Shoulda, woulda, coulda: My regrets during my time inside the … – Stuff

Jon Johansson is a political scientist, former chief of staff to deputy prime minister Winston Peters and a Wellington-based communications consultant.
OPINION: A few months ago in a column I reminisced about being involved in getting a dart buoy network up for the early detection of tsunami. That nostalgia, however, is tempered by things I wished I’d done but didn’t during my time working in government, conjuring up that old Frank Sinatra line, “Regrets, I’ve had a few.”​
Now, my regrets aren’t the ones others I worked with in that building would likely nominate for me to carry on my conscience, but there are two things that stick in my mind as choices taken, or not taken, that I regret.
The first concerns drones. Not the ones that drop bombs. But ones that would drag our emergency management and other response capabilities into the 21st century. For New Zealand’s geological profile, our systems remain arcane and cumbersome.
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A proposal landed for the government to consider leasing or buying outright a MQ-9 SeaGuardian drone. The SeaGuardian had multiple applications. Maritime patrol and surveillance, search and rescue capability including for climate related events, earthquake aid, land and sea mapping, forest fires, chemical spills, you name it there was little the drones couldn’t provide better than our antiquated systems can deliver.
A drone could map every inch of our landmass and with this baseline data could measure any changes as a result of earth movements, slips, and so on. Responsiveness in the event of a natural disaster would see a quantum improvement. A drone would have been a superior resource when Whakaari/White Island blew its stack. It could have been deployed immediately after the undersea volcano went off in Tonga. Time and lives could be saved.
A drone could monitor Southern Ocean fisheries during the toothfish season. Stationed at Scott Base for the duration of the fishing season, the drone would fly daily soirees, recording, filming, and reporting illegal fishing. With a 3000-kilometre range, its surveillance capability well and truly met our needs and those of our Pacific neighbours when emergencies strike.
Drones aren’t cheap, costing about $51 million each (New Zealand would need two) but an economic analysis revealed the drone paying for itself solely through improved illegal fisheries surveillance. Atypically for my time in government, it was an investment whose dividend could be multiplied 10-fold in taxpayer savings.
Drones are also significantly more environmentally friendly. Think of the emissions needed to send a naval vessel down to the Southern Ocean fishing grounds for weeks when compared to an unmanned drone.
The issue with the drones as I saw it was less their utility, than who would manage their resource allocation. With fisheries, defence, primary industries, police, customs, and emergency management among the drone’s customers, how one co-ordinated the drone’s time utilisation would prove to be challenging.
In the Defence budget, $307 million was appropriated for what was called complementary capability. Drones were included, but by 2020 drones had dropped off Defence’s priority list.
From my perspective, civilian control of the drones was the first principle question, with emergency management (or Civil Defence as it was then called) the most appropriate location to lead the co-ordination of drone usage. However, it was not to be, and that is a regret.
My other regret on the policy front concerns something we did, but I now wish we hadn’t – try and fix greyhound racing. Upon coming into government in 2017, we were confronted by the Hansen Report into greyhound racing. The report revealed unacceptable rates of dog euthanasia, high numbers of unaccounted dogs, and low numbers of rehomed greyhounds.
A racing greyhound’s financial value is often brief, leading to an excess of unwanted greyhounds, many of which literally disappeared as there was no way of tracking them because the database was a sham.
The Minister certainly reinforced to Greyhound Racing NZ his commitment to the Hansen Report’s 20 recommendations. Our office closely monitored to see what, if any, progress was made against them, and we received quarterly updates up until mid-2020.
We also worked closely with Corrections and Mike Williams from the Howard League for Penal Reform to grow a programme that saw greyhounds retrained as domestic pets by prisoners. Prisoners and dogs often shared a history of abuse, so learning to love in a way neither party had previously experienced was a beautiful idea.
Greyhound Racing NZ has taken seriously the Hansen Report and made progress against its recommendations. Euthanised dogs have drastically reduced through these efforts. The Racing Integrity Unit also showed its teeth earlier this year when charging three, including two trainers, after two greyhounds were found with methamphetamine in their system.
But that last news story jolted me. Greyhounds have a miserable existence, and I can’t see any social good that comes from it, so not ending greyhound racing remains a regret.
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