Sunday, July 17, 2016

The National Government's Shiny Pants


Health Minister Jonathon Coleman's spat with Treasury rang warning bells for me. It has been spun to look as though the good doctor wanted to fund much needed bowel cancer screening, but those nasty fiscal idealogues in Treasury blocked it. However reading Treasury's actual comments paints a different picture, it was lack of planning and 'under-funding' that created its concern. Treasury was not prepared to support an initiative that was unlikely to achieve its stated goals.

The Minister for the Greater Christchurch Regeneration Gerry Brownlee also suffered under Treasury's criticsms. Poor linking between project planning and transitional planning was cited, which meant decisions were out of sync and there wasn't sufficient regard for implications. Brownlee blustered about "lack of respect" and dismissed Treasury as mere "book keepers". However, talk to many in Christchurch and they will tell you about the frustration around the poor co-ordination and delays.

Treasury has also expressed concern about the way housing market has been managed in Auckland and rather than taking a "book keeper" view Gabriel Makhlouf made a speech where he suggested there should be greater consideration for public transport and the social implications on non home owners in the city. While Makhlouf generally has a more monetarist approach to policy than I would like, he appears far more socially responsible than the Government.

This Government has actually developed quite a reputation for poor planning and limited strategy. Too many of its past decisions have been found wanting and its oversight limited. There is an arrogance that emanates from current Ministers that they are all knowing and important decisions can be based on gut feelings rather than evidence. This gung ho, "seat of the pants" style of governance is dangerous and costly. Poor decisions over the past 8 years have had enormous fiscal, social and environmental implications and National has been reliant on spin and short memories to blunder on with limited opposition.

It seems that the introduction of National Standards has been forgotten, when teachers and schools were bullied into implementing a system while it was still being designed. School boards that requested more information were threatened with sacking if they didn't just comply.

Novopay is an ongoing debacle when three Ministers gave the go ahead for implementation despite numerous identified design faults and a struggling Ministry (it had just been assessed as the poorest performing Ministry by the Prime Minister's office).

It has been largely forgotten that the $13 billion motorway projects were never based on any solid cost benefit analysis and the current spending on transport is still ideologically focussed on roads when public transport, cycling and rail desperately need greater recognition.

Hekia Parata has been over-ruled twice by court decisions that have indicated that she had a little appreciation of good process and had a lack of concern for the families and children involved. The process used for closing Christchurch schools was particularly heartless at a time when school communities were very vulnerable. Too many education decisions are being based on ideology and whim than educational evidence.

Murray McCully's disastrous attempt to change MFaT was clearly based on limited advice and so too his $11.5 million expenditure to bribe a Saudi business man.

When climate change has become the number one crisis confronting the world, this Government still has no clear strategy to deal with our emissions, has set one of the lowest targets in the world and cut the funding to advisors.

It is also clear that the Government has no idea how to effectively address the ever expanding housing bubble or provide the social housing that is desperately needed. It refused to put in place any strategy to deal with housing when it knew it was a problem before 2008. Years of inaction has resulted a whole series of last minute decisions that are scattergun solutions at best. Bill English has been struggling to remain unsurprised when first hearing from the media that Paula Bennett was offering $5,000 to homeless to leave town and that Joyce had pronounced that Housing NZ wasn't expected to pay a dividend.

While Ministers consistently ignored the advice from ministries, departments, commissioners and ombudsmen they had at least run ideas past the cabinet and organised the PR before going public. However it now appears that even that basic check has been abandoned and Ministers seem to be leading their own fiefdoms to do as they please. With so many seat of the pants decisions and multiple U turns one can expect shiny pant seats will become an identifying characteristic of this Government's front bench. Many risk slipping off their seats altogether...

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

NZ Olympic Team Exposes Inequality


The inequalities within our New Zealand society has been starkly revealed in our Olympic Team according to sports journalist Dylan Cleaver. The team is largely white, with the rugby sevens sneaking in the few brown faces. This is a damning indictment on the lack of inclusiveness in many of our sporting codes and their spending. When one considers how many of our  internationally successful athletes are Polynesian then it seems shortsighted to make participation in so many sports dependent on family income.

By 2038 the Super Diversity Stocktake has determined that 51% of New Zealanders will be Maori, Pasifika or Asian and those of European descent will be in the minority. Despite this reality the majority of the funds coming from High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ) goes to sports that require considerable expense to participate in: rowing, cycling, sailing, equestrian, triathlon. Even sports like athletics and swimming, that don't have such a heavy equipment outlay, require membership fees and training commitments that are beyond the resources of many families.

A good deal of the funding to support elite sports comes from gambling proceeds. Over $2 billion a year is raked in through gambling machines, the TAB, lotteries and casinos. There is a predominance of gambling machines in poorer communities so that we now have a system where those who come from affluent families are more likely to participate in high level sport and much of the external financial support comes from poor communities.

The sporting inequity begins at school where most children's initial sports experiences occur. There are now clear inequalities in the sporting facilities and opportunities open to students attending low decile schools compared to high decile and private schools.

Wanganui Collegiate is a private secondary school that caters for 450 students and it was given a $3 million dollar bailout when it got into financial difficulty. With taxpayer support it provides a range of sports for its students including: sailing, cycling, triathlons, rowing (it has its own rowing shed) and skiing/snowboarding. The school also provides training grants to support its higher achieving athletes. The majority of the students come from affluent homes and the parents pay substantial fees to ensure small classes and high quality facilities.

The odds are stacked against Maori and Pasifika students to succeed in sport. A large percentage come from low income families and have to live in substandard housing. 15% of Maori children are obese and 30% of Pasifika Children. Most attend low decile schools that struggle to attract the same level of community funding to support sports equipment and facilities that high decile and private schools enjoy. Many Maori and Pasifika families can't afford club fees or the clothing and equipment to participate in sports outside the main codes supported by the school. Transporting their children to different venues is also prohibitive for many.

The Government has made it clear that their focus is on literacy and numeracy in primary schools and increasing pass rates for NCEA Level 2 at secondary level. PE advisors have been sacked and fewer teachers have the time or knowledge to coach sports teams outside school hours as they once did. As assessment demands have grown teachers are reluctant to spend their valuable time on sport and the shrinking number of male teachers in primary schools hasn't helped either.

Experiencing success is important for children's wellbeing and sense of self-worth. By downgrading the value of physical activity and athletic skills in schools we are limiting many children from being able to fully enjoy their education or be recognised for all their abilities. Our children need to have a balanced education and participating in PE and sport provides many useful life skills such as discipline and cooperation. For many students living in difficult circumstances, sporting prowess is a very real way of creating positive opportunities and lifting them out of the cycle of poverty.

When given support our Maori and Pasifika kids have become champions on the world stage and who knows how many potential gold medal winners in sailing, rowing and shot put are sitting in low decile classrooms at this very moment, just waiting to be discovered.

It would be great to see a picture of a future New Zealand Olympic team that truly reflects our wonderfully diverse society.



Thursday, July 7, 2016

The National Government cares about the homeless



The National Government Ministers stepped out of their fleet of BMWs and picked their way through the central Auckland streets bringing words of comfort to the many homeless filling the doorways and huddled in cars. There had been a lot of negative press about their 'comprehensive' housing strategy and they wanted to reassure those with the greatest needs that they were doing everything they possibly could. The Labour/Green inquiry into homelessness wouldn't be necessary because they are on top of the issue.

The PM put his hand gently on the shoulder of an elderly woman wrapped in a tattered blanket. "It's not a crisis," he said soothingly, "we are going to make some changes to the RMA to address your housing challenges."

Anne Tolley spoke reassuringly to a family who were settling their children down on their cardboard beds for the night. "I have a nice warm motel for you at $120 a night, " she offered. "You can pay us back  in your own time and without interest. We really care about your situation and I am concerned about your disabled daughter."

Paula Bennett sidled up to a dreadlocked man with a long tangled beard who was cocooned in a grubby sleeping bag. "Pssst!" she hissed conspiratorially. "Here's $5,000 if you leave town."

Nick Smith tapped on the window of a battered van, the interior of the windows were running with condensation and carrier bags of belongings were stuffed in every available corner. "Don't worry...," Smith said to one of the many occupants as the window was wound down, "I'm just converting a traffic island into special housing, I've got the consents."

Gerry Brownlee became exasperated at the negative response he got from young Maori couple with a baby. "I'm sick and tired of your carping and moaning!" Brownlee blustered. "I know you have been living this way for months but you need to know that we are doing everything we can to help you."

Steven Joyce took Brownlee aside. "There, there Gerry," he said soothingly, "they just don't understand that these things take time and they are just one of many who need support. Media Works are struggling again too."

Bill English was addressing a group spread across some sheltered steps. "...so then we found that they were all the wrong size and in the wrong place. You see the Government isn't very good at social housing so we are better out of it altogether..."

Judith Collins stood with her hands on her hips and spoke firmly to the man lying at her feet. "I don't care if you found the jacket in a skip, it looks like a patch to me and I'm not helping any member of a nasty gang!"

As the Government Caucus moved down Queen Street sharing their words of hope and compassion the Salvation Army followed some distance behind, doing what they always do, dealing with the human casualties of yet another National Government.




Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Governor General should sack our corrupt Government


New Zealand politicians and journalists are ranked well below most professions for trustworthiness in public opinion. There seems to be an increased acceptance that politicians can't be trusted to tell the truth or genuinely work in the interests of those they are supposed to serve. The fourth estate is supposed to expose corruption and keep our politicians honest and yet journalists are not trusted in this role either. Three recent events have revealed real corruption within our Government and exposed how ineffectual our news media has become in holding them to account.

Murray McCully features prominently in two events, the Saudi Farmer bribe and the bullying of MFAT officials. The third event is the internationally embarrassing revelations around our foreign trust regime and the Government's duplicity in supporting them.

TV3s The Nation has revealed some damning information regarding the $11.5 million Saudi sheep farm deal and exposed the obvious lies that were used to justify the deal. While there was always doubt around McCully's claims that the payments were necessary to stop expensive legal action from a disgruntled Saudi farmer, Newshub journalists have further exposed his deception. The National Government was so intent on achieving a trade deal with Saudi Arabia (despite its shocking human rights record) that McCully was prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to achieve it.

There was a concerted effort from the Minister to get around animal welfare regulations in shipping live sheep for slaughter and a willingness to spend $11.5 million of public money to help influence a trade deal. McCully's actions resulted in extreme levels of animal suffering and no trade deal. To put the expenditure into perspective, this one Saudi businessman received more in bribes from New Zealand than what the Government is prepared to spend annually for emergency housing.

McCully was also behind the flawed attempt to radically change the funding and functions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and trade (MFAT). His bullying approach in forcing through changes, with limited consultation, resulted in widespread concern from officials and internal documents were leaked to the opposition.

McCully attacked officials for daring to question his judgment and the State Services Commission supported a witch hunt inquiry by Paula Rebstock that went well beyond the brief and targeted two officials as scapegoats. Derek Leask was one of the officials named by Rebstock and a recently released Ombudsman report has revealed that he was unfairly targeted and his career and professional standing were unjustifiably destroyed. McCully has refused to apologise.

The Panama Papers exposed the global networks involved in setting up and supporting tax havens to avoid tax and launder illegal funds. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, including New Zealand's Nicky Hager, investigated the leaked papers and revealed the extent of corruption. It turned out that New Zealand is widely recognised as a tax haven and our weak foreign trust regulations were actively supported by the Government. Our Prime Minister's personal lawyer even lobbied to limit stronger disclosure and ignore official advice so that local trust managers could continue to profit from the existing regime.

John Shewan's review of our foreign trusts has exposed the deliberate misinformation provided by John Key and his Ministers in defending their oversight of the foreign trusts. The Listener highlighted the extent of the lying and "half truths" in Ron Pol's myth busting article this week.

Journalists have made a reasonable job of investigating and reporting on all three stories and I think that on the whole the public perception of journalists as untrustworthy is unfair. I believe that the environment that journalists now have to work in has changed considerably and this has reduced their effectiveness to hold politicians to account.

In all of these stories journalists have provided strong evidence of unethical behaviour, deliberately misinforming the public (lying) and considerable conflicts of interest. In the past, similar revelations would have resulted in public apologies, resignations and destroyed careers, but no longer. Major political stories now have a fleeting life and barely resonate amongst voters. The commercialisation of our media has resulted in serious news stories competing with social gossip and programming that chases ratings and profit as a priority rather than providing a public service.

New Zealand is one of the few countries in the OECD where state owned television is expected to run a purely commercial operation. While Radio New Zealand still provides a public service it has been increasingly hamstrung by an ongoing funding freeze.

When one compares the behaviours that resulted in Lianne Dalziel's and Kate Wilkinson's resignations with what Ministers are currently getting away with, there is cause for concern. McCully's unethical behaviour and irresponsible use of public funds are serious enough for him to be forced to leave parliament altogether. Instead an inquiry into the Saudi affair is not progressing with any urgency and he has largely rejected the findings of the ombudsman. The PMs conflict of interest in supporting his personal lawyer in lobbying a junior Minister and his Government's disregard of advice to tighten foreign trust disclosures has badly damaged New Zealand's international reputation.

We have reached a point where our fourth estate is no longer able to effectively hold the Government to account and Ombudsman reports (and therefore the Office of the Ombudsman) are not being properly respected or acted on. Given also the shocking management of our housing crisis, the growing numbers of New Zealand families being forced into poverty and the undemocratic veto of the Parental Leave Bill there is a clear case for the Governor General to activate his reserve powers. The only way to deal with this level of corruption and incompetence is to declare the dissolution of Parliament and to call new elections.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Green Party's endless calls for inquiries justified


Even though the Green Party itself jokes about its constant calls for inquiries there is a good deal of truth to the last sentence of a 2012 satirical post: "Every time the Green Party cries wolf it turns out there is one."

Our Prime Minister has been desperately spinning the results of John Shewan's report into New Zealand's foreign trust regime. Even though there was some concern from the opposition that Shewan's insider status would mean a weak review, it hasn't panned out that way. The report is actually very damning of the weaknesses of the current regime and recommends that changes are needed around disclosure. While Shewan wasn't prepared to say that New Zealand was operating as a tax haven, we clearly didn't have robust systems in place to detect illegal activities. While we may not fit the OECD criteria for a tax haven we were obviously being used as one and had been advertised as such by trust managers.

If it wasn't for the Panama Papers New Zealand's foreign trust laws would probably not have undergone this scrutiny and most New Zealanders would have been unaware of our tax haven reputation. Before the dodgy regime was exposed to sunlight the Government was more than happy to support it and Key himself promoted the $24 million in income that was generated for the few involved in the industry. He clearly had full knowledge of what was really happening as his own personal lawyer lobbied to protect the industry and was up to his eyeballs in operating dodgy trusts.

The Government was forced into the review and even when appointing someone considered 'trust friendly' it still exposed the soft approach it has had to regulating potentially damaging and illegal economic activity.

The Government actively discourages any scrutiny of its governance and despite talking about greater transparency and openness, does everything it can to achieve the opposite. After joining the Open Government Partnership our Government has ensured it does the least possible to honour its obligations and it has recently sacked the Stakeholder Advisory Group to reduce activity and stakeholder involvement even further. This Government is very good at signing up to declarations for human rights and greater transparency and then doing the opposite. The UN's reports on New Zealand's human rights record identify more breaches and concerns each time (64 recommendations in 2009 to 155 in 2014).

The Official Information Act (OAI) was supposed to allow New Zealanders and the Opposition to have access to any information in the public interest and yet the Prime Minister was very open about the fact that information is often withheld if it was in the Government's political interests. Documents that are eventually released do not always provide the information sought because of strategic redactions (blacked out sections).

One of the most important institutions for providing authoritative scrutiny of the Government's operations is the Office of the Ombudsman. This office has had an increased work load, especially around IOA complaints. In 2013 there had been an increase in complaints of almost 30% on the previous year (13,684 complaints) but inadequate funding to do the work in a timely fashion. Even though the Government has increased funding a little there is still huge backlog and the Chief Ombudsman has requested $2.6 million to clear the 650 cases that are one to six years old.

The damning report on the highly flawed MFAT inquiry conducted by Paula Rebstock exposed how the Government deals with public servants who question their decisions. Ron Paterson, the Ombudsman who wrote the report into the inquiry, resigned after its release.

It is also interesting to note that the respected author of Parliamentary Practice in New ZealandDavid McGee, also served as an Ombudsman. Just before retirement (and despite a heavy workload) he conducted his own investigation into the appalling process used to close Christchurch schools after the earthquake, such was his personal concern about reported abuses of power and poor process.

The pressure on our Ombudsmen is obviously intense and the reception to reports that negatively impact on the Government are not well received. The previous Chief Ombudsman Beverley Wakem was easily exposed in a Lisa Owen interview as being in a compromising position when trying to defend her review of the OIA. Owen quickly found evidence that showed the review was a white wash and Wakem's reluctance to criticise the PMs blatant disregard of the law was telling. It would be very interesting to know which cases have been ignored for 6 years and what influence the Government does have on the office behind the scenes.

Good governance should be based on evidence and those most affected by decisions should be properly consulted, yet neither of these are priorities for this Government. Those charged with carrying out its ideologically driven agenda are paid handsomely and those who are employed in watchdog roles are under-resourced and actively discouraged.

We owe a lot to those who risk their careers and reputation by telling the truth and exposing corruption. It shouldn't be so hard for our public watchdogs to do their work and it shouldn't be at such a high personal cost. The bad treatment of official whistleblowers isn't new (as anyone who remembers what happened to Justice Mahon will know), but it shouldn't still be happening.

Perhaps we need another inquiry?

Thursday, June 23, 2016

New funding system will damage public education further.


The Global Education Reform Movement (Germ) has spread its Neo-liberal tentacles into public education systems around the world. New Zealand's public education system has not been damaged as badly as many and this is largely because we began as a world leader and it takes some time to breakdown a professional culture that took more than sixty years to build.

The New Zealand public education system was continually assessed as one of the top four in the world for many decades, largely because of Clarence Beeby's 1940s shift to a child centred approach to teaching. Beeby believed that an education system shouldn't be driven by assessment but by lifting the quality of teaching through high quality professional development. Investing in the professional support of teachers through a well funded advisory service was considered the best way to improve teacher practice and achieve the best outcomes for children. Using evidence to inform professional development was also extremely important.

The things that made our education system a world leader have been cut and eroded over the last seven years and an earlier post (over 55,000 views) lists the multitude of damaging decisions and policy shifts the sector has experienced under the current Government. Ideology rather than evidence continues to drive change.

Despite the clear failure of the Charter Schools, Hekia Parata is allowing more to become established at great expense. The cost per pupil in Charter Schools is well beyond the expenditure of the public system and yet they are continuing amidst ongoing evidence that their performance is substandard while the operational funding for public schools has been frozen.

Some of the biggest spends in education are actually related to capital works or addressing delayed maintenance, fixing leaky schools and building new schools to accommodate an increasing population. While the Government claims the budget for education is increasing, schools are seeing little difference in their operational funding.

This Government is determined to continue with the National Standard assessment system that is not designed to identify the holistic needs of children and we are witnessing a decline in our global rankings for achievement. It continues to invest more in private schools while under funding special needs support and lower decile schools. It has only paid lip service to targeting funding to 'priority learners' and the reality for most schools is that there is little money available for those most deserving of extra support. Many schools are now more concerned about the basic health needs of their pupils and increasing transience caused by expensive housing and insecure employment than National Standards assessments in literacy and numeracy. The internationally regarded Dunedin Study has shown that if a child experiences poverty and deprivation in their early years, permanent damage will occur to their physical and mental heath as adults.

Bulk funding of schools was tried and rejected in the 1990s because of the pressure on schools to balance general operation costs with teacher pay and it is still an issue with support staff whose pay comes out of operational funding. Bulk funding also creates winner and loser schools based on a financial lottery rather than student outcomes. When there is a pay increase, but no extra funding, then a school has to cut hours or expenditure elsewhere to accommodate it. Bulk funding favoured the employment of inexperienced (but cheaper) teachers, larger class sizes and the downgrading of professionalism as a driver for recruitment and retention.

A new system of funding teacher salaries is being proposed that will operate in a similar way to bulk funding. While teacher salaries will still be paid through a central system, schools will be given a set amount to cover salaries.  Any underspend will be credited back the the school and an overspend will have to be recovered. This will clearly be a one size fits all approach where schools that are staffed by a larger number of more experienced teachers will struggle to keep within their budget and schools with a larger number of unqualified or inexperienced staff will be rewarded. Staffing decisions should be based on professional suitability and having schools staffed largely with highly qualified and experienced teachers as a common goal.

I once taught with a wonderful experienced teacher in the UK many years ago, she was highly effective and loved by her students.  Her passion was classroom teaching and she didn't want to lose that by taking on a leadership role. However when she attempted to apply for jobs in other schools she found that she had become unemployable. Her qualifications and years of experience put her on the top salary level and within a bulk funded system she had become too expensive for most schools to consider. I can't imagine a hospital not employing a heart surgeon because he/she is too well qualified and experienced. This is a dangerous path to take and will likely see us dropping even further in international rankings.

Monday, June 20, 2016

National Government Driving Drunk!


This National Government is clearly intoxicated with money, power and influence and has impaired vision. Ministers replying to questions in the house, especially the PM, respond with arrogance and abuse not dissimilar to a drunk being reprimanded for bad behaviour.

Drunk drivers display poor judgement and barely notice the roadsigns or the road markings. The deterioration of our country's natural environment, the numbers of children experiencing poverty and the severe lack of housing are visible everywhere one looks but have been irresponsibly ignored.

This Government is also a hit and run driver. It hits NGOs and government services with funding cuts, drives away from the casualties and blames others for the damage. The Government often appears unaware of the bumps as the wheels of its car run over the bodies of its many victims.

A drunk driver can't implement complicated manoeuvres and this National Government botched the implementation of Novopay and finds driving the complex route through new housing areas too difficult. It is crashing into side barriers, bumping over curbs and killing innocent bystanders in the process.

Despite clearly being well over the limit and not being able to walk a straight line, clever PR, distractions and using loopholes in the law have enabled it to escape prosecution.

We have a drunk driver that is oblivious to the fact that there is also a pile of unrestrained and unprotected kids in the back seat of a car that has failed its Warrant of Fitness. The Children's Commissioner has rightly pointed out that promising to purchase a new model car in the future will do nothing to protect the children in danger now.

The most sensible thing to do would be to stop the car, ask the driver to step out and remove the 'Key'.