Friday, January 31, 2014

Key Flags a Clever Distraction

The National party has started 2014 with pockets full of cash, mirrors and a smoke machine. Their intention is obviously to wrong foot the opposition with a mix of left field initiatives and out of the blue distractions. The circus is in town and the flags are flying.

Key's State of the Nation speech included a substantial education spend of $359 million. Despite international assessments and most research indicating that that it is socio-economic factors that are the largest determiners of educational achievement, National have stuck fast to their neo-liberal roots and decided that providing financial incentives to teachers will make the most difference. They plan to identify top teachers and principals and pay them up to $50,000 a year extra to sort out failing schools and struggling teachers. National is sticking fast to National Standards and these are likely to be used to select those individuals who will be rewarded with the money and leadership roles. It is also likely that progress will also be determined by the PaCT tool that was to be mandated as a national test but was reluctantly left as optional when the profession refused to have one test dominating assessment.

National's education ideas may make some difference in some situations but putting all the eggs in one basket seems unrealistic when you put it in the context of a struggling child. According to Women's Refuge police attend 200 domestic violence situations a day and yet police estimate only 18% of domestic violence incidents are reported. Around 75,000 children and young people under 17 witnessed domestic violence situations attended by police and if these are under-reported it means well over 100,000 experience considerable stress in their homes.

The Children's Commissioner was so concerned that the Government refused to measure child poverty that he instigated his own report. He found levels of poverty had remained fairly static since 2008 but there has been an increase in hospital admissions of children, with asthma/wheeze, bronchiolitis and gastroenteritis being the most common causes. Those from the most deprived situations were 6.1 times more likely to be hospitalized and ethnic differences were more pronounced in 2012 compared to the year 2000.

The housing situation is worsening for many children and has probably contributed to the increase in hospitalization. According to the Salvation Army Auckland is short of 10,000 homes and up to 110,000 homes across New Zealand are leaking. Many more houses are poorly insulated and maintained and there is no warrant of fitness for houses that are privately rented. Despite variable quality, housing is actually too expensive for around 25% of households to afford without Government assistance.

According to the Government's own flawed National Standards results, decile levels fairly accurately predict levels of achievement, yet for some obscure reason this Government believes that all the thousands of children dealing with poor housing, poor health and struggling parents will have their needs met by a Change Principal or Lead Teacher with a substantial allowance.

After sorting out education the National led Government turned to the environment and promised to spend $20 million on eradicating pests from our conservation estate. Initially it sounded impressive until it was revealed that the money will largely come from DoCs current, and already stretched budget. Also the areas receiving the 1080 applications are still only a fraction of what needs to be covered if any lasting impact were to be achieved.

In a sneaky move to stop people looking too closely at National's plans, John Key threw in a highly effective distraction when he reintroduced the idea of a new flag. It is actually almost too late to include as a referendum attached to the election and the timing of the announcement seems strategic rather than genuine.

John Key and his government are skilled at putting on a great circus show full of hype, glitter and slick promotion, but with very little substance. Sadly it is costing us a lot to be the audience and many have been taken in by the illusions.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Green's Practical Response to Educational Inequities

I have recently returned from the education conference "Taking Stock, Moving Forward". The conference was centered around Martin Thrupp's important qualitative research on how schools have managed the imposition of National Standards and the effect it has on school cultures. Martin is internationally well regarded as an academic and he managed to attract other leading educationalists from the US, UK and Australia to serve as a reference group to critique his research and contribute to the conference. When university funding is now largely determined by government priorities it is a brave academic who engages in research that ultimately questions the validity of current policies. Martin's bravery was referred to many times over the course of the conference. The Government and right wing bloggers' efforts to dismiss the National Standards research because it was partly funded by NZEI could be easily countered by the academic rigor employed. Obviously the Government would never support any research that would reveal flaws in their ideology.

It was interesting to hear the international speakers describe the erosion of their public education systems through the insidious infiltration of private interests and high stakes testing. I also had the opportunity to interact with many of them informally and was impressed by their real passion for education and was surprised to hear that New Zealand is regarded as one of the last bastions of true public education.

John Key's announcement of his government's $359 million education initiatives happened in the middle of the conference and looking at them from this context made them even more appalling. You can see videos of each presentation through my first link but I will try and summarise each before making comment on the government's plans.

Professor Bob Lingard (University of Queensland) warned about the danger of attempting to measure everything and the concerning prevalence of using non-contextualised data to determine policy. He quoted Einstein: "Not everything that can be counted counts; Everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted." Australia's use of national testing (NAPLAN) had created a high stakes assessment that shifted schools focus away from meeting the needs of children to competition, with many private firms dictating the tests and resources used. One particular corporation, Pearson, appears to have an unhealthy influence on education internationally. Prof Lingard was concerned that too much was made about the ranking of countries through the international assessments of PISA TIMMS and PIRLS. Shanghai and Hong Kong do particularly well in these assessments but this is not so much about their education system and more about the culture. Chinese students in Australia and the US actually achieved higher scores than those from their country of origin even though their resident country had lower rankings overall. According to Lingard education had been reduced to a system of inputs and outputs, aspirational visions had been replaced by meeting targets and economic drivers.

Professor Barbara Comber (Queensland University of Technology) explained how the high stakes NAPLAN national testing had corrupted education to the extent that 'failing' schools in low socio-economic areas felt forced to teach to the tests and fudge results. Many had to make complicated arrangements to exclude struggling children from sitting tests and teachers were being forced to abandon their professional integrity. The general malaise had resulted in a blame game where low achievement levels were blamed on initial teacher training, then principals, teachers and lastly the child and their families. Homework using commercially produced practice tests was common and were becoming a financial drain on parents and schools. The focus on literacy had narrowed its meaning to accommodate testing and ignored the multiple literacies that actually exist.

Emeritus Professor David Berliner (Arizona State University) was the superstar of the speakers, he is a hugely influential and award winning educationalist. Prof Berliner did not like mincing words and was of the opinion that we should challenge all misinformation and lies that are being used by policy makers and governments to force through unnecessary change. When he heard John Key claim that it is the classroom teacher that has the greatest influence on children's learning he immediately growled "liar!" The vast majority of research supports the fact that the child's background is by far the greatest determiner of their success. Prof Berliner presentation was dominated by exposing common myths communicated about education that had no basis in fact.
  • The best Charter and private schools mainly do well because they are able to exclude children with learning and behaviour problems not because they provide the best education. 
  • From birth to the age of eighteen children spend 90% of their time outside of school. 
  • The best performing countries educationally are those like Finland that have minimal income inequality. 
  • Education results are not a predictor of economic success and having academic qualifications won't ensure job security (the US is full of unemployed graduates and those working at jobs that under-utilise their qualifications). 
  • Research deniers are dictating policy and are like climate change deniers. 
  • The rich are have a dangerous influence on education with the likes of Bill Gates using his Gates Foundation to force his personal ideological agenda onto schools. 
  • Costs are going up in education, not because of waste (as often claimed), but because education in this digital age is just more expensive. 
Professor David Hursh (University of Rochester, NY) gave a shocking presentation that explained how high stakes testing and competition had caused even greater segregation than in the 1950's. President Bush's 'No Child Left Behind' programme effectively labeled most urban schools (as opposed to wealthy suburban ones) as failing schools. Obama's 'Race to the Top' had provided schools with extra funding but trapped them into programmes that actually cost more. Testing thresholds were established (generally arbitrarily) that could not be achieved by many schools in poor communities despite making enormous gains while wealthy schools could easily achieve results above the line with little improvement and even declining results. 20 years of reform and using standardised tests had been a failure. Teachers are being held accountable for the failures of the systems but state governors and the private firms and advisors that design the systems are not accountable. Even academics, like Diane Ravitch, who had supported the changes in the earlier stages have come out strongly against the Charter School private models. The 'Teach for America' programme used untrained graduates as teachers for three years before they move on to their 'real' careers. This lowers the status of teachers and wouldn't be acceptable for other professions such as medicine or law and professional, unionised teachers are being sacked.

Professor Meg Maguire (Kings College, London) was able to illustrate what it is like for teachers to work in an environment that has been subject to constant change and attacks. She described the different forces and philosophies that are having an impact on teachers. Tony Blair had described Education as being the country's most important economic policy and successive governments had promoted neo-liberal models like Free Schools and Academies (interestingly Lesley Longstone, who was employed to head the New Zealand Ministry of Education, had led the Free School initiative in England). Rather than accepting the inequality and socio-economic challenges that affected many children poor assessment results were being blamed entirely on schools and they were forced to adopt a private model. Few public schools survive the reforms once they are deemed failures. The progressive teaching methods of the 60s are being blamed for school failures, it is suggested that too much emphasis on the arts and play was the problem and a return to discipline, standards and rote learning of phonics is the answer. Education businesses are thriving (Pearson again) and private tutors are a growing industry, even Ofsted inspectors are contracted out to private businesses which often creates conflicts of interest. Maguire shared the emails of a teacher she knew who was a brilliant practitioner, the emails described the stress of an impending Ofsted visit, the horror of being labeled a failing school and the self doubt that resulted. We were told that the teacher concerned resigned shortly afterwards.    

The initiatives that John Key introduced in his state of the nation speech were developed with little consultation with the profession and there was no knowledge about what would be announced beforehand. The $359 million set aside is a considerable amount and the intention to identify and pay top performing teachers and principals to lead struggling schools or give professional support a few days a week was welcomed by some in the profession. The premise behind the initiatives is that academic achievement can be lifted primarily by having strong leadership. While this may indeed be helpful it is only one aspect that determines achievement and the largest factor, the socio-economic backgrounds of the children, has been ignored. Even the highly flawed National Standards showed a strong correlation between the decile of the school and the levels of attainment. It cannot be said that all low decile schools have poor principals.

If the Government had bothered to consult with the profession about where the money would be better spent there would be a greater spread of support. Special Education Services would have got a boost as the numbers of high needs children in mainstream schools have increased but the numbers of Special Education staff have not. The teacher aids who work directly with struggling children, and support teachers, are poorly paid and schools have limited budgets to employ them. Health and Welfare support for struggling families is also limited and rely on families requesting support or being identified through maltreatment.

Green Party education spokesperson Metiria Turei was quickly able to identify the flaws in National's approach and the $90 million dollar policy to address educational inequities she announced today will do more to lift achievement at a fraction of the price. Making schools hubs for health and welfare support and employing special staff to do this will mean teachers will no longer have to balance multiple roles and just concentrate on teaching and learning. Having specialised staff based in low decile schools, addressing children's health and welfare needs and working with families, will mean timely responses and a saving of money that would be needed to address bigger problems later.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Boats and Trains and Peculiar Procurement

Procurement has become a controversial issue at the moment. The Government has just given the contract to build a 43 metre ferry for the New Zealand territory of Tokelau to a Bangladesh company. This has upset the local boat building industry that has the capacity to build the boat and needs the work.

Steven Joyce claims that the difference between the Bangladesh tender and the closest New Zealand one was just too great and to give preference to New Zealand suppliers at any cost "would be a recipe for economic suicide." Joyce may well have done his homework in this case but his track record and the Government's actions over the last five years shows little consistency or logic in how they approach procurement.

Joyce claims that the difference between the Bangladesh tender of $8 million and the cheapest New Zealand one was $14 million and yet one local firm claimed that they could have built it for a total $14 million. When the Government advertised the contract for the Auckland conference centre they obviously already had Sky City in mind and ensured that the company was well instructed as to what would make a successful bid. Of course it was later found to be unfair and poor practice but they were prepared to do this for their preferred company. Obviously one should provide a level playing field for all bidders but it is interesting that if one New Zealand firm was able to build the ferry for a much cheaper price there was little effort made to encourage a local firm to make a more competitive offer.

It is also interesting that the Government was reluctant to support our local boat building industry at a time when many are struggling because of a current downturn in demand.  The America's Cup Challenge has just recently ended and the Government provided $36 million to support the campaign and is providing $5 million in bridging finance for the next one. The justification for the support of the rich boys' yacht race is generally the spinoffs for our local boat industry. The award winning super yacht builder Fitzroy Yachts (employing 120 people) has just closed its doors because the current demand for luxury boats is not great. One would have thought that there would be benefits in ensuring that skilled boat builders were kept in work so that they could take advantage of a future upturn.

While Joyce considers that supporting our boat building industry may lead to economic suicide he did not hesitate to ensure that his old firm MediaWorks was given a $43 million loan against advice. Warner Bros was gifted with immigration law changes and around $67 million of subsidies (whether we would have received return greater than this investment is debatable). We also saw the hugely profitable Rio Tinto being gifted a $30 million subsidy to ensure that the Meridian asset sale could go ahead and again with Treasury advising that there would be little economic benefit.

The most obvious parallel with the ferry deal would be the controversial decision to award the building of 300 railway wagons to China. This deal was effectively the death knell for Dunedin's Hillside workshops. When a later contract to build 3,000 wagons came up Hillside was discouraged from even putting in a bid and the workshops were closed soon after with the loss of over 200 skilled jobs.

When so many contracts go to overseas suppliers it also results in a flow of funds going off shore and this has a direct impact on our current account. New Zealand's current account deficit was the worst in the OECD and while this has improved somewhat we are still well away from having the smallest. Our large current account deficit is related to our dependence on loans to overseas banks and the fact we have to import more than we produce. Our dependence on offshore providers for oil, fertilizer, dairy feed, cars and electronic goods will be ongoing unless we can become more self sufficient.

Every time the Government awards a contract to a New Zealand supplier we are investing money back into our domestic economy and ensuring skilled workers remain in the country. Obviously every time a  contract goes to a local company the wages remain here and are spent in local shops and support other businesses. It is currently costing the country over $3 billion annually for Working for Families and the Accommodation Supplement, largely because we are developing into a low waged economy with fewer skilled jobs available to workers that will pay livable incomes. While Steven Joyce may be giving Bangladesh and China contracts that are in the short term cheaper for our country, the fact that we are losing our skilled workforce will have ongoing consequences.

Few countries run completely open economies and most governments make an effort to protect their local industries from outside competition to varying degrees. New Zealand has always struggled to get a foot hold for our agricultural exports in the US and European markets because of the subsidies and protections they have for their own farmers and agricultural sectors.  New Zealand also is the third easiest country in the world for doing business in and has the fifth most free economy (the US is ranked 7 places beneath us). This makes it very easy for overseas companies to establish themselves here and means our local businesses often have to compete in open markets against companies with much greater capital and resources. I worry that many New Zealand companies with great potential get taken out by by overseas competitors before they really have a chance to prove themselves.

Hanging over all of this is the secret negotiation of the TPPA where it seems corporate interests have undue influence and this threatens the sovereignty that individual countries should have over the use of their resources and the protections they have for their environments.

If Steven Joyce was asked to produce the Government's procurement policy, would he be able to produce one? Even if he did I wonder how many exceptions could be immediately produced? It was no coincidence that one of the first things the National led Government did when getting into power was to wipe the Greens' led "Buy Kiwi Made" campaign.


Someone has provided me with a link to the Government's procurement rules, which were revised in October. The purpose of the rules are described as:
  • support more productive relationships with businesses as suppliers
  • deliver innovative and effective solutions that get the best value for new Zealanders
  • help our suppliers become more competitive in international markets
In terms of applying the rules there is an undertaking to become more accountable have robust processes, deliver better public services and support economic growth. While all of this seems admirable and (given what has happened up till now) we should see a marked improvement in transparency and accountability, however, there are some worrying elements. Under the heading 'The Rules and our international commitments' it states: The Rules are the single source of all New Zealand's commitments on government procurement, including international agreements and treaties. What is considered "good international practice" needs to be made clear.

We have already seen a willingness to bend over backwards to encourage overseas corporates to engage and invest in New Zealand, Warner Bros., Rio Tinto and a number of oil companies have benefited from our Government's generosity in providing corporate welfare and changing legislation to create attractive employment conditions (negatively effecting local workers) and limit opposition. It seems reasonable, given what we have already heard about the TPPA negotiations, that the amount of protection and support for New Zealand businesses, workers and our wonderful environment will be further limited. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Oil Drilling, A Future For Fools!

The Southland Times' front page "cargo cult" celebration of Shell's announcement to drill resulted in three letters to the Editor on the Friday following. I thought that I should follow up on the brief quotes that the paper published from me with a little more information and it was a pleasant surprise to find that other writers from around the province shared my concerns.

Here they are, in the order published:

Risk of loss is ours, the profit is theirs

"We're gonna Drill' or is it 'Drill, baby, drill"?

Your front page story (January 8) was hardly an example of unbiased reporting. Filling the page with a photograph of clear blue water and sky and then positioning a tidy image of a single drilling rig established a hearty "can do" tone for this gas hunt.

The story itself was sourced almost entirely from the point of view of the oil company's spokesperson. One sentence at the end presents the other side of the coin. In that sentence every individual person capable of understanding and acknowledging the enormous risk associated with this venture is scooped together and tagged as an environmentalist. They must not have a spokesperson - perhaps that's because common sense doesn't have a PR guy.

Exploratory drilling is one of the most dangerous phases of extraction. The drilling in the Gulf of Mexico was exploratory, and we saw the economic and environmental devastation caused when that went wrong. Even a small spill/leak can turn into a major crisis when there is no support infrastructure in place. maritime new Zealand is ill-equipped to effectively respond to an accident.

There must be some public fear because Tim Shadbolt is hoping it will be allayed through the knowledge that things are working so well in Taranaki, where they are drilling in 100 metres of water 35 km off the shore, as opposed to drilling in 1350 metres of turbulent waters 150 km off the southern shore.

We can only hope nothing catastrophic happens while we await the riches to pour into our province as we are assured they will, eventually in ten years' time or so, if the company decides to base its operations in Bluff rather than Dunedin.

The risk of loss is ours. The risk of profit is theirs.


Gold Rush Mentality

I found the enthusiasm and celebration of Shell’s announcement in Wednesday’s paper rather disconcerting. 

It appears that we have not lost the gold rush mentality of believing in the possibility of sudden riches. We have only just seen the demise of Solid Energy and the end of their lignite dreams. The mothballed lignite briquetting plant is a $29 million monument to the folly of not listening to good advice and being blinded by slick corporate presentations.

Deep sea drilling is a risky enterprise and our southern waters are not the easiest to work in, as Hunt Petroleum discovered some years ago. We cannot compare the Taranaki situation with the Great South Basin. The drilling in Taranaki is in water with a depth of around 100 metres, but Shell will be working at a depth of over 1,300 metres. The risks increase with the depth of water.

We have no experience of regulating deep sea drilling and providing effective oversight. I do not have the same comfort in self-regulation as this Government does (the lessons of Pike River and our forest industry still resonate).

Maritime New Zealand struggled to manage the Rena disaster (which cost the country $50 million) and does not have the capacity to deal with even a moderate oil rig accident. It would take over a month to bring in a capping stack and up to 100 days to get a relief rig if they were necessary. Even a small accident would have serious consequences if we can’t respond in a timely fashion and we (as in the Government and taxpayers) will probably carry the majority of the costs, not the oil company.

We still have great potential in existing Southland industries, surely we should be investing in becoming better at what we already do well rather than still chasing that elusive gold. 


Business as usual

What rotten luck that Otago-Southland is going to have a great offshore oilfeild exploration programme.

Just as the world is freaking out about climate change and wasteful resource depletion, it is still business as usual in the oil-hungry global market place.

But at some point there will be a quantum shift when the madness has to end.

Don't expect any warning. It's likely to come like a thief in the night. Politically speaking it's something not even science fiction has prepared us for.

If you are observant you will note top scientists agree this will happen but don't agree on when.

But they do agree that drilling for hypo-carbons in dangerous situations will not be the priority it once was.

In the mean time our region seems comfortably tucked away from current planetary physics in a sort of 19th Century bubble; a magical place where all our natural resources seem to be illuminated with little dollar signs and there are no important consequences to actions of the great and powerful.

Or as the Green Party would say: La La Land.


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Shell and the Great South Basin

The Southland Times devoted the whole of the front page to celebrate Shell's decision to do some exploratory drilling in the Great South Basin. My response was the only one that expressed concern.

Setting aside the issue of continuing to recover fossil fuel when the reality of climate change is becoming ever more visible, what are the potential risks and benefits of Shell's activities? Will it really create an economic nirvana in the south or are there sinister possibilities that have been ignored?

The best scenario that will come from Shell's exploratory drilling will be that they discover a sizable gas field similar to the one in Taranaki. New Zealand has bent over backwards to welcome them and has already provided existing scientific surveys of the area for free. However the royalties we will get from any oil and gas is only 5% of the value of what is sold, almost 40% less than the OECD average

While the oil and gas comes from within our economic zone we will have to pay full commercial rates to have any of it ourselves. If the industry is as successful as Taranaki, around 800 new jobs will be created. There is potential for millions in revenue for our Government and the jobs will go a little way to address the 3500 that have already been cut from the state sector and 40,000 lost from manufacturing. If there are no accidents the drilling will provide some steady income but nothing compared to what we earn from other sectors. Taranaki gas accounts for .5% of our GDP. We will obviously not benefit from any oil and gas discoveries like Norway has.

The worst case scenario would be a Gulf of Mexico accident, which was also an exploratory drill (they tend to be the most risky). Shell will be drilling in 1300 metres of water which is around 1200 metres deeper than Taranaki, and the risks grow as the depth of water increases. Using Anadarko's own worst case scenarios (which were worse than anything predicted by Greenpeace) any major spill will take well over a month to fully react to. We do not have the equipment or capacity to manage a major spill in New Zealand immediately, a capping stack would take over a month to arrive and a relief rig could take up to 100 days. 

Maritime New Zealand has the majority of the responsibility in dealing with any spill and while the small Rena spill cost us around $50 million, we are looking at billions with any major oil rig disaster. Shell are predicting that they will strike gas, but this is just an educated guess and oil is still possible. While the odds of a major accident may be very low for many, even a minor accident could have serious environmental and economic consequences if we are not able to respond quickly.

While there is a lot of trust in Shell as a responsible company and their PR was slick and reassuring we don't have to look far to have evidence that would give cause for greater caution and their recent record is hardly pure.

While the Government is throwing all their efforts into welcoming oil companies to help themselves to our resources (involving risks that shouldn't be ignored) we do have other resources that have potential. Southland has extremely pure silica that is easily recoverable and we could be smelting it ourselves and producing our own solar panels for the growing alternative energy market

Monday, January 6, 2014

Ordinary New Zealanders Losing Basic Rights

It is becoming increasingly obvious that there is growing disregard for the rights and status of ordinary New Zealanders, while our wealthy elite are treated very differently.

The privacy of individuals is no longer sacrosanct, Government Ministers get away with revealing personal information to make political points and there has been a huge increase in privacy breaches from and between government departments. According to the Privacy Commissioner, almost half the 54 agreements to share information were not compliant and 10 contained serious breeches. Personal information seems easy to acquire for the Government but if a private individual wishes to access information that directly effects them (like reasons for a school closure) it is almost impossible.

Schools that serve ordinary New Zealanders, or those with high needs, are illegally closed while elite private schools have millions made available despite advice to the contrary. The Education Minister is currently looking at removing the main avenue for providing some equity for schools in less affluent communities, yet removing decile ratings should only occur if there is something to replace them.

There is little support and leeway given to those New Zealanders who devote their lives to serving others and caring for our most vulnerable. Most home carers and rest home workers are on the lowest incomes and those providing overnight care have only recently begun to be paid for this work. A long protracted legal battle won recognition for those who choose to provide full-time care for a disabled family member and yet the Government removed the right of future legal action. To limit Government liability basic rights and due process has been ignored.

Geoffrey Palmer laments in his recent autobiography that:
"The cost of legal services has increased exponentially and this has damaged the accessibility of the law for ordinary people in a most unfortunate way. In O'Flynn & Christie we acted for ordinary people and they could have their disputes determined according to law without acute difficulty arising. I worry very much about the future of the rule of law in a society where legal aid is being cut and many people effectively have no redress."

Government departments and commercial interests can silence individuals by using the legal system to their own advantage with little fear of opposition. It is wealth that can often decide legal outcomes and ordinary New Zealanders, like the determined Mike Dixon-McIvor (pictured above), have to go to extraordinary lengths to get justice.

Beneficiary fraud is chased up with much greater energy than tax evasion, despite the fact that the cost to the Government of tax evasion is 150 times greater.

Our major banks are also guilty of waiving charges for those with the most money and excessively charging those with the least. A class action is being taken to recover some of the $1 billion in unnecessary fees.

Those with the very least also have little choice in the standard of housing they are able to afford. The Government has devolved much of the provision of state supported housing to private landlords but there is little expectation that the housing should be of an acceptable standard. Providing a housing supplement has effectively created an inflated market and made it very profitable for a few.

The median income from all sources is a lowly $29,900 ($575 pw) and around a third of working New Zealanders are now not able to earn a living wage. Compared to Australia our wealthy are taxed less and our poor earn less and are taxed more. The working conditions of ordinary workers are being eroded with an increase of causualisation and the potential removal of basic rights such as tea breaks and good faith collective bargaining. New Zealand now has income inequality growing at one of the fastest rates in the OECD:
Despite Pike River creating a stronger focus on worker safety, it is still a huge issue, workers are being seen as expendable in the forestry industry and there are increasing numbers of accidents caused by tired employees.

For a growing number of New Zealanders the claimed economic improvement has had little positive impact on them and is unlikely to under the current Government. A large proportion of working people now earn less, have fewer employment and legal rights and are forced to live in substandard housing. The quality of education is increasingly based on where you can afford to live and access to higher eduction is also restricted for many. If you are poor, then it is more likely you will remain poor and so will your children. Is this the kind of country we want to live in?

Friday, January 3, 2014

Good Will and Volunteers Make Communities

For a year and a half we have owned a small property in Waikawa (Catlins). We are slowly getting to know the locals and other crib (bach) owners and feel privileged to have ended up in such a nice community. It is interesting that much that happens in Waikawa depends on good will and volunteers. The fire brigade is all volunteers, and the museum is manned on a daily basis by local people.

One retired woman in particular spends much of her time in the museum and is the 'go to' person for historical information on the area. When we first bought the crib we were given a good description of the past inhabitants and the origins of the first cottage. The Southland District Council had no records on the property due to the 1984 Invercargill floods destroying all records up to that point. Obviously anything done to the property since then was not reported (very little has been done, I can vouch).

When we visited Curio Bay (5 min down the road) to check out the yellow eyed penguins, the DoC ranger working there was also a volunteer. He was very knowledgeable and helpful but was working very hard to ensure that the many tourists were kept away from the endangered birds as they wandered between nests and sea. He was provided with a uniform and a caravan for accommodation but nothing else and he was working every day for a month.

There has been a New Year dance held at the Niagara Falls hall for many years and for a minimal cover charge there is a band made up local musicians (mainly from the Progress Valley Possum Pickers) and a proper country supper comes out after midnight. The event is reliant on local people giving up their time to make it an annual success.

The Possum Pickers performing at the annual bluegrass festival. 

My daughter lost her cell phone and it was picked up by someone who immediately took it to the museum (the community hub). The previous Summer a fisherman found that the battery to his truck had gone flat and lending him my jumper leads resulted in receiving a bag of freshly caught blue cod. People look out for each other and one favor generally results in another.

Our place is right near the Waikawa Wharf and there is a steady stream of traffic over the Summer months and we generally get a wave as people pass and often stop to chat.

Waikawa epitomizes the sort of community I always want to be part of.