Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The 6th anniversary this week of Christchurch’s devastating earthquake, and the horrific fires that have been fringing the city in recent days are timely reminders of the vulnerability we have to natural disasters.

One extraordinary constant at times like this is the dedication and commitment of all our emergency services personnel – our firefighters, ambulance officers, civil defence, Police and all those who pitch in to help. They are overwhelmingly volunteers, giving of their time and expertise to help others in a serious situation. They deserve our eternal thanks and gratitude for what they do.

But thanks and gratitude alone are not enough, and no basis on which to build viable emergency services for the future. We need to ensure that our volunteers and career emergency staff are equally well trained and resourced to meet the challenges varying natural disasters are likely to throw upon us in the years to come.

Inevitably, there will be some form of overall inquiry into the Christchurch fire. After the earthquakes, a special Royal Commission was established to review all aspects of the earthquake, including response and recovery performances, and to make recommendations for future improvements. The Fire Service has already advised it will be carrying out its own operational review of its performance in the fires, and there have been many calls for an independent investigation of the overall civil defence response. Such inquiries need to be seen as steps towards learning lessons and improving performance, rather than blame-chasing witch-hunts.

Civil Defence has been the poor relation for too long. Even though there has been a national Ministry of Emergency Management, it has been pitched uncomfortably for too long between central and local government, with no-one too sure where responsibility really lies, as a consequence. There are some notable exceptions – Wellington’s Emergency Management Office, which does a fantastic job promoting community resilience and safety, comes to mind – but for too many, the image of men with clip boards is still too prevalent.

My own experience as Minister of Internal Affairs bringing together our new national Fire and Emergency New Zealand from 1 July this year has been instructive. My personal view, not necessarily that of the Government at this stage, is that the move to Fire and Emergency New Zealand presages a model that will become the overall response to civil defence in the future. Over time – years rather than months – I see Fire and Emergency New Zealand being expanded to include civil defence, and in a little longer time frame, potentially ambulance services as well. Already, as the Christchurch fires, and before them the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes have shown, the current Fire Service is being looked towards to provide the response leadership in such cases, so it seems to be only logical in time that the new national Fire and Emergency New Zealand, once properly established, will be expanded to also include wider aspects of civil defence and emergency response.

One of the great strengths of our society is that in times of travail we all pitch in to help, often with secondary regard to our own circumstances. That is the spirit we need to capture when it comes to the future of civil defence and emergency management. This is not about developing the large “standing army” some are fearful and so scornful of, nor is it about building empires. Much more pragmatically, it is much more about ensuring that our communities are at all times best placed to protect themselves.         









Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The Ohariu electorate has been very much in the news in recent days. There has been the usual amount of breathless hype and exaggeration from political commentators about what they think is going on. Most of it has been wildly inaccurate, ridiculously sensational, and so devoid of any factual basis that it could not even be described as “alternative” facts.

So, leaving aside as largely irrelevant the argument about whether the Greens and Labour have done a deal in the electorate (of course, it is a deal – to claim otherwise is as ignorant as it churlish, but describing it as “dirty” is simply puerile), and in the absence of much informed comment, here are some basic facts about Ohariu.

At the last election, just under 54% of Ohariu voters voted for either the UnitedFuture or National Party electorate candidates, with around 37% supporting the UnitedFuture candidate. About 42% supported either the Green or Labour candidates. On the party votes side, just over 51% of voters supported National and UnitedFuture, with about 38% backing Labour and the Greens.

The Greens and Labour are saying now that one of the reasons for having just one candidate between them this year is because their combined candidate vote from 2014 is greater than the UnitedFuture candidate’s support, which, were it to come to pass, would deliver them the seat. In so doing, they say, it would help them achieve their stated aim to “change the government”.

But here is where their argument starts to fall down – on two points of fact, at least. First, they make the heroic assumption that in that situation the 16% of voters who supported the National candidate will all continue to do so again. Yet, if only a third of those voters shifted their support to the UnitedFuture candidate, the Labour/Greens dream would be all over. Ohariu voters are very intelligent, and capable of working out very easily what is in their strategic best interests.

Moroever, in both the candidate and party votes in 2014, Ohariu voters showed a clear majority preference for supporting the current governing arrangement. This is not a “change the government” electorate, so appeals to vote for the Labour/Green candidate to “change the government” are likely to fall on deaf ears. If anything, they are more likely to drive voters to the National/UnitedFuture side, and, as the dominant candidate of that bloc, the UnitedFuture candidate is likely to be the beneficiary.

If, as is claimed, Ohariu is to be the electorate that determines the fate of the government, then, given National’s current dominance in the polls, the lines will be drawn even more clearly – namely, the way to keep the current government in office will be to re-elect the UnitedFuture candidate. In that scenario, a vote for any other candidate (including, perversely, the National candidate) will effectively be a vote to “change the government”, something Ohariu voters have shown no inclination towards.

There is another potential spin-off too. If Ohariu is to hold the key to the election outcome, then party votes for UnitedFuture in other electorates now become so much more relevant. Given UnitedFuture’s stated objective this election of stopping the extremists from running amok, voters anxious for reassurance on this score will be able to give party votes to UnitedFuture elsewhere in the country, confident they will not be wasted. The likelihood of UnitedFuture holding Ohariu and with it, the prospect of winning perhaps 2% to 3% of the party vote, and thus maybe 3-4 seats in its own right, emerges.

So whatever its status, the Labour/Green “arrangement” in Ohariu will be seen as a game-changer, although it is unlikely to be in the way those parties expected.








Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Earlier this week I announced that applications to prescribe non pharmaceutical grade cannabis based medicinal products would no longer require my approval as Associate Minister of Health. I further announced that I would be advising medical authorities of a list of known such products that were of a sufficiently reputable manufacturing standard to be available for prescription for New Zealand patients.

Those two announcements have been generally welcomed as a step forward. Indeed, they build on a progressive series of steps I have taken to facilitate access to these products since the issue first came onto the public agenda a couple of years. First, was the development of a specific set of clinically informed guidelines for the prescribing of such products; then there was the decision last December that Sativex (the only pharmaceutical grade cannabis medicine available in New Zealand) could now be prescribed for multiple sclerosis patients by specialists without reference to the Ministry of Health; and now, this week’s announcements. I have made it clear that throughout I have been following a deliberate, evidence based process, drawing on emerging international best practice, and that further evolutions are inevitable.

What has become clear, however, in even the reporting of this week’s developments is that some considerable misconceptions still remain. While most people now seem to understand that what we are talking are medical products based around extracts from the cannabis plant, rather than the raw leaf itself (for which there is absolutely no political appetite across parties for change), there is still confusion about how such products ought to be treated.

Presently, medical products that are not registered in New Zealand as pharmaceuticals are effectively unregulated – which is why there is the provision in the Medicines Act for them to be approved on a case by case basis by the Minister (which has been the case up until my decision this week for cannabis based medicines – so the call by some editorial writers to just treat cannabis based medicines the same way as other pharmaceuticals is misplaced. That cannot happen until and unless such products are registered as pharmaceuticals, something that the composition of most of them makes very unlikely. At the same time, it would be grossly irresponsible to allow such products to be prescribed on a totally unregulated basis, and I can only begin to imagine what the public outcry would be were that to happen and things go wrong. The ill-founded hysteria that accompanied the attempts to create a regulated market for synthetic cannabis products a few years ago is a classic reminder in that regard.

Another issue that is often raised is that of protection of people with terminal conditions who chose to use some form of cannabis to ease their suffering. The New South Wales regime where terminal patients can go a register which means they will not be harassed by the Police over their cannabis use is cited as an example of what we should be doing here. In New Zealand, both the Police and the Government have made it clear over a long period of time that we have no interest in pursuing people using cannabis in such circumstances, so the practical difference between the New South Wales and New Zealand situations is essentially cosmetic. However, it may be worth further consideration, if it is seen as giving vulnerable, suffering people a little more assurance at a very stressful time of their lives.

Overall, my intention all along has been to establish an environment within which cannabis based medical products can be prescribed for patients with conditions where it has been shown that there would be benefit from having access to such products. That requires an open and pragmatic response from medical practitioners, and I am very keen to ensure that doctors are fully aware of the options and willing to discuss these with patients. For patients, my advice is equally clear: if a patient feels they might benefit from a cannabis based medicine they should talk to their doctors in the first instance.

As I have said many times, this is an evolving area internationally. There are potential benefits for certain categories of patients. We need to be open to facilitating these possibilities, with falling prey to the emotionalism, misinformation and self-interest of those with a wider pro-cannabis agenda.       








Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, wisley observed that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. It is a point that the world should perhaps have pondered more when candidate, and now forty-fifth President, Donald Trump pledged during the last Presidential election campaign to ban Muslim immigration to the United States. No-one then took the pledge to be anything more than empty campaign rhetoric, and outside of the United States even fewer people expected him to be elected to office anyway.

Well, now it has happened, and to confound matters, this most unusual and unpredictable of Presidents seems hell-bent on keeping his election promises, at least the more outlandish of them. All this puts the rest of the world, especially America’s allies and close friends in a quandary. Do they turn a blind eye to what he is doing, in the hope, perhaps, that after the flush of excitement wears off, the President will “come to his senses”, or do they speak out now to possibly circumvent the next move? The Statue of Liberty does still bear the legend “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” after all!

What is currently happening in the United States is certainly contrary to the principles its Founding Fathers espoused so eloquently. George Washington’s famous aspiration, “I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong,” has defined the United States for nearly 250 years. It has been given constant effect in American history from the nineteenth century migrations, through to the German and Jewish refugees of the 1930s, and the Asian refugees of the 1970s. The United States have been the world’s great melting-pot. Until now.


So, what, if anything, should New Zealand do? Fulminating against the President (while possibly good for the soul) ultimately goes only so far. So, for a start, we obviously need to clarify quickly any potential impact the new American policy might have on New Zealand residents with passports from the affected countries, and to offer them whatever support is appropriate. (Reports dual nationals are not affected unless they have visited one of the seven banned countries in the last five years are still concerning and confusing.)

As to the wider question, as a small nation, we have historically played our part, albeit parsimoniously at times. The resettlement of the Polish children under Peter Fraser is our shining light, but we have responded well on other occasions as well. We have always acted on the basis of perceived need, rather than the political views or religious affiliations of those in strife.  We have always upheld the value that former President Obama promoted just this week, “We do not have religious tests to our compassion.”

An obvious move we could make is to increase the number of refugees we accept each year. A doubling in our refugee quota has long been argued for. That would be a good start, but our overall approach to immigration also needs to change, because we do not fill the annual quotas we have now. Resettlement policy should no longer just be the preserve of central government, a tap to be turned on and off as it suits, if you like. Rather, we need to involve local government, business and the community far more than is currently the case, as part of an overall long-term population strategy.

At another level, the events of the last week – in New Zealand as much as in the United States – have reinforced the place of a party like United Future in our political spectrum, with its overt commitment to keeping our country open, tolerated and united. We need to be unafraid of upholding diversity, and supporting creativity, innovation, and New Zealand’s place in the world. These are enduring liberal values, under a pressure they have not faced for at least two generations. Although they are common sense, reflective of the shared values of our communities, they cannot continue to be taken granted, and so need their champions.

We need to give those New Zealanders who share them an explicit place in our political discourse which they can rally around.  After all, Thomas Jefferson’s observation is as relevant now as it ever was.