Tuesday, December 6, 2016

John Key's Real Legacy

The defining element of John Key's reign as New Zealand's 38th Prime Minister will be his ability to maintain a high level of popularity while dogged by scandal and having few lasting achievements. He should be recognised for his political instincts and ability to steadily push through National's agenda while avoiding blame for numerous failures. The title "Telfon John" was one of the few things that stuck. Key's major effort to achieve a legacy for himself was to push for a new national flag and it failed dismally. His resignation may indeed be for genuine reasons, like spending time with his family, but the timing is also clever because the underfunding of Government sectors is going to be seriously exposed and the housing bubble is close to bursting. Key's money trader instincts are highly tuned and I'm sure he smells disaster ahead.

Under Key's watch our public debt has increased from $10 billion in 2008 under Labour to almost %70 billion now. Cutting income taxes for the already wealthy, not implementing a capital gains tax and refusing to effectively deal with corporate tax avoidance limited spending across Government sectors to achieve a surplus. Conservation has suffered badly after successive cuts and both health and education have experienced funding shortfalls over the past 8 years and many social services have been cut altogether.

John Key has been a prominent international leader because of his easy manner and willingness to pander to big business and big Governments. One of the most popular speeches online regarding the Prime Minister was one by Green MP Gareth Hughes where he listed Key's many failings.

Under Key we have seen...
  • inequality grow
  • a housing shortage reach epic proportions.
  • almost 30% of children living in poverty. 
  • a steady increase in GHG emissions and a weakening of the ETS
  • NZ plummet in global education rankings and a growing tail of achievement and education inequity.
  • the collapse off Solid Energy and a failure of Key's push to grow our coal and oil industries as an early flawed goal.
  • Novopay.
  • growing pay inequity between men and woman.
  • our waterways become more polluted through the encouraged intensification of the dairy industry.
  • an increase in human rights violations
  • growing corruption including the blatant support of tax avoiding foreign trusts.
  • increasing numbers of native fauna and flora nearing extinction.
  • numerous embarrassing reports of Key's peculiar behaviour from pulling pony tails to off colour statements.
  • 100s of thousands of New Zealanders having their health seriously compromised because of a lack of resourcing.
  • the use of facilitation payments (bribes) to enable trade deals. 
  • multi-billion dollar motorway projects supported, despite many failing cost/benefit analysis.
  • an increase in crimes of violence (especially domestic) and a growth in prisoner numbers to over 10,000.
  • a number of Government Ministers involved with conflicts of interest and dodgy dealings who are allowed to continue in cabinet.
  • serious flaws in the Christchurch recovery
  • numerous lies and deliberate misinformation. 
  • a massive investment in PR over policy analysis.
Some positive things have occurred under a John Key led Government including the change in legislation to allow same sex marriage and over 300,000 houses insulated. However neither were instigated nor championed by National.

The Green party refused to congratulate Donald Trump as President Elect because of his shocking and extreme stances during his campaign and I find it difficult to thank John Key for his service when majority of New Zealanders have seen a reduction in services and diminished quality of life, while an elite few prospered hugely. Under Key it has been the very rich in NZ who have really benefited, with many seeing their wealth increase annually by over 20%. While John Key claimed, after his victory in 2014, that he would govern for all New Zealanders, the evidence has been otherwise.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Cuba vs USA, what Castro really achieved

Castro's death has revealed the power of US propaganda. Here are some embarrassing facts when comparing the United States with Cuba in key areas:


Life expectancy
Cuba: 79.16
USA: 78.88

Health system, physician density
Cuba: 6.72 physicians per 1,000 population
USA: 2.45 physicians per 1,000 population

Obesity levels
Cuba: 21.5%
USA: 33.9%


Cuba: 1.5% below poverty line
USA: 14.8 % below poverty line


Government debt
Cuba: 17.0% of debt to GDP
USA: 104.1% of debt to GDP


Literacy rate, 15-14 year olds
Cuba: 100%
USA: 99% (this has been questioned when some sources claim 86% is more accurate)

Education expenditure
Cuba: 12.8% of GDP
USA: 5.2% of GDP


Incarceration rate
Cuba: 510 prisoners per 100,000 population
USA: 693 prisoners per 100,000 population


Countries occupied or bombed since 1980
Cuba: Nil
USA: 14 (these are just the Muslim nations, there may be more)

To have achieved such high living standards while suffering severe financial constraints because of the US trade embargo (and including several assassination attempts) deserves some recognition. Castro was a dictator, but a largely benevolent one. Nelson Mandela admired Castro and credited him with doing more to end apartheid in South Africa than anything the US did. Cuba has also shamed the US for the level of aid it has provided for struggling neighbours like Haiti. I'm sure few realise that not only did Cuba lead the world with its medical aid but the Cuban National Ballet is internationally regarded.

To compare Castro with the likes of Stalin, Hitler or Bin Laden displays a high level of ignorance and blind acceptance of propaganda. For the New Zealand media to support the attacks on Trudeau for recognising Castro's real achievements is embarrassing. Castro was no saint but as a leader he probably achieved more that should be celebrated than many.

Treating news as entertainment has dangerous consequences...

The commercialisation of our news media and the ease with which unethical and egocentric politicians can cynically manipulate public opinion is now reaching extreme proportions. 

In the UK the political interests of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson were advanced successfully because their bombastic personas and simplistic messaging were picked up so widely in media. It is a sad fact that news outlets with the largest readership maintain their dominance through sensationalism and gossip, rather than educated and informed journalism. This works well for those who have few scruples and are comfortable operating in that environment.

The circulation of printed newspapers have plummeted in the UK over the past six years and the dominant newspapers include the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. I used to read the Independent and the Guardian when I lived in the UK over twenty years ago and I was shocked to note that the Independent's circulation is now not much more than the population of Invercargill and the Guardian's has been halved since 2010 (now only 160,000). The Daily Mail dominates the online news space, with a monthly audience of 29 million, with little reporting of substance. Throughout the Brexit campaign it gave enthusiastic coverage of Johnson and UKIP's Farage with limited journalistic scrutiny.

In the US, against all predictions, Donald Trump won through a relatively modest campaign budget and the huge media exposure of his outrageous statements. Fox News is probably the US equivalent of the Daily Mail and its prominent news host, Sean Hannity, publicly endorsed Trump months before the election. The right wing conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, is an influential voice for many working class white Americans and he was also strong in his support of Donald Trump. Jones' radio show is syndicated across 130 stations and claims to have 80 million video views a month. Facts and balanced reporting are not usually associated with Hannity or Jones and yet their opinions had a huge influence on voters. 

Neoliberal, conservative governments have increasingly served the interests of multinationals and the banking and finance industries over the majority of citizens. To ensure their political success they have had to appeal to the very people who have been exploited through their policies. The working classes in developed countries have not fared well in a free market environment. Global competition has resulted in limiting wage increases, destroyed unions and reducing working conditions. Conservative governments can only be elected if they can shift attention from the real consequences of their policies, including increasing corporate welfare at the expense of spending on the welfare of ordinary citizens. The US Federal Reserve ended up spending $7.7 trillion to bail out financial institutions that had failed because of corrupt practices and greed. Fossil fuel companies continue to enjoy annual subsidies of around 6.5% of global GDP  (even New Zealand gifts $46 million to the oil and gas industry), despite the fact oil companies dominate the top twenty of the worlds richest.  

Restricting public access to information, denigrating academic and scientific opinion and encouraging the development of personality based election campaigns has served conservative politicians well until a recently. While the working and middle classes have watched wealth distribution shift to an upward flow to a wealthy few, their growing frustration has seen the rise of two distinct politcal ideologies. In the US this saw the grassroots development of the Tea Party, supported by the less educated working class. The younger generation of the middle class supported the Occupy movement. While both movements lack leadership and sustainable organisation they represented a growing dissatisfaction with the political establishment.

The growth and freedom of commercial media was once used effectively by the conservative establishment to disperse its spin, however, the increasing sensationalism of news and erosion of journalistic ethics has seen more colourful politicians capture the limelight. To the less educated Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson provide simple messages that resonate and support their prejudices. Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders encapsulated the idealism of the Occupy supporters with their principled stands and authenticity. Unfortunately the news media with the widest reach in both the US and UK have always attacked the left (note how Corbyn's Castro comments were framed) and so now we see Trump as the President Elect and Boris Johnson as Britain's Foreign Minister. 

In New Zealand our National Government has been supported by talk back radio and through commercialising public TV. John Campbell got shunted into the underfunded public radio and Mike Hosking's right-wing rants are promoted through prime time television. Apart from Winston Peters most of our populist and most bombastic politicians are found in the Government caucus. Key, Brownlee, Collins and Parata will be celebrating the latest polls

Now that news is being treated as entertainment, and populist personalities dominate politics, we must prepare for a future that will resemble a disaster movie. Nothing sells news better than disasters and we can depend on Boris, Donald and John to deliver. Human suffering and climate change will make great stories.  

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Prison numbers Government's fault

This Government refuses to take responsibility for our prison population approaching 10,000 and its failures have necessitated a proposed $1 billion expenditure on increasing capacity.

The Prime Minister is claiming that crime numbers are dropping and it is an increase in the severity of crime (especially domestic violence) and tougher sentencing that is causing the problem. John Key blames recreational drugs as a major factor in crime and child poverty, this is clearly disingenuous on his part and deliberate spin to shift responsibility away from his Government. We now have levels of incarceration that place us just below Mexico and make us the 7th worst in the OECD.

The last eight years under a National led Government has seen many lost opportunities and the underfunding of systems and services that could have easily broken the cycles of crime and reduced prison numbers:
When the Government is crowing about a $1.8 budget surplus and is willing to spend $1 billion on new prison beds, I do question their economic credibility and vision. It costs around $100,000 per annum to incarcerate each prisoner and spending a small fraction of that to keep them out of prison must be cost effective. Most prisoners are not a danger to society and many of those who need to be contained to protect others may not have ended up that way with timely interventions. 

Our focus on punishment rather than rehabilitation for offenders who have mental health and addiction issues means the causes of their criminal activities aren't being addressed. When we release prisoners back into the community with limited treatment and support we are not making communities safer. 

I do not believe that New Zealand has a higher percentage of criminals than most other countries and in many ways our systems are needlessly creating criminals and increasing risks to our communities. There are enough examples overseas to show that different models are effective in reducing prison numbers and ensuring that reoffending is less likely to occur. The Netherlands is closing prisons and serious crime is dropping there, the fact that the opposite is happening here is because of poor management not bad luck. 

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Real Cost of Bill's Surplus

The Government revealed a $1.8 billion surplus and hinted at possible tax cuts. The surplus is the product of increased income and limiting spending. Bill English explained how the surplus will "increase options" for the Government but the reality is that it has mostly been achieved by restricting options for too many and delaying important expenditure. Rather than saving money in a useful way the arbitrary limits on spending in crucial areas will result in increasing future costs and unnecessary suffering, the examples are numerous:
So Bill has delivered a budget surplus and future tax cuts are being held like a shining carrot in front of voters ahead of the 2017 elections. Any tax cuts will be paid for through reduced services and the increased suffering. According to Judith Collins the poor are to blame for their circumstances and the rich deserve their privileges (her candid thoughts reveal her government's lack of empathy for our struggling communities). 

Friday, October 7, 2016

Marama's Gaza Protest Justified

Marama Davidson's participation in the Women's Boat to Gaza should be celebrated with some pride in New Zealand. Marama joined twelve other women (including Nobel Laureate Mairead Maguire) in a peaceful action of solidarity to support the besieged people of Gaza.

Without protests such as this the plight of the Palestinian people in Gaza and the illegal activity of the Israeli Government can easily be ignored. The 2014 attacks on Gaza destroyed 100,000 Palestinians homes, killed over 2,000 (495 children) and left 900 survivors with permanent disabilities. An attempt by Turkey in 2010 to bring humanitarian support for those in Gaza resulted in an attack by Israeli forces that killed nine Turkish citizens.

Past New Zealand Prime Minister, Geoffrey Palmer, led a UN investigation into the Israeli blockade that found that it had resulted in "collective punishment" and was in "flagrant contravention of international human rights and humanitarian law".

Marama's participation in the Freedom Flotilla was a principled decision and a brave one considering the past reactions of the Israeli forces. Given that the blockade has now been in force for almost ten years it is clear that international diplomacy has failed and peaceful protest action is necessary to highlight the realities of the ongoing suffering.

When Marama was captured while still in international waters, and detained by Israeli authorities, I would have expected recognition from our Government for her bravery and immediate condemnation for her detention. The response has been the opposite. The Prime Minister described Marama's detention as "a less-than-perfect look" and Judith Collins described the protest as "a stunt" and suggested that Marama is paid to do a job in New Zealand. Their responses ignored the fact that a vote was put to the House in support of the Women's Boat to Gaza by Catherine Delahunty and it was passed with a clear majority.

This reaction from a Government that has welcomed tax avoiding foreign trusts, blatant money laundering and bribing a Saudi businessman is predictable. Human rights have never been high on John Key's agenda as Prime Minister and his answers to Metiria Turei's questions revealed that he had no intention of making a stand on the biggest human rights issues confronting the world today. New Zealand gained a lot of international respect in the past for human rights advocacy, but no longer. This Government barely pays lip service to human rights treaties we have signed and this is becoming noticeable internationally as we seek trade deals with morally corrupt regimes, do little to meet our climate change targets and ignore growing child poverty.

Thank you, Marama, for your bravery and making me even more proud to be a member of the Green Party.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Incomes and housing major issues for Invercargill

The Southland Regional Development Strategy (SoRDS) is a well intentioned initiative supported by the Gore District Council, the Southland District Council and the Invercargill City Council. While the final strategy is still to be publicly released some key issues have been identified and some solutions suggested. The region's population is a relatively static and aging one, therefore a goal of increasing our population by 10,000 people by 2025 has already been proposed as a major goal.

I have some serious concerns about the logistical issues and economic realities of this goal. I asked Tom Campbell (SoRDS Chair) a question regarding our current housing supply and quality during a recent presentation and he informed the meeting that the provision of the necessary infrastructure was not part of their brief. I also have expressed my concern about the people that SoRDS are hoping to attract, it appears that the key magnets will be the Southern Institute of Technology's educational opportunities and jobs created by the tourist industry and an expansion of aquaculture. While these industries will create greater economic activity, fish factory workers, service workers and students don't generally have deep wallets.

Invercargill has housing problems not that dissimilar from Auckland, relative to our population. We have around 400 homeless at any given time and a shortage of supply. No new state houses have been built in Invercargill since the early 90s and the quality of rental housing is poor. I am part of a community housing steering group that has gained funding from the Invercargill City Council to pay a researcher to properly quantify our current housing needs, which already appear extensive.

If we are going to bring in 10,000 more people here we need to have appropriate housing and we probably should address the current needs first before we add more pressure to the rental market. If most of those arriving will be earning minimal wages, few will be buying or building their own homes. We don't want to end up with similar housing problems to Queenstown and need to plan ahead.

Local retailers in the Invercargill inner city are struggling to survive and there are a growing number of empty spaces. While creating more attractions like a new public art gallery may help, few have identified our low wage economy as a contributing factor. Half of those of working age in Invercargill earn less than $27,400 and and only 23.5% earn more than $50,000. Despite the Southland region earning around 12% of New Zealand's export income with just 3% of the population, our median income is less than the national median.

Over the last decade or so we have lost many state and private sector jobs that supported higher incomes. DoC has had major staffing cuts, the IRD has a reduced presence and banks are closing branches and reducing staff. The dairy boom did not support higher wages for farm workers and the exploitation of international students and migrant workers has been an issue here as it has elsewhere. Invercargill got its first Decile 1 school after the last census because of the decline in family incomes.

Invercargill needs good jobs and good housing and it will need leadership from local and central governments to achieve it, paying living wages may be a first step...

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Invercargill has a housing crisis too!

Last month I helped organise a housing forum in Invercargill as a member of the Invercargill Social Housing Action committee. My role was to try and organise representatives of the government agencies, that had responsibilities for social housing, to attend and to obtain the latest data on social housing in the city. This turned out to be a difficult task as there are no publicly available telephone numbers for the local managers (both of whom are based in Dunedin).

I tried ringing Housing New Zealand's 0800 number and after a couple of attempts (waiting 5-10 minutes and being told all lines were busy through high demand) I realised that instant service is not a feature of the 'corporation'. I resorted to trying a back door method by ringing a number that was well promoted on the site for the public to use if they suspected state housing fraud (or dob in a tenant). I got an instant response, but this service had been contracted out and had no direct link to HNZ.

An email link did get a helpful reply from the HNZ area manager, Kate Milton, who described services the corporation provided and shared details regarding local housing stock. She was initially enthusiastic about driving from Dunedin to attend our meeting, but later decided against it. Milton explained that HNZ had largely become a property manager and the responsibility of managing waiting lists and determining housing needs and income related rents was the role of the Ministry for Social Development. My emails to the MSD area manager remain unanswered.

There is some MSD data on housing waiting lists available online, the most recent last month being March, and it showed that 14 individuals or families were on the priority waiting lists (June data is now available and the number is now 13).

HNZ currently manages 373 properties in Invercargill (363 HNZ properties and 10 Community Group Houses). The Government's attempt to sell up to 350 of the state houses has appeared to have failed with no buyers at this point. 7 Invercargill state houses (including 1 CGH) are currently up for private sale. Interestingly in 1992 the Southland region had around 800 state houses, according to a past employee.

Based on the Government's own data one could conclude that there is not a great need for social housing in Invercargill. A waiting list of 13 seems relatively minimal and the number of state houses in the region appears to have dropped by 50%, presumably because of decreasing demand.

Our housing forum drew a different picture based on locally generated data and the presentations of those at the frontline of housing support in the city.

We managed to bring together a number of organisations and individuals with an interest in social housing, including: State housing tenants, the Salvation Army, Breathing Space Trust, Habitat for Humanity, Family Works, Grey Power, Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu, Citizens Advice Bureau, National Council of Women, South Alive, Public Health South, Southland Warm Homes Trust, Southland Beneficiaries and Community Rights Centre, Awarua Synergy, Invercargill City Council and representatives from the Green, Labour and National Parties. The Invercargill Women's Refuge and Budget Advisory Service could not attend but sent messages of support.

A full morning of presentations and discussions produced a worrying picture of housing need in Invercargill:
  • In the 2006 census there were 330 severely housing deprived people in Southland and the Salvation Army estimate at least 400 are in that situation currently
  • No new state houses have been built in Invercargill since 1992 and the average age of state houses across the country is around 45 years. Many of Invercargill's state houses appear to be be in need of maintenance and the schedules used 20-30 years ago for ensuring ongoing maintenance appears to have been abandoned. Bill English has admitted that there is $1.5 billion worth of deferred work needed to be done across the country. 
  • While some state house tenants were happy with the quality of their home others shared stories of damp conditions, poor maintenance, and workman arriving unannounced and without identification.
  • Those who got into a state house felt privileged, despite the condition of many houses, as the process to get into one was protracted (for some demeaning) and often taking several months. Many are not successful. There was some anxiety expressed around the future of their state houses and their security of tenure. 
  • State housing tenants' rents increased with income and consequently the financial benefits of increased work were often minimal. 
  • The Breathing Space Trust had 101 emergency housing inquiries in the year to date and had provided 201 bed nights for those in desperate need. The Trust struggled with providing 24 hour staffing and appropriately separating different genders and vulnerable families. 
  • There was a severe shortage of accommodation for single people with mental health issues (the DHB is cutting funding for supported housing in the region), chronic health conditions and former prisoners.
  • Local social housing providers voiced concerns that they didn't have the expertise or financial support to deal with clients with complex needs and this was one of the reasons they didn't want to engage with the government's attempt to privatise the state housing.
  • There are few rental properties available for families for less than $200 per week. Many families in Invercargill are struggling on low incomes that make meeting the costs of rent and heating the poorly insulated homes difficult. According to the the 2013 census 46.6% of those of working age in Invercargill earned less than $20,000 (only 14% earned more than $50,000). While housing may be cheaper in Invercargill than further north our incomes are lower and heating costs are greater. 
  • Private landlords and Real Estate Agents generally avoid those with poor credit histories, bad references (no matter how historic) and prior dealings with the tenancy tribunal. An agent for a local real estate company said they turned away a lot of people and had no idea where they would eventually find a house because they would not fit HNZ criteria.
  • There is a shortage of good quality rental properties for students shifting to Invercargill to study. 
  • The Invercargill City Council also owned social housing and had 215 units (34 studio and 180 1 BR units). These were rented out to those over 65 years on low incomes at $85-$106 a week. The Council's housing had a 95% occupancy rate with a waiting list of 32. The social housing currently operated in a cost neutral manner but many will need substantial and costly upgrading that will draw on ratepayer funds. Whether the ICC should own and manage social housing is a debatable issue for some ratepayers.  
  • Although there is no data on the numbers of substandard housing in Invercargill, a drive around many streets in the south of the city will reveal many 70-100 year old houses that are occupied but clearly in need of repair. There are some new lower cost homes being built. A local community nurse told me that substandard housing was a major contributing factor for poor health in children.
Those who attended the forum felt it would be very worthwhile to continue to meet to share knowledge and support each other in our work. ICC Councillors Neil Boniface and Becs Amundsen thought that the Council should take a leadership role in facilitating future meetings and I supported this. 

The Southland Regional Development Strategy supports the growth of Invercargill's population through welcoming migrants and promoting our tertiary education opportunities. To attract and retain people in our city we will need to increase the quantity and quality of our housing, this will mean doing what we can at a local level to support the housing deprived. Lifting incomes of low waged earners will help many and that means local businesses paying their employees livable wages and providing greater job security. It will also mean putting pressure on the Government to lift their level of support for social housing and those who are unlikely to find a good home in the private market. It is clear that too many are falling between the gaps.

Invercargill has a housing crisis too. 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The National Government's Shiny Pants

Health Minister Jonathon Coleman's spat with Treasury rang warning bells for me. It has been spun to look as though the good doctor wanted to fund much needed bowel cancer screening, but those nasty fiscal idealogues in Treasury blocked it. However reading Treasury's actual comments paints a different picture, it was lack of planning and 'under-funding' that created its concern. Treasury was not prepared to support an initiative that was unlikely to achieve its stated goals.

The Minister for the Greater Christchurch Regeneration Gerry Brownlee also suffered under Treasury's criticsms. Poor linking between project planning and transitional planning was cited, which meant decisions were out of sync and there wasn't sufficient regard for implications. Brownlee blustered about "lack of respect" and dismissed Treasury as mere "book keepers". However, talk to many in Christchurch and they will tell you about the frustration around the poor co-ordination and delays.

Treasury has also expressed concern about the way housing market has been managed in Auckland and rather than taking a "book keeper" view Gabriel Makhlouf made a speech where he suggested there should be greater consideration for public transport and the social implications on non home owners in the city. While Makhlouf generally has a more monetarist approach to policy than I would like, he appears far more socially responsible than the Government.

This Government has actually developed quite a reputation for poor planning and limited strategy. Too many of its past decisions have been found wanting and its oversight limited. There is an arrogance that emanates from current Ministers that they are all knowing and important decisions can be based on gut feelings rather than evidence. This gung ho, "seat of the pants" style of governance is dangerous and costly. Poor decisions over the past 8 years have had enormous fiscal, social and environmental implications and National has been reliant on spin and short memories to blunder on with limited opposition.

It seems that the introduction of National Standards has been forgotten, when teachers and schools were bullied into implementing a system while it was still being designed. School boards that requested more information were threatened with sacking if they didn't just comply.

Novopay is an ongoing debacle when three Ministers gave the go ahead for implementation despite numerous identified design faults and a struggling Ministry (it had just been assessed as the poorest performing Ministry by the Prime Minister's office).

It has been largely forgotten that the $13 billion motorway projects were never based on any solid cost benefit analysis and the current spending on transport is still ideologically focussed on roads when public transport, cycling and rail desperately need greater recognition.

Hekia Parata has been over-ruled twice by court decisions that have indicated that she had a little appreciation of good process and had a lack of concern for the families and children involved. The process used for closing Christchurch schools was particularly heartless at a time when school communities were very vulnerable. Too many education decisions are being based on ideology and whim than educational evidence.

Murray McCully's disastrous attempt to change MFaT was clearly based on limited advice and so too his $11.5 million expenditure to bribe a Saudi business man.

When climate change has become the number one crisis confronting the world, this Government still has no clear strategy to deal with our emissions, has set one of the lowest targets in the world and cut the funding to advisors.

It is also clear that the Government has no idea how to effectively address the ever expanding housing bubble or provide the social housing that is desperately needed. It refused to put in place any strategy to deal with housing when it knew it was a problem before 2008. Years of inaction has resulted a whole series of last minute decisions that are scattergun solutions at best. Bill English has been struggling to remain unsurprised when first hearing from the media that Paula Bennett was offering $5,000 to homeless to leave town and that Joyce had pronounced that Housing NZ wasn't expected to pay a dividend.

While Ministers consistently ignored the advice from ministries, departments, commissioners and ombudsmen they had at least run ideas past the cabinet and organised the PR before going public. However it now appears that even that basic check has been abandoned and Ministers seem to be leading their own fiefdoms to do as they please. With so many seat of the pants decisions and multiple U turns one can expect shiny pant seats will become an identifying characteristic of this Government's front bench. Many risk slipping off their seats altogether...

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

NZ Olympic Team Exposes Inequality

The inequalities within our New Zealand society has been starkly revealed in our Olympic Team according to sports journalist Dylan Cleaver. The team is largely white, with the rugby sevens sneaking in the few brown faces. This is a damning indictment on the lack of inclusiveness in many of our sporting codes and their spending. When one considers how many of our  internationally successful athletes are Polynesian then it seems shortsighted to make participation in so many sports dependent on family income.

By 2038 the Super Diversity Stocktake has determined that 51% of New Zealanders will be Maori, Pasifika or Asian and those of European descent will be in the minority. Despite this reality the majority of the funds coming from High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ) goes to sports that require considerable expense to participate in: rowing, cycling, sailing, equestrian, triathlon. Even sports like athletics and swimming, that don't have such a heavy equipment outlay, require membership fees and training commitments that are beyond the resources of many families.

A good deal of the funding to support elite sports comes from gambling proceeds. Over $2 billion a year is raked in through gambling machines, the TAB, lotteries and casinos. There is a predominance of gambling machines in poorer communities so that we now have a system where those who come from affluent families are more likely to participate in high level sport and much of the external financial support comes from poor communities.

The sporting inequity begins at school where most children's initial sports experiences occur. There are now clear inequalities in the sporting facilities and opportunities open to students attending low decile schools compared to high decile and private schools.

Wanganui Collegiate is a private secondary school that caters for 450 students and it was given a $3 million dollar bailout when it got into financial difficulty. With taxpayer support it provides a range of sports for its students including: sailing, cycling, triathlons, rowing (it has its own rowing shed) and skiing/snowboarding. The school also provides training grants to support its higher achieving athletes. The majority of the students come from affluent homes and the parents pay substantial fees to ensure small classes and high quality facilities.

The odds are stacked against Maori and Pasifika students to succeed in sport. A large percentage come from low income families and have to live in substandard housing. 15% of Maori children are obese and 30% of Pasifika Children. Most attend low decile schools that struggle to attract the same level of community funding to support sports equipment and facilities that high decile and private schools enjoy. Many Maori and Pasifika families can't afford club fees or the clothing and equipment to participate in sports outside the main codes supported by the school. Transporting their children to different venues is also prohibitive for many.

The Government has made it clear that their focus is on literacy and numeracy in primary schools and increasing pass rates for NCEA Level 2 at secondary level. PE advisors have been sacked and fewer teachers have the time or knowledge to coach sports teams outside school hours as they once did. As assessment demands have grown teachers are reluctant to spend their valuable time on sport and the shrinking number of male teachers in primary schools hasn't helped either.

Experiencing success is important for children's wellbeing and sense of self-worth. By downgrading the value of physical activity and athletic skills in schools we are limiting many children from being able to fully enjoy their education or be recognised for all their abilities. Our children need to have a balanced education and participating in PE and sport provides many useful life skills such as discipline and cooperation. For many students living in difficult circumstances, sporting prowess is a very real way of creating positive opportunities and lifting them out of the cycle of poverty.

When given support our Maori and Pasifika kids have become champions on the world stage and who knows how many potential gold medal winners in sailing, rowing and shot put are sitting in low decile classrooms at this very moment, just waiting to be discovered.

It would be great to see a picture of a future New Zealand Olympic team that truly reflects our wonderfully diverse society.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The National Government cares about the homeless

The National Government Ministers stepped out of their fleet of BMWs and picked their way through the central Auckland streets bringing words of comfort to the many homeless filling the doorways and huddled in cars. There had been a lot of negative press about their 'comprehensive' housing strategy and they wanted to reassure those with the greatest needs that they were doing everything they possibly could. The Labour/Green inquiry into homelessness wouldn't be necessary because they are on top of the issue.

The PM put his hand gently on the shoulder of an elderly woman wrapped in a tattered blanket. "It's not a crisis," he said soothingly, "we are going to make some changes to the RMA to address your housing challenges."

Anne Tolley spoke reassuringly to a family who were settling their children down on their cardboard beds for the night. "I have a nice warm motel for you at $120 a night, " she offered. "You can pay us back  in your own time and without interest. We really care about your situation and I am concerned about your disabled daughter."

Paula Bennett sidled up to a dreadlocked man with a long tangled beard who was cocooned in a grubby sleeping bag. "Pssst!" she hissed conspiratorially. "Here's $5,000 if you leave town."

Nick Smith tapped on the window of a battered van, the interior of the windows were running with condensation and carrier bags of belongings were stuffed in every available corner. "Don't worry...," Smith said to one of the many occupants as the window was wound down, "I'm just converting a traffic island into special housing, I've got the consents."

Gerry Brownlee became exasperated at the negative response he got from young Maori couple with a baby. "I'm sick and tired of your carping and moaning!" Brownlee blustered. "I know you have been living this way for months but you need to know that we are doing everything we can to help you."

Steven Joyce took Brownlee aside. "There, there Gerry," he said soothingly, "they just don't understand that these things take time and they are just one of many who need support. Media Works are struggling again too."

Bill English was addressing a group spread across some sheltered steps. "...so then we found that they were all the wrong size and in the wrong place. You see the Government isn't very good at social housing so we are better out of it altogether..."

Judith Collins stood with her hands on her hips and spoke firmly to the man lying at her feet. "I don't care if you found the jacket in a skip, it looks like a patch to me and I'm not helping any member of a nasty gang!"

As the Government Caucus moved down Queen Street sharing their words of hope and compassion the Salvation Army followed some distance behind, doing what they always do, dealing with the human casualties of yet another National Government.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Governor General should sack our corrupt Government

New Zealand politicians and journalists are ranked well below most professions for trustworthiness in public opinion. There seems to be an increased acceptance that politicians can't be trusted to tell the truth or genuinely work in the interests of those they are supposed to serve. The fourth estate is supposed to expose corruption and keep our politicians honest and yet journalists are not trusted in this role either. Three recent events have revealed real corruption within our Government and exposed how ineffectual our news media has become in holding them to account.

Murray McCully features prominently in two events, the Saudi Farmer bribe and the bullying of MFAT officials. The third event is the internationally embarrassing revelations around our foreign trust regime and the Government's duplicity in supporting them.

TV3s The Nation has revealed some damning information regarding the $11.5 million Saudi sheep farm deal and exposed the obvious lies that were used to justify the deal. While there was always doubt around McCully's claims that the payments were necessary to stop expensive legal action from a disgruntled Saudi farmer, Newshub journalists have further exposed his deception. The National Government was so intent on achieving a trade deal with Saudi Arabia (despite its shocking human rights record) that McCully was prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to achieve it.

There was a concerted effort from the Minister to get around animal welfare regulations in shipping live sheep for slaughter and a willingness to spend $11.5 million of public money to help influence a trade deal. McCully's actions resulted in extreme levels of animal suffering and no trade deal. To put the expenditure into perspective, this one Saudi businessman received more in bribes from New Zealand than what the Government is prepared to spend annually for emergency housing.

McCully was also behind the flawed attempt to radically change the funding and functions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and trade (MFAT). His bullying approach in forcing through changes, with limited consultation, resulted in widespread concern from officials and internal documents were leaked to the opposition.

McCully attacked officials for daring to question his judgment and the State Services Commission supported a witch hunt inquiry by Paula Rebstock that went well beyond the brief and targeted two officials as scapegoats. Derek Leask was one of the officials named by Rebstock and a recently released Ombudsman report has revealed that he was unfairly targeted and his career and professional standing were unjustifiably destroyed. McCully has refused to apologise.

The Panama Papers exposed the global networks involved in setting up and supporting tax havens to avoid tax and launder illegal funds. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, including New Zealand's Nicky Hager, investigated the leaked papers and revealed the extent of corruption. It turned out that New Zealand is widely recognised as a tax haven and our weak foreign trust regulations were actively supported by the Government. Our Prime Minister's personal lawyer even lobbied to limit stronger disclosure and ignore official advice so that local trust managers could continue to profit from the existing regime.

John Shewan's review of our foreign trusts has exposed the deliberate misinformation provided by John Key and his Ministers in defending their oversight of the foreign trusts. The Listener highlighted the extent of the lying and "half truths" in Ron Pol's myth busting article this week.

Journalists have made a reasonable job of investigating and reporting on all three stories and I think that on the whole the public perception of journalists as untrustworthy is unfair. I believe that the environment that journalists now have to work in has changed considerably and this has reduced their effectiveness to hold politicians to account.

In all of these stories journalists have provided strong evidence of unethical behaviour, deliberately misinforming the public (lying) and considerable conflicts of interest. In the past, similar revelations would have resulted in public apologies, resignations and destroyed careers, but no longer. Major political stories now have a fleeting life and barely resonate amongst voters. The commercialisation of our media has resulted in serious news stories competing with social gossip and programming that chases ratings and profit as a priority rather than providing a public service.

New Zealand is one of the few countries in the OECD where state owned television is expected to run a purely commercial operation. While Radio New Zealand still provides a public service it has been increasingly hamstrung by an ongoing funding freeze.

When one compares the behaviours that resulted in Lianne Dalziel's and Kate Wilkinson's resignations with what Ministers are currently getting away with, there is cause for concern. McCully's unethical behaviour and irresponsible use of public funds are serious enough for him to be forced to leave parliament altogether. Instead an inquiry into the Saudi affair is not progressing with any urgency and he has largely rejected the findings of the ombudsman. The PMs conflict of interest in supporting his personal lawyer in lobbying a junior Minister and his Government's disregard of advice to tighten foreign trust disclosures has badly damaged New Zealand's international reputation.

We have reached a point where our fourth estate is no longer able to effectively hold the Government to account and Ombudsman reports (and therefore the Office of the Ombudsman) are not being properly respected or acted on. Given also the shocking management of our housing crisis, the growing numbers of New Zealand families being forced into poverty and the undemocratic veto of the Parental Leave Bill there is a clear case for the Governor General to activate his reserve powers. The only way to deal with this level of corruption and incompetence is to declare the dissolution of Parliament and to call new elections.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Green Party's endless calls for inquiries justified

Even though the Green Party itself jokes about its constant calls for inquiries there is a good deal of truth to the last sentence of a 2012 satirical post: "Every time the Green Party cries wolf it turns out there is one."

Our Prime Minister has been desperately spinning the results of John Shewan's report into New Zealand's foreign trust regime. Even though there was some concern from the opposition that Shewan's insider status would mean a weak review, it hasn't panned out that way. The report is actually very damning of the weaknesses of the current regime and recommends that changes are needed around disclosure. While Shewan wasn't prepared to say that New Zealand was operating as a tax haven, we clearly didn't have robust systems in place to detect illegal activities. While we may not fit the OECD criteria for a tax haven we were obviously being used as one and had been advertised as such by trust managers.

If it wasn't for the Panama Papers New Zealand's foreign trust laws would probably not have undergone this scrutiny and most New Zealanders would have been unaware of our tax haven reputation. Before the dodgy regime was exposed to sunlight the Government was more than happy to support it and Key himself promoted the $24 million in income that was generated for the few involved in the industry. He clearly had full knowledge of what was really happening as his own personal lawyer lobbied to protect the industry and was up to his eyeballs in operating dodgy trusts.

The Government was forced into the review and even when appointing someone considered 'trust friendly' it still exposed the soft approach it has had to regulating potentially damaging and illegal economic activity.

The Government actively discourages any scrutiny of its governance and despite talking about greater transparency and openness, does everything it can to achieve the opposite. After joining the Open Government Partnership our Government has ensured it does the least possible to honour its obligations and it has recently sacked the Stakeholder Advisory Group to reduce activity and stakeholder involvement even further. This Government is very good at signing up to declarations for human rights and greater transparency and then doing the opposite. The UN's reports on New Zealand's human rights record identify more breaches and concerns each time (64 recommendations in 2009 to 155 in 2014).

The Official Information Act (OAI) was supposed to allow New Zealanders and the Opposition to have access to any information in the public interest and yet the Prime Minister was very open about the fact that information is often withheld if it was in the Government's political interests. Documents that are eventually released do not always provide the information sought because of strategic redactions (blacked out sections).

One of the most important institutions for providing authoritative scrutiny of the Government's operations is the Office of the Ombudsman. This office has had an increased work load, especially around IOA complaints. In 2013 there had been an increase in complaints of almost 30% on the previous year (13,684 complaints) but inadequate funding to do the work in a timely fashion. Even though the Government has increased funding a little there is still huge backlog and the Chief Ombudsman has requested $2.6 million to clear the 650 cases that are one to six years old.

The damning report on the highly flawed MFAT inquiry conducted by Paula Rebstock exposed how the Government deals with public servants who question their decisions. Ron Paterson, the Ombudsman who wrote the report into the inquiry, resigned after its release.

It is also interesting to note that the respected author of Parliamentary Practice in New ZealandDavid McGee, also served as an Ombudsman. Just before retirement (and despite a heavy workload) he conducted his own investigation into the appalling process used to close Christchurch schools after the earthquake, such was his personal concern about reported abuses of power and poor process.

The pressure on our Ombudsmen is obviously intense and the reception to reports that negatively impact on the Government are not well received. The previous Chief Ombudsman Beverley Wakem was easily exposed in a Lisa Owen interview as being in a compromising position when trying to defend her review of the OIA. Owen quickly found evidence that showed the review was a white wash and Wakem's reluctance to criticise the PMs blatant disregard of the law was telling. It would be very interesting to know which cases have been ignored for 6 years and what influence the Government does have on the office behind the scenes.

Good governance should be based on evidence and those most affected by decisions should be properly consulted, yet neither of these are priorities for this Government. Those charged with carrying out its ideologically driven agenda are paid handsomely and those who are employed in watchdog roles are under-resourced and actively discouraged.

We owe a lot to those who risk their careers and reputation by telling the truth and exposing corruption. It shouldn't be so hard for our public watchdogs to do their work and it shouldn't be at such a high personal cost. The bad treatment of official whistleblowers isn't new (as anyone who remembers what happened to Justice Mahon will know), but it shouldn't still be happening.

Perhaps we need another inquiry?

Thursday, June 23, 2016

New funding system will damage public education further.

The Global Education Reform Movement (Germ) has spread its Neo-liberal tentacles into public education systems around the world. New Zealand's public education system has not been damaged as badly as many and this is largely because we began as a world leader and it takes some time to breakdown a professional culture that took more than sixty years to build.

The New Zealand public education system was continually assessed as one of the top four in the world for many decades, largely because of Clarence Beeby's 1940s shift to a child centred approach to teaching. Beeby believed that an education system shouldn't be driven by assessment but by lifting the quality of teaching through high quality professional development. Investing in the professional support of teachers through a well funded advisory service was considered the best way to improve teacher practice and achieve the best outcomes for children. Using evidence to inform professional development was also extremely important.

The things that made our education system a world leader have been cut and eroded over the last seven years and an earlier post (over 55,000 views) lists the multitude of damaging decisions and policy shifts the sector has experienced under the current Government. Ideology rather than evidence continues to drive change.

Despite the clear failure of the Charter Schools, Hekia Parata is allowing more to become established at great expense. The cost per pupil in Charter Schools is well beyond the expenditure of the public system and yet they are continuing amidst ongoing evidence that their performance is substandard while the operational funding for public schools has been frozen.

Some of the biggest spends in education are actually related to capital works or addressing delayed maintenance, fixing leaky schools and building new schools to accommodate an increasing population. While the Government claims the budget for education is increasing, schools are seeing little difference in their operational funding.

This Government is determined to continue with the National Standard assessment system that is not designed to identify the holistic needs of children and we are witnessing a decline in our global rankings for achievement. It continues to invest more in private schools while under funding special needs support and lower decile schools. It has only paid lip service to targeting funding to 'priority learners' and the reality for most schools is that there is little money available for those most deserving of extra support. Many schools are now more concerned about the basic health needs of their pupils and increasing transience caused by expensive housing and insecure employment than National Standards assessments in literacy and numeracy. The internationally regarded Dunedin Study has shown that if a child experiences poverty and deprivation in their early years, permanent damage will occur to their physical and mental heath as adults.

Bulk funding of schools was tried and rejected in the 1990s because of the pressure on schools to balance general operation costs with teacher pay and it is still an issue with support staff whose pay comes out of operational funding. Bulk funding also creates winner and loser schools based on a financial lottery rather than student outcomes. When there is a pay increase, but no extra funding, then a school has to cut hours or expenditure elsewhere to accommodate it. Bulk funding favoured the employment of inexperienced (but cheaper) teachers, larger class sizes and the downgrading of professionalism as a driver for recruitment and retention.

A new system of funding teacher salaries is being proposed that will operate in a similar way to bulk funding. While teacher salaries will still be paid through a central system, schools will be given a set amount to cover salaries.  Any underspend will be credited back the the school and an overspend will have to be recovered. This will clearly be a one size fits all approach where schools that are staffed by a larger number of more experienced teachers will struggle to keep within their budget and schools with a larger number of unqualified or inexperienced staff will be rewarded. Staffing decisions should be based on professional suitability and having schools staffed largely with highly qualified and experienced teachers as a common goal.

I once taught with a wonderful experienced teacher in the UK many years ago, she was highly effective and loved by her students.  Her passion was classroom teaching and she didn't want to lose that by taking on a leadership role. However when she attempted to apply for jobs in other schools she found that she had become unemployable. Her qualifications and years of experience put her on the top salary level and within a bulk funded system she had become too expensive for most schools to consider. I can't imagine a hospital not employing a heart surgeon because he/she is too well qualified and experienced. This is a dangerous path to take and will likely see us dropping even further in international rankings.

Monday, June 20, 2016

National Government Driving Drunk!

This National Government is clearly intoxicated with money, power and influence and has impaired vision. Ministers replying to questions in the house, especially the PM, respond with arrogance and abuse not dissimilar to a drunk being reprimanded for bad behaviour.

Drunk drivers display poor judgement and barely notice the roadsigns or the road markings. The deterioration of our country's natural environment, the numbers of children experiencing poverty and the severe lack of housing are visible everywhere one looks but have been irresponsibly ignored.

This Government is also a hit and run driver. It hits NGOs and government services with funding cuts, drives away from the casualties and blames others for the damage. The Government often appears unaware of the bumps as the wheels of its car run over the bodies of its many victims.

A drunk driver can't implement complicated manoeuvres and this National Government botched the implementation of Novopay and finds driving the complex route through new housing areas too difficult. It is crashing into side barriers, bumping over curbs and killing innocent bystanders in the process.

Despite clearly being well over the limit and not being able to walk a straight line, clever PR, distractions and using loopholes in the law have enabled it to escape prosecution.

We have a drunk driver that is oblivious to the fact that there is also a pile of unrestrained and unprotected kids in the back seat of a car that has failed its Warrant of Fitness. The Children's Commissioner has rightly pointed out that promising to purchase a new model car in the future will do nothing to protect the children in danger now.

The most sensible thing to do would be to stop the car, ask the driver to step out and remove the 'Key'.