Tuesday, May 3, 2016

What To Do About The Escalating Spate Of Shopkeeper Standovers...?

There's something seriously disconcerting going on out there in the Auckland community at the moment. For several months nowbarely a week has passed without a story about some lowlife thugs violently doing over a convenience storeliquor shop or dairyfrequently injuring staff in the process.

The owners and operators, predominantly Indian, feel somewhat powerless to stop them - and with good reason.

In an ideal world that's sadly unlike the one we presently reside in, police would be on-hand to quickly and expeditiously respond to any and all such calls of a 'robbery in progress'. But due to a fundamentally callous and cost-cutting government, our law enforcement is cripplingly under-resourced to actually do anything about the problem. Shopkeepers dialing 111 are told that Police are too busy to respond; or have to feign that they themselves are equipped with firearms in order to get the attention of law enforcement. Impending police station closures will only exacerbate the issue, and for the moment we're left with both the Police Minister and the Police themselves urging a greater role for the "community" in crime prevention.

Or, in other words, as Homer Simpson famously campaigned on during his own tilt at a local body governance position ... "Can't Someone Else Do It."

But the trouble is, the clearest and most obvious way in which shopkeepers are able to take the problem into their own hands as it were, is carefully circumscribed by law.

If a dairy-staffer is suddenly inundated with rambunctiously rampaging ragamuffins rapaciously ransacking as many kilograms of cigarettes from his store as they can possibly carry ... said proprietor is pretty much powerless to stop them. They can't exactly physically restrain a perpetrator - there's no specific legal provision to explicitly allow them to do so. The closest law I could find on the subject, s53 of the Crimes Act, tightly constrains the forms of physical intercession available to anyone seeking to use reasonable force in defence of property; and there's strong anecdotal evidence that shopkeepers are simply too afraid of legal repercussions from even something as simple as physically restraining an offender and waiting for the cops to arrive to actually and actively take control of the situation.

They've unfortunately got good cause to be trepidacious. It wasn't so long ago that another shopkeeper - a Mr V. Singh - found himself on the wrong end of criminal assault charges after using reasonable force to defend himself and a co-worker from drunken teenagers armed with a knife who'd invaded his store and stabbed him.

Fortunately, in Mr Singh's case, the charges were thrown out after a certain high-profile defence lawyer offered to get involved and fight Singh's case free of charge - but the chilling effect upon shopkeepers feeling able to defend themselves and their establishments (a deliberate motivation for the police in bringing the charges in the first place) has remained.

I'd say it was only a matter of time before somebody was killed - but incredibly sadly, that's already happened.

So what do we do about this sorry and evidently escalating situation.

Well the obvious answer - and inarguably the best one - is to properly resource the New Zealand Police to actually do their job. New Zealand First secured a thousand extra front-line police plus three hundred support staff the last time we were proximate to Government between 2005-2008, and it's incredibly disheartening that National appears to have undone our good work at the stroke of a series of pens over the last few years. This isn't just an armchair pundit's opinion, however - a massive eighty six percent of front-line officers themselves believe that our Police lack the resources they need to properly do their job. And in light of the Government's frankly inexplicable decision to close a number of cop-shops in the name of cost-cutting, community access to policing is only going to get worse.

So it seems, on the face of it, that improvements in both the quantity and quality of policing to address this issue are off the table.

We must therefore look for alternative solutions, pending the election of an alternative government.

Some shopkeepers want a law-change to explicitly empower them to be able to physically restrain malcontents rather than having to let them walk out the door. While this would obviously solve some of the short-term issues thrown up by the present police shortage - as the inevitable (and lengthening) delay-period between a 111 call being logged and an officer turning up at the scene would no longer provide an enviable opportunity for the perpetrators to melt into the ether - it's a clearly imperfect solution. If there are a half a dozen offenders flash-raiding your shop, as seems to be the new favoured M.O for these sorts of engagements, there's a somewhat limited chance that the one or two staff on-site are likely to be in a position to seriously consider restraining anybody.

That is not to say such a proposal is completely lacking in merit. As applies smaller-scale heists with more limited numbers of offenders such as those common in supermarkets, knowing that shopkeepers and/or security staff have the lawful power to physically detain you while the cops arrive could form a deterrent to committing crime in the first place. The lack of such an easily enactable provision certainly does, at present, encourage the opportunism inherent in this lower-level offending.

At the more serious end of the spectrum, there have also been demands for a clarification of our Nation's self-defence laws. At present, the way these work is that under s48 of the Crimes Act, people are justified (and therefore legally protected) in using "reasonable force" in defence of themselves or others. The trouble is, "reasonable force" is a highly nebulous standard - and subject to quite a myriad of interpolating factors.

Ordinarily, it's up to Police to make a decision as to whether the force used was reasonable, and 'filter out' people who shouldn't be put through the legal system as a result; but the number of charges being thrown out pre-trial would appear to indicate that the Police are often erring too far on the side of caution when it comes to the use of their discretion, and instead taking an approach of leaving such determinations more exclusively up to the judiciary.

While it might seem like a sound legal practice to insist that any application of force in self defence ought to be one that can stand up to exterior scrutiny in court, the plain fact of the matter is that legal bills and other associated costs of proving one's innocence are highly expensive - which leads to the inescapable conclusion that the extant regime is forcing morally blameless people (the victims in these situations no less) to be financially penalized for what later turn out to be perfectly legal (even occasionally outright commendable) actions in self defence.

Clearly, there is some considerable scope for either law or process reform in this area - and that's why in the run-up to the 2014 Election, New Zealand First campaigned upon a somewhat related legislative proposal designed to cover homeowners using force in self-defence against burglars and other intruders. NZF also made strongly approving noises about clarifying the ambit of self defence laws in order to give a greater degree of certainty to people having to use them, so as to hopefully avoid unfortunate repeats of the undesirable situation outlined above.

A final point worthy of mention is that as one of the core underpinnings of this recent wave of convenience-store targeted crime is the increase in cigarette-prices due to excise tax hikes (which have made cigarettes both less affordable, and more relatively valuable on the black market as a result), there remains every likelihood that both the level of offending - and the brazenness with which it is carried out - will only continue to get worse.

All things considered, my innate liberal proclivities mean that I remain somewhat uncomfortable with the notion of ordinary citizens having to take the law into their own hands. Not simply because of the risks inherent to such a position that a defender might go too far; but also, and more fundamentally because in a modern, nominally first-world Nation ... this isn't how things ought to be. People shouldn't *have* to take the law into their own hands, because our Police ought to be properly resourced. Shortfalls in political will and material support for law enforcement are not factors that should be allowed to force us into a corner and contemplate either accepting crime as a day-to-day cost of doing business here in New Zealand, or put the onus on regular New Zealand citizens to defend themselves and their property from the economically violently indigent.

And yet, here we are.

It shouldn't take another shopkeeper being stabbedbadly beaten, or even killed to get this issue taken firmly in hand. However we choose to do it.

We can't just let this keep happening.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Trade Unionists, Police Association Presidents, And Retirees - The New Face Of Drug Law Reform In New Zealand

With every grand and sweeping change to the way we do things that's been the result of long, drawn-out and arduous efforts for change ... there comes a tipping point. Ordinarily, it occurs when sufficient numbers of Parliamentarians have been convinced on an issue to cast their votes in favour of changing the law. If we ever get Euthanasia law-reform in this country, it will probably take place exactly like that.

But other issues and reform-efforts play out differently.

There are some areas of what you might call 'much-needed sanity injection' in our politics where main-party MPs fear to tread.

Cannabis law reform - whether for medicinal use only, general and widespread decriminalization, or full-blown legalization - is the most prominent of these questions in modern times.

Sure, various Opposition MPs such as the departing Phil Goff (that's him there in the lovely Trace Hodgson illustration, painting with all the colours of the wind as a Young Labourite) might have made rather more than vague murmurings about their intent to change the law back when they were much further down the totem-pole ... but even despite the Greens' gallant (if legislatively flawed) attempts at putting forward Private Members' Bills on the subject from time to time, no serious progress seems likely from the Parliamentary end of the political spectrum.

This is, obviously, because what you might term to be the "establishment" political parties of Labour and National are, in the main, seriously spooked about the prospect of something akin to the Family First- and moral conservative rentarage brigade-led 'mass' protests which accompanied something like the passage of the Civil Unions act in 2004. This helped to galvanize groups like the Exclusive Brethren to meddle in our politics in a big way, and there is presumably no screaming desire to overturn the applecart with yet another piece of social-progressive reform in Labour - while many in National, by contrast, are still stuck either being Trojan tobacco lobbyists, or daily re-watching Reefer Madness.

So it's no go from Parliament, because various parties and actors who'd otherwise be potentially at least not-opposed to change are genuinely afeared of the effect upon their already apparently shriveling constituencies.

That's a shame.

But what if something changed? What if, all of a sudden, the people clamouring for cannabis law reform were no longer half-baked twentysomethings, the occasional Gold Card-laden hippy, and Don Brash when he's in a principled-libertarian mood.

(Pictured: Don Brash in a principled-libertarian mood)

What if bastions of what you might term key 'establishment-supporting' demographics started to change their tune.

Because that's exactly what's happening today.

This sea-change in New Zealand Politics started, inarguably, with Helen Kelly. The exact details, hows whys and wherefores don't need to be gone into here. But suffice to say through her personal crusade, attitudes began to shift.

It's one thing to dismiss cannabis law reform as a semi-literal pipe-dream of over-educated and under-realistic University Students having animated discussions in the local equivalent of Albert Park.

It's quite another to tell somebody who's obviously had (and still has, remarkably) their life together and is a serious and sober public figure that their thinking is in fantasist-territory error. Particularly when they're in a near-moribund state from a terminal illness and are acting as living proof of the utility of the drug in question.

All of a sudden, the issue couldn't be dismissed so easily - and not least because Kelly did her level best to keep it not only 'on the agenda' of public affairs, but talked about in serious rather than supercilious terms by a not insignificant number of journalists and other opinion-shapers.

The 'reform' side of the cannabis debate now had its relatable, respectable, downright reasonable 'human face'.

Widespread incredulity as to the severely disproportionate original sentence of Kerry Van Gaalen up in Northland also helped to galvanize the issue. People were beginning to get a closer look at elements of our system that are demonstrably causing harm through not being fit for purpose.

Then, other things started to change.

I recall reading with frank amazement quotes from Police Association President Greg O'Connor talking about harm-minimization and the potential implications of full-legalization here in New Zealand. While the Police Association is presently at pains to downplay the idea that they might potentially be in support of drug law reform, it was rather telling that their new position is to actually look at the issue on its own merits and investigate it properly rather than simply dismissing any and all law reform efforts out of hand. It would even appear he's going off on fact-finding missions surrounding the subject - first, last year to Colorado; and second, this year to Portugal.

In any case, it's huge progress that one of our top cops - and the de facto mouthpiece for police across the land - feels comfortable enough with the issue to come out with something enlightened like "We should balance the damage that is likely from the inevitable short-term increase in the amount of drug use from legalisation of drugs against the damage done to society by the same drugs being illegal and supply and quality being left in the hands of unregulated criminals."

Rational, forward-thinking policing policy. Who'd have thought it.

All things considered, many policemen are probably much more keen to be fighting and solving "serious" crime, rather than reading their rights to early 20somethings caught red-embered with a spliff and a fifty-bag.

But it's the next group presently lobbying for change that really caught my eye. An entire GreyPower branch have unanimously agreed to join the fight and start lobbying Parliamentarians not just for medical law reform ... but for a fundamental shift to a position wherein the state views growing your own 'medication' no more severely than it does a pensioner planting broccoli.

Seriously. That's how they phrased it. And while I've never heard of smoking cannabis referred to as "tokies" before, that's quite frankly adorable.

Now while it might seem a little curious that members affiliated with a pressure-group that's more customarily thought of as representing some of the more conservative (age) demographics are evidently starting to line up for change ... this really should come as no surprise. You see quite a few things as you age - and once you hit your Gold Card years, odds are you'll have seen far more than most. The specific reasoning cited by the GreyPower branch in question is quite simple -and chimes in most strongly with Helen Kelly's own story and crusade efforts.

They've seen numerous people with serious illnesses suffer needlessly as the direct result of the officially sanctioned and presently available 'legal' medications being quite frequently horrendous. They're not happy about it. And in many cases, it's evidently been quite a strikingly personal process engaging with the issue and speculating what we might do differently.

I'm also not too surprised that older New Zealanders are starting to very publicly come out in favour of change for one other reason - the result of my experiences with New Zealand First. I still remember during the height of the 'legal highs' debacle, a number of the little old ladies at one of the NZF branches I was chairing at the time spontaneously propound that the legalization of cannabis represented a logical step forward that would have the additional and intrinsic benefit of largely extinguishing the then-flourishing consumer demand for synthetic alternatives. As one venerable moonsilver-haired woman put it ... it seemed a curious thing indeed that the government had no problem putting abject poison onto our streets, yet were so reluctant and recalcitrant to even consider legalizing the vastly 'lesser evil'.

But if the elderly demographic is one of the more remarkable newfound allies to the cause, it's also arguably the most integral.

Elderly voters, you may remember, win elections and win policy battles. They tend to have far higher turnouts than the younger demographics more customarily associated with advocating for change, and it is my belief that the 'Establishment' political parties have a certain sense of Fear of older voters in train. How else to explain National's curious reluctance to moot raising the retirement age, and Labour's wild backpeddling over the exact same issue as soon as Andrew Little ascended to the leadership. Older readers will also remember a certain W. Peters making considerable hay out of the pension surtax debacle almost a generation ago in the early-90s.

So with several key support demographics evidently slowly aligning on-side, and growing sympathy for the cause of cannabis law reform as the result of both domestic figures and foreign experiments out amongst the general population  ... the only thing seriously missing (other than a critical mass of momentum) is the requisite numbers of politicians on-side to actually put forward some form of legislative enactment.

There are two ways that this could be done - a Binding Referendum like we just had on the flag, or a simple legislative proposal in the form of a bill. I suspect that the former may have a better chance of making its way through Parliament, as it allows any risk-averse political persons and entities to distance themselves from the result by claiming our new law is the 'democratic will of the people' rather than 'intrusive social engineering' (or whatever Family First's latest buzzword-bouquet is).

Regrettably, we are still some distance away from the 'tipping point' of popular support and thus political will which could make either of these things a reality. But considering both of those political bell-weathers Winston Peters and Peter Dunne have recently made moves on the issue (with Peters openly campaigning on the possibility of cannabis legalization delivered via referendum during the Northland By-Election last year, and Dunne deciding to descend from his Ivory Ministry Tower to make vague noises in support of some form of eventual change), there is evidently capacious room for hope that our political classes are finally getting the message.

In any case, where Parliament fails to exercise moral leadership, it falls upon the people to take the initiative.

What we appear to be witnessing gradual and growing movement of support from diverse corners of the electorate, all converging on a singular (if somewhat hazy and ill-specified) goal.

Better drug-laws around cannabis that help rather than harm society.

We haven't reached the tipping point yet - but we're not far off it.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Trouble With Cannabis Is That It Can Induce Psychosis In Some People Who Haven't Taken It

I remember the synthetic cannabinoids debate. I remember it well. But more important than that, I also remember the nature of the substance then being debated - and how it differed, markedly and materially from the drug-law reform being proposed today.

Inveterate Herald political curmudgeon John Roughan does not. On any meaningful score, and in any meaningful sense - he is ignorant. In fact, judging by the tone and tenor of the article which appeared under his name in yesterday's Weekend Herald, it would appear manifestly apparent that Roughan considers ignorance to be amongst the highest of virtues.

Perhaps he is right. Perhaps never having dabbled with psychoactive substances in one's youth makes the armchair in a writer's ivory tower sitting room an altogether more comfortable position from which to sit in supposed 'impartial' judgement upon the progressive law reform proposals of others.

I wouldn't know. I have been spared the luxuries of existing 'above the fray', as it were.

As a young man, many of my best friends were drug users. A goodly portion were, what you might say, "drug dependent". For a variety of conditions - whether physiological or psychiatric - these people turned to pharmacopia in order to cope with the needs and demands of their day-to-day existence.

Some people used anti-depressants. Others, stimulant-drugs prescribed for their ADHD. Still further luminaries turned to more illicit substances in order to cope with what ailed them, and some indeed were simply in pursuit of a buzz or an 'enhanced' approach to recreation.

Many of them used cannabis. But not all. For various reasons, a few of us dipped into the horrid half-world of the synthetic.

And yes, part of the reason was that it was legal and available - but it wasn't exactly by choice. Instead, it was almost invariably because real cannabis *wasn't* legal and *wasn't* available that the far less desirable alternative worked its way onto peoples' radar.

But "legal highs" proved to be a very, very different family of drugs indeed to regular old cannabis, and acres of user-testimony (which we might almost term 'survivor stories' considering the serious ill-effects of some of the latter releases) serves to confirm that these were not good substances. In fact, having seen up close and personal what they did to one of my closest friends and others ... I would have absolutely zero compunction saying that methamphetamine appears relatively less harmful by comparison.

So when Roughan erroneously attempts to claim that the insane irrationality of the synthetic cannabinoid experiment vitiates the sanity and rationality of serious attempts to reform our laws against medicinal cannabis or decriminalization more generally ... this makes exactly as much sense as stating that because methylated spirits ought not be sold in bars for human consumption because of their patently poisonous effects, regular beer and whiskey should not be vended either.

In other words, it's a completely nonsensical position.

Like should be compared with like - and even when compared with unlike (as Roughan does by raising alcohol prohibition), the actual facts of the situation - rather than mere rhetorical blustering in service of an agenda - ought to be what's taken into consideration.

This is why it's damned curious that Roughan can in the same breath decry prohibition for alcohol, claim that it doesn't work and shouldn't have happened ... apparently because he, personally enjoys it (and really, what is non-medicinal drug-use for many people other than "pleasant in itself"). And yet simultaneously state that the continued prohibition for cannabis is somehow entirely different in substance rather than just substance (ahem) from that which has gone before.

It's a fact-free spin-zone perspective designed to bolster and support his own personal prejudices. And we can prove that not only via recourse to how he chooses to describe his own enjoyment of alcohol perpendicular to his mischaracterization of cannabis ... but also by taking a look at the substance behind his rhetorical stabs at the much-maligned "health regulators" on the issue of how prohibition has played out for synthetic cannabis.

Roughan claims that "years have passed and we don't see or hear anything about" an "underground" market in synthetic cannabinoids. In answer to that, here's a link to an NZ Police press release from just four days ago about a series of raids on houses involved in the synthetic cannabinoid trade. Here's another piece from last month which features a police raid in Canterbury netting a whole kilogram of the stuff.

Now this is not to argue that taking synthetic cannabinoids off the shelves was a bad idea. With people still evidently being seriously hospitalized on a reasonably regular basis through synthetic cannabis use, there's clearly a strong argument that restricting the availability of that substance had some clear merit to it in the name of harm minimization. Instead, it is to simply point out that Roughan hasn't bothered to let facts of any stripe burden him as he reaches for a Talkback-grade personal opinion on issues which he has no problem admitting he's fairly utterly ignorant about.

And in any case, if Roughan's comparison between synthetic and natural cannabis were to hold any water, we'd be expecting to see a similar raft of regular and ongoing potentially life-threatening hospitalizations from simple natural cannabis usage. We don't, and never have done. Although interestingly, Roughan's own preferred drug of choice, alcohol, continues to stock emergency-rooms and police cells in staggering numbers which dwarf in scale the harms wrought by cannabis or even synthetics.

I wonder why he doesn't mention that.

What Roughan's column represents is the comfortable and easy prejudices of a section of the National-voting middle class come out to play. It is not in any way, shape or form, a substantive analysis - and is interesting only for the breathtaking breadth of willful ignorance which some attempted-opinion-shapers in this country intentionally cling to when it comes to upsetting the apple-cart on a status quo that demonstrably isn't working.

Whenever a new idea whose time has come appears to be slouching toward Bethlehem for impending immanentization, there will always be armchair critics. Men whose lack of imagination is inflamed and anguished at having to envision a world where their own personal prejudices are not the dominant force in the legislative-political cosmos.

As the momentum for change grows, so too do their howls of discontent voiced through the popular media and presses. And that is a sad thing, indeed - for the increased harmonics of their oft-impressively shrill tones can occasionally even succeed in discolouring or, worse, outright destabilizing the course and progress of the rational and reasonable debate taking place around them.

It is clear now that one of the arguments which will be deployed in the immediate future to oppose sensible reform of our cannabis laws, will be the Government's previous insensible experimentation with synthetic highs.

But the New Zealand Public will not be fooled.

The most accurate line in Roughan's column was also its conclusion - that it's "none of [his] business".

As applies the eventual course and outcome of this debate ... I can hardly say I disagree.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Life After Winston Part Three: Game of Jones

Two years after he quit Parliament to become New Zealand’s “Ambassador for Pacific Economic Development”, Shane Jones is rumoured to be plotting a comeback. This time, as the Member for Whangarei. TDB readers may recall our post in June last year ‘Life After Winston - On The Future Leadership of NZ First’. In it, we cast some light on Shane Jones’ relationship with Winston Peters and NZ First. Now we reveal new information about the back-room political manoeuvring that is going on in Whangarei.
Newshub’s Lloyd Burr broke the Whangarei story on 10 March. The timing could not have been better. Prime Minister John Key and Winston Peters were in town to mark the start of work on the Hundertwasser Art Centre. He ambushed both. Could National lose Whangarei to Shane Jones? “That’s not likely to happen in my view,” Key said tersely. Peters was less direct, though visibly more relaxed: “I'm not able to talk to anybody in the diplomatic core on a political matter.”  

Of course the man himself would not comment. So who, or what, is behind the sudden media interest about a Jones candidacy? To the best of our knowledge, Shane Jones is not and has never been a member of New Zealand First. It makes sense, then, that Jones’ biggest supporters are outside of the party.
TDB can reveal that the push for Jones to stand in Whangarei is linked to the “Grow Northland Rail” campaign and members of the Rail and Maritime Transport Union. The alliance between rail interests and NZ First goes back to 2012 and former NZ First MP Brendan Horan, who established a close working relationship with a Whangarei-based RMTU organiser during his campaign to highlight rail safety and advocate for key infrastructural improvements and line reopenings. The same organiser is behind an informal campaign to ‘draft’ Shane Jones and unseat National MP Dr. Shane Reti. Said organizer also sent us the below-reproduced image in the hopes that we'd be able to help the cause by sharing it far and wide.

We understand he has even approached figures in NZ First, Labour and the Greens to discuss the possibility of an electoral pact that would give Jones a clear run. This would theoretically involve both Labour and the Greens standing aside in Whangarei with the goal of affording as many of their combined total of ten thousand votes to Jones as possible. 

Winston Peters’ ethical opposition to such backroom deals makes it unlikely, however. It nevertheless demonstrates that Jones has an identifiable support base independent of the Party and that his potential candidacy in Whangarei should be taken seriously. But let’s remember that as well as being a friend to the unions, Jones is also a friend to the National Party.

Last year, we received information that a senior National Party operative was openly discussing the implications of a Shane Jones-led NZ First. Jones, they reasoned, would be easier to control than Winston - or Ron Mark, for that matter. He had, after all, already demonstrated a capacious willingness to cripple Labour by abandoning his old party in the run-up to the 2014 Election in exchange for a bespoke-fit personally created sinecure position gifted to him by the National Party. NZ First would therefore potentially be transformed almost overnight into an obsequious Nat coalition partner a la ACT or United Future – devoid of principle, and concerned only with having a “seat at the table” in much the same way as the Maori Party.

In other words, some in National have already made the tangible calculation that those self-same mercenary proclivities they took advantage of with regard to Jones two years ago are still in evidence today - meaning that he could well be bought off (again). Worse, if National - or factions thereof - were to assist Jones in his rise to power in either the Whangarei constituency or New Zealand First's internal politics, they might well consider Jones to be already 'bought and paid for' by the time the presumptive 2020 coalition/confidence & supply negotiations rolled around.

However, if Jones is serious about his leadership aspirations (rather than merely returning from the Pacific as an electorate or list MP in perpetuity), then there is one other crucial group whose opinion must be considered: the NZ First Parliamentary Caucus he'd presumably be climbing over the backs of in pursuit of first the Deputy Leadership, before eventually going for the top job. Despite the potency of a potential Winston endorsement, Jones would still need to command the support of at least a bare majority of his presumptive Parliamentary colleagues if an internal election for the Deputy Leadership and/or Leadership were to be held.

In this, Jones would face something of an uphill fight. Many in NZ First's Caucus are strongly loyal to current Deputy Leader Ron Mark - as was seen during the ouster of former Deputy Leader Tracey Martin in June of last year.

This makes Martin a potent potential ally for Jones. She has at least one or two supporters left in Caucus who would presumably vote with her if she so requested, as well as other assets to draw upon within the Party and its governing infrastructure more broadly that could be helpful with bringing Jones 'inside the tent'. She would also have several things to gain from helping Jones, including a potential shot at something she'd have difficulty doing herself - deposing and heading off the leadership ambitions of the man whom she feels "usurped" her Deputy Leadership position; while also affording her a shot at being given back her 'old job' as Deputy once Jones took the Leadership.

This logic is sufficiently self-evident that we are given to understand at least one of the camps previously named in this piece has already extended feelers to Martin with a view towards sounding out her potential support for such a maneuver. 

As well as Martin, there is another senior party figure in Wellington whom we believe is supportive of Jones. In our June post we reported that Director of Operations Api Dawson had approached Jones about the possibility of defecting to NZ First as early as 2012. Dawson has previously been close to Ron Mark, but is also a pragmatist who has his eye on government.

So, all things considered -while the RMTU's efforts at liasing with New Zealand First in order to get Northland rail back on track are to be commended ... we would warn our comrades up north to think very carefully about what wagons are potentially hitched to that particular engine of change.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Youth Employment, Training and Education - NZ First Private Members' Bill Series Part 3

As I may have remarked several times before on this blog, one of my favourite MPs from NZ First's 2014 intake is Darroch Ball. There's good reason for this. The relevant Minister (Anne Tolley) is afraid of him; he's not afraid to call a ground-breaking instrument a spade when it comes to issues in his portfolio; but most important of all, he's an 'ideas man' - and puts his demonstrable intelligence to work coming up with actual, practicable legislative solutions to our issues as a Nation.

The latest piece of evidence for this is contained in Darroch's most recent Private Member's Bill, the 'Youth Employment, Training and Education' bill.

This is a revolutionary concept which proposes to help some of the 71,000 young people presently not engaged in any form of education, employment or training (or NEETs, for short), by providing an alternative pathway into these fields for youths aged 15-17 through the New Zealand Defence Force and Ministry of Social Development.

What the scheme will do is allow kids in that age-range to transfer straight from school into an Army/MSD-run program that will teach the youths in question a trade and some skills, instill discipline through living in a controlled environment, provide a ready and skilled labour force for community improvement by local governments, and also pay the kids a training wage - the majority of which will be paid out upon their 'graduation' from the program (potentially allowing them to fund an OE, a car and the bond for a flat, or even perhaps contribute to the down-payment on a mortgage for a house). At the end of the scheme, they'll be helped into employment (if they wish) thanks to the Government providing a twelve month subsidy incentive to employers to hire them.

In short, it's about providing an alternative to the upper years of high school for many of the young people who're demonstrably not being engaged by the education system at present, without letting their potential go to waste. And, in so doing, set them up for a productive, prosperous future rather than leaving them to languish as we evidently do now.

The scheme is not entirely novel in its execution, either. The NZDF-run Limited Service Volunteer program which Darroch's bill is partially inspired by has an enviable success rate itself - more than 85% of enlistees graduate the program, of which 60% then find work or other engagement. There's also interesting information showing that LSV graduates then stay off the benefit more than any other comparable group for some years after completing the program. Those are the positive numbers deliverable after a mere six weeks of work with at-risk youth. Now imagine how much of an impressive change a full three-year program with a comprehensive suite of trades and employable-skills training will make for a kid.

This will literally turn lives around for thousands, and get them off to a great start with adulthood.

And while those of us without children might view the prospective merits of this proposed solution as being somewhat academic, consider this:

A 2013 study by AUT economists pegged the costs to both the public purse and the wider economy of young people not presently engaged in education, training or employment - i.e. the group this scheme is designed to help - at around $27,000 a year per head. [1] There's 71,000 of them.

That represents combined total costs to all of us of around 2.4 billion dollars: $1.39 billion in terms of lost productivity and wages, and more than a billion dollars of taxpayer money in the form of benefit money and forgone tax revenue. [2]

We can do something to stem this tide. We can recover some of this lost potential human promise.

We can support Darroch's bill.

During my previous career as an educator working in low-decile schools, I lost count of the number of young people I encountered who would have benefited hugely from a scheme like this. There's so many high school students out there who find that the academic environment of high school - with its often seemingly teleological if not outright myopic focus upon preparing kids for university entrance - ill-fitting for them.

As it stands at the moment at high school, these kids find themselves drifting through if not dropping out thanks to disengagement - and going on from there to lives of unemployment, crime or idleness. It's sad, but the conventional strictures of the Education Act (specifically, s20 thereof) do not, at present, allow us to do terribly much to help them. By the time they hit their late teens (the minimum age at which they can opt out of school), it is in many cases too late for an easy - and life-changing - intervention. Former students face the choice between looking for qualificationless entry-level jobs that often simply aren't there, or embracing long term unemployment and all that goes with it.

When it passes, Darroch's bill will create an alternative pathway - using the transformative power of the state to establish an alternative for these young people, which will be available for them before that time-critical point of arguable no return in their late teens. The fact that they'll effectively be employed (and paid) while also being trained, educated, and providing a solid service to their local community is key.

In a month that's seen much discussion about the legacy-projects of vainglorious politicians, I'm genuinely excited that this bill presents tangible evidence that there's at least one MP out there actually thinking about how he can make an enduring difference on into the future for our people and nation.

There are some caveats, of course. Recruits for the Youth Employment, Training and Education scheme are not soldiers - nor will they be treated as such. While subject to military discipline, they shall obviously not be used in a combat capacity, deployed overseas, given weapons training, or allowed to handle live ammunition. In addition to their trades or vocational training, recruits will also be required to attain a minimum of NCEA Level 2 Literacy and Numeracy qualifications - thus setting them up for prospective entry into further education should they so wish.

So all in all, even though - or perhaps especially because - this bill carries a heavy weight of detail and economic analysis in its reasoning ... I am a thorough convert. It is no exaggeration to state that I find this to be one of the best Private Members' Bills yet produced by any MP in this Parliament.

I do not state that because I know Darroch personally, nor because I am some form of NZ First uber-hack. Instead, I say it as someone who spent the best part of a decade proximate to the individuals this bill is designed to help, and who has grown up in and around the educational environment.

With that in mind, I look forward to watching this blessed "YETE" lope off into the sunset of a better tomorrow for literally tens of thousands of our young people.

[1] Pacheco, G. & Dye, J.. (2013). Estimating The Cost Of Youth Disengagement In New Zealand (Department of Economics Working Paper Series). Auckland: AUT University.
[2] Pacheco, G. & Dye, J.. (2013). Estimating The Cost Of Youth Disengagement In Auckland (New Zealand Work Research Institute). Auckland: AUT University.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Unpopular Opinion: The Flag Debate Hasn't Been A Huge Defeat For Key

There's an engorged sense of triumphalism on the Left, which insists upon seeing even minor setbacks for the ruling party's agenda as huge and dramatic victories in the ongoing war against neoliberalism.

Perhaps it's because we're so starved of wins elsewhere (particularly electorally). Maybe it's because the Opposition are natural optimists (and going up against a National-led government that looks set to enter its fourth term, you presumably have to be in order to keep fighting).

Whyever it happens, various opponents of the present Government spent quite some time seizing upon lackluster polling results in support of flag-change as tacit evidence that Key's Reign of Error was soon to be over.

In speech after speech, Winston and an array of others soared in rhetorical flights of fancy about how Key's ill-conceived and quite literally ill-starred flag-change "vanity project" was sure sign that Key was out of touch, out of luck, possibly out of his mind, and soon to be out of office.

I'm not going to deny that some of these things are arguably true, but with a margin of victory for the Old Flag against the Lockwood design narrow enough that a mere 6% swing would have won it ... if Key's out of touch with the Electorate on these sorts of issues, it's by mere meters rather than miles.

The numbers, as they stand, are 1,200,003 voters - 56.6% - in support of the Old Flag, versus 915,008 - 43.2% - for the Lockwood. Turnout was 67.3% - slightly more than ten percentage points lower than that of the 2014 General Election.

This low turnout will inarguably have helped the Prime Minister's preferred option. Particularly in postal ballots, the people who care more about an issue are the ones who are likely to turn out. The rest of the 'quiet majority' who didn't bother to vote may potentially disproportionately support the 'status quo' of keeping the flag; but even factoring that in, it's difficult to reconcile the polling and prognostications of political leaders and pundits (including this Newshub/Reid Research poll cited yesterday showing the Old Flag ahead of the Lockwood by a whopping thirty percentage points) with the comparatively close margin of victory enjoyed by the Old Flag in the actual referendum itself.

It's also difficult to square the referendum's result with Winston's claim upon hearing the numbers that this represented a "rout" for the Prime Minister.

This isn't a full-scale, disorganized withdrawal for National. And certainly not a 'white flag'. Instead, in tactical terms at any rate, at best it represents a "retreat in good order". Key's personal popularity may potentially take a hit - but partially due to National's own effectively divided internal stance on the issue, it's certainly conceivable that National's brand overall will suffer relatively little harm.

Instead, "flag debate", "vandalize our [flapping] heritage", "tried to get rid of the flag", and "vanity project" will be destined to become the sort of also-ran Leftist barely rallying-cries that "Sold our Assets!" and "Stripmined our Environment!" became after the 2011 Election. That is to say, words "full of sound and fury", but ultimately "signifying nothing" for the many thousands of otherwise swing-voters who continue to support National.

We aren't going to be getting rid of Key due to this flag-debate or its result.

That said, in strategic terms, there may potentially be some more serious repercussions for National. Though they won't necessarily say it openly, for many rural and conservative types, the attempted flag-change will likely form yet another nail in the coffin for their ongoing support for the Government. The lid's not firmly hammered down yet, but the trajectory which started with things like the PM's support for equality of marriage and continued with gambling-funded convention centers and a signing away of our sovereignty through the TPPA, may potentially lead to a noticeable acceleration in the steady stream of former-Nats who've been gradually making their way over to NZ First of late.

The lingering disquiet that will surely settle in about fiscal priorities now that the much-quoted $26 million which has evidently been wasted on a failed referendum, will also further chip into National's popularity and fiscal credibility. Coupled with recent funding cuts for the Police in tandem with a spate of larghessious renovations for Ministerial premises ... a decidedly disquieting pattern in National's funding decisions begins to reveal itself: symbols (whether MoBIE statues, "Cinderella-Stairs", or flags) are prioritized over actual instruments of change.

Anyway, back to the flag results. With that tight of a margin between the Old Flag and the Lockwood, I feel safe in saying that had there been a better option on offer for replacing the flag with, New Zealanders may very well have chosen to go with that instead.

As one of my associates put it, the flag referendum result "resembles the Republic vote in Australia [in 1999], where they had the bad alternative of Parliament voting for the President". The end result of that referendum was defeat for a Republic, even though people might have supported the establishment of one in principle, because of the manifest defectiveness of the proffered option for reform.

The same thing may very well have happened here.

Or, perhaps the closeness of the vote is instead reflective of the sheer level of time, energy, money, men, materials, and "celebrity endorsements" which National has been pouring in to this debate on its side.

Either way, three things are certain:

National is still in government; John Key is still the Prime Minister (albeit with perhaps a bit of his shiny rubbing off); and the Old Flag is still, for now at least, The Flag.

There are also serious and real issues facing New Zealand at present. They haven't gone away, even if we have all found ourselves oft-distracted by this annoying, messy sideshow.

Now that that's gone away, the Opposition have no choice but to try to make real change with real issues.

I wish us the very best of luck.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Winston Peters, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump

As noted by Toby Manhire last week, "an informal search has begun to find "New Zealand's Donald Trump".

The list of contenders include, in no particular order of relevance, Chris Bishop (National), Phil Twyford (Labour), Chris Finlayson (National), Bob Jones (Curmudgeon), John Key (National), Gareth Morgan (Cat-Waller), and Peter Dunne (Also-National, Sort-of).

All of these have features which are, undeniably, at least vaguely Trump-esque - ranging from the fact that several of them are very wealthy through to the inarguable contention that one of them has awesome, comment-worthy hair.

But one name stands astride the fray like a colossus, and seemingly perches itself upon everybody's lips the moment the phrases "Donald Trump" and "New Zealand Politics" smash like a train-wreck into one another.

That name, of course, is Winston Peters.

In pretty much every article put out making direct or oblique comparison between the US Presidential Primaries and our own (inestimably superior/saner) Parliamentary politics, you'll find authors not-so-subtly suggesting that Winston is our local-Trump-equivalent. WhaleOil even presaged the trend by spending several years scurrilously alleging that Winston's hair was, in fact, a toupee - exactly the same sort of irrelevant attack about allegedly fake hair that people often used to lodge at Trump.

But whereas there are some obvious surface similarities between The Win and The Don - such as their rampant if not outrightly bellicose public style, disdain for journalists, and penchant for saying the word "China" - there's also some pretty important differences, too.

Trump is able to pour millions, if not billions of dollars (largely of his own money) into the campaign. Winston, by contrast, while I've seen him dig into his pocket to fund NZ First activities on numerous occasions ... is pretty much the antithesis of a big-money, big-media candidate. When we experienced our meteoric re-entry into Parliament in 2011, we did it not by thunderously hammering our opponents with cheque-book missiles or dominating the air-waves. We did so by mobilizing hundreds of little old ladies to run cake-stalls, and getting thousands of marginalized and downtrodden Kiwi voters to pack out community halls for meetings. We did that because we didn't have a deep-pockets financial backer - and because the only way to get around the seeming media blackout we endured for much of the campaign, was through the decidedly old-fashioned ways of word of mouth and speaking to packed crowds.

Now hold on a minute ... media blackout, packed speaking venues, and running a shoe-string campaign financed by the generous (if small-scale) donations of ordinary people.

That doesn't sound like Donald Trump.

Gosh! In fact, that sounds like Bernie Sanders!

But it isn't just a matter of some serious overlap in the way their campaigns work, or the fact that for each of Bernie and Winston, the phrase "insurgent appeal" means less "well-publicized surge" and more "steadily-growing, under-the-radar" and decidedly anti-establishmentarian appeal.

There's considerable coterminity to be had in the platforms they run on, too. Both are from what you might term the economic left of the political spectrum - furiously opposing "financial derivatives trading wide-boys" and "Wall St Bankers", while promising a resurrected and strengthened role for the state in the economy (in Winston's case, through straight-up nationalizations) ... and even both making a big deal out of restoring the dream of accessible tertiary education by making it free. They're not fans of big business, big banks, or the extant neoliberal consensus which has economically disenfranchised so efficiently so many.

As I put it in my previous piece on this issue:

"They’re both physically aging figures who yet manage to move with the levity and rhetorical grace of youth. They run things around Establishment and big-money opponents who’re often men and women closer to being half their age. They represent the fight-back and strike-back of a democratic and state-lead economic politics of the sort commonly practiced throughout the Western World for much of the latter half of the 20th Century (before we ditched it all and traded in our functioning social state for the hill of magic beans wrapped up in a Pandora’s Package promised by Neoliberalist reform).

They stands for the ordinary, common man – his hopes, his dreams, his aspirations."

Interestingly, when it comes to the issue of immigration and the economic impacts of importing foreign labour on a host economy's workers and labour force - the area in which the Trump-Winston comparisons seem to draw much of their head of steam from - Sanders and Peters don't appear to be reading off especially different song-sheets. 

Bernie Sanders has long maintained that the effects of an unchecked flow of migrants upon the American workforce would not be a positive one. As he himself said in 2007: "If poverty is increasing and if wages are going down, I don’t know why we need millions of people to be coming into this country as guest workers who will work for lower wages than American workers and drive waged down even lower than they are now."

That's rhetoric which, if one altered the demonyms in play, would sound entirely at home coming out of Winston's mouth at an NZ First campaign rally.

In terms of political bona-fides, as well, Peters & Sanders resemble each other far more closely than does Peters & Trump. Both men are hoary political veterans, who've held public office for decades and have grimoires of war-stories, famed skirmishes and campaign exploits almost as long as they are in the tooth.

This stands in marked contrast to Trump, of course, whose previous idea of putting himself into "public office", was broadcasting his business-meetings to our television screens in reality-tv format. And whose prior experience at wielding political power was done with the stroke of a pen on his chequebook rather than in drafting or enacting legislation or executive orders.

But this is not to say that New Zealand lacks its very own Donald Trump expy. In fact, quite the contrary.

It's just that it's someone whom the scrabbling press, pundits and politicians haven't thought to name yet in their tumble for an opportune sniping point.

Consider this: who's an excessively rich property developer who's attempted to buy his way into politics, having never held public office before and running on what some might term an extremist (whilst certainly anti-certain-parts-of-the-(political)-Establishment) platform, whose potentially broader appeal is somewhat hampered by his occasionally bizarre pronouncements? Pronouncements of self-aggrandizement which, I note, have involved speaking about himself positively in the third person...

Why, it's Colin Craig, of course. Who else.

I'm genuinely surprised that none of our established commentariat appear to have come out with such a direct, and easily applicable analogy. Perhaps it's because they feel there's no political value for their own agendas to be had in making the comparison. Or maybe we've simply forgotten about Craig and his multi-million dollar political eccentricities entirely.

So let's be clear about this, going forward. Pretty much every "X IS DONALD TRUMP!" comparison you hear going forward is going to be little more than a petty political barb wrapped up in current affairs like takeaway fish and chips. The only substance involved in many of them is hairspray.

If we look at the actual evidence before us, those scurrilous attacks of this nature - such as that launched by Rodney Hide in yesterday's Herald on Sunday - are quickly revealed for the baseless, politically motivated charges that they are.

And yet in this game, words have power - and persuasion has force altogether beyond the rhetorical.

Trump knows this. And so too do all the people, the politicians and the pundits out there attempting to influence your domestic political support and enthusiasm for Winston by comparing him to Trump.

Don't let them win.