening at present. So it is hardly surprising that no-one seems able to say exactly how many affordable houses have been built, or even what constitutes an affordable home.


To stop these ever rapidly decreasing circles imploding there needs to be, as UnitedFuture has long argued, a clearly defined national housing strategy. And that strategy can only be developed after a special summit bringing together all the major players to design it, and then agree to abide by it. Central and local government need to be working far more closely together, with each other for a change and not against each other as has too often been the case. The banks and the building industry need to be at the table too to develop the plans for genuinely affordable homes for young families, and to ensure that the funds and the workforce are there to meet the demand. Social housing providers also need to be involved, both to ensure there are homes for those in need, and to work alongside private landlords to provide transitions from  emergency housing to affordable rental properties, and then ultimately to a home of one’s own. Without all these elements working in concert we will not make progress, and the current problems will simply multiply.


Worse, the sense of induced panic this will cause will produce extreme solutions – like Labour’s ill-fated plan not to sell homes to people with foreign-sounding names, or the thinly disguised anti-immigration of xenophobia of the likes of New Zealand First.


We need to life our sights above that negativity and become much more innovative in helping assist young families into their first home. UnitedFuture wants people to be able to capitalise in advance their Working for Families entitlements each year to assist with home ownership. There are other things we should be looking at as well. We believe half the homes the government will build over the next few years should be set aside as rent-to-buy homes, where families could use their rental payments to build up equity in their house to the point where they can buy it outright. We are also interested in share equity schemes whereby people might buy a portion of a house – say 40% – and rent the remaining 60%, using the equity built up by the portion they own to buy a greater shareholding as time goes by, until they have bought 100% of the home. Another option we are interested in is allowing people to convert their student loan repayments for up to the first ten years to a Kiwisaver scheme and to use those repayments and the interest earned as a housing credit towards a first home.


The combination of a coherent national housing strategy to which all the major players are signed up, and innovative funding arrangements of the type we are proposing will go a long way towards addressing our national housing crisis, and restoring dignity and hope to ever despairing young families. These ought to be priorities for a compassionate society that cares about ensuring a better deal for future generations.












Wednesday, 28 June 2017

We are a pretty self-effacing lot as a nation. We do not stand on too much ceremony; we have an innate sense of equality and trying to see everyone gets a “fair go”; and the absolutely worst thing we can say about a person is that they are “up themselves”. Often we are seen as taciturn and perhaps a little dour, far more comfortable doing things, than talking about them. We pride ourselves on our practical, considered approach to issues – and our uncanny ability to develop solutions tailored to our needs, no matter the ridicule or criticism of others.
The people we look up to in all fields of endeavour – from our great-grandparents and grandparents who fought so stoically in two World Wars and other conflicts, through to sport and politics, the arts and sciences, and business and the outdoors today, all fit that mould. We are wary of the flashy extrovert, with the ever-present smile, the cocky, arrogant “don’t pull the wool over my eyes sunshine, I didn’t come down in the last shower” demeanour and the cheap, instant answer to everything. We generally despise them as fake – shallow, inveterate fraudsters and charlatans who, despite all their bravado, can be relied to always fail badly when the crunch comes, and then blame someone else. We far prefer the quiet, level-headed doer, who just gets on with the task at hand, and makes things work.
Sometimes we make the mistake of putting the New Zealanders we admire on pedestals as remarkable, and different to the rest of us. But, in doing so, we fail to recognise that the reason for their success lies often not in their difference, but rather in their quintessential New Zealand approach. John Mulgan came closest to capturing that essence in the seminal New Zealand novel, “Man Alone”, and it is probably no coincidence that the men and women we admire the most have always had more than an element of that in their make-up.
The word that underpins the New Zealand character is reliability – the archetypal safe pair of hands in a crisis. Peter Burling constantly demonstrated that in the recent stunning America’s Cup Series. Taciturn, almost to a fault, yet the symbol of reliability and dependability, and ultimately the winner. Until the explosion of the Barclay crisis the same thing could have been said of Prime Minister Bill English. While the lasting extent to which that may have been damaged by recent events is probably too premature to assess as yet, there is no doubt that the Prime Minister’s historic strengths have been his perceived dependability, and focus on performance ahead of superficiality.
The test of leadership comes with the ability to deal with crisis situations. Just a few weeks ago, Emirates Team New Zealand’s boat pitch-poled dramatically during the start of a challenger semi-final race. It was severely, almost fatally we now know, damaged and could have put paid to New Zealand’s efforts. Similarly, Barclay has become Bill English’s pitch-pole moment. Yet sheer guts, determination and hard work not only saw Team New Zealand back on the water in a day or two, but Burling and crew going on to win the challenger semi-finals and then the final, and ultimately the America’s Cup itself, without ever conceding the merest whiff of their dire predicament to their opponents. In political terms, Bill English now has to do likewise.
When the schooner America beat the best British yachts in the International Race off the Isle of Wight in 1851 to win what became known as the America’s Cup, Queen Victoria inquired about the fate of other yachts in the race, only to be informed “There is no second.” Those four words have endured in cup history ever since. They are also the words the Prime Minister needs to put front and centre now as he mounts his recovery from the Barclay affair. 

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Like most New Zealanders, I was shocked that November weekend in 2010 when the reality struck that 29 men had perished in the Pike River Mine. My initial reaction was like that of so many people – that everything possible should be done to retrieve their bodies, and bring a sense of closure to their loved ones.

Over time, as the scientific and specialist evidence was gathered, then presented to the Royal Commission established to investigate the disaster, and the apparently ever so saddened and seemingly reassuring Mr Whitall kept appearing on television, I came to the view that the awful reality was that it was probably too dangerous to risk re-entering the mine to retrieve the bodies of the men. A large part of me still holds to that view, but then I am not directly affected. However, the drip-feed of revelations over recent years about documentary evidence that was either known at the time, but not accorded weight by the Royal Commission, or perhaps not even presented to the Commission at all, and has become available subsequently, leaves me questioning increasingly the received wisdom that the mine was best left sealed as a permanent memorial to the men who died there.

First was the exposé of Mr Whitall and the company that owned Pike River at the time, which raised substantial questions about the what had been going on, and how safe the mine had been all along. Then came the now constant refrains every time apparently new documentary evidence was revealed that it either “contained nothing new” or “was known to the Royal Commission at the time”, but “in any case does not change anything”. It is all starting to wear a little thin, after all these years. There still seems to be either a lack of clear facts about what went on, or at least a lack of full public access to the full story that may be known by some.

As a bottom line, I do not think it appropriate to put lives potentially at risk to retrieve the remains of the victims of Pike River. That has always been the argument put forward for not attempting to re-enter the mine. On the face of it, and the official facts available, it is hard to argue against. But the continuing revelations about the state of the mine now and then raise many questions about the accuracy of that advice. And while that spectre of inaccuracy remains, so will the perfectly understandable anguish and frustration of the families grow.

Instead of the essentially cat and mouse game that has been going on for now nearly seven years continuing, surely it is time to put all the relevant information – audio-visual, technical, safety and otherwise – into the public arena where it can be properly and thoroughly assessed. I, for one, do not like learning of relevant “previously unreleased footage”, or the like. If the material exists, it should be made public, so that everyone can know and understand exactly what the issues are, and can reach their judgements accordingly.

Of course, it may well be that at the end of such a process nothing much changes. The mine might still be considered unsafe to enter, and the status quo will remain. But at least there will be an obvious evidential base established to either confirm or debunk the findings of the Royal Commission. At present, we seem left increasingly, rightly or wrongly, with the suspicion that there is more to this story that has hitherto been acknowledged publicly. And that is a completely unsatisfactory way to resolve an issue that has troubled people for so long.

Now, I appreciate well that there will be those who will criticise me for not having expressed these views earlier. A fair cop, maybe, but I suspect I have been no different to many considered New Zealanders who felt appalled by the horror of the original tragedy, and believed that, hard and all as it would have been for the families, the official investigations would come to the right conclusion, having had the opportunity to consider all the known facts and expert evidence. I am one of many who have become more uneasy over the years about the apparently ever shifting sands of how the Pike River case has been handled.

Of course, my heart goes out to the families who suffered the loss of husbands, sons and brothers. I have felt for them at every stage as they have hoed the difficult road to recovery, and have hoped time would heal their wounds. I used to feel that, tough and all as they were, the decisions taken not to go back into the mine were probably correct, sadly, and an inevitable consequence of a tragedy of this type. But today, I can no longer feel that way with any confidence.       






Monday, 12 June 2017

We used to talk about the “cultural cringe” in New Zealand. That was the old notion that if something came from overseas, it was automatically superior to any local equivalent, and therefore had to be embraced almost uncritically. Those days have largely gone – thankfully – although every now and then the malady that Austin Mitchell once diagnosed as “overseasia” returns.

The most recent reported outbreak has been in the wake of the British General Election. For the second time in three elections no party has won an absolute majority in the House of Commons. By contrast, that has been the norm in New Zealand since the advent of MMP in 1996, yet we have not been seriously threatened by political instability subsequently. A large body of constitutional, academic and political knowledge – and experience – has built up here as a consequence.

For her part, Teresa May, seems to have acknowledged that experience, however grudgingly, with reports that she has consulted our Prime Minister about the mechanics of running stable, minority governments. But she seems to be alone in the sea of lost for words analysis that our media has reported in the wake of the British result. We have a long-established process of running effective and stable minority governments in this country, under both National and Labour leadership, yet few seemed interested in drawing the parallels, preferring instead the sometimes befuddled speculations of dumbfounded British commentators. It was a return to “overseasia” at its best.

A small point that was overlooked in the British result was the performance of the Liberal Democrats – the unambiguously anti-Brexit, pro-immigration centrist party that increased its representation by 50% (from 8 to 12 MPs), arguably the best performance in proportionate terms of any party, and an oasis of reason in the midst of chaos. Indeed, had the election been conducted under an MMP type system, they would have won at least 45 seats, and the hitherto largely obscure (outside Northern Ireland at least) but extremely weird Democratic Unionists (who now seem set to control Britain’s destiny until the next election) no more than 6 or 7  seats.

A notable casualty of the election was the right wing, racist extremist UKIP party which has been virtually obliterated. Conventional wisdom would suggest the Conservatives should have been the beneficiary of this meltdown, but the surge to Labour implies a significant number of those UKIP votes must have gone its way. Maybe that is the thinking behind New Zealand Labour’s recently announced immigration policy, which seeks to cleave into territory occupied by New Zealand First? While Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First are running here as a loosely connected troika-in-waiting, the risk for Labour has always been it might not end up in a strong enough position post-election to be able to dominate the other two in any governing arrangement, making for an “In the Thick of It” omnishambles. So, the rationale for launching a pre-emptive strike into New Zealand First territory was clear. Not only will it help staunch the flow of traditional working class votes to New Zealand First, it also provides the opportunity to try to put New Zealand First back “in its box” as it were, and strengthen Labour’s potential to dominate a still unlikely post-election governing arrangement. The complicit silence of the Greens in this regard is telling. But will they be Labour’s next cannibalisation target?

One lesson that has been learnt in New Zealand over the years is that the worst of days in Government, always far surpasses the very best of times in Opposition. Bloodied, humiliated and chastened as Teresa May’s Conservatives may now be, they will quickly knuckle down to that reality, and make their situation work, the eccentricities of the DUP notwithstanding. Just as we have learned to do after every election since 1996. “Overseasia” in reverse, perhaps?      









Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Over the years, a media myth of my intractable negativity towards the Greens has developed. While I have been properly critical of the Greens at times, and may regret some of my harsher criticisms in the cooler light of day, I have nonetheless worked constructively with a number of Green MPs during those years. Keith Locke and I raised more than a few eyebrows when we made a joint submission to a select committee calling for the repeal of New Zealand’s antiquated sedition laws, but we succeeded and the laws were repealed. Kevin Hague and I maintained a very good common-ground dialogue over a long period on drug-related issues, and even though the media liked to pit us against each other, Nandor Tanczos and I worked fairly closely together on law and order and broader justice issues. During this Parliament, I kept in close contact with Eugenie Sage during all of the debate around the changes to the Resource Management Act, and I work closely with Kennedy Graham on climate change policy through the multi-party GLOBE group.

Recently, the Greens have attracted criticism from the more staid corners of the political spectrum over their selection of some very young candidates on their Party list. I do not know any of them personally, but I do not share that criticism. More than that, I welcome their selection as a sign of renewal within the body politic, and I wish them well.

However, it is not going to be easy for them. I say so from experience, having been one of the youngest MPs in the House when first elected, and therefore knowing first-hand how difficult it is to break through the glass ceiling. Young MPs quickly discover that the system is loaded against them. Passion and enthusiasm go only so far, when the opportunities to express them within the Parliamentary system are so limited. Speaking opportunities in the House are not spontaneous, but predetermined in advance by the Whips and the Business Committee; and the hours spent grinding worthily away in a select committee seldom attract much public attention. Yet, the public expects these new MPs to make their mark quickly, and becomes frustrated and unforgiving (“you have sold out, just like all the rest”) when they do not immediately do so. Few do – it often takes years of hard work for a young MP to overcome some of the prejudice they encounter and to be noticed, and more importantly to be taken seriously, for their achievements, rather than constantly pigeon-holed for their age. Little wonder their attrition rate is high, with their enthusiasm either extinguished by frustration, or boredom. A few survive, and an even smaller number prosper.

While these facts may seem brutal, they should not in any way be seen as a discouraging of young MPs. On the contrary, I believe the system needs a healthy influx of young MPs every election to refresh both it and the political parties. The vibrancy and enthusiasm they bring can be infectious, and their presence alone serves as a constant reminder to the rest of us that our core mission as Members of Parliament is to build a better and more sustainable New Zealand for those who are to follow us.

But if young MPs can be accused of sometimes being a little wide-eyed and with unrealistic expectations of what they can achieve immediately, they are far preferable to those who turn to Parliament after a lengthy career elsewhere, in the vain belief that they have something special to offer in the twilight years left before they retire. There have been many examples from all parties over the years, from all different backgrounds, from diplomacy, the media and local government and a few others besides, but each with the common expectation that not only will Parliament and the country be better off for their presence, but that it is also extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to be blessed by their talent. Their ultimate frustration and alienation is even more pronounced, because their sense of entitlement was far greater to begin with, while their time horizon is far shorter than their younger counterparts’.

So, good on the Greens for their boldness. Parliament needs to be a balance of all the faces that make up New Zealand today. Promoting young MPs is a healthy step in that direction.        









Wednesday, 31 May 2017

For most of my time in politics I have belonged to liberal democratic UnitedFuture (or the United Party as it was previously known). Prior to that, however, I spent more than 22 years as a member of the Labour Party – possibly a longer time in the Party than many of its current Caucus, and virtually all of the fly-by-night candidates dragged together for this election. Although all that was a long time ago, I still cherish many happy memories of my years with Labour.

However, the Labour Party today is vastly different from the Party I joined as a university student, or even that which UnitedFuture supported on confidence and supply matters during the Helen Clark years. The sense of optimism and enthusiasm for New Zealand that pervaded Labour previously in even the darkest of times now seems to have deserted it completely. Labour appears these days to be against everything, and for nothing. Maybe it is the permanently grim, dark disposition of its current leader, or maybe it is the length of time the Party has spent in Opposition. (Nine years is a long time, and should Labour fail at this election, it will be facing its longest period in Opposition in half a century.) Whatever, the effect is that Labour and its image seem more and more out of time and irrelevant.

The reaction to the recent Budget was but the latest example of this. Labour was the only Party to oppose outright the tax and benefit changes in the Budget. Other Parties certainly expressed their misgivings and offered alternative ways by which families could be uplifted, but, at the same time, supported the Budget legislation because they recognised the incongruity of opposing outright a set of measures from which many New Zealand families will benefit. By its blanket opposition, Labour simply revealed its sourness and churlishness, and the fact that under its current leadership, at least, it has lost the capacity to appreciate that other Parties can have good ideas too.  (It seems to think that only it can do things to assist the less well-off, and it is unreasonably affronted when others make what it sees as a raid on its traditional territory. This bitter, graceless approach smacks of the worst of envy politics (even the CTU welcomed aspects of the Family Assistance Package!) and is a pathetic throwback to the cloth-cap politics of a bygone era.

France’s new President, Emmanuel Macron, is worth considering in this regard. He arrived from nowhere, on the basis of a telling critique of the traditional major Parties in France. Macron’s strong point was that people were tired of being told by the traditional Parties what their view of the world was, and how citizens should fit into that. Rather, he argues, people today are seeking a more responsive form of politics where political parties tune their policies to the public’s perception of needs, and see things through their prism, not the other way round. It is a version of the Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul’s observation that “common sense reflects the shared values of a community.”

For its part, Labour still seems trapped by having a singular view of the world which they believe voters will come to accept, then embrace, once they hear more of it. In this world, compromise and pragmatism are unwelcome dirty words, lest they dilute the “true” message. Add to that, Labour’s deliberate courting of a variety of lobby groups over the years. While a fundamentally wise strategy to grow the Party’s support base (what American civil rights leader Jesse Jackson once called the knitting together of individual peggy squares to form a blanket), Labour has managed to end up becoming no more than a hostage to its vested interests’ various demands in policy and candidate terms. As such, it is far from the blanket, and much more a set of loose, discordant, jarring peggy squares, lacking a leadership thread to weave them together. For New Zealanders living in today’s post-ideological world, their primary expectation of a Government of any hue is that it does its best for them in the circumstances. They judge it on that basis, not the extent of its forelock-tugging to the interests that lie behind it. They expect Governments to be outward looking and flexible, not forever looking backwards over their shoulder.

The story of Budget 2017 is simple – a substantial Family Assistance Package from which most households will benefit to some extent or other, supported up to a point by every Party bar Labour. When it comes to deciding which Parties are on families’ sides, and which are not, the result is stark. Labour’s “we know best” attitude stands defiantly and forlornly all by itself. Labour – for so long the party of reform – is now but a hollow shadow of itself. Saddening to some, but surprising to few. 









Tuesday, 23 May 2017

According to media reports, 20 billion litres of pristine New Zealand water are going to be exported over the next fifteen years, with not one cent in royalties being paid here.

By contrast, it has been estimated that the oil and gas industry paid around $230 million in royalties to the New Zealand Government in the last year alone, and has paid as much as $430 million in earlier years, based on products discovered and sold. The oil and gas royalties regime is notoriously complex and uneven, with many tax deductions available, and no levy on exports. It is applied at rates that can vary from 5% to 20%. Nevertheless, petroleum exporters are typically paying about 42% of their profits in taxes and royalties to the government.

Leaving aside the argument about whether oil and gas exploration is a good thing to be encouraged, and the complexity of the regime, it does provide a useful point of comparison to the way in which the likely burgeoning fresh water export trade is treated, all the same.

It is certainly true that New Zealand has an abundance of fresh water, so it is easy to see the attraction fresh water exports pose. And it is not new. For over 30 years there has been steady yet periodic interest in establishing a fresh water export industry. So, at one level, the argument could at least be mounted that fresh water exports are just another form of primary products exports from this bounteous country.

But the argument is not that simplistic. The great debate occurring about water needed for irrigation demonstrates the pressures being placed upon our water resources. The argument over the proposed Ruataniwha Dam in Hawkes Bay and the virtual drying up of Canterbury’s major rivers earlier this year as a result of a high demand for irrigation brought on by dairy intensification highlight the point. And it is also intensely political. Environment Canterbury was sacked by the Government in 2010 over the allocation of water rights; iwi interests have long recognised the power of the ownership of water as the Resource Management Act debate shows; freshwater recreational interests have for equally long sought to preserve their traditional roles and relationships with water; and, the Land and Water Forum has patiently attempted to bring all the groups to the table to try to achieve a coherent policy response. On top of all this comes mounting justified public concern about the swimmability of our major rivers. The response of seeking as a first step to make all major rivers at least wadeable is widely seen as too little, too late.

Against this complexly yet finely woven tapestry, it seems somewhat incongruous that a virtually unregulated and certainly untaxed water export industry is being allowed to develop. At the very least, there needs to be a coherent royalties regime put in place, akin perhaps to that for oil and gas, to ensure that our water resources are not being just given away. But that will not be enough of itself. There also needs to be a clear national policy developed about water exports. For too long there has been a complacency that water will always be abundant in New Zealand, and while that is generally true, recent developments show we can no longer take it for granted. Dirty and dried up rivers, and contaminated acquifers are not what we have usually been used to, nor do we want them to become the norm. Especially, if at the same time, we have to sit and watch the ships sailing away with millions of litres of our pure water for which they have paid virtually nothing.