Friday, January 30, 2015

Thanks Russel, You Deserve a Break.

One of the reasons why I am a member of the Green Party is because our values and policies always come first and we try to avoid engaging in personality politics. Facilitating change is more important to us than chasing power alone. Interestingly because we are not reliant on our leaders to carry the full weight of our Party's fortunes we tend not to sack them so readily and this has provided us with a high level of stability. Over the 25 years of our party's existence we have have only had four leaders (under our co-leader system), while National has had five and Labour seven.

Russel Norman's announcement today that he is stepping down from his co-leader role from May was another example of his measured and thoughtful approach to politics. Russel has devoted nine years to the position after stepping up when Rod Donald died unexpectedly in 2005. He had waited to announce his resignation until after the Summer break to ensure he had space to properly reflect on his decision and he has provided ample time for a new leader to be elected and be embedded in the role before the 2017 election.

Russel's remarkable discipline has seen him successfully negotiate through almost a decade in one of the most tumultuous and unforgiving environments, despite some personal challenges. He has always been very protective of his private life and few realize the stresses that he was having to manage while presenting a composed public image. His partner, Katya, was diagnosed with a brain tumour early in his leadership and since her recovery they have had three children. Russel takes his role as a parent just as seriously as his parliamentary one and anyone who has had young children know what an important (in a developmental sense) and demanding time that is.

When Russel joined Jeanette Fitzsimons as co-leader in 2006, the Green Party of Aoteatoa New Zealand had managed to just get over the 5% threshold in the 2005 election and had dropped almost 2% in voter support since 2002. Many political commentators were predicting the slow demise of the Greens and didn't believe that Russel could replace his charismatic predecessor. History has proved otherwise as Russel worked hard to provide the economic depth and credibility that had been lacking previously in public perception and ballot box support has grown every election since. The Greens now experience more than double the support of 2005, membership levels have never been higher and we have often been considered the most effective opposition party over the last two terms as Labour has worked through many leadership and organisational changes.

My personal knowledge of Russel has developed through hosting him on his many visits to the south, and mainly when he was focusing on his Dirty River tours. On each occassion Russel wanted to engage with scientists, farmers and local politicians to gain first hand knowledge of the issues that were effecting each river or freshwater environment. He also relished the opportunity to get into a raft or kayak and experience the natural ambience of the river and any damage first hand.

Russel's passion for our rivers was obvious and his description of them in one impromptu speech as being the "last wild places in a much altered landscape" has stuck with me since. Time and time again he has managed to express Green values and thinking in a concise and articulate way and I often find myself referring to his many speeches as a useful guide to how we should be communicating our policies and values to others, especially around economics.

In many ways there must be some relief to Russel in shifting out of the public scrutiny that has been applied to him for so long. Russel recognised that if the Greens wanted to present an image of a party ready to govern we had to look the part in a traditional sense. He always tries to present himself in a professional manner despite the fact that he quickly resorts to a T Shirt, jeans and jandals at every opportunity.

Russel is also known for his impish sense of humour and yet, despite his discipline, it has bubbled out in unusual circumstances. The time he attempted to get the Prime Minister to answer a question that was directed at him, but continually fobbed off (as he is apt to do) led to his memorable "chicken" response. Surprisingly, one of the most viewed parliamentary videos is Russel's 2011 'Christmas' speech where he talked about a need to return to core Christian values.

After Russel's announcement I am not expecting the same sort of media hysteria that we have experienced when Rod died and Jeanette resigned. We have had a long enough track record to prove that our change processes are very sound and, because of our co-leader system, Metiria can easily take up the slack as any incoming person settles into the role. We manage our leadership change like a tag team in sport, we have a number of players ready to step in so that the game can continue with a high level of energy and continuity. Russel has had a long successful innings and deserves a break.

Liar, Liar!

New Zealand politics was transformed overnight after five year old Jack Smith of Mataura made a birthday wish. Little Jack had become increasingly concerned at how unhappy his parents had become because of John Key's government. Every time the PM or one of his Ministers appeared on TV his father would yell "liar!" and his mother would use bad language that he was given time out for. The only way he could imagine his family could ever be truly happy would be if those government people had to tell the truth, so he wished that very thing before blowing out his five candles.

John Key was the first to realize that his natural facility for spinning a good yarn had abandoned him when he attempted to make his State of the Nation speech. In front of a stunned crowd he explained in detail how much money they planned to make from selling off state houses and how useful it will be to shift the responsibility for social housing away from the Government. He also explained how profitable their policy would be for many private landlords when the housing supplement was expanded.

"Also,"  explained Key with shocking candor, "some of my best friends are growing their wealth through their property portfolios. If we build too many houses, and increase supply, this could seriously damage their profits. We need to stop the bubble from bursting."

The audience began squirming in their seats and many began studying the floor or the ceiling as the Prime Minister went on to explain his theory that the poor actually enjoyed living in cramped conditions and Maori must feel grateful that we introduced real houses to this country.

The second to be struck by Jack's wish was Education Minister, Hekia Parata. Just as she was trying to explain on National Radio why so many students had failed to gain University Entrance in 2014 she found herself frankly stating that they needed more places for foreign students who actually brought in money rather than creating debt.

"We don't really need more university graduates working in New Zealand," Parata explained to a stunned Susie Furguson, "In the low wage economy National is creating we actually need more unskilled people who are obliged to work on a minimum wage. The growing areas of employment do not require tertiary qualifications."

Parata went on to expound on the collective view of caucus that the more educated people became, the more annoying they were to her Government. "Most of them vote Green, they never believe our spin and they don't stay in their ivory towers, but make really annoying public statements like that Catton woman (John was livid)."

The next to find himself speaking truthfully was Nick Smith as he gave an interview to journalists beside the helicopter he had chartered for them from funds set aside for Pike River families. The journalists couldn't believe their ears when Smith explained that the whole thing was a PR stunt to try and remove all the flack the Government was getting for their handling of the Pike River disaster and their failure to recover the bodies.

Who would have believed that a five year old's birthday would change the course of political history for New Zealand?

Even more remarkable was Tim Groser's interview the following day on the details behind the TPPA negotiations. Jacks wish was about to impact on global politics too...

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Eleanor Catton is Not Alone

Eleanor Catton is a remarkable young woman. She was the youngest writer ever to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the youngest to have won it. The status of this award is considered by many writers to be equal to the American Pulitzer Prize and second only to the Nobel Prize in Literature. Catton was made a member of the New Zealand Order Of Merit in 2014 and was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Literature from Victoria University.

Eleanor Catton was widely reported internationally as feeling uncomfortable in being an ambassador for New Zealand:

"At the moment, New Zealand, like Australia and Canada, (is dominated by) these neo-liberal, profit obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture," Catton is quoted as saying.

"They care about short-term gains. They would destroy the planet in order to be able to have the life they want. I feel very angry with my government."

Dame Anne Salmond has huge academic credibility as an anthropologist, historian and writer. She is currently a Distinguished Professor of Maori Studies and Anthropology at the University of Auckland. Since 1975 Dame Anne has won six awards for her research and published works, she was made a commander of the order of the British Empire in 1988, a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1995 and was crowned New Zealander of the Year in 2013.

Dame Anne has been highly critical of the current Government's erosion of democratic rights in numerous published articles. This month, in the Dominion Post, she stated:

"Over the past decade or so, politicians seeking to uphold their own power have abused democratic freedoms in New Zealand."

"The independence of the judiciary and the rule of law have been eroded by the passage of a stream of acts that breach the Bill of Rights; by removing legal protections from citizens for economic or fiscal gain (protestors at sea, and family caregivers for the disabled, for instance); and by setting up politically appointed panels to bypass the Environment Court, for example.

"Independent statutory bodies are brought to heel if they criticise the Government, by threatening or removing their funding, or by cancelling their powers (such as the current attempts to bring the work of the Human Rights Commission under ministerial control, and to cancel the positions of the Equal Opportunities Commissioner and the Race Relations Conciliator). "

Dr Mike Joy is one of new Zealand's most respected and widely recognised scientists. He is the Senior Lecturer in Massey University's Institute of Agriculture and Environment. He has received a number of environmental awards and has been named the Environmental New Zealander of 2009 by North and South magazine, the 2012 person of the year by the Manawatu Evening Standard and was awarded the Royal Society of New Zealand Charles Fleming Award for Environmental Achievement.

Dr Joy has been very concerned at the Government's misinformation and lack of action regarding the environment.

"There are almost two worlds in New Zealand. There is the picture postcard world, and then there is the reality.

"The clean and green image has long been promoted by the isolated country in its striving to compete in world markets. But an international study in the journal PLos One measuring countries' loss of native vegetation, native habitat, number of endangered species and water quality showed that per capita, New Zealand was the worst out of 189 nations when it came to preserving its natural surroundings. 

"For a country purporting to be so pure, New Zealand seemed to be failing by many international environmental benchmarks."

Prime Minister John Key and his Government have been soundly criticised by our most internationally recognised writer, our foremost anthropologist and historian and one of our most respected scientists. Our Prime Minister does not have a positive relationship with any of the above and has very little contact with them. Instead John Key has had a very close personal relationship with one award winner, New Zealand's most widely known "shock jock" blogger, Cameron Slater.

Some say that you can judge a man by the company he keeps and I think you can judge a Government by the advice it listens to. Either way, under the current regime, things aren't looking very good according to those who we should all be listening to!

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Great Zucchini Glut

A few weeks of fine weather and our zucchinis (courgettes) are growing at a rate that is almost visible. The collection featured in the photo above are today's harvest from three plants. I am aware that dealing with these prolific producers is a common problem for home gardeners and eating them every day becomes tedious.

There are heaps of delicious online recipes involving zucchinis being baked, fried, grilled, boiled, barbequed or shredded and eaten raw. We have tried all of the above but have three favourite ways of using them.

1) Shredded and frozen. My wife found this is a quick and easy way of processing the vegetable and having an out of season supply for soups and baking.

2) Zucchini Fritters. This is a recipe from Alison and Simon Holst's Meals Without Meat (1990). The original included a red pepper puree, but we just tend to use our own plum or gooseberry sauce or eat them just as they are.

2 free range eggs
1 large garlic clove
3 cups of shredded zucchini (firmly packed)
1/4 cup of grated parmesan cheese
1/2 cup of self-raising flour (approx)
(for 4 main servings)

In a medium bowl beat the eggs to combine white and yolks. Crush garlic and add to the eggs. Mix again.

Add the three cups of shredded zucchini and the parmesan cheese, then stir in enough of the self-raising flour to make a batter of fritter consistency.

The Holsts recommend making then into small cakes and cooking them in oil 5 mm deep until they are golden brown and the centres firm. We don't tend to use as much oil and often make them larger, but cook them a little longer. I guess how you normally cook fritters would work.

3) The Best Zucchini Cake. We have tried a number of zucchini cakes including a Holst chocolate one, which is nice, but my favourite has been adapted from one that I found online and where a community of bakers had already adjusted quantities to make it work better.

I have found it is a very forgiving recipe (it has never disappointed) and is very versatile as I use raw sugar rather than refined, wholemeal flour and throw in whatever dried fruit I feel like at the time (chopped apricot, raisins, sultanas...) and sometimes a cup of coconut. You can apply a cream cheese icing like a carrot cake, but I generally don't bother as it tastes fine without adornment (especially if you have included dried fruit).

The other great thing about this recipe is that it uses three cups of zucchini and makes either three 9 inch (23 cm) diameter cakes or one big one. I just line a small roasting tin (34 by 26 cm) with baking paper and just make one.

3 cups of flour (I use wholemeal)
2 cups of raw sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
4 free range eggs
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3 cups grated zucchini

(Variations include adding combinations of dried fruit and coconut, and I have even swapped the cinnamon with cocoa)

Preheat the oven to 165 degrees C

In a medium/large bowl combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, sugar and salt. Mix well.

In another smaller bowl beat eggs, oil and vanilla together. Pour egg mixture into flour mixture and mix well. Stir in the shredded zucchini. Pour into oiled cake tins or papered roasting tin.

Bake at 165 degrees C for around 25 minutes. We stick a knitting needle into the centre and ensure that it comes out clean before removing from the oven.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Turei Ratana Speech Justified

Andrea Vance's claim that Metiria Turei's planned speech had soured Ratana proceedings was a bit rich and hypocritical given the context. Bill English even had the audacity to say in response that the Greens were "a bit nasty when they can be" and "barking mad on Treaty settlements."

For Maori woman like Turei, Key's comments last year were hugely arrogant and an insensitive slap in the face of tangata whenua. The Prime Minister displayed unbelievable ignorance in claiming, "In my view New Zealand was one of the few countries in the world that were settled peacefully." This ignored the 3,000 who died in the New Zealand Land Wars, the 1,600 people violently displaced from their home in Parihaka (many consequently dying while in forced labour and imprisonment) and the many other violent injustices occurring under early British rule. It isn't even as though the violent colonisation was old history, the violence against Maori has continued with the likes of Bastion Point and the 2007 terror raids on a Maori community. The colonisation of Aotearoa could never be described as peaceful!

To rub salt into an already raw wound, Key followed his first comment with, "Maori probably acknowledge that settlers had a place to play and brought with them a lot of skills and a lot of capital." This implies that it was a very one sided relationship and that the Maori had the most to gain from European settlement and ignores the skills and local knowledge that Maori provided. Maori benefited little from any influx of capital as they were deliberately shut out of the new economy (that they had initially thrived in) and quickly lost their land, their ships and their flour mills.

Turei had first hand experience of how Maori were excluded from the economy through the difficulties her family suffered and which she describes in her speech about her father:

"My dad was a labourer all his short life. He worked on farms and orchards, he worked shooting deer, he worked in a bread factory. But in the 80s the work dried up, there were 300,000 people unemployed. As time went on it became harder and harder for a 40 year old working class Maori man to find work. Poverty took everything from him including his home."

Metiria's own treatment from National MPs, who questioned how a Maori female MP could wear expensive clothes in Parliament while advocating for those living in poverty, was another example of the arrogance and blatant racism that permeates this National Government.

For a Maori woman to express disappointment, in a Maori setting, regarding the negative effects that the Prime Minister's comments will have on the relationship between Pakeha and Maori was fully justified. Te Ururoa Flavell was a bit perplexed about the fuss, " suggest that people don't talk about politics here seems to be a huge contradiction - the whole day is taken up with political discussion on behalf of the parties."

It seems this was just another example of putting a Maori woman back in her place.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

RMA Changes, A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?

The National Party’s agendas never change, less government and regulations and more freedom for employers and businesses (regardless of the social and environmental impacts) is what they desire. These goals will negatively impinge on most voters, so they have to be framed in a way that hides their true intent.

This National Government enthusiastically embraces the neoliberal approach of using real or created crises to justify ideological but largely unnecessary changes. We saw it with the cuts in services in ACC, school closures in Christchurch, attacks on beneficiaries and the fast-tracked anti-terrorism legislation.

The government has also fabricated crises to shift attention away from other more pressing concerns (child poverty, diabetes) and create solutions for problems when neither is supported by strong evidence. Using clever framing and minimal detail it also makes it difficult for the opposition who can be seen as being petty and obstructive when urgent action is apparently needed.

We see this happening again with Nick Smith’s proposed changes to the RMA. We know that changes to this act are part of National’s agenda but their past attempts at limiting the environmental protections inherent in the legislation were even opposed by their coalition partners in the last term.

"Core environmental matters that currently have the status of 'matters of national importance' will be downgraded to mere 'matters'." Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a former architect of the Act.

This time a real crisis has been used to justify changes to the ACT, and the Government has decided that a case can be made for the RMA being responsible for the lack of affordable housing.

Anyone conversant with the housing crisis will be aware that non-resident investors, unrestrained property speculation, the high costs of building materials, land banking, growing inequity and the Government’s lack of investment in social housing are also major contributors. National does not want to limit wealth creation and developer profits, so it is conveniently left with the argument that it is unnecessary bureaucracy alone that needs attention.

Again clever framing is used in pointing the finger at the RMA, as most of us have some experience of unnecessary bureaucracy in building compliance. We probably forget many of the current compliance issues evolved from a past National Government’s legislation tinkering that resulted in the $11.3 billion leaky building debacle. Local bodies have become very risk averse as a consequence and this has added more to bureaucracy than anything that can be directly attributed to the RMA.

“The RMA’s fundamental purpose is to make sure that the environmental effects are taken into consideration when decisions are being made about using our resources. It is not, and should not become, an economic development act!” Dr Jan Wright, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

While not denying some changes to the RMA may be helpful we need to keep things in perspective. According to Auckland Mayor Len Brown, 98% of his city’s consents are managed on time and New Zealand is still ranked 3rd in the world for ease of doing business. Yet the Government has managed to gain cautious support from local bodies and the Labour Party for changes to the RMA because when the detail is minimal, and the heavily spun public justification is convincing, it is politic to do so.

Smith’s claims of the unnecessary costs placed on developers sound substantial but are not broken down in any meaningful way and his use of the Motu report was disingenuous. Many of the costs claimed unnecessary by developers may actually be very necessary for managing environmental consequences or ensuring any development doesn’t have a negative visual impact. When developing new areas of low cost housing we don’t want to create modern soulless ghettos, that are profitable to construct but terrible to live in, as we have in the past.

“The Motu report does not balance the costs of planning regulations with the benefits of building houses well...“Gutting the RMA will lead to ugly, sprawling suburbs, higher levels of traffic congestion, and the loss of the natural environment we love and have fought to protect.” Julie Anne Genter, Green MP

We need to be fully aware of the true intent of this Government’s attack on the RMA and not be blindsided by their cynical manipulation of the evidence and a real crisis to achieve their goals. The RMA is not an impediment to sustainable and environmentally responsible developments, it is an impediment to irresponsible development and greed...and so it should be!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Neoliberal Economics Limits Food Choice in Southland

My first post for the year probably reflects the fact that I have spent a good amount of time in my garden. Watching my garden thrive in our current patch of good weather and harvesting a variety of vegetables and fruit has made me appreciate what a wonderful environment we have for growing food.

Southland doesn't produce good bananas, pineapples or kumera, our climate isn't warm enough for them, but we do grow great potatoes, gooseberries, rhubarb, currents, apples and swedes. My wife makes a delicious gooseberry sorbet that we love in summer and a gooseberry crumble in Winter that is par excellence. It seems strange to me that, gooseberries and currents are not grown in commercial quantities here and they are not commonly sold fresh in our local supermarket.

At one time our local dairy used to stock a small amount of locally sourced fresh fruit and vegetables (and even bought some of our gooseberries when we had more than we could use or store), but no longer. Supermarkets now have a monopoly in selling fruit and vegetables and have been quite aggressive in how they do this. When the Dunedin Farmers Market was being established supermarkets lobbied the City Council to police the private car parks around the market that were being used by customers. The car parks weren't being used by businesses over the weekend but the supermarkets wanted to limit the access to their competition.

Supermarkets buy in bulk, want consistency of supply and because most Southland Island supermarkets have a centralised distribution system, produce must be able to be stored and transported for a number of days. This means that to ensure consistency of supply, fewer varieties can be sold and fruit is picked green and does not have the flavour of those that are tree ripened.

My sister, through her open orchards project, has identified around 50 different varieties of apple that have been grown in Southland with an amazing diversity of flavours and unique names (Merton Russet, Cornish Aromatic, Dipton redburst, Peasgood Non Such, Keyswick Codlin...). You will find none of these in a supermarket and now few people will have experienced the delights of a really large cooking apple as a baked treat in the middle of Winter.

We no longer manage our food production and supply to provide the best quality and variety to local consumers, we now have the situation where the corporate culture dictates what is eaten in most homes. Gareth Morgan has identified the dangerous trend for New Zealanders to eat the heavily processed and marketed 'fake food' rather than the real thing and obesity and Type 2 Diabetes has developed into a health crisis. Fast food has shifted from being an occasional treat to the main diet for many. Since the Government removed the necessity to provide healthy food in schools, educating young people to make informed, healthy choices is more difficult. It is hard to promote healthy food when the canteen sells packets of chips and coke that are cheaper than a salad roll.

Sadly most people don't realize what we have lost through the corporate domination of our food supplies. Most New Zealanders will go through their lives without ever experiencing what it means to eat a diet that is full of locally produced fresh food and being aware of seasonal changes. This ignorance has meant that when McDonalds wanted to open a new outlet in Invercargill's South City health organisations submitted objections, but most of the local residents appear to be supporting it. There are few complaints about the cost of fresh food but the availability of a fast food outlet is supported with some energy.

Our Southern Farmers Market is struggling to attract new stall holders and we have few local suppliers of fresh food. Our local strawberry farm has just closed down, we lost our independent supplier of A2 milk and we have no fish stall because of the corporate control of fishing quotas. Few people want to risk growing the fruit and vegetables that Southland grows well because when the median income in Invercargill is only $27,400 there is little discretionary income to pay for good quality local food and supermarkets have cheaper options. Many customers walk away from our market because they feel can't afford the prices.

Even our local hospital will be spurning local suppliers of food when the contract goes to HBL. A similar thing has happened in Auckland and it will mean that the cheapest suppliers will be used even if the fish comes from Vietnam and the potatoes from Holland (as has happened in the past). The free market trade system has meant that our local producers have to compete in international markets where carbon footprints and worker exploitation are not factored. There is even a strong objection to providing clear country of origin labeling so that consumers have little way of telling where their food comes from. This is nothing about serving the best interests of consumers but supporting the best interests of corporate profits.

The neoliberal corporate culture has seen the likes of Monsanto and supermarkets control the production of food to suit their needs and this supports industrial, monoculture farming. Dairying now dominates agriculture in New Zealand and the quantity of milk produced is now more important than the quality or variety of products. Our local, lignite powered, Edendale Dairy factory has a drier capable of processing 100 litres of milk per second, producing 28 tonnes of milk powder per hour or 35 shipping containers full of milk powder every day. However when we have European wwoofers stay with us they tell us that our cheeses are not nearly as good as what is supplied by the many family businesses in their home country. Southland used to make the best porridge oats in the country but we are now a dairying province.

A recent UN report has claimed that if we really wanted to make the best use of our land to feed the world, we need to shift to small scale organic farms. The report advocates for a transformation towards "ecological intensification" and concludes, "This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external dependent industrial production toward mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small scale farmers."

Cuba has proven the success of small organic farms when trade embargoes stopped the importation of pesticides and herbicides and forced them to produce their own natural fertilizer and compost. Food production has increased and their mortality rate is now about the same as New Zealand and their life expectancy is better than the US.

Havana food market

A Government's role should be to regulate and control markets to make sure that that bullying monopolies and duopolies don't occur and that the health and welfare of the citizens aren't compromised by corporate greed. New Zealanders should have access to healthy fresh food that is grown locally and we should be supporting our own growers and encouraging quality and diversity.

(The image at the top is an early Summer harvest from our own small organic garden a couple of years ago)