Tuesday, November 18, 2014

School Deciles, Another crisis for Parata mess with?


The school decile system came about as a way of creating a level playing field for school funding across different school communities. It was accepted that Government funding, through the operations grant, never actually covers all operational costs. Donations and fundraising activities in each school community were still necessary to make up a shortfall. Obviously affluent communities are more able to raise those extra funds and poorer communities struggle and this needed to be addressed.

The decile rating of a school is based on data from the national census and looks at household incomes, occupations, household crowding, educational qualifications and those receiving income support. Despite some inaccuracies that occur, like the percentage of students who may come from outside the school area, the system has been broadly effective at identifying the wealth of a school community. Despite decile 1 schools getting a much larger amount of funding, however, research has shown that higher decile schools still receive around $1,000 a year more per student after donations and fundraising is included.

The decile rating was normally reviewed every five years but because of the Christchurch earthquake the 2011 census was delayed by a couple of years. The seven year wait for the decile rating review has meant that many more schools experienced a decile change than usual and some of the funding drops have been substantial.

The obvious angst experienced by those schools experiencing a funding cut, and some of the anomalies exposed, has provided the Minister of Education a great opportunity to propose a change. A review of the decile system isn't unreasonable, especially when it has been inappropriately used by many as an indication of the quality of the school. Currently in Southland some of our highest decile schools are under commissioners for issues around management and governance and many of our lower decile schools have excellent ERO reviews. The socio-economic status of a school should not be a judgement on the management of a school or quality of teaching.

I am worried that Hekia Parata may use concerns about the decile system to make changes that may actually deliver worse outcomess. No matter how much some schools may suffer when their decile rating moves, the system does attempt to address inequity in a relatively fair and independent manner. As stated earlier, inequity is only partially addressed through the decile system and could actually be more effective if even more money was provided to low decile schools because, under current funding provisions, high decile schools are still better off. I believe the decile funding system should be retained, but applied in such a way that the classifications of schools couldn't be misconstrued as a judgement of quality.

The other avenue where funding should be directed is to the needs of individual children. I recently taught at a Decile 3 school that had become a magnet for children with disabilities and also had a good number of immigrant children for whom english was a second language. Decile ranking doesn't really take into account elements not related to socio-economic backgrounds. Special Education support funding has been cut back and the threshold for accessing ORS funding is now so high that many children with very high needs struggle to get specialist support and schools with high numbers of children just below the threshold have to work very hard to accommodate them. Schools in wealthy communities and private schools also capture a disproportionate amount of special education funding and students in low decile schools, who are often more deserving, miss out.

Hekia Parata's track record in addressing real needs within the education system makes worrying reading: attempting to close down schools catering for special needs, her government's blatant support for private schools and privately managed Charter Schools and attempting to save money by reducing teacher numbers.

Parata has also suggested using National Standards data as a means for targeting funding and it will be interesting to see how she will choose to do this. The most logical way of doing this would be to give the schools with the lowest achievement greater resources, but this could be counter productive if recording lower achievement provided financial benefits. The most likely scenario would be to employ commissioners, or such like, to intervene in schools deemed 'under-performing' which fits the bullying style of governance we have come to expect.

There is also the spectre of Parata's IES policy which will see clusters of schools operating under the leadership of a Ministry appointed Executive Principal. The potential to change the funding model through this may actually be her plan. There may be financial incentives for low decile schools to join clusters and therefore erode the current deadlock where most primary schools are refusing to engage.

After six years under a National Government, one thing is certain, its initiatives are unlikely to meet the needs of the most deserving schools and children.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Who's left to blame?


National Ministers had three main excuses for poor outcomes and extensive borrowing: the Labour Government's prior mismanagement, the global economic crisis and the Christchurch earthquake. All of these excuses have now become historical, it is six years since Labour was in office, the economic crisis was well and truly over for New Zealand three years ago (we never suffered as much as most in the OECD) and the earthquake can no longer be counted as a deficit when the rebuild is a large part of our economic recovery. From now on the buck must stop with the current Government.

Over the last six years the National Government has had some clear priorities where they have made substantial investments:
The Government's motorway projects generally come out poorly in cost benefit analysis, the tax cuts to the wealthy did not result in any trickle down but contributed to higher spending in luxury items and corporate welfare often props up failing companies. The Government has also invested heavily into supporting the oil and gas industry, promoting coal mining and subsidising carbon emissions through the dismantled ETS.

National Government's are ideologically driven to shrink the size of government and shift as much as possible to private providers so that solutions to many social problems are left to market forces (with reduced regulation). National's ideology has been so dominant that they have been prepared to ignore evidence and advice and manipulate or hide data to progress their agenda. The cuts to the state sector have also reduced the quality of advice and resulted in bullying cultures

I believe that the National Party only really planned to be a two term Government and now that they have been elected for a further three years they will have to face the consequences of past decisions. Their chickens are coming home to roost and fudging data can only hide the physical realities of poor policy for so long. Since re-election the stress of the underfunding of core services is being revealed:
  • Our Universities have dropped in world rankings as government funding per student has dropped in real terms.
  • Our DHBs have reached crisis point and are having to cut basic services. Even the briefing to the incoming Minister of Health makes serious recommendations: '...unless the health and disability system changes its approach, government will need to spend a much higher percentage of GDP on health services (which will crowd out other government activity or consumption), or reduce access to services, or require patients to pay a greater share of costs."
  • The lack of investment in building lower cost housing has culminated in a severe shortage of social housing. The poor quality of many rentals and future housing demand (113,800 houses needed in next 15 years) needs urgent attention. There are around 43,000 people currently waiting to be properly housed and the average waiting time for applicants has grown to over three years under this Government.
  • The majority of New Zealanders have seen their incomes stagnate over recent years and at $28,500 our median income has not kept up with the increasing costs of housing, electricity and food. The growing inequality within our society is seen as CEO's continue to get massive salary increases (ANZ's CEO now earns more in a day than many New Zealanders can earn in a year).
  • Government Debt continues to climb and all the positive economic predictions can't hide the fact that the Government is continuing to spend far more than it earns (around $15 billion a year). 

John Key's claim of making "a brighter future for all New Zealanders" is looking increasingly hollow as his Government's spending and policy priorities have delivered little for most of us. There is no one else left to blame for a lack of vision, a failing ideology and poor quality investments.

The buck now stops with you, John!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Preventive or Preventing Health Care?


The front page article in the Southland Times today hit me at a personal level. Some years ago I became aware that I was passing blood and after a visit to my GP, was referred for an exploratory colonoscopy. As it turned out there was nothing seriously wrong with me but it was hugely reassuring that I could cross off bowel cancer (especially as I was in the danger zone of over 50).

The Southland region has the highest rate of bowel cancer in New Zealand, with New Zealand having one of the highest rates in the world. Despite these horrifying statistics a third of all GP referrals for colonoscopies in Southland have been recently rejected by the DHB.  At a public meeting a GP voiced his concern, "I send a patient, more than one, they are over 70, losing weight, blood in stool, and they still can't get a colonoscopy."

If I had had presented with my previous symptoms in today's environment it is unlikely that I would have been granted an exploratory procedure and would have had to go private to gain piece of mind. It must be hugely worrying for patients whose symptoms are concerning enough for their GP to request a colonoscopy, but then have the procedure refused. If a patient had limited financial means there would be no other way of getting support unless their health substantially deteriorated and by that stage the opportunity for early treatment would be lost. More than 100 New Zealanders die from bowel cancer every month and if detected early there is a 75% chance of successful treatment.

This Government is very skilled at manipulating data and love to talk up the fact that waiting times for medical procedures are dropping. What isn't widely understood is that huge numbers are removed from waiting lists for arbitrary reasons to create the impression of quicker turnover times. For colonoscopies in Southland, removing a third of referred patients from the list will not improve health outcomes but creates an impression of improved efficiency.

For a Government to knowingly manipulate data and deny New Zealanders timely treatment isn't acceptable from health or economic perspectives. It is far less expensive to treat the early stages of cancer than deal with a patient who has a terminal condition. Preventive health gives a far greater return on investment and cutting funding from this area of the health budget is short sighted and will have huge economic ramifications in the end.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

National's Conservation Dance, The Blue Green Spin


National’s top five conservation achievements are part of a new dance called the Blue Green Spin, one step forward, a quick twirl and three steps back:

1) National has created seven new marine reserves and we now have 9.5% of our territorial seas brought into reserves and sanctuaries (one step forward). Quick twirl. The Government has opened up much of our territorial waters for oil exploration, including our Maui's Dolphin sanctuary. Michael Field's book The Catch reveals the need to properly manage the fishing industry to stop the human and environmental exploitation currently occurring (three steps back). 

2) 2500 km of a national cycleway have been completed and $100 million proposed to accelerate cycling in urban areas (one step forward). Quick twirl. The NZTA has only a small handful of people employed to support cycling. The Government is continuing with their $13 billion motorway development and the amount being spent to support public transport is a tiny fraction of the transport budget. We are well behind Europe with our support of cycling in our urban areas and even in the car dominated US many cities have introduced safe cycling routes (three steps back).

3) Spending $30 million on the use of 1080 to control pests in over a million hectares of conservation land (one step forward). Quick twirl. It is just a pity that the ongoing work of the Department of Conservation has been greatly limited by huge budget cuts. The $30 million spent on pest control should be regarded in context of around $70 million cut from DoCs budget since 2008 and the hundreds of DoC employees losing their jobs. Simon Bridges has been enthusiastically opening up huge conservation areas for mining exploration without any appreciation of the areas involved (three steps back).

4) The Government is spending around $6.5 million a year over the next four years to support 'community led' conservation around New Zealand (one step forward). Quick twirl. New Zealand has one of the highest levels of volunteering in the world but there is growing concern that the Government is relying too much on good will and dedicated people who put the environment and the welfare of others before themselves. The founder of KidsCan, Julie Chapman, has voiced concern that she was having to do what the Government should be doing. The $27 million to be spent encouraging volunteers to do conservation work will be replacing, to a large extent, the $70 million cut from employing properly trained people. Those volunteering feel passionate about what they do and will be working long hours doing unpaid work at what can be a personal cost to themselves (three steps back).

5) $350 million being spent on cleaning up waterways and $100 million to retire land next to important waterways (one step forward). Quick twirl. Fresh water quality is actually declining according to most scientists and more is being spent on expanding dairy farming, the leading cause of much of our water pollution. We are growing our dairy herds faster than we can manage the environmental effects. Considering the average dairy farm is now worth around $10 million, $100 million won't retire a lot of farmland (three steps back).

The Blue Green Spin is a backwards moving dance that causes all those involved to run out of space and eventually have their backs against the wall. It looks attractive for a time but quickly ends when there is no more room for movement. There is no recovery when our Maui's Dolphins become extinct, important conservation land is permanently damaged through mining and our native fish are lost forever. It costs much less to say no to environmentally damaging industries than spend huge amounts to try and repair the resulting damage afterwards. I, for one, don't want to dance to this National Government's tune. 


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

John Key's Housing Legacy



"I think that if we are going to reform the world, and make it a better place to live in, the way to do it is not with talk about relationships of a political nature, which are inevitably dualistic, full of subjects and objects and their relationship to one another; or with programs full of things for other people to do. I think that kind of approach starts at an end and presumes the end is the beginning. Programs of a political nature are important end products of social quality that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right."

Robert Maynard Pirsig, Zen and  the art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)


If we applied Pirsig's approach to housing policy in New Zealand there would be an ongoing focus on lifting the quality of life for all New Zealanders, with a strong focus on equity. This is the expectation in much of Europe where quality housing is seen as an essential element in the quality of life for citizens. The success of each succeeding generation is dependent on the environment that they are brought up in and housing is a large factor in this. Children spend much of their important formative years in their home and the health of our working population is dependent on the conditions they live in. There is social and economic value in good housing and where there is a continuous cycle of improvement.

Michael Joseph Savage understood the wider benefits of good housing and used his Christian values and 'Applied Christianity' to progress change. Savage and his Government were determined to address inequity and lift many New Zealanders out of fairly dire living conditions. The state houses of the 30s and 40s were designed and built to standards that were considered high quality at the time and the fact that these same houses still make up over 40% of current HousingNZ stock (70 years later) is testimony to their construction and design. These state houses have become a New Zealand icon and became Savage's enduring legacy.

John Key and his Government have been aware of the issues around housing ever since they first came to power in 2008 and the Department of Building and Housing identified and described many of the key housing issues in their 2009/10 report. They effectively sat on the problem for six years until the issue could no longer be ignored. Overcrowding, ill health and homelessness have now developed into a highly visible crisis. The Salvation Army estimates that 1 in every 120 New Zealanders is now effectively homeless (35,800 people) and around 50% of those who rent claim the condition of their house negatively effects their health. Housing New Zealand has 5,600 people on waiting lists who are in desperate need of support (at risk) or have a serious housing need. This is appalling for a resource rich, first world country with a relatively small population.

New Zealand's housing market is is not driven by social values but in producing a good return on investment. For property developers and investors social housing is not a good source of captital gain. The low to average income earner does not have a lot of disposable income and renting to low income families is only really profitable if the houses being rented have relatively low value (in an overheated market) and tenants can tap into the accommodation supplement. There is no incentive for bringing a poor quality rental up to a reasonable standard if there is no financial advantage or requirement to do so. The Government currently spends over $2 billion a year to subsidise landlords and there is no expectation that the houses provided have to meet minimum standards. There are very few new houses currently being built to meet the the demand for low cost housing and the general standard of cheaper privately owned rentals is probably dropping.

The Government's initial solutions were to blame councils for not making more land available to developers and to claim that over regulation was restricting the building of low cost housing. Key and his Ministers ignored the fact that in many situations land was available and land banking and nimbyism was common. Past reductions in building regulations has had disastrous consequences, so any changes to the RMA and consenting processes need to be carefully considered to avoid a repeat of past deregulations.

Rather than lead the provision of social housing to ensure a high level of urgency and assurance of quality, the Government is taking the opposite approach by devolving responsibility of social housing to private interests and NGOs. The Salvation Army and other providers of social support are unlikely to have the finances to purchase or build large numbers of social housing and even if they did buy existing state houses at a discounted price, the maintenance and upkeep will be a financial drain. All the government will be doing will be to shift the responsibility of existing state provision to other providers with more limited means and it won't increase the overall numbers of available houses.

While there is money to be made servicing the needs of the wealthy and retirees, there is little money to made from social housing. If a developer did build housing for low income earners it is unlikely that quality would be a large consideration in their construction. I can imagine a 'build them cheap and pack them in' approach will be used. The Hobsonville Point development was initially going to include 100 lower cost homes amongst the 3,000 planned, but this was reduced to a mere 17. Integrating social housing into new developments will be problematic if we are going to rely on private developers and market forces.

If John Key completes his third term as Prime Minister in 2017 his legacy will probably be 9 years of growing housing inequity and a steady decline of the quality and numbers of low cost and social housing. Given current trends it is likely that over 40,000 people will be homeless by then and fewer New Zealanders will own their own home. Changing our flag appears to be Key's main priority and exposes his lack of compassion and the shallowness of his vision.


Friday, October 31, 2014

The Greens are wacky?


It is a bit like a game of pin the tail on the donkey, the National Government and their supporters are desperately attempting to stick the wacky label on the Greens again, but it is becoming harder to make it stick. National has great difficulty dealing with a stronger and more credible Green Party and Key himself has admitted that Green MPs provide a challenging opposition, "They go hard, they go really hard..."

Green Party policy has a strong base of research and evidence and anyone who took the time to view our full policy documents during the election campaign would have noted the comprehensive referencing. We were the only party to have our fiscal costings independently analyzed and made that analysis publicly available.

Steffan Browning's support of an online petition was unfortunate and has been leapt on with great enthusiasm as clear proof of craziness. Although the Greens have no policy to support homeopathy (and unlikely to) and Browning himself has withdrawn his support of the petition the hysteria around this will probably continue for some time.

The National Party have the advantage of winning the election through the popularity of its leader. As the incumbent conservative party, National's policies actually represent failing ideology that has become familiar to many (the devil you know...). Anything outside of current practice can conveniently become labeled as crazy.

A deep breath, less hysteria and a little bit of thought will reveal which party is really the wackiest.

Surely a party that continually denies the seriousness of climate change and does little to reverse New Zealand's growing greenhouse gas emissions is a little wacky.

A government that wants to spend $13 billion on motorways when traffic volumes have flatlined and demand for public transport has grown is wacky.

Refusing to measure child poverty so that targets can be set and progress tracked seems worryingly wacky.

Artificially supporting a dying party that struggles to get 1% and has had numerous MPs not meet basic standards of conduct is wacky.

John Key claiming to want a world without toilets is actually very wacky.

For the Prime Minister to have a close relationship with the most unprincipled blogger in New Zealand must be wacky.

A party that had three Ministers decide that Novopay was good to go took wacky to new and expensive levels ($43 million).

Gerry Brownlee's slagging of Finland was a definite leap into the world of wacky.

The Anne Tolley and Judith Collins joint attack on Metiria Turei's clothes was straight out of a wacky pantomime.

For Key to continue to back a Minister who has very little public support, has had two decisions reversed through legal action and cannot build a working relationship with the sector she is responsible for, is super wacky.

If I were to suggest replacing an experienced electorate MP, who happens to be the deputy leader and Finance Minister, with a 24 year old who thinks lobbying for a tobacco company provided him with legitimate and useful experience is a good idea...(wacky?).

Steffan Browning is a hard working MP who has held the Government to account for regulations around food safety, its underfunding of biosecurity and unnecessary spying. I was pleased that Steffan was able to get back in as our 14th MP and I am sure he has learned a valuable lesson about late night signings of online petitions.  I think people should be more worried about a party that selects MPs who go beyond the odd miss step and nearly every step becomes a concern. The misuse Parliamentary credit cards and bullying waiters move way beyond the signing of an online petition to me.

I know where I would pin the 'wacky' tail, and it does rhyme with donkey...

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Innovation, who should lead?


I attended two presentations over the past two days that has made me even more aware of the importance of innovation and the danger of accepting the status quo.

I attended a lunch time presentation yesterday from Sir Tipene O'Reagan in support of a local Ngai Tahu owned insulation and energy company, Awarua Synergy. The company was created out of the pioneering Bluff Healthy Homes project, a four year programme to insulate many homes in a low decile community. Awarua Synergy has grown substantially since its early days and now provides a wide range of energy related services, using cutting edge technology.

While I didn't agree with all Sir Tipene's views around the future of  New Zealand's energy supply (he appeared to support greater investment into hydro), there was much that I did agree with. We pay substantially more for our energy than most other OECD countries despite the fact that ours is cheap and clean to produce. I couldn't find data to support it, but Sir Tipene claimed the average cost of electricity for householders in New Zealand was 70% more than in Australia. Our electricity market is a flawed one and is supported by the Government as a form of taxation. Our electricity producing infrastructure is largely paid off (hydro dams) and because it mainly uses a renewable resource the cost of production is minimal. We should be paying very little for our power and this would make a huge difference to the living costs of struggling households and provide a competitive advantage for our exporting industries.

It is unlikely that the flawed market will be fixed any time soon and it therefore makes sense for electricity consumers to try and manage best in the environment they are stuck with. Awarua Synergy, like many other businesses, have recognized that making homes more efficient in terms of energy use (for different budgets) should be a growth industry. Providing the possibility for homes and businesses to disconnect from the grid also makes sense, especially when there is no certainty around power companies paying reasonable rates for excess production and the growing cost of line charges.

This morning I attended a breakfast presentation by Rod Oram that many have probably already heard. Rod provided an economic overview of where New Zealand was placed in a global sense. Using data and graphs he was able to show how New Zealand had survived the economic recession reasonably intact, made some gains but unless we have a strategy to become more sustainable as an economy, future projections were depressing. Current predictions from Treasury and economic advisors see our country struggling to achieve 2% growth a year for some time into the future (based on our current activity and direction). This questions the Government's overly optimistic claims that are unlikely to be delivered.

Rod had lots of examples of other nations and companies where innovative thinking and research had lifted a primary commodity into products of high value. He explained how our reliance on raw logs and powdered milk to produce much of our export income exposes us to the fluctuations of those markets. As a pasture based agricultural industry we are constrained by the environmental limitations of this form of production and the external costs of the industry (contaminated water and greenhouse gases) begin to outweigh income. Competing dairying production from the likes of China and the US use housed herds where waste is more easily captured and turned into energy to power the farm. This is cost effective, if not animal friendly. While there is a market for more natural pasture fed protein, unless it is managed in a sustainable way (that accounts for animal welfare the environmental effects) we lose the market advantage.

The value famers receive for their production (meat, fibre, milk) will always be limited as long as we remain at the bottom of the value chain and export the raw commodity for others to add the value. Rod had examples of where other companies and invested in research to move dairy beyond cheese and yoghurt and into pharmaceuticals that produced an even higher rate of return. Rather than increasing income through increasing production, adding value makes far more sense and could see payouts to farmers treble and remain relatively stable. By focusing on research and producing more sophisticated products Nestle has been able to enter a greater range of markets than Fonterra and ensures a more stable and predictable income for itself and its suppliers.

Rod also expressed concern at the sort of overseas investment we were allowing into New Zealand. Rather than partnerships where there are mutual benefits, we are allowing too many overseas owned businesses to access our resources so that they can add value themselves. For example Fonterra doesn't produce infant formula and yet we have allowed a Chinese company to build an infant formula plant here to ship back to its home market. We are allowing others to profit from we should be doing ourselves.

I was inspired by James Shaw's maiden speech on Tuesday where as a Green he openly supported market forces where markets are responsibly governed within sustainable parameters. James cleverly uses his family history to explain how we must always look beyond current thinking and ideology and recognise that leading change has economic advantages. We may not be able to single handedly change the world for the better but we can take a lead in showing how it can be done and reap the substantial benefits.