Wednesday, 18 December 2019


The new just announced regulatory scheme for cannabis based medicines is generally positive. But the government may be significantly underestimating the demand for licenses, raising the spectre of an underfunded industry regulator.

What is good about the new regime is the requirement that medicinal cannabis producers meet Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) quality thresholds. This will ensure cannabis-based medicines meet the same high standards as all other pharmaceutical products. That high quality standard will be good news for patients. Provisions allowing  the rapidly developing industry to access the vast knowledge and cannabis cultivars that already reside in the underground medical cannabis community are both positive and sensible. And the licence fee structure being proposed is broadly supportive of the industry and should not inhibit its development.

The Ministry of Health says its expects to issue 110 medicinal cannabis licences in the first year, while at the same acknowledging the inherent difficulty in estimating the number of industry participants in what is an emerging NZ industry. There has to be some concern, therefore, that the Ministry of Health may not be able to cope any unexpected surge in licence applications. Moreover, there is the additional risk the Ministry may have underestimated the time and cost of monitoring - especially planned and unplanned surveillance audits – and subsequent enforcement action where breaches and/or illegal activities are identified. It would be a major concern if the implentation of the new regime were to fall down or become subject to substantial delay because the regulator’s office was inadequately resourced.

However, so long as long as the government remains committed to quickly resourcing the new regulatory agency to meet actual demand, then the regime should be introduced relatively smoothly. But, the absence of appropriate resourcing would likely create a significant bottleneck to industry growth, especially if the numbers of applications are consistent with market expectations and not the Ministry’s more conservative estimates.
If there are bottlenecks which lead to significant delays New Zealand patients will be the loser. At best, this will mean local patients will be paying more for relatively expensive overseas products. At worst, patients with limited financial means may continue to suffer unnecessarily or turn to the black or grey market,which is precisely what the Ministry is trying to avoid.


Overall, the new scheme will open the door to offering many New Zealanders relief from chronic pain and other symptoms, with non-addictive cannabis-based medicines. Cost-efficient New Zealand medicinal cannabis producers should enjoy a strong cost advantage and, in some cases, quality advantage relative to offshore-based providers of these cannabis-based medicines.

While the potential is there to establish a quality cannabis based medicines industry in New Zealand, progress could still be frustrated if the government does not put in place the appropriate infrastructure and oversight to allow medicinal cannabis products to be developed and brought to market in a timely manner. It has already taken two years to achieve regulatory certainty, and there is no excuse for further delay or uncertainty.

By way of disclaimer, I am Chair of SETEK Therapeutics, one of the new companies becoming involved in this market. SETEK is a New Zealand owned bioscience company looking to cultivate, process and manufacture pharmaceutical grade, pure organic, cannabis-based medicines and cannabis-infused skincare and wellbeing products for New Zealand, Australia, the Asia Pacific region and beyond.

My comments, however, are made from the perspective of someone with a long interest in this issue, who began the process of making access to cannabis based medicines more available to New Zealanders over five years ago (including declassifying CBD under the Misuse of Drugs Act), and who is generally pleased with the progress made subsequently. Interest, tolerance and understanding, both within government and the public, have grown considerably in that time, and the opportunity now exists to establish a viable cannabis based medicines sector in New Zealand.

On that note, Dunne Speaks takes its leave for 2019. Best wishes to everyone for a safe, and happy Christmas with family, friends, and those dearest to you. 2020 will offer a whole fresh set of challenges and opportunities, and Dunne Speaks will be back in a few weeks to comment on those as the year unfolds. Meantime, Merry Christmas!


Wednesday, 11 December 2019


Britain votes today in an election brought on by the ongoing failure of the House of Commons to approve any of the Brexit deals put before it over the last couple of years by successive Prime Ministers, Theresa May and now Boris Johnson. Mr Johnson will be hoping his gamble to call an early election will pay off and that he will be able to honour his latest commitment to the British people to leave the European Union by the end of the coming January. But whether even a decisive election outcome will help heal the divisions that have exploded in Britain since the 2016 referendum, and now threaten the very survival of the United Kingdom, is doubtful.

There has been another aspect to this election that has been significant. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has been campaigning to end what it describes as the austerity of the last decade by promoting the most left-wing manifesto published by Labour since 1945. It even surpasses Michael Foot’s 1983 effort, now remembered as “the longest suicide note in history” which contributed to Labour’s landslide defeat by a Margaret Thatcher rampant after recapturing the Falklands Islands a year earlier. Time will tell whether Mr Corbyn can buck history, or whether a similar fate awaits him this election.

The relevance of this to New Zealand was highlighted by the Greens’ announcement earlier this week that they will no longer be bound by the Budget Responsibility Rules they agreed with Labour before the last election to stave off allegations that they were too profligate to be trusted in government. The Rules were designed to show that both Labour and the Greens could act responsibly in office, and to pacify sympathetic but edgy voters that they would mismanage the economy, if put in charge.

Now, the Greens say the rules are too restrictive, stopping the government at a time of record surpluses from investing the amounts they see as required to overcome local rising social and infrastructure deficits – from increasing child poverty levels to upgraded schools and hospitals. As well, even Labour, after a similar two years of criticism from its core supporters that it is being too stringent, is looking to loosen its purse strings and considerably soften the self-imposed Budget Responsibility Rules.

In so doing, both parties will be hoping to regain some momentum towards becoming the “transformational” government they jointly pledged to become at the last election. But the Finance Minister will not abandon fiscal restraint altogether, as, like Finance Ministers before him, he has developed the acute sense of parsimony that goes with the job. Nevertheless, as Labour enters election year it can be expected to become considerably freer with its spending promises than it has been so far. Even more freed of the restraint of the Budget Responsibility Rules the Greens can be expected to go full Corbyn now when it comes to spending promises. Between them, both look like offering a veritable cornucopia of expensive election goodies for voters to drool over.

National will be rubbing its hands in glee at the prospect of at last facing unashamed real tax and spend parties at the election, but they may need to tread a little carefully. If, as Jeremy Corbyn is so obviously hoping in Britain, the public reaction against government restraint has built up to the extent that voters are now prepared to indulge in a splurge of public spending and mounting debt, based on selective discriminatory tax increases on others, National may quickly find that being the harbinger of fiscal responsibility is not the winning card it once was. After a decade of relative stability and steady although modest income growth, voters may indeed be willing to kick back their heels somewhat come election time. In such circumstances, it will without hesitation and quickly and shamelessly seek to outspend Labour and the Greens. And we will end up with potentially the biggest election auction of recent times, possibly even since 1957 and Labour’s infamous final campaign advertisement “Do you want 100 pounds or not?”.

With the ongoing international economic uncertainty caused by Britain’s dithering over Brexit, through to having to pay for yet another visit here by a member of its Royal Family, New Zealand has not had much to be grateful to Britain for in recent years. It may have even less to be pleased about should Mr Corbyn emerge as its next Prime Minister and the contagion he unleashes spread to our shores.



Wednesday, 4 December 2019


There is an element of the proverbial curate’s egg in the government’s proposed recreational cannabis regime. It is good in parts, and not so good in others, but overall leaves a somewhat underdone impression.

For a start, it is good that the government has spelled out the basis of a comprehensive regime to govern a recreational cannabis market, should New Zealanders vote for it at next year’s referendum.

But herein lies the first problem. Although the government has attempted to spell out a recreational cannabis regime in detail to provide certainty and clarity in advance of the referendum vote, the legislation it is proposing will not be introduced to Parliament until and unless there is a positive vote for change in the referendum. That means there is no guarantee, whatever government is in power in 2021, that the legislation will be introduced as announced now, or immediately after the election, or even at all. Nor does it ensure that it will not be substantially amended as a result of a select committee process. So, the final outcome may end up nothing like what people thought they were voting for.

A more practical problem is what happens between the referendum and the passage of the legislation a few months later? It will be a messy hiatus. Will the Police apply the current law during that time, or just ignore it? How will those currently enjoying a puff in the park or at the beach react when they realise they will not will be able to do so under the new law? That proposes making smoking cannabis in public places illegal. So it will actually be more restrictive than what they are used to. How will the Police react to the new law? Whatever happens, it is likely to be a very messy interlude.

A preferable, clearer and far more certain outcome would have been for the government to have legislated all the details of the recreational cannabis scheme before the referendum, so that people know exactly what they were voting for. If the referendum passes, the new law could take effect immediately. That way, there would be no messy transition, and everyone would know exactly where they stand from the day after the referendum. It is hard to fathom why the government did not pursue this option, unless New Zealand First had made it clear it did not want to be seen as supporting a recreational cannabis regime by voting for enabling legislation before the referendum. If that is the case, then it is hard to see that party – should it still be in Parliament after 2020 – supporting the relevant legislation then, thus adding more uncertainty.

On the whole, the actual regulatory regime proposed is surprisingly conservative, which should assuage some of the likely public concern. However, it is not without some problems.
The first is one of context. The cannabis regime is harsher than that for alcohol, tobacco and vaping. For example, it is currently legal to purchase alcohol, tobacco or vaping products at the age of 18, yet the government is proposing, for what it says are sound public health reasons, an age limit of 20 years for cannabis. In so doing, is it, undoubtedly unwittingly, risking making drinking, smoking and vaping more attractive to 18-20year olds than cannabis consumption, and is that a sensible move?

Then there are the issues around the amounts of cannabis one can possess. The 14gram daily purchase limit, allegedly the equivalent of 42 cannabis joints, seems extremely high, and listening to the Justice Minister’s explanations of how the limit was arrived at, to be based on pretty flimsy evidence. Presumably this matter will be tidied up and the figure reduced as a result of the round of inter-party discussions now getting underway. If not, it risks becoming a major distracting point of controversy during the coming debate.

Associated with this is the issue of quality control for cannabis plants grown for personal use. The Minister says that the new Cannabis Regulatory Authority will set quality standards as to potency and risk for manufactured products to protect the public safety. That is a good and sensible move, to be applauded, but how will the same standards be applied to plants grown at home? Unless the origin of every single plant grown at home is checked and verified, which is absolutely impossible to achieve, there can be no guarantee on this score.
Our drug laws are past their use-by date. Significant change is required, and the referendum process provides the opportunity to initiate that. But the heavy weather the government has gone through so far raises concerns that this could be yet another instance where its bold plans fall down on the implementation details.

It seems to be placing all its hopes on the referendum passing. But what if it does not? We also need to know what the government’s plans are should the referendum fail. Will, the current unsatisfactory situation be allowed to just drift on; or, does the government have something else altogether in mind? Whatever, the public needs to know both sides of the equation, so that it can weigh up all the options and make a balanced decision, come the referendum.

The government deserves credit for taking a serious approach to the issue and seeking to engage the public in its resolution. However, its ponderous approach so far means there can as yet sadly be only limited confidence that it will succeed.



Wednesday, 27 November 2019



All of those institutions, while not perfect, have been hailed in international fora as positive and forward-thinking developments, and variations of them have been adopted by a number of countries, based on the New Zealand model and its experiences. Add to that the progress made during the term of the last National-led administration on Treaty of Waitangi settlements, and the National Party can boast a pretty satisfactory record as a humane and compassionate, if somewhat cautious, judicial reformer.

So, against that backdrop the National Party’s recently released discussion paper on law and order is not only a disappointment, but a complete reversion from its historic legacy. It is certainly a long way from the thinking of Hanan, McLay and even Finlayson in previous National administrations. Indeed, even if it were to be ever implanted, it would be a pretty safe bet now that the flagship “Strike Force Raptor” (has there ever been a more ghastly title?) to deal with gangs will never come to be regarded at all highly in the pantheon of New Zealand social reforms.
 
Already, the critics are saying that this proposed policy is a case of the National Party reverting to type, eschewing good policy in favour of populism. Even its own former Courts Minister, now heading the present government’s Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group, which is tasked with helping reform New Zealand's criminal justice system, has spoken out against the idea. However, National’s leader has defended the proposal, making the correct observation that just because a policy is populist, it is not automatically bad. Indeed, a more accurate assessment of its efficacy is whether it actually works.

Strike Force Raptor is an Australian model initiated in New South Wales in 2009. Its own publicity describes it as “a proactive, high-impact operation targeting OMCGs (Outlaw Motor Cycle Gang) and any associated criminal enterprises.”  Over the last ten years questions have arisen about how effective it has been. While it appears to  have been effective at harassing the gangs and generally making life difficult for them, overall gang numbers have not fallen across Australia, and questions have arisen about the tactics Strike Force Raptor  has used, and whether the outcomes to date have been worthwhile.

Whether the policy has worked in Australia is not an immediate concern for National – they are, after all in Opposition, and will have no chance to implement their plans until they next become the government. In the meantime, they can keep pointing to this idea just being one of many included in their law and order discussion document, which they are seeking public feedback on. Firm policy decisions will come later. At face value, this is all true, although it would be a mighty surprise if the Strike Force Raptor policy, albeit with perhaps some modifications, does not emerge as a key part of the law and order policy when it is finalised. Moreover, the Leader of the Opposition has been happy to be so personally identified with the idea that it would be a major backdown if it were not to proceed.

Coming on top of the benefit sanction policy that was floated recently – that the Leader of the Opposition was also happy to be closely linked to – a clear picture of the flavour National will take into the next election is beginning to emerge. Under the current leadership, National will be presenting itself as harsher and more socially repressive than the compassionate conservatism of Bill English or the flexible pragmatism of John Key. While that may play well for it in the provinces, it is questionable whether it will be as beneficial in places like central Auckland and Wellington, where National needs to hold and win marginal seats, to have a shot at being the lead party of government next year.

Of late, National has been promoting, with some justification, the notion that it is the party of talent – based on some of its impressive new candidate selections. With the series of policy discussion papers it has been releasing over recent months it would also like to be cast as the party of vision and hope. Instead, however, some of the ideas presented have too much of an air of grimness about them to be inspiring. Exciting new talent is all very well, but to be effective, it also needs to be matched by bold new thinking.

National would do well to remember that a huge amount of the current Prime Minister’s appeal in the extraordinary, whirlwind lead-up to the last election was what she herself described as her “relentless positivity”. No problem was considered to be insurmountable, or beyond her capability. So long as there was the right attitude and confidence to tackle them, there was no limit to what could be achieved. The fact that the Prime Minister has been subsequently so woefully inept in implementing any of those dreams is not the point here. Rather, the fact National should be focusing on is that people responded enthusiastically to policies they saw then as positive and achievable.

Strike Force Raptor and benefit sanctions do not have the same inspirational ring around them. They will never generate the excitement the Prime Minister did in those few weeks in 2017. There is no doubt the unattainable dreamworld policies of the current government are leaving a huge vacuum for credible and workable policies. People are looking for realistic alternatives, but a reversion to the grim and punitive world National now seems to be focusing on does not fit with the tone of contemporary New Zealand.

There was the opportunity for National to draw on its past, listen to the voices of those around them now, and promote a law and order and justice policy that was humane and compassionate, evidence based and workable. Instead, the shades of Hanan, McLay and maybe Finlayson will be in despair today.


 





Wednesday, 20 November 2019


When the current coalition government was formed, there was some comment that this was perhaps New Zealand First's last chance at political redemption. The party's two previous stints in government had failed to last three years. The 1996-98 coalition with National ended after Winston Peters was fired as Treasurer, and its 2005-08 stint with Labour came to a premature end when Mr Peters was suspended as Foreign Minister over what became known as the Owen Glenn affair. Coming on top of Mr Peters' earlier sacking from a National Cabinet in 1991, less than a year after taking office, the omens were not good. But the general view was that New Zealand First would be different this time around, and there was unlikely to be any case of history repeating itself.

This week’s revelations about the shadowy New Zealand First Foundation and whether its activities are legitimate or a breach of electoral funding rules have raised afresh the question of whether New Zealand First and its leader can at last survive a full term in government, or whether leopards do not change their spots after all. There are still too many unanswered questions about the Foundation and the way it works to be certain about its status, which may have to await the outcome of the Electoral Commission’s investigation now underway. But, in the meantime, the controversy is already raising questions about how, if at all, the reputation of the coalition government will be affected.

During the 1996-98 coalition, then National Prime Minister Jim Bolger took the view that New Zealand First’s travails at that time were primarily for that party to sort out, as they were nothing to do with the National Party. However, over time that view became more difficult to sustain as some of the taint started to rub off on National. In the end, Mr Bolger was replaced as Prime Minister by Dame Jenny Shipley whose prime but unstated mission appeared to be to deal with New Zealand First, to quell the mounting anxiety of nervous backbenchers. A few months later, Mr Peters was dismissed as Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer, the coalition ended, and the government limped on as a minority government until it was defeated at the 1999 election. New Zealand First survived by the skin of its teeth, thanks to a very narrow win by Mr Peters in his then Tauranga electorate.

When, in 2007-08, questions began to be raised about the operations of the Spencer Trust and its relation to New Zealand First funding, Prime Minister Helen Clark initially took a similar hands-off approach as Jim Bolger had. However, as the saga dragged on, and a Privileges Committee inquiry began about a possible misleading of Parliament leading to evidence from Sir Owen Glenn contradicting the New Zealand First version of events, Prime Minister Clark’s patience ran out and Mr Peters was suspended as Foreign Minister. But the overall outcome was little different – her government was defeated at the 2008 election, and this time New Zealand First was tossed out of Parliament altogether.

As today’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern contemplates the allegations swirling about the New Zealand First Foundation, she should be mindful that, on the basis of her predecessors’ fates, she would appear to be damned if she does (in the Shipley fashion) or does not (in the Bolger and Clark approach). While her current instinct seems to be to follow the Bolger/Clark line, she must surely know that could become increasingly untenable, as this situation drags on, which seems highly likely. After all, the one certainty from history, is that events of this type are seldom as straightforward or easily clarified as New Zealand First continues to suggest. There are likely to be more twists and turns, enmeshing New Zealand First further in the mire, before a measure of clarity emerges.

While there is scant evidence this row is doing the Labour Party collateral damage at the moment, it is really only a matter of time, unless things are quickly tidied up. But the Prime Minister’s problem is that by then it may be too late for her. Already, she is being lambasted in some quarters for being too laid back in her dealings with New Zealand First Ministers and some of their more egregious behaviours, although this does overlook some of the realities of holding a coalition government together. Nevertheless, it could become increasingly difficult for her to maintain a dignified silence on this issue without looking weak and ineffectual, as is already being suggested – the last thing she would want as she heads into election year. Either way, the next few weeks are not going to be easy for her and her government.

Some have suggested she might call a snap election, but this seems a little fanciful. New Zealand does not have much of a tradition of early elections, unlike Britain or Australia, and, as Sir Robert Muldoon found out in 1984, having an early election because of problems within the government is not a winning strategy. Others say New Zealand First may be about to quit the coalition anyway to give it more freedom to campaign in the lead-up to the next election, but this makes little sense either. Why prove the accuracy of the latent claims your party cannot be relied on, by pulling out of the coalition several months early, and still expect people to vote for you as a reliable check on the big parties?

Meanwhile, National’s approach to the emerging omnishambles is puzzling. On the one hand, National says the allegations of electoral financing rules being abused by New Zealand First are potentially of the most serious kind, which is why it wants an independent inquiry, over and above the Electoral Commission inquiry. But on the other hand, the National leader says that while this incident makes it less likely his party would seek to work with New Zealand First if in a position to do so after the next election, he is still not prepared to rule them out altogether. If ever there was a time to be decisive as Sir John Key was in 2008 and say there is no way National would seek to work with New Zealand First after the next election, this is surely it. Such a statement would make it clear that New Zealand First is now solely Labour’s problem, making things even more difficult for the Prime Minister. But National’s ambiguity leaves the lingering suspicion that if political power beckoned National would be still be willing to overlook what has happened. In so doing, it will not only further embolden New Zealand First, but also open itself up to facing all over again the same problems that bedevilled Prime Ministers Bolger, Shipley, Clark and now Ardern.

It is true after all – leopards do not change their spots.



Wednesday, 13 November 2019


The newly launched Sustainable New Zealand Party’s first and biggest challenge is to prove that it is in fact sustainable, and not just another flash in the new party pan.

Already, it faces a couple of obstacles that have proved insurmountable for other new parties formed previously. And there are no immediate signs that it will be any different and able to overcome these to make it into Parliament.

It starts, however, from a clear premise – that the current Green Party has, for one reason or another, alienated a number of environmentally friendly potential and actual supporters because of its activism in so many other fields, and that it is time to get back to basics by focusing on achieving sound environmental outcomes within a modern, open economy. In so doing, Sustainable New Zealand echoes the mantra of the Progressive Greens, which appeared just before the 1996 election, as a blue-green alternative to the current Greens, who were still within Jim Anderton’s Alliance at that point. The Progressive Greens were formed by some of the leading environmentalists of the day – Sir Rob Fenwick, Gary Taylor, Stephen Rainbow, and Guy Salmon – yet polled only about 0.3% of the party vote at that year’s election, and disbanded shortly afterwards.

The argument about the desirability of a blue-green party or grouping has, however, remained a wisp, or strand within political debate since then, with National occasionally showing signs of adopting it (even going so far as to have a recognised blue-green group within the Party) but never quite taking the full step. The incarnation of Sustainable New Zealand, which National says it has not inspired but is clearly far from unhappy about, seeks to fill the perceived void. However, so far, it is not clear whether there is the same sort of environmental heft within Sustainable New Zealand, as there was within the Progressive Greens, for example. Without it, the Party’s prospects look that much bleaker.

With the exception of the ACT Party, every new party to have made it into Parliament in the last 30 years has been built around an established sitting Member of Parliament. Even in ACT’s case, its founders Sir Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble had so recently been MPs, that it was very easy for that new party to slot into Parliamentary mode very quickly, treated as a quasi-Parliamentary party even before it was first elected. Having an already sitting MP involved, not only gives a new Party a measure of credibility, it more importantly provides that new Party an almost daily platform in Parliament to promote what it stands for, as well as giving it much more immediate access to the media through the Parliamentary Press Gallery. Such a Party is also able to access various Parliamentary resources and funding, the most significant perhaps being access to the Parliamentary Library for assistance on research for policy development.

One way these systemic advantages can be overcome is for a sitting MP to defect to the new party. However, Parliament’s passage of the so-called “waka jumping” legislation earlier this term has now closed off this option, a further blow to fledgling parties like Sustainable New Zealand.

Idealists may say this is all fair enough and that political parties today – however big or small – should stand or fall in the political marketplace on the strength of their ideas. This overlooks the reality that political parties rely on the news media to promote their message, and, to be blunt, if those parties are not in the space where the media are – the Parliamentary environment – their messages and comments are unlikely to be picked up and transmitted sufficiently regularly to the public to have an impact. In that regard, Sustainable New Zealand risks being quickly reduced to just one more of the twenty or so registered or unregistered political parties not in Parliament, currently saying they intend to contest next year’s general election. This will be particularly relevant when the time comes for the Electoral Commission to allocate election broadcast funding for parties. Sustainable New Zealand is unlikely to receive a significant amount, let alone more than any of the other twenty non-Parliamentary parties. In turn, that means that, like those other minnows, its chances of being included in television election debates are close to zero, unless it defies electoral gravity in the meantime and consistently polls strongly.

That raises the interesting wider issue of the difficulty any new party faces in gaining political traction. It is a classic Catch:22 situation – a new party needs publicity to gain traction, yet it does not start to gain traction until it gets publicity. And it does not stop there. Even once parties are in Parliament the media still tends to allocate coverage on the basis of the party’s numerical strength in the House, rather than the credibility of its policies or contribution.

At another level, single issue parties rarely do well in New Zealand, no matter what issue they are promoting. While there is no doubting the enthusiasm and commitment of those involved, and sometimes the wider legitimacy of the issue they are promoting, the reality is that most voters are more focused on their own circumstances, and how what the respective parties are proposing might affect them, rather than just a single issue. The Greens recognised that early on, which is why they broadened their policy base beyond just the environment, important as it is.

That does offer a small, but difficult opportunity for Sustainable New Zealand. It might just be able to paint the Greens as having lost the environmental plot because they have become more broadly-based. And, potentially, in a time where climate change issues have put the focus on environmental policy as never before, Sustainable New Zealand might be able to claim the mantle of now being the only true environmental party. But it will likely face the same challenges in time as the Greens did when they first entered Parliament in their own right after leaving the Alliance. They were immediately expected to have views and stances on all the issues before the House – environmental or not – and to be able to vote intelligently on them. Then they became held to account for those positions as much as they were for their environmental stances, giving rise to the claim now by Sustainable New Zealand that they are no longer a true environmental party.

The problem for Sustainable New Zealand is that exactly the same thing will happen to it, should it be successful. Suggestions this week that to maintain its environmental purity the new party might abstain from voting on non-environmental issues defy credibility. New Zealand voters expect the parties they elect to Parliament to have a position on all the issues coming before the House, not just those that suit them.

But perhaps the biggest risk is that the contest between Sustainable New Zealand and the Greens becomes so intense that they knock each other out of Parliament next year, leaving no-one to stand up for the environment. 






Wednesday, 6 November 2019


The current “no jab, no pay” debate is provoking strong public reactions, for and against the idea. National Party leader Simon Bridges says his party is promoting removing benefit payments from parents who refuse to vaccinate their children as just a talking point, rather than firm policy, at this stage, but is getting a positive reaction from voters to the idea. New National candidate Christopher Luxon has gone one step further and mused about extending the concept to apply more widely, including to those in receipt of Working for Families tax credits.

The idea is not a new one. At its heart is the concept that the payment of welfare assistance should not be open-ended and without obligations, and that those in receipt of welfare assistance have some sort of reciprocal obligation to the state. In this instance, fuelled by the burgeoning measles crisis, the vaccination issue is an obvious one to target. But it is by no means the only “obligation” and, if the idea finds wide favour, there is no reason to believe other “obligations” could not be added from time to time, as the mood suited.

In the late 1990s, the Shipley Government more overtly promoted a “Code of Social Responsibility” which covered much of the ground the current debate is likely to regurgitate. In the event, after a period, the idea was quietly abandoned. The concept behind it has, however, never quite disappeared, and it has, for example, been a cornerstone of much of the ACT Party’s approach to social policy since then. It was canvassed very briefly during the previous National-led government at the time when the Better Public Service targets were being developed, but there was little enthusiasm for going any further.

There is good reason for this historical reluctance. While the idea of “obligation” might now hold superficial attraction, it is very difficult to imagine how it could be applied evenly or equitably.  Nor was it ever part of the original deal when the Social Security Act was passed in 1938. At the time, Michael Joseph Savage’s ambition was unequivocal and open-ended. “I want to see humanity secure against poverty, secure in illness or old age,” he said, without qualification.

Given the universal nature of social security, and the broad political consensus surrounding it for most of the last 80 years, it is very hard to see how any sense of qualification can now be introduced to it, let alone applied even-handedly, or even sustained into the future. Although the suggestion of linking benefit payments to child vaccination might be a topical issue, the problem becomes what to do when the next topical issue comes along. And where should the line be drawn? After all, there are many things the majority might consider desirable – pre-school education, regular health checks, literacy and numeracy skills, to name a few. So, what is there to stop the “obligation” line being steadily extended to include these worthy objectives, and others that might come to mind? Or, going down the Luxon path, and making Working for Families tax credits, or even veterans’ allowances and New Zealand Superannuation similarly conditional?

But why stop there? After all, attaining these social objectives is just as important for all wage and salary earners, whether or not they are receiving any state-derived income support. So why not introduce a similar sort of obligation test for them? But how it could possibly be made to work? In short, it quickly becomes a nonsense, far removed from the original Savage objective.

And it is all so one-sided. There seems to be no parallel suggestion that similar “obligations” ought to exist on the state as its reciprocity for the tax it collects from its citizens. No political party is suggesting, for example, that the government should be obliged to provide adequate housing to all citizens, or unfettered access to a free, universal 24-hour healthcare system. They are certainly the types of things we reasonably expect from our governments, which we hold them to account for at the ballot box for either delivering or not delivering, but there is no contractual obligation on them to do so, nor would we seriously expect it. Rather, the obligation is a moral and realistic one, based on the consent of the public and the circumstances of the time.

Indeed, were there to be such a push, political parties would not unreasonably emphasise the immense practical difficulties in doing so, consistently or fairly. Nevertheless, they would all pledge to do their best, and leave the electorate to judge whether that was adequate enough to earn continued support. It is about aspiration, rather than dictation.

It should be the same with regard to individual citizens. Governments should not impose obligations on them that they are not prepared to impose on themselves. While it is more than highly desirable that parents vaccinate their children, and that the anti-vax argument is exposed for the nonsense that it is, the outcome cannot be achieved by compulsion. Education, social cajoling and community pressure are usually far more effective in bringing about lasting social and attitudinal change, than heavy handed state intervention. Just the sort of thing the National Party of old was about, when it used to attack the “social engineers” of the left for promoting dull and rigid conformity, and not just letting people get on with their own lives.

While the debate the National Party says it is now engendering on this issue should be viewed positively, it should not be overlooked that it is a convenient smokescreen, giving the impression of resolving a problem that has not yet been shown to exist. Moreover, notwithstanding that such an approach is another lift from the Scott Morrison playbook National seems so obsessed with these days, it is highly unlikely an actual “no jab, no pay” policy will eventually be adopted, let alone extended as per the Luxon formula. Bluntly, the reasons this type of approach has so far never got off the ground remain as compelling today as they always have been.

But, in the meantime, National will be more than happy with the publicity this latest iteration of an old, new idea is attracting.
  


Wednesday, 30 October 2019


Spare a brief thought for the National Party. If being the Leader of the Opposition is the worst job in politics, then being the party of Opposition is the worst state to be in. No matter how inept the government in office, the Opposition is always on the back foot, reacting all the while to whatever the government is doing, while at the same time being expected to promote constructive, well thought-out, affordable alternatives.  And, even if the Opposition is able to develop some bold, new and attractive policy, then there is always the chance the government will act to nullify it, or simply steal it and implement it as its own.

Moreover, the government has the resources of the entire government bureaucracy behind it, whereas the Opposition has but a small handful of taxpayer-funded researchers and policy advisers at its disposal to match them. It is always a very uneven contest, but the public nevertheless expects the Opposition to be able to fight the government on more or less equal terms. After all, in politics, even proportional representation politics, there are no prizes for coming second. While MMP may well mean Parliament has become more representative, and put an end to the elected dictatorship that sometimes characterised single party majority governments under First Past the Post, our system of government is still a case of “winner take all” for those parties coming together to form governments today.

There is no doubt that as a liberal/conservative party National prospered under First Past the Post. In the 47 years from 1949 to advent of MMP in 1996, National was in power for 35 of them. Its combination of urban liberals and the provincial and rural sectors enabled it to tack skilfully between the two as far as policy was concerned, so establishing the popular impression that, unlike Labour with its union and intellectual base, National spoke for the New Zealand as a whole.

MMP and the advent of new political parties has disrupted that balance to some extent. While National has been relatively successful in running multi-party governments under MMP (and governing for just over half the time), it has struggled to recapture the formula that made it so dominant in earlier years. Although current polling shows it remains the most popular party in New Zealand – a position it has enjoyed now for over a decade – it would find it difficult to put together a majority government, were an election to be held today.

That is where the question of policy becomes both important and difficult for National. It is important because it is both a mark of where the Party stands, and the key vehicle to attract the support of the uncommitted voters it will need if it is to lead the next government. But it is also difficult because, in the current electoral circumstances, it has to appeal more strongly to those more conservative voters that drifted to New Zealand First at the last election, while not alienating its more liberal supporters in the cities.

National’s just released social services policy discussion paper lays out these tensions very clearly. On the one hand, there are the hard-line measures about gangs and beneficiaries aimed at the bigot vote of New Zealand First, while on the other hand are more progressive and innovative measures like the social investment strategy promoted by former Prime Minister Bill English; the focus on the first 1,000 days of a child’s life; and, the introduction of a new money management system for vulnerable young people. And by stating some measures as firm policy, while others are more in the realm of ideas the Party wants feedback on, National will be hoping that not too much of it could be filched by the government if it were of a mind to do so.  By releasing it during a normally quiet Parliamentary recess week, it will be hoping that the plan attracts good media coverage, so buying a little more protection from the “where’s your policy?” charge usually levelled at Oppositions a year out from an election. Above all, it will be hoping that one or two of the ideas it has announced so capture the public imagination to build up a good head of steam in the lead-up to the election, although that very remains very much to be seen.

One thing National will be conscious of is not falling into the trap the current government did by talking big in Opposition about its plans for housing, Auckland transport and mental health, amongst other things, but then, so obviously, not having a coherent plan to deal with any of them upon coming to office. It will know that wide-eyed enthusiasm without anything to back it up is not what voters are seeking.

So, National’s ongoing policy development is likely to be cautious and safe. If it errs on the side of being a little predictable it will be because the Party understands well the tram lines within which it is operating. Labour’s grandiose talk and delivery failures means the electorate is likely to be a little more cynical about bold election promises next year. Therefore, National’s policies primarily need to keep its traditional constituencies intact, while doing whatever it takes to haul back those who have strayed in the past. It understands that if it can do that, it will be in a strong position to lead the next government.

National knows its previous formula has been a winning one. Why would it deviate from it now?

 



Wednesday, 23 October 2019


As the interminable saga surrounding the Wellington Mayoralty election result drags on, some are already blaming the uncertainty on the fact that the election was carried out under proportional representation – in this case, the Single Transferable Vote system Wellington has used for several recent elections. Had this been a First Past the Post election, they argue, the incumbent Mayor would probably have been returned with about 40% of the vote, on a turnout of just over 40%, meaning his effective mandate would have come from about 16% of the total Wellington electorate. At least, when the Wellington result is finally determined, it will able to be said that the person eventually elected will have had the support of the majority of voters, however slim that might be.

On a bigger scale, if ever there was an example of why proportional representation systems provide for a fairer expression of the public will, however perverse and contradictory that might be, this week’s Canadian Federal election is surely it. In the lead-up to the election, conducted under the First Past the Post system, there was much commentary about how split and divided Canada has become and that this would be reflected in the election result, possibly to the detriment of the Trudeau Liberal Government.

Indeed, the results reflect that. The Liberals have won 157 out of 338 seats to remain the largest party, but no longer with an overall majority. The Conservatives are a clear second on 121 seats; the Bloc Quebecois has 32 seats; the New Democratic Party 24 seats and the Greens 3 seats. A period of minority government looms, unless the Liberals and perhaps the New Democratic Party can come to some sort of agreement on confidence and supply issues. Already, there is speculation that Canadians will be returning to the polls in a couple of years.

However, had the election been conducted under a proportional representation system, like, for example our MMP system, a completely different result would have occurred. While more complex, it would have nonetheless been more reflective of the regional and cultural differences bedevilling Canada at present.

Under such a scenario the Liberals would have been joined as the largest party in Parliament by the Conservatives. With 34.4% of the vote the Conservatives would have won 116 seats, the same number as the ruling Liberals who won just 33% of the vote. The New Democrats would have jumped from 24 to 54 seats, reflecting their 15.9% vote share, and in a similar vein the Bloc Quebecois would have dropped to 26 seats, reflecting their 7.7% vote share. The Greens, meanwhile, would have been the big winners, jumping from 3 seats to 22 seats because of their 6.5% vote share.

Of course, such a result would have made government formation even more difficult, although it would have brought the New Democrats and the Greens with a combined putative 76 seats more strongly into play as potential partners for the Liberals, than the actual 27 seats they won between them. Now while such a result is of course hypothetical, it does highlight some of the imbalances within First Past the Post electoral systems.

We know from the New Zealand experience that First Past the Post consistently over-represented the major parties at the expense of the smaller ones. In this Canadian election, the two major parties received just over 67% of the vote between them, however won over 82% of the seats in Parliament. Even between them, the result was uneven. With more than 1% less of the vote than the Conservatives, the Liberals still managed to win 36 more seats than them.

And the result highlighted how much more difficult First Past the Post electoral systems are for smaller parties. Although just over 30% of voters supported the three smaller parties, they actually won only 18% of the seats. The Greens were undoubtedly the hardest done by – their 6.5% vote produced just 3 seats, just under one-seventh of what it would have been under proportional representation. Put another way, this result has over-represented the major parties in Parliament by around 20%, while under-representing the smaller parties by almost 75%.

Canada undoubtedly faces a challenging period ahead. Healing the wounds of what was a very bitter election campaign, while resuscitating the shattered dreams of the last three years, following the return of second generation Trudeaumania three years ago will be mighty tasks. However, Canada is no stranger to minority federal governments. There have been fourteen in all, including three successive minority governments under both the Liberals and the Conservatives between 2004 and 2011. Notwithstanding the vagaries of its electoral system, Canada has nevertheless made minority government work over the years, by focusing on building consensus.

There are parallels here for the current situation in Wellington. On the reasonable assumption the current Mayoral result holds, the Council will have a clear majority for the left, although the Mayor is from the right. If, as early signs worryingly suggest, the left’s approach will be to simply try to use its force of numbers to win everything its way, Wellington is effectively in for three more years of stalemate. Canadian minority governments over the years have governed by focusing on what brings the country together, rather than division on too stark a set of party lines. It is a lesson that should not be lost on the Wellington City Council as it embarks upon the new triennium.
  


Wednesday, 16 October 2019


There must be consternation within the upper ranks of the Labour Party at the performance of some of the Ministers in the coalition government. Every time the government looks like making some positive progress, one or other of these errant Ministers can be relied upon to upset the applecart. No sooner had the Prime Minister returned from her latest overseas trip where she was lauded once more by the international media, and followed that up by honouring her promise to meet Tonight Show host Stephen Colbert at Auckland Airport and show him around the city when he arrived here to film a few programmes, than serial offenders Ministers Jones and Lees-Galloway were up to their old tricks. Both forced the Prime Minister to abandon the warm smiles and adopt the grim countenance once again as she had to first explain then defend their behaviour. It all had a sad look of déjà vu about it.

In the Jones’ instance her defence was predictable: she “absolutely” would not have used, let alone allow herself to have been photographed, using an automatic weapon of the type now banned in New Zealand, and she urged the Minister to read again those provisions of the Cabinet Manual relating to acceptable standards of Ministerial behaviour. And that was it – as it has been on so many other occasions in the last two years – no censure, no discipline, just the usual wet bus ticket slap.

So too with the different case of Lees-Galloway. What seems, on the face of it, to be another judgement-lacking use of his Ministerial discretion on an immigration residency case, has been given the Prime Minister’s full support as perfectly appropriate. It may well be valid – given the person’s protected migrant status – but in the absence of any explanation, however generalised, by the Minister of the background, it just looks like another case of his judgement being found wanting, and his ineptitude overlooked again. The upshot is that any political benefit to have emerged from the Prime Minister’s recent international sorties has been quickly forgotten.
 
Of course, the Prime Minister’s colleagues will point out that in the instance of Jones, as a New Zealand First Minister, the Prime Minister cannot move to discipline, demote or even dismiss him without the backing of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Leader of New Zealand First. They are right to do so – and the reality is that Jones and his New Zealand First colleagues will exploit that to the hilt as a way of differentiating themselves within the Coalition. That is understandable too, but it is arguably an excuse that is starting to wear a little thin.

The Lees-Galloway situation is different. He is a Labour MP, so the Prime Minister can discipline, demote or even dismiss him, as she sees fit, without reference to other parties. That she has done none of those things now, or at the earlier time of the Soubrek case is a commentary on her leadership style, and the perceived lack of talent in the remaining non-Ministerial ranks of the Labour Caucus to replace him.

Where all this begins to matter a little more is that we are coming to the stage of the electoral cycle where voters start to focus less on the government’s specific individual actions, and more on what the government’s overall impact – positive or negative – has been on them and their families. Quite simply, with just on a year to go until the next General Election, they are beginning to weigh up whether the government is worth re-election. In the end, it will be the perennial question, “is this as good as it gets, or is there more to come?” that determines any government’s fate.

This government is, by virtue of its composition, unusual, and therefore somewhat more difficult to categorise in terms of its performance. Previous multi-party governments have had more coherence – either the centre-left, and the centre; or, the centre-right, the right, and the centre working together. This government brings together the left, the centre-left and the centre-right, meaning immediately that the compromises needed for its survival were greater than those within any of its predecessors under MMP.

 So, the fact that the Prime Minister is effectively hamstrung over the performance of New Zealand First Ministers should come as no surprise – it was virtually guaranteed this would be the case from the day the government was formed. Nor should it be any surprise that the Greens have been steadily pushed to one side – again, it was inevitable that there would be a contest amongst the smaller parties for the major party’s prime attention, and that New Zealand First would play much harder ball when it came to that. While these relationships and tensions were all known from the outset, what was not fully known was how they would play out when it came to deciding policy. The fear that some expressed then that it would mean that New Zealand First would have an effective veto on policy has proven largely to be correct, meaning that Labour governs at the pleasure of New Zealand First, rather than with its support. It is doubtful that voters wanted or anticipated that a Party with just 7% of the party vote would call all the shots this way.

Now, when it comes to deciding whether the coalition government merits re-election next year, all these factors will come more strongly into play than specific policies. In assessing the government’s overall performance, voters will be deciding whether the increasing perception that not a lot seems to have happened under this government (remember this was supposed to be the year of delivery) is because its very composition is a block on progress, which needs to be rectified, or whether the issues it says it is dealing with are really so complex that they cannot be resolved in one three year term.

The recent widespread protests here and abroad against a perceived lack of commitment to addressing climate change, and the results of the some of the local elections here last week, show that voters are becoming increasingly impatient with politicians who appear either to be blocking necessary action, or to be moving at too slow a rate. Nor are they afraid of making radical political change, if they think that is required.

If, as seems more and more likely, what we have now is as good as it is likely to get under this government, the next year is likely to be a very painful one for it. It may learn the hard and bitter way that more of the same is no longer a winning electoral formula, no matter how warmly, empathetically and positively it is promoted. Just ask the former Mayor of Wellington.