Friday, June 26, 2015

The Real Axis of Evil?


Within the Global Green community New Zealand is a leading nation. Our Values Party was the first Green Party to contest a national election in 1972 and the 1975 Values manifesto 'Beyond Tomorrow' is still considered to be a foundation document for all Greens. In terms of political influence at a national level the New Zealand Green Party is a success story. Most political systems around the world are not proportional systems like ours, many are very corrupt and most are designed to allow a select group to remain in power (for us to have 14 MPs is the stuff of dreams for other Green Parties). The UK Greens only managed to get one MP despite winning 1.1 million votes (proportionally they deserved 25).

Over twenty countries in the Asia Pacific region have Green Parties and around half of those were represented at the Asia Pacific Green Federation (APGF) congress near Wellington two weeks ago. During my time talking with delegates from Taiwan, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and others I was forced to re-evaluate New Zealand's standing internationally and it made me feel more than a little uncomfortable.

Although our country is admired for our Green political history and our past reputation for standing up for the environment and human justice, our nation's standing on the global stage is now spiraling downward:
  • Spying. We are a member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance that has been exposed by whistle blower Edward Snowden as having been involved in mass surveillance. It was revealed that New Zealand has been involved in collecting mass data from our Pacific neighbours for the alliance and the US Appeals Court has ruled that mass collection of phone records is illegal. International terrorism was used as the reason for mass surveillance but it has been revealed that human rights activists and world leaders have also been targeted. It does appear that the purpose of much of the spying is to support existing political regimes and limit opposition. Among the individuals spied on in the past have been Nelson Mandala, Princess Diana, Jane Fonda and even Angela Merkel. In New Zealand our SIS spied on past Green MP Keith Locke from the age of eleven. One of the APGF congress remits passed the other weekend regarded a request for the mass surveillance of Asia Pacific countries by the Five Eyes to stop. 
  • Military Alliances. John Key referred to our sending troops to Iraq to support the war against ISIS as the price of being part of the "the Club". He clearly meant the Five Eyes and joining the US in its ongoing military interference in the Middle East under the excuse of fighting terrorism. In actual fact the destabilising effect of US military intervention and the supply of US manufactured weaponry to rebel groups is considered to be the most likely cause of the ongoing conflict in the region. In joining the US we are complicit in the illegal activities and sanctioned cruelty and human rights abuses that have been part of US operations for many years. Rather than winning the hearts and minds of those who we are supposed to be helping we are more likely to be considered a joint aggressor aligned to fabricated information, drone attacks on innocent people, illegal torture and incarceration without trial that have been associated with the US war on terror.
  • Humanitarian aid. While being associated with the causes of international destablisation and conflict, the millions of refugees that have resulted find little support from the Five Eyes Alliance. Australia has one of the worst reputations for the treatment of refugees with many being detained for more than a year in inhumane conditions and being treated like criminals. New Zealand has an equally dodgy history with dawn raids targeting Pacific Islanders in the 70s and we are currently ranked 87th in the world for our annual refugee intake per capita. Our miserly 750 limit hasn't been increased for almost 30 years and our Prime Minister has supported Abbot's fear mongering stand against boat people. We clearly don't pull our weight regarding the humanitarian support of displaced people. 
  • Climate Change Action. The main focus of the APGF congress was climate change and yet again New Zealand did not come out well. The main causes of our changing climate have been the GHG emissions of developed nations and our Five Eyes partners are amongst the worst in the world for both total volumes and on a per capita basis. The United States is the second worst in the world by volume and, in relation to population: the US is the 8th worst, Australia 10th, Canada 12th and the United Kingdom 33rd. Considering New Zealand gets most of its electricity from clean renewables we are still ranked amongst the worst out of almost 200 nations according to Government data. New Zealand does not have a good reputation for our determination to deal with our emissions and our Government wants us to be followers, not leaders, in climate action. Our Asia Pacific neighbours are already suffering terribly from extreme weather events and rising sea levels. New Zealand is dragging its heels in this area rather badly.
  • Inequality. New Zealand has amongst the fastest growing inequality in the world and is also one of the worst for child health and welfare. 25% of our children live in relative poverty and third world diseases are becoming increasingly common. We are similar to other Five Eyes nations where inflated CEO salaries, corporate welfare and financial bailouts to large financial institutions are an ongoing reality. While we were once considered an egalitarian society and a great country for bringing up children this is no longer the case, especially if you are poor. 
  • Homelessness is also a growing feature of the Five Eyes nations and, despite our general wealth, families living is cars and tents or sleeping rough are now common. In the US 'tent cities' can be found in most states. New Zealand joins Australia and Canada for having amongst the least affordable housing in the world related to income (less than 50% of New Zealanders now own their own home). 
  • Corruption. New Zealand has been considered one of the least corrupt countries in the world but this reputation is beginning to slip. With our growing trading ties with China, and their culture of bribing and paying off officials, similar behaviour is becoming more common in New Zealand. SkyCity and our housing market have also been identified as being useful for money laundering. Up to $10 billion of criminal funds are believed to be laundered in New Zealand every year.
  • Human Rights. New Zealanders may think our country upholds human rights better than most but much legislation being passed recently ignores basic rights and the number of human rights recommendations from the UN have increased from 64, four and half years ago, to 155. An area of special concern is the number of Maori and Pasifika people who dominate prison populations, negative health statistics and live in substandard housing. Low waged workers also fare badly with zero hour contracts and large numbers working for minimum wages and little job security. Our abuse of migrant workers is also a recent concern. 
George Bush used the term 'Axis of Evil' to describe Iraq, Iran and North Korea. It was very clear, even at the time, that this was a gross exaggeration of their real threat to the world (despite the internal human rights abuses of their respective governments). I contend that most of the world has more to fear from the Five Eyes nations. Our collective GHG emissions are forcing the world's climate to a dangerous point, our willingness to support disastrous and expensive military interventions and our reluctance to spend even moderate amounts on humanitarian causes. We are happier to spend millions to have close trade relationships with some of the worst abusers of human rights, China, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia than deal with the inequality and poverty within our own borders. 

The Five Eyes are not the defenders of the free world, with our spying and interventions, but enthusiastic advocates for corporate greed, dangerous neoliberalism and the unsustainable exploitation of the world's resources. Our existence and activities threaten the wellbeing of our planet far more than the countries we point our fingers at. What have we become? 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Mr and Mrs Nimby make a stand!


"This house will be installed over my dead body!" exclaimed Mr Norris Nimby this morning with Mrs Noreen Nimby nodding in agreement beside him.

A prefabricated home was about to be shifted onto a section in the exclusive Aurora Country Estate that day and local residents had barricaded the street with their Porches, BMWs and Bentleys to stop the truck and house from entering.

"We have a special covenant on this estate to maintain minimum standards and this house breaches it in multiple ways," stated Mr Nimby emphatically. "The house that they are trying to shift here has three bedrooms, only two bathrooms and a corrugated iron roof. Its very presence in our lovely neighbourhood will lower value of our properties by up to $100,000."

"No properties here are valued at less than $2 million and it is frighteningly possible that having this house on our estate will push the neighbouring houses beneath that," Nimby explained. "It is a huge concern and it would be devastating for Brian and Miriam, they planned to retire in their adjacent house."

Nimby assured us he was not a racist (a number of nice Chinese families were welcomed into the community) but he was deeply concerned that such a house may become a home for refugees or a couple of Pacific Island families.

"The next thing you know there will be people living in the garage and some old Toyota will be parked on the street, in full view," Nimby lamented.

The Aurora Residents' Association had already written a submission to the City Plan listing a number of points that they believed believed were vital to their way of life:
  • Any social housing should be built in specially designated areas so as not to impinge on the rights of those who had invested in properties expecting a reasonable capital gain (currently around 10% a year).
  • The decile rating of a Decile 9 or 10 school community should not be threatened by inappropriate housing developments.
  • Public transport routes (trains and busses) should only enter communities where there was a demand. 
  • Fast food and liquor outlets should not be sited within a 1km radius of the Aurora Estate.
Mrs Nimby described their community as a happy one where their children could walk and play around the streets safely, she felt that their local culture would change if those who didn't share the same values moved in. "It's not really about differences in wealth," she explained, "it's about aesthetics. In this community we have a certain level of taste that other people or cultures may not appreciate." 

"They may seem like little things to others but according to our covenant lawns on this estate are not allowed to grow longer than 2 cm and vegetables must be grown behind the house and not be visible from the street," said Mrs Nimby. 

The community was particularly angry about the Housing Minister's recent plans. One of Nick Smith's identified pieces of public land that he deemed suitable for social housing was a small wetland area just outside the estate. "It is totally inappropriate for social housing," opined Mr Nimby, "there's no bus service and the closest McDonalds is miles away." 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Southern DHB sacked for not delivering the impossible.


We now have legal consultant Kathy Grant, who has no experience in the health sector, as the newly installed commissioner who will be replacing the sacked Southern District Health Board. It will be interesting to see what essential services she will cut to keep within the budget.

Here is my letter that was published in the Southland Times last week:

It appears that our Southern DHB will soon be governed by a commissioner because it failed to provide core services within an unrealistic and arbitrarily designed funding system.
 
Relationships Aotearoa submitted its concerns to the Government about the inflexibility of the contract system to meet complex needs and the lack of appreciation for the true costs of quality services. RA has had to close its doors without a proper transition plan in place or replacement services established. Many vulnerable people will suffer as a consequence and place more expensive demands on our already stretched social services and health and justice systems.
 
The Southern DHB has been expected to provide core services across a large geographical region under a population based funding model.  In more densely populated regions it is much easier to centralise services but in Southland and Otago, where distances from a major hospital are substantial, a higher level of service capacity is necessary in outlying communities. These are life-saving needs and necessarily create greater demands on budgets.
 
To keep within funding constraints our DHB has cut essential nursing positions in Gore, dangerously reduced access to colonoscopies and our kitchen staff will be pruned as hospital food is outsourced to a cheaper provider.
 
What this Government doesn’t appear to understand is that if immediate health needs are not addressed appropriately the consequences of delayed or reduced treatments will put huge and costly pressures on services in the future. For a Government that promotes itself as having economic credibility, this short-term thinking will cost us dearly in more ways than one.

Monday, June 15, 2015

New Zealand, the Banana Republic of the Pacific


The high salaries paid to CEOs in New Zealand are actually indefensible for a small Pacific nation. Our government sector heads earn much higher salaries than many equivalent sized institutions overseas and our CEOs of private companies and SOEs also do extraordinarily well. CEO pay increases averaged over 10% over the past year while workers were lucky to receive 3%. 

Our PM earns the equivalent of $280,000 US which makes his salary only $120,000 less than the US President and more than that of Cameron in the UK, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Shinzo Abe of Japan.

The Mayor of Auckland receives $180,000 US while the Mayor of New York (pop. 8 million) receives only $40,000 more.

The US Secretary of the Treasury earns $191,000 US a year while our NZ Secretary of the Treasury earns $431,000 US.

Nestle’s Revenue is ten times that of Fonterra’s and the salary of Nestles’ CEO is $9 million. If Theo Spierings’ salary was revenue based, he would only be earning around $1 million, instead he is earning $3.3 US million a year.

Considering our country only has the population of a reasonable sized city (internationally), we pay CEO salaries greater than those of most major economies. Something is seriously wrong with our values and we are rapidly looking like a banana republic.


Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Chickens Coming Home to Roost


Cameron Slater was about to eat his breakfast when he heard a clucking noise outside his back door. Investigation revealed a little chicken called Ben standing on the other side.

"Fuck off!" shouted Slater, waving his meaty hands and calloused fingertips at the cheeky feathered interloper. The bird immediately excreted a steaming soft bundle onto his porch before exiting in a flurry of feathers and excited squawks.

"Shit!" said Slater.

Murray McCully was sitting in his favourite armchair enjoying a particularly nice single malt (after returning from another luxurious visit to Saudi) when an exotic Arab chicken fluttered into the room and perched behind him. He shortly became aware of a smelly mass dribbling down the front of his Savile Row suit.

"Shit!" said McCully.

Judith Collins leaned back in a chair on the deck of her home and looked out across the Auckland Harbour. The city lights were starting to be reflected in the water as the evening light dimmed. It had been a satisfying week unifying the backbenchers in a protest against the new health and safety legislation. Her comeback was going to plan and businesses around New Zealand will soon be tacking her image to their office walls (she hoped it would be ones that emphasised her superior taste in clothes).

Suddenly a large flock of white chickens blocked out the light of the sinking sun as they flapped towards her and quickly settled on the spouting nearby. In the fading light their ghostly forms shuffled along the gutter as they positioned themselves in a tight mass directly above her head. Collins suddenly had images of forests, mines, farms, ports and a quarry swim around in her mind before a cascade hit her from above.

"Holy shit!" exlaimed Collins.

Bill English pulled into the driveway of his $1.5 million Karori mansion and thought about the additions he planned back in 2009 before he had to give up his housing allowance. The $48,000 a year he had been receiving would have amounted to over $300,000 by now and would have paid for the two extra bedrooms and ensuites they wanted. Even on a Deputy Prime Minister's salary it stretched their budget supporting six children through private schools and university and that money would have been useful.

English was lost in his own thoughts as he walked to his door (mainly regarding what he would have liked to have done to those who had exposed his little Dipton charade) when he was suddenly aware of a flock of shivering little chickens directly under his feet. The small birds were obviously unwell and many were wheezing through their tiny beaks.

"Shoo, get lost!" shouted the irritated English. "Don't you have warm homes to go to?"


Monday, June 1, 2015

James Shaw, Greens Move Forward


The Green Party AGM and three day conference finished today and a single word dominated the conference screens for most of the time: Forward. The word successfully summed up the content, deliberations and decisions that came out of the meeting. While we did celebrate our beginnings in 1990 (twenty five years ago) our real focus was on the development of a new strategic plan, launching two new campaigns and electing a new male leader.

The Green Party does leadership change with less collateral damage than most other parties but that doesn't mean that the process isn't intense or emotionally bruising for the candidates and their supporters. We had four incredibly talented and competent men put themselves forward. As they presented themselves in a range of forums, both together and individually, appreciation for their abilities was enhanced rather than real weaknesses being revealed. 

As someone who has been involved with the party at a leadership level for some time I thought I knew the candidates well and supported Kevin Hague in his nomination early on. I have worked with Kevin on a number of issues in Invercargill and in Green forums over the years and and know him to be highly astute and an effective communicator. Kevin's speech to a Grey Power AGM in Invercargill was very well received and lifted the Greens credibility within that organisation. He has also had a leading role in strategic planning in our caucus and for the party as a whole. Kevin would have made an excellent leader and, when we get into Government, he will make a strong Minister. I can imagine how disappointed Kevin will be at missing out on the opportunity to use his undoubted skills in the leadership role.

I was really pleased that Gareth Hughes also threw his hat in because he is one of our most media savvy and effective MPs. During our battles to stop lignite mining in Southland and oil drilling in the Great South Basin, Gareth has been one of our strongest supporters and is a hero amongst those fighting against further exploration for new reserves of fossil fuel. Gareth's credibility in the IT community is very high and he connects well with our younger voters. I have witnessed Gareth's growth in confidence and knowledge from my first contact with him as Russel's EA many years ago and my respect for him continues to grow.

Vernon Tava never expected to be a serious contender for the leadership position but he wanted to use the campaign to promote his vision of a Green Party that could capture the centre of the political spectrum. It is his view that by promoting ourselves as the party of sustainability (economic, environmental and social), we would be considered as more centrist and therefore enable us to have influence on the right as well as the left. Vernon presented his case well with energy and commitment and proved to be a very articulate communicator. 

The eventual winner, James Shaw, has had a long history with the Green Party and, while he hasn't had the parliamentary experience of Kevin, he has been a leading light in membership organisation for many years (he first joined as a teenager in 1990). James' business management and system skills saw him planning and facilitating a lot of our party training. He has also been one of our most successful candidates, leading exceptionally strong campaigns in Wellington Central for two elections in a row and winning over commentators across the political spectrum. James' leadership saw the Green Party vote surpass Labour's in the political beltway, while up against the formidable Grant Robertson, in 2011 and 2014. I regarded James as a future leader and originally thought that more time in parliament would be useful preparation.

James ended up staying with me when he visited our branch during the leadership campaign. After impressing the branch over an informal meal we returned to my house and ended up talking into the early hours. Despite being in Parliament for a short time it was clear during our discussions that James was no ordinary novice, he already had an excellent grasp of the place and its inhabitants. His maiden speech was widely praised and he is already a strong performer during question time asking probing questions and using humour with a quirky sophistication that Key rarely achieves. 

Our membership driven process has ended up electing less experienced contenders before. Metiria was voted in ahead of Sue Bradford and Russel Norman wasn't even in Parliament when he beat MPs Nandor Tanczos and David Clendon for the leadership. In both cases we ended up with leaders who have added considerably to a growth in voter support and increased political credibility. While some may believe there is an element of risk in electing James Shaw as our Co-leader, those of us from within the party know that the risk is minimal and his potential is considerable. The Green Party moves forward again. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Sustaining today by denying the future

When I attended primary school over four decades ago the importance of saving and being financially secure was strongly encouraged from an early age. Our little deposit books from the Post Office Savings Bank had a squirrel on the cover to remind us of the importance of putting something aside to ensure a comfortable future. School banking ensured that a culture of responsible economic management and preparing for the future was ingrained at an early age and schools were rewarded for their efforts:

(Mataura Museum)

On leaving home I put money into a home ownership account with the Southland Building Society and after ten years it matured into sum that enabled me to pay the deposit on my first house. In 1987, as a young teacher of seven years experience, I was able to make an important property investment. My $5,000 deposit was able to purchase a house with the same value as my annual salary ($27,000), a tidy three bedroom wooden bungalow in a good area (admittedly in Invercargill). My financial future at that point was relatively secure, I had reasonable certainty of income and had a capital asset that would retain or grow in value. 

My son has had different experiences from me financially and has a much more uncertain future. 

While we encouraged both our children to save money in their own accounts, banking in schools was no longer supported. Bank fees were also excessive for accounts holding small sums and returns were minimal. It seemed to make more sense to spend money rather than have it lose value in the bank. 

Despite putting money aside in an education savings scheme to help pay for my son's tertiary education, and he was able to earn money through holiday employment, a student loan was inevitable (and encouraged). My son, with the support of his parents, has managed to limit the size of his loan to well less than the average, but it is still a substantial amount that needs to be paid back. Depending on the qualification, student loans of $40-100,000 are common. Having just completed a useful degree (Design Innovation) my son has no guarantee of employment where his skills can be fully utilized and we have a country where graduates earn less than most in the OECD.


After five years, if my son is able to find a job related to his qualification, he can expect to be earning around $50-60,000 a year at age 27. Rather than saving money for a deposit on a house with his initial earnings my son will still be trying to pay off his student loan. Even if he was in a position at that age to buy a house similar to my first one (in the same area of Invercargill) he would be looking at a house worth around $160,000 (around three times his annual salary) and will be needing a $24,000 deposit. The cost of housing in relation to income has increased at least three times since I bought my first one. 

By the time my son has paid off his student loan and has saved enough for a deposit on a house he will likely be in his mid thirties. By that stage I was living in my third house, which is our current home, and was concentrating on bringing up a young family.

Most young New Zealanders looking to buy their first house do not live in Invercargill and $250,000 to $300,000 would be the cheapest price range for the majority of areas where our population is concentrated, five to six times the annual salary my son will be potentially earning. We now have a future generation where house ownership is practically an impossible dream. Removing the Government kickstart for Kiwisaver is effectively knocking out yet another support that once made home ownership possible. 

The latest budget threw some extra money at the poorest beneficiaries but it is clear there is little support in helping most young New Zealanders in having a secure future in the manner I enjoyed. Young academic, Andrew Dean, describes in a recent book Ruth, Roger and Me how his generation's future has been considerably compromised by economic decisions made in the past

When the cost of financing superannuation and supporting our elderly is approaching $800,000 extra each year, there is a widening divide between the wealth and welfare of our retirees and our youth. For a country with a strong economy, rich in resources and a relatively small population, surely there should be some expectation of home ownership and financial security for following generations. It appears we are already exploiting and borrowing from my son's future to support today's inequitable and unsustainable economy. The concept of investing in our future appears to have disappeared with school banking, our children must do the best they can with what little we leave them.