Ructions for health select committee

Blair and Melissa Vining hand over the petition to MPs Hamish Walker and Michael Woodhouse (left)...
Blair and Melissa Vining hand over the petition to MPs Hamish Walker and Michael Woodhouse (left). PHOTO: LUISA GIRAO
This week, Parliament is at the start of a three week recess, the longest break it takes other than the one over summer.

The House sits 30 weeks out of 52, but standing adjourned does not mean the system grinds to a halt.

For example this week, with little fanfare, the health select committee released its report on the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill.

Southern Say has looked at this Bill before; not only is it an important development in the reframing of this country's scattershot drug laws, but it pitches two Dunedin MPs at ideological loggerheads.

In the red corner is Dunedin North MP and Health Minister David Clark, sponsor of the Bill, which aims to address the harm caused by synthetic (and other) drugs.

In the blue corner is National Dunedin list MP Michael Woodhouse, who is perfectly happy with clauses 1-4 and 7 onwards, but has serious doubts about clauses 5 and 6.

Those clauses affirm police have a discretion to prosecute, they should only do so if it is in the public interest to do so, and that when deciding that consideration should be given to whether a health-centred or therapeutic approach would be more beneficial.

National has argued all along that this is "de facto decriminalisation of possession and use of all controlled drugs", and it has made that point again in the select committee report.

Contrary to popular belief MPs actually agree about quite a lot, and a decent amount of select committee reports and the resulting law changes are carried unanimously.

When there is not agreement, dissenting MPs can issue a summary of their views, and that is just what Mr Woodhouse and his colleagues have done.

In doing so they deployed the unlikely trio of the Police Association, the Drug Foundation and the Law Society as backing for their view of the Bill.

"Our interpretation of this is that even when the public interest in proceeding with a prosecution has been met, as long as a therapeutic approach would be more beneficial, the prosecution should not proceed and therefore this constitutes decriminalisation by stealth.

"If this is the Government's intention it should be upfront about that and include the public in that debate."

It seems likely there will be a bit more dissension in the ranks of the health select committee over the coming months.

It is split 4:4 between Government and Opposition MPs, and quite apart from the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill, the committee's current business includes a raft of contentious petitions on pharmaceuticals and Pharmac, and a Bill on drinking water which will excite some. And many are still waiting in eager anticipation for the committee's decision on Clutha Southland MP Hamish Walker's petition to save Lumsden Maternity Hospital.

Then there is the Blair Vining petition, in which the terminally ill Winton man is calling for better cancer care for all New Zealanders, stewarded by a national cancer agency.

This has yet to be presented to Parliament, but when it is it will likely be referred to the health select committee.

All sides will have to step carefully when it is.

National is making a determined attack on Dr Clark over his handling of cancer care, and Mr Woodhouse and Mr Walker were prominent guests at a function last weekend where the petition was given to them to take to Parliament.

It officially has 78,451 signatures, although organisers put the number at almost double that. It is a petition which will be closely followed.

National will continue to push hard, but will not want to be seen to be politicking with people's grief.

Labour will be reluctant to allow National to drive the narrative on cancer treatment, but will also not want to be painted as the villain of the piece if it does fight back vigorously.

In the meantime, in Dr Clark's own back yard, Dunedin Hospital has a long waiting list of cancer patients awaiting radiation therapy treatment, and waiting lists are an issue at many other DHBs as well.

Dr Clark will no doubt hope the draft national cancer action plan he and officials are now working on will go some way to address the concerns of Mr Vining and other cancer patients and take some of the heat out of what is already a political issue, and is threatening to become even more contentious as 2020 looms.

Establishing order

Central Otago New Zealand First list MP Mark Patterson put his time debating Kieran McAnulty's Employment Relations (Triangular Employment) Amendment Bill to good use last Wednesday, getting the co-captain of the Parliamentary Cricket XI on side.

Mr Patterson and a range of other MPs and Parliamentary staff are heading to England for their own version of the Cricket World Cup, and he told Mr McNulty, who along with Chris Bishop is leading the side, that he had firm ideas about how his skills should best be deployed.

"I'd like to just start off by commending the member bringing the Bill to the House, Mr McAnulty," Mr Patterson said.

"I do so ... firstly, to curry some favour ... I do prefer to bat at three and open the bowling downwind, so, hopefully, this will be remembered during those discussions with your co-captain."

By the way

Rather lost in the excitement of David Seymour's End Of Life Choice Bill passing its second reading last Wednesday was Hamish Walker also steering a Member's Bill a step closer to becoming law.

The KiwiSaver (Oranga Tamariki Guardians) Amendment Bill, which if passed would allow any foster parent to open a KiwiSaver account for a foster child in their care, also passed its second reading, and will go through its committee stages before Parliament turns its attention to Mr Seymour's Bill again.

That stage might not be plain sailing though, as Mr Walker will be attempting to amend his own legislation to reverse a narrowing of its provisions introduced at select committee.

Important matters

Arguably the most important vote taken in Parliament last week was to decide the winner of the great southern cheese roll competition.

Michael Woodhouse, Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean and Invercargill MP Sarah Dowie assessed the culinary efforts of various transplanted southerners. Press secretary Simon Clarke claimed the honour and the glory.

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