The Right Honourable Helen Clark

Former Prime Minister of New Zealand,
Former Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme 
Chair of the United Nations Development Group

The following welcome is taken from a speech given by the Rt Hon Helen Clark at the Foundation Launch event on 21 March 2019:

As one who has occupied senior leadership positions for many years in first, domestic politics, and then at the United Nations Development Programme, I have always been dependent on and have greatly valued expert and free and frank advice. To embark on decision-making without that input is a very risky endeavour.

That is why I believe that establishing a New Zealand-based think tank which can produce well-researched policy papers is a useful way to contribute to making New Zealand a better place for us all. By “think tank” I mean an organisation providing research on policy issues for government and centres of decision-making. A recent report estimated that there are nearly 7,000 think tanks of significance, not least organisations like Brookings in the USA and Chatham House in the United Kingdom. The OECD headquartered in Paris operates like a think tank for its members, which are largely developed countries. In an era of increasing proliferation and complexity of knowledge, together with challenges in what sometimes looks like an anti-expert, “post-truth” world, there is an important place for think tanks as standard-bearers and arbiters of quality in public policy debate and analysis.   

At both the global and the national levels, non-partisan research and contributions to public policy have a growing role to play. We are living in an era of heightened partisanship and of fake news propagated through social media. Powerful vested interests also actively obstruct efforts to pursue evidence-based policy. The Foundation aims to help address policy challenges here in New Zealand in a rational and reasoned way, and to draw on international experience of what works.

Let me instance just three areas internationally where the evidence points one way, but where populism and/or denial, and/or fear of short-term political consequences point in another direction:

Climate change: The most recent report from the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that the world is on track for more than three degrees Celsius warming by 2100. To stay below the Paris Agreement’s target of 1.5 degrees Celsius, there would need to be what’s described as a World War Two-level mobilisation to stop the use of fossil fuels and to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at a large scale.

Yet how likely is that when many major economies are far from taking such decisions? The role of coal is once again lauded by the USA Federal Administration; in China, local authorities appear to be proceeding with coal plant construction despite the central government trying to rein it in; and coal-powered plants are reported to be making a comeback in government thinking in India.

Overall, the scientific consensus on climate change points to the need for major change in the way the world produces and consumes, but the short-term political costs of action so often lead to delay. Yet, as the 2006 Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change told us, we either pay now for the energy and other transitions required, or we pay much more later – and for less optimal results. The first discussion paper written for the Foundation by Director Kathy Errington, discusses how green hydrogen could contribute to the energy transformation required here and abroad.

Drug policy. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development exhorts us to leave no one behind in development. One group which is consistently marginalised and demonised, however, is that of people who use drugs. A prohibitionist approach is mandated by the United Nations conventions which refer to drug addiction as an “evil”. It is a short step from that to seeing those who use drugs as evil and deserving of punishment. Yet, the steps taken over decades with the aim of wiping out drug use and illicit production and supply have manifestly failed, and the classification of drugs bears little relationship to assessments of their potential for harm.

This is an area where we need to hear more from experts and less from moralisers and populists. Drug policy in most countries is neither based on science nor informed by evidence of what works. Portugal, however, is one of the countries which has in effect defied the intent of the international conventions. It has decriminalised personal use and possession of drugs, and put in place major harm reduction measures. This approach has led to Portugal’s rate of drug-related deaths dropping from being the highest in Western Europe in the 1990s to the lowest today. There has to be a message in that, as there is in the success of other countries, like Switzerland following a similar road.

New Zealand is now addressing the challenge of how to move away from its traditionally prohibitionist approach towards policy based on seeing drug use as a health and social issue and not deserving of the attention of the criminal law. The Prime Minister herself has been very firm on this. I know that there are elements of support for such an approach across the parliamentary parties. It is desirable to take the politics out of debate on the issue and to advance policies based on what is known to work elsewhere.

Addressing inequality: High levels of inequality place strains on social cohesion and have especially poor outcomes for the most disadvantaged with spill over effects for the rest of society. Tackling inequality effectively needs to be premised on an acceptance that market mechanisms don’t work for all in accessing housing and other services, and that governments, central and local, must be players if more equitable outcomes are to be secured. The evidence of what works in this area, however, such as intervention to secure affordable housing supply and sustaining universal health coverage, is often dismissed on ideological grounds.

Other examples of policy which is driven by ideology and belief rather than science and evidence abound, across: migration policy – often leading to human rights abuses; penal policy – leading to unnecessarily high levels of incarceration; and education – leading to a narrow exams and results focus rather than to education for critical thinking and innovation.

My appeal to policy makers would be always to seek the best advice they can, rigorously evaluate it, make decisions accordingly, and monitor the outcomes so course corrections can be made as required.