Thursday, May 26, 2016

Smoking Tax Hike Is Shortsighted Smoke And Mirrors - Budget 2016



One of the core functions to modern taxation is to influence behavior. Activities which have perceived positive benefits (such as taking up private health insurance, which eases pressure on the public healthcare system) are encouraged via tax-breaks ... while goods, services and pursuits which seem to have negative consequences for users and those around them are discouraged via punitive additional revenue-raising.

We generally call these "excise taxes" or "sin taxes", and while they're often levied with the explicit and express purpose of "internalizing externalities" (to use the economics jargon) by putting money in the pocket of the state to pay for damages caused by the consumption or production of the product in question ... but as we can clearly see with smoking (wherein the cost to the economy and healthcare system of smokers was long since paid for and then some by taxes levied on tobacco some time ago), there is also often a secondary purpose to these taxes.

Expressing societal disapproval.

Now whatever you might think about raising revenue as an overt form of condemnation of something we view as undesirable, something interesting occurred to me while looking at the figures from yesterday's budget.

The increase in price for a packet of cigarettes to around thirty dollars apiece is projected to generate about 425 million dollars worth of taxation revenue.

That's just a little sort of the estimated $490 million per year which the top twenty tax-dodging multinationals suck out of our government's coffers through creative and cunning unethical structurings of their financial affairs.

Now unless I've missed something drastic, despite vociferous demands from a number of quarters that the government's 2016 Budget do something about this problem - both in the name of revenue-raising, and at least somewhat purely for the principle of the thing - it would appear that National's still frankly unconcerned about this issue.

As mentioned at the outset of this piece, one role of taxation policy is to disincentivize certain behaviors - and, in extremis, to express societal condemnation for the activities in question.

Large-scale tax-avoidance to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars per annum is quite clearly something which ought to be stamped out and disincentivized. I would also posit that the widespread popular scorn for such activities when they came to light again most recently in an NZ Herald expose additionally suggests that there is much societal enthusiasm for expressing condemnation at the perpetrators in question, and hitting them in their ill-gotten bottom lines.

It is a frank demonstration of their priorities and ethical valuations, along with who and what they care about, that National are prepared to prioritize levying a lower figure of revenue from smokers - ordinary people - over securing a higher figure through cracking down upon the dodgy dealings of the rich and powerful corporate few.

This is particularly the case given the well-known regressive nature of consumptive taxes in general, and excise taxes levied on smoking in particular.

The way it works is that people on lower incomes spend far more of their income than do the wealthy. Therefore, taxes upon what we spend consume a far greater proportion of their income than the incomes of the rich.

In addition to this, cigarette smoking is disproportionately a feature of the 'working' classes. It's been steadily declining amongst 'upper income earners' and bureaucratic 'movers and shakers' for quite some time now. Thus, cigarette tax increases hit those in lower tax-brackets the hardest.

There are also racial preponderances when it comes to who in our society will be predominantly affected by this tax-hike. Thirty five percent of Maori, and twenty two percent of Pasifika people versus fifteen percent of the general population.

So what the government has in fact said with this curious decision to massively increase taxation revenue derived from smoking ... is that they're quite comfortable with extracting hundreds of millions of dollars more at the direct expense of the poorer, browner, and presumably less likely National-voting segments of their community.

And, in so doing, conspire to let their rich mates 'off the hook' when it comes to taxation policy reform elsewhere, while also putting a bit of extra 'fiscal headroom' in the tank to further 'justify' electoral-bribe tax-cuts either immediately before or immediately after the next Election.

Apart from this, about the only way this policy makes any semblance of strategic sense is if we conclude it’s one of those “Dead Cat” stunts we’ve recently heard so much about. If you’re unfamiliar with the technique, it’s what happens when a party that’s potentially vulnerable on an issue puts an even more immediately comment-inducing issue upon the table in the hopes of providing a bit of a ‘distraction’ from whatever it is that’s previously been plaguing it. In this instance, National may very well have held a back-room strategic discussion and decided the best way to take some measure of wind out of the sales of other swells of discontent as applies taxation policy (whether the aforementioned $490 million in taxes being dodged by top multinational firms here; or the wider demands for reform of NZ’s tax laws in the wake of the Panama Papers), is to put out a fairly prominent piece of new policy (the cigarette tax hike) which will get everyone talking  about that instead – yet which it’s very difficult for many sides to obviously and readily oppose. Progressives, after all, can’t really be let themselves perceived as pro-smoking.

Except one.

To nobody's especial surprise, New Zealand First Leader (and inveterate smoker) Winston Peters is pretty much the only party-political figure of note coming out against the change.

He's quite correctly pointed out that due to the nature of an addictive consumable like cigarettes (which are what economists would call a good that is "inelastic" in consumption), increasing the price of a pack isn't going to lead to people cutting them out altogether. But instead, to money which could otherwise be diverted into worthy ends like feeding one's kids being rather used to buy cigarettes. 

This is a social outcome which really benefits nobody except the taxman.

But it gets worse.

As a number of commentators and observers have pointed out, the recent spike in thefts, ram-raids and burglary against dairies, service stations and convenience stores over the last few months has chiefly been driven by previous rounds of cigarette excise tax increases. The spiraling price of tobacco has put satiating their habits out of financial reach of many low-income consumers, yet it hasn't necessarily lead them to stop smoking. Instead, cigarettes are stolen rather than bought - and a thriving black market in illicit tobacco has been created in consequence.

Will the $425 million in extra taxation revenue this policy creates be used to properly staff and resource Police so they can respond to ever more (occasionally quite brutal) cigarette heists? I think not.

All things considered, on both dynamics I've touched on in this article - increases in tax on cigarettes, and a complete lack of interest in properly enforcing tax-collection on wealthy multinationals - National has displayed an almost callous lack of foresight; prioritizing easy and low-hanging fruit limited revenue gains over genuinely useful (if a little more difficult to garner) policy initiatives that would actually be in our long-term interest.

Come to think of it, that pretty much sums up their attitude to government all up.

Winston Was Right: Australian Media Backs Peters On Budget & Immigration



Well this is interesting, isn't it. The Australian media's managed to join the same dots Winston has in the run-up to today's Budget - yet which mysteriously appear to elude the general comprehension of our National party.

New Zealand's public services are, in some areas, being run down. We've already seen tangible evidence of this in the form of the government's decision to close up a number of police stations in the name of cost-cutting. They're also refusing to engage in much-needed new spending in core areas such as paid parental leave.

Why is the government indulging in cost-cutting rather than engaging in service provision?

Because they want to pay down debt.

Why do they want to pay down debt?

Because they want to be able to dole out several billion dollars worth of tax cuts either just before or just after the 2017 General Election, as part of their bid to win a much-vaunted - indeed, nay mythical post-MMP - 4th Term.

They certainly need something potent to distract the electorate's attention from the steadily increasing overweening arrogance of the government in general and the Prime Minister specifically.

The trouble with this (well, one issue out of very many) is that there is a dual-ended squeeze going on with our public services.

At the same time that our government is attempting to put less money into service provision in the name of reducing taxation, strong population growth through high net migration to New Zealand means that shrinking level of public services is spread out over an ever-increasing number of people.

This means that even if we WEREN'T adding 68,110 people a year to our country - a population easily the size of Nelson - we would be feeling the pinch. As it is, large scale immigration (arguably used by the Nats to keep the economy buoyant by adding demand and the cash immigrants bring with them to settle here) is inarguably exacerbating these problems.

Now I'm a bit different from some in New Zealand First, in that I don't tend to believe that simply cutting immigration is the first-line or even largest part of the solution to our upcoming public service crunch.

Instead, I'd much rather the conversation were focused around sensible alterations to our national tax regimen designed to put more revenue into the government's coffers so as to pay for proper, first-world public services. We could start with reversing Bill English's "fiscally neutral" 2010 tax cuts - which apart from putting a hole in the books that's now equivalent to well over six billion dollars, also regressivized our tax system and lead to lower income families and beneficiaries actually paying MORE tax in order to fund taxation-cuts for the wealthy. We could also review mechanisms around tax evasion and tax avoidance, to open up some of the anywhere between two and seven billion dollars sucked out of the government's revenue stream (and therefore service provision) through tax fraud and evasion. And speaking of foreign arrivals, the accounting tricks used by big multi-national firms to avoid paying their fair share of taxes here in New Zealand (responsible for tax-losses of perhaps $500 million a year) need to be stamped out.

It's probably completely unsurprising that the government's been well appraised of that last issue for some years now, and doesn't appear to have done anything substantial in the interim to solve it.

But if the National party is going to insist upon persisting with its economic austerity-lite agenda of service cuts in the hope of future election-bribe tax reductions ... then it needs to be clear and honest about whether what even Bill English concedes to be fiscally problematic population growth delivered through substantial immigration numbers is, in fact, sustainable.

The only party leader who's publicly noted that we're in this situation is Winston Peters.

Which means we effectively have a choice as a nation. We either restrain population growth, or we start taxing properly.

Unfortunately, the government seems to have the gumption to do neither. And as a result, we all pay the price in reduced services - regardless of where we come from.





Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Weird Scenes Inside The Goldmine: On Internal Changes Within NZ First And What It Might Mean For 2017



To quote Galadriel, the world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air.

I witnessed it capaciously at the Back Benches-styled event put on by the Auckland University Students Association last week.

But what was this change that's gotten me sufficiently on-edge to be implicitly categorizing-by-allusion it alongside the corrupting and pernicious influence of that most hackneyed of NZ filmmaking tropes, The One Ring?

Simple.

Some of the developments and trends in NZF's membership which may have been awhile coming, but which I felt reached something of their zenith and apotheosis during the proceedings at the aforementioned AUSA debate some ten days ago.

Allow me to illustrate.

The evening started off reasonably well. The Young NZ First (for such we are now called) representative, newly elected Chairman Connor McFayden, didn't do too badly for a first time outing. And, in fact, I found myself both inwardly and outwardly cheering when he railed against the "evils" of leaving important economic functions up to the vicissitudes of the free market.

But despite the few hours I'd spent training him on the Saturday afternoon immediately before the debate, the best putting across of NZ First policy on the night was done by the Young Labour and Young Greens reps.

Which caused a bit of a problem, because a not insignificant number of the 'new recruits' to our Youth Wing took to booing said policy, and yelling out jaundiced interjections along the lines of "COMMIE!" and the like.

"Er ... guys ... you *do* realize that's our policy you're booing?" I carefully ventured.

"But we're *against* Big Government!" came the reply.

I riposte'd: "...did you not hear your rep railing against the evils of the market 15 minutes ago? Here in NZ First, we *are* Big Government!"

And while I could have gone on at quite some length about this theme (citing such instances as NZ First's renationalization of Kiwirail in 2005; our proposals to bring a seriously vast section of the economy under direct governmental control in the areas of insurance, construction, electricity generation, and many other areas besides; or, for that matter the fact that many of our members are outwardly and avowedly #Muldoonist with an enthusiasm for throwing around terms like 'Think Big') ... by this point the flow of the main debate we were there to see had moved on, so there the conversation ended.

Following on from this and some other incidents with the 'new crowd' that evening, another longstanding comrade who's been with the Party almost as long as I have (the best part of a decade) turned to me and simply said "...this isn't the Party we signed up to, mate".

Now this might sound all a bit passe. A mere difference of opinion as to what a Party stands for in a pub-room type setting between a hoary old veteran, and some still-blinkered neophytes.

And yet, it speaks towards greater trends which are already sweeping us, and seeking - in essence - to begin to have wrought some considerable and capricious changes upon the ever-beating heart, nervous systems and twangy sinews of our mighty Part.

In short, over the last few months I and a number of others have witnessed some steadily spiraling slithers in Party demography, which are already generating some subtle - yet with the potential to be serious - shifts in Party ideology, ethos, and thus policy and political orientation.

What's caused this, is simple and threefold.

First, as cannot have escaped anybody's notice, New Zealand First has recently been doing incredibly well in both polling and in The House. Success is always going to attract more followers, and the prospect of a Party Caucus which might very well have doubled by this time next Electoral Cycle will no doubt act as a clarion angler-fish lure to all manner of craven opportunists. There is nothing wrong with more people in a Party - it means more warm bodies to pack halls, put up hoardings, be tapped for donations, and even hopefully vote for us come Election Day.

The issue is where these new supporters are coming from.

Historically, New Zealand First has depended in large part for our electoral success upon defecting ex-Labour voters (and a certain number of former-or-more-usually Greens) looking to cast a 'strategic vote' in our direction. Either because they recognize that we are the leading and loudest Opposition Party in Parliament - or because they've done the somewhat arcane electoral math, and worked out that the best way of denying National an easy Majority in the House is by ensuring NZ First gets over the 5% threshold, and takes some literal seats (list seats) off the larger parties. (as if we get *under 5%*, then those votes are 'wasted', and the seats we would have gotten are redistributed to those parties who are over the magic line - which will, predictably, favour the largest party in Parliament, which is almost invariably going to be National).

In 2011 alone, I believe up to and perhaps over 50% of our Party Votes came from exactly these sources.

The risk for New Zealand First is that any serious or significant moves in a 'rightwards' direction will alienate these supporters. Not merely in a "will think twice before casting a capricious 'strategic' vote our way" sense - but because many of these people are no longer purely "strategic" supporters of the Party, and now have some genuine semblance of loyalty towards what's arguably the most vociferously anti-Neoliberal Party presently in the House. They fit in quite well - and like, in other words, the fact that we've historically run an economic policy which is decidedly and identifiably to the left of Labour. (occasionally also specifically because we have tended to focus almost myopically on core economic issues while not getting entangled in high-profile social policy stands-on-principle)

These guys aren't the issue.

What *is*, are the new influx I was mentioning earlier. You might like to think of them as a newfound 'conservative' wing of the Party.

They come from two general sources.

The first one are Conservative Party refugees. As we're all well aware, the Conservative Party messily - if not outright spectacularly - imploded about a year ago. Many Conservative Party people were in the CCCP [Colin Craig's Conservative Party] because they didn't fit in with National and didn't like Winston Peters either, yet still had some core beliefs about opposition to asset sales or favourability for referendums and direct democracy which lead to some more than slight policy coterminity with NZ First.

Now that the Cons have gone, they've got nowhere else to really go. They can't exactly return 'back home' to National, as the Nats have been perceived as 'doubling down' on social liberalism and economic neoliberalism ... so they're turning up in slowly growing numbers here.

But "Capital C" Conservatives aren't the only ones presently immigrating to our political shores in droves.

"Small C" (with your choice as to the number of letters immediately following) conservatives fleeing National have also begun arriving.

Some of these guys are alright. There's always been what you might term a "Muldoonist" ideological rump left-over in National from their 'glory days' pre-Rogernomics and Ruthanasia; so as it's become increasingly impossible for these folk to deny through ever-heightened cognitive dissonance the fundamentally anti-Muldoonist inflection of their former parent party ... they've quite naturally followed the 'political ley-lines', as it were, over to us. Motivated by issues such as opposition to the TPPA, asset sales, and the increasing outright arrogance of the Prime Minister ... it's not hard to see how they can assimilate to a considerable and easy degree into our number and work towards shared and mutually agreeable outcomes.

Interestingly, the Green Party is also experiencing a small but steady influx of "recovering Nats", although presumably for rather different individual reasons (perhaps prioritizing ecological sustainability over raw Statist anti-neoliberalism, albeit with a shared egalitarian ethos between both us and the Greens which is occasionally expressed in rather different ways).

But then, there are the other ones. To continue to consciously borrow an immigration shibboleth, the ones who really don't seem too interested in 'assimilating'.

In fact, as one (himself ex-National) friend of mine put it ... "they're Nats who haven't stopped being Nats. Nats who haven't realized they're now in the wrong Party. Nats who perhaps don't even know they're still Nats."

Some of them are clearly the sorts of people who didn't do much research into the Party they were prospecting for beyond being mildly excited by the "racist" tag we occasionally seem to get in the media. The type who'd probably very well still be in National if National weren't the kind of party to these days send delegations to Gay Pride parades. Needless to say, they don't tend have any actual salient interest in serious policy except insofar as it caters to and reinforces their personal prejudices. (they tend to be quite big on 'anti-immigration' and 'law and order' type issues, but draw blanks when you ask them about our Party's serious economics)

Now, the trouble with all of this is clearly not that we're taking votes off National. I can't stress that enough: it's a GOOD THING for those of us who'd quite like a change of Government that there's a vehicle - or, if you prefer, 'lightning rod' - out there capable of drawing these staidly charged particles away from the great blue stormcloud that's presently occluding our electoral horizon. As people have said time and time again ... you don't win general elections by refusing to take votes off the other side.

However, my pet worry and distaste is that if this strong surge in NZ First recruitment numbers continues at the present pace, we're pretty soon going to have gone from a situation wherein these ill-suited (but occasionally eager) National recruits will have grown from a tiny-but-noticeable minority into a small-yet-vocal sect. Within our tent. Attempting to get us to change the way things are arranged in our tent. Up to and including taking stabs at altering the position of our tent relative to the big blue tent with the three-ring yellow-purple-Maori circus going on inside just down the road, if you get my drift.

Despite what you may have heard, NZ First is a fundamentally democratic party in many ways, so "if this goes on" (to quote my favourite biblical Old Testament prophet maxim), they might very well run the risk of actually being listened to and having some skerrick of influence. (assuming they don't hit the Party Conventions this year and next and find themselves either scared off or beaten into line by the somewhere north of two thirds of NZF who fairly actively despise National as the neoliberal devil incarnate)

But the purpose for this piece isn't merely to have a soap-box hurling rant bemoaning the now steadily apparent differences and dissonances between the Party I grew up in, and the Party which has itself arguably come of stirling age more recently. Electoral vehicles change, evolve, and move about the place on a continuous basis in order to thrive if not simply survive. And in any case, as the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado wrote in his excellently poignant 'Proverbios y cantares', our footsteps are themselves the path - and upon glancing backwards, it is inevitably the case that we find there *was* no path (in the sense of a fixed road which we can re-traverse in the opposite direction) ... just slowly dissipating foam-trails on an endlessly changing and trackless sea.

But just because we cannot, strictly speaking, go back ... does not, no way and no how mean we can't go forward. And, more particularly, forward in the right and proper way.

Which is why I'm writing this piece. To ask a favour.

We, the leftists of New Zealand First - the socialists, the social nationalists, social democrats, democratic socialists, and miscellaneously buzzword-oriented people of no fixed Internationale tendency - need your help.

If we are to counter the rising tide of slack-jawed soft-right 'conservatism' (or whatever you wish to call it) which is steadily (and invitedly) infiltrating our ranks here in NZF, we must fight fire with not more fire but instead its antithesis.

In short, we need principled people of all ages and backgrounds who /understand what is at stake/ to join up with NZ First, get involved internally, and help us to keep the Party at large on the straight and narrow going into 2017, 2020 and beyond.

I have every confidence that NZ First's economic policy quite squarely and firmly aligns us with both the broadly social-democratic and anti-neoliberalist (indeed, anti-National or anti-slash-and-burn or whatever you wish to call it) agendas that have dominated left-wing and Opposition political circles for much of the last decade.

While there are some signs of fraying and changing at the fringes and in the margins (a member on a committee here, a proposed policy remit to Convention there), there is no serious signal that NZ First's principled political orientation is yet under significant threat.

But as we move towards a progressively less-certain future, left-wingers and centrists of all stripes have but two options. Either sit on the sidelines in preparation to jeer and scream and hoot and holler "I TOLD YOU SO" as New Zealand continues to descend into Hell in a Hand Basket ... or taking a stand and taking action with the only Party which, poll-in and poll-out appears to be perfectly poised to lock National out of Parliamentary political power in pulsating perpetuity.

Which is it going to be, New Zealand?

Help us, to help you. Help yourselves to ensure we have a bright, black future.

Help me to Make New Zealand First Great Again.






Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Pieces Align: #BlackGreen2017 And The Green Party's New Chief Of Staff



It's a truism in politics to state that party operations are a beast somewhat overtly resembling an iceberg.

There's what you see 'above the waterline' - MPs making media appearances, press releases and public rhetoric - but also, and arguably much more importantly, that which takes place submerged within the briny, chthonic depths.

Much of what actually shapes and influences our politics and Parliamentary environment today will likely never come to the general public's attention, barring the occasional serious SNAFUs which from time to time forcibly drag the actions and activities of 'political operatives' into the unyielding limelight.

A grand example of this in motion was the #DirtyPolitics saga. All of a sudden, surreptitious and covert maneuverings by a bewildering array of 'backroom boys' to create and shape our Nation's political discourse were in full view of the public. Figures such as Jason Eade had to resign.

But sub-surface political maneuverings, and the spaces where the secondary cogs of various different party-political machines intersect, are not always so incredibly odious in the forms and outcome of their operation.

Something as simple as two politicians meeting up in a bar or Bellamy's can also form the basis for surreptitious political co-operation.

But the personal relationships between potentially rival MPs have historically not proven to be precisely the best foundation for enduring political co-operation between vehicles, leading to common situations wherein certain highly-ranked and trusted staffers are unofficially deputized as prime points of contact with their opposite numbers and the representatives of other parties with a view to forcibly jamming the door open for future political - even coalition - coagulation.

This is speculated to have been one of the lead reasons behind Labour taking on Matt McCarten as its beleaguered Chief of Staff in the run-up to the 2014 Election. Despite David Cunliffe taking public steps to rule out working with Internet-MANA after the election, it was apparently thought that McCarten's strong links to much of the organizational backbone of the MANA Party, and wide mana in harder-left activist circles generally, would provide a fertile avenue for re-opening that door betwixt Labour and InternetMANA in the event that the former required the latter's votes for Confidence & Supply in the House to form a government.

So clearly, the appointment of a party's Chief of Staff is not just the selection of a quality candidate for an important role. It's an implicit, screaming, statement about a party's present and future priorities, as well as where they see themselves in relation to other political actors and vehicles.

Going into the immediate pre-pre General Election run-up, these decisions offer a revealing and powerful insight.

And that is why I was so surprised (perhaps even a little taken aback) at the Green Party's choice of one Deborah Morris-Travers to fill the vacancy at their own Chief of Staff position.

On the face of it, Morris-Travers' appointment makes strong sense. Even leaving aside her previous political experience as both a Parliamentarian and Cabinet Minister (both phenomenally impressive positions to have attained as a comparatively young person of 26) - her work in the PR sector, and demonstrable experience with campaigns and advocacy-work, all combine to grant her a competent resume. She will, no doubt, have built up an impressive trove of contacts, profile, and professional aptitudes.

But what's particularly interesting about Morris-Travers' background, which the Green Party press release which went out in Metiria Turei's name yesterday entirely unsurprisingly fails to mention ... is just where Morris-Travers got her political start from in the first place.

Hint: it certainly wasn't with the Green Party.

She came in at number 9 on the New Zealand First Party list back in 1996 - and quickly made a name for herself as an outspoken progressive, who found herself implacably at odds with some of the older and more conservative political forces of the day.

Sadly, those eventually wound up including her - and my - Leader, Winston Peters, and she eventually ended up resigning from the Party at about the same time the National-NZF Coalition fragmented.

Hm. Smart, young, progressive 26 year old who breaks some stereotypes for NZF before getting offside with Winston and fireballing out. Sounds familiar, doesn't it :P

In any case, the reason why Morris-Travers background is worth mentioning has little to do with minor political arcana from the first MMP Government. Instead, its relevance lies with what's happened since, and more importantly with what might yet unfold.

I am given to understand that Morris-Travers has remained on positive terms with the Party - and with Winston and Ron Mark in particular. The positive citations for both contained in her Valedictory Speech make for illuminating reading. In private, Winston has also previously been complimentary. Interestingly, my Greens sources also suggest that Morris-Travers has been overtly talking up her "close relationship" with Winston to ears within their party.

The significance of Morris-Travers appointment to the Greens' Chief of Staff role, then, lies in the fact that she might well find herself one of those crucial inter-party linkages for the setting up of a prospective post-election governing arrangement in late 2017. And, more importantly, as one of a very few range of political figures both capable and potentially willing to help me bridge one of the more fractious and internecine fault-lines which has historically bedeviled the Left - that which exists between New Zealand First and The Green Party. (As you may recall, Rod Donald publicly compared Winston to Hitler in the run up to 2005, Winston shut The Greens out of Government from 2005-2008, The Greens voted in Parliament to have Winston censured in 2008 after Russel Norman twisted the knife on Winston in the Privileges Committee, then attempted to capitalize upon this for political gain by making an appeal to NZF supporters to abandon our Party for pastures Greener in the run-up to 2011 ... and on and on the cycle of revenge and recrimination went)

Sadly, the conflicts between The Greens and New Zealand First are not a problem which we can safely talk about in the past tense. I am told that there are significant voices within the Green Party who would prefer to run an electoral strategy going into the 2017 General Election of setting up a Government-In-Waiting with Labour which tacitly (if not explicitly) excludes New Zealand First.

Such a strategy would, obviously, be hugely positive for the Greens' own political credibility (as it would start to see them publicly deemed fit to take Ministerial positions and have a serious influence over Government policy from *inside* the tent for a change - they tried something similar in 2014, but due to a lack of Labour interest and some rather ... optimistic demands, were basically laughed out of the room) ... yet of questionable utility in actually securing a left-wing outcome to the 2017 Election.

The numbers, you see, don't add up.

Barring some absolute miracle on par with the Labour Party recruiting its very own Trump equivalent at some point in the next sixteen months ... the Labour Party is likely to remain mired at best in the mid-twenties, and therefore well out of Government range, even with the most optimistic predictions of The Greens polling in the high teens.

The only conceivable Pathway To Government in 2017 for both Labour *and* The Greens lies squarely through New Zealand First.

At this stage, there's no way around it.

So to all my comrades out there who'd rather dearly like to see a progressive change of government come 2017 ... the message is simple.

Best start to be building bridges - not walls.

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.