Category Archives: Parliament

Election 2014 – the aftermath

So election day came and went with very little changing, for all the hubbub. National is a bit stronger, and no doubt emboldened by success. Labour is a bit weaker, and will now be focussed on blame and bloodletting. The Greens are probably feeling in pretty good shape, but are likely puzzled at the apparent drop-off in support on election day – again. It’s hard to say whether it is some unknown systematic polling bias or whether people get cold feet once they get an orange marker in their hand.

More significant are the changes among small parties. The loss of Hone Harawira from Parliament is a major blow and only time will tell whether there is any life left in Mana. If it really intends to be a movement rather than a political party, as its supporters claim, then this might be a blessing in disguise. It is almost impossible for a genuine political movement to coalesce out of a political party, rather than the other way round.

The Maori Party has survived and if it can find a way to heal the deep rift caused by the expulsion of Hone Harawira and make room for mavericks within the party, it may be capable of rebuilding itself. I always thought the best strategy was to keep people like Hone inside the tent, free to say the things the leadership couldn’t say.

ACT was mortally wounded 3 years ago after making John Banks their leader – and that was before the scandals. The party is still alive albeit on an iron lung. It’s hard to imagine David Seymour, or Jamie Whyte as out-of-Parliament leader, making enough impact to lift party support much. The only question is how long National finds it convenient to keep the life support plugged in.

Nothing much changes for New Zealand First, although having Ron Mark back will help it look less like a one-man show. The extra votes that Winston now wields will mean little.

Overall, then, people voted for more of the same and they are going to get it. For progressives, this is a lost opportunity. It means another three years before anyone even begins making the kinds of infrastructural changes needed to become a 21st century nation. It means that at a national level a number of indicators are going to keep getting worse – from poverty levels and inequality gaps to worsening environmental quality and loss of ecological integrity. It means another three years of embarrassment on the international stage, as we continue to drag the chain on climate change and spy on our friends on behalf of the Club of Five. All masked by growth rates that sound adequate but are largely meaningless when it comes to the real state of the economy.

Disappointing but hardly traumatic.

So I was a little taken aback at the outpouring of grief on my Facebook page. Many of my friends and acquaintances seem shell-shocked by the election result. Their responses range from disbelief to anger. It is like looking at a classic Kubler-Ross model of responses to grief. I thought I’d show a diagram so that people can understand the process they are going through and see that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Kubler-Ross-change-curve

Meanwhile, in the interests of retaining a little dignity in defeat, here is my list of three top tips:

Stop telling people they were stupid for voting National (or despicable for exercising their legal right to not vote)

Stop assuming national voters are all selfish and greedy – they may well have voted for National because they simply didn’t believe a Labour Green Government had, or could deliver, the solutions.

Stop saying that you think the election was rigged. The left lost. (This for the more volatile activists)

On the other hand, in the interests of not looking stupid, my advice to all the right wing media commentators is to stop saying that David Cunliffe should have criticised his team, his campaign strategy and himself in his election night speech. There is plenty of time for Labour to look at what it is doing so spectacularly wrong, but election night speeches conceding defeat are for thanking the team for trying, not attacking them for failing to win.

Having said that, there are a few glaring faults that Labour needs to rectify if it wants a shot at leading a Government in three years time.

Labour needs to stop fighting itself and its allies. I won’t go on about the internal self-sabotage because it is so obvious as to be painful, but Labour really needs to learn to play with the other kids. Writing off working with Internet-Mana was stupid. It says that either Labour will probably be unable to form a Government or that, as Hone intimated, they are lying. John Key was not sullied by either the puppy love of Colin Craig or the more bizarre shenanigans of John Banks. He even got away with picking the lock for both Banks and David Seymour to break into the House, without it reflecting badly on him. He just looked pragmatic. Why then did Labout panic over Internet Mana?

The billboard change-outs that said “only a vote for Labour will change the Government” was equally stupid. It was patently untrue for a start. If people thought it was true then the implication was that there was NO WAY that Labour could be the Government since it was polling in the thirties. It was just another sign that Labour had forgotten how to put coalitions together.

There is no doubt that there was media bias in the campaign. The last poll reported in the Herald showed a drop in support for National, but was reported as showing a jump in support, based on some shoddy and invalid statistical manipulation. That sort of media bias needs to be jumped on pretty smartly. Nevertheless the big problem wasn’t the media. It was the campaign.

David Cunliffe did really well when he had the chance. He certainly looked like John Key’s equal in the leaders debates, but that was never going to be enough in the context of a weak campaign that was full of blunders. Apologising for being a man was probably the most ridiculous thing to come out of the mouth of a political leader for some time. Drawing lines in the sand over things like cannabis law reform, which is supported by a majority of the population and his potential allies, was unwise and unnecessary. He could easily have fudged the issue to give himself some room.

Finally, the impact of ‘Dirty Politics’ and Kim Dotcom. I have huge respect for Nicky Hagar and his work but in hindsight, releasing the book during the campaign was too cute. It looked like a stunt. It would have been better for Nicky to have released the book earlier in the season to allow the issues to be investigated and the shine to be taken off Key without leaving himself open to the accusation of trying to hijack the election. Given the careful persona Key has cultivated for so long, people probably needed a bit of time to assimilate the new information. Bringing it out during the campaign seems to have just locked in people’s opinions, for or against Key.

The decision of both Hone Harawira and Laila Harre to link themselves to the Kim Dotcom train was always going to be a high risk gamble. Whatever else you think of Kim Dotcom, it became apparent early on that he is a loose unit with no political sense. The best thing at that stage would have been to kept him well out of the stage lights. I suspect that would have been hard to do. I have no doubt that he is a strong willed guy with a ego to match the size of his bank balance. Nevertheless if Internet Mana wanted to be taken seriously as something other than his toy, he needed to stay in the background. Allowing him to hijack both the launch (by publicly hinting he hacked Slater) and the Moment of Truth (with the email about his personal fight with Key) was unwise.

So, lets look at the silver lining. Lots of people are now motivated to ensure Key doesn’t get a fourth term. This is a good time to harness some of that energy, not for political party work but for building a genuine constituency for change. The thing that will ultimately define the shape of New Zealand is not politicians but the expectations of its citizens. When there is a broad movement for a socially, ecologically and financially regenerative transformation, then the political parties needed to support that will be elected into Government. But be warned – we are a long way from being able to deliver a compelling vision of the future.

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Not voting is an own goal

In 1990 I put an election billboard on my fence that featured a sinister looking silhouette in a business suit saying “vote for No-One, because No-One cares”. People’s responses ranged from amusement to furious anger, with one person even climbing the fence to vandalise it at night.

It was a bit of fun, but with a serious intent. I wanted to express my dissatisfaction at a system that trades a vote every three years for meaningful participation. I wanted to show my disgust at the co-option of governments by corporate lobby interests. I wanted to demonstrate my belief that the parliamentary system is unable to comprehend, much less find a solution to, the real issues facing our world.

All those statements still hold true for me today. Looking back, though, what strikes me is my dismay when New Zealand elected a National Government. I could see on election night that things were going to get much worse for ordinary New Zealanders. Indeed, that Government soon introduced a range of regressive policies that remain in place to this day, including the end of free tertiary education, vicious welfare cuts, attacks on workers’ rights and asset sales that even the previous Labour Government had balked at.

A year or two later I found myself at a huge march in Auckland to oppose the policies of a Government that I had encouraged people not to vote against. That contradiction, and others I experienced at a variety of street demonstrations and occupations during those years, led me to question much of my political ideology and dogma. As a result of this on-going self reflection my ideas about strategy and tactics have become more responsive, while my principles have become clearer.

My views on engagement in parliamentary politics changed with the introduction of MMP. In 1999 I was elected as an MP for the Green Party and just under nine years later I resigned from Parliament. In my final speech I spoke about many of those same themes that had concerned me in 1990. Perhaps more than most, I am well aware of the limitations of parliamentary politics.

There are two main reasons that progressive thinkers give for not voting. The first is that it makes no real difference. The second is that voting legitimises an illegitimate system.

It’s true that you can’t vote for revolution. That doesn’t mean that revolutionaries shouldn’t vote. It just means they should vote for more practical reasons. Voting is a tool, and like all tools there are some things it is good for and some things it is not.

The outcome of this election will make a lot of difference. Not in fundamental ways perhaps, but it will have direct impact on people’s wellbeing. Whether National or Labour leads the next Government – and just as importantly, how much influence the Greens have, or the Conservatives, ACT, the Maori Party, Internet Mana and NZ First – will determine how much the lowest paid workers will get to take home each week. It will determine whether our coastline is opened up for oil drilling and maybe whether we end up having a catastrophic oil spill. It might decide whether the Maui’s Dolphin becomes extinct. It will decide whether housing will be more, or less, affordable. It will make a clear statement about whether as a nation we are concerned about child poverty or whether we really just don’t care as long as we get a tax cut.

My aims in voting this year are modest. I don’t expect radical change from politicians because they couldn’t deliver it even if they wanted to, at least not without massive changes in public opinion first. I don’t expect the big problems to be solved or to see congregations of the wise inhabiting the Beehive. I vote to make some government policies a little better and to stop some others getting worse. I vote so that at least some of my most important issues are amplified. I vote so that there is someone in there to call out the bullshit when they see it. I vote because the National Party’s lies and deceit just went too far this time. I vote because trying to make the world a better place is easier when we have allies in Government. Given the minimal effort involved, it seems like an own goal not to.

Finally, if you are worried that ticking a voting form will somehow legitimise the system, don’t be. Your vote will have absolutely no impact on that. All it will do is make it more or less likely that John Key and the National Party is re-elected.

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My thoughts on the Internet Party cannabis policy

One of the reasons I first got interested in the Greens, before MMP and long before I ever joined the party, was the cannabis policy. It may not be the most important issue in the world but I see it as a kind of litmus test of a party’s integrity. The issue is so politically sensitive that most party’s will, at best, keep silent on the question of law reform, despite knowing that prohibition does infinitely more harm and costs the economy vastly more than cannabis use itself does.

Until now the Greens have been the only party in Parliament, or with any show of getting into Parliament, with a rational drug policy. Until now. Today the Internet Party announced a cannabis policy that is the most progressive and evidence based of any political party likely to be in the next Parliament.

What does it say?

Firstly, the Internet Party would allow cannabis to be prescribed as a medicine – not through legislation but by an administrative amendment. This would take the decision about medical marijuana out of the hands of politicians and give it to doctors, where it belongs. Since there is no legal supply of natural cannabis, they would allow medical users to grow a set amount for themselves or nominate someone to do it for them if they are unable to.

Secondly, they would immediately change the law to allow adults to cultivate and possess cannabis for personal use. While they do not specify how many plants that would be (simply saying that decision should be based on research), they do promise to remove the ‘reverse onus’ provision of the Misuse of Drugs Act. Currently, and contrary to basic principles of justice, if a person is caught with over an ounce of cannabis they have to prove that they are not selling it.

Thirdly the Internet Party would develop a system to regulate and tax the market. This is the best, and most courageous, part of the policy. The reality is that decriminalising cannabis is a good first step, but it can never deal with all of the problems of prohibition. Even if people can grow their own cannabis, most will still want to buy it, just as they prefer to buy beer even though there is no law against brewing it. A market for cannabis will always exist and unless it is properly regulated the problems of sales to underage buyers, organised crime and loss of tax revenue will remain the same. Regulating the cannabis market is not currently supported by the majority of New Zealanders the way that decriminalisation is, but it is the right thing to do.

Finally the Internet Party would use some of the huge financial savings made from taking cannabis users out of the criminal justice system, to resource increased drug education, health promotion and addiction treatment. I worked with Laila Harre when she was Minister of Youth Affairs on a Green initiative to increase funding for drug education. Some Ministers liked to throw money at programmes with charismatic front-people, even when they were ineffective. Laila, in contrast, was focussed on what kinds of approaches actually made a difference to young people’s health outcomes. This was usually programmes that treated young people as intelligent and able to make good decisions for themselves if they had balanced information.

I think this policy is a brave move. No doubt it will lead to some interesting conversations with Mana. It will be controversial. But it is also astute. The Greens still support law reform, and will be important in getting any legislative change through Parliament, but understandably it is a low priority for them. There is now no one in Parliament proactively speaking up for law reform. Thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of votes are looking for somewhere more promising than the ALCP. If Laila Harre is serious about this, she would be the perfect person to take cannabis law reform through Parliament. She is courageous, intelligent and informed – without being vulnerable to the kinds of attacks made on me when I was championing cannabis law reform in Parliament as an “out” cannabis smoker. As the only party seriously pushing for the youth vote, this is sure to be a winner for Internet Mana.

The policy can be found at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1FFXG3tWggczbmzJ1MK7WL0qxJyrmgGMHhtcDZCN6INE/edit

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Archive of my writing 2009 – 2012

Most of what I wrote after leaving Parliament in mid 2008 until 2012 can be found at rasnandor.blogspot.co.nz. This includes copies of columns for the Waikato Times and the original Monkeywrenching column for the TV3 News website

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The Food Bill Deconstructed

I’ve been hearing about this Food Bill for months now. Facebook sources tell me the Government is going to fine us for growing carrots and lock us up for giving away our excess marrows. Hell, I’ve got so many oversized zucchini’s that I don’t know what I’d do if it was illegal to give them to my friends. I decided I’d better take a look for myself.

What a stupid idea THAT was. The select committee report, including the bill as amended, ran to 378 pages of meticulously crafted tedium. Only another late night reader of legislative material can comprehend the depths of stupification of which I write. By the time I got to the end I felt as braindead as Paul Holmes on Waitangi morning.

What comes next is not legal advice – or easy reading. This is just a general explanation of what I think the bill means. I need to read the bill a few more times to get the full picture but frankly that thought makes a round with Sonny Bill Williams look appealing. If you are responsible for a food business you need to get some detailed advice about your specific situation. In addition the bill is coming up for its second reading and there will be amendments made during the Committee of the House stage after that, so it is likely to change a bit. Nevertheless it is worth being aware of some of what it does do, while getting some reassurance about what it doesn’t.

Firstly, the bill will not affect people who grow or process food for themselves and their family or keep seed. The bill does affect people who sell or trade food, including barter, but how much depends of the scale and type of the operation. Keep in mind that barter is not the same as reciprocal gift giving of excess harvest. Barter is a commercial transaction (maintaining value) while gift giving is a social transaction (maintaining relationships). The bill does not mention gift giving at all but I’d argue it does not apply to it.

At the lowest end of the scale, some people who trade food will have no new obligations under the bill. They will be subject to “food handler guidelines” but these will be educative only. This will be for things like clubs providing food to members secondary to an activity, school fairs, growers that sell at the farm gate or at farmers markets, very small scale or home-based production, people who sell things like chippies only, childcare providers where food handling is no more than, say, cutting up apples. This is not a complete list and schedule 3 of the bill sets it out in more detail.

The next level is where people have to go on a public register and will have to comply with a National Programme. These will be designed to identify and deal with potential health risks from food production. NB This will almost certainly not deal with things like pesticide residues or GMOs, but will be aimed at hygiene and gross contamination etc. They will also specify what paperwork businesses need to do to reassure the Ministry that they are complying. National Programmes with be at three levels of hassle, depending on type of business.

Level 1, the easiest, will cover honey, wholesale horticultural growers and pack houses, sugar refineries, people who sell hot drinks and prepackaged foods only, ice cream and ice block makers and food transportation companies.

Level 2 will include bakeries that only make bread, residential child care, lolly makers, dehydrated fruits, crisps and popcorn, jam, pickles and preserves, water and ice, frozen food (not ice cream), cereals and biscuits.

Level 3 businesses include those that make things like alcohol and non-alcohol drinks, edible oils and margerines, food additives (incl. vitamins and minerals), flours and grains and things like dairies with pick ‘n’ mix lollies and garages that heat up pies. Again, a full list of what is covered in set out in schedule 2 of the bill.

The heaviest regulation comes for businesses that have to register a Food Control Plan. This includes the food retail sector (bakeries, dairies that make filled rolls, fish mongers and butchers), food service sector (on premises, home or commercial delivery, take away and mobile) and manufacturers of everything from dairy products, herbs, dips and nuts to commercially sterilised food, dry powders and vegetable proteins. The full list is set out in schedule 1 of the bill.

A Food Control Plan must begin with a detailed description of the business including the type of food it deals with and the nature of the business. It must identify all the hazards and risks and set out how the business will deal with them. It must also set out who is responsible for the plan and verification procedures.
The plan can be developed by an individual business or adapted from someone else’s. It can also be based on a template that the Ministry may develop for different classes of business. The plan must be registered and approved – in practise by the local authority under powers delegated by the Ministry. There are a range of procedures for amending, approving and appealing.

The bill also has special clauses for winemakers and requires importers to be registered on a public register and comply with certain requirements.

If a lot of this looks like incredibly bureaucratic paper-shuffling, that’s because it is. Making dairies write a Food Control Plan with all the on-going verification and paperwork that goes with it because they make filled rolls is kind of bizarre. What’s more, if the dairy gets sold the new owner has to register a new Food Control Plan. I seriously doubt that filled rolls and samosa from the local Four Square present enough of a health risk to New Zealanders to warrant this kind of bureaucratic overkill.

In fact I don’t know any significant problems with the way the system operates now that deserves this level of intervention. The current Food Act from 1981 probably does need updating but this is something far more ambitious than that. It’s Ministry empire building.

The National led Government is slashing jobs from the public sector and looking at how it can further tighten the screws on the poorest and most marginalised people in our community. At the same time it is introducing legislation that will massively increase enforcement officers to ensure that – wait for it – the local chip shop is up to date with their verification paperwork.

Most of the bill is not actually about how to improve food safety. Its about how to make sure that the New Zealand food industry obediently fills out all the necessary forms, and charge them for the privilege. Make no mistake, the bill very carefully empowers the charging of fees and levies, spending 12 pages on the subject.
The bill contains provisions for the appointment and registration of ‘recognised agencies and persons’, ‘verification agencies and persons’ and ‘food safety officers’. With almost every food business in the country having to register and comply with either a National Programme or a Food Control Plan, expect there to be plenty of them.

The powers of food safety officers in particular are concerning. They have the power to enter (using force if necessary) a wide range of premises with or without a warrant. The power to enter without a warrant is so unconstrained that it is hard to see why they would ever bother to apply to get one, although its such a simple process that they can do it on the phone if they leave it to the last minute. If they do search without a warrant they have to give the owner reasonable notice, unless that would interfere with the investigation. They don’t even have to produce the warrant and identify themselves if “compliance would prejudice the successful execution of the warrant.” for example if they forgot to bring them.

The Food Bill isn’t as bad as some of the wilder claims being made about it, but does make you wonder what on earth they were thinking. A more conspiratorial soul might comment that it lies at the intersection where bureaucratic and global food corporation’s interests meet. Big businesses won’t be phased by it – it probably won’t be that different from what they do now, but it will be a major compliance obstacle for small and medium sized businesses. New businesses in particular need to spend time on making money to pay the bills rather than filling out redundant plans and forms. Either way this bill will be bad for the majority of food businesses and bad for consumers. The Minister needs to challenge her Ministry on it and start again.

(Originally published Feb 2012)