As a minister in a National-led government I was proud to speak at the UN against pursuing an outdated and overly punitive approach on drugs. Now the bipartisan focus on drugs as a health issue seems to have been tossed aside by Simon Bridges' party as a political inconvenience, writes Peter Dunne.
OPINION: Just two years ago I had the privilege as then associate minister of health of addressing the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs. That was while the previous National-led government was in office.
In my address I made the following comments: "Last year at CND 58, I spoke of the importance of three fundamental pillars of drug policy – Proportion, Compassion and Innovation. New Zealand has woven these principles throughout its approach to addressing drug issues, including them as central tenets in its recently launched 2015 National Drug Policy. But perhaps there is a fourth pillar that is missing – boldness. Incremental movement, if any, has been the norm for drug policy development for as long as I can remember – and the movement has not always been forward. As encouraging as the shift has been, the fact is that compared to the global narcotic industries, we are moving at a glacial pace, hamstrung by an outdated overly punitive approach."
Earlier, I had expressed New Zealand's considerable disappointment that the UN had not taken a stronger stand against the use of the death penalty in drug related cases.
These comments, as noted above, were all consistent with New Zealand's National Drug Policy adopted by the Cabinet after much debate in 2015. The policy and the speech, and others I gave at the annual UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs meetings through to 2017 made it clear New Zealand rejected the "war on drugs" rhetoric and approach that had dominated international drug policy for too long, in favour of the more compassionate, health centred approach set out in the National Drug Policy.
I am delighted that the prime minister has repeated these messages and confirmed in reality the direction of the National Drug Policy in her address to the UN General Assembly this week, and that she has rejected outright the backward focusing approach of the president of the United States to try to reignite the "war on drugs" when most countries have been looking to move on from that.
However, I am more than extremely stunned that the National Party, which could have claimed the high ground and pointed out she was just copying policy already in place, has instead done a complete somersault on its previous position and apparently now supports the Trump proposition. It is hard to find – let alone justify – a credible reason for this about-face. Certainly the few public statements I have seen go little beyond the uninformed and the platitudinous. So it becomes difficult to believe that the driving principle behind this decision is anything but a perverse determination to take a different view from Labour, whatever that view might be, and no matter what your own government's record on the matter. It is a very dark day for National's ongoing credibility on this issue.
It all seems a far cry from when a New Zealand government minister could stand before the UN General Assembly just two short years ago, and say that our country believed that "responsible regulation is the key to reducing drug-related harm and achieving long-term success in drug control approaches."
The bipartisan focus on drugs as a health issue seems to have been tossed aside as a political inconvenience, especially when knee jerk opposition for the sake of it is so much easier. That is to National's ongoing shame.
Peter Dunne is a political scientist, historian and liberal. He was an MP for 33 years and a Minister for 14.