Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Bill English cares deeply about his books

Prime Minister Bill English majored in English Literature and this background has taught him the importance of caring for books. Under his stewardship as Treasurer, and now Prime Minister, the Government's books having never been in better shape. Bill has instructed and guided all Ministers about the proper care of their books and much effort and staffing has been put into dusting and polishing their books and making sure they are neatly arranged.

While there has been much demand on the Government and its Ministers to open their books and be a little more generous in their use, strong discipline has been needed to ensure that the books remain firmly on the shelves. Open books and dog-eared pages are an anathema to Bill and when his footsteps are heard around the beehive corridors there is a flurry of activity as books are hurriedly closed and shelved.

This focus on book-keeping has meant necessary sacrifices have had to be made:
Bill English celebrated his success at keeping the books in good shape and achieving an incredible $1.8 billion budget surplus by eating a pie, it would be out of character to spend anything more to recognise this achievement. 

I guess all of us should feel a level of pride in contributing to what may be the best looking government books in the world. By sleeping in a car, waiting a few years for a hip replacement or eye surgery and suffering the occasional flood or home invasion we have collectively supported Bill's dream. He will go down in history as one of New Zealand's best bookkeepers. 

Monday, April 3, 2017

Green List provides diversity and credible experience

The Green Party's list ranking is an ordeal for both candidates and members, having to rank such a talented group (especially when many are friends), isn't easy. For a party that promotes cooperation and consensus decision making, the process is one of the few within the party that has to be competitive and one where secret ballots are used for voting.

There are also some guidelines applied to ensure that the list reflects the diversity in our society to provide the broadest representation and have connections to a variety of cultures and demographics: For every ten candidates at least one should be Maori and at least one should be under 35 years; for every five candidates at least two should be male and at least two should be female, at least one should be from the South Island and at least two from the North Island.

The initial list (created by the delegates and candidates who attended the Greens' Candidate Conference in February) has just been released and the final list will involve voting from all members.

I am very comfortable with the initial list, a high level of diversity has been achieved and we have enormous talent throughout. If we applied a very conservative outcome for the election and look at the top 15 as likely MPs (due to resignations our 17th ranked candidate from 2014 is now an MP) it is quite revealing. Nine (almost 2/3) are female and four are Maori. Youth is well represented, with two in their early twenties, and we have two over sixty (the average is 44.5 years). There is also a good mix of experience: eleven are current MPs and four have served more than two terms. Metiria Turei has been a party leader longer than Bill English or Andrew Little.

Those on the right of the political spectrum rate business and economic management as the most important skills in government and those on the left value those with a passion for social justice and the environment. Understanding legislative complexities and legal constraints are also an important requirements for parties wishing to sit on the government benches. When New Zealand is reliant on primary production for a good deal of its income, an appreciation of the farming and forestry sectors would also be valuable. All of these are covered in this interim list.

To be effective in government it is important to be able to understand complex information and appreciate the contextual complexities. While communicating coherently and effectively with the wider public and the media is important, the work behind the scenes in select committees ensures that any legislation gets the scrutiny it needs. An MP is a waste of space if it takes them three years to understand the job and ignorance is not a virtue. To be able to safely and effectively change laws or economic systems MPs have to understand how existing legislation and systems work.

The media has made much of the need for renewal and some commentators have questioned the support of candidates in their early 20s. I find it unhelpful when assessments are made just based on age or length of time an MP has been in parliament, surely the most important criteria would be their ability to do the job. I can think of many young MPs who have had amazing wisdom and many well into their sixties (or even seventies) who have great energy and are highly effective.

It is also far easier to have credibility and gain the confidence of different communities (business, cultural and socio-economic) when MPs have some direct experiences and qualifications, and can speak the same language. The Greens' top 20 should surprise those who still hold on to the myth of the Green Party being led by unqualified idealogues:
  1. Metiria Turei, LLB; Corporate Lawyer for Simpson and Grierson
  2. James Shaw, MSc, Bath University School of Management; business consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and HSBC Bank
  3. Julie Anne Genter, Master of Planning Practice (1st class); transport and urban planning consultant in Australia and NZ
  4. Marama Davidson, BA; Human Rights Commission and member of Owen Glenn Inquiry on child abuse and domestic violence
  5. Eugenie Sage, LLB, BA, Diploma of Journalism; Field Officer and Spokesperson Forest & Bird, Environment Canterbury Councillor. 
  6. Jan Logie, BA, CELTA; Women's Refuge, Youth Health, YWCA, NZ Centre for Sustainable Cities
  7. Gareth Hughes, BA Religious Studies & History, Grad Diploma Politics; Greenpeace campaign coordinator
  8. Mojo Mathers, Honours degree in mathematics, Masters with distinction in Conservation Forestry; Joint owner of business providing forestry management services, senior policy advisor 
  9. Jack McDonald, Undergraduate Political Science and Maori Studies; Maori Political & Media Advisor (Parliament), former chair of a community board, third time candidate at 23 years old
  10. Barry Coates, Masters in Management; CEO Oxfam NZ, developed a sustainability programme at the University of Auckland and Sustainable Business Network award winner
  11. Kennedy Graham, BCom, MA in International Relations, PhD, Fulbright Scholar; NZ diplomat, Senior consultant in the UN Dept of Political Affairs, Visiting Prof (Bruges, Belgium), Senior Lecturer Victoria University...
  12. John Hart, BSc Psycology & Statistics (incomplete); sheep & beef farmer, IT services,  inventor
  13. Chloe Swarbuck, BA, LLB; Community project leader, journalist, small business owner, Auckland Mayoral Candidate
  14. Denise Roche, Diploma Labour Studies, Graduate Diploma in Not-For-profit Management; Union worker, Partner Orapiu Grove Farm, waste management, Auckland City Councillor, 2016 Quote of the Year Winner
  15. Golriz Ghahraman, Masters in International Human Rights Law; Human rights and criminal lawyer, Prosecutor United Nations tribunals
  16. David Clendon, BA Politics & Education, MSc; Business management (including own bulk foods business), Unitec lecturer in sustainable management, sustainable business advisor
  17. Teanau Tuiono, BA, LLB; Publisher in education sector, climate change and human rights advocacy (nationally and internationally) 
  18. Leilani Tamu, Master of Arts (1st class), Fulbright Scholar; Published author, New Zealand Diplomat, Advisor for the Auckland city Council 
  19. Teall Crossan, Bachelor's Degree in Resource Studies, Master's in International Environmental Law (Calgary); Legal Advisor and Climate Change Negotiator for Pasific Small Island Developing States, Senior Solicitor for DoC
  20. Chris Perley, Dip Grad Philosophy, Fellow NZ Institute of Forestry; Senior Policy Analyst Ministry of Forestry, Editor of a professional Journal, land management, forestry consultant, blogger
The next 10-20 names have equally impressive resumes: a constitutional lawyer, youth advocate, chartered accountant, public sector consultant, community development and urban regeneration leadership, TV presenter, army officer and emergency management planner, screen production...

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Labour/Green budget rules make sense

The more the Green Party talks about economic policy the more it is perceived by some on the left as becoming mainstream and accepting neoliberal philosophies. Sue Bradford and the CTU have protested that the agreed fiscal constraints announced by Labour and the Greens are a sellout and that the growing inequality in New Zealand won't be addressed under the proposed Budget Responsibility Rules. Many on the left are feeling uncomfortable that the business community and David Farrar are praising the announcement.

There is a widely held perception that National Governments constrain spending, and are therefore fiscally responsible, and Labour Governments spend large and accumulate debt. There is also another perception that to rectify the social inequalities in New Zealand, and address our environmental degradation, then fiscal restraints must be put to one side. Both perceptions display a good deal of economic ignorance.

There are also some Green supporters who want to see the Party pushing for monetary reform to reduce the power of the banking industry and promote the introduction of systems like Sovereign Money. While this may be philosophically sensible, it is politically impractical. Economic reform is not an election winner (as Social Credit has consistently discovered) as few voters understand economic theory to a level where they would comfortably embrace radical change.

The Green Party has a holistic approach to economic decisions and supports the view that environmental, economic and social policy should be strongly interconnected. The Greens economic policy is intended to deliver "...a resilient, flexible economy capable of adapting to new challenges, delivering meaningful work for our people and a healthier environment for us all". Working towards a fair and sustainable future is a key part of the vision.

In 2013 Russel Norman supported National's Public Finance (Fiscal Responsibility) Amendment Bill because many of the provisions within it made good economic sense. His supporting speech is worth listening to in its entirety. His idea of extending the bill to manage our social and environmental capital in the same way as our economic capital is sensible. To establish a sustainable economy, a government must live within its means and be future focused. The proposed budget management principles fits this approach.

Those who regard the Green/Labour determination to pay off debt, and work towards budget surpluses, as neo-liberal concepts don't appreciate that being fiscally responsible is not something owned by the Right. The current National Government has never been fiscally responsible as it has increased government debt considerably, invested in unsustainable industries and spent billions on motorways that don't pass basic cost benefit analysis. Its reputation is a product of effective spin rather than reality.

What is really important within any government budget is how revenue is generated and what the spending priorities are. Labour wants to review the current tax system and the Greens have been consistent in wanting policies and spending to be independently costed. Establishing a fairer tax system and sound processes for establishing new spending is essential. Increasing revenue can also be done within the existing system by diverting the energy used to hound beneficiaries to chase tax fraudsters instead (up to $10 billion of potential revenue), for example.

The Greens support of a carbon tax and a capital gains tax will be at the forefront of any coalition discussions. Both will be important in shifting to a more sustainable economy and being more environmentally responsible. The home insulation scheme that the Greens established through an early MOU with National was a huge success with a cost benefit ratio of almost 4:1. Good social and environmental policy actually makes economic sense too.

Reassurance that a Labour/Green Government won't launch into an irresponsible spending spree, as National will claim, is necessary to be elected in the current political environment. This is just a pragmatic consideration for becoming electable. Once in Government a shift in spending priorities away from corporate welfare, subsidising landlords and building unnecessary motorways will mean billions to reinvest into housing, health, welfare and education. The social, environmental and economic benefits will be enormous.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Running from "Hit & Run"

We are constantly fed positive stories regarding the professionalism, adaptability and resourcefulness of those employed in our military forces. While much of it is probably justified, an element of deliberate whitewashing has occurred when things have gone astray.

Our country has traditionally supported Britain and the US in numerous wars and since 1899 we have lost around 30,000 soldiers in different overseas' conflicts.  Obviously the most casualties occurred during the two world wars, however almost 130 have been killed since. Between 2010 and 2012 we lost 10 soldiers in Afghanistan.

Wars are terrible and losing comrades in armed conflicts must be extremely difficult to deal with. The professional credibility of our forces can be judged on they way we manage such situations. Sadly we have sometimes fallen short of those standards and a need for revenge has clouded thinking.

Few know of the shocking 1918 Surefend Massacre in Palestine. The New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade were so incensed at the killing of one of their own by a late night thief, caught in the act, that they attacked the local village in revenge. Between 40 to 100 civilian men were slaughtered in cold blood and houses burned. No one was punished for it but three years later the New Zealand Government paid 858 pounds to Palestine as compensation.

Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hager have exposed a modern version of Surefend. It is another story of revenge for a soldier's death and retribution involving the slaughter and injury of innocent people. In Surefend there was still a tiny element of morality shown when the women and children were removed from the village before slaughtering the men, but not so in Afghanistan in 2010.

The New Zealand SAS, together with Afghan soldiers and US helicopter gun ships attacked two villages in the Tirgiran valley filled with women, children and elderly. The brutal raid killed 6 (including a 3 year old girl) and injured 15. No assistance was provided to the dying and injured and the incident has been denied ever since. While the raid was mentioned in passing at the time, it is only now that there is significant evidence that the official story may not have been entirely truthful.

Nicky Hager is an internationally regarded investigative journalist who has already written a number of books that have lifted the lid on other dark periods of New Zealand's recent history. While dismissed as a "left wing conspiracy theorist" by those he has exposed, few have successfully discredited his intensively researched facts or his conclusions. Hager has endured some heavy handed responses because of his work, including illegal searches of his home and the confiscation of his and his daughter's computers.

Jon Stephenson is a journalist who has already experienced an attack on his credibility by both the army and the Government when he claimed that the New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan was knowingly ignoring its obligations within the Geneva Convention. His 2011 Metro article described how the SAS were handing over prisoners to other forces with the knowledge that they would likely be tortured. Lieutenant General Rhys Jones claimed that he lied about his sources of information and even Prime Minister Key questioned his journalistic reliability. Stephenson successfully sued for defamation.

The story of the botched raid has been around for a while and in 2014 Stephenson was able to get some initial verification that something had been covered up. His evidence was revealed on Maori TV and globally reported. Wayne Mapp, the Defence Minister at the time, denied any civilians had been killed.

The most moral way forward now would be to hold an independent inquiry to properly establish the truth. If it finds that the NZ SAS was complicit in a war crime then a global apology is necessary, those involved should be held accountable and compensation be paid.

Instead we have the Government trying to discredit the journalists, caged denials from the military and, rather than face the fire, all those concerned are running for cover.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Nick Smith's Waterloo?

Nick Smith is desperately trying to dismiss the growing concerns from many New Zealanders that our water has been undervalued and over-exploited. While farming intensification has caused a major strain on our natural water systems he has firmly stood his ground against putting a value on water and expecting businesses to properly account for their operational impacts on water quality and supply.

The fact that overseas companies can extract water for free and profit from the exported resource became a tipping point for many. Smith is quite right when he claims that water bottling plants take a miniscule amount of our country's total supply, however he deliberately ignores the impacts on individual catchments and anger of communities whose own water supplies have been compromised.

Over twenty people gathered outside the Environment Southland building on Tuesday to join a nationwide protest. It was a damp, grey day but many of those who made the effort to come were not people already active in the local environmental communities. Fishermen, mothers and children and grandparents wanted to express their concern about the degradation of our rivers.

A Southland Times Editorial ignorantly accepted Smith's arguments and suggested that the national protests about water quality were misguided and should have been more concerned about the use of plastic bottles. This is my published letter in response:

Nick Smith’s desperate attempt to water down the growing concerns about the commercialisation and industrial use of our water at the expense of ordinary New Zealanders and our environment doesn’t wash with me.

Those who met with Environment Southland Councillors on Tuesday were a diverse group who wanted clean water for their children to swim in, healthy rivers for fishing and for our waterways to be treated with greater respect and care.

The mission of the New Zealand Water Forum that organised the action on Tuesday is: “To advocate for water quality, the preservation of our waterways and to lobby for change to ensure those who manage our water are held to the highest standard in doing so.”

New Zealand is blessed with a large overall supply of water but to talk in terms of total volumes is disingenuous. The management of our water should be considered at an individual catchment, stream or aquifer level. In our lowland, pastoral and urban areas we are experiencing major crises of supply and quality.

The rivers and streams near where the majority of New Zealanders live are mostly unswimmable. Many of our aquifers are being infected with E. coli and our estuaries are rapidly eutrophying from a continual inflow of polluted sediment.

When whole communities are struggling to have clean drinking water the fact that any quantity is being given away from the same catchments for commercial profit doesn’t make sense. It is also the principle, rather than the quantities, that anger us. We need to properly value our water if we want to restore and preserve it for all.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Bill English Embraces Homeopathy

Bill English has been the Finance Minister for three consecutive National led governments. After substantially cutting taxes for the wealthy in 2009 he discovered that the increase in GST did not make the policy fiscally neutral and a hefty level of borrowing was needed to make up the shortfall. Public debt under a Labour Government totalled around $10 billion when National took office and this quickly ballooned to $60 billion.
While Bill English continually used the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) and the Christchurch earthquake as excuses for increasing Government debt, this was only partially true. The impact of the GFC on New Zealand was not that great as all of our major banks were not affected and by 2011 our rich listers were seeing their wealth increase by around 20%. Major, government supported projects in Christchurch have continually suffered delays and recovery budgets have been under-spent.

Bill English and his Government have made little effort to increase revenue by chasing up the billions lost through tax fraud and closing existing loopholes. Instead they have attempted to squeeze the lowest income earners the hardest by tightening criteria for benefits and chasing up overpayments and benefit fraud.

Rather than the hard work of tightening tax law and deflating the property bubble, multiple quick rich schemes were explored instead. In the first term coal and oil were seen as the pathway to increased wealth. This dream crashed with the fortunes of Solid Energy and the opening up of our national parks and territorial waters for exploration and mining (offering subsidies and low royalties) failed to spark interest.

Selling off state assets was Bill's next ploy to balance the books and while this allowed for some financial relief, the income earned was less than expected and the government lost the longterm income from dividends.

The dairy boom was the next potential earner and the government paved the way for greater milk production through subsidising irrigation schemes and ensuring environmental restrictions were minimised. This involved sacking Environment Canterbury and turning a blind eye to increasing levels of water pollution. However, Fonterra paid the price of focussing on commodity markets rather than value added, branded products and its fortunes slumped as other milk producers increased supply.

Currently the tourist industry is holding up our economy and it has been difficult to benefit fully from this with minimal infrastructure to deal with the increasing numbers. This hasn't been helped by cuts to regional funding to deal with Auckland's growing pains.

While Bill English has been struggling to boost government income a number of serious crises are emerging that desperately need government investment. Child poverty has increased to 30%, our housing crises has deepened and our degraded rivers desperately need attention. The New Zealand health system is increasingly struggling to meet the needs of a growing and ageing population and climate change is the global crisis that our country has done little to address.

Bill English may not be the most effective economic manager (under his management New Zealand's productivity has stagnated), but his short term survival instincts are excellent. He has successfully created the impression of safe hands during 'difficult' times and even succeeded in achieving the holy grail of financial management, a budget surplus.

Few realise that our current Prime Minister's success is based on his adoption and practice of fiscal homeopathy, a little known economic tool that is very good at giving the impression of a recovery with very little input. It also relies on the 'placebo effect' by making people think that they have been given something substantial when the opposite is the case. Here are a number of examples to show how English has used the principles of homeopathy:
Homeopathy and the placebo effect has allowed Bill English and his government colleagues to be elected three times in a row. It clearly takes a while for snake oil salesmen to be exposed and the 2017 election should be the time that the ruse is identified and proper, evidence based treatment can be finally implemented. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Bill English's Dictionary

New Zealand's Prime Minister, Bill English, has an honours degree in English Literature. He is described as a 'social conservative' in Wikipedia and worked in Treasury as a policy analyst before becoming an MP in 1990. Over his political career he has worked hard at changing the definitions of many words in common usage and, in his previous role as Finance Minister, has created a dictionary based on his political philosophy and neo-liberal economic perspectives. 


Auckland proper noun property investors paradise that needs more motorways.

beneficiary noun a lazy person of no economic value (probably on drugs) who should be working. Being on a benefit is equivalent to being hooked on drugs removing them is the best thing we can do.

compensation noun something to be avoided at all costs.

corporation noun the ultimate institution that deserves protection and subsidies.

development noun money making venture that deserves government support.

Dipton proper noun my childhood home that once provided a lucrative perk.

economy noun a financial system that serves and protects the wealthy.

education noun something that is dominated by socialists and unions that needs to be heavily controlled by standards and greater ministerial control.

environment noun contains useful resources to support development but environmental protection impedes development.

farm verb an essential economic activity that needs to be protected from environmental controls.

govern verb conduct the policy, actions and affairs of a country with the guidance of business and corporate lobbyists.

hospital noun an institution that provides health care with a minimum of funding.

humanitarian adjective the last criteria to be considered when constructing government policy.

Invercargill noun a city that is close to Dipton and isn't a property investors paradise and has no need of motorways, but has some value a service centre for farmers and as a shearing venue.

jeopardy noun the bottom line for government activity is avoiding legal jeopardy. One way of doing this is through legislative amendments done through urgency.

kingmaker noun bloody Winston...(I guess I can make him Foreign Minister, if need be, as he will probably get on well with Trump).

legislate adjective the process of changing laws to support development and protecting the government from jeopardy.

market noun the economic environment where commercial activity occurs and is the key determiner of social and environmental policy.

New Zealand noun the title used to identify and define us as sporting nation. The borders do not exist for trade and investment and anyone with money can obtain residency.

OECD noun (abbreviation: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) a useful organisation for comparing New Zealand's GDP with others, but to be ignored for social comparisons.

politics verb the art of remaining in power through popular support. Crosby Textor have written the bible for this activity and managing public perceptions.

queer noun an unnatural state of being for some people that must be tolerated to remain in power (according to Crosby Textor).

revenue noun government income that is used to subsidise businesses and corporate entities.

Solid Energy proper noun a state owned enterprise that I had great hopes for but I don't like to talk about now.

tax verb the process of collecting revenue through minimising the demands on the wealthy and maximising the income from lower income earners.

trade noun this word should always be preceded by the word "free". For corporate and business interests around the world New Zealand should be the easiest place to do business. There is a necessary social and environmental cost to this that we just have to accept.

urgency noun process used to protect government interests and save developments but inappropriate for addressing issues related to housing, child poverty and climate change.

vague adjective describes the way social and environmental issues need to be managed to give the appearance of action when not actually doing anything of substance.

work verb something that workers do for their employers for as little as possible. Low wages give us an economic advantage.

worker noun a commodity or useful production input. The best of these come from overseas as the local ones are "pretty damn hopeless".

xenophobia noun a label used for those who oppose using cheap migrant workers and want to limit overseas purchasers of New Zealand property.

zealous adjective the way I approach limiting government spending on health education and welfare. This is to ensure I can claim budget surpluses and to give the appearance of responsible economic management. The next Government will have to bear the cost of rectifying my underspending.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Defending our young unemployed

Bill English has continued with the National Government driven meme that young unemployed New Zealanders are drug addicts, lazy and unemployable. Previously John Key had stated that unemployed New Zealanders failed drug tests and lacked a work ethic. Before becoming Prime Minister English had bluntly told a Federated Farmers meeting that "New Zealand workers are pretty damn hopeless". Both Key and English used conversations with their employer mates to justify their statements rather than data and research.

The reality is some distance from the myth that National is perpetrating to justify the large numbers of unskilled migrant workers coming into our country. Before the Christchurch earthquake the construction industry workforce was steadily shrinking and apprentice numbers had been cut. There is obvious justification for bringing in construction workers to make up a skill shortage (if we had continued building state houses at the same level as we did thirty years ago we would have retained a strong construction workforce). What is questionable is the large numbers of migrants filling jobs in the service and agriculture sectors.

Drugs are not actually a major problem for jobseekers and both Key and English would have known that less than 1% of those tested for drugs have been sanctioned. To give the impression that many unemployed were failing drug tests was clearly a deliberate lie to denigrate our young people to support the use of cheap migrant labour.

I described in an earlier post how workers have become viewed as mere commodities by many businesses and corporate interests. Commodifying workers to increase profits results in keeping labour costs down and being able to have a workforce on tap ('casually' turning them on and off as needed) is the ideal situation. Migrant workers often come from countries where wages and work conditions are minimal and few would be aware of New Zealand's employment law. While we have gone a little way to address zero hour contracts there are still large numbers of mainly migrant workers who have appalling working conditions and some are essentially working as slaves.

This Government has supported the dairy gold rush and is now fully behind the exploding tourist industry. It understands how high immigration pushes up businesses activity and GDP. However, low wage migrants have a negative impact on real productivity per person as each new migrant worker only adds a 0.5 growth equivalent. The demands on housing and infrastructure through this type of immigration cannot be met through their low incomes and productive value. It is false and unsustainable economics.

New Zealand currently treats its young appallingly, especially those who struggle to succeed in education and have few qualifications. Prior to 2008 the 15-24 year age group had twice the average unemployment, under National it has grown to three times. Between 15% and 18% of the younger age group have been unemployed since 2008 and for Maori/Pacifika it is around 25%. When you realise that our youth suicide rate is the highest in the OECD it becomes clear that too many of our young people are struggling and do not feel valued. On average in New Zealand, two young people will take their own lives every week and twenty will be hospitalised for self-harm.

New Zealand businesses want work ready labour units to enhance their businesses and do not want the hassle of employing young people with few skills who may need a high level of support and mentoring. It is far easier to import Indians, Filipinos or mature workers from the Pacific Islands than young 17-24 year olds with limited work experience and few skills.

We now have almost 30% of our young people growing up in poverty. Those who are failing at school are under-supported and funding will be slashed for those over 8 years. New Zealand has a long tail of underachievement in our education system and research shows that poverty is a major contributing factor. Hungry children from overcrowded, substandard homes struggle to learn.

Until recently those in state care were abandoned at age 17 (now 18) and there are few apprenticeships and training opportunities for those who are not academically inclined. There is even workforce discrimination in low skilled jobs when young people are expected to do the same work as an adult while being paid a "youth rate" for the first three months. It is hard enough for young people to survive independently but when accommodation and food still need to be paid on a reduced income, it is an added challenge. Our housing research in Invercargill revealed that independent young people struggle more than most to find and afford decent accommodation.

Rather than support and mentor our struggling young people into good work habits and develop higher skills, our Prime Minister dismisses them as hopeless drug addicts and his Government plans to spend $2.5 billion on prisons instead. No doubt we will need even more migrant workers to manage the prisons filled by the youth we have failed and to dig the graves of the many who lose hope altogether. We need to change the Government if we want a decent future for our young people, and ourselves, and build a fairer and more caring society.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

WINZ Bureaucracy Failing

One of my governance roles for a not for profit organisation has connected me to WINZ in support of an employee and the experience has been hugely concerning. The people I dealt with were pleasant, and one in particular went beyond their job description to help me, but I am appalled at the callous and dehumanising nature of the system.

The employee (E) had been out of work while looking after a family member (with an increasingly debilitating condition) and when he/she recently moved out of the prime-carer role, had sought part-time employment. Our organisation has limited funds and to provide some certainty of income we gave them a short-term contract with a base level of hours (0.3). There are some weeks when E works the minimum but most weeks there are extra hours required. E is on the Job Seeker's Benefit and any extra hours must be accounted for each week and their benefit adjusted accordingly. While this seems fair and reasonable, the reality of adjusting the income can be fraught.

The employee is a mature person with a high level of interpersonal skills and living on a benefit or low income has been challenging. Until they found reasonably priced accommodation he/she was living in a basic hotel and this left them with $10 per week for food. A camping ground would provide cheaper accommodation but all are some distance from the city centre and, with no car and poor public transport, this was not an option. E has also found the seminars that have to be attended to access support are humiliating for someone of their maturity and capability.

There is an expectation that beneficiaries are self sufficient and can manage their benefits online. When ringing the WINZ 0800 number, and waiting the typical 20 minutes or so, there was constant encouragement to do this. E's laptop is too old to access any online services and he/she has resorted to using the computers at our public library. These are in high demand from many others on low incomes and there is a time limit on use. I was told that there have been a number of instances when a password isn't accepted or other glitches occur and it has taken more than the time allowance to rectify. The online system also assumes a reasonable level of literacy to negotiate it and this must be a challenge for many.

I wanted to provide some support for our employee by working out a less demanding way of paying them so that weekly adjustments wouldn't be necessary. The general 0800 number for WINZ assumes all callers are beneficiaries and there were no phone options listed for an employer. I hoped that the call centre might still be able to help me but after twenty minutes of music and suggestions to go online (without an answer), I gave up and followed their advice. There is a section on the website for employers but the specifics I wanted weren't there. There was only one 0800 number provided but this was under a section for those employing someone with a disability or health issue, I rang it anyway.

I ended up speaking to a lovely nurse who was very receptive and concerned, while she was unable to provide the information I required she sought support from her manager. I was praised for trying to support the employee and was informed that a new call centre was being established to help employers, but it wasn't active yet. I was intrigued that the employer's number I had used was much more user friendly than the one beneficiaries were provided with as it told me how many people were ahead of me on the queue and gave me the option of a call back without losing my place.

Unfortunately I was directed back to the beneficiaries 0800 number to get the specific advice I needed and after another 15 minute wait got through to someone who could explain the options. These were:
  1. Continue with the online adjustments and the challenges that clearly involved.
  2. Get the call centre to process the changes of income and by requesting "online support". I was told that a connection can occur a little faster if this was asked for. E told me that once he/she paid their SPARK bill to get back their cell phone service then they would try that. 
  3. Have a fixed income slighter higher than the minimum over the length of the contract but this would mean a reduced income for the weeks when the minimum is worked.
  4. Bank the extra hours over the contract term and pay it as a lump sum at the end. This would mean a reduced income for many of the weeks and once the lump sum was paid there could be a hefty bill from WINZ to manage the over payments (often referred to as fraud even when there is a legitimate reason for the over payment). 
For many beneficiaries with limited resources there seems to be a lot of pressure to be compliant and the bureaucratic nightmare of dealing with the WINZ demands must be greater for those with limited literacy or having English as a second language. While benefits are strictly managed (overpayments chased up and hefty penalties for non-compliance), tax fraud is treated with greater leniency. There are many anecdotal stories of those eligible for benefits not receiving necessary support because the bureaucracy and WINZ culture is too challenging

I don't think that New Zealand has ended up quite as callous as what is portrayed in Ken Loach's award winning British movie I Daniel Blake, but I am sure many are falling through the gaps in similar ways. The fact that there are many people relying on food parcels and living in cars and garages should have rung alarm bells for the Government but it is only just beginning to realise the extent of need when it recently guaranteed emergency housing. The motel bills for housing genuine homeless has exploded to six times what was budgeted and may cost around $30 million a year based on current demand. One would have to wonder what all these people were doing to survive before the emergency housing was made easier to access. The Government obviously made little effort to determine the real housing shortfall earlier and I am sure there is huge unmet need in many other welfare areas too. 

Accessing a benefit for those who find themselves in challenging circumstances shouldn't involve a loss of dignity and even more stress. Our beneficiaries are treated as second class citizens by a system that appears to beat them down rather then giving them the real help they need. A broken and humiliated person is less likely to lift themselves beyond basic survival and our levels of youth suicide are an indication that many do not have the necessary resilience to get by. We can surely do better than we are.

This brings me to the logical conclusion that a Universal Basic Income (UBI) could provide a useful safety net and reduce the need for the massive levels of bureaucracy and stress. There are many views for and against a UBI but I think it is worthy of serious consideration. Either that or we invest in making the WINZ bureaucracy actually work.  

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Living Wage and corporate welfare dependency

Michael Barnett, CEO of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce revealed a lot when he was quoted in a recent Stuff article on the Living Wage. Barnett claimed that the living wage was "subjective and artificial" and would make businesses go under. He believed that rather than councils paying their staff liveable incomes, they should just ensure low waged employees get "their full government welfare entitlements". His thoughts are widely held by the business sector, especially large corporates who benefit most from low wages, and such thinking deserves to be challenged.

The belief that market forces should determine the value of a job and what it is paid is flawed. Market forces should have some bearing on wages and salaries but to use this as the main determiner is open to manipulation and abuse. In fact the evidence and economics behind the living wage is far more objective and rational than the excuses used to pay CEOs their exorbitant salaries.

We currently have the case of the CEO of the NZ Super Fund receiving a 36% pay increase and this has come after a 22% increase two years earlier. The usual argument to support skyrocketing CEO salaries is that the huge increases are needed to meet the market and to attract the best. This assumes that high salaries do attract the best and that financial considerations, rather than the job itself, is a key factor in recruitment and retention. A Dominion editorial exposes the flaws in this thinking and it is my belief that anyone who will only do a job for a highly inflated salary may not be driven by the sort of philosophies and ethics we would want in the role. What difference does it really make to quality of life if one earned $1.2 million a year rather than $900,000 and what different skills and attributes would be expected from a CEO paid more than $400,000 per annum? Who is to say that within any business or government department that there aren't other managers working at a slightly lower level who couldn't step up and do the same job just as well, if given the opportunity.  There is little evidence that I have found that supports the view that paying high salaries secures good performance and the opposite appears to be the case.

The current trend is for CEOs and senior management to receive increases well above the rate of inflation and to keep a firm cap on the wages of those at the bottom. In New Zealand our largest corporation would have to be Fonterra and despite 100 of the company's managerial staff earning more than our Prime Minister (17 staff earn more than $1 million a year) the company has struggled recently. Interestingly the dairy industry as a whole is also known for many workers earning below the minimum wage and enduring possibly the worst working conditions in the country.

Michael Barnett would promote the idea that if someone was prepared to work in a rest home or clean toilets for $15.25 an hour (or $12.20 as a training wage) then that is the value of the work. This is a subjective view that does not account for the real effort and skill involved in any low waged job and is also shaped by an historical bias that undervalues work predominantly done by woman. Some recent legal judgments have challenged this workforce discrimination.

Since the National Government introduced the Employment Contracts Act in 1991 we have seen a gradual change in how employees are regarded and represented. Only 20% of the workforce is now unionised and there has been a huge growth in casualisation of work and zero hour contracts became common. This is reflective of the thinking that labour is just a commodity and ignores any humanitarian considerations of income security and how workers and their families should be valued.

When a farmer buys a new tractor they generally ensure it is well housed when not in use and is regularly serviced. Many dairy farmers now track the production and health of every cow to ensure optimum productivity. It is interesting that many of the same farmers do not have accurate employment records for their workers and make little effort to ensure their health and safety or that their pay meets their basic needs. Accessing the supply of willing workers from the Philippines is possibly less problematic than replacing a cow or machine and instances of slave labour in New Zealand are a growing concern. Viewing the worker as a commodity rather than a person is becoming increasingly entrenched.

It should also be noted that large corporates employ the majority of the minimum wage workforce: supermarkets, rest homes, fast food industry, cleaning... most of these businesses are very profitable and could easily afford higher wages. It is also important to recognise that New Zealand is now regarded as a low wage economy and that our productivity is well down in comparison to other OECD countries.

When Barnett claims that businesses will go under if they have to pay living wages, this is quickly disproved by the many small businesses that have found the opposite. The article I first linked to had a number of examples where small business owners found that paying their workers well brought huge benefits to their business and many other examples to support this can be found. The Warehouse is one larger corporate that discovered introducing the living wage has had a positive effect on its sustainability and profits.

New Zealand does not really have a social welfare problem, we have a corporate welfare problem. Tax cuts and grants get continually handed out to profitable companies, tax fraud costs us hundreds of millions and yet beneficiaries are chased down and imprisoned for relatively small sums. Compared to other OECD countries we have relatively low unemployment and yet at the same time we have increasing inequality as the top 10% of earners have seen their incomes steadily increase but most workers have not enjoyed the same. Wages have not increased with productivity gains and this means that the wealth our country collectively generates is not being shared fairly amongst those who contribute to it. Concerns of affordability can quickly be parried when a CEO's $200,000 bonus payment could provide 40 workers with a $5,000 pay increase instead.

The living wage is based on what is needed to pay for "the necessities of life and participate as an active citizen in the community." When housing, electricity, transport, food and education costs increase then so should wages. The living wage is not based on a random figure plucked from the air, but reflective of the real costs of living and thriving in New Zealand.

We now have the bizarre situation where Barnett and his mates actually believe that the Government should subsidise wages to support their profits. While the salaries of his mates spiral upwards, the cost to the Government of the Working for Families tax credit and the accommodation supplement is probably around $5 billion per annum. Denying workers discretionary spending power also deprives the domestic economy. The growing number of families needing food parcels and income support means they are spending less in their local shops. Our current level of corporate welfare is unaffordable and (for the good of our country, our economy and our future) we should begin a weaning process immediately!

Monday, February 20, 2017

Making New Zealand great again...

Bill English has made much about the importance of stability since becoming Prime Minister and his own financial management, when Minister of Finance, did not involve major shifts in priorities. No Government sector can claim that they had a sudden influx of capital since 2008 and the mantra under both Key and English has been to deliver "more for less". Any extra spending generally meant changing priorities and shifting money from one area to another.

The consequence of this approach has been an under-investment in important infrastructure and a slow deterioration of government services over the past nine years. Gradual change is a cautious approach to governance that has been used defensively by both Labour and National over the last twenty years. The Douglas and Richardson eras had both involved substantial shifts in government investment that resulted in sudden changes of circumstances for large sections of society.  Both Clark and Key sought to avoid this to capture and retain the political middle ground. The approach doesn't frighten the voters and provides the impression of responsible governance. However, it has also meant that there has been no large re-investment back into the areas that had suffered huge cuts in the 80s and 90s.

Our rail network still suffers from under-investment, which has not helped Auckland's traffic problems and has seen a proposal to dump electric trains on the North Island Main Trunk Line. Lack of investment has also seen our social housing stock reduced while demand is steadily increasing and our health, education and welfare systems are becoming increasingly stretched to deliver quality services. After Richardson's Mother of all Budgets child poverty trebled from 5% to fifteen and it is now close to 30%.

I talked about the "new normal" in my last post, and this is what incremental decline causes. People quickly forget what used to be expected and slowly adjust to living in a country where poverty is common place, housing is largely unaffordable and a clean environment is an unaffordable luxury. Under this National Government we have learned to believe that substantial change is no longer possible; poverty is self-inflicted; addressing climate change is not our responsibility and clean rivers are not economically viable. Gerry Brownlee represents his Government's philosophy well when he castigates those who demand more and attacks reports questioning lacklustre performance.

It is important that the Labour/Green campaigns shift thinking and expectations with accessible and aspirational messages similar to those that rallied voters behind Trudeau and Sanders (in a New Zealand context). Obviously the messaging has to have substance behind it, so that there is a practical blueprint to follow once elected. It is clear to all that Trump was elected because he could describe a United States' utopia that resonated with many, but his planning hadn't progressed beyond the simple, Fox News informed, scribbles on his branded serviettes. We do not want to be caught by "show us the money" moments that are more likely to occur here than the US (evidence isn't needed there apparently).

We need to see strong Labour/Green campaigns this election that will convince voters that a change to a fairer and cleaner New Zealand is actually achievable and that both parties contain people who can make the vision happen. While the messages are important, those delivering the messages around the country need to come across as energetic, fresh and capable. The Mt Albert by election has provided a taster of what is possible. Roll on September 23!

Monday, February 13, 2017

"New Normal" Dangerous

It is amazing how quickly expectations of what is 'normal' can change.

Southland has experienced one of the windiest and miserable Summers I can remember. Our farmers market has only had one day outside all Summer and even then the canopies were blown around by the wind and some stall holders were forced to seek shelter. Every day I wake up resigned to another day of wind and cloudy skies. I have almost forgotten our usual habit of dining outdoors most evenings over the summer months and enjoying our long twilight hours. Northland has experienced the opposite situation. The region is experiencing its fifth drought in eight years. Despite the fact that all of this has been predicted by NIWA as a consequence of climate change the current Government is determined to continue with business as usual and a soft approach in dealing with our emissions. The RMA still does not address climate change and the Emissions Treading Scheme still excludes major emitters. Extreme weather is the new normal both here and overseas.

Ten years ago homelessness was not too visible in our major cities and certainly not at the levels visible today. It is now estimated that around 40,000 New Zealanders are homeless (one in very 100) and that we have a shortage of 60,000 houses. The Government is refusing to call this a crisis even though the shortage is currently increasing by around 40 houses a day. Much of our existing housing stock is also substandard with many rental properties lacking in insulation and basic maintenance. Rheumatic Fever is a third world disease that is related to poor housing and overcrowding and this is a growing problem because the causes are not being addressed. Homeless street people are common overseas and Bill English is treating homelessness as unavoidable and normal here too.

I can remember teaching at a small rural school that regularly took its children down to the local river for a swim during the Summer months. There was no concern about water quality and children never suffered from swallowing the odd mouthful. The water was clear, Didymo was absent and the rapid dairy expansion hadn't begun in Southland. Safe wading, rather than swimming, is now the new bottom line for quality and few would think it is safe for their children to swim in their local river. Dirty rivers are the new normal for this country.

The United States has recently elected its 45th president. While the previous 44 have had different levels of success and support, most have treated the office with dignity and have been measured and polite in their public engagement. The United States Constitution was adopted 230 years ago and for the first time the elected President, Donald Trump, is openly challenging the authority of the judiciary. Trump's ill-considered tweets, obvious lies and clear conflicts of interest have dramatically changed the previous expectations of what presidential behaviour constitutes. Petulance and ignorance define the new normal emanating from the Oval Office.

Normalising anything that is unacceptable is dangerous, it lowers expectations and severely reduces any sense of urgency to put things right. It worries the hell out of me that my children will suffer the climatic consequences of ignoring major polluters; are unlikely to afford a home of their own; will never enjoy swimming in a pristine local river; and will have to endure the global consequences of a tyrant leading the world's most powerful nation. We must not accept the unacceptable as normal!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Trump's Muslim ban exposes stupidity

Donald Trump won the Presidency because of his hardline approach to issues and simplistic messaging. In the business world, where he had operated previously, his success (largely exaggerated) was not achieved through diplomacy and managing complex and nuanced issues. It also appears that we have a man who is the emotional and intellectual equivalent of a bolshie, narcissistic, teenage boy leading the world's largest power.

President Trump exists because of the Post-Truth age. Not only was he elected because of the dominance of commercially and idealistically driven, popular media, his own knowledge and understanding of the world comes from the same sources. Research has revealed that watching Fox News is likely to make someone less informed about the world than watching no news at all. Lincoln's famous quote, "Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth" could be rewritten to reflect the reality: "Government of the ignorant, by the ignorant, for ignorant, shall destroy the earth."  Given that the US is one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases, and Trump is a climate denier, the world's environmental clock sped up when he took office.

The Executive Orders being signed with great enthusiasm are simplistic idealistic statements of intent that are not evidence based and will have far reaching consequences. His immigration and refugee ban is a classic example and the damage was instant.

The ignorance that lead to the immigration order is easy to understand. The fear of Islamic Terrorists came out of the horrific 9/11 (or 7/11 according to Trump) when United States citizens suddenly felt vulnerable to attack from outside. Bush's War on Terror was an attempt to allay those fears in a decisive way. An enemy had to be established and a show of strength in dealing to them was required. Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were identified as the enemy, but this was problematic as bin Laden was a Saudi and he led loose groups that existed in a number of countries. Iraq became a convenient excuse for concentrating military operations in a single state while a parallel, clandestine operation to capture and torture potential terrorists occurred across many states.

Despite ending the war in Iraq and killing bin Laden (a trial would have brought too much attention to the actual realities and illegalities of the US operations), the situation in the Middle East has actually got worse. The War on Terror is an impossible one to win because the US is largely attempting to aggressively manage the discontent of millions of Muslim people suffering from poor foreign policy and military decisions. The fundamentalism and extreme views that have developed in the Middle East have been mainly created by the volatile environments that many Muslims are being forced to endure. This is not a religious conflict but, as in many wars, religion is used to provide justification.

Under President Obama there had been a continuation of operations that flout international law as US drones operate and kill suspected terrorists, without trial, across multiple borders. Thousands of deaths have been officially recognised but many more are disputed, including the combatant/civilian status of many who have been killed. The countries where US drones have operated are: Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Iran, LibyaPakistan, Philippines, Somalia, Yemen and possibly Mali.

There is no logic to Trumps executive order to protect US citizens from terrorism. None of the terrorists who have killed people on US soil come from the seven Muslim countries singled out by the ban (15 of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia). Indonesia, the largest Muslim majority nation, is a notable omission and it appears that no Muslim countries where Trump has business interests have been included either. Yemen, one of the named states, is one of the poorest and most disadvantaged countries in the world. Its citizens are suffering hugely from a civil war where the US supported Saudi forces have an active involvement and are linked to possible war crimes. These Muslim nations have more to fear from the US than visa versa.

The threat posed by Islamic terrorists is extremely overstated. Around 16,000 people are murdered in the US every year (over 40 a day) and that compares with the average of 6 deaths a year as a result of a terrorist act since 9/11. Having tighter gun controls would make a far bigger difference to reducing violent deaths than tighter border controls. All Trump has done is increase the suffering of innocent Muslim families, caused chaos at airports and border controls and provided further proof that he is totally unfit for the role of President.