Tuesday, March 24, 2015

One bridge too far and one house too many


The National Government has been aware of some major issues for many years. Northland's poverty and substandard infrastructure was apparent when they first came to power in 2008 and National Ministers were given clear advice about the social housing shortage at the same time. However, the priorities for this Government have never been shaped by the advice it has been given but the agenda that it came with. Lower taxes for the rich, less regulation for businesses, more flexibility for employers and lots of new motorways to enable the growing numbers of luxury cars to travel freely.

This Government does not see supporting our most vulnerable families and children as one of its key roles and it has generally tried to shift that responsibility to the private sector and voluntary organisations. The provision of early childhood centres in less affluent communities (to enable parents to return to work) was made into a business opportunity and voluntary organisations and corporates were seen as best meeting the needs of hungry children.

The National Party and many of its supporters believe in individual responsibility and generally don't understand that the environment and society they are creating actually causes a greater number of people to lose the ability to live independently and is actually limiting choices and opportunities for our most vulnerable.

According to Paula Bennett, hungry children are the result of irresponsible parenting, not due to a low wage economy and welfare benefits that don't cover living expenses. The mantra of Bennett and her Government is that getting parents into work is the best solution for child poverty and yet while 95% of New Zealanders are employed, we still have 25% of our children suffering in relative poverty and having to live in substandard and overcrowded houses. We have the fastest growing inequality in the OECD and one of the worst records for child welfare.

The National Party's approach to the bye-election campaign actually sums up its general approach to governance. Here is an electorate that suffers more than any other from unemployment and child poverty and National decides that ten new bridges will make the biggest difference. That bridges were considered the biggest concern for Northland voters was extraordinary, but what was even more shocking was the lack of consultation. The bridges chosen came from a rough guess from the campaign team with no reference to what the NZTA considered were priorities and no thorough cost benefit analysis was involved. Bill English's explanation of the process used was embarrassing.

The National Government's management of social housing is equally as frightening as how they determined the needs of Northland. It has ignored the housing crisis for most of the past six years and refused to intervene in an overheated property market that has made us one of the most expensive countries for housing in the world.  It appears that it is more important to protect the capital gains for the most wealthy than ensure all New Zealanders had access to good homes.

The Government has attempted to justify the sale of state houses by claiming many are not meeting needs and that the Salvation Army and other non-government agencies were keen to have a role in providing social housing. Both were clearly misrepresentations of the reality. The Salvation Army had never been properly consulted and yet found themselves being promoted as having a major role in the policy. They ended up using a considerable amount of their meagre resources to investigate the logistics of managing social housing and discovered that it wasn't fiscally possible.

Bill English's claim that a third of state houses "were in the wrong place, were the wrong size or the tenancies were mismatched" has proved to be a huge exaggeration when Housing NZ's own advice did not support it. It turns out that there has been inadequate spending on maintenance and more houses are deemed unsuitable for tenancy because of that than anything else. English even tried to blame the previous Labour Government (over six years before) for the $1.2 billion worth of deferred maintenance.

Even if one regarded the provision of social housing in economic terms the advantages available to the government in terms of low cost financing and the economies of scale involved when tendering out the construction of large numbers of houses are obvious. If private developers were given the responsibility of providing low cost housing then profit, rather than social good, would drive construction and low quality homes and poorly designed communities are more like to result.

As the justification for the sale of state houses becomes less convincing by the day, Metiria Turei was able to establish that there wasn't even an expectation that the sale of houses would be contingent on meeting the needs of low income tenants. Again the Government is more interested in supporting private sector profits than the growing social need. In 2006 1 in every 120 New Zealanders were homeless and this statistic is likely to be much worse once the 2013 census is analysed. Almost 5,000 are currently on Housing NZ's high priority waiting lists and based on the 2006 statistics probably around 40,000 New Zealanders would be considered homeless now.

I guess construction firms and developers will be rubbing their hands with glee as more opportunities fall into their ample laps and the many thousands of struggling families will just have to wait even longer to be noticed.

POSTSCRIPT: Dita Di Boni from the Herald reveals that the privatising of social housing in the UK has been a dismal failure, contrary to what Bill English has been claiming. Criticising the performance of Housing NZ, while deliberately restricting its funding for maintenance, appears to be a strategy to create a sense of failure that isn't justified. Governments are better placed to provide quality social housing than the private sector.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

It's a man's world, mind the gaps...


James Brown's song It's a Man's Man's Man's World simply describes a global reality. Our economic systems and the tools and machines we use on a daily basis have been largely generated by men. The values that dominate most of the world are also male ones. This is especially true of our current Government that is very male heavy, out of the current 59 National MPs only 16 are female and only 6 in the top 20.

There is a clear difference between the previous Labour Government and this one when you look at the the influence of women. Under Helen Clark more women were able to attain leadership roles and in 2004 we were ranked 4th in the world for female representation in business management. Under National the reverse has happened we are now in the bottom twelve in the world. Over the past year alone we plummeted 13 places and now only 19% of businesses have women in senior roles.

The lack of women in management is nothing to do with ability but a combination of being in a male dominated culture where women have to work much harder to be regarded as equal and self perception that is shaped by being continually disregarded. This Forbes article on why US women struggle to achieve management roles also reflects the New Zealand situation where twice as many women now achieve bachelor degrees each year compared to men. Despite the fact that we are churning out twice as many female graduates, the work environment still values men above women and men can earn far more for similar jobs.

The National Party ridiculed Labour's attempt to have greater gender balance and described it as the 'man ban'. This simplistic attack should have shifted media attention to National's own culture where few women were represented. The Party claimed that ability, not gender, determines their list and this would naturally lead to only two conclusions: few women of ability are members of the National Party or the criteria applied to choosing candidates and list ranking are weighted towards men. I believe that both are true and the values that permeate the National Party are largely male ones.

Obviously I realise that not all men and women can be defined by narrow traits, but when one examines the record and behaviour of the National Government, traditional male values and behaviour become apparent. James Brown sings about men making the roads and National's enthusiasm for spending $13 billion on their Roads of National Significance (from a limited purse) must surely indicate a high level of testosterone in determining priorities. Many men have a fascination and love of cars that transcends their practical application and economic justification. National's financial supporters (largely rich men as there are few rich women) would be demanding good roads for their growing numbers of luxury cars and their fossil fueled status symbols.

Under this male dominated National Government roles traditionally held by women are undervalued and there is little empathy for what women and children experience on a daily or regular basis. This has resulted in yawning gaps in our support systems and protections for our most vulnerable:
This National Government's thinking and culture has been noticeably apparent during the Northland bye-election. In an electorate with unemployment at almost 20% and the highest level of child poverty in New Zealand (almost 50%), National decided that what this struggling region really needs is $60 million of new spending on wider bridges. Obviously cars are more important than kids. To support their campaign National MPs were regularly driving into Northland in a fleet of Government BMWs...it's a man's world indeed.

Friday, March 13, 2015

What Should Our Politicians Know?


The first televised debate between the four contestants for the co-leadership of the Greens occurred on The Nation this morning and I thought all came across as capable potential leaders. What tripped most of them up were specific economic questions on things like the current Official Cash Rate (OCR) or our economic growth over the last quarter. For a potential leader of any party to have some economic credibility it would have helped to have been able to answer these questions with a little more accuracy. The panel commenting on the debate were pretty scathing about the lack of economic knowledge and it made me think about what our political leaders should actually know and understand.

Economic facts and figures can be quickly learned (and probably should have been) but surely it is more important to have a deeper understanding of how economies operate and how they can best be managed? All of the candidates did show an understanding of wider economic issues and had clear points to make on how our economy could operate better. The Greens have already challenged the Government on the OECD finding that New Zealand's growth has been constrained by inequality. It is one thing to know our current level of growth, but another to appreciate its limits and barriers and how it relates to most New Zealanders.

"It's the economy, stupid" is a much cliched phrase, but still pretty much dominates our politics. However, what informs our economic understanding is shaped by our historical perspectives and how the economy relates to all aspects of our society and environment. Economics is important but not in isolation. It appalls me how ignorant many politicians (especially National ones) are in regard to what I would think should be part of the essential general knowledge of any lawmaker.

An understanding of the history of our country should be mandatory and the Te Tiriti o Waitangi must be upper most in that knowledge. For our Prime Minister to be so incredibly ignorant about our history to believe that the colonisation of New Zealand did not involve violence was hugely embarrassing. His total lack of understanding of the economic plight of Maori and how little they have benefited from the influx of capital largely explains why Maori still dominate poverty statistics.

When a government has a narrow historical lens they will continue to use the tools and economic drivers they are familiar with and will not be open to what has been used successfully before. If politicians don't understand the economic history of the world they will also be likely to repeat the same mistakes that Thomas Piketty has clearly researched and articulated.

Countries trapped in recessions in previous times found that austerity measures, and keeping wages low, did not lead to economic growth and prosperity. There are lessons in history that could be readily applied to our current situation and still be successful. Roosevelt and Savage's approach had many admirable elements that should be revisited and the OECD's recent findings around inequality support their initiatives.

Russel Norman once stated in an AGM speech, "no water, no milk; no environment, no economy". It takes 1000 litres of water to make 1 litre of milk and by focusing all our efforts into producing more milk with no environmental constraints, the sustainability of the industry is threatened. Poor management of our resources means that other industries will be compromised and future generations will be penalised. The blind focus of this Government on supporting the current cash cows and excluding the external effects of the industries involved will cause us to be lumbered with huge mitigation costs at a later date.

This Government's environmental ignorance is extreme. Judith Collins stated outragously: "Go and find someone who actually cares about this (wetlands), because I don't... It's not my issue. I don't like wetlands-they're swamps." Collins' husband was making millions from digging up swamp kauri and exporting it and she obviously had limited knowledge of the environmental and economic value of wetlands.

Simon Bridges has given up much of our territorial waters to oil exploration and a good amount of our conservation estate for potential mining. When questioned about our largest forest park that he had just signed over for exploration he admitted he had no knowledge of it.

When many National Ministers were questioned whether they believed that anthropogenic climate change was a reality very few responded in the affirmative. Such ignorance about the world's most pressing environmental issue was shocking. Our current economic management will be crucial in setting us up to survive as best we can as the climate and world economy changes. There is little in this Government's current leadership that reflects this reality.

There is also a worrying element to this National Government where ignorance has become a form of defense. Surely an in depth understanding of our levels of child poverty or our lack of quality housing would be essential in finding economic solutions.

I am not going to make excuses for our Green leadership candidates' lack of accuracy around economic data, but this does open up a potential debate around what our politicians should know and what is really important.



Thursday, March 12, 2015

Teachers Take the Initiative with a Better Plan


My most viewed post on this blog is the one where I listed the many things this Government has done that have had a negative impact on our education system. The Destruction of New Zealand's Public Education System will shortly have 50,000 views and has been republished on a number of other blogs. The damage done to school cultures and teaching and learning through National Standards has been documented in Martin Thrupp's internationally recognised  qualitative research.

Teachers are about to have their professional body, The New Zealand Teachers Council, replaced by EDUCANZ which will no longer have representatives appointed by teachers and political appointees will lead the profession from now on. With the introduction of the Government's Investment into Education Success (IES) the leadership of our schools will be answerable to the Ministry before their local communities. The Government has successfully removed the professional voice from the leadership of the education sector and has ensured there is total political control.

Despite the fact that New Zealand has been a world leader in education for the last 70 years, this Government has decided to introduce overseas models, like Charter Schools, from countries ranked well beneath us in international assessments. While education practice had been evidence based, and any changes were informed by our own contexts, this all changed. Our most respected education academics were not being consulted and it seems Treasury has become the dominant source of education advice. According to Treasury education should be data driven and under-achievement is being blamed on teacher performance rather than socio-economic factors. Teachers now expected to meet the Government's goals rather than meeting the real needs of children, which are often wider than literacy and numeracy and economic drivers.

Teachers have been bullied into submission with National Standards being legislated into law and boards and principals threatened with sacking if they didn't comply. Under IES, Executive Principals will have a $50,000 increase in pay and Lead Teachers could earn $30,000 more (this is a substantial increase to current salaries). Teachers were dismayed that such a large amount was being invested into management when they saw greater value in properly funding Special Education and providing more resources for high needs and struggling children. Having a principal on a high salary is going to make little difference for a teacher with a class full of children with English as a second language or from impoverished backgrounds. In meetings around the country 93% of teachers rejected the new system and demanded to be heard.

The Government's steamroller approach to introducing ideological change was slowed as it realised that teachers had lot of support from parents who had first hand experience of the limited resourcing available to their children. Most school communities are also very supportive of their schools and don't see the teachers as the problem as the Government has claimed. The Better Plan being promoted by teachers made a lot of sense to parents.

Massey University reviewed the literature the Government had provided in support of IES and found that what was being planned was not really justified by the research and is therefore unlikely to be successful. With most teachers rejecting the IES plan, and the evidence for it not stacking up, the Government has been backed into a corner.

For the first time in six years there will be a genuine collaboration between the Ministry of Education and the profession to look at good practice around the country and documenting what is already successful in meeting the needs of children. The hope is that funding and resources will be better directed into where it will make the most difference and a 'better plan' will come out of it.

The education sector has withstood an unjustified but severe beating under National. The public criticisms of teacher quality, the bullied changes and the poorly implemented Novopay have contributed to low moral, a high level of frustration and children suffering. For the first time in six years the profession has an opportunity to turn the sector around and to make the real needs of our children (in a New Zealand context) at the front of change once more.


Monday, March 9, 2015

Are the Greens really on the extreme left?


The Green Party's place on the left/right political continuum seems to be part of an ongoing media debate and it appears that our choice of male leader will be another indication of our positioning. According to Chris Trotter the moderates within the party have effectively shut out the true left. I have been an active Green Party member for over ten years and yet I have never seriously anguished over where we should be on a political spectrum and have always just focused on our principles and core policies.

If you talked to a range of people regarding their definition of what is meant by the left and right of politics you will get as many different responses as the people you ask. John Key would say that the Greens represent the extreme left and this is really political spin. He is attempting to label the Greens as a political outlier that doesn't support mainstream or proven solutions. This is patently nonsense when his own Government is more likely to disregard the advice from its own departmental advisors and commissioners than the Greens would.

The Greens have challenged National over the weak Alcohol Law Reform Bill and how it ignored many of the recommendations from the Law Commission. We have questioned the Government's idealistic approach to public/private partnerships and not following Treasury's considered advice on these funding models and we have challenged the Government's education policies by using professionally based arguments. The Greens have also supported the findings and recommendations of the Environment Commissioner and Children's Commissioner when they have been rejected or ignored by the Government that appointed them,

The issues that confront this country will not be solved by just applying supposed right-wing or left-wing philosophies, but by looking at the evidence, reviewing solutions, engaging in sound consultation and then making rational decisions that will be sustainable. It is quite possible that solutions could make use of market forces or government intervention, the best answers don't always come from using a left-wing or right-wing lens.

The worrying thing about National is that although they label themselves as centre-right, it actually isn't supported by any historic precedent in the New Zealand context. They are quite a different party from their rural and small business origins. They are now largely pro-corporate and include an element of popularism to maintain voter support (based on their endless opinion polls and large media team). National has only one farmer in the current top twenty of their list and there are only five farmers in the whole 2014 parliament (down from 13 in 1996). Steven Joyce and Todd McClay are the only two ministers who have any real experience in managing a business. Five of National's Ministers are lawyers, three were government servants and two came from local government. There is also a money trader, a woodwork teacher and and a public broadcaster in their top line up. National can no longer claim that it represents heartland New Zealand and conservative politics as it once did.

If the Green Party were to fit the label of extreme left then the backgrounds of their current 14 MPs hardly support that image. Three have managed their own businesses, James Shaw was a business consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and Kevin Hague is an experienced CEO. Kennedy Graham is a past UN diplomat, Julie Anne Genter has a Masters in transport planning and Metiria Turei was a commercial lawyer. Jan Logie and Catherine Delahunty have strong social justice and community education experience and Eugenie Sage brings her substantial environmental management and regional councilor experience into the mix.

The green Party understands how the world operates at multiple levels from first hand experience and cannot be dismissed as pot smoking crazies. If we had managed to get our top twenty elected it would have included an NGO CEO, a sheep and beef farmer, a panel chair for the Glenn Inquiry and a high achieving young Maori man who was elected chair of his community board. The Green Party is not a party of dope addled activists operating on the fringe of society but a party of people who are actively involved in leadership roles in communities, in business, international politics and social justice.

Probably the major difference between the parties is the fact that the Greens aren't beholden to a huge number of corporate or business interests that compromise their decisions through their substantial donations. Our highly unregulated property market remains so because a number of National's backers and even National MPs have large property investments; the alcohol industry have a strong influence, hence the lack of action in limiting advertising and introducing sales restrictions; the Problem Gambling Foundation possibly had a funding cut because of National's close relationship with SkyCity; Judith Collins used her position to support her husband's business and still can't see an issue with it; Steven Joyce bailed out his old company with hardly a blink; and their caucus supported a $3 million rescue fund to an elite private school against advice. National clearly has a problem separating governance from their personal interests and keeping their largest backers happy. While some may say that this is just typical of the Right, I think it is more about ethics.

'Left-wing' and 'right-wing' now have so many potential definitions, and such a mixed history, that it almost seems a waste of energy to try and define what it means to most most people and have common agreement. To some the 'left' are all rabid communists and for others the 'right' are corrupt capitalists putting profit before people and the environment. While many voters may be influenced by the political spin and media commentary about where parties fit on a simplistic continuum it would be clear to any outsider that none of our politicians are particularly extreme compared to most other countries. We don't have parties that promote racial segregation or violent demonstrations. Jeanette Fitzsimons was considered a highly competent chair of a Select Committee as it progressed influential local government legislation; Rod Donald was a major influence in implementing and promoting MMP; Russel Norman led a joint party inquiry into New Zealand manufacturing; and Judith Collins agreed to look at Kevin Hague's rehabilitation plan to help sort out the ACC mess that National had created. The Greens have always had a progressive, reforming influence on New Zealand politics, not a destabilizing influence.  

Perhaps we should be judging our politicians and parties by totally different measures and looked at things like ethics, vision and the ability to make good decisions based on transparent and sound process...or is that too radical?

Friday, March 6, 2015

Invercargill Marched Against the TPPA


Some images from Invercargill's TPPA march today. We do things differently down here, no chanting, we just sang our national anthem in recognition of the potential loss of our sovereignty if the agreement is signed. If the feeling against the agreement is this strong in the Deep South, the Government should take note!














Bluff photographer Monica Toretto is responsible for the great images.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Pretty Legal Employment Relations


Steven Joyce's unfortunate comment (ridiculed by television host John Oliver) actually sums up the way our National Government operates. As long as it's "pretty legal" it's "worth a crack".

This Government has always operated with a broken moral compass and the revelation that the GCSB has been using mass surveillance to spy on our Pacific neighbours is just the latest example. Time and time again legislation has been passed (often under urgency) to pave the way for even greater erosions of human rights, and to limit reasonable protections for ordinary people. The United Nations has made 155 recommendations to our Government to address human rights and to protect our most vulnerable. The fact that the number of recommendations has increased by 65 since 2009 passed largely without notice.

The level of moral corruption in our Government has possibly been too much for some. Simon Power was widely liked across all parties for the transparent and collegial way he worked and his resignation followed that of Katherine Rich who had a similar reputation. Power was seen by some as a potential leader of the Party and his stepping down seemed unusual when at the cusp of greater things. I believe his fair mindedness was out of kilter to the general culture within the National Caucus and Key's leadership style. He left at a time when Jason Eade was most active in leading the Prime Minister's dark ops division from his office.

Power's replacement for the Justice portfolio was Judith Collins and she immediately set about dismantling much of the good work he had done. Collins approach to the role was more in keeping with the caucus culture and she quickly set to work using her powers for her own interests and that of the Party. Her rejection of the Electoral Commission's recommendations to improve MMP was disgraceful as was her treatment of Justice Binnie. Collins operated in a way that could be judged as pretty legal, but I can't imagine this occurring under Power.

One of the most recent erosions of basic rights has been through the Employment Relations Amendment Bill, which comes into force today. When there are so many examples of employers using their superior power to disadvantage their workers it seems nonsensical to provide them with even more opportunities to do so. When Work Relations Minister Michael Woodhouse was confronted with the reality of zero hour contracts his responses displayed a huge ignorance of his portfolio and what many workers are up against. His brushing aside of concerns by claiming that the "Government can't legislate for good employer practice" was appalling and Helen Kelly was quite right in pointing out that it was actually his role. Instead of protecting workers from the worst of employers, National has set up a situation that will probably advantage them.

Many employers with similar moral constraints to the Government will push the new legislation to its legal limits:
  • It will now be pretty legal to deny tea breaks to employees. If a new employee was asked "are you all right with not having a tea break?" you can imagine the response and the employer can easily state that they had come to an amicable agreement.
  • It is now pretty legal for an employer to opt out of collective bargaining if they don't like where negotiations are heading. In the past employers could be legally constrained by the 'good faith' clause, but that has now been effectively removed.
  • It's now pretty legal to not pay new nonunion employees less than an existing collective agreement when it was mandatory for the first 30 days. 
  • The original legislation protected the jobs of vulnerable workers in the catering, cleaning and laundry services when contracts changed to a rival bidder. This is no longer an expectation and it will now be pretty legal for a successful bidder to have them all sacked and possible re-employed on lower pay. 
  • The extension of flexible work arrangements was promoted as a positive for workers struggling to meet the demands of childcare, but it goes two ways. Flexibility of work hours is another pretty legal way of having workers on tap at times most suitable for the employer and will mean even more insecurity of hours.
  • If employees take legal 'partial strike' action against an employer (like refusing to wear a uniform while at work) it will be pretty legal for the employer to deduct pay even if there was no financial disadvantage to them through the action. 
The New Zealand workforce is actually not a lazy one (95% of us are employed) and a large percentage work longer hours than most OECD countries, but we are now considered to be a low wage economy. Casualisation of the workforce has increased to the extent that while many have been removed from the unemployment statistics a large percentage of workers are wanting more hours to be truly financially secure. According to Roy Morgan last year almost 300,000 workers were wanting more work. 

It is an employers' market, they now have a large casual workforce on tap whenever they want and have employment legislation that enables them to dictate terms even more than before...and it's all pretty legal.