Sunday, October 19, 2014

Secrets, Lies and Revelations

There is a lot this National Government doesn't want us to know. They have made it clear that we shouldn't measure child poverty, that we don't need independent environmental reporting and any official information requests are delayed indefinitely, especially if the information is inconvenient. Scientists should be gagged, data manipulated and anyone who expresses a contrary view to the Government will still get slated by Slater their blogging hit man.

Now that the election is over and National is back in the driver's seat for the next three years, interesting stuff is being revealed:

The first is research that a number of Ministries and the SFO had been working on for some time to quantify the amount of economic crime that is occurring in New Zealand. The draft document, obtained by Radio New Zealand (through the OIA), was never presented to cabinet as intended and work in this area has been stopped. This seems bizarre as the numbers are huge, with up to $9.4 billion involved. The Government has focused the majority of its attention on benefit fraud instead and yet this involves a tiny fraction compared with the white collar crime that is regularly occurring.

It is clear that beneficiaries get dealt to far more severely than tax fraudsters and the full extent of benefit fraud may actually be less than what is claimed. The Auditor General's report on benefit fraud includes overpayments where no dishonesty has been proven:

"For the purposes of this report, we use the term “benefit fraud” more widely, to include cases of substantiated overpayments, regardless of whether criminal prosecution resulted from investigation."

Beneficiaries often have owed sums remain in the books until their death, while unpaid tax is often written off. It also appears that a history in fraud and tax evasion from corporate entities does not appear to be an issue to this Government. Westpac continues to be the bank of choice for government banking despite successful court action to retrieve $416 million of avoided tax in 2009. The Government is also subsidising Kidcorp to set up early childhood centres in low decile communities despite the corporation being caught over-charging the Ministry of Education for teaching hours by over $1.6 million in 2012.

Another revelation is around child poverty and more OIA information that Radio New Zealand has received that was finally released after the election. Treasury has been feeding advice to the Government that does not actually represent the evidence but has been shaped to fit the Government's political imperatives. Although higher wages, reduced taxes and higher transfer payments were thought to be the best way to reduce poverty, Treasury recommended that struggling families shouldn't be paid more and even withheld evidence that supported the value of providing food in schools. It is a defining element with this Government where officials feel that they can't give genuine, evidence based advice, but just provide what the Government wants to hear (bullying cultures are common).

We also find our Prime Minister up to his old tricks of pretending not to know stuff when he obviously does and is deliberately lying. What Key claimed was just a regular meeting of military heads in the US has been proven wrong and it beggars believe that he didn't know this when he misled the public on its importance. McCully has confirmed that New Zealand is already part of a coalition against IS, contradicting the PMs denials and it is fairly obvious that New Zealand will probably be sending fighting troops to the region as we did in Afghanistan (despite claiming otherwise earlier).

During the last term the Government sold state assets to boost Government coffers that had suffered a loss in revenue due to the tax cuts to the wealthy. Despite English claiming that there would be no more asset sales after 2014 he is leading the sale of around five billion worth of state houses. The money raised will go straight to the coffers and won't be used to help solve our growing housing shortage. It appears that the welfare of struggling New Zealanders will now be the responsibility of the Salvation Army.

It's going to be a long three years...

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sledgehammers, Nuts and Terrorism

Over the years there have been numerous dangerous sects and political movements, real and imagined, that our Government and our secret service have felt the need to protect us from. Within New Zealand's borders most of those threats have been imagined ones.

When I was attending Otago University and the teachers' college in the late seventies one of my fellow college students had his passport taken from him because of his association with Ananda Marga (he was learning meditation through them). Ananda Marga was founded in India in 1955 to promote the liberation of self, pursuit of bliss and service to humanity. In 1967 its headquarters were attacked by locals who were incited by communist leaders and the organisation also ran foul of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi because of criticisms of government corruption.

Ananda Marga had grown very quickly in the 60s and, combined with its anti corruption stance, posed a perceived threat to the Indian Government (consequently no government employee could be a member). The organization was internationally denounced by the Indian Government so that its criticisms, that were probably valid, would lose credibility.

In Australia, despite the peaceful activities of Ananda Marga the Government believed it to harbour militant fanatics. Members of the organisation were blamed for the 1978 bombing of the Sydney Hilton, site of the first Commonwealth Heads of Government Regional Meeting (CHOGRM). It was later revealed that the charges were a fabrication and the original informant initially tried to impicate the Hare Krishnas but was encouraged by the police to spy on Ananda Marga instead. The three convicted Ananda Marga members have since been pardoned and have received compensation.

At the time of the Sydney bombing Ananda Marga members in New Zealand were also being spied on by our own secret service and they had their passports confiscated so that they couldn't leave the country. None had committed any offence. The member I knew was training to be a teacher and was regarded by myself and other students as a decent and thoughtful person and was no threat to anyone.

Currently Australian Government, especially the PM, are whipping up an atmosphere of fear with grossly exaggerated stories of potential terrorism and beheadings. Abbot is using the perceived threat to push through tougher laws that will allow passports to be confiscated and to spy on citizens traveling to conflict zones. John Key is talking about passing similar legislation in New Zealand with minimal evidence of risk

I am concerned that Key and his Government are following the same path of over-reaction and hysteria regarding the potential threat of those who are Muslim seeking to travel. As with members of Ananda Marga we already have an example of a Muslim convert having his passport confiscated and SIS evidence being withheld, a clear breach of human rights.

Obviously ISIS or ISIL are quite different beasts than Ananda Marga but it is clear that only a handful of New Zealanders (if any) would be looking to involve themselves in the conflict in Syria and Iraq. Any legislative changes focusing on young Muslims will probably lead to innocent local people being persecuted and normal processes to prove innocence will be forgotten. Already the inflammatory behaviour of the Australian Government are seeing innocent people being targeted by members of the public who have no understanding of the complexities of the conflicts and are attacking anything and anyone believed to be connected to Islam.

I like the idea of New Zealand's Islamic community working with our Government to properly assess the real local risks and to formulate an appropriate response. We do know from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that it is difficult to get sustainable peace through escalating conflict and we definitely don't need that conflict spreading beyond the environment where it is actually occurring. We also shouldn't send forces to Iraq and Syria based on fabricated threats within our own country.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Invercargill Proves Ministers Wrong

According to Paula Bennett the best way to lift children out of poverty is to get their parents into work and Bill English claims that our local body councils are causing poverty by not making more land available for housing.

An editorial in the Southland Times the other day summed it up well, poor people just need more pay.

Invercargill has heaps of land available for building new houses on and 95% of us are employed. If we were to agree with both Paula and Bill then Invercargill shouldn't have a real poverty problem. It doesn't take much of a statistical search to find what I did for my supporting letter published today:

Dear Sir

I wish to write in support of the editorial (October 9) ‘Higher pay, not housing, will close gap’.

This Government also claims that getting people into work will alleviate poverty and reduce our shocking child poverty statistics. 

95% of us in Invercargill are employed. If we were to believe the Government there should be no poverty issue here. 

Using school deciles to get an overview of the wealth of Invercargill then we find that out of 29 schools, 6 are decile 2 and 5 are decile 3. Around 2,200 of our children attend schools from communities where there are very low household incomes, overcrowded homes and income support is common (factors used for the decile assessment). 

We have 5% unemployment and yet around 30% of our households are really struggling. Invercargill food banks are recording growing numbers of working families who need support. 

Over the last year almost 50% of New Zealand workers did not receive a pay rise and the 2013 census revealed that the median income in some poorer communities in New Zealand actually dropped since 2006. According to the census Invercargill’s median income is $22,000 (a living wage is set at around $39,000) and many will earn less. Only 14% of us earn over $50,000.

It is about time all working New Zealanders had a fair share of the wealth that their work has helped generate. Hard work should be rewarded with a living wage and all of our children should be properly housed, fed and clothed.

Yours sincerely...

Interestingly Invercargill has lost its middle income earners and we have become a city made up of the affluent and the poor, with little in-between.

Last night I slept rough with a wonderful group of caring people (most on moderate or minimal incomes) who were trying to raise money to provide temporary accommodation for those in need and then tonight I attended a gala dinner and art auction ($125 a ticket) where bids of many thousands for art works were common. The void between affluence and poverty was starkly represented for me.

In Invercargill there seems to be lots of money to support our sports stadium and buying art, but very little for our most vulnerable who are just wanting a home they can call their own and wages they can live on.

We are struggling to get support for our homeless cause and I would be very grateful if anyone reading this are able to give us a donation.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Planet Key Survives...

The election is over and the dust has largely settled (accept for Te Tai Tokerau) and things aren't looking too good for the National Government's third term:
  • They lost their majority and will now have to rely on their coalition partners who were troublesome last time. National will hope that there are no skeletons in David Seymour's cupboard and that Peter Dunne can hold it together for three years.
  • After talking up their management of the economy and suggesting tax cuts in the future, English has had to reveal that the books aren't looking too good. The Government is starting their 3rd term with a budget deficit of $2.9 Billion.
  • The economic forecasts are also looking more than a little shaky with our most significant industry losing momentum. Dairy prices have dropped substantially and are not projected to rise in the near future and the government had invested much in the ongoing demand for milk powder. 
  • A drop in log prices will also impact negatively on the economy and could see a large lay off of forestry workers. 
  • With projected Government income dropping there is a lot of pressure to shift more funds into the struggling health sector. The Government continually talks about the many millions more that they have invested into health, but the extra spending hasn't kept up with inflation and increasing demand. Health has reached a point where no more efficiencies can be made and the only solution left is cutting services and the Southern DHB has reached crisis point. Green Party candidate Rachael Goldsmith has exposed attempts to cover up a lack of mental health beds in Invercargill. 
  • The Government is also facing the consequences of not addressing the housing shortage in any meaningful way over the last six years. We have a growing homeless problem and a severe shortage of lower cost housing and those that do exist are often substandard.  
  • Hekia Parata has struggled with the Education portfolio and is widely seen as one of National's most unpopular Ministers. After two court decisions going against her and having to pull back from increasing class sizes it is likely that the IES initiative and changes to the teachers council are going to be strongly opposed. Educators cannot understand why more money is being spent on increasing the pay for some principals and teachers when Special Education is underfunded and many school buildings are substandard. 
  • The 2013 census revealed growing inequality and in many areas median incomes have dropped. 27% of children are currently experiencing poverty.  
How the Government will manage the crises confronting them is already becoming clear:
  • Create distractions like a new flag
  • Attack those who expose their inadequacies, especially Nicky Hager, to limit their ability to do this in the future.  
  • Limit the availability of data and research that shows the extent of the social, economic and environment damage through: Cutting funding to Statistics New Zealand, gag scientists, remove independent environmental reporting, not measure child poverty effectively.
  • Blame others like local body councils.
  • Spread ministerial responsibilities so that it isn't just one Minister who is responsible for a problematic area. This will make it difficult for the opposition to expose ministerial failure when a Minister can shift responsibility to another and deliberately complicate governance so that obfuscation is easier. The responsibility of housing is now spread around three Ministers (English, Housing New Zealand; Bennett, Social Housing;  Smith, Building and Housing). Key can no longer be attacked for his oversight of the GCSB and SIS as he has passed on the day to day responsibility to Finlayson. 
  • Continue attacks on Labour leaders and manipulating media so that the party's effectiveness in opposition is limited. Cameron Slater lives on in his attack dog role while National will make sure that their connections with him are less obvious.
  • Shift responsibility of social services to NGOs like the Salvation Army but cut funding to those  that try and address the causes. 
  • Further demonise and isolate unions, beneficiaries and teachers.
  • Rely on the fact that those who suffer most from growing inequality and failing governance don't vote
It will be interesting to see how the Government will manage a stronger Green Party this term. National has cleverly kept the lid on most sectors and have the measure of Labour but they haven't managed to destroy the Greens. It is difficult to undermine a leadership team that have survived numerous attacks and have long experience. As quickly as National determinedly hides the evidence of their failures the Greens just as quickly expose them, no wonder Key fears us most

"They go hard, they go really hard... I don't feel bullied but they don't hold back." 

The next three years will be a battle between a party that succeeds through blurring what is ethical and legal and using dirty politics to manage opposition and the Greens, where transparency and evidence are paramount and hard questions their forte. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

National's New Cabinet

John Key has announced his new cabinet and from my perspective there are some interesting aspects to the new line up and the newly created roles:
  • John Key takes on a new role of Minister for National Security and Intelligence and will leave the signing off of warrants and day to day management of our spy agencies to Chris Finlayson. This will undoubtedly give Key more flexibility in focusing on his front of camera, celebrity approach to being Prime Minister.
  • There are still only six women in a cabinet of 20 and Paula Bennett has become Collins' successor as the top ranking woman (previously below Parata and Collins). Her Finance responsibility points to her being seen as a possible leader in waiting. It will also be interesting to see how she manages the fraught area of social housing and whether she attacks the unhoused with the same enthusiasm as her cuts to beneficiary numbers.
  • Hekia Parata keeps her previous portfolio despite a rocky term as Education Minister and two court rulings over-riding her decisions, but drops from 7th to 10th. 
  • Anne Tolley takes over the Social Development portfolio after a reasonable job with Police and Corrections but struggling with Education previously. This may be a challenge for her given the pressures around child poverty and low incomes. Tolley's reactionary style of management may inflame issues that need sensitive handling. 
  • Dr Jonathan Coleman has risen from 10th to 6th place and takes over Tony Ryall's Health responsibility, at least he does have a background in health as a medical doctor.
  • Amy Adams has leapt from 15th to 7th and takes over Justice and Courts and is ranked ahead of the Attorney General, Chris Finlayson.
  • Gerry Brownlee retains his earthquake responsibility but loses transport. He has struggled to effectively counter Julie Anne Genter's superior grasp of transport issues and has been given Defense instead. Given the new defense challenges ahead perhaps Key has seen the need for bluff and bluster to front future decisions regarding our armed forces.
  • Stephen Joyce now becomes the Minister of Regulatory Reform. This does not bode well for the next three years if this new portfolio supporting change is going to be fronted by National's expert at damage control. 
  • National's young gun, Simon Bridges has leapt from 18th to 9th and is taking on Transport. This will be challenging as the underspending on public transport and cycling becomes more obvious and the Roads of National Significance become harder to justify. With greater global concerns around climate change it will be interesting to see how hard he continues to advocate for the oil and coal industries.
  • Chris Finlayson remains in 8th place and his new roles as Minister for the SIS and GCSB is an interesting one. This is a huge shift from the tradition of only the PM holding this role and this gives Key a very light Ministerial load when this responsibility is shared and allows Key to further distance himself from troublesome issues. 
  • For Tim Groser and his portfolios of Trade and Climate Change to drop from 14th to 16th in the Cabinet is another indication of where this Government places carbon emissions in their list of priorities. Groser is one of the few who openly accepts the science behind climate change and he has dropped in the rankings. His logical support of the science must be seen as a disadvantage. I would have thought trade should be given greater status too.
  • Bill English takes over the Housing New Zealand responsibility. When you consider that Paula Bennett is dealing with social housing it appears that the HNZC will be regarded by English in a business sense. Bennett's approach generally involves reducing demand for social support and English has a background in selling off assets. It appears that the Government will continue to sell off state housing around the country and Paula will promote the idea that few people need housing support while refusing to measure the extent of the problem.
  • Nick Smith goes up one place in his rehabilitation after being dumped for his ACC conflict of interest fiasco and regains Environment. The Environment is probably best managed by Smith than any other of his colleagues as he does have the most knowledge of this area. He will have a difficult job ahead to get enough lower cost housing built to meet demand, up until now none have been built.
  • Nikki Kaye takes on the major responsibility of ACC and goes up 4 places to 15th. Kaye has a softer image in the house compared to the other female Ministers and it will be interesting to see how she manages tough questions as a higher profile Minister. 
  • Murray McCully continues with Foreign Affairs and Sport but drops two places.
  • Nathan Guy has struggled to be on top of his responsibilities but with no other farmer high on the list he remains in charge of Primary Industries. National probably needed to have a Minister for Manufacturing now that dairy prices are tanking.
  • Michael Woodhouse has gained 3 places and takes over what was the Minister for Labour but now is called Workplace Relations and Safety. He will probably have to deal with the aftermath of Joyce's regulatory reform that will see workers' meal breaks become not compulsory and collective bargaining becoming optional for employers when things don't go their way. At one time the Minister of Labour always went to one of the higher ranking members of cabinet, but now that workers have become a business commodity (and much is casualised), unions no longer need to have high powered management.
  • Sam Lotu-Iiga is 19th and is in Cabinet for the first time and he will look after Ethnic Communities, Pacific Peoples and Corrections. 
  • Todd McClay is another new Cabinet Minister and will be responsible for State Owned enterprises and Revenue (up 5 places). 
  • The acid tongued (during question time anyway) Maggie Barry also reaches Cabinet level with responsibilities for Arts, Culture and Heritage, Conservation and Senior Citizens.
Those who didn't quite make cabinet but have lifted their rankings and are now Ministers outside are:
  • Louise Upston, a confident performer in the house and often is used to ask patsy questions to deflect opposition attention from Ministers under attack.
  • Paul Goldsmith, who has loyally stepped to one side to allow ACT have an MP and buffer for his party.  
Those who have effectively been demoted and will no longer be influential in Cabinet are:
  • Judith Collins, who is now seen as a serious liability and as a back bencher we may see some entertaining tweets as she attempts to address the boredom. 
  • Craig Foss, who just misses out and has to manage small business, statistics (that recently had its funding cut and its work is not helpful when attempting to down play concerning data) and Veterans' Affairs.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Crime Reporting Hides Reality

The National Government has been clever at fudging data and hiding unwanted statistics. It has refused to measure the extent of child poverty, stopped independent environmental reporting and while there has been some worrying crime statistics, we only hear of an overall drop in crime.

National Standards in Education introduced high stakes assessment into New Zealand schools and this means that rather than assessing children to help their learning, the Standards are being used to compare schools and teachers. Such regimes can often lead to fudging and manipulated reporting to lift results and protect the reputation of the school (the real levels of child achievement become hidden). National has also created a bullying public sector culture where arbitrary targets are set and, often with reduced resourcing, progress is expected.

It appears very possible that our police find themselves under similar pressure as elsewhere in the public sector. There is evidence that many minor crimes go unrecorded and are instead placed in the lesser category of incidents to improve overall statistics. In Counties Manukau recorded crime is dropping but the number of 'incidents' have increased by 92% since 2008-09.

Serious offending involving sexual and domestic violence cannot be swept under a carpet so easily  and the level of offending in both is increasing. In 2013 the police conducted 95,080 family violence investigations (an average of 270 a day). In eight years to 2013 the number of sexual offenses against adults has increased by 50% from 1,187 to 1,848. Sexual offenses against children increased by about 60% over the same time, from 1,187 to 2,071 (also 90% of sexual violence offenses go unreported). There has been some concern that around 50% of investigations into domestic violence do not result in a prosecution.

While the Government may make the claim that crime is dropping and New Zealanders are safer, the evidence says the opposite. New Zealand is still ranked near the bottom of the OECD for the welfare and safety of our children and domestic violence is at crisis levels.

New Zealand also incarcerates more people than most OECD countries, we have the 7th highest prison population rate in the OECD  at 1.5 prisoners for every 1,000 people (four times greater than Iceland). While prison numbers have plateaued recently our prison population has still grown by around 40% over the past 10 years.

While the number of prison sentences have been dropping each year since 2006, sentences have been longer so the total population has remained static. The number of those in prison for offenses against property have steadily dropped since 1983 but the proportion of those locked up for violence against people has more than doubled. The statistics in the Department of Corrections report make interesting reading.

While we are being told that the overall crime rate in New Zealand is on a downward trend, we are actually living in an increasingly violent society where too many of our children and families are not safe. The Government is also cutting funding from the very organisations that provide support and protection for the victims of family violence and sexual offending.

(The woman pictured is Preveet Chahal who was beaten earlier this year by a stranger and no one came to her aid)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Homelessness Hidden, Ignored and Punished

Homelessness is generally associated with people who are suffering from mental health issues or drug and alcohol abuse. Wellington's infamous Blanket Man was an example of a stereotypical homeless person who made a personal choice to live rough despite offers of accommodation. Homelessness is also regarded to be a feature of large urban centres and not likely to occur in places like Invercargill. While I am sure there are homeless people who still live on the streets because of a personal choice to do so, New Zealand is experiencing growing numbers of homeless people who hadn't planned to live this way, but have limited choices.

To me it seems inconceivable that a country with a relatively small population, and as resource rich as New Zealand, should struggle to house those desperate for shelter. But times have changed and housing is no longer considered a human right and homeless shelters and emergency accommodation are being closed in many centres despite the demand.

The two environments where one would expect a dregree of homelessness would be in our largest city where we are already aware of a housing shortage and Christchurch where the earthquake recovery is ongoing. Surprisingly most cities in New Zealand actually have growing levels of homelessness. Palmerston North and Invercargill both have a homeless problem due to a shortage of emergency housing and support services for the homeless are experiencing funding cuts. Invercargill City Councillor Alan Dennis expressed concern that money can be found to look after stray animals but not people.

The homeless problem can be an invisible one, with many sleeping rough outside hidden from view or couch surfing and in Christchurch's case many are using abandoned houses.

It is bad enough that we appear to be ignoring the problem and making little effort to find or build emergency accommodation around the country, but homelessness is also being associated with criminality. While I am sure there will be an element of criminal behaviour with some homeless, it is a dangerous to assume that the two are always related and it is leading to human rights abuses.

Police in Christchurch are issuing non-association orders to stop the homeless from congregating and this is clearly a breech of their rights especially if the criminality they are attempting to manage involves breaking into empty houses for shelter. The worst story I've heard about homelessness in Christchurch involves a pregnant woman being forced to sleep rough because there is no accommodation available. Despite the woman's background it is heartless in the extreme to cast a vulnerable person and her unborn baby aside like this.

Compassion is something that is quickly becoming a rare quality in this country for those who are struggling and it appears designing a new flag has a higher priority than providing all New Zealanders a roof over their heads. Key obviously wants his legacy to be a piece of cloth on a flag pole rather than building homes for the homeless and lifting 25% of our children out of poverty. Appalling!