Thursday, September 26, 2013

Exclusive Brethren Will Test Govt Priorities

The Exclusive Brethren have removed their children from the state system so that they can provide an educational environment that supports their religious beliefs. They have 24 sites, or satellite schools, that operate under one school administration (Westmount School) that already receives $2.9 million of Government funding. The Decile 8 school has applied to be fully integrated at an estimated cost of an extra $7 million (or around $4,300) per student.

The Exclusive Brethren have been accused of operating as a cult and many members who have left the church have cited, bullying treatment. The story of the Brethren's treatment of gay journalist Craig Hoyle is especially shocking. The Exclusive Brethren have also had a long connection with the National Party and their privately produced election pamphlet in support of the Party for the 2005 election was mentioned in Nicky Hager's The Hollow Men. The Pamphlet was highly critical of Labour and the Greens and made a number of wild accusations that could not have been made in official material from National itself.

While the Exclusive Brethren claim that support for them is no different from the integration of Catholic schools, this isn't actually true. Some years ago in London I taught in a Catholic School (despite being an agnostic) and found their religious instruction taught tolerance of other religions and they even accepted students who had other cultural and religious backgrounds.

The Government have already provided support for the elite Wanganui Collegiate by bailing out the 400 student school by $3.9 million and committing to $3 million a year of ongoing funding. This was against the advice of the Ministry of Education and ignored the available space in the local public secondary schools. While the Government recently announced $27 million of new funding will go to those children who are 'priority learners' we must also remember the $35 million of extra funding that they gave to private schools shortly after coming to power. Given that private schools cater for only 4% of the student population they already get a fair whack of Government support.

Both the PPTA and New Zealand Educational Institute have come out strongly against supporting the sect as the $7 million would be more usefully spent elsewhere. I'm sure Christchurch communities will also be watching the decision with interest. How the Government responds to the request from the Exclusive Brethren will be a real test of priorities, does it really support struggling learners or is it more interested in propping up schools for the wealthy and rewarding coalition partners (Charter Schools) and past supporters?

Friday, September 20, 2013

J K Rowling on Single Parenting

Harry Potter writer, J K Rowling, reveals that persecution and discrimination against solo mothers isn't just a New Zealand issue. In an article for Gingerbread, a charity that provides support for single parents, she makes the following observations on her own experience in the UK:

"Although I have been married for much of my adult life, I have the greatest of respect for single parents. Raising children can be a challenge with a partner on hand to share the load – doing so solo, while also having to find or hold down a job, keep a roof over all your heads and put food on the table is a real achievement and one of which every single parent can be proud."

"Single parents – especially single mothers – have so frequently been the targets of suspicion and soundbite. The sofa-bound single mother in pursuit of housing benefit is a tabloid stereotype but one that bears little resemblance to the lives of most real life single mothers, comparatively few of whom actually chose their situation. One of the surest routes into single parenthood, after all, is divorce."

"My overriding memory of that time is the slowly evaporating sense of self-esteem, not because I was filing or typing – there was dignity in earning money, however I was doing it – but because it was slowly dawning on me that I was now defined, in the eyes of many, by something I had never chosen.  I was a Single Parent, and a Single Parent On Benefits to boot."

"According to a Gingerbread survey in 2011, 87% of single parents think there is a stigma around single parenthood that needs to be challenged and one in three say that they have personally experienced it.  I find the language of ‘skivers versus strivers’ particularly offensive when it comes to single parents, who are already working around the clock to care for their children.  Such rhetoric drains confidence and self-esteem from those who desperately want, as I did, to get back into the job market."

Interestingly Rowling views her efforts as a parent as her proudest achievement and she comes out strongly against the British Government's welfare reforms and their "skivers versus strivers rhetoric". She accuses ministers of having no idea of what it is like for those on benefits or low wages and describes "a disconnect" between decision makers and those on the receiving end.

New Zealand is ranked below the UK for child well being (we are 25th out of 34 developed countries) and the level of priority we give to the care of children is seen in the low status and pay of those who look after them. What Rowling has written is probably more pertinent to our situation and our Government needs to heed her concluding sentence:

"Government has the potential to change the lives, not just of single parents, but of a generation of children whose ambition and potential must not be allowed to dissipate in poverty."

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Importance of a Strong Third Party.

The Liberal Democrats have held their annual conference during my stay in the UK and it has been interesting to see how Nick Clegg has managed to put a good case forward for his party's continued existence. He claimed in his closing speech that the Lib Dems exist to put an end to the two party system. Clegg then proceeded to list the policies and legislation that the Conservatives had attempted to progress that they had blocked:
  • Inheritance tax cuts for millionaires
  • Bringing back O levels and a two tiered education system
  • Profit-making in schools
  • New childcare ratios
  • Firing workers at will, without reason
  • Scrapping housing benefits for young people
  • Ditching the Human Rights Act
  • Weakening protections in the Equalities Act
  • Closing down the debate on nuclear weapons
Smaller parties in any coalition tend to suffer from criticism that they are ineffective and lose support. Their own members are frustrated when important party policy cannot be progressed and they are blamed for not stopping the passing of unpopular legislation. From an outsider's perspective I feel that the Lib Dems have probably been quite effective at knocking the rough edges of a Conservative Government that could have caused more damage than it has. 

What is also remarkable is what the Lib Dems have managed to achieve with relatively few MPs. Britain still operates under a first past the post system, so that although the Lib Dems won 23% of the votes, it only provided them with 9% of the seats. Despite this Nick Clegg was made Deputy Prime Minister and they got 5 cabinet Ministers. 

One cannot make direct comparisons between the British and New Zealand political systems, because they are quite different, but Clegg's justification for a strong third party is still relevant for us. 

To all intents and purposes our National led Government has operated no differently from one under the old first past the post system. It has used and abused it's coalition partners to the extent that there has been little of their ideological agenda that they have not been able to achieve. They have paid off the Maori Party with political trinkets and baubles and John Banks and Peter Dunn were provided with large rubber stamps. We effectively have a party that won 47% of the vote imposing their ideology on 53% of the voting public who didn't support them.

A useful situation for New Zealand would be one that has a similar levels of support for our three largest parties as in Britian, but under MMP. If the Greens were to achieve over 20% of the vote as the third largest party it would mean that any future coalition Government would need a high level of collaboration and compromise. This would lead to legislation that is progressed with less haste and a higher level of scrutiny. It is also likely that more voters will be represented in the decision making process. 

In the UK the Lib Dems see themselves as the party that would be comfortable working with either Labour or the Conservatives but I don't see the New Zealand Green Party fulfilling the same role. Given National's philosophical positions regarding human rights and the environment, and our Labour Party's neoliberal past, I see Labour as New Zealand's future 'middle' party.

It will be up to New Zealand voters to decide if they want to support a two party system under MMP or fully embrace the idea of true representational governance that can be provided with a strong third party. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Small Businesses and Thriving City Centres

While Britain certainly has its share of chain stores and shopping malls (that seem the same no matter where you are) it is the old shopping centres, markets and small business owners that make shopping here an enjoyable experience.

Exploring the narrow streets and 'snickle ways' of York, Hull and Beverley has been full of surprises as the most amazing small businesses appeared before my eyes. Many exist in shops that are so small they barely hold more than a couple of customers at a time and some that extend through several stories of creaking wooden staircases.

Market squares are often full of colourful stalls selling everything from hats to olives and the same spaces have been used for this purpose for over 1000 years.

New Zealand will never have streets that could compete with the character of old Britain and our earthquake regulations are causing the loss of many of our old shop frontages, but it may be possible to develop a resurgence of small local enterprises.

Invercargill is in the process of redeveloping the central business area and the process has been a little haphazard and has not been able to provide a vision of a centre that has excited and inspired local rate payers and businesses. If people are to be pulled away from the large chain stores on the outskirts then there has to be a combination of inspired town planning and business innovation to attract people.

It has been disappointing that the sort of consultation and collaboration that could have been effective hasn't occurred and although a market area has been provided in the plan, there has been little meaningful communication between our farmers' market and the council. The market place, as set out in the plan, is not likely to be used by our market as it does not meet our needs and is not nearly as good as our present site.

Rather than developing a central gathering area that serves a number of purposes the Invercargill City Council has decided to keep the existing Wachner Place (which has never functioned well as a centre) and develop another area that is more central. Neither space will function as a gathering point and neither will do much to encourage community events or to support surrounding retailers.

Old towns in Britain were established in a time when markets and community hubs were important and cars had not been invented. It seems to me that in having to provide ease of access and parking for cars we have lost the ability to see how city centres can operate  and function without them and create far more interesting environments for both retailers and communities as a whole.

We also seem to have forgotten how trees, rivers and green spaces can enhance an urban environment. Our wide Invercargill streets are very car friendly but they have made the town appear more sterile and less people friendly. We could learn much about how we can live better in a modern world by remembering what works well in old English towns and what could make an attractive but functional city.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Transport Options, Sharing the Road

New Zealand has developed an aggressive car culture that becomes more obvious when one travels overseas. In New Zealand the majority of car drivers appear to believe that roads belong to them and woe betide any pedestrian who attempts to use a pedestrian crossing or cyclist who wishes to use the road as well.

On average 36 pedestrians are killed and around 1000 injured on New Zealand roads every year and many are killed or injured while legally using marked crossings. Every year around 10 cyclists will die through collisions with motor vehicles and about 300 will be hospitalised. Obviously for both pedestrians and cyclists there will be many more accidents that went unreported. Anti-cyclist views are common, and despite attempts to lay the blame on some cyclists' behaviour, only 23% of accidents involving bicycles and motorcars are the fault of the cyclist.

It is always a pleasant surprise when I spend time in England and experience a totally different attitude to road use. One would think that with a greater population, narrower roads and more congestion that impatience and intolerance would be more apparent, but it is not. I only have to approach a pedestrian crossing for cars to slow in anticipation that I may cross and cyclists are followed patiently along narrow roads until a safe opportunity to pass. After five days here I have yet to witness any sign of frustration from a motorist due to having to accommodate cyclists or pedestrians.

Yesterday I visited York and enjoyed walking around the ancient town where the centre was largely devoid of cars. Cars are actively discouraged in the central area and visitors to the city use the numerous 'park and ride' facilities. Car parking is free on the outskirts of the city and buses leave for the centre every ten minutes. The cost of the bus is a fraction of the cost of parking in most New Zealand cities.

Bicycle stands were everywhere in York and the majority of the bikes I saw were designed as transport rather than sport. Fold up bikes and baskets are common.

When recently reading a book on the history of Invercargill I discovered that even in the 1950's most people still chose to cycle to work and it was cyclists that had lobbied the City Council to get all the city roads sealed. New Zealand roads were never intended to be for cars alone.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The School Journal - Demise of an Icon?

The School Journal is the flagship publication of Learning Media and for most teachers is an essential resource for teaching and learning in the classroom. The School Journal began its life in 1907 when it was often the only reading material available in many schools. While the length of publication is probably highly unique, the content of the Journals are of a quality that is the envy of many countries.

Contributors to the Journal have included New Zealand's most highly regarded writers, poets, playwrights, artists and scientists. Primary School children have enjoyed poems by James K Baxter, plays by Roger Hall and illustrations by many of our most recognised artists such as Dick Frizzell. The School Journal has been able to celebrate the cultural diversity within New Zealand so that most children can read a story that will reflect their own experiences and also allow them to understand the lives of others. The School Journal has also supported all the learning areas including science, technology and the arts with well presented articles accessible to a range of age levels.

Learning Media has an international reputation as a publisher of quality educational material with a catalogue that extends beyond the journal. It has also provided professional development support for educators and consultancy services.

Quality always comes with a cost and Learning Media has struggled to be profitable. In justifying the closure of the 79 year old state owned company the Government has suggested that the incomes of the six senior managers were excessive ($160,000 to $270,000) and travel and accommodation costs for staff were an issue. Considering what the Government is prepared to pay private consultants in other areas it is likely that they just do not see publishing educational resources as a priority. I guess we could also compare the value Learning Media has provided to education to that of ex Secretary of Education, Lesley Longstone, who received $425,000 in severance pay (which was the equivalent of an extra $1,640 for each day she was in the job).

It may indeed be cheaper buy resources from other New Zealand Publishers and import material from overseas but it concerns me that the reason for disestablishing the  company is purely economic and there has been no evaluation of the quality of their material and services. Despite vague assurances that the School Journal will continue under another publisher, I wonder if the same level of expertise will be applied and the same quality achieved. We appear to be losing more and more of what made our education system unique and also what made it great.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Renewable Energy, What Others Are Doing.

I have just arrived in the UK and have had some interesting discussions with fellow travelers and have seen some interesting things since arriving.

I had a conversation with a young Chinese woman who is working in New Zealand. We talked about the differences between New Zealand and her home country and I was particularly interested in how her Government is approaching their energy crisis. China has experienced rapid economic growth that has been largely powered by coal driven power stations, while this has provided the energy needed to support development it has had severe environmental impacts. The Chinese Government has recognised the need to move to more environmental means of electricity production and is now leading the world in its manufacture of solar panels and other forms of renewable generation.

At a domestic level China has encouraged households to become self-sufficient in energy and the price of solar panels has become increasingly affordable. According to my traveling companion more and more households generate most of their own energy and are encouraged to feed any excess into the national grid. This seems to be a hugely successful initiative that not only reduces living costs for householders but may actually generate enough electricity to support the closure of some coal fired stations.

A similar scheme exists in the UK and, despite a recent cut in subsidies, to go solar is still an attractive proposition. The cost of the panels has dropped to the extent that the lowered subsidy has had little effect on the costs of installation and the quality and efficiency of the panels are improving. While traveling from London to Hull I observed the number of houses sporting solar panels had dramatically increased since I was here over two years ago.

I struggle to understand why a country as energy rich as New Zealand, and one that produces most of its energy needs through renewable sources, should actually  contemplate generating energy from coal (the Huntly Power Station even imports coal from Indonesia). While China and the UK have little choice but use polluting forms of power generation until they can convert to cleaner sources, they are obviously making a concerted effort to change.

New Zealand, on the other hand, has a flawed system that traps consumers into an increasingly costly system of supply. Consumer charges are based on the most expensive costs of production and there is little encouragement for households to become independent or potentially earn income from supplying to the National grid. We have an advantage in energy production that many countries would dream of having and have done little to exploit it. If managed properly our energy supply systems could provide huge economic advantages to both households and business, but instead it is used to generate government revenue to make up for short falls elsewhere.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Economics Behind the Living Wage

Labour's leadership competition has brought a renewed focus on the concept of a living wage and has created a clear difference between the National led Government and opposition parties.

The Government and many business interests claim that a living wage is unaffordable. Despite the unfair discrimination experienced by some groups (such as the female dominated sectors of care, cleaning and clerical work) it is claimed that in a supposed recession fairness is a luxury we can't afford. The fact that many of these underpaid women are also having to support families on their meagre wages (contributing to our shocking child poverty statistics) has become acceptable collateral damage while attempting to "balance the books".

According to the Herald and Statistics NZ almost 40% of all wage and salary earners are paid less than the living wage ($18.40). Over 700,000 workers are struggling on minimal wages and 270,000 children are being brought up in households experiencing poverty.

It was clearly revealed by the research supporting the The Spirit Level, that when great inequalities exist, everyone suffers. John Key estimated that establishing a living wage for all will cost the country $2.5 billion, this can be easily questioned when one considers the money that would be saved by introducing it.

Establishing a living wage for all would potentially save the Government:
  • $6 billion annually in child poverty related health and education costs.
  • $3 billion annual cost of the Working for families income supplement (or employer subsidy).
  • $1.2 billion annual cost of the accommodation supplement (or landlord subsidy).
  • $62 million in emergency food grants.
The total saved in government spending if most people earned a living wage could be over $10 billion dollars. Obviously when incomes increase so does the amount of tax paid. If 700,000 thousand people were each to earn $2 more per hour, it would contribute around $.5 billion in extra tax revenue. 

It is easy to work out where Key's $2.5 billion comes from because when I added $2 an hour to the incomes of 700,000 people, and estimated that they would work an average of 30 hours a week (given the number in part-time and casual jobs), I got a total figure of  about $2.2 billion. Obviously the cost of this increase will be shared by both the government and the private sector and businesses will benefit from increased spending in the domestic economy and the government will be paying less on benefits, and earning more in revenue. In the private sector the majority of workers paid the minimum wage are employed by large companies that are generally very profitable and increases in productivity over the years have not been reflected in wages. Many small and medium sized businesses already pay well above the minimum wage. A thorough cost benefit analysis of introducing a living wage may even produce a positive outcome.

The Government is prepared to spend $12 billion on roads that have failed economic analysis, yet is not prepared to even measure the extent and cost of poverty and what it would take to address it. Given that there would be huge benefits from establishing a living wage, and the economic costs are obviously not nearly as bad as claimed, it is clear that this Government has no real interest in improving the lives of struggling New Zealanders. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Planet Parata and the National Standards

Planet Parata is a very orderly little planet where everyone knows their place and Parata herself is royalty. The people of Planet Parata are very respectful to those who are royalty because they are born to rule. Rulers just know stuff that no one else can know, no matter what their education or experience the loyal subjects of Planet Parata understand that they will never have the intrinsic ability to know what's right and must always follow the directions of one who does.

The teachers on Planet Parata carry around their own personal copies of the National Standards and spend every free moment memorising every level and every sentence. This is the teachers' bible and they know that without National Standards no child will ever know how successful they are and no parent will know how their child compares with others. No one can understand how education ever functioned before National Standards existed, the very thought is unthinkable.

Literacy and numeracy are the basis for the National Starndards and are the most important subjects that teachers should teach. Rulers know that other subjects have their uses but can be dangerous if they are not controlled, especially science. Numeracy is especially useful when using money, while science can be dangerous because it can be used to stop the growth of money. The wrong kind of scientists will destroy our economy, especially when it involves studying dubious things like biodiversity and water conservation that have no economic purpose.

Data is a powerful word in Planet Parata. Without data it is impossible to know which are the successful schools and which teachers are performing well. Data can be used to make tables and graphs that can clearly show how our education system is performing. Before National Standards it was very hard to know which schools had high standards and which schools had low standards and now it is easy. Using just literacy and numeracy to assess and compare schools makes the process simple. It especially helps when assessments aren't clouded by wishy washy factors like inclusiveness and compassion, the real world does not recognise such concepts and they aren't good for business.

On Planet Parata every classroom has a portrait of Parata herself hanging on the wall. Her smiling face exudes benevolence and appears all knowing, it creates reassurance for all students that a ruler is watching over them and helping their teachers to understand the standards that they need to reach. The students know that achieving the standards will determine their future and the future of their teacher and their school, the standards are everything on Planet Parata. Long live the Standards!

Monday, September 2, 2013

State of the Nation 2017

The 2017 NBR Rich List revealed another good year for New Zealand's Wealthiest, for six straight years their wealth had seen a steady increase of between 10 and 20% a year. New Zealand now had eight billionaires, up from five in 2013.

The luxury car market continued to grow and and the property market bubble is still to burst, the average house price in Auckland topped $800,000 in the middle of the year.

After faltering in 2013 and losing several markets, Fonterra returned to similar profit levels and the expansion of dairying had benefited from the new irrigation schemes. The number of cows in New Zealand now totals 10 million (2 cows for every New Zealander), thanks to the changes to the RMA that allowed for the faster growth of the industry.

The redevelopment of Auckland's waterfront was almost complete in readiness for the America's Cup challenge the following year. The development had been assisted by the $80 million of Government funding.

Peter Jackson completed filming the second Discworld movie and three more are in the pipeline. Terry Pratchett's fantasy world had proved as popular as Tolkien's for Jackson. Warner Bros had agreed not to shift the filming to South Africa after the Government provided more tax breaks and tweaked employment laws again.

Bill English claimed that the Government was on track to balance the books in 2020 and stated that the economy had never been better. Umemployment had dropped to 8.5%, down from a high of 10.3% in 2016.

New Zealand's high dollar continued to provide challenges. 2017 saw a number of New Zealand manufacturers close and two shifted their production offshore with the loss of 5,000 jobs. The closure of the Tiwai Aluminium factory had proved particularly difficult and the value of Merdian shares were now half of their original price.

The Government agreed to double the budget for their "Food in Schools" scheme after the Children's Commissioner revealed that 350,000 children were now living in poverty.

Minister for Social Development Paula Bennett continued to defend her tough stance on child abuse despite a number of high profile cases (including a suicide) of people who had been wrongly accused. Bennett stated that despite the odd mistake the welfare of children was still more important. Since the policies had been implemented 10,300 children had been removed from dysfunctional and dangerous situations and put into state care. A number of large residential children's homes had been built to deal with the shortage of foster families.

The Government announced a 30 cent increase to the minimum wage bringing it to $15 dollars but refused to increase the youth rate. Bill English criticised opposition parties for not celebrating the increase to a level they had campaigned on some years before. Green Party MP, Denise Roche, claimed it was a pathetic increase when the living wage had recently been readjusted to $22 in light of the latest CPI release. Food banks around the country are struggling to meet demand as electricity prices soared and housing costs continued to rise. The cost of the Government's accommodation supplement topped $3 billion for the previous financial year.

The housing situation had been alleviated somewhat with the Government's container home initiative. 530 Christchurch families are now living in the 6 container 'estates' around the city and the 11 in Auckland house 1300 families. For the residents' own protection security fences surround all the estates and police patrols increased. Housing Minister Nick Smith claimed the container homes were just a temporary measure to deal with the housing shortage and denied that the sale of state houses was funding the scheme.

Aucklanders protested against the Government's decision to further delay the building of the rail loop. Gerry Brownlee's plans for two more motorways were considered a higher priority to deal with the growing traffic congestion around the city. The 30 cyclist deaths over the past year had been attributed to the growing popularity of cycling and an increase in road rage.

Concern at the state of New Zealand's water is growing with the flipping of Southland's Waituna lagoon and degradation of a number of estuaries. In a Q & A interview Prime Minister John Key claimed that dairying now provides 40% of our export earnings and that a lagoon at the bottom of the country, that few New Zealanders would ever likely to visit, was was of little consequence compared to the economic benefits provided by the dairy industry. "It's a choice between properly funding our schools and hospitals or cleaning a lagoon that no-one really knows about."

A number of environmentalists and scientist Mike Joy have been arrested for suspected terrorist activities. The communications of the group had been under surveillance for some time by the GCSB and some threats against the Government had been discovered in both email and Facebook messages. The Prime Minister voiced concern at the number of scientists and academics who were expressing extreme views and that there would be little tolerance for those who do.

The clean up following the oil leak from Shell's deep sea rig in the Great South Basin is ongoing. Shell has paid $10 million of the costs for the cleanup and the Government has paid $90 million so far. Yellow eyed penguin numbers have been halved.

Financial mismanagement and a number of serious complaints have plagued Partnership (Charter) Schools since their inception in 2014. The Government planned to spend another $10 million in support of the remaining 3 schools. Hekia Parata blamed education union NZEI for the failures.

Jacinda Ardern replaced Andrew Little as Labour Party leader and vowed to lead a strong campaign that would see her party become the second largest again. The Greens have held second position for over a year and had been polling in the mid 20s for most of that time. Since going into coalition with National, New Zealand First had rarely polled above 2% and Winston Peters had announced his retirement.