Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Ministry of Primary Industries New Environmental Regulator

I attended a consultation meeting today for the new National Environmental Standard for Plantation Forestry ( NES-PF) document. It was a very concerning experience, not only for the precedent that is being set that a single industry can determine environment standards, but also for the fact that GE-GMO trees are going to become permissible without any public mandate or wider economic assessment. A Green friend attended a similar meeting in Northland and he commented that it felt like the Ministry 'for making money' is being allowed to decide what is good for the environment.

Staff from the MPI presented a logical case for greater consistency when larger forests encompassed more than one region and therefore would need to include different environmental and bureaucratic expectations in their planning and operations. These new standards would apply to the forestry industry's wider activities and would mostly override the district plans and the regional council rules (there were some exceptions but would generally would be the case).

The document does contain some sound environmental standards, but some others will allow for less stringent rules for forestry activities around waterways, reduced protections for indigenous vegetation and the potential for clear felling on erosion risk land (as some examples).

This document is intended to make it easier for commercial forestry to expand and operate, but many of the potential costs of mitigating any adverse effects will be passed on to environment councils and ratepayers. Someone from Environment Southland asked whether this is a sign of the future and whether the Council may have to manage a similar set of unique standards for the likes of the dairy industry in the future. This possibility wasn't discounted.

I questioned the need for separate rules for different land uses and put forward the idea that if we had national standards that covered all land use it would be much simpler. I also suggested it should be the role of the Ministry of the Environment to set environmental standards, not the MPI. Why should a farmer building a road across his farm to a forestry block have one set of rules for crossing his paddocks and another for inside his plantation? I was told that if the local council wanted to adopt their rules for consistency's sake, they could. It sounded a little like the tail wagging the dog to me and all the onus would be placed on the councils to make the differing rules work.

Environment Southland Councillor, Robert Guyton, questioned the manner in which the use of GE-GMO trees was slipped into the document with little acknowledgment. He read out a statement from the appointed Commissioners for Environment Canterbury who had voiced concerns about the wider ramifications of introducing GE-GMO plants with no transparent or democratic process. By including this in the Environmental Standard as a fait accompli it does not allow any region to assess the impacts of it on their local industries especially those relying on an organic or GE free environment. It was admitted that there had been no research into the impacts on other industries or the trade implications of losing New Zealand's GE free status.

Commercial foresters were keen to allow the use of GE-GMO Douglas Firs (as one example) that cannot reproduce. These trees grow well at higher altitudes but are notorious for the spread of wilding trees if they are allowed to seed in their natural state. This would be very useful for commercial foresters and would reduce the cost for dealing with a rampant pest, however, once introduced it would then change the country's GE status forever with huge consequences for other industries.

While forestry has been poorly served by this Government and reforestation is needed to regrow the industry (and increase its capacity as a carbon sink) this document is a step too far.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

National's Ideology a Cancer to Public Services

The National Government has a philosophy of reducing government and increasing privatisation. It has attempted to cut 30,000 jobs from the state sector, introduced Charter Schools, private prisons, PPPs and has sold off state assets. None have been supported by evidence, research or consultation, it is pure ideology and a cancer to our public services.

The Government's determination to deliver an improved public service by setting targets, shifting contracts to NGOs and the private sector does not bear close scrutiny. Shifting what were Government services to private providers and NGOs has proved problematic when the budget to provide the services is reduced to a level well below the previous costs to manage them. The Government's belief that others can provide quality public services more cheaply has had setbacks when Relationships Aotearoa had to close its doors due to serious funding shortfalls despite a long history of good performance.

After removing $25 million from the Ministry of Education budget, frontline workers in special needs were cut and the debacle of the Novopay payroll system occurred (costing $45 million to fix). While New Zealand's public education system was once the envy of the world it is rapidly dropping in international rankings and becoming more inequitable.

Ignoring widespread concern from the education sector, and no mandate from voters, five Charter Schools were approved (and funded well above state schools). The education profession questioned the wisdom of nonprofessionals leading the schools and using unregistered teachers. After eighteen months, and costing almost three times as much per student as state schools, the experiment has been a dismal failure. Te Pumanawa o te Wairua has constantly struggled to deliver a safe environment or acceptable teaching standards, despite lots of professional support. Rather than disestablish the 37 student school (it opened with 71) Hekia Parata has decided to provide even more funding to keep it going until at least the end of the year. The school will now cost the tax payer $45,000 per student compared to $7,500 for children in state schools.

Teachers in the state sector were also appalled by the Government's decision to bail out the 400 student Wanganui Collegiate private school by $3 million (against advice) when there was ample capacity to absorb the students in the neighbouring public schools. When children with special needs struggle to get enough support this generosity to support a few affluent students was unjustified.

Private prisons have a mixed record overseas. To maximise profits they are often run on minimal staffing and as little as possible spent on rehabilitation programmes. The Government gave Serco prison contracts despite its chequered reputation and struggling financial situation, and when the new Auckland South prison facility is full, the company will be responsible for 25% of New Zealand's prisoners.

What has been revealed in the Serco managed Mt Eden prison is similar to what has occurred in its other facilities, minimal levels of inadequately trained staff and poor management of the detainees. Many injuries and even a riot appear to have gone unreported as such incidents incur penalties. Serco has already had to pay out $300,000 for such things as insufficient staffing, mixing accused prisoners with other prisoners, minimum entitlements and incident notification.

When at least 1 in 120 New Zealanders are homeless or housing deprived and children and adults are ill and dying because of damp, overcrowded and unhealthy houses the Government has decided that it no longer wants the responsibility of social housing and has started  a programme of selling them off. This is despite the low standard of many private rentals and the reluctance of other organisations to take them on.

The National Party does not understand the ethos of public service, it can never be managed by arbitrary budgets and targets or narrow contracts. Most who work in the public sector do not do the work for money alone and financial incentives just corrupt the professional ethics that many are used to operating under. When ACC staff had financial rewards for reducing the number of long term claimants they ceased working in the best interests of the individuals concerned.

Most of our public services exist to support a properly functioning society full of healthy, well housed and educated people. There are not just humanitarian reasons for providing these services, but economic ones too. It is a financial drain on our health systems when thousands of children present to our hospitals with respiratory illnesses due to poor housing and there is a cost to businesses when workers call in sick or are off work for long periods because of a poorly resolved injury.

Providing social services can never be considered something that the private sector can do well. A good business must make a profit and return dividends to shareholders. This means that if a government has a set budget for a particular service all of that money can be directed to service delivery while in the state sector. If the same amount is paid to the private sector for doing the same thing (it is often less) then the necessary profit must be sucked out of wages or by cutting corners in delivery.

No developer or private company could provide social housing in the way the Government can, it won't have access to low interest loans or compete with the economies of scale. When state houses are not well maintained or their supporting services fail, it is not because governments are no good at providing good social housing, but because there is no will to do so.

We need to cut out the cancer of neoliberalism from our public service before it becomes a terminal condition!

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?"