Monday, February 29, 2016

Farming Children for Profit

Due to various national roles I have, and the fact I live in Invercargill, I spend many hours flying. The negative factor is my carbon footprint, but the positive is that I have great conversations with people sitting beside me who often have interesting jobs and life experiences. It expands my world view and enables me to find out more from people who have first hand experiences of areas that I am not directly connected with.

I have just returned from the South Island Green Party policy conference in Nelson and on different legs of my journey I sat with two people who worked in the early childhood education (ECE) sector. One was a teacher nearing retirement and the other worked as an Early Intervention teacher and our conversations revealed some worrying trends.

The woman involved with early intervention spoke about the growing cohort of children heading through the system with delayed language development. The reason for this is that many young parents do not engage their children in necessary conversations due to distractions of technology and hectic lives (her observation). Many under fives spend forty hours or more in private centres that are under-staffed and a large percentage of staff are not qualified. She described the proliferation of private centres that she referred to has "plastic" and inadequate. They had tiny outside play areas and plastic play equipment that were under constant competition because of the limited play options.  She also expressed frustration at the number of children who needed her support but couldn't receive it because of a lack of funding and the bureaucratic barriers involved in accessing it.

I had a similar conversation with the teacher who described understaffing in private centres, the artficial nature of the limited outside space (artificial turf) and the hours that many children spend in these centres. She described one child who was dropped off at 7 am and picked up 11 hours later at 6pm every working day. Many children apparently do not even have proper holidays and it wasn't unusual for children to rarely have a week off to spend extended time with their families. She had one child in her own centre who had severely delayed in development (under CYFs care) and the amount of paperwork and advocacy needed to get early intervention was problematic and by the time they got some support the child shifted to another foster home and left the centre. The transient nature of many struggling children is a problem in the primary system too as families chase jobs and affordable accommodation. In her private centre they had three qualified staff and two who weren't.

Care and eduction were once seen as essential roles of the state in a civil society. Introducing a profit motive to welfare and education generally has a negative impact on the vocational and ethical drivers that generally motivate most of those who work in these sectors. For-profit centres make more money if their wage bill can be reduced and their staffing numbers kept at a minimum. This Government cut funding to the early childhood sector by a whopping $400 million when they first took office and still underfunds the sector. Under Labour there was a goal of having centres work towards 100% qualified staff but a cap of 80% has since been put in place and those over 80% have experienced funding cuts. While Ministers talk about an increase in funding since the initial cut, it has no contextual base when you don't include the increasing numbers of children in early childhood facilities.

The participation levels of ECE in New Zealand are the third highest in the OECD with the average weekly hours of attendance for children under five increasing from around 13 hours to 21 hours over the last fifteen years. Many children will be spending considerably longer hours than 21 (given the earlier examples). The Government has promoted the view that mothers should be in employment as soon as possible and beneficiary parents are legally required to have their children attend ECE once a child is three. There is research demonstrating that children who have experienced ECE are better equipped to learn when they start primary school. However this is dependent on the quality of the education provided and good results could probably be achieved through just a few hours a week.

A recent survey of 600 early childhood teachers revealed that 25% wouldn't want their own child to attend the centre where they worked, citing limited facilities and no time for teachers to develop close relationships with the children. According to an Education Review Office (ERO) report last year: "Just over half of the ECE services reviewed had a responsive curriculum that supported infants and toddlers to become confident and competent communicators and explorers." That means almost half of those visited did not have a responsive curriculum that met the needs of children in their care, this is hugely worrying when we are talking about tens of thousands of children being subjected to care that is not meeting their developmental needs.

The social status given to people who support the most vulnerable in our society also dictates the quality of those attracted to jobs where there are constraints on incomes. Many of those who work in vital roles in education and care are paid the lowest wages and have the worst job security (especially teacher aids). Most are women.

Under a National Government the status of parenting has been seriously downgraded and we have seen education, social housing and elderly care become greenfield opportunities for private profit. Our top All Blacks have been advised that retirement homes are considered secure investments and private early childhood centres and home based care are popping up in every neighbourhood. This Government even subsidies corporate providers of ECE to set up operations in low decile communities despite the fact that those they support are clearly exploiting the system and tax payer money for their own profit. 

We have the second worst levels of child welfare in the OECD (29th out of 30) and concerning levels of child poverty and yet the main response from this government has been to get parents into work. Most are working now and we have low unemployment compared to most OECD countries and one of the highest percentages of working mothers (the number of sole mothers in the workforce has increased by almost 12% over the past ten years). However, at least 25% of our children have been living in relative poverty for the last 7 years with many of these children not having their basic daily needs met in terms of safe homes, regular healthy meals and appropriate clothing. If we have dramatically increased the workforce participation with no change to the levels of child poverty, then clearly employment isn't the main solution. Forcing parents into low paid jobs and adding child care costs to their financial problems is not really helping children or struggling families, it is just feeding the the growing ECE industry.

It appears that we are replicating what we have done to the dairy industry with our children. We have increased the numbers within the ECE industry by promoting quantity, not quality. We have not focused on adding value so that the end product is not something that will provide a good return. We have also ignored the external effects on what we are doing that will have costly implications later. It may be a little callous to refer to children as commodities, but it seems like our world now operates through the language of economics rather than the humanities.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Damn the poll, the real future is Green!

When I first became a member of the Green Party I was very sensitive to dropping polls and negative media. Within a year of joining Rod Donald died and the party had slumped to just over 5% in the 2005 election (losing 3 MPs). Political pundits were predicting a dire future for the party without Rod's charismatic leadership and the members were feeling a little battered and fragile.

Over ten years later the party is far more resilient. The predictions of doom and gloom did not eventuate and Rod's replacement, Russel Norman, while lacking in Rod's personable style forged his own legacy by giving the Greens greater economic credibility and helped to refine the Party's image and messaging. The Green Party became a serious political player and was even referred to as the "real opposition" when Labour struggled through a series of leadership changes.

Over the past three elections the Green party has more than doubled its votes (increasing numbers every time), brought in 13 new MPs (currently 14 in total) and has had three leadership changes without any loss of support. Immediately after the 2014 election one poll had us on 17.5% and we have been averaging over 10% across all polls for the last 6 years.

The Green Party now has a solid party machine, we have steadily growing membership numbers and employ more people outside parliament than ever before. We even raised more money than Labour for the last election campaign (more than double what we had raised for 2011).

Already this year the Green Party has received wide support for Metiria's suggestion in her first speech that Treasury should independently cost the election policies put forward by the main parties for the 2017 election. Gareth Hughes' reply to the Prime Minister's speech was one of the last (to a largely empty House) and yet it has gone viral on Facebook and You Tube. The speech is currently approaching 40,000 views, making it the most popular parliamentary speech this year by a wide margin. The Roy Morgan poll for the first half of February had the Green Party at 14.5%, the highest of any poll for over a year.

Immediately following the strong Roy Morgan poll was a One News Colmar Brunton result that had us on 8%. As has happened in the past with the Green Party, the pundits have leapt to some incredible conclusions while ignoring the margin of error and all the other indicators of the Party's health.

Chris Trotter suggested the possible demise of the Party and predicted a shift of Green voters to Labour. He ignores the fact that when Labour and the Greens had their best joint results leading into the 2014 election, both parties did well. It is quite clear that over the past 6 years the Greens have forged a strong 9-10% base of loyal supporters that are unlikely to desert the party so readily when there has been no obvious catalyst for this to occur. When both parties are performing strongly they don't steal votes from each other, they come from dissatisfied National supporters.

What the voters didn't get in 2014 was a viable alternative to National. No matter how bad National was (as revealed in Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics), voters were concerned at Labour's many leadership changes and its stubborn refusal to work with the Greens.

New Zealand First is seen by some as a more centrist and safer coalition partner for Labour, but this view is highly flawed. New Zealand First is a personality based party and when Winston grabs headlines with his rollicking style of populist politics, it polls well (although generally half that of the Greens). New Zealand First hasn't got a strong volunteer base and is unpredictable. Ron Mark's deposing of Tracey Martin as deputy leader pushed aside one of New Zealand First's more credible performers and he himself is seen as a loose cannon. If anything happens to Winston, what is left?

The Green MPs form a disciplined and experienced team with sensible, independently costed policies and is supported by strong volunteer numbers and effective organisation (the Greens led the signature gathering for the asset sale referendum). If Labour wants success in 2017 it needs to accept that most of the media and the polls refer to the Labour/Greens as the Government in waiting and it is that combination the majority of existing members and potential supporters prefer. The grass root membership of both parties are already working together on local campaigns as we are doing in Invercargill with our efforts to stop the sale of our state houses.

Labour has to treat the Greens with more respect than it has done before, it is no longer a minor party and any future coalition will not be similar to National's coalition relationship with Act and the Maori Party. It is quite likely that we will never have another "Labour led" government as in the Helen Clark years, the MMP configurations and voter loyalties have shifted substantially since then. The next progressive government that will be faced with repairing another National Government's mess will need to feature a stronger Green influence and a more cooperative coalition.

The necessary shift to a more sustainable, and kinder economy and addressing our environmental and social crises are what the Greens have been campaigning on since our formation and where we have already developed evidence based solutions. Both Labour and our country need the Green Party.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Why we shouldn't sign the TPPA

Tomorrow the initial signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement will occur in Sky City, Auckland. It does seem appropriate that a gambling venue was chosen for the occasion as this Government is certainly gambling with our country's future by signing us up to this. There will be further protests around the country as we take another step on the journey to committing ourselves to this far reaching agreement.

I will be supporting a day long protest action in Invercargill tomorrow. We have already had a march, rallies and public meetings regarding the TPPA here, but the big problem continues to be getting information out to ordinary people. To this end I have put together a small flier and I am grateful for some useful input from Prof Jane Kelsey, Bill Rosenburg (Economist and Director of Policy for the CTU) and other TPPA activists.

I have attempted to summarise important information I have drawn from peer reviewed papers that have been written since the documents have been released for public scrutiny.

Why we shouldn’t sign the TPPA

The economic benefits are minimal:
  • Without the TPPA our GDP will grow by 47% by 2030 (based on current growth rates), the TPPA will only add around 0.9%.
  • Tariff reductions of 1.3% on average by 2030 will be dwarfed by commodity price volatility and fluctuating exchange rates.
  • The TPPA did not open agricultural markets for our dairy production, one of the key drivers for signing.
  • The Trade distortions because of agricultural subsidies have not been addressed and these will continue to disadvantage New Zealand.
  • The TPPA may reinforce our position as a commodity producer and restrict our ability to progress up the added value chain.
  • The agreement will cost New Zealand around $79 million a year through eliminated tariffs and extended copyright rules.
Constitutional and regulatory implications:
  • The New Zealand constitution is a collection of statutes, court decisions and conventions and free trade agreements become an integrated part of that.
  • The TPPA will likely restrict the freedom of future Governments to implement regulatory and industrial policies in the public interest. It will also restrict SOEs and public owned entities from acting in the public interest.
  • The investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions will become a greater concern when we become part of a multi-national agreement. The average cost of defending a case is around $8 million and there is a real risk of the taxpayer having to fund massive compensation bills.
Impacts on ordinary New Zealanders and businesses:
  • The Government won’t be able to support Buy Kiwi preferences to encourage and protect local businesses and employment.
  • The TPPA will support a privatised model of health, education and social housing that includes PPPs. Medicine costs will rise.
  • Policies to improve housing affordability will be severely restricted, such as non-resident ownership of New Zealand property.
Environmental consequences:
  • Climate change is the environmental crisis of our time and shifting to a low carbon, global economy is essential. The TPPA does not address this in any meaningful way, despite the importance of trade as a key mechanism to lower carbon emissions.
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