14 Dec 2018

Week in politics: Apologies, relief and unanswered questions

8:33 pm on 14 December 2018

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - The Prime Minister's unprecedented apology sets off national soul-searching, new ways to deal with the drug scourge and the strange case of Stephen Barclay.

Jacinda Ardern, synthetic cannabis and Stephen Barclay

Photo: RNZ

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's emotional and unprecedented apology to the family of murdered British woman Grace Millane was followed by an outpouring of public grief and a sharp focus on New Zealand's appalling rate of domestic violence.

Ms Ardern's opening statement surprised media at her post-cabinet press conference on Monday - "There is an overwhelming sense of shame, your daughter should have been safe here and she wasn't, and I'm sorry for that."

Thousands attended vigils around the country and there was sudden emphasis on violence against women. Hopefully that emphasis won't be brief, but history tells otherwise.

Figures were produced to support concern, shock was expressed at a report given to Parliament on Wednesday which showed that police were called to 121,733 domestic violence incidents last year - one every four minutes.

Some media treated that as a horrifying revelation, although RNZ reported the statistics in May.

The man accused of murdering Grace Millane waits in prison for trial with interim name suppression.

That restriction, however, doesn't extend beyond New Zealand and British media named him and published details of his Facebook profile. Some local social media outlets were reported to have briefly done the same, and Justice Minister Andrew Little intervened.

He warned British media they could compromise a fair trial and said defence lawyers would seize on anything they could - "If he gets to walk away it's a further injustice to the Millane family".

In Parliament the bill that allows terminally ill people to use cannabis passed its final stage after a long and difficult passage.

"People nearing the end of their lives shouldn't have to worry about being imprisoned for trying to manage their pain," said Health Minister David Clark.

National's leader Simon Bridges described it as decriminalisation by stealth.

"What will the police do when they're outside a school and someone, under this bill, is smoking cannabis?" he asked.

It's been pointed out that not many terminally ill people are likely to be hanging around outside schools.

The bill is carefully drafted and sets up a legal defence for someone found in possession of cannabis if they're terminally ill - but they'll have to prove that. It has been reported there are an estimated 25,000 people in palliative care.

Two more drug-related moves by the government, with far more wide-ranging and potentially controversial potential, were announced on Thursday.

Police will be given stronger powers to deal with synthetic cannabis dealers and the ones they catch could be jailed for life. Synthetic cannabis, which has claimed 52 lives this year, will be classified as a Class A drug.

At the same time, police will be given discretion not to prosecute for drug possession when a therapeutic approach would be "more beneficial". That will allow police to send drug users for treatment instead of prosecuting them.

Surely it's always "more beneficial" for a drug addict to be treated and cured rather than prosecuted and sent to prison.

The problem that's almost certain to arise is the adequacy of treatment centres and trained medical staff to deliver the benefits. The government has put aside $16.6 million for increased community addiction services - getting them up and running, and operating efficiently, is going to be a challenge.

At Monday's post-cabinet press conference and during question time in Parliament this week, the circumstances surrounding a single public servant took up as much time as anything else.

Stephen Barclay is the head of KiwiBuild, the government's flagship programme to build 100,000 affordable houses in 10 years.

He hasn't been at work for about six weeks, although not even the length of time he's been away can be confirmed because of ministerial reluctance to reveal anything about what is going on.

Phil Twyford, the minister in charge of KiwiBuild, says he was briefed at the end of October but his officials deliberately withheld details because it was an internal matter, an employment dispute of some sort.

It must be a really serious one but not even Judith Collins, National's housing spokeswoman, has been able to find out what is happening - and she's usually very good at that.

Ms Collins rejects the defence that it's an internal issue: "It's a major role, we're not talking about a second-tier public servant working at a desk somewhere."

Mr Twyford admits it's "an unwelcome distraction" and it must be infuriating for him to have to say, again and again, that he can't reveal why his huge and ambitious programme is lacking its leader.

And the longer this goes on, the more opportunity National has to suggest KiwiBuild is such a shambles that the man supposed to be running it has given up.

Mr Twyford says Mr Barclay's absence has nothing to do with the programme or its implementation.

This surely can't go on for much longer.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

  • PM apologises to family of British backpacker Grace Millane
  • Domestic violence: 'There's a huge amount of work that needs to be done' - PM