Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"Consumer" Recommendations Confounding

I have always relied on Consumer's advice when buying major household items, however I have sometimes found their recommended buys don't live up to their status. The fridge we bought some years ago was a recommended model and yet we have been plagued by fluctuating temperatures and during Summer the fridge often turns into a freezer.

When I pulled out our first cucumber of the season to use in a sandwich and found it was frozen solid, it was the last straw, especially after the strawberries I had picked the day before were in a similar state when I tried to put them on my breakfast cereal. Over the last few years we have had a succession of appliance specialists come in to try and fix the fridge and this time I decided that another costly repair (the fridge is well out of warranty) wasn't worth it, the fridge would have to go!

I did look at the Consumer website, but rather than just going for their recommendations I also read the reviews that owners of the various models had submitted and these were interesting. It turned out that the fridge I would have bought, had I followed Consumer's advice, was not well supported. It was very noisy, had problems with the doors and one owner had had to replace a fan. A fridge that scored the second lowest, on the other hand, had many positive reviews and closer analysis showed that the area that we cared most about (adjustment to seasonal changes) was something this fridge was particularly good at. I was concerned that it did not score as well as the best fridge for energy consumption, but again when I compared the actual data the difference turned out to be negligible, I didn't think 90 cents difference for running costs per month was significant.

I wondered if my experience of using Consumer was similar to others and noticed this comment by another member:
"Generalised headings now for testing does not help the consumer. Previous testing was under headings that a consumer could assess suitability, such as; are vege and fruit kept crisp in crispers...can't do that now."

Consumer provides also their own value to each criteria but perhaps rather than use their own priorities for ranking products they could just list the criteria scores and allow members to give their own weighting for each area.

The new fridge has been bought and delivered and is purring away quietly in its allotted place in the kitchen (it was also one of the quietest of the models) and I guess a few months or years will prove the wisdom of our choice.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Big Southern Dry

Invercargill reached at least 25 degrees celcius today, according to the Metservice, and this was higher than Nelson, Gisborne and Auckland. We have had a month of almost continuous fine weather, except for the 14th and 15th when a total of 15mm fell (just a light shower compared to the 510 mm that fell in Takaka over the same time). The average rainfall for Invercargill in December is 105 mm and with five days left in the month we are 90 mm short. Environment Southland are monitoring the dropping river levels and those who have water consents are being advised of the possibility of having to cease taking water.

Our "quarter acre pavlova paradise" (for those of you who are old enough to remember Austin Mitchell) sits on an ancient sand dune and the continuous rays that are burning through the ozone hole fry the roots of my lawn and quickly change the lush green blades to a crunchy brown. Our new solar water heating system is steadily earning its worth, however.

My vegetable garden is thriving only because of my regular hand watering. The corn, yams and peas are growing like triffids, but if I forget to water for a couple of days my darker leafed lettuces and seedlings wilt and flatten themselves against the soil. It is best to water in the evening or early morning as there is less evaporation and the soil should absorb more, however when leaves begin to visibly dehydrate I want to immediately resuscitate them.

To minimise watering and to help retain the moisture in my raised beds I tuck fresh compost around as many plants as I can and have covered the roots of my fruit trees with mulched hedge clippings and mown grass. The flower beds also need constant hand held showers and I will be very concerned if a hosing ban is applied. When we built our shed few years ago I had wanted to capture the rainwater from the roof into a barrel that I could then use on the flower beds, but the City council refused to allow this and I had to flush the resource into the storm water system.

The positive element about our weather is the fact that we are now eating all our meals outside and with our wonderful twilights I am often still doing things in the garden at 10:30 pm.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Government Attacks New Zealand's Highest Performing Sector

Over the last three years New Zealand has had to deal with a number of crises and disasters, some man made and others caused by forces of nature. Investment companies collapsed, a mine exploded, Christchurch shook and a ship was grounded and leaked oil into a pristine marine environment. Extreme weather has struck a number of New Zealand regions with drought, tornados and heavy rain wrecking havoc with peoples' homes and livelihoods. A number of reports have also highlighted the shocking statistics around the health and safety of our children, with at least a quarter living in poverty. To top it all we discovered that around 80% of our lowland rivers are seriously polluted and we aren't quite as pure as we thought.

While all this was happening and despite working with a fraction of the funding of other OECD countries our education system soldiered on, consistently ranking amongst the top five in the world. Our curriculum and remedial reading programmes have been widely admired and adopted and our primary teachers are regarded like gold in the UK and elsewhere. With so much needing the government's attention over the next three years at least our education system is in good heart and needs little radical change.

Surprisingly we hear from the throne, and our new Governor General, that education will again be a key focus and major changes are afoot. There is a high priority for increasing accountability of schools, strengthening teacher appraisals and reforming the Teachers' Council. On top of this Charter Schools are going to be forced onto many of our low decile communities. These are major changes that will be imposed on a sector that is generally performing well and is hardly broken.

It has also been revealed by the media that the Ministry may take over the appointing of school principals from Boards of Trustees, not only will this remove one of the key elements of self managed schools but  there would also be the potential for political influence to determine appointments. Rather than having professional leaders who are driven by serving the school community and the needs of the students in their care, schools will be led by gagged civil servants who will have to blindly follow the whims and dictates of the Ministry and the Minister without question.

One would think that forcing the flawed National Standards onto all our schools, despite widespread concern, would be enough. The $60 million spent on implementing the standards could have been better utilized in supporting struggling children and their families and now we are going to have even more money spent on major structural changes with no evidence to support a need to do so.

The proposed changes to education are not driven by a general failure of the system or from compelling evidence and research, they are purely ideological and possibly vindictive. As stated earlier there are numerous areas that are in greater need of the Government's attention than education but teachers are effective organisers and the New Zealand Educational Institute is now the 2nd largest union in the country. The fact that NZEI devotes much of its energy on professional issues and has worked constructively with the Ministry of Education and past governments on curriculum development, child welfare and teacher attestation pilots means little to this National led government. Most of the proposed changes appear to be more about reducing the influence of the teaching profession then improving education delivery to children and judging by the success of similar changes internationally many children will probably suffer as a consequence.

Our education system is a great one and it could become an excellent one, but not through what is being proposed and not by refusing to collaborate with the profession.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

School Principal Appointments Becoming Political?

I have grave concerns regarding the Ministry taking over the appointment of school principals from boards of Trustees, especially when we have a government that has the potential to impose political and ideological criteria on suitability for positions. However, I also have concerns about the current system of appointing principals as the career pathway for leadership positions is flawed.

Prior to tomorrow's schools applicants for leadership positions needed to have a number of years experience and also have gone through a professional assessment (Grading) before applying and while the system wasn't perfect only those with some experience of staff management and proven professional knowledge would be considered. No one would be appointed to a position as principal of a large school unless they had proven experience in a smaller one. I am aware of many principals who have been appointed in the role for nonprofessional attributes such as just being male or because they had attractive qualifications yet no management experience. A large school that has hundreds of children and twenty to thirty staff is not an institution for a novice principal to lead and yet that is what can currently occur and I have also heard of small schools being led by beginning teachers.

It is not so much who makes appointments but the process that is followed and having appropriate career pathway that allows future leaders in education to develop appropriate skills and experience. It is also important to have professional and properly moderated verification of their abilities. A successful trial of a system of professional attestation for classroom teachers has recently been completed and could easily be adapted for aspiring leaders.

Education leadership needs the best people in these roles, people who are driven by the needs of the children they are ultimately responsible for. Principals should have an in depth knowledge of what makes the most effective teaching and learning and be able to motivate and lead a team to deliver it. They should not be solely motivated by meeting arbitrary and ideological criteria and become gagged civil servants who cannot speak out about poor policy that could potentially damage kids.

(It is interesting that even Kiwiblog's David Farrar has questioned the sense of this potential change)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Stewart Island, Paradise Lost?

During the week on Stewart Island with my family it was easy to believe that the rest of the world didn't exist.  The Island never appears to change, the familiar landmarks are practically as they were when I first visited in the early 70s. The continuous calls of Kaka, Bellbird and Grey Warbler provide a melodious background that, like the music of the spheres, appear to be part of a continuous cycle of song that reaches back to the beginnings of time. When my days were determined by the weather or how captured I was by the book I was reading, politics and current events became surreal intrusions. Rather than being constantly aware of our environmental, economic and social decline I was surrounded by lush and thriving bush and clear water full of very visible darting fish.

Despite the ease of falling into the Stewart Island time warp and thinking all is well with the world I did become aware that some things weren't as they seemed. Our family spent two days walking the Rakiura Track, described as one of New Zealand's "Great Walks" (along with the Milford and Kepler tracks), a wonderful walk that combines beautiful beaches and lush bush that is unique in its diversity. However, the second day saw us negotiating a muddy quagmire and while mud is not unusual on Stewart Island tracks in this case it was quite unnecessary. Piled up at various intervals were stacks of boardwalk that had been removed for replacement, many had been placed in large bags waiting to be helicoptered out. Apparently the boardwalks had been dismantled some time ago but DoC budget cuts had meant completion had been delayed. I also heard that some DoC staff on the Island were probably going to lose their jobs even though, considering the size of the park, they are probably understaffed.

It seems that there is enough private money to drill a tunnel between the Dart and Hollyford Valleys but our government struggles to fund basic track maintenance in our newest National Park. I guess the sort of money that tramping tourists spend is negligible so that tramping infrastructure has a low priority, as does saving our rare flora and fauna. Tourists who want to experience our wilderness areas through coach and monorail windows and stay in sandfly free, air conditioned hotels have the highest priority.  All that we need to preserve is what can be seen through the coach windows, the rest can be mined and milled! I guess commerce before conservation will be the resonating theme for the next three years.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Labour's Leadership Change Process Flawed.

The Green Party's leadership selection process makes so much sense. Surely a party's leaders should have a proven track record within the party and have the respect of both caucus and wider membership. For Labour to quickly dump a leader then replace them through a publicly managed popularity contest is hardly the best mandate for such positions. The fact that the Greens have only had four leaders since 1995 and two of them are current is proof of the robust process we use. Surely sound decision making leads to robust outcomes and stability over time and any mainstream party should be able to demonstrate these to have any credibility for forming a government.

Leaders often grow into their roles I find it hugely concerning when Helen Clark did so poorly in early opinion polls then eventually proved her capabilities over time while Phil Goff was never given that opportunity. Whatever caused the party to go with Goff over Cunliffe originally can't have changed substantially and yet here we have a sudden replacement decision that appears to be based on dubious public perceptions.

Labour's change process has been reactionary rather than planned and rushed decisions don't tend to last well over time. Labour needs to look for stability leading into the next election and Shearer could very well prove to be the best leader over time for Labour. To throw him into publicly televised comparisons with Cuncliffe seems bizarre given that Shearer couldn't expect to perform as well as his more experienced rival. Labour should be looking at who has the most potential to put the party in the best position by 2014 and three more years in Parliament can make a world of difference. Exposing their potential leaders to public scrutiny so early on makes no sense.

The choice of a leader should be an internal process, then once elected the party needs to come in behind them with properly managed support. Russel and Metiria were both well known by the party and although both lacked leadership experience we recognized their potential and elected them with a long term vision in mind. Both have gradually grown into their roles and despite the odd human hiccup the party has stuck with them with the knowledge that, as with cheese and wine, the good ones get better over time. This was proven with Russel and Metiria's performances over the last election. Russel was widely recognized for his grasp of economics and easily became the "go to" spokesperson on capital gains taxation when Labour was still struggling to release their policy. Metiria impressed all in the "minor party" debates and her passion, humour  and measured responses made political commentators remark that the party she leads should no longer be considered minor and that she performs beyond what would be expected from a minor leader.

If mainstream media had a more altruistic approach to their role of providing informed and balanced commentary on party policy and the performance of party leadership, leading up to the election, then we may have ended up with quite a different result. Post election reviews have all praised the Greens as having the most professional campaign and recognised our leaders as having almost faultless performances. Russel's response to the billboard vandalism was politically astute and masterful, the same could not be said of Key's management of the teacup debacle or Goff's failure to quickly manage the "show me the money" taunt.

Labour will struggle to choose a credible leader using their current process and then must attempt to build a unified and effective machine to oppose a National Party that is growing in confidence and audacity.  Already the Greens are operating as the main opposition (regarding the flaws in the management of the underwriting of South Canterbury Finance) while Labour has its collective headspace somewhere else. It will be an interesting three years when Labour will need time to rebuild while the Greens will be developing even greater capability based on an already experienced and proven leadership team.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Charter Schools in NZ

It has now been announced that "Charter Schools" are going to be introduced into New Zealand through a coalition agreement with the ACT party. It appears that this idea had never occurred to the National Party and is just a minor adjustment to their education plans to accommodate John Banks. The evidence is otherwise, however. National had already secretly embarked on bringing in this system (for which they have no public mandate) and I can't imagine John Banks coming up with the Charter School idea in the first place.

It is no coincidence that the new CEO appointed to the Ministry of Education, Lesley Longstone, is an advocate for Free Schools (the UK equivalent of the Charter Schools in the US). Making John Banks an associate education minister to potentially roll out a contentious programme makes political sense. It will need a stubborn, thick skinned but expendable politician like John to do this (much like using Anne Tolley to bring in National Standards).

Introducing Charter Schools into the New Zealand educational context will be a huge waste of time and effort and will deliver few benefits that cannot be achieved through our current state system. One of the strongest drivers for Charter Schools is the claim that their autonomy and ability to meet specific community needs will bring about improved outcomes for children. New Zealand already has many of the elements that define these schools, we have Boards of Trustees who operate with a high degree of independence and a National Curriculum that allows for the development of a local school curriculum that can be tailored to meet the specific needs of communities.

The Government intends that Charter Schools will be introduced into our lower decile communities, where much of our supposed under achievement exists. This will shift the responsibility onto these communities to find their own solutions while also introducing a new private, competitive model into our largely state run system. This ignores extensive research and existing programmes, like Ka Hikitia, that provide resources and evidence to address underachievement without needing communities to reinvent the wheel.

The US is ranked around 39th in the world for primary education (while New Zealand is in the top four or five) and the introduction of Charter Schools over there has seen mixed results. Not only will schools suffer from the introduction of the flawed and politically driven National Standards but we will have communities disrupted by the introduction of Charter Schools. Surely resourcing struggling schools properly and providing appropriate professional development to teachers will make a more immediate difference to our struggling children then introducing yet another new system that has a dubious track record.

(Gordon Campbell provides his useful perspectives on this topic).

Monday, December 5, 2011

Going Solar in the South

It has been quite a journey of regulation and compliance but our solar water heating system has finally been installed and is up and running. Of the hundred or so who originally indicated an interest in Venture Southland's pilot, there are only nine determined households who have stuck it through to the end and I think ours was the last to be installed.

It is too early to judge the success of the system and it probably won't be until we have a few power bills that we will really get an idea. I used the Homestar self rating system to see how successful we have been in upgrading our 1932 bungalow to make it more energy efficient. We only managed to get a rating of 2 helped by the following:
  • Under floor insulation
  • Ceiling insulation
  • HRV ventilation system
  • A large heatpump
  • A wood burner
  • Water solar heating
  • A north facing house
  • Composting and recycling systems
What let us down was:
  • Drafty single gazed windows
  • No wall insulation
  • No bathroom extractor fan 
  • Older ceiling insulation that doesn't cover framing
  • A one flush toilet
It was an interesting exercise because most New Zealand homes apparently score between 2 and 4 and despite our efforts we could only get our home to the bottom end of the average range. There must be a huge number of substandard houses in Invercargill.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

An Outside View of Our Campaign

Rachael Goldsmith
Alex Fensome, political journalist for the Southland Times provides this interesting overview of the local election campaign. 
The contrast between the parties could barely have been more defined.
The Nats were sitting around an open fire in the venerable Invercargill Club, surrounded by black-and-white photographs and plush carpet.
Labour met in the dingy confines of the Jed St Trades Hall with cask wine and savories on hand, clustered around a projector as the results came in.
The Greens had themselves a barbecue at Dave Kennedy's leafy Gladstone home, chatting away like it was a housewarming.
It was they who had the most to celebrate. Both Kennedy and his Clutha-Southland colleague Rachael Goldsmith rode the Green wave to the party's best-ever southern results.
The pair ran good campaigns, focused on the party vote but not forgetting to go to candidate's meetings, where, barring the odd misstep over wages and tax, they impressed.
That Goldsmith polled more candidate and party votes than Act's Don Nicolson in her electorate was a brilliant result for her.
For Roy, it was a coronation. His campaign manager rather unwisely said Labour's Lesley Soper was the best thing that happened to National's campaign, but she always faced an uphill task to fight Big Eric.
His own campaign was competent. He didn't need to do much and he did nearly fall off the wagon with some ill-advised, overly aggressive responses at candidate's meetings. But to hold the city for the third time was a good effort. Whether Invercargill remains a swing seat will be seen when Labour revive.
There is no doubting Soper's committment and passion for the job, but there was little she could do. Without wanting to be overly critical, she can come across as emotionless and robotic when campaigning. But Labour's situation did not help her cause.
Everyone was surprised about NZ First. I guess that charisma I wrote about previously served him well once again. And frankly, Key deserves Peters back in Parliament because of National's abysmal handling of the Teapot Tapes. If they had just released it, you wouldn't have seen hide or hair of Winston.
I especially like the fact that he recognized Rachael Goldsmith's achievement in outshining Don Nicolson, the third ranked Act candidate and ex president of Federated Farmers, on his own turf. For a not yet 30 year old young mother and social activist to do so well in her first election was truly remarkable and firmly put yet another nail into the Act coffin. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Post Election Thoughts

The Greens have much to celebrate, our campaign has been widely praised as the most effective of all parties and we have achieved our goal of getting more than 10% of the party vote. We had hoped to get our top 15 candidates into parliament but James Shaw just missed out. This was a real pity because the Wellington Central campaign he led was probably the most comprehensive of all the Green campaigns and was only 12 votes short of pipping Labour.

The Greens will make history when Mojo Mathers becomes the first profoundly deaf MP to be elected, while Mojo didn't get in on the initial voting she is likely to do so once the special votes have been included.

As for my own campaign, I had hoped we could double the Green vote in Invercargill and we almost did that by raising the 4.26% we got in 2008 to just .1 away from 8%. I must admit that I was a little disappointed as the impression I got throughout the campaign indicated a greater level of support. Three factors probably created barriers to our final result, the first was the effective blocking of my appearance on CUE TV's "Election Special". While it wasn't exactly a riveting show, and at most may have only reached a couple of thousand viewers, it would still have reached a much greater audience than the seven candidate forums I attended. The audiences for these meetings ranged from one to about forty and many of the people who attended them were the same. What was especially frustrating was the fact that the questions posed on this programme encompassed many local issues that I have had a direct involvement with and at a much greater level than the other candidates.

The second negative influence was probably voter apathy. Around 5,000 fewer people voted in Invercargill than in 2008 and many of those were from the less affluent suburbs. The fact that the total votes for both National (3,000 less) and Labour (2,500 less) were considerably down from the last election, the greens increase of 1,000 was significant and should be celebrated.

Winston Peters provided the third influence, with his party vote almost doubling in Invercargill despite having no local candidate and only a couple of small billboards to indicate their existence. In most polling booths the Green vote doubled around Invercargill but many of the booths, where we did best in the last election, did not show the same growth. It was in these areas that New Zealand First was strongest and in a number of them scored higher than us. The power of mainstream TV is obviously a huge influence on voters and the prominence of Peters in the last couple of weeks was extraordinary. The tea cup fiasco played right into his hands, as a conspiracy theorist there is none better than Winston and he milked it to the utmost. While the Greens exposed real concerns around National's plans for the unpopular asset sales it was what Peter's hinted to, regarding the contents of the tea cup tapes, that got full media attention. The fact that he often shared billing with Key and Goff ahead of the Green leaders on national media was very influential and almost trumped the huge effort in leafleting, billboards and local campaigns the Greens had committed to.

To end on a positive note, we will probably have 14 MPs in parliament (the most we have ever achieved) and the ability to share the workload and use the increased resourcing generated will be hugely valuable in growing our Party even further. Watch out 2014!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Last Post and a Green Future

Dear Sir
New Zealand is a country rich with resources and a relatively small population. We have an education system that is ranked amongst the top in the world and a growing percentage of wealthy who are spending millions on luxury items ($480 million on Bentley cars last year).

There is no good reason why we should also have 270,000 children living in poverty and one of the worst statistics for child health and welfare in the OECD. There should be no excuse for allowing most of our rivers to be polluted and unsafe for swimming and it makes no economic sense to sell off our state assets when we have so much potential in innovative and renewable technologies.

For a country that produced the people who split the atom, invented the jet boat and the jetpack we should be able to build our own trains and farm sustainably.

The Green Party has achievable, practical and fiscally sound solutions for bringing at least 100,000 children out of poverty, cleaning our rivers and creating 100,000 sustainable jobs. A party vote for the Green Party is a vote for a smart and compassionate economy and a positive future.

Yours sincerely...

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Farewell to a Local Hero

I have just attended the funeral of Alister Fraser who died aged 81 after serving his community selflessly for most of his life. Alister was the principal of Invercargill's largest intermediate school and a school inspector when I was beginning my career in teaching. He was a larger than life personality whose passion for education knew no bounds and yet we heard at the service how he constantly worried that his support of teachers was adequate enough and whether the job he did made a difference.

After Alister retired he continued supporting schools and teachers where he could and even gave his time, most mornings, on a busy school crossing. He was involved in community leadership for much of his retirement and worked part time at Anderson Park Art Gallery as an attendant and guide.

Alister spent much of his life in serving the communities he lived in and the remuneration he craved for was not financial, but the knowledge that he had made a difference in the lives of others. The church was seated to capacity for his funeral and the adjacent hall was also full, he had made a difference and the people in attendance were clear proof of that.

Alister was a unique man but I have known many people during my life for whom success isn't measured in dollar terms but the knowledge that they had done their best and the world had benefited from their existence. It is knowing these people that makes me question the need to pay our community leaders and CEOs massive salaries with the justification that you only get the best people if you pay top money. The best leaders are not motivated by greed alone.

Monday, November 21, 2011

New Zealand Taxes Poor More Than Aussie

New Zealand stifles its poor with much heavier taxation than in Australia and because half of New Zealand  income earners earn less than $28,000 it is also stifling our domestic economy. The median wage in Aussie is over $40,000. A simple comparison between the two tax regimes makes interesting reading.

New Zealand taxes all those earning $14,000 or less at 10.5 cents for every dollar while Australia doesn't tax the first $6,000 of earnings at all. In New Zealand we tax those who earn between $14-$45,000 17.5 cents for each dollar and Australia only taxes 15c from $6,000 through to $37,000. For those at the top end of earnings, $70,000 and above, New Zealanders get hit by 33 cents. Australia keeps ranking up the taxation for those who are better off, those earning $80,000 to $180,000 have a 37c tax and those above $180,000 are taxed at 45 cents in every dollar. Imagine our Government's increase in revenue if we did that, no asset sales needed.

GST is set at 15% in New Zealand while it is only 10% in Australia and the minimum wage here is $13 and hour while across the ditch it is $15.51.

Australia also has a capital gains tax while we do not.

No wonder a huge number of our working families need financial support and can't survive on their incomes.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Solid Energy and Dirty Secrets

Nicky Chapman comes from four generations of Southland Farmers, he is currently a member of Transition Town Port Chalmers. This opinion piece was published in the Otago Daily on November 18.

One thing's missing so far in all the hoo-hah about whether we should partially sell some of our state assets: the consequences of doing so for Southland and Otago.
These consequences are to do with the region's estimated six billion "economically recoverable" tonnes of lignite, three billion under the fertile paddocks of Eastern Southland alone.
One of the state assets up for partial sale, Solid Energy, proposes to convert this lignite to briquettes, diesel and urea. Because lignite (brown coal) is a particularly low-quality fuel, the conversion process itself emits a lot of CO2, as well as the end products. Quoting Solid Energy's own estimates, the Greens' Dr Kennedy Graham has noted that the lignite projects will add an extra 10 to 20 million tonnes of carbon emissions annually to our current 70+ million tonnes (which we had promised to bring down).
Solid Energy acknowledges the reality of climate change, and has said it will take responsibility for its emissions. There are a few snags with that. Does Solid Energy just mean that it will pay the carbon charge?
That will mean others will actually be responsible for reducing emissions.
Does it mean complying with the Emissions Trading Scheme?
That is likely to give Solid Energy 90% of its emissions free for years. Does it mean using carbon capture and storage technologies?
Reports on this show just how expensive these still-developing technologies are. In our earthquake-prone land, we may never be able to safely capture and store CO2.
Nor can we plant endless numbers of trees. Some might say that we do not need to be responsible for emissions if the lignite products are burned offshore, but that's a risky (and immoral) assumption for an exporting nation.
We do have democratic instruments to help us make responsible decisions, and play our part in averting climate catastrophe. Unfortunately, so far they haven't been much cop. The Emissions Trading Scheme hasn't slowed down Solid Energy's plans.
The Resource Management Act was used to shut out community involvement in the decision to build the first briquetting plant. This could also happen with the larger lignite project plans. The Government could declare them to be "of national importance" and send them to the Environmental Protection Agency.
This government-appointed body does not have to call for local hearings and is subject to major political influence.
How do asset sales fit in with these climate change issues?
The answer is further loss of regional autonomy.
Like his elected bosses, Solid Energy's Dr Don Elder is keen to sell, but not to help the state's hungry coffers.
It is unlikely the "mum-and-dad" and/or iwi investors can help much with his big plans for lignite. Only overseas businesses have the money to help us to get our hands dirty.
Investors will expect control for their money. We are at present negotiating a trade deal to ensure more can secure it: the Trans Pacific Partnership (TTP). Prof Jane Kelsey, of the Auckland Law School, has noted that the TPP will enable overseas investors to sue the government for reducing their profits. She is particularly worried about Pharmac's ability to negotiate for more affordable drugs, but the concerns apply generally. If half of Solid Energy were sold to TPP members, then foreign-owned coal mining companies could sue taxpayers if the government pulled out of lignite mining, or increased carbon charges. This is already the case with Chinese investors under the NZ-China "Free Trade" agreement.
In short, selling Solid Energy shares could limit our choices and/or actively penalise our economy.
There are other ways to develop and grow our energy resources. Venture Southland, a joint initiative of the Invercargill City Council, Southland District Council and Gore District Council, has just released its Southland Energy Strategy 2011. It's a great combination of visionary and practical thought. The risks of lignite extraction are clear; its benefits seem few, given the many other good ideas for increasing energy efficiency and using Southland's many renewable energy assets.
Both Labour and the Greens oppose asset sales and lignite mining, with Labour having just confirmed its opposition to mining lignite with present technology, "because of the high volume of greenhouse gases produced".
When Bill English opened Solid Energy's lignite-to-briquette plant in September, he talked of the "huge opportunities" from Southland lignite. There are no opportunities in extreme weather, rising sea levels and acidic oceans. We need to persuade all our politicians, local and national, that selling Solid Energy shares to "develop" lignite will bring tragically irreversible changes to our landscape, our CO2 emissions, and our identity as a region and as a country.

Dairying, from Dirty to Dynamic

This isn't Russell's farm (it was too wet to get a photo) but come from a useful site:

I had a very enjoyable and informative afternoon on Thursday. Russell McPherson, Southland's Federated Farmers Dairy Chairman, had invited me out to his dairy farm to have a chat and look over his property. As it turned out the weather wasn't too great so I viewed his farm through a window and we talked at length over a cup of tea.

Russell came across as the sort of farmer who is easy to admire, a hard worker who began his career as a shearer and worked his way into farm ownership. He is a man who would never be happy with the status quo but is always reflecting on the efficiency of his practice and looking for a new challenge. Russell's conversion from sheep to dairy was a business no brainer and his dairy shed reflected state of the art technology at the time of construction. I could tell by the appearance of his home and the visible surrounding environment that if anything was to be done on this farm it would have to be done well. He admired those who displayed the same work ethic as himself and was proactive in providing opportunities for others to begin careers in farming.

Despite his success and the fact he had much to be proud of (including his son who had initially invited me in when I arrived early and chatted to me until his father arrived) Russell was not a happy man. Growing concerns around the state of our rivers and lakes and the rapid increase in dairy farming had seen the public perception of the industry change from economic saviour to pariah industry. "Dirty Dairying" had become a catch phrase and it had become a career that Russell was reluctant to admit to in new social situations. As far as he was concerned he had nothing to be ashamed of and yet he was being tarred with the same brush as the few in the industry who did not operate to the same standards as himself. Russell was especially worried that if dairy farming had a bad reputation it would struggle to attract good people into industry and improving standards would become even more problematic.

Although we disagreed on a number of key issues, like bringing farming into the ETS and charging for water use, there were many potential solutions and strategies that we both agreed on. There is huge money to be made in the Dairy industry if people are prepared to work hard and I can imagine it will be providing a large hunk of our export income for some time yet. However, it is important that we get the right balance of regulation and compliance management to fully allow the environment to thrive and keep the industry viable. I don't think Russell and I will ever agree with what that balance would look like but I really appreciated the time I spent with him and look forward to more conversations in the future.

I would like to think that the Green Party will have a growing influence in parliament and conversations like this one must surely lead to ensuring that "dirty dairying" is changed to "dynamic dairying' and we end up with a country full of pristine rivers flowing through model farms.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Commercial Interests Beat Public Interests

Dear Sir
It was with some frustration that I had to watch CUE TV’s Election Special and not be able to be present myself as the Invercargill, Green Party candidate. The Green Party do not have the the corporate support that some other parties do and have to run a smart but fiscally responsible campaign on a tight budget (this is actually not the reason for our limited advertising budget it is because of a cap to spending dictated by law see later comment). We have committed television and radio spending on our national campaign and relied on the fact that most regional broadcasters do not charge for candidates to appear on candidate forums.

I was surprised when CUE TV informed me that I would have to pay to take part in their “Election Special” as I thought that it was in the public interest to provide a balanced and representative programme. I was grateful to have three minutes of free air time as part of a news item but it is hardly enough to provide much detail from our comprehensive policies. I recognize that CUE are a private company and are free to treat the election as a commercial opportunity but there is also a case for displaying a community conscience when decisions around who should govern our country are being made.

For those people who wondered what happened to their local Green candidate and wish to read my views on topics such as economics, good governance and the state of our environment you can visit my “Local Bodies” blog (easily found through Google).

Your thoughts and comments would be most welcome.

Yours sincerely

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Green Leadership Tested Over Billboards

It is interesting to observe different leadership styles when those in positions of responsibility have to stand up and be accountable. When we compare the way Russel Norman managed the discovery that a Green Party member (and partner of his EA) was responsible for the defacing of National's Billboards with how John Key managed his error regarding his Standard and Poors comment, we see vast differences in approach.

Russel Norman responded almost immediately to the information he received regarding the billboard actions by making a statement to the media. He made an unequivocal apology to the National Party and he  had made immediate contact with John Key to apologise in person. Russel also identified those involved even though his EA was married to the instigator. Although the Green Party had not condoned nor instigated the action, Russel offered Green Party assistance to rectify the problem. Transparency and honesty are important elements in how we Greens operate and when individual members fall short of these traits it is taken very seriously and we are expected to take full responsibility for our mistakes.

When John Key found he was in contradiction with Standard and Poors over a statement he made in the house he managed the situation in a very different way. I will let you be the judge of what kind of leadership you are most comfortable with, but in my case my preference is clear. All people make mistakes but honesty and transparency goes a long way.

Russel's media statements

John Key's media statements

Sunday, November 13, 2011

RMA Needs Regional Input

The proposed tunnel between the Dart and Hollyford valleys may benefit big players in the tourist industry but will be disastrous for the Southland economy and the environment. Southland District Council Mayor, Frana Cardno, is very concerned about the negative impacts on her patch.When you consider the long term ramifications of this project and the planned lignite mining it makes me even more convinced that we need to have a comprehensive economic development strategy for our region.

Our regional authorities have struggled to cope with the rapid growth of the dairy industry, which has had a hugely negative impact on our waterways. While there could have been better management of the growth of this industry our local bodies can only manage consents and business projects on an individual, case by case, basis. Under the RMA there is no real capacity to reject a proposal because of broader issues around carbon emissions or because it isn't compatible with the main business activities in a region.

When Solid Energy gained a consent for their lignite briquette plant it was able to do so with restricted public consultation. This was despite the fact that the growth of lignite mining would have huge ramifications on the region and hugely increase New Zealand's carbon emissions. When corporate interests see economic possibilities in Southland it appears that they can generally get what they want.

It is up to our local councils to make decisions that benefit the wider community and are sustainable over time. While it is important to support new projects that have the potential to provide jobs and support the local economy, it is also important that a proper balance is achieved so that one project doesn't have negative consequences on existing or future activity. In the case of the lignite mining, Solid Energy  have no plans to restore the mined land for farming and intend to turn the holes into lakes. The Dart/Hollyford tunnel will contain many tourists in a limited region to the advantage of the biggest players in the industry and the Kingston Flyer, Te Anau  and the Southern Scenic Route will be hugely disadvantaged.

Venture Southland already has a large bank of research to provide the basis of a regional plan. They have the Topoclimate Survey,  Southland's Energy Strategy and much research for the development of our silica resources and extending the possibilities of our rocket tracking station. A collaborative approach between the Southland District Council, the Gore District Council, the Invercargill City Council and Environment Southland would be needed establish a plan that would carry significant weight. There has been talk in the past of establishing one unitary authority for the whole Southland region to streamline regulatory processes and improve services. While there is less support for this to happen now, a cohesive Southland economic strategy would be useful for developing consistency across the region and to protect our regional interests.

Asset Sales and Deregulation - Fail!

Surely the long term aims of any Government should include generating enough revenue to pay for core spending and to create the right economic climate to encourage sustainable business development.

This government has a hands off approach to generating economic activity and they openly support ongoing deregulation and taxing less as their key tools for economic development. National strongly believes that the market can find its own solutions to issues such as the increasing costs for fossil fuels and shifting to more sustainable business practices. When asked by Gareth Hughes to describe the Government's strategy to deal with future oil shortages, Bill English replied that the market will adjust without support. National also looks for easy solutions to ensure energy supplies and continues our dependency on fossil fuels by opening our territorial waters for oil exploration and our land for coal mining and fracking. Before investing much in alternative energies they want to wring the last drop of fossil fuel out of our country first, even if doing so exposes us to potential harm and delays the transition to renewable energies.

 When the National led Government gave the wealthy tax cuts it also cost them a considerable revenue stream. To maintain the cuts and to support future core spending on education and health, without resorting to even more borrowing, quick cash was needed and selling off a few assets was the most obvious solution. The assurance that the country would retain a controlling share does not provide much comfort to many who still have memories of the asset stripping and loss of sovereignty that occurred in the past. Surely it would be better to hold on to our state assets and use their economic strength to support new businesses development and generate revenue through energy bonds that could be purchased by mum and dad investors.
Smart taxation generates revenue and can also shift spending into more productive areas. A capital gains tax is a smart tax and if we had one some years earlier we wouldn't have seen the over investment in property and the steep rise in farm prices that has restricted farm profitability.  Targeted taxation can also fast track changes in business practice and by placing a charge on the commercial use of water it will force businesses to use the resource more efficiently as well as funding the work to protect our rivers and lakes. Considering that it takes at least 100 litres of water to make 1litre of milk, many farmers have the supply and protection of a key resource subsidized and this isn't sustainable economically or environmentally.

Government regulations provide protection from exploitation and potential hazards that can occur when industries and businesses push to maximise profits. To reduce regulations and rely on the goodwill of business to put people and the environment before profit is naive in the extreme and resulted in the $11 billion dollar leaky building debacle and the Pike River Mine disaster. That this government hasn't learnt its lesson from these and is still pushing for industry driven standards is a real concern. Smart regulations can provide incentives for businesses to invest in better practices or energy uses that may not be immediately useful but will ensure sustainability in the future. A business owner I spoke to recently said that he was forced to use coal rather than electricity because the former was far cheaper and although he wanted to be carbon neutral, there was no incentive to do so.

One of the most compelling arguments against less regulation is to compare the economic performance of countries that have few regulations to those that are highly regulated. New Zealand is one of the most open economies in the world and we are currently ranked the third, after Singapore and Hong Kong, for being "business friendly". Despite this our economic performance hasn't been startling and the costs of deregulation (leaky buildings) appear to outweigh gains. Argentina is a country not too dissimilar from New Zealand, it has an agricultural base and is rich in natural resources and it has seen a 102% increase in GDP over the last five years despite having far greater regulatory controls. Norway has a similar population to New Zealand and it has become hugely rich by maintaining state control of its strategic natural resources.

Going down the road of asset sales and greater deregulation is just setting our country up for failure!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Green Threat!

Dear Sir

As the Green Party rises in the polls I recently heard a reference to this as if it implied a threat to the very fabric of our society. “Imagine what would happen if the Greens got into power” they said. So I did, and this is what I came up with:
  • We would have warmer homes
  • We would have less children living in poverty
  • Kiwi Bank would become the Government’s bank
  • We would be able to swim in our rivers again
  • The minimum wage would go up
  • We would have lots of new jobs in the renewable energy sector
  • Our Clean Green brand would mean something
  • Our rest homes would be properly staffed and regulated
  • Our schools will focus on learning, not flawed assessment systems
  • The Southerner Train would be reinstated
  • We would have a Kiwi Saver option that would take less in fees
  • We would keep our brightest minds in New Zealand by investing more in R&D
  • We would retain our state assets and use them to support new industry
  • We would bring greater transparency into government
I didn’t think it sounded too bad and I had to wonder what the alternative was.

Yours sincerely
Dave Kennedy
Green Party Candidate