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New deployment in Aghanistan wrong decision

Posted by on February 20th, 2013

The decision by the National Government to embark on a new deployment of New Zealand Defence Force personnel to Afghanistan is wrong and unprincipled.

Last year the Prime Minister, John Key, said New Zealand troops would be out of Afghanistan by the end of April 2013.

This u-turn is not the result of New Zealand’s judgement and the values our foreign policy should be based on but rather the pressure that the government came under from another country.

National has reneged on its responsibility to make its own decisions as an independent and sovereign nation.

The consequence is that New Zealanders’ lives will continue to be put at risk without the hope of a positive outcome to the conflict there and on behalf of a government in Afghanistan that does not merit the sacrifice of Kiwi lives.

The Prime Minister’s justification that they won’t be at much risk because they are “inside the wire” doesn’t have much credibility.

Time and again allied soldiers in Afghanistan have been shot in the back by soldiers in Afghan National Army uniform who have no real loyalty to their own government.

There is no good reason why Kiwi lives should be put at risk to preserve the Afghanistan Government. Wikileaks revealed that the Afghan Vice-President was found leaving the country with a bag packed with millions of US dollars. Drug traffickers, with the concurrence of the Afghan government, supply 90 per cent of illicit opium trafficked to  Europe. Corruption is pervasive, human rights are constantly abused.

The Karzai administration after a decade has failed to win the support of its own people.

In 2001, New Zealand rightly deployed its troops to Afghanistan to suppress a terrorist organisation, Al Qaeda, based in Afghanistan which had launched international terrorist attacks against innocent people culminating in 9/11.

It did so consistent with a United Nations resolution which had overwhelming international support.

Today, Al Qaeda is a force in Pakistan rather than in Afghanistan.

The war in Afghanistan has assumed more the nature of a civil war between two opposing sides, neither of which have values consistent with ours.

No matter how long we stay there or how many further lives we sacrifice, we will not determine the final outcome of that war.

New Zealanders understand sacrifice. In two world wars we have suffered more than our fair share of Kiwi lives lost. Like other New Zealanders, my family has lost members in both those wars and in Afghanistan as well. As a country we don’t shy away from involvement in wars on the basis only that lives may be lost.

But we should not be involved in conflicts where the loss of lives cannot be justified and where the cause is known to be futile.

Pleasing another country is not cause enough to put Kiwi lives at risk. After 12 years it is past time that New Zealand brings all its troops home from Afghanistan, rather than embarking on a new deployment.

Maintaining old friendships

Posted by on November 16th, 2012

Over the last week, I was part of a parliamentary delegation which visited European parliaments in London (Goff only), Copenhagen, Stockholm and Brussels as well as the European Parliament itself.

As well as to promote New Zealand interests, the purpose of the visit was to reassure Europe of our commitment to a strong on-going relationship after the Government has cut representation in our embassies there.  At a time when Europe is suffering from economic downturn, New Zealand must not create the impression that because we have increasing interests in Asia we are not maintaining old friendships and relationships with Europe.  We share values and interests with Europe including commitment to democracy and human rights.  We have in the past shared environmental concerns and worked with them on areas like climate change.  Europe also remains our third largest market for exports and the world’s single largest economic bloc.

We discussed trade, and I addressed a 120-strong meeting of the European Parliament Committee on International Trade.  We promoted the negotiation of a treaty level framework agreement with Europe that we hope will lead to a comprehensive free trade agreement.  We have diversified our markets and Europe has no need to protect itself from us by imposing high tariffs on our exports.  New Zealand poses no threat to Europe.   Only 8 per cent of our dairy exports for example today go there.  As it is, our unsubsidized exports have to compete with European agricultural production which is subsidized under a Common Agriculture Policy which consumes 40 per cent of the European Union budget.  We have a strong argument that Europe should reciprocate our readiness to allow its exports into New Zealand without tariff, quota or behind the border barriers.

We discussed foreign policy and defence, including the Middle East, Syria, Iran and Afghanistan.

We discussed the Euro crisis and future directions for Europe.  The European Union’s achievements are substantial.  It has brought peace to Europe after two devastating world wars in the 20th Century.  It has achieved unprecedented cooperation between member nations and has given former Eastern European bloc countries greater assurance of security.  But with serious economic problems within the Union, questions are being raised about where it will go from here.

Only two thirds of its countries have adopted the Euro, and one of the lessons of Greece, Portugal and Spain is that currency union needs to be backed by wider common fiscal and monetary policies to ensure economic success.   Providing a credit card without rules surrounding its use is not sensible.

The future of Greece in the Euro and, in the view of many Europeans, of Britain in the European Union is under question.

At the end of the visit we marked the weekend of Armistice Day 11 November, with visits to the battle sites and commemorative ceremonies in Ypres, Passchendaele, Messines and Le Quesnoy.

To stand at the graves of some of the more than 18,000 New Zealanders who perished in the war was a moving experience and a sobering reminder of their sacrifice and the need to work constantly to ensure a peaceful world.

I accompanied our Ambassador to France and her team to commemorate the last action of New Zealanders in the Great War, the liberation of the small French town of Le Quesnoy.

Rather than destroy the town and its historic sixteenth century fortifications, the New Zealanders used scaling ladders to climb the ramparts and took the town by storm, capturing over 700 German soldiers but losing 80 New Zealanders in the battle.

Tragically, they died within a week of the war’s end.  Families home in New Zealand would have celebrated the end of war and then learned of the deaths of their sons and husbands in its final days.

Today the town still celebrates their liberation by the New Zealanders every year.  Place names like Place des All Blacks, Avenue des Néo Zélandais, Rue Aotearoa and Rue Helene Clark show their on-going gratitude to and regard for New Zealand.

And, as an interesting point of coincidence, our current Ambassador to France, Rosemary Banks, was delivered as a baby by a doctor by the name of Lieutenant Leslie Averill who was the first New Zealander over the ramparts in Le Quesnoy and after whom the town’s primary school is named.

Armistice Day Address, Le Quesnoy, France

Posted by on November 16th, 2012

E nga mana, e nga reo, e ngā hau e whā, tenakoutou katoa.

They came from the uttermost ends of the earth – young men from a young country far away.

There were 100,000 New Zealanders – ten per cent of the country’s entire population and nearly half of the young men of fighting age.

By the end of the war, nearly 60,000 were casualties and over 18,000 now lie in the places where they fought and died.

It was a huge price to pay for a small country.  No town and almost no family was left untouched.

They came as soldiers of the British Empire.  Those who returned did so as New Zealanders.

They came to fight for King and Country but most often they fought and died bravely because they did not want to let their mates down.

Well over 18 million died in the Great War which supposedly was the war to end all wars.  But 21 years later Europe was again at war with itself.

The greatest achievement of the European Union has been 60 years of peace.

For the first time in three generations, my generation did not have to come to Europe to fight a war.

Memorials eulogise the glorious dead.  But we know that the manner of their deaths, cut down by shell blasts, gas and machine gun fire was anything but.

We are here to commemorate the dead and honour their sacrifice, not to glorify war.

Eighty of our dead lie here in Le Quesnoy, killed tragically in the final week of the war.  Their families celebrated the end of the war before they learned that their sons had died on its final days.  We mourn the dead but we are proud that they liberated your town from four years of occupation and helped protect it from destruction.

Today we renew the bond between us, forged by their efforts and sacrifice, which has endured over the generations.

This year, as every year, we pay tribute to the men who fought and died, who gave up their lives for New Zealand, to liberate France and Le Quesnoy.

In New Zealand our veterans recite the Ode:

They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old.

            Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn.

            At the going down of the sun and in the morning

            We will remember them.

Nous les souvenirons!

Fifty Years on, role of Ombudsman under threat

Posted by on September 28th, 2012

Monday, 1 October marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Office of Ombudsman in New Zealand.

The Office provides Parliament and the New Zealand public with an independent and impartial check on the quality, fairness and integrity of administrative practices in the state sector.

We can proudly say that we were the first English speaking country to set up such an office, albeit long after the concept was first developed in Sweden in the nineteenth century.

It is a critical mechanism for ensuring the accountability of elected and non-elected public officials to the broader public.

Since 1962 its role has been extended to cover Local Government; the provision of official information on the principle that this should be publically disclosed unless there is a good reason specified for withholding it; and support for whistle-blowers who follow a specified procedure.

The Ombudsman’s Office has undoubtedly enhanced the quality of our democracy, and traditionally has received bipartisan support.

Sadly, on its 50th Anniversary, the office has more recently come under threat from a Government which has deliberately set out to limit and undermine its effectiveness.

A partisan statement?

No. Concern about Government actions come from the Chief Ombudsman, Dame Beverly Wakem, herself.

Dame Beverley is a formidable woman, determinedly independent and with an impressive track record.

Most recently, she warned of “highly dangerous” moves by the Government to keep information secret by drafting laws to avoid the Official Information Act (OIA).

She highlighted “reprehensible” attempts to remove from the Act state assets where there are partial share sales, charter schools and change to mining permits.

Earlier this year, Dame Beverly told a Parliamentary Select Committee that the Office was “in crisis.”  An inadequate budget was incapable of meeting the Ombudsman’s work load, justice was being denied, and starving her Office of funding prevented the Office from ensuring that government spending was of high quality.

One reason for the Office’s excessive work load is the increasing arrogance of power by Ministers who deliberately ignore the legal requirements on them to disclose information under the OIA, and the Ombudsman has to be called in to put pressure on them.

Murray McCully is a prime culprit.  The Auditor General revealed that he failed to meet the deadline for OIA requests on over 50% of the requests.

I have in front of him a number of requests that remain unanswered months after he was legally obliged to do so.

He was the only Minister to withhold Treasury budget information on his Ministerial portfolio and withheld two thirds of the briefing to him as an incoming Minister.

It’s absolute arrogance from a Minister who is a control freak who refuses to subject his performance to scrutiny and to be held accountable.

Little wonder when you consider the botched job he did on restructuring his Ministry.

Visit by Leon Panetta

Posted by on September 24th, 2012

US Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta was well informed and engaging.  The meeting David Shearer and I had with him was scheduled for 15 minutes on Saturday morning.  It went for three times that long.

Fresh from the Otara market collecting signatures for the petition against state asset sales, I had changed into a suit expecting a relatively formal meeting.

He turned up wearing jeans and a casual shirt.

The meeting was an open and substantive one, involving a discussion ranging from Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Asia and the Pacific to the US Presidential election.

Panetta has a long and distinguished career including Director of the Office for Civil Rights, 16 years in Congress, Chair of the House Committee on the Budget, Clinton’s White House Chief of Staff and Director of the CIA before assuming his current position.

In the first visit in 30 years by a US Secretary of Defense, he took a significant step towards removing the last remnants of US sanctions imposed on New Zealand for declaring itself nuclear free under the Lange Labour Government.

Building on progress over the last decade, it was a welcome further move.  A strong and warm relationship with the US makes sense given its influence in the world and shared commitments on values like democracy and human rights.

But from my and Labour’s perspective, it does not place us on a path to resume alliance commitments, or nuclear ship visits.

New Zealand has moved on from there. Labour’s strong belief in speaking with an independent voice based on our values and interests has become part of the mainstream New Zealand belief system.

That’s why even though it might prefer to do so, National won’t openly signal a move back to alliances and nuclear ship visits.

As a small country, New Zealand gains respect and influence not by echoing anyone else’s voice but by taking considered and principled stands on international issues.

Nuclear ship visits, return to ANZUS or permanent stationing of US troops here would not be compatible with New Zealand’s desire to be seen as having an independent voice.

To their fullest potential

Posted by on September 20th, 2012

Tonight at Waikowhai Intermediate in my electorate Gifted Kids are holding a Sharing Night.  It’s about showcasing the projects they have been working on and I’m looking forward to attending.

The goal of Gifted Kids is to let our talented and creative children, particularly those from low socio-economic communities, develop their talents, strengths and abilities to the full.

Way back in 1938, at the time of the First Labour Government, then Education Minister Peter Fraser gave a landmark speech.  He said the Government’s role in education was to ensure all people, whatever their ability, wealth or place of residence, enjoy a free education to enable them to achieve to their highest potential.

That is or should be the on-going core principle governing our education system.

We want no-one to fall short of their potential because they come from a disadvantaged background.  We want those who have gifts to be fully extended and to achieve excellence.

It’s about individuals being the best they can and the community collectively benefitting from what they can achieve.

Gifted Kids at present give 600 young people attending 150 mainly low income schools the opportunity to be challenged and to develop their skills to the maximum.

What I can’t understand is why in the last two years the National Government has halved the budget for Gifted and Talented Education as a whole and given no funding at all to the Gifted Kids Project since 2010.

When they are putting more money into private education for the most advantaged, where are their priorities?

Right-wing experiment seeks guinea pigs

Posted by on September 11th, 2012

Last night’s debate on Charter Schools at May Road School, organised by the Mt Roskill Labour Party, lived up to expectations.

Over 100 local people turned up, many directly involved in our local schools.  The audience, to its credit, respected my request as Chair to let speakers, in particular former Act President, Catherine Isaac, be heard without interruption.

Ms Isaac as Chair of the Government’s Working Group on Charter Schools, argued her case for the change, but persuaded nobody that there was an evidence based case for diverting public education funding into groups to provide alternative education which would be profit or ideology motivated.

Firstly people understand this is about politics, not education.

Charter Schools were not put to people in the election campaign and have no mandate.  It was a deal stitched up between John Banks and National as part of the post-election supply and confidence deal.

John Banks is in Parliament solely because National gifted him a seat.  The Kim debacle has left him with zero public credibility.  John Banks wants to teach that the world was created in seven days, and for the public to fund organisations who will do that.

Three countries have experimented with Charter Schools over the last decade – the US, England and Sweden.  All rank below New Zealand on the OECD PISA comparisons on educational achievement, and those countries are continuing to slide down the international rankings.

Interestingly the consistently top country in OECD rankings in education, Finland, disparaged by an ignorant Gerry Brownlee, has taken the opposite approach.  It doesn’t have private schools, let alone, charter schools.  It emphasises equity through all children having equal opportunity.  It resources education properly and holds teaching as a profession in high regard.

Even with the advantages Charter Schools may have of private sponsorship and biased selection of pupils from more ambitious families, results from evaluations such as Stanford University, show that Charter Schools are not the answer to lifting overall educational achievement.

Charter schools, unlike Tomorrow’s Schools in New Zealand, exclude parents and the community from having a role.  The Charter Schools are solely a deal between the Government, and organisations like the Destiny Church or for profit businesses.

No one last night was persuaded that having non-registered unqualified teachers which Charter Schools can employ will lift the quality of teachers.  The Ministry of Education was blunt in telling the Government that was a dumb idea but the Government still intends to persist with it.

And not teaching to the widely approved and respected New Zealand curriculum, which becomes simply an option for Charter Schools, is an equally stupid idea if we want to ensure all of our students are equally prepared for the 21st century as workers and citizens.

Last but not least, Catherine Isaac persuaded no one that underachievement by the bottom 7-14 per cent of students was caused by poor teaching and poor schools in the public sector which is the implicit reason for having Charter Schools.  To the contrary, our local low decile Mt Roskill schools have dedicated and capable teachers and principals who do a good job.

What we need to address is how the poverty and background of too many children mean that they start from behind, and schools are working to provide catch-up for those who begin life in a disadvantaged position.

We need great schools and excellent teachers and the emphasis should be on ensuring that is exactly what every child in New Zealand gets as well as tackling the social and economic causes of disadvantage.

We don’t need our children to become guinea pigs in some right-wing experiment with Charter Schools which have left countries which have trialled them below New Zealand in international education rankings, even though far more is spent in those countries on education than we spend in New Zealand.

Charter Schools Debate 10 September

Reconciliation, not retribution

Posted by on July 27th, 2012

David Shearer, Morgan Tsvangirai, Phil Goff

It was a privilege to meet with Morgan Tsvangirai this week, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change and Prime Minister of Zimbabwe.

Both David Shearer and I were impressed by him.  His commitment to and courage in promoting change in Zimbabwe to restore human rights, democracy and social and economic progress is remarkable. He has been arrested, tortured and severely beaten and survived assassination attempts.

Like Nelson Mandela, however, he is driven by a desire for reconciliation with, rather than retribution towards his oppressors.

In his Prime Ministership, notwithstanding the difficulties in his relationship and differences with President Mugabe and the Zanu-PF party, he has led Zimbabwe on a path to economic recovery and restoration of basic public services. He is currently negotiating the creation of a new and more democratic constitution, which will go to a referendum later this year.

Thereafter there will be elections which the international community, including New Zealand, must support and do what we can to ensure that unlike previous elections they are kept free of violence, intimidation and rigging.

Mr Tsvangirai faces huge challenges.  While he would clearly win a fair election, those who currently hold power will be reluctant to pass it over.  The current elite enjoy the support of the military, the police and the Zanu-PF controlled media. That is why the strong support of the South African Development Community and the international community through the UN is vital to allow a proper democratic process that is accepted by those who stand to lose their privileged position.

We wish success to Morgan Tsvangirai in his drive to set Zimbabwe on the path to a democratic and successful Zimbabwe, that can put the past behind it, and will support  international efforts to ensure a free and fair election.


Timor Leste – Progress in a new democracy

Posted by on July 16th, 2012
The Fretilin party's election campaign cavalcade

The Fretilin party's election campaign cavalcade

For the people of Timor Leste, there was a lot more at stake in the 7 July parliamentary elections than simply the party they chose to govern for the next five years.  If the process was successful and there was acceptance of the results, it would mark a level of political maturity and stability vital for the country to tackle the huge development challenges it faces.

For the international community, a successful election would confirm that after a false start seven years earlier, the UN would be able finally to pack up and go home, confident that the new country was in shape to determine its own destiny.

We were in Timor Leste to observe the end of the campaign, election day and its immediate aftermath.  Five New Zealand parliamentarians from four parties, we participated in both a bi-lateral New Zealand team and an Asean Regional Forum group, marking its first role in a political process of this nature.

For me personally, it was my tenth visit to a country which 37 years earlier had been subject to a brutal invasion and occupation.  This had resulted in an estimated loss of life of up to 200,000.   The world had left the people of East Timor to their fate with many countries including ours effectively complicit or turning a blind eye to what had occurred.


Refugee plight not something we really understand

Posted by on May 26th, 2012
Visiting Ramtha, Jordan.

Visiting Ramtha, Jordan.

I was one of four New Zealand parliamentarians who visited Ramtha last week, a small Jordanian town on the border with Syria.

The town houses a United Nations transit camp for refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria and we arrived to meet some of the 149 who had crossed the border under cover of darkness a few hours earlier.

The televised pictures we view from thousands of kilometres away in the comfort of our lounges do little to convey the raw human emotion of the plight of those seeking to escape the killings which continue daily in Syria.

One man who spoke English tugged on my sleeve and asked how we could help.  He pointed to his five young children all aged under eleven, and his wife.  She was petite and looked too young to be a mother.  He explained that her mother had just been killed by tank fire and as he translated my condolences her eyes welled with tears.

The family had walked and hitched rides for 380 kilometres from their home in Homs.  They were glad to be safe but uncertain as to what the future would hold for them.  They had left Syria without money or possessions.

Another man displayed a freshly bandaged stump, the remains of an arm which had been blown off by shell fire.

We visited two other longer stay refugee camps.  One was for single men at a sports stadium.  Crowded into an area not designed for human rehabilitation, and without sponsorship to leave the camp, they were effectively imprisoned.  The passion and anger at what the Syrian government had done was palpable. As the weeks pass and frustration grows, it would be easy to see that frustration boil over.

The other camp was for families.  Many were Palestinians who had been living in Syria and who had been made refugees for a second time.  They faced greater difficulties than Syrians in gaining the sponsorship needed to leave the camp.  Families were squeezed into small concrete block rooms with very basic shared facilities.  What would the world do to help them, we were asked by the women.

Spare a thought for the Jordanian government in all of this.  A small and poor country of just six million, it has already absorbed 1.8 million Palestinian refugees from the wars of 1948 and 1967.  Following the US invasion of Iraq, it took another more than 500,000 Iraqi refugees.  Now it is having to accept tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.  This movement will turn from a flow to a flood if the civil war in Syria deteriorates further.  New Zealand’s assistance to refugees by comparison numbers only up to 750 a year.

What should the international community be doing to tackle the cause of the problem?  President Bashar al Assad is a member of a minority group in Syria, the Alawites, who are Shiite Muslims.  His hold on power rests on his control over the instruments of force in Syria, the Army and the Police.  His father killed tens of thousands of his own people to preserve his power and privilege, and the current President is doing the same.

In an uneven battle against rebels, an estimated 13,000, mainly civilians, have already died.  Efforts by the Arab League and UN representative, Kofi Annan, to broker a ceasefire and a peaceful solution have so far failed.

Russia has to this point supported the Syrian regime along with Syrian Shiite allies, Iran and Iraq.  Lack of international consensus has diminished the UN’s ability to pressure al Assad to stop human rights abuses and the killing of civilians.

Under the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, the UN to be effective needs to be able to act – with sanctions, with overwhelming diplomatic pressure, with no fly zones and ultimately the removal of a despotic ruler if everything else fails.  How many more thousand will die before there is the agreement and the will internationally for this to happen?

Progress in international justice

Posted by on April 27th, 2012

The former Liberian President Charles Taylor has been convicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

This is the first time since the Nuremberg trials of former Nazi leaders in 1946 that a country’s leader has been held to account for crimes of this nature. It’s an historic and landmark decision.  It sends a message that the international community can track down and bring to justice tyrants who commit war crimes and crimes against humanity.

It tells those who act in this way that they cannot do so with impunity. While this verdict is welcome, it was a long time coming and there is still a long way to go.

Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is currently on trial and former Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo is in ICC custody.

However there are dozens of other current and former leaders whose actions justify trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity who continue to be beyond the reach of the International Criminal Court and war crimes tribunals.

Taylor’s conviction is good sign, but there is still much to be done.