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.       








Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Recently, the Police, with significant sponsorship from the Ministry of Health, hosted a major Australasian conference on alcohol and drug policy. It attracted an impressive collection of international speakers, including Michael Botticelli (a man whom I have known and worked with for a number of years) who was the head of President Obama’s National Drug Policy unit.

In my own remarks to the conference I spoke about New Zealand’s National Drug Policy, and where it might head in the future. I observed that I was personally interested in, and supportive of,  Portugal’s approach of putting the health system front and centre on drug policy, but I further observed that, unfortunately, whenever Portugal is mentioned, the focus is often solely on the tolerance they apply to the low-level use of drugs, while overlooking the other side of the story about possession and cultivation remaining illegal, and the very strong use of mandatory assessment and treatment programmes in place for all drug use. My interest is in the full Portuguese package, not just the tolerance applied to low-level use of drugs like cannabis. Sadly, far too often, when people cite what is going on in Portugal, they focus only on this point, and not the overall package.

Over the years I have been involved in drug policy I have constantly stressed that we need to be open to new developments, but that any alterations in policy should always be firmly evidence based. Whether it be about access to cannabis based medicinal products, or the general treatment of other drugs, that has been, to the constant annoyance of my critics, my absolute standard, and it is not going to change. It was the logic behind the Psychoactive Substances Act, which was about regulating the burgeoning synthetic drug market based on the level of risk specific products actually posed to the public. (That Act closed that market down, although to my critics, it somehow had precisely the opposite effect – a simply idiotic claim not borne out by even the slightest of facts.)

The 2015 National Drug Policy introduced a number of specific actions to reinforce the central message that drug issues are primarily health, not legal, issues, and foreshadowed a major rewrite of our creaking 1975 Misuse of Drugs Act during the next term of Parliament, once these actions have been completed.

From UnitedFuture’s perspective, now is the time to be looking at what that next set of steps might be. I envisage a two-stage process. First, we should move to an overall approach similar to the full Portuguese model, where the cultivation and possession of all drugs remains illegal, and all drug users are referred for assessment and treatment, but where there is a tolerance exercised for the possession of what are essentially Class C drugs under the current Misuse of Drugs Act. In that event, persons caught with – say – no more than the equivalent of one week’s personal supply would be referred directly to treatment rather the Courts, in an extension of our current diversion scheme. This would require significant additional investment in the provision of assessment and treatment services, but that makes far more sense than investing similar amounts more in the Courts and prison services for the same purpose. At the same time, it would free up more Police resources to concentrate on catching the criminals behind the New Zealand drugs scene.

The second stage of the process, when the Misuse of Drugs Act is rewritten, would be to transfer the current Schedule of Class C Drugs from that Act to the Psychoactive Substances Act. This would mean that they would be regulated the same way as synthetic substances, where the test is evidence based around the risk posed to the user, and where there are clear controls on the manufacture, sale and distribution of any such products that might be approved. For its part, the Psychoactive Substances Authority would be required to determine an alternative to animal testing – the prohibition of which is what currently prevents that Act from working fully.

One issue that is often properly raised in the context of drug law reform is the role of the gangs as producers and distributors of drugs like cannabis. It is argued with some validity that legalising cannabis would legalise the criminal activities of the gangs and deliver them total control, something none of us are in favour of. But, the Psychoactive Substances Act provides a way of resolving this issue. Under the Act, before a product can be submitted for testing, the producer first has to have been granted a “fit and proper person” licence. No criminal organisation will be ever meet that standard or be granted such a licence, which would completely exclude the gangs. Instead, we would have a regulated market for all drugs, synthetic or otherwise, that the Psychoactive Substances Authority considers pose a low risk to users. The possession and supply of all other drugs would remain illegal, and the law would take its course.

The approach UnitedFuture proposes therefore has three key components: mandatory and comprehensive treatment for everyone caught with drugs; a pragmatic approach to anyone caught with minor amounts of low level drugs; and, shutting the criminals out of the cannabis industry. As such, it fits four square with the compassionate, innovative and proportionate approach drug policy I have long advocated.        






Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Mental health ranks as one of New Zealand’s major health issues. While there have been many innovations and improvements over the years, we still have some intractable and serious problems we must get on top of. We have one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world; high rates of seclusion and compulsory treatment; a great deal of variation in access to services for children and young people in particular, and in waiting times for access to mental health and addiction services. We have gaps in services to respond to people with common but often debilitating metal health and addiction issues, and too much variation in the quality of inpatient treatment services available to those who need them.

As the relevant Minister at the time, I was responsible for the development of “Rising to the Challenge”, the Government’s mental health plan from 2012 until earlier this year. It is currently being refreshed and updated by the current Minister. When “Rising to the Challenge” was being developed, I set out my priorities as improving the quality of services and the level of access for families and whanau, and for communities. I wanted more effective linkages and co-ordination between District Health Boards and the large number of community agencies active in the mental health and addictions space, both to develop services better tailored to people’s needs and also to bridge, wherever, possible, gaps in service provision.

Although there has been progress over the last few years and a significant increase in funding for mental health services, too many of the old problems remain. Our youth suicide rates are still intolerably high; the demand for addiction services remains strong, and services generally are still too disjointed and sometimes inflexible.

While all this is properly an issue for the Government, it should not be diminished into a political issue. Of course, it is proper to expect, and pressure, the Government to develop solutions that will address the public’s concerns, but it is most improper to turn this into a shallow political debate, with an arid emphasis on statistics, and who said and did what, way back when. We should never forget that behind every mental health case is not an abstract statistic to be tossed around, but a real, vulnerable human being, often with a family, struggling for a genuine solution to the problem oppressing them. Politicians seeking to capitalise on these situations are really trawling the most murky depths of the barrel and need to be called out as such. There is no honour in trafficking in human misery.

Rather, we need to be listening to the stories of the people and their families, and focusing on solutions that meet their needs. Inevitably, that is going to mean a variety of nuanced solutions, with the flexibility to account to the greatest extent possible for individual needs. This is one area where most definitely one size does not, indeed cannot, fit all.

Yet I remain concerned that we are still far too focused on broad-brush solutions, which fit within the rubric laid down by DHBs. I still believe there is insufficient recognition of the role community agencies can play in helping people overcome their mental health issues, and that we need to be encouraging greater co-ordination between the community and the DHBs on the models of care being developed.

The Government has to meet its obligations in terms of adequate funding, ensuring proper standards, and promoting public awareness, although it needs to do so alongside community agencies that are often much closer to people in their daily lives. But perhaps the most important role the Government can play is to be the listening post for the community’s stories, and then to act on those stories.

Shooting the messenger in such cases is just as bad as those vacuous politicians seeking to make political capital out of the overall situation. Human dignity is too precious and fundamental to be cheapened in this way.

A comprehensive mental health strategy should bring together all elements of society – patients, family and whanau, community organisations and government agencies. It must be as much a social justice strategy, as it is a health plan. It has to be about ensuring everyone’s right to wellness, and working across all agencies and boundaries to achieve that. After all, as the World Health Organisation has stated, “There is no health without mental health.”                 







Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Richard Nixon coined the phrase “the silent majority” to describe the body of Americans he saw as supporting his unpopular policies in Vietnam, while there was protest and unrest in the streets all around. Nixon’s “silent majority” were the classic WASPs – the White, Anglo Saxon, Protestants who duly delivered him one of the biggest ever landslide election victories in 1972, and who supported him loyally until almost the end of the Watergate Crisis that toppled him from power.

Today, around the world, there is a new, vastly different silent majority – the urban liberal. They are diverse, well-educated, informed, successful, internationalist, progressive and tolerant – and now disenfranchised. The rise of populist politics has led the political parties that stood up for them, and whom they traditionally supported in return, to abandon them in favour of the vocal shouting of sectional interests and minorities. Urban liberals, young and old, male and female, of varying ethnic and cultural backgrounds are being left aside as a non-cause because they are seen as doing too well economically and socially to be worried about.

The lack of reaction to last week’s disparaging, almost sneering, comments about “middle class welfare” from a former National Prime Minister shows just how far the pendulum has already swung. Urban liberals are on their own. Unlike other groups in society whose concerns are seen as legitimate and worthy of attention, their issues of concern are dismissed as self-interest. While they may differ in their specifics, social, family and economic issues affect urban liberal families in just the same way as they do everyone else. Moreover, as the group that pays most of the taxes, they have just as much right as every other citizen to the attention and support of the system.

The values they represent – compassion, tolerance, respect, inclusion and commitment to progress – used to be seen as core New Zealand values. Now they are dismissed as some sort of overly vague woolly thinking, out of step with the realities of today’s world. Standing up against discrimination and oppression is held to be soft handwringing, in a world where the threats of terrorism and the flood of displaced refugees are so great that hard-line intolerance has become acceptable. Promoting evidence based solutions to health and social issues is increasingly seen as a cop-out and an excuse for inaction, when it is so obvious what “really” works. Instinct and immediate reaction too often outweigh the calm and considered response urban liberals are used to. The appeal to unreason and prejudice is becoming the new norm.

Sadly, our mainstream political parties have been swept along by this new rising tide of populism, meaning neither of them are the bulwarks of reason and common sense they used to be. Left without a voice, urban liberals are now left having to look for new champions to represent them. Increasingly that voice will lie with the smaller parties – ACT, the Maori Party and UnitedFuture. Yet, for many, ACT is too ideological and flinty faced, and focused on the top income end of the income spectrum for whom whatever the government does is of little consequence anyway because they can afford to pay for the alternative. The Maori Party’s focus is understandably on its core constituency, whose support it seeks, and indeed deserves, as the genuine representatives of Maoridom.

This leaves UnitedFuture, New Zealand’s version of Britain’s Liberal Democrats, as the genuine, if currently small, voice of urban liberal New Zealand. Its stands on tolerance, diversity, support for immigration and refugee resettlement, and its empathy with the trials and tribulations of the middle classes sit comfortably with urban liberal concerns. Its challenge is to attract their support as a credible place to put their party vote to ensure their values are not only represented in Parliament, but can also be brought in numbers to the government table to restore balance and common sense. To do so, the silent majority will have to be roused to act, to use its party vote to affect change. Otherwise the silent majority will quickly become the alienated majority, and at a time of declining political involvement anyway, coupled with the climate of fake news and alternative facts, that could well be a body blow to our democracy.


Disclaimer:  When I wrote last week about Labour’s looming train wreck, I was certainly not expecting it to come as quickly as this week’s list debacle!