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The Nation: Justice Minister Andrew Little

On Newshub Nation: Emma Jolliff interviews Justice Minister Andrew Little

Emma Jolliff: The plan to re-enter Pike River mine was put on hold this week by Justice Minister Andrew Little, due to safety concerns. So when will the mine be safe to enter? Pike River Re-entry Minister Andrew Little has been on the West Coast and joins me now. Minister, thank you very much for joining us.

Andrew Little: Morning, Emma.

The decision to delay re-entry was a safety call. What’s the mood now — the mood among the re-entry team?

The mood is very good. I was down there yesterday with the Prime Minister, and each day I’m getting reports about what the response is to the issue that caused the delay. The latest is that it looks almost certain that there is an issue about the monitoring equipment, and it is faulty. There is more testing to do. What it means now — that all of the monitoring equipment will now have to be tested. That will take some days, possibly a couple of weeks. But once we’re satisfied about that, then the drilling on the 30m seal can recommence.

So you’re suggesting that, in fact, the oxygen level reading of 3 per cent was wrong because of that monitoring equipment.

Yeah, so they put down a new piece of monitoring equipment to calibrate it against the old. We’re getting different readings from the old and new pieces of equipment. The new piece of equipment is showing consistent, stable levels. Both pieces of equipment then underwent an integrity test, so different gases were deliberately put in front of those monitors, and inaccurate readings were recorded by the old equipment; accurate readings were recorded by the new equipment. That suggests there is an issue with the monitoring equipment. To be absolutely safe, we need to be sure that every monitoring point in the drift and around the mine workings is accurate, and so that now has to be tested.

So how long would that take? How quickly could we see the re-entry resume?

Look, that’ll take a wee bit of time.

What’s ‘a wee bit of time?

Well, it won’t be days, but it won’t be months either. So I don’t want to be too specific about it, except that every effort now is being made, working around the clock to deal with that issue and get to the point where we can resume the drilling of the 30m seal, get that out and get the men in.

We’ve been told that the mine is as safe — or as unsafe — as it was eight-and-a-half years ago. Are you convinced it’s any safer now?

Well, yes, I’m totally convinced it is, because of the work that’s been done on it to… fill it with nitrogen, to purge it of methane and get it ready so that the drift can be made; turned into breathable air so that when the men go in, they don’t have to wear breathing apparatus.The mine is safer now than what it was at the time that it exploded and in the months that followed.

You used the expression this week ‘unexplained and unexpected’. That doesn’t really inspire confidence around a potentially explosive mine though, does it?

No, but this is a complex operation, and you’re dealing with a whole bunch of equipment and technical equipment, and faults do develop with complicated, technical equipment. What you’ve got to know is that when something happens that is unexplained, you stop what you’re doing and you check it out. We are working to very, very high — as you’d expect — health and safety standards, very low thresholds for stopping and intervening. That’s what we need to do. We are under intense scrutiny by WorkSafe, and we should be. We need to be, and I said to the agency right from the outset, ‘We need to be an exemplar when it comes to health and safety management.’ And I’m determined that we will. And with Dave Gawn and Dinghy Pattinson and their team, they are.

You’re sounding confident, Minister.


Drug law reform debated this week — encourages policy not to prosecute users except when it’s in the public interest. Is this decriminalisation in fact by stealth?

No, it leaves the option open for police, but what it does do is give a signal — as happened with Section 59 of the Crimes Act and the child-discipline issues. It allows the statute to give a pointer to the way the discretion ought to be exercised. And I guess the point we’re making is — if we want to get on top of the harm that drug use — particularly things like synthetic cannabis — are causing, it doesn’t help to say to users, ‘Right, forget your health issues; we’re just going to punish you.’ That’s not going to help the problem. And we want to have a situation where those who are users and who have addictions and can’t get off their addictions actually get treatment and help. That’s going to be a better use of time and effort and money than just prosecuting people and putting them in jail.

Both the Police Association and the Law Society have expressed concern about the proposal and how you can safely legislate discretion. You’re confident you can.

It is a tricky area. Conceptually, legally, it is very difficult to do that, particularly in our criminal code. One of the fundamental principles of our criminal code is you want maximum certainty, but actually, what we also do want to do in situations where you’re dealing with substance abuse is — the real victims of it are people who have addictions, who have conditions that mean that they can’t get off their habit. We need to help those people get off their habit rather than, you know, stand over them with a big stick and punish them all the time, and that’s the signal we’re trying to send with the law change that we’ve got on the books.

You talk about prosecution when it’s in the public interest to prosecute. Under what circumstances would it be in the public interest?

Look, I can’t go through a whole heap of, sort of, examples. I think the point we’re trying to get to, though, is that for the user, for whom the only harm is being caused to them— We’ll deal with suppliers — plenty of laws to deal with the suppliers. But for the user who would otherwise face a charge of possession but who has addictions and other underlying problems, we are better to spend our time fixing their underlying problems and their addictions than punishing them, constraining them in some ways, doing things that mean they can’t continue their employment and what have you.

We talk about it being a health issue, but how much extra pressure would that put on our already struggling mental health service, for example? The Drug Foundation estimates an extra $150 million is currently needed for alcohol-and-drug treatment, and that’s before you even add another tranche of drug users who are not being prosecuted.

Yeah, and this is one of the challenges we have to face up to. We got that from the Mental Health and Addiction review that came out at the end of last year. That is shaping decisions for this year’s Budget. We know that one of the big challenges we’ve got is the huge gap we have in service provision for the alcohol-and-drug addiction side of things, that we have to step up what we’re doing in that regard.

So more money?

Well, I mean, announcements will be made in the Budget, but the Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry report gave us a pretty clear steer about where the gaps are. We’re determined to do the best we can to fill those gaps.

So there are already those gaps, and now we’re going to throw more people at that service.

Well, we know that there are gaps in the system; the Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry report told us that. But we’ve also got to think about when we’re working out how we deal with particular social problems — in this case, the harm caused by these iniquitous drugs like synthetic cannabis — we still have to be on a path of doing the right thing that’s going to fix the problem, not just say, ‘Oh, look, we can’t do that. We’re not going to spend money on fixing the problem. We’ll just bang people in jail.’ That’s not a solution.

Okay, let’s talk about the referendum on the personal use of cannabis. You confirm you’re taking a proposal to Cabinet next week?

No, look, we’re still going through a process with our coalition and confidence-and-supply partners. We will make announcements on the issue about that hopefully very soon.

So not happening next week?

Look, I’m not going to say exactly where we are in the process, but we have been in a process, negotiating this through. I think we’re at a pretty good point. Eventually, we’ll get to the point where Cabinet will make a decision, and once that happens, we’ll make announcements.

Could we have a timeline?

I would hope sooner rather than later. I would expect in the next few weeks as opposed to, you know, too much later than that.

And have you got all your coalition partners on board on this?

I’m very pleased with where things are at. In the end, what—

Is that a yes?

Well, in the end, what is most important is Cabinet gets to make a decision. Once Cabinet has made a decision, then we’re in a position to announce—

Have you decided the wording of the question?

Look, I don’t want to go into a whole lot of detail. This has been, obviously, the subject of discussion. it’s been very intense discussion; I think very constructive discussion. I’m pleased with where things are at. Cabinet will be poised to make a decision fairly soon, and once they do, then we’ll make those announcements.

Okay. Abortion law reform has also been a sticking point with one of your coalition partners, NZ First. Where’s that at?

Yep, again, good discussions. It’s got to go through the process. It’s a little bit further behind the process than the cannabis-referendum-question issue.

So when can we see abortion removed from the Crimes Act?

Well, again, once Cabinet makes the decision — which, again, I expect will be in the next few weeks; it’ll be, you know, sooner rather than later than that — then we go through the process of legislation. And that’ll be depending on the timetabling in the house and what support it gets. It’s a conscious issue, so MPs from all sides of the house will have a chance to vote for it if they support it or vote against it if they don’t. Hard to gauge where the numbers are at at the moment, but I’m confident that we will get a change.

So where are you personally? Where are you personally now? Do you support the choice of a woman to abort up to 20 weeks?

I certainly… I’ve already expressed my support for one of the Law Commission recommendations, which was option C. Obviously, there’s details around that that are still up for negotiation. I’m confident that we will have a piece of legislation that will herald a significant change, but I can’t foretell what the house or Parliament collectively might decide or not.

Okay, putting your spy hat now, Minister, what’s the latest with Spark’s bid to use Huawei’s 5G technology?

Look, as I understand it, they are still going through working through what alternatives might be. I understand they’re in discussions with the GCSB, the outfit that oversees that, and has made the finding they did at the end of last year that they didn’t accept the original proposal. But I understand there’s a constructive path being developed that will be good for Spark.

There’s a plan to allow Huawei limited access to help build the 5G network in the UK. Is that an option here?

I think there’s a little bit of mythology about what actually is happening in the UK. There was a leaked indication about what might be happening. I understand that officially, that is not the UK Government’s position; a decision is yet to be made. And, look, in the end, we make decisions; our GCSB gives advice to myself as a minister and the government and, indeed, to telco providers like Spark on the basis of what’s right for New Zealand and on our intelligence. That’s the basis on which we’re proceeding on this issue.

Part of that advice was a GCSB briefing paper that’s been released to Newshub saying that limiting access to Huawei Technology would still mean it’s carrying sensitive information, and that sensitive information is no longer restricted to the core of a network. Would you agree that that’s the case — it’ll still have access to sensitive information?

Well, that’s the technical advice or conclusions that GCSB drew, and that’s what they’ve, obviously, been talking to Spark about. The way the process—

So is that off the table?

Well, the way the process works is — the GCSB does its report, furnishes it to the telco; they obviously give me advice about that. It’s then for the telco to decide what happens next. They can negotiate or work out whether they can do something that mitigates or removes the national-security risk, and that’s the process they’re in at the moment.

What are your concerns about Huawei?

Look, I follow the advice that I’ve received, and there are issues about… the technology that they use and the accessibility by Huawei itself to our telecommunications network. There is Huawei’s obligations to the Chinese government, to the Chinese state and their 2017 national-security law, which requires them to do that. The issue that I think that is coming out of the UK is whether or not the equipment that the UK sell that deals with 5G or network issues, the stuff they’re getting from Huawei is the same stuff that’s going out to market. So there’s all these sorts of issues that are brewing round at the moment.

Okay, let’s have a look at MMP reform — or potential reform. Will a referendum go ahead on the threshold?

Again, look, like all these kind of referendum questions, we’ll make announcements about those in due course. I imagine they will be sooner rather than later.

Is there a public appetite for change? Obviously, it’s in the interest of those minor parties, for whom a lower threshold would help them get more power. Is there actually an appetite to lower from 5 per cent?

Well, two things — I mean, right since the 1986 Royal Commission report, that was what the recommendation was. Successive reviews of our MMP system have recommended the same thing. But—

Do you want to see it lowered?

Well, it’s a question about — we conceived of MMP as a way of diversifying voices in Parliament. We’ve gone a long way to achieving that.

What about your view, Minister?

Yeah, well… Well, in the end, as a minister, it’s not about my view; it is about the government’s view. So the government will, when it is ready to do so, make its announcement on all the referendum questions that have been talked about or scheduled for 2020. I expect that’ll be sooner rather than later.

All right. Minister Andrew Little, thank you very much for joining us.

Thank you.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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