Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Shell NZ, it's all a gas

Ron Jager, Chairman of Shell New Zealand had a lengthy opinion piece in today's Southland Times (no link), where he claimed that natural gas has a bright future in New Zealand. Jager talks about his love for the New Zealand environment and the need to halve our green house gas emissions so that we can "avoid the impact of climate change". He explains how natural gas burns more cleanly than other fossil fuel and there is such an abundance of the stuff that we have around 250 years of supply (based on current consumption). Of course the Maui A platform, off the coast of Taranaki, has been operating without incident since 1979 and it is easy to think that continuing to extract gas from other sites won't be an issue either.

There may be an abundance of natural gas but the process of extracting it will no longer be as straight forward as Maui A. The next generation of gas extraction in New Zealand won't be from shallow sea platforms, but deep sea drilling in the Great South basin (over 1,300 metres rather than 100 metres) and fracking.  Research has shown that fracking is not as clean as it's promoted to be and the proceess leads to a high level of methane leakage.

Rather than follow the lead of countries like Germany and make serious steps at cutting emissions, our Government has decided to follow the worlds largest polluters and welcome the fossil fuel industry with open arms and our GHG emissions are increasing alarmingly. Despite all the green talk or green wash, the fossil fuel industry is going all out to extract a prehistoric energy source to feed their profits and shareholders in increasingly desperate situations. The resulting environmental damage is best seen in images:

Canada's tar sands reserves cover an area the size of France (around 140,000 km2) and is the most polluting source of fuel. 

Coal mining in the Hunter Valley, Australia, is doing irreparable damage to some of the best arable land in the country.

Fracking in the US and Australia is having a serious impact on farming and livestock and Australian farmers formed the "Lock the Gate" movement in a attempt to keep frackers off their properties.

Accidents through serious oil leaks are having a devastating effect on natural environments. While Shell lays on the greenwash here, their reputation in Nigeria isn't that great. 

A Chevron drilling accident off the coast of Brazil that released the equivalent of 2,400 barrels of oil into the sea, an event that will become more common as deep sea drilling grows.

Coal-fired power stations are still being built around the world

Many cities in developing nations have massive air pollution problems because of coal power stations and fossil fueled industries that are having to produce products to meet the consumer demand in the Western world.  

According to Naomi Klein in her latest book 'This Changes Everything' the lobbying power of oil and gas companies is immense. It is not that there is a lack of alternatives to fossil fuel, it is the dominance of oil companies (6 out of the ten highest earning companies are in the oil industry) that is able to block any attempts to curb their activities.  We need to stop these real threats to our future on this planet and New Zealand, as one of the highest emitters per capita in the world, needs to take a leading role. The alternatives to fossil fuel exist and the technology is improving dramatically:

Wind Lens turbines.

Germany now produces more electricity than it needs partly due to the increase in domestic photovoltaic installations.

A number of self sufficient, zero emission skyscrapers are being built around the world and super efficient houses are now easy to construct.

All we need is the determination and the will! 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Terrorist Threat Increases Alarmingly!

The terrorism threat is mounting in New Zealand, the Prime Minister claims there are up to 40 people here who are capable of repeating the sort of action tragically experienced in Sydney. New Zealand's terrorist threat has has been upgraded from very low to low. Legislation has been passed under urgency to provide greater powers to the SIS to allow surveillance without a warrant for 24 hours. The threat of the Islamic State is seen to be greater than any terror organisation existing in the Middle East prior to this. The Government has put all its energies into protecting us from the danger of IS related activities and the increased surveillance capacity will hopefully protect us in our new low risk environment.

There have been 3 deaths in New Zealand over the past 60 years because of terrorist acts and they all occurred over 30 years ago. Two perpetrators were New Zealanders and the other was a friendly state. In 1982 a local "Punk Rock" anarchist blew himself up when trying to destroy the police computer in Wanganui; in 1984 Ernie Abbot, the caretaker of the Wellington Trades Hall, was killed by a bomb placed by a yet to be identified terrorist; and Fernando Pereira was killed when the Rainbow Warrior was bombed by the French Foreign Intelligence Service in 1985. There have been no deaths from terrorism since, despite ongoing conflict in the Middle East and our own military involvement.

The SIS hasn't had a great record in identifying terrorists in the past. Green MP Keith Locke was spied on from the age of 11 years because it was felt he was a threat to the state, Ahmed Zaoui was also thought to be a terrorist and an actual terrorist act on the Rainbow Warrior was missed completely by the SIS and was cleaned up by the police. The Urewera terror raids in 2007 on Maori activists and Save Happy Valley protestors ended up with a few minor firearms charges and all involved are back with their families.

The threat of terrorism has been communicated with a high level of concern from our Prime Minister, but perhaps there are much greater threats to ordinary New Zealanders. According to the Women's Refuge 14 women, 6 men and 10 children are killed by a family member each year (on average). 5,000 people die every year because of tobacco use and second hand smoke and in 2012 93 people died because of drivers influenced by alcohol.

In 2011 the Government cut funding to the Women's Refuge by $800,000. This organisation provides the most support for those suffering from domestic violence across the county. The Government has put a hold on plain packaging for cigarettes and we now have two Government MPs who were once employed by tobacco company Philip Morris. The New Zealand Law Commission provided the Government with recommendations on how to reduce the harm from alcohol consumption and only a few were implemented.

Despite the Government's reluctance to deal effectively with the 5,123 people who die each year because of family violence, alcohol and tobacco, at least terrorism is regarded a lot more seriously. We can sleep safely in the knowledge that IS related madmen won't attack us in our homes and John Key and his team of merry spies are watching over us.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Government Given the Bums Up!

From the North to the South, in fine weather and foul, Tim Groser and his Government got the bums up from New Zealanders. The nationwide Heads in the Sand protest today provided a physical expression of our concern that climate change deserved greater attention. Our Government Ministers need to get their heads out of the sand on this issue.


Mission Bay

West Auckland

Browns Bay








Fossil fuels are destroying our future!

This Government is committing ecocide!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Head in Sand Leadership is Driving NZ

The Southland Times described a report from the New Zealand Initiative (NZI) claiming mining was the key to rural prosperity. Although listing a range of extractable minerals this appallingly ignorant report strongly supports coal and lignite mining as the road to rural prosperity.

The New Zealand Initiative is being disingenuous in its claims that mining will benefit rural communities. There are very few mining communities in New Zealand that are prosperous and the nature of extractive industries is that they have a finite life and generally cause negative social and environmental outcomes. In using Australia as an example of the benefits of mining The NZI ignores the damage caused to Australia's rural communities. Australian farmers are leading the protests against coal mining and fracking with the Lock the Gate movement.

The well researched document Jobs after Coal explains the social and environmental consequences of coal mining and its chequered history as an industry. The NZI report only focused on the short-term earning potential and, based on past experience, much of the profits gained from any mining industry are not invested back into the local community. Most mining companies operating in our country (despite their names often including the words 'New Zealand') are actually overseas owned.

The NZI report also includes support for a dismantling of the RMA to allow for easier access to our minerals. Given the negative impacts that mining generally has on the communities they operate in, it is extremely important that a solid process is used to determine those impacts and full consultation occurs. New Zealand already has a reputation of being one the easiest countries in the world to do business in. Our Government's willingness to subsidise and encourage fossil fuel extraction was given special mention in a brief economic overview of our country in a recent issue of The Economist: ..."the offer of oil concessions will please investors" (The World in 2015, The Economist).

Our New Zealand Government is obviously influenced more by the likes of the narrow corporate interests represented in NZI than our climate scientists and local business people who are focused on a more sustainable future. NZI members are dominated by banks and investment companies and the New Zealand influence is debatable when it includes an odd mix of powerful multinationals, including BP and Imperial Tobacco.

Many of our most successful business people make up the Pure Advantage alliance and yet their championing of benefits of the green economy and our long-term sovereign interests are being actively ignored. It is hugely embarrassing to many of us who are concerned about the fate of our planet and future generations that our Government is not prepared to engage and promote those views.

At this very moment in Lima, the nations of the world are pledging huge reductions in green house gas emissions, the EU is aiming for a 40% reduction and the US is talking about reductions close to 30%. Per capita New Zealand is one of the worlds worst polluters and yet Tim Groser withdrew New Zealand from the second Kyoto commitment announced that a paltry 5% reduction by 2020 is the best that we can do.

What I have described provides a good background to the event that I am helping to organise this Sunday, the Invercargill Heads in the Sand protest. A good number of us are meeting on Oreti beach to demonstrate our frustration at our Government's active refusal to logically engage with the real concerns about climate change. Oreti beach is best known for the fossil fueled dreams of one Burt Munro but this Sunday, from 11:30 am, it is our climate that will be our focus.

Similar protests are occurring on Sunday around the country.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Government Responsible for Invercargill Poverty

Invercargill provides a good snapshot of New Zealand society. We are a city of around 51,000 people and have a breadth of industries to support our local economy. Within our wider province we have an aluminium smelter, New Zealand's largest dairy factory, a number of exporting manufacturers and the region earns about 12% of our national export income with only 3% of the population. We also have a highly successful tertiary institution in the Southern Institute of Technology (SIT) that pulls in overseas students and provides a wide range of courses to lift the qualifications and skills of our local workforce. Venture Southland is proactive in promoting the region and leading research and development to grow a more sustainable local economy.

We are also ethnically diverse with growing Maori and Pasifica populations and many immigrant workers. We have an unemployment rate that is similar to the national average of just above 5%.

I recently wrote a post about inequality and income distribution in Invercargill based on the previous decile ratings of our school communities. Those ratings were based on the 2006 census and I thought I would do a reassessment based on the new ratings that have been revised using the 2013 census.

One would expect that the income distribution in a highly productive community, with such low unemployment, would fit the familiar bell curve. Most households should be earning good incomes, a very small group struggling financially and a similarly small group that are very affluent. This isn't the case.

Out of 28 school communities 11 have a 1-3 decile rating and despite strong economic growth in the region over the past three years we have a decile 1 school for the first time since 2006. Our very poorest have got poorer. 9 schools have a decile 4-7 rating but 3 of these are decile 4 and only 1 is decile 7. We now have 8 schools that are rated in the affluent decile 8-10 group (down one from 2006).

The median income from all sources for those of working age in Invercargill is only $27,400. Only 23.5% of us earn more than $50,000 and almost 37% earn less than $20,000. A living wage is currently estimated at 18.80 an hour to give an income that would allow workers to "live in dignity and to participate as active citizens in society". This comes out at $39,000 annually for 40 hour weeks over a full year. Given our statistics probably around 60% of Invercargill people eligible to work do not earn a living wage.

I believe that Invercargill people and the Southland region are doing more than our share to support the national economy and to try and stand on our own feet. It is central Government that has failed us. Our hospital is underfunded and in crisis, we have had no social housing built since the 90s, our road funding has been cut, local state sector staff have been cut (DoC and the IRD) and the cost of electricity has caused energy deprivation for many. We no longer have any emergency housing for those in desperate need and there are plans to sell off most of our existing state housing (the money generated is unlikely to be injected back into our community).

As with the rest of New Zealand there are more early childhood centres and aged care facilities being built and the service industry is growing. Despite creating more employment the developers of many of these new businesses are subsidised by our taxes but most only pay the minimum wage to their workers to maximise returns.

John Key claimed on election night that he was going to work for all New Zealanders, he hasn't up till now and he has given no indication of when that work will begin. Meanwhile inequality grows and the future for most Invercargill people (especially children) under this Government is looking bleak.

John the Don and the Family

Head of Dark Ops (Jason Ede

The Hit Man (Cameron Slater, father John Slater)

Corporate operative  (Carrick Graham, father Doug Graham )

One of the family (Judith Collins)

Slater was then asked what he would do about Collins' resignation. He said: "I always give back double" and "Judith always gives back double"

You don't mess with the family!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Five Reasons Why John Key Should Resign

There are many reasons why the Prime Minister John Key should resign, but here are five:
  1. It is unbecoming and unethical for our Head of Government to continue to have a personal and ongoing relationship (txt conversations) with a discredited 'shock jock' attack blogger who calls his blog 'Well I'll Be Fucked' (English translation).
  2. It is untenable that our Prime Minister accepts the word of a discredited blogger over that of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security in suggesting that parts of her official report are contestable.
  3. Deliberately misleading the House is a serious offense and the Prime Minister has been caught out previously for this. His denial that he had any recent contact with Cameron Slater was patently dishonest. It also appears that he only made the subsequent correction when Cameron Slater himself revealed that he had been communicating with him.
  4. The Prime Minister is the Minister directly responsible for his own office and the SIS and to continually deny his role in overseeing the culture and activities of both is unacceptable. Jason Ede was working under his direction and the culture of using public officials to discredit the opposition is unethical and occurred under his leadership. 
  5. Key has led a Government dogged by unethical behaviour and conflicts of interest, resulting in many Ministers resigning. Under his Government there has been a breakdown of democratic process and a manipulation of government resources for political advantage. This has caused the likes of Dame Anne Salmond to voice public concern about the state of our democracy.
We expect our Prime Minister to use his office and authority in the best interests of all New Zealanders. We have the expectation that our Prime Minister is honest and transparent about his intentions and activities. We rely on our Prime Minister to be fair and impartial in his dealings with New Zealanders at all levels and sectors of our society. We expect our Prime Minister to operate in a manner that is respectful of the office he has been elected to and that his conduct is always honorable and ethical.

John Key has failed to meet the basic expectations we have of his office, he should resign!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

John Key's Immoral Governance

I was in Wellington last weekend, alternating between spending time with my two student children and attending our Green Party executive meeting. Being with intellectually engaged and compassionate people was a useful foil to the depressing events that hit me over the past few days.

The first event was a discovery that I made by chance during a debate with some rightwing climate change deniers. In response to their claims that the 97% of scientists who are in agreement about the human influence of climate change are just part of a huge conspiracy for their own personal gain, I looked at the potential influence of oil and gas companies. I discovered that in a list of companies with the largest revenue in the world, oil and gas fill 6 of the top 10 places (17 oil and gas companies in the top 40). There are also five automative companies in the top 40 and each of these companies earn hundreds of billions every year. The smallest of these companies has an income about 50% greater than the New Zealand Government. No wonder most Governments struggle to cut carbon emissions and those few questioning the science have strong financial backing.

Considering the immensity of the climate change issue, and the urgency with which we need to act, unless we can counter the considerable power of the oil and gas industry little will be achieved. Our Government has opened its arms to the oil and gas industry and has given up much of our land and territorial seas to exploration, short term gain is more important than the health of the planet. There will be no attempt to restrict the recovery of fossil fuels under a John Key led Government.

The next event was catching a late showing on TV of Inside Job, the award winning 2010 documentary narrated by Matt Damon that described the systemic corruption of the United States by the financial services industry that led to the Great Recession. The blatant greed and callous disinterest in the suffering caused to ordinary people by those leading the investment companies and banks was horrific. Of course most were bailed out and those behind the corruption and inevitable collapse of the financial sector are still in leadership roles and many have been employed by successive US Presidents, including Obama.

What struck me again when watching Inside Job was that our own Prime Minister came from that culture (Merrill Lynch) and while he wasn't working for them during the crucial years before the recession, he was still involved in an industry driven by short term thinking and instant profits. Compassion has no part in this industry where only the fittest survive and those surplus to requirements are disposed of quickly. Key thrived in this environment and his reputation for a having relaxed manner despite a ruthless approach to his work caused him to be labeled the 'Smiling Assassin'. Key's calculating, almost mercenary approach to his leadership has a history and he has brought these skills to his role of Prime Minister.

Key has generally managed to distance himself publicly from much of the grubby activities that have been going on within his Government but it is obvious that his modus operandi from his Merrill Lynch days is still in operation. It is also clear that the command centre for National's dirty tactics is the PM's own office and, despite his denials, Key is probably orchestrating a good deal of it himself.

Since the September election opposition parties have had to cut staff numbers because the Government of the day sets the budget for their resourcing and there has been no funding increase since 2007. Over the same period the vote within the budget for the Prime Minister's Office and cabinet has increased over 100%.

For the 2008/9 financial year the overview of the vote for the PM's Office and Cabinet included $8.5 million for the likes of free and frank advice, inter-departmental coordination and policy development and domestic and external security. For the 2013/14 financial year the vote for the PM's Office and Cabinet has been broken up into new sections, presumably to allow the increases to be less obvious. The free and frank advice, inter-departmental coordination and policy development gets $4.17 million and secretariat services to the cabinet, cabinet committees and the executive council gets $4.47 million. What has increased most dramatically is an area of the vote that was modestly funded before and now gets $8.76 million. This money goes to what is described as:
"leadership, advice, coordination around national security matters, leading collaboration within the New Zealand intelligence community, managing the National Cyber Policy Office and providing assessments to support national security."

Twice as much is being spent on supporting this Government's intelligence and spying capacity than policy development and governance of the various departments and ministries that provide support and services for New Zealanders. John Key is not motivated by improving the lives of less fortunate, but he does appear to enjoy the adrenalin rush of attack politics and scoring points over the opposition. His braying and gloating performances in Parliament, as he ends many of his answers with personal attacks, is something he actually appears to enjoy. It is also clear that his personality is more suited to the dirty politics culture of attack bloggers than the dignity and diplomacy expected of a Prime Minister. Those who Key corresponds with personally via txts are not New Zealand's wise heads like historian Dame Anne Salmond or award winning scientist, Dr Mike Joy, but Cameron Slater.

In John Key we have a Prime Minister who is spending more time and money on controlling the opposition to his ethically challenged Government than on developing good policy for the benefit all New Zealanders. For him, being remembered for changing the design of our flag means more than saving our environment and lifting 25% of our children out of poverty. Attack bloggers and corporate lobbyists always have his ear and the plight of those struggling to find a home while working on unlivable wages do not. We have a Prime Minister who is driven by maintaining power and control, by any means, rather than service and compassion.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

School Deciles, Another crisis for Parata mess with?

The school decile system came about as a way of creating a level playing field for school funding across different school communities. It was accepted that Government funding, through the operations grant, never actually covers all operational costs. Donations and fundraising activities in each school community were still necessary to make up a shortfall. Obviously affluent communities are more able to raise those extra funds and poorer communities struggle and this needed to be addressed.

The decile rating of a school is based on data from the national census and looks at household incomes, occupations, household crowding, educational qualifications and those receiving income support. Despite some inaccuracies that occur, like the percentage of students who may come from outside the school area, the system has been broadly effective at identifying the wealth of a school community. Despite decile 1 schools getting a much larger amount of funding, however, research has shown that higher decile schools still receive around $1,000 a year more per student after donations and fundraising is included.

The decile rating was normally reviewed every five years but because of the Christchurch earthquake the 2011 census was delayed by a couple of years. The seven year wait for the decile rating review has meant that many more schools experienced a decile change than usual and some of the funding drops have been substantial.

The obvious angst experienced by those schools experiencing a funding cut, and some of the anomalies exposed, has provided the Minister of Education a great opportunity to propose a change. A review of the decile system isn't unreasonable, especially when it has been inappropriately used by many as an indication of the quality of the school. Currently in Southland some of our highest decile schools are under commissioners for issues around management and governance and many of our lower decile schools have excellent ERO reviews. The socio-economic status of a school should not be a judgement on the management of a school or quality of teaching.

I am worried that Hekia Parata may use concerns about the decile system to make changes that may actually deliver worse outcomess. No matter how much some schools may suffer when their decile rating moves, the system does attempt to address inequity in a relatively fair and independent manner. As stated earlier, inequity is only partially addressed through the decile system and could actually be more effective if even more money was provided to low decile schools because, under current funding provisions, high decile schools are still better off. I believe the decile funding system should be retained, but applied in such a way that the classifications of schools couldn't be misconstrued as a judgement of quality.

The other avenue where funding should be directed is to the needs of individual children. I recently taught at a Decile 3 school that had become a magnet for children with disabilities and also had a good number of immigrant children for whom english was a second language. Decile ranking doesn't really take into account elements not related to socio-economic backgrounds. Special Education support funding has been cut back and the threshold for accessing ORS funding is now so high that many children with very high needs struggle to get specialist support and schools with high numbers of children just below the threshold have to work very hard to accommodate them. Schools in wealthy communities and private schools also capture a disproportionate amount of special education funding and students in low decile schools, who are often more deserving, miss out.

Hekia Parata's track record in addressing real needs within the education system makes worrying reading: attempting to close down schools catering for special needs, her government's blatant support for private schools and privately managed Charter Schools and attempting to save money by reducing teacher numbers.

Parata has also suggested using National Standards data as a means for targeting funding and it will be interesting to see how she will choose to do this. The most logical way of doing this would be to give the schools with the lowest achievement greater resources, but this could be counter productive if recording lower achievement provided financial benefits. The most likely scenario would be to employ commissioners, or such like, to intervene in schools deemed 'under-performing' which fits the bullying style of governance we have come to expect.

There is also the spectre of Parata's IES policy which will see clusters of schools operating under the leadership of a Ministry appointed Executive Principal. The potential to change the funding model through this may actually be her plan. There may be financial incentives for low decile schools to join clusters and therefore erode the current deadlock where most primary schools are refusing to engage.

After six years under a National Government, one thing is certain, its initiatives are unlikely to meet the needs of the most deserving schools and children.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Who's left to blame?

National Ministers had three main excuses for poor outcomes and extensive borrowing: the Labour Government's prior mismanagement, the global economic crisis and the Christchurch earthquake. All of these excuses have now become historical, it is six years since Labour was in office, the economic crisis was well and truly over for New Zealand three years ago (we never suffered as much as most in the OECD) and the earthquake can no longer be counted as a deficit when the rebuild is a large part of our economic recovery. From now on the buck must stop with the current Government.

Over the last six years the National Government has had some clear priorities where they have made substantial investments:
The Government's motorway projects generally come out poorly in cost benefit analysis, the tax cuts to the wealthy did not result in any trickle down but contributed to higher spending in luxury items and corporate welfare often props up failing companies. The Government has also invested heavily into supporting the oil and gas industry, promoting coal mining and subsidising carbon emissions through the dismantled ETS.

National Governments are ideologically driven to shrink the size of government and shift as much as possible to private providers so that solutions to many social problems are left to market forces (with reduced regulation). National's ideology has been so dominant that they have been prepared to ignore evidence and advice and manipulate or hide data to progress their agenda. The cuts to the state sector have also reduced the quality of advice and resulted in bullying cultures

I believe that the National Party only really planned to be a two term Government and now that they have been elected for a further three years they will have to face the consequences of past decisions. Their chickens are coming home to roost and fudging data can only hide the physical realities of poor policy for so long. Since re-election the stress of the underfunding of core services is being revealed:
  • Our Universities have dropped in world rankings as government funding per student has dropped in real terms.
  • Our DHBs have reached crisis point and are having to cut basic services. Even the briefing to the incoming Minister of Health makes serious recommendations: '...unless the health and disability system changes its approach, government will need to spend a much higher percentage of GDP on health services (which will crowd out other government activity or consumption), or reduce access to services, or require patients to pay a greater share of costs."
  • The lack of investment in building lower cost housing has culminated in a severe shortage of social housing. The poor quality of many rentals and future housing demand (113,800 houses needed in next 15 years) needs urgent attention. There are around 43,000 people currently waiting to be properly housed and the average waiting time for applicants has grown to over three years under this Government.
  • The majority of New Zealanders have seen their incomes stagnate over recent years and at $28,500 our median income has not kept up with the increasing costs of housing, electricity and food. The growing inequality within our society is seen as CEO's continue to get massive salary increases (ANZ's CEO now earns more in a day than many New Zealanders can earn in a year).
  • Government Debt continues to climb and all the positive economic predictions can't hide the fact that the Government is continuing to spend far more than it earns (around $15 billion a year). 

John Key's claim of making "a brighter future for all New Zealanders" is looking increasingly hollow as his Government's spending and policy priorities have delivered little for most of us. There is no one else left to blame for a lack of vision, a failing ideology and poor quality investments.

The buck now stops with you, John!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Preventive or Preventing Health Care?

The front page article in the Southland Times today hit me at a personal level. Some years ago I became aware that I was passing blood and after a visit to my GP, was referred for an exploratory colonoscopy. As it turned out there was nothing seriously wrong with me but it was hugely reassuring that I could cross off bowel cancer (especially as I was in the danger zone of over 50).

The Southland region has the highest rate of bowel cancer in New Zealand, with New Zealand having one of the highest rates in the world. Despite these horrifying statistics a third of all GP referrals for colonoscopies in Southland have been recently rejected by the DHB.  At a public meeting a GP voiced his concern, "I send a patient, more than one, they are over 70, losing weight, blood in stool, and they still can't get a colonoscopy."

If I had had presented with my previous symptoms in today's environment it is unlikely that I would have been granted an exploratory procedure and would have had to go private to gain piece of mind. It must be hugely worrying for patients whose symptoms are concerning enough for their GP to request a colonoscopy, but then have the procedure refused. If a patient had limited financial means there would be no other way of getting support unless their health substantially deteriorated and by that stage the opportunity for early treatment would be lost. More than 100 New Zealanders die from bowel cancer every month and if detected early there is a 75% chance of successful treatment.

This Government is very skilled at manipulating data and love to talk up the fact that waiting times for medical procedures are dropping. What isn't widely understood is that huge numbers are removed from waiting lists for arbitrary reasons to create the impression of quicker turnover times. For colonoscopies in Southland, removing a third of referred patients from the list will not improve health outcomes but creates an impression of improved efficiency.

For a Government to knowingly manipulate data and deny New Zealanders timely treatment isn't acceptable from health or economic perspectives. It is far less expensive to treat the early stages of cancer than deal with a patient who has a terminal condition. Preventive health gives a far greater return on investment and cutting funding from this area of the health budget is short sighted and will have huge economic ramifications in the end.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

National's Conservation Dance, The Blue Green Spin

National’s top five conservation achievements are part of a new dance called the Blue Green Spin, one step forward, a quick twirl and three steps back:

1) National has created seven new marine reserves and we now have 9.5% of our territorial seas brought into reserves and sanctuaries (one step forward). Quick twirl. The Government has opened up much of our territorial waters for oil exploration, including our Maui's Dolphin sanctuary. Michael Field's book The Catch reveals the need to properly manage the fishing industry to stop the human and environmental exploitation currently occurring (three steps back). 

2) 2500 km of a national cycleway have been completed and $100 million proposed to accelerate cycling in urban areas (one step forward). Quick twirl. The NZTA has only a small handful of people employed to support cycling. The Government is continuing with their $13 billion motorway development and the amount being spent to support public transport is a tiny fraction of the transport budget. We are well behind Europe with our support of cycling in our urban areas and even in the car dominated US many cities have introduced safe cycling routes (three steps back).

3) Spending $30 million on the use of 1080 to control pests in over a million hectares of conservation land (one step forward). Quick twirl. It is just a pity that the ongoing work of the Department of Conservation has been greatly limited by huge budget cuts. The $30 million spent on pest control should be regarded in context of around $70 million cut from DoCs budget since 2008 and the hundreds of DoC employees losing their jobs. Simon Bridges has been enthusiastically opening up huge conservation areas for mining exploration without any appreciation of the areas involved (three steps back).

4) The Government is spending around $6.5 million a year over the next four years to support 'community led' conservation around New Zealand (one step forward). Quick twirl. New Zealand has one of the highest levels of volunteering in the world but there is growing concern that the Government is relying too much on good will and dedicated people who put the environment and the welfare of others before themselves. The founder of KidsCan, Julie Chapman, has voiced concern that she was having to do what the Government should be doing. The $27 million to be spent encouraging volunteers to do conservation work will be replacing, to a large extent, the $70 million cut from employing properly trained people. Those volunteering feel passionate about what they do and will be working long hours doing unpaid work at what can be a personal cost to themselves (three steps back).

5) $350 million being spent on cleaning up waterways and $100 million to retire land next to important waterways (one step forward). Quick twirl. Fresh water quality is actually declining according to most scientists and more is being spent on expanding dairy farming, the leading cause of much of our water pollution. We are growing our dairy herds faster than we can manage the environmental effects. Considering the average dairy farm is now worth around $10 million, $100 million won't retire a lot of farmland (three steps back).

The Blue Green Spin is a backwards moving dance that causes all those involved to run out of space and eventually have their backs against the wall. It looks attractive for a time but quickly ends when there is no more room for movement. There is no recovery when our Maui's Dolphins become extinct, important conservation land is permanently damaged through mining and our native fish are lost forever. It costs much less to say no to environmentally damaging industries than spend huge amounts to try and repair the resulting damage afterwards. I, for one, don't want to dance to this National Government's tune. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

John Key's Housing Legacy

"I think that if we are going to reform the world, and make it a better place to live in, the way to do it is not with talk about relationships of a political nature, which are inevitably dualistic, full of subjects and objects and their relationship to one another; or with programs full of things for other people to do. I think that kind of approach starts at an end and presumes the end is the beginning. Programs of a political nature are important end products of social quality that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right."

Robert Maynard Pirsig, Zen and  the art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)

If we applied Pirsig's approach to housing policy in New Zealand there would be an ongoing focus on lifting the quality of life for all New Zealanders, with a strong focus on equity. This is the expectation in much of Europe where quality housing is seen as an essential element in the quality of life for citizens. The success of each succeeding generation is dependent on the environment that they are brought up in and housing is a large factor in this. Children spend much of their important formative years in their home and the health of our working population is dependent on the conditions they live in. There is social and economic value in good housing and where there is a continuous cycle of improvement.

Michael Joseph Savage understood the wider benefits of good housing and used his Christian values and 'Applied Christianity' to progress change. Savage and his Government were determined to address inequity and lift many New Zealanders out of fairly dire living conditions. The state houses of the 30s and 40s were designed and built to standards that were considered high quality at the time and the fact that these same houses still make up over 40% of current HousingNZ stock (70 years later) is testimony to their construction and design. These state houses have become a New Zealand icon and became Savage's enduring legacy.

John Key and his Government have been aware of the issues around housing ever since they first came to power in 2008 and the Department of Building and Housing identified and described many of the key housing issues in their 2009/10 report. They effectively sat on the problem for six years until the issue could no longer be ignored. Overcrowding, ill health and homelessness have now developed into a highly visible crisis. The Salvation Army estimates that 1 in every 120 New Zealanders is now effectively homeless (35,800 people) and around 50% of those who rent claim the condition of their house negatively effects their health. Housing New Zealand has 5,600 people on waiting lists who are in desperate need of support (at risk) or have a serious housing need. This is appalling for a resource rich, first world country with a relatively small population.

New Zealand's housing market is is not driven by social values but in producing a good return on investment. For property developers and investors social housing is not a good source of captital gain. The low to average income earner does not have a lot of disposable income and renting to low income families is only really profitable if the houses being rented have relatively low value (in an overheated market) and tenants can tap into the accommodation supplement. There is no incentive for bringing a poor quality rental up to a reasonable standard if there is no financial advantage or requirement to do so. The Government currently spends over $2 billion a year to subsidise landlords and there is no expectation that the houses provided have to meet minimum standards. There are very few new houses currently being built to meet the the demand for low cost housing and the general standard of cheaper privately owned rentals is probably dropping.

The Government's initial solutions were to blame councils for not making more land available to developers and to claim that over regulation was restricting the building of low cost housing. Key and his Ministers ignored the fact that in many situations land was available and land banking and nimbyism was common. Past reductions in building regulations has had disastrous consequences, so any changes to the RMA and consenting processes need to be carefully considered to avoid a repeat of past deregulations.

Rather than lead the provision of social housing to ensure a high level of urgency and assurance of quality, the Government is taking the opposite approach by devolving responsibility of social housing to private interests and NGOs. The Salvation Army and other providers of social support are unlikely to have the finances to purchase or build large numbers of social housing and even if they did buy existing state houses at a discounted price, the maintenance and upkeep will be a financial drain. All the government will be doing will be to shift the responsibility of existing state provision to other providers with more limited means and it won't increase the overall numbers of available houses.

While there is money to be made servicing the needs of the wealthy and retirees, there is little money to made from social housing. If a developer did build housing for low income earners it is unlikely that quality would be a large consideration in their construction. I can imagine a 'build them cheap and pack them in' approach will be used. The Hobsonville Point development was initially going to include 100 lower cost homes amongst the 3,000 planned, but this was reduced to a mere 17. Integrating social housing into new developments will be problematic if we are going to rely on private developers and market forces.

If John Key completes his third term as Prime Minister in 2017 his legacy will probably be 9 years of growing housing inequity and a steady decline of the quality and numbers of low cost and social housing. Given current trends it is likely that over 40,000 people will be homeless by then and fewer New Zealanders will own their own home. Changing our flag appears to be Key's main priority and exposes his lack of compassion and the shallowness of his vision.