Friday, April 28, 2017

Post Truth delivers Dumb and Dumber

Few planets support life and the Earth is actually a unique and fragile entity that took over 4.5 billion years to reach its current form. The ecosystems that support life and determine the health and sustainability of our world are dependent on complex inter-relationships. One small change to the balance of relationships can have catastrophic consequences.

Modern humans have existed for 200 thousand years and the last 200 have seen global industrialisation and massively growing consumption and competition for the world's natural resources. It took 700 years for the human population to grow from 370 million to 1.5 billion, but less than 100 years to explode to 7.5 billion.

We are living on a finite planet with an exploding population of human animals who are increasingly demanding a greater share of the remaining resources. Our activity and consumption has caused much of our forests to disappear, 1.3 million square kilometres since 1990 (or an area larger than South Africa). We are currently experiencing a mass extinction of species with dozens disappearing every day because of human causes (1-5 are lost a year through natural causes).

Our dependence on fossil fuels to drive our global economy is affecting our atmosphere and having a severe impact on the world's climate. What was once 100 year extreme weather events now occur every 5-10 years. The severe storms, the floods and the droughts will regularly destroy important infrastructure and food production. If the current trends in climate change and sea level rise continue many of the places where populations are currently concentrated will become uninhabitable in our children's lifetime.

We have minimal time to turn around the juggernaut carrying us to the brink of extinction. We need to have the best possible world leaders who can use their superior knowledge and diplomacy to lead us in the right direction. The measures of economic success need to have environmental sustainability at their core and we will need a massive investment into the science and technology that will shift us from our current dependence on fossil fuel and unsustainable systems of food production. This leadership has to come from the world's dominant economies.

Sadly this post truth era is ensuring that the leaders of our most powerful democracies are populist rather than prophetic. Our future is being determined by people like Trump and Boris who rely on ideological whim and "alternative facts" as a basis for major decisions. At the same time scientists are being under-resourced and silenced.

Watching the news each night is like watching a sequel for Dumb and Dumber and, like the movie, it isn't very funny.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Bill English cares deeply about his books

Prime Minister Bill English majored in English Literature and this background has taught him the importance of caring for books. Under his stewardship as Treasurer, and now Prime Minister, the Government's books having never been in better shape. Bill has instructed and guided all Ministers about the proper care of their books and much effort and staffing has been put into dusting and polishing their books and making sure they are neatly arranged.

While there has been much demand on the Government and its Ministers to open their books and be a little more generous in their use, strong discipline has been needed to ensure that the books remain firmly on the shelves. Open books and dog-eared pages are an anathema to Bill and when his footsteps are heard around the beehive corridors there is a flurry of activity as books are hurriedly closed and shelved.

This focus on book-keeping has meant necessary sacrifices have had to be made:
Bill English celebrated his success at keeping the books in good shape and achieving an incredible $1.8 billion budget surplus by eating a pie, it would be out of character to spend anything more to recognise this achievement. 

I guess all of us should feel a level of pride in contributing to what may be the best looking government books in the world. By sleeping in a car, waiting a few years for a hip replacement or eye surgery and suffering the occasional flood or home invasion we have collectively supported Bill's dream. He will go down in history as one of New Zealand's best bookkeepers. 

Monday, April 3, 2017

Green List provides diversity and credible experience

The Green Party's list ranking is an ordeal for both candidates and members, having to rank such a talented group (especially when many are friends), isn't easy. For a party that promotes cooperation and consensus decision making, the process is one of the few within the party that has to be competitive and one where secret ballots are used for voting.

There are also some guidelines applied to ensure that the list reflects the diversity in our society to provide the broadest representation and have connections to a variety of cultures and demographics: For every ten candidates at least one should be Maori and at least one should be under 35 years; for every five candidates at least two should be male and at least two should be female, at least one should be from the South Island and at least two from the North Island.

The initial list (created by the delegates and candidates who attended the Greens' Candidate Conference in February) has just been released and the final list will involve voting from all members.

I am very comfortable with the initial list, a high level of diversity has been achieved and we have enormous talent throughout. If we applied a very conservative outcome for the election and look at the top 15 as likely MPs (due to resignations our 17th ranked candidate from 2014 is now an MP) it is quite revealing. Nine (almost 2/3) are female and four are Maori. Youth is well represented, with two in their early twenties, and we have two over sixty (the average is 44.5 years). There is also a good mix of experience: eleven are current MPs and four have served more than two terms. Metiria Turei has been a party leader longer than Bill English or Andrew Little.

Those on the right of the political spectrum rate business and economic management as the most important skills in government and those on the left value those with a passion for social justice and the environment. Understanding legislative complexities and legal constraints are also an important requirements for parties wishing to sit on the government benches. When New Zealand is reliant on primary production for a good deal of its income, an appreciation of the farming and forestry sectors would also be valuable. All of these are covered in this interim list.

To be effective in government it is important to be able to understand complex information and appreciate the contextual complexities. While communicating coherently and effectively with the wider public and the media is important, the work behind the scenes in select committees ensures that any legislation gets the scrutiny it needs. An MP is a waste of space if it takes them three years to understand the job and ignorance is not a virtue. To be able to safely and effectively change laws or economic systems MPs have to understand how existing legislation and systems work.

The media has made much of the need for renewal and some commentators have questioned the support of candidates in their early 20s. I find it unhelpful when assessments are made just based on age or length of time an MP has been in parliament, surely the most important criteria would be their ability to do the job. I can think of many young MPs who have had amazing wisdom and many well into their sixties (or even seventies) who have great energy and are highly effective.

It is also far easier to have credibility and gain the confidence of different communities (business, cultural and socio-economic) when MPs have some direct experiences and qualifications, and can speak the same language. The Greens' top 20 should surprise those who still hold on to the myth of the Green Party being led by unqualified idealogues:
  1. Metiria Turei, LLB; Corporate Lawyer for Simpson and Grierson
  2. James Shaw, MSc, Bath University School of Management; business consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and HSBC Bank
  3. Julie Anne Genter, Master of Planning Practice (1st class); transport and urban planning consultant in Australia and NZ
  4. Marama Davidson, BA; Human Rights Commission and member of Owen Glenn Inquiry on child abuse and domestic violence
  5. Eugenie Sage, LLB, BA, Diploma of Journalism; Field Officer and Spokesperson Forest & Bird, Environment Canterbury Councillor. 
  6. Jan Logie, BA, CELTA; Women's Refuge, Youth Health, YWCA, NZ Centre for Sustainable Cities
  7. Gareth Hughes, BA Religious Studies & History, Grad Diploma Politics; Greenpeace campaign coordinator
  8. Mojo Mathers, Honours degree in mathematics, Masters with distinction in Conservation Forestry; Joint owner of business providing forestry management services, senior policy advisor 
  9. Jack McDonald, Undergraduate Political Science and Maori Studies; Maori Political & Media Advisor (Parliament), former chair of a community board, third time candidate at 23 years old
  10. Barry Coates, Masters in Management; CEO Oxfam NZ, developed a sustainability programme at the University of Auckland and Sustainable Business Network award winner
  11. Kennedy Graham, BCom, MA in International Relations, PhD, Fulbright Scholar; NZ diplomat, Senior consultant in the UN Dept of Political Affairs, Visiting Prof (Bruges, Belgium), Senior Lecturer Victoria University...
  12. John Hart, BSc Psycology & Statistics (incomplete); sheep & beef farmer, IT services,  inventor
  13. Chloe Swarbuck, BA, LLB; Community project leader, journalist, small business owner, Auckland Mayoral Candidate
  14. Denise Roche, Diploma Labour Studies, Graduate Diploma in Not-For-profit Management; Union worker, Partner Orapiu Grove Farm, waste management, Auckland City Councillor, 2016 Quote of the Year Winner
  15. Golriz Ghahraman, Masters in International Human Rights Law; Human rights and criminal lawyer, Prosecutor United Nations tribunals
  16. David Clendon, BA Politics & Education, MSc; Business management (including own bulk foods business), Unitec lecturer in sustainable management, sustainable business advisor
  17. Teanau Tuiono, BA, LLB; Publisher in education sector, climate change and human rights advocacy (nationally and internationally) 
  18. Leilani Tamu, Master of Arts (1st class), Fulbright Scholar; Published author, New Zealand Diplomat, Advisor for the Auckland city Council 
  19. Teall Crossan, Bachelor's Degree in Resource Studies, Master's in International Environmental Law (Calgary); Legal Advisor and Climate Change Negotiator for Pasific Small Island Developing States, Senior Solicitor for DoC
  20. Chris Perley, Dip Grad Philosophy, Fellow NZ Institute of Forestry; Senior Policy Analyst Ministry of Forestry, Editor of a professional Journal, land management, forestry consultant, blogger
The next 10-20 names have equally impressive resumes: a constitutional lawyer, youth advocate, chartered accountant, public sector consultant, community development and urban regeneration leadership, TV presenter, army officer and emergency management planner, screen production...

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Labour/Green budget rules make sense

The more the Green Party talks about economic policy the more it is perceived by some on the left as becoming mainstream and accepting neoliberal philosophies. Sue Bradford and the CTU have protested that the agreed fiscal constraints announced by Labour and the Greens are a sellout and that the growing inequality in New Zealand won't be addressed under the proposed Budget Responsibility Rules. Many on the left are feeling uncomfortable that the business community and David Farrar are praising the announcement.

There is a widely held perception that National Governments constrain spending, and are therefore fiscally responsible, and Labour Governments spend large and accumulate debt. There is also another perception that to rectify the social inequalities in New Zealand, and address our environmental degradation, then fiscal restraints must be put to one side. Both perceptions display a good deal of economic ignorance.

There are also some Green supporters who want to see the Party pushing for monetary reform to reduce the power of the banking industry and promote the introduction of systems like Sovereign Money. While this may be philosophically sensible, it is politically impractical. Economic reform is not an election winner (as Social Credit has consistently discovered) as few voters understand economic theory to a level where they would comfortably embrace radical change.

The Green Party has a holistic approach to economic decisions and supports the view that environmental, economic and social policy should be strongly interconnected. The Greens economic policy is intended to deliver "...a resilient, flexible economy capable of adapting to new challenges, delivering meaningful work for our people and a healthier environment for us all". Working towards a fair and sustainable future is a key part of the vision.

In 2013 Russel Norman supported National's Public Finance (Fiscal Responsibility) Amendment Bill because many of the provisions within it made good economic sense. His supporting speech is worth listening to in its entirety. His idea of extending the bill to manage our social and environmental capital in the same way as our economic capital is sensible. To establish a sustainable economy, a government must live within its means and be future focused. The proposed budget management principles fits this approach.

Those who regard the Green/Labour determination to pay off debt, and work towards budget surpluses, as neo-liberal concepts don't appreciate that being fiscally responsible is not something owned by the Right. The current National Government has never been fiscally responsible as it has increased government debt considerably, invested in unsustainable industries and spent billions on motorways that don't pass basic cost benefit analysis. Its reputation is a product of effective spin rather than reality.

What is really important within any government budget is how revenue is generated and what the spending priorities are. Labour wants to review the current tax system and the Greens have been consistent in wanting policies and spending to be independently costed. Establishing a fairer tax system and sound processes for establishing new spending is essential. Increasing revenue can also be done within the existing system by diverting the energy used to hound beneficiaries to chase tax fraudsters instead (up to $10 billion of potential revenue), for example.

The Greens support of a carbon tax and a capital gains tax will be at the forefront of any coalition discussions. Both will be important in shifting to a more sustainable economy and being more environmentally responsible. The home insulation scheme that the Greens established through an early MOU with National was a huge success with a cost benefit ratio of almost 4:1. Good social and environmental policy actually makes economic sense too.

Reassurance that a Labour/Green Government won't launch into an irresponsible spending spree, as National will claim, is necessary to be elected in the current political environment. This is just a pragmatic consideration for becoming electable. Once in Government a shift in spending priorities away from corporate welfare, subsidising landlords and building unnecessary motorways will mean billions to reinvest into housing, health, welfare and education. The social, environmental and economic benefits will be enormous.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Running from "Hit & Run"

We are constantly fed positive stories regarding the professionalism, adaptability and resourcefulness of those employed in our military forces. While much of it is probably justified, an element of deliberate whitewashing has occurred when things have gone astray.

Our country has traditionally supported Britain and the US in numerous wars and since 1899 we have lost around 30,000 soldiers in different overseas' conflicts.  Obviously the most casualties occurred during the two world wars, however almost 130 have been killed since. Between 2010 and 2012 we lost 10 soldiers in Afghanistan.

Wars are terrible and losing comrades in armed conflicts must be extremely difficult to deal with. The professional credibility of our forces can be judged on they way we manage such situations. Sadly we have sometimes fallen short of those standards and a need for revenge has clouded thinking.

Few know of the shocking 1918 Surefend Massacre in Palestine. The New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade were so incensed at the killing of one of their own by a late night thief, caught in the act, that they attacked the local village in revenge. Between 40 to 100 civilian men were slaughtered in cold blood and houses burned. No one was punished for it but three years later the New Zealand Government paid 858 pounds to Palestine as compensation.

Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hager have exposed a modern version of Surefend. It is another story of revenge for a soldier's death and retribution involving the slaughter and injury of innocent people. In Surefend there was still a tiny element of morality shown when the women and children were removed from the village before slaughtering the men, but not so in Afghanistan in 2010.

The New Zealand SAS, together with Afghan soldiers and US helicopter gun ships attacked two villages in the Tirgiran valley filled with women, children and elderly. The brutal raid killed 6 (including a 3 year old girl) and injured 15. No assistance was provided to the dying and injured and the incident has been denied ever since. While the raid was mentioned in passing at the time, it is only now that there is significant evidence that the official story may not have been entirely truthful.

Nicky Hager is an internationally regarded investigative journalist who has already written a number of books that have lifted the lid on other dark periods of New Zealand's recent history. While dismissed as a "left wing conspiracy theorist" by those he has exposed, few have successfully discredited his intensively researched facts or his conclusions. Hager has endured some heavy handed responses because of his work, including illegal searches of his home and the confiscation of his and his daughter's computers.

Jon Stephenson is a journalist who has already experienced an attack on his credibility by both the army and the Government when he claimed that the New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan was knowingly ignoring its obligations within the Geneva Convention. His 2011 Metro article described how the SAS were handing over prisoners to other forces with the knowledge that they would likely be tortured. Lieutenant General Rhys Jones claimed that he lied about his sources of information and even Prime Minister Key questioned his journalistic reliability. Stephenson successfully sued for defamation.

The story of the botched raid has been around for a while and in 2014 Stephenson was able to get some initial verification that something had been covered up. His evidence was revealed on Maori TV and globally reported. Wayne Mapp, the Defence Minister at the time, denied any civilians had been killed.

The most moral way forward now would be to hold an independent inquiry to properly establish the truth. If it finds that the NZ SAS was complicit in a war crime then a global apology is necessary, those involved should be held accountable and compensation be paid.

Instead we have the Government trying to discredit the journalists, caged denials from the military and, rather than face the fire, all those concerned are running for cover.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Nick Smith's Waterloo?

Nick Smith is desperately trying to dismiss the growing concerns from many New Zealanders that our water has been undervalued and over-exploited. While farming intensification has caused a major strain on our natural water systems he has firmly stood his ground against putting a value on water and expecting businesses to properly account for their operational impacts on water quality and supply.

The fact that overseas companies can extract water for free and profit from the exported resource became a tipping point for many. Smith is quite right when he claims that water bottling plants take a miniscule amount of our country's total supply, however he deliberately ignores the impacts on individual catchments and anger of communities whose own water supplies have been compromised.

Over twenty people gathered outside the Environment Southland building on Tuesday to join a nationwide protest. It was a damp, grey day but many of those who made the effort to come were not people already active in the local environmental communities. Fishermen, mothers and children and grandparents wanted to express their concern about the degradation of our rivers.

A Southland Times Editorial ignorantly accepted Smith's arguments and suggested that the national protests about water quality were misguided and should have been more concerned about the use of plastic bottles. This is my published letter in response:

Nick Smith’s desperate attempt to water down the growing concerns about the commercialisation and industrial use of our water at the expense of ordinary New Zealanders and our environment doesn’t wash with me.

Those who met with Environment Southland Councillors on Tuesday were a diverse group who wanted clean water for their children to swim in, healthy rivers for fishing and for our waterways to be treated with greater respect and care.

The mission of the New Zealand Water Forum that organised the action on Tuesday is: “To advocate for water quality, the preservation of our waterways and to lobby for change to ensure those who manage our water are held to the highest standard in doing so.”

New Zealand is blessed with a large overall supply of water but to talk in terms of total volumes is disingenuous. The management of our water should be considered at an individual catchment, stream or aquifer level. In our lowland, pastoral and urban areas we are experiencing major crises of supply and quality.

The rivers and streams near where the majority of New Zealanders live are mostly unswimmable. Many of our aquifers are being infected with E. coli and our estuaries are rapidly eutrophying from a continual inflow of polluted sediment.

When whole communities are struggling to have clean drinking water the fact that any quantity is being given away from the same catchments for commercial profit doesn’t make sense. It is also the principle, rather than the quantities, that anger us. We need to properly value our water if we want to restore and preserve it for all.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Bill English Embraces Homeopathy

Bill English has been the Finance Minister for three consecutive National led governments. After substantially cutting taxes for the wealthy in 2009 he discovered that the increase in GST did not make the policy fiscally neutral and a hefty level of borrowing was needed to make up the shortfall. Public debt under a Labour Government totalled around $10 billion when National took office and this quickly ballooned to $60 billion.
While Bill English continually used the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) and the Christchurch earthquake as excuses for increasing Government debt, this was only partially true. The impact of the GFC on New Zealand was not that great as all of our major banks were not affected and by 2011 our rich listers were seeing their wealth increase by around 20%. Major, government supported projects in Christchurch have continually suffered delays and recovery budgets have been under-spent.

Bill English and his Government have made little effort to increase revenue by chasing up the billions lost through tax fraud and closing existing loopholes. Instead they have attempted to squeeze the lowest income earners the hardest by tightening criteria for benefits and chasing up overpayments and benefit fraud.

Rather than the hard work of tightening tax law and deflating the property bubble, multiple quick rich schemes were explored instead. In the first term coal and oil were seen as the pathway to increased wealth. This dream crashed with the fortunes of Solid Energy and the opening up of our national parks and territorial waters for exploration and mining (offering subsidies and low royalties) failed to spark interest.

Selling off state assets was Bill's next ploy to balance the books and while this allowed for some financial relief, the income earned was less than expected and the government lost the longterm income from dividends.

The dairy boom was the next potential earner and the government paved the way for greater milk production through subsidising irrigation schemes and ensuring environmental restrictions were minimised. This involved sacking Environment Canterbury and turning a blind eye to increasing levels of water pollution. However, Fonterra paid the price of focussing on commodity markets rather than value added, branded products and its fortunes slumped as other milk producers increased supply.

Currently the tourist industry is holding up our economy and it has been difficult to benefit fully from this with minimal infrastructure to deal with the increasing numbers. This hasn't been helped by cuts to regional funding to deal with Auckland's growing pains.

While Bill English has been struggling to boost government income a number of serious crises are emerging that desperately need government investment. Child poverty has increased to 30%, our housing crises has deepened and our degraded rivers desperately need attention. The New Zealand health system is increasingly struggling to meet the needs of a growing and ageing population and climate change is the global crisis that our country has done little to address.

Bill English may not be the most effective economic manager (under his management New Zealand's productivity has stagnated), but his short term survival instincts are excellent. He has successfully created the impression of safe hands during 'difficult' times and even succeeded in achieving the holy grail of financial management, a budget surplus.

Few realise that our current Prime Minister's success is based on his adoption and practice of fiscal homeopathy, a little known economic tool that is very good at giving the impression of a recovery with very little input. It also relies on the 'placebo effect' by making people think that they have been given something substantial when the opposite is the case. Here are a number of examples to show how English has used the principles of homeopathy:
Homeopathy and the placebo effect has allowed Bill English and his government colleagues to be elected three times in a row. It clearly takes a while for snake oil salesmen to be exposed and the 2017 election should be the time that the ruse is identified and proper, evidence based treatment can be finally implemented.