Saturday, March 30, 2013

Of Polls and Possibilities

The graph above, produced after the latest Roy Morgan Poll, shows a steady decline in support for the National Party, a perceptible increase in support for Labour and solid support for the Greens. New Zealand First remains around the 5% threshold and the Maori Party, Mana, Act and United Future barely register.

The average level of support for National since November 2011 is 45.14% which is over 2% down from the election. The average for Labour 31.08%, almost 4% up and the Greens have averaged 13.03%, which is about 2% up from the last election.

The Greens have traditionally dropped in support between elections, however, since November 2011, the Greens have been polling significantly higher than their election result. It is also interesting to note that the Green's support has been more consistent than Labour with fluctuations of around 2% while Labour has seen almost 4%.

With its union background Labour has, in the past, had a well organised membership and strong electorate teams. However, the Keep Our Assets campaign signaled a significant shift in organising strength when the Green Party collected over double the petition signatures that Labour supporters did. Membership levels are also becoming similar, with Labour claiming around 5,000 paid members and the Greens about 4,000. What is also significant is the Green Party's ability to rope in non members to support their campaigns.

It is clear from the Graph that support for National is in steady decline and that their natural supporting party, ACT, is in its death throes. It is also apparent that MMP has reshaped the political environment so that it is unlikely that any political party will be able to win an election outright. Voters now have the ability to mix and match parties to shape the kind of government that they would like. It is not just policy that will dictate voter preferences, but style. While National's authoritarian style may suit some people, New Zealanders do have a great sense of fairness and justice and the dictatorial manner of managing school closures and budget cuts, with limited consultation, has rankled many. Many voters are beginning to realise that when a coalition government has one very dominant party, the minor parties struggle to rein in the excesses of their much larger partner. Consequently we have the National Party claiming to have a mandate to sell state assets with 47% of voter support.

National, and Labour to some extent, have managed to dismiss the Greens in the past as a small fringe group of environmental activists but, with 14 MPs in parliament and significantly more resources, this image is now difficult to maintain. All of the Green MPs have had media presence and the leadership team of Russel and Metiria have provided a real challenge for the Government. With Labour's desperate efforts to promote Shearer as leader, their MPs have had to take a back seat and now many people can name more Green MPs than they can from Labour.

I have been aware over the last few elections that the final vote for the Greens has often been lower than the last polling results. I have surmised that while people preferred Green policy they just didn't have the impression that the party had the depth, or capability of personnel, to to carry them through in Government. Now that the Greens have managed to gain more media exposure it is difficult to dismiss the likes of ex West Coast Health CEO Kevin Hague as a looney tree hugger with no experience of Governance. Gerry Brownlee (ex carpenter/woodwork teacher) once made the mistake of dismissing some intense questioning from Green MP Julie Anne Genter by ignorantly suggesting that she knew nothing about transport (now he tries to deal with her by making disparaging remarks about transport consultants).

In 2014 the voting public have some real choices, they can vote for the status quo of a rampant, ideologically driven National led Government (with essentially neutered partners) or a real coalition Government where a mix of expertise and governance style provides exciting potential. Also the often expressed concern (promoted by the right) that a coalition of Labour and the Greens may unstable and fraught is not supported by evidence. The two parties already work together on a number of campaigns (manufacturing/asset sales) and the Greens are far more predictable and stable as a party than ACT or New Zealand First have been in previous coalitions. The next year and a half, before the 2014 election, is a chance to explore some real possibilities.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

DoC Cuts A Tragedy!

The latest cuts to the DoC workforce bring the total loss to over 330 full-time equivalent positions since 2009, about 15% of the workforce. Despite what Minister Nick Smith and the Director General Al Morrison have claimed, the capacity of the department will be compromised when jobs are cut. While we hear that DoC must tighten its belt when we are in economically tough times, these cut backs are more to do with Government priorities than economic constraints.

While DoC has been told to cut another $2 million from its budget, the Government bailed out a private school (against advice) by $3.9 million and is spending $36 million on the supporting the America's Cup Challenge. The $390 million total budget of DoC is close to the loss incurred by Solid Energy and nothing like the $1 billion being spent to build the Transmission Gully motorway that has failed cost benefit analysis.

We also spend more money on promoting our wild places then we do to protect them. The $12 million that will be used to support Warner bros in marketing the Hobbit movie is all about supporting international perceptions of New Zealand and hiding the reality. This became clear when scientist Mike Joy was demonised when he talked openly about the real state of the New Zealand environment.

DoC has always been underfunded considering the huge responsibilities that it has. Wikipedia describes the extent of the areas under their care as:

"...about 30% of New Zealand's land area or about 8 million hectares of native forests, tussocklands, alpine areas, wetlands, dunelands, estuaries, lakes and islands, national forests, maritime parks, marine reserves, nearly 4000 reserves, river margins, some coastline, and many offshore islands. All of the land under its control is protected for either conservation, ecological, scenic, scientifichistoric or cultural reasons, and for recreation."

To put this in perspective this would amount to around .5 of an employee for each reserve and that doesn't include all the other areas that they are responsible for. While we are told that there will be an expectation that more volunteers will come forward to do the work, it is partly this approach that led to the Cave Creek tragedy. Replacing properly trained professionals with amateurs can come at a cost. The Commission of Inquiry into Cave Creek found:

"...that the Department had not been given sufficient resources to meet its requirements without "cutting corners", and was frequently forced to accept poor quality standards due to its lack of funding.  The report of the Commission concluded that given the department's state, 'a tragedy such as Cave Creek was almost bound to happen'."

The Department is still underfunded and while a human tragedy of this sort may not necessarily happen we are experiencing the tragedy of species loss and the ongoing degradation of our natural places.

Business and corporate support would also be problematic as most would prefer to support the "popular" causes such as kiwi and kakapo rather than more important but less glamorous activity and this funding cannot be relied on.

This Government actually wants to shift DoC away what should be its core function and concentrate on  exploiting the natural resources for commercial gain. National Parks do not feature on Planet Key.

Monday, March 25, 2013

National's 2014 Election Strategy Revealed


  1. Installing a Speaker who does not require Ministers to answer questions. Done
  2. Install a Race Relations Commissioner who doesn't understand the Treaty and will support the Government's race relations spin. Done
  3. Limit the release of damaging information through the Official Information Act. Ongoing
  4. Progress Christchurch school closures quickly so that the issue doesn't continue into election year. Done
  5. Change RMA and local body legislation to ensure central government has control but all responsibility falls on local councils. Almost done
  6. Ensure all mates are well looked after and installed in protected, high paid positions. Mostly done (Don Elder's situation is difficult, perhaps full-time consultant?)
  7. Destroy Labour leader credibility as we did with Goff. Done, little effort needed (bank account issue was a gift from heaven)
  8. Blame Labour, beneficiaries and teacher unions for everything. Ongoing, but may have to back off teachers as they are getting too much community support.
  9. Ridicule Green Party using spin and misinformation. On going (thank goodness we have changed the Speaker)
  10. Schmoozing with celebrities. Ensure John is seen with as many Hollywood moguls, royalty and sports stars as possible. Successfully ongoing
  11. Sell Mighty River. We need to get something sold before the referendum and to save face. On track
  12. Build more golf courses and close more public toilets. Ongoing

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Real Men and Gardens (a slight return)

It's that time of year again and I found myself running another workshop at Riverton's Harvest Festival. I wore the T Shirt that can only be purchased through the South Coast Environment Centre, but is taking the country by storm (well, amongst the gardening community anyway).

After several years the Harvest Festival has become more than a novelty and attracts a sizable crowd of people for whom growing and producing their own food is an important part of their lives. When workshops on permaculture and bee keeping attract good numbers in a community the size of Riverton, you know there is a quiet revolution occurring.

When I first agreed to share my limited gardening experience in a workshop I was a little apprehensive but found the handful of middle aged ladies that attended were really interested and appreciative of anything I had to share. This year I had three times as many people turn up on a Sunday afternoon and  a third of them were under thirty. Few were novice gardeners and when we started sharing experiences I found myself learning heaps from them.

When young people start enthusiastically relating stories about prolific pumpkin plants that grew out of their compost it gives me faith in the potential resilience of the following generations.

My own mini pumpkin harvest from the previous year


 A small selection of the many seed potatoes on display

 A sample from the Seed Savers collection

A small portion of the fifty different apples on display.

Market Solutions to Housing Crisis!

Nick Smith and his National led Government have a very market, developer driven plan to solve our housing crisis. For them the solutions involve removing regulations and increasing land supply (green fields). Although Smith did recognise, in his interview on Q+A, that there is an issue with the cost of land and materials (our houses cost at least 30% more to build than in Australia) he could not provide answers.

The two regions where houses are desperately needed are in Auckland and Christchurch and there is obviously some urgency. The Auckland Council plan appears to recognise a number of needs, a mix of brown fields and green fields development and constructing future developments around transport hubs. The provision of services and infrastructure needs planning if it is to work efficiently and to ensure the quality of life for new communities. Where local and central government clash is around the freedom for developers. The Auckland Council obviously want to have some control in how their city grows, and ensure it has long term viability, and this involves using the very regulations that the Government wishes to dismantle. While some regulations may indeed be unnecessarily restrictive we don't want to allow reasonable local controls to be lost.

What Nick Smith hasn't recognised is that the high building costs aren't just because of regulation and a shortage of land, it is because of monopolies and an overheated property market. The Green Party is quite right in pointing the finger at non resident property buyers. Money will always move to where the biggest profits are to be gained and it just so happens that property prices are again buoyant in New Zealand and we have few restrictions on overseas investors (New Zealand is the 3rd easiest country to do business in). The natural outcomes of supply and demand dictates that when supply is limited but demand is high the value of a product increases and by increasing demand through allowing nonresident buyers, housing costs will obviously move beyond most New Zealanders. As long as we have no capital gains tax (for other than the family home) and no real controls on exploitative landlords, we will continue to see an overvaluing of New Zealand houses.

I happened to be talking to a Christchurch person yesterday who is involved with the construction industry and I heard some fairly concerning stories of cowboy builders, monopolies in building supplies and obvious fraud where officials were receiving financial incentives for favouring certain businesses. Landlords were also taking advantage of the housing shortage by ramping up rentals, and I was also told of wealthy people who ramp up rental costs by offering more than what was asked to ensure an advantage. Obviously those on minimal incomes will always miss out in such a market driven environment.

Of course another answer to the Auckland/Christchurch housing pressure is to encourage more opportunities in outlying regions. The Government is actively cutting state service jobs in the provincial communities (DoC,  IRD, Railways...) and centralising government activity. Many regionally based industries and manufacturers have disappeared and there are lots of empty houses in the places affected. While there are plenty of cheap houses available in smaller towns and communities there are no longer the jobs.

In a market, developer driven environment we will not see lower cost housing being built unless there is Government directive to do so; we will not see a drop in house prices until we have competition in material supplies and the heat taken from the market; we will not see strong viable communities being built unless councils are able to ensure that all new communities are well serviced and sustainable; we won't see a return to a more egalitarian society when we actively separate communities according to income; and we'll see a continuation of unsustainable population growth in Auckland while we have limited opportunities and support for the regions.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Norman Questions Government Accountability

This National led Government and its supporters are promoting the view that the only time a government should be held to account is at the ballot box and the only mandate necessary to implement their policies is their election into office. For a party that is driven by ideology, and not evidence, it is problematic to them when justification for their policies is requested and they do not have free rein over the implementation process.

This National led Government come from an authoritarian culture, where those in leadership roles are respected because of their position and not necessarily their capability. While the Green Party and the Labour Party have conferences where policy is debated and their leadership challenged, National Party conferences are orderly affairs where the leadership tell the faithful how it is. This is most obvious with the environmental wing of the National Party (the Blue Greens), when, despite the obvious removal of environmental protections and concerning environmental policy, not a word of concern has been expressed.

While this National led Government promotes individual responsibility and accountability (to levels that are almost fanatical) for teachers, beneficiaries and most working people, this is not something they apply to themselves or their CEO mates. Don Elder's performance and Solid Energy's demise was the result of a "perfect storm", not incompetence. Hekia Parata's inability to have a positive relationship with her staff and officials is obviously their problem, not hers.

A good example of how this Government operates was exemplified by the Christchurch school closures where the Ombudsman was so concerned at the process used that he initiated his own inquiry. He documented a process that ignored proper consultation, was based on limited evidence, blocked access to information and even encouraged public officials to lie. When the Minister, Hekia Parata, was questioned her answers were evasive and her ministerial position has been maintained despite a history of poor management.

All avenues and forums where people have previously been able to hold their Government to account are being ignored. The Select Committee process is is being being treated with disdain, with many submitters who oppose government policy finding that they are treated disrespectfully by National MPs and the final reports ignore the submissions anyway. The enabling legislation for the asset sales' Mixed Ownership Model received over 1400 submissions with 99% of them against. The Select Committee chair shortened the process by 6 weeks and the final report was written before all submissions had been heard.

The most public way for the Government to be held to account is through Question Time during each sitting day when the opposition can ask questions directly of the Prime Minister and his Ministers and a factual answer is expected. While there is often an element of theatre and gamesmanship to the process it is often the only forum where the Opposition can expose and highlight mismanagement and publicly test Ministers' knowledge of their portfolios.

Under Speaker Lockwood Smith, Ministers were required to directly answer direct questions and were expected to keep answers brief and relevant. However this has changed under the new Speaker, David Carter, who has reinterpreted the rules in a way that allows the Government to avoid answering questions at all. When Ministers have not answered a direct question he has allowed the question to be asked up to three times before passing it over with the comment that the public could draw their own conclusions from the response. Carter has also allowed Ministers to get away with just addressing a question without actually answering it. The Government has relished this new freedom from past rules and have turned question time into a farce by refusing to give direct answers and slagging the opposition instead.

Frustrations with the inconsistency of rulings and the lack of accountability are becoming increasingly apparent during each question time, with interjections dominating proceedings and members struggling to have themselves heard. Russel Norman was particularly frustrated when he tried to ascertain the level of depositor liability involved with the Government's "Open Bank" solution to a bank collapse. Steven Joyce (on behalf of the Finance Minister) refused to give a direct answer and continually accused Russel of scaremongering instead. It is in the public interest to know what the level of liability is for ordinary New Zealanders if a bank fails and Russel was not able to get an answer from Treasury through the OIA either.

Gordon Campbell provides a good overview of the risks involved if the stealthy introduction of the of the Open Bank Resolution Policy had been achieved without Russel's exposure and what alternatives exist.

Efforts to work with the speaker and get him to reconsider his rulings around the quality of answers have not been successful and therefore Russel felt compelled to write this open letter:

Rt Hon David Carter
Speaker of the House of Representatives
Parliament Buildings

20 March 2013

Dear David

After sitting through another chaotic question time I feel compelled to write this open letter to you as Speaker.

I strongly urge you to revert to the set of rules that Lockwood Smith had developed over the course of his Speakership. These rules can be summarised as “A straight question will get a straight answer”. These rules resulted in a much more orderly question time and a much more effective question time. The Opposition knew that if they asked straight questions then the Speaker would insist that Government Ministers gave straight answers. And we knew that if politically loaded questions were asked then the Ministers would be free to give politically loaded answers. Ministers retained the “public interest” defence for not answering questions.

Your current approach of only requiring Ministers to “address” the question means that Ministers now know that they don’t need to answer questions in Question time. This is causing disorder in the House as opposition members attempt repeatedly to get Ministers to answer questions. It also means that the House of Representatives is unable to fulfil its function of holding the Executive to account for their actions – we can’t hold the Executive to account if the Speaker does not require Ministers to answer questions.

If you continue down your current path Question time will continue to be disorderly, increasingly so, and the House will rightly be viewed as no longer serving its democratic functions.

Yours sincerely

Russel Norman

Dairy Farming and Solid Energy

NIWA and climate scientists have predicted a growing frequency of extreme weather events and it is already happening here and around the world. One drought isn't climate change but there is enough evidence to show a global pattern that fits with scientists' predictions, and this is well explained in the National Geographic. Our latest drought was terrible and has been called a once in 70 years event but we are likely to get more of these in the near future. While we haven't had enough recent droughts to show a trend, we are experiencing more frequent extreme weather events. NIWA has detailed future scenarios of climate change related weather patterns, based on their research, and there is enough evidence to suggest that we have an impending crisis.

The Government also appears to accept that droughts may be more common (but not prepared to accept that there is a high probability of an anthropogenic cause). Yet the Government has still encouraged the intensification of farming to increase production while there is also lots of evidence that we are pushing land use to the limit. We can no longer keep dairy herds fed on what we produce in New Zealand and are having to import palm kernel or PKE (1.4 million tonnes in 2010-11). We are also farming hydroponically in many areas by using unnaturally high levels of water and urea, but with negative environmental consequences. Gore has suffered water shortages every Summer over the past few years because intensive farming is draining the aquifers that the town has used for its water supply. Water in Southland is fully committed in many areas, but the conversions to dairying are continuing and future fracking will also drain supplies.

By sacking Environment Canturbury, injecting large sums of money to support irrigation, and freeing up the RMA, the Government is encouraging even more intensification. When there is a good chance of more extreme droughts then the Government is creating in farming the sort of environment that caused Solid Energy's demise, lots of encouragement to grow but with a predictable sticky end. This is not responsible governance and farmers are now developing a sense of entitlement around water availability that is obviously not sustainable.

If it all turns to custard, as it inevitably will, then the Government will just blame the farmers as they did with Solid Energy.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

National's Fundamental Failing

Steven Joyce just didn't get the importance of Russel Norman's questioning in the House yesterday. He was genuinely perplexed why anyone would want to get get a definitive response from him (and the finance Minister he was speaking for) around his understanding of climate change science. He wasn't prepared to accept that the drought we have been experiencing was most likely caused by anthropogenic climate change:

"I think that the second part of that member's question is open to debate, actually, by a whole range of experts."

Russel's line of questioning actually established a fundamental flaw in the Government's approach to dealing with this major crisis; they aren't convinced that there is one.  Joyce explained that while the Government were providing assistance for farmers in this instance that they would be expected to adapt to climate change (as they have adapted to economic and technological change) and shouldn't expect ongoing support. It was a problem that farmers ultimately had to deal with not the Government.

Russel tried an even more direct approach and after referring to NIWA's climate predictions asked:

"Climate Change causes more droughts and more intense droughts, so that the drought that we have just seen is more likely to occur in the future, so the Government needs an adaptation plan - does he have an adaptation plan?"

Joyce suggested that unless we had a series of droughts there was no evidence that we needed to have such a plan, the only mitigation necessary was dealing with the current situation.

An important driver for any change is the belief that it is necessary and if that belief doesn't exist then the change process will be half hearted or nonexistent. If this Government truly believed in anthropogenic climate change then they wouldn't have withdrawn from Kyoto, they wouldn't have watered down the ETS to a level where it virtually serves no purpose and they would be chasing a future in fossil fuels.

If decisions being made have a direct and negative impact on the climate then Kennedy Graham was quite correct in accusing this Government of "ecocide".  Climate Change is not just a political issue it is a moral one and if we want a future that isn't dependent on high levels of greenhouse gas emissions  (New Zealand has one of the highest per capita in the world) then we surely won't get it through this denier Government.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Iceland Beats the Bankers and Leads the World

New Zealand has not suffered the extreme banking collapses that occurred in the US but we still had to endure the demise of some financial institutions at great cost to the taxpayer (South Canterbury Finance cost us more to put right than all the Treaty settlements combined).  Our four biggest banks remain stable and are returning solid profits, however their success is costing us dearly through unnecessary bank charges, tax avoidance and the loss of dividends to Australia.  We even have a group of lawyers currently suing banks for excessive default fees which have been estimated as costing us $1 billion over the past six years.

Banks seem to be held in the same regard as churches, powerful institutions that supposedly exist to serve the people and as such are above criticism. However, as has been found with the Catholic Church, behind the impressive and noble facade are some self-serving individuals who are more intent on meeting their own needs than those they should be serving. The salaries of the New Zealand CEOs of the four main Australian banks exceeded $15 million last year.

I happened to sit beside a manager within New Zealand's Co-operative Bank on a recent flight and she admitted that she could earn far more for doing the same job in one of the Australian owned banks. However, she told me that she would rather provide a real service and meet the genuine needs of customers than suck people dry by pushing products that only serve the bank's interests.

The Green Party has pushed for stronger regulatory controls and the need to shift to a locally owned bank for our government banking (currently through Westpac). The way our banks are operating and dictating much of our financial activity, especially in supporting inflated property prices, has helped contribute to our shocking private debt and our dismal Current Account deficit.

Although we haven't reached the desperate levels of Iceland we are heading to a similar place with all the financial power and privilege being controlled by a few. While I don't envisage taking the same course of action that the Icelandic people committed to, I do see a need to reclaim the control of our financial systems and banking. The fact that Iceland took the dramatic step of nationalising their banks, and refusing to pay for the mistakes of a corrupt few, is a valuable example of what is possible. While Iceland is now quietly enjoying economic growth, Greece and New Zealand are being told that privatisation and tighter belts is the only way.

It is time to reject the power of the banks and reclaim the power for ourselves!