Hard News by Russell Brown


From soundbite to policy

I've been at pains, I think, to extend the benefit of the doubt to John Key's new government. But the end of its first week of actually governing -- as opposed to engaging in capable political marketing -- I'm already wondering if that's a viable position.

You might think a new government that opened its Parliament with a series of procedural flubs would have some idea of the limits of its own competence. But National has, instead, lumbered into urgency to pass a clutch of bills that were being debated even before they were drafted.

When drafts appeared, they were not made available to the public -- and, staggeringly, it was left to the Green Party to scan paper copies and make them available on its own website. None of these new laws will receive proper scrutiny. No member of the public will be able to make a submission on them. The ideas in them will not be subject to the basic tests of a Parliamentary democracy.

Urgency might be justified for the tax and Kiwisaver legislation. But what kind of idiot puts forward significant changes to the educational system as a fait accompli? Is Anne Tolley really so clever she can write policy so good it needs no scrutiny?

I suppose we'd all best hope so, because the Education (National Standards) Amendment Bill awards the Minister of Education carte blanche in setting the promised standards for literacy and numeracy. And that's about all we're told.

My friend Hilary Stace, who is involved with Autism New Zealand, made a comment about the arbitrary jacking up of fines for truancy and failure to enrol children that Tolley should bloody well read:

This Education Bill has huge implications and it is crazy not to put it through the scrutiny of a select committee. One result is that is going to make it very hard for parents of children who are school refusers or school phobics. Watch out parents of kids with autism - they will be open to prosecution if their kids can't cope with all the stress of school and refuse to go.

Kids with special educational needs and their parents better get ready for the humiliation of having their potentially poor achievement against inappropriate 'national' standards made public.

No attempt has been made to do justice to the promise that every child has the right to an education. In itself, that's not new. But to respond by clobbering families who are already being failed shows a particular arrogance. I know from personal experience how easy it is to sail close to such a breach, even when you're trying really hard for your child. And there's not even any good evidence that the increased fines will change the behaviour of the "undeserving". It's just a soundbite morphing into policy.

The Herald's Audrey Young blogged this week that National would do well to heed the warning of the Human Rights Commission about the rushing through of the 90-day employment probation period. Sadly, the same paper's editorial column, which loudly and repeatedly invoked the Commission's advice on the Electoral Finance Bill, sees no need to comment in this case.

But the Herald has been moved on another soundbite policy: the side-stepping of Pharmac in the funding of 12-month Herceptin courses. On one hand, it would be churlish not to feel glad for women who don't have to pay for the longer treatment, even if Herceptin isn't quite the magic bullet the campaigns depict. On the other, the politicisation of medical decisions is a dangerous precedent. Says the Herald:

Other pharmaceutical companies, and other groups dedicated to the sufferers of any illness, will be encouraged that they, too, through special pleading, can garner some of the $180 million that the Government plans to spend on pharmaceuticals over the next three years. The path to the Health Minister's door will be well-trodden. Ironically, a National government established Pharmac in part to prevent just this lobbying.

In announcing the Herceptin extension, Mr Key suggested up to 300 women a year would benefit from the year-long course. The cost of the drug was not, however, released for "reasons of commercial sensitivity". Nor was mention made of the opportunity cost of treating the many faceless people facing avoidable deaths from other causes.

Quite. In other jurisdictions, where funding decisions have been influenced by corporate-backed campaigns, the cost has been felt by other cancer patients whose drugs are no longer funded.

And, as this year's Auckland Women's Health Council report noted, the case for the longer treatment has not yet been made:

There are issues that still need to be resolved regarding the long-term efficacy of the various treatment regimes for Herceptin, the comparative clinical effectiveness of 12 months versus shorter treatment periods, and assessment of toxicity and adverse events, etc. More research is needed and until these issues have been resolved, it is entirely appropriate that PHARMAC resists both public pressure and the private pharmaceutical companies’ demands for scarce health dollars to be spent on what is very likely to turn out to be unnecessarily prolonged treatment periods with a vastly overpriced drug that carries an increased risk of adverse effects.

The AWHC is therefore strongly supportive of Pharmac’s proposal to continue to subsidise treatment with Herceptin for HER2 positive early breast cancer patients when it is administered for nine weeks concurrently with taxane chemotherapy, and to continue to decline funding for 12 months treatment with Herceptin, until further research whose results are not controlled by the drug company reveal whether 12-months is actually more effective than the nine-week course of Herceptin.

Against all this, I guess the shenanigans over Act's select committee review of the Emissions Trading Scheme look more like low comedy. The part of the terms of reference allowing the MPs to pass judgement on the basic science of climate change was slipped back in when the committee was constituted this week. But oh no it wasn't, said Gerry Brownlee:

"There are those...who say we should start questioning the science. I want to make it abundantly clear that these terms of reference does not allow questioning of the science," Mr Brownlee.

Oh yes it was, insisted Rodney Hide:

Mr Hide, who will sit on the committee, has said as far as he was concerned the committee will get to look at the issue of the science theory behind climate change.

Climate change sceptic Mr Hide said the reference to central projections, risks and uncertainties could allow examination of the science.

As I was digesting that, National's Nicky Wagner spammed me with this feast of weasel-wordage:

As part of the environment team I have been appointed as a member of the Select Committee to review the Emissions Trading Scheme and related matters. The committee has been set up to have a fresh look at the Emissions Trading Scheme in response to concerns about New Zealand’s poor record on emissions, the changed economic environment and rushed way the legislation was passed. Dealing effectively with climate change is crucial to our environment and to our economy so this work is important and urgent.

No, Nicky. The committee was set up as a condition of the Act party's support on confidence and supply. Your party promised to let the ETS come into operation while it worked on a number of amendments to the legislation. Gerry Brownlee is now insisting (in what represents National's fourth different stance on the matter in six weeks) that the result of this inquiry into the ETS will be … the ETS. If you want to try and square this forthcoming sideshow with the "important and urgent" matter of climate change, be my guest.


If that's all a bit much, you may want to have a crack at voting for your favourites from the 100 great New Zealand music videos selected by the Film Archive as part of its Ready to Roll project. The Top 10 is looking quite interesting.

NZ On Screen has made available Aroha, a 1951 National Film Unit drama about "a young woman caught between the traditional and contemporary worlds," which includes a couple of musical treats.

Also, a clip from the memorable disability documentary, Miles and Shelley Go Flatting.

And Trish Carter and Colin Peacock discussing the year's big stories in the first of the Media7 summer editions, recorded this week at Artisan winery.

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