Friday, April 29, 2011

Acting up with Brash!

When I read The Hollow Men by Nicky Hager I wasn't filled with with the shock of a conspiracy theory confirmed or even felt that those concerned were evil incarnate as some did. I felt that the book and the documentary showed a group of people who are comfortable with their political philosophy but were aware that the public would not support their agenda if it was presented openly. To a certain extent the Greens also manage any public promotion and shape it in a publicly digestible way, that won't frighten the horses.

The difference between the politics of the right and left (if we use these flawed terms) is that the right have more they need to camouflage as their policies generally have a negative impact on a larger section of society. The openness with which National initially met with the Exclusive Brethren (as shown in the documentary) displayed a certain naivety rather than an intentionally clandestine operation. Those on the right just have a different view of morality than those on the left and obviously saw no problem with the association at the time.

Those on the right also feel that acquisition of wealth is a laudable endeavour and once achieved it is perfectly reasonable to enjoy the benefits and those who aren't successful in doing the same is largely due to their lack of effort or resolve. Why should the wealthy share their wealth with those who are too lazy to acquire it for themselves? Creation of wealth is the key driver for those on the right and barriers to achieving that are considered problematic and need to be limited as much as possible. Things that don't have a measurable or immediate economic value have no value in their view and it causes much gnashing of teeth when silly environmentalists, for example, put the survival of rare species of flora or fauna or clean water ahead of economic development.

Now that the ultimate "hollow man",  Don Brash, has achieved leadership of Act we will see an even more hardline Neo-Liberal approach from the party. There was a soft side to Rodney Hide and a degree of social conscience, that doesn't exist in the new leader and (as will be revealed on TV this Sunday) Rodney demonstrated real compassion for children with special needs and was prepared to think outside a purely economic approach. In both Rodney and Heather Roy there was a human side of Act that won't be as obvious if the hardline policies of Brash and Douglas are allowed to flourish. If National and Act are re-elected to govern later this year we will see more extreme policies introduced as part of any coalition agreement and while I think National's centre right agenda will be bad enough, it will be so much worse with Don Brash returning to the government caucus.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Impartiality Can Mean Different Things?

A local journalist and Public Opinion contributor is adamant that the Gore District Council is prejudicing a hearing on Solid Energy's lignite processing application by supporting an address by the world's pre-eminent authority on Climate Change. However the writer is obviously comfortable with the fact that one of the elected commissioners who may hear the case previously managed a coal mine and is currently a director of Lignite Ltd, a company that hopes to profit from further access to the resource in question. My letter in reply:

Dear Sir
Peter Owens' latest letter (April 25) continues to provide misinformation and fudging of facts, which doesn't help the ongoing debate around the issue of large scale lignite mining in the Mataura Valley.

The resource consent that Mr Owens refers to is related to Solid Energy's proposed briquette plant on Craig Road and this is just a small initial project that will have a relatively minor environmental impact. I am sure that when the Gore District Council supported Dr Hansen’s address they were looking at the long term viability of the lignite industry and the potential developments planned by not only our SOE, Solid Energy, but also Grey Wolf (a subsidiary of the huge Chinese energy Company Quinhua) and L&M, a company with hard to trace ownership. If all companies are successful in their mining proposals there will be the huge environmental impact of multiple opencast mines and over 17 million tonnes of carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere annually.

It is interesting that Mr Owens suggests that it is improper for the GDC to have a public connection with Dr Hansen, who is a world renowned authority on the effects of carbon emissions on the environment, yet seemingly proper to propose a past coalmine manager and director of Lignite Ltd as an impartial commissioner to hear the current application. I also noted the way in which Mr Owens attempted to diminish Dr Hansen’s credibility by claiming he came from Columbia (easily confused with Colombia, a South American republic with a dubious reputation) rather than the highly regarded Columbia University, based in New York, and ignoring his directorship of NASA’s Goddard Institute.

As someone who has experience in working within the Resource Management Act I know the limitations of the provisions within it and how the consideration of the long term economic viability of a project or the social impacts of an industry have no part in the application process. The opportunity to have a public presentation, from someone as respected as Dr Hansen, on the wider ramifications of mining one of the most polluting energy forms available, should not be missed. 

Green MPs Front Up!

There are two major environmental crises hanging over Southland at the moment. The most pressing is the potential "flipping" of the Waituna Lagoon, where serious environmental degradation is occurring as I write, and the second is the large scale, opencast lignite mining proposed for the Mataura valley.

Both situations have been marked by huge indifference from the National led government who see the profits gained from dairying and the potential lignite derived products as more important than what is environmentally sustainable. The Labour Party has been largely missing in action over these issues, with a track record of not making strong stands unless they think they will be publicly supported. An example of how Labour operate was seen during the popular campaign against mining in national parks. The Green Party had an anti-mining petition and major campaign in action over over several months before Labour picked up on it and replicated the campaign as if it was their own idea.

The Greens appear to be the only party prepared to make a principled stand on issues even if the solutions are difficult and unpalatable to some potential voters. Russel Norman was prepared to face up to local farmers with the hard truth that restricting stock numbers was the only immediate solution to saving the Waituna Lagoon and Gareth Hughes was the first MP to meet with locals with real concerns about the lignite proposals and offer support.

A previous Green Party slogan stated "some things are bigger than politics" true!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter in Aotearoa?

Having a mixed marriage (English/Kiwi) has not involved too much cultural conflict. Vicky and I have found that our backgrounds have been surprisingly similar, despite our formative years being spent as far apart as you could possibly be, and in different hemispheres. Most of our family traditions and our childhood experiences are very similar and even when we compare our holidays, our family celebrations or festivities, or the books we read, it is as if we came from the same culture or country. 

The difference really becomes pronounced when the seasons are matched with the traditional celebrations and Vicky would be the first to say that this is where things go badly wrong. Christmas just doesn't work in Summer and when it is combined with the end of the school year and Summer holidays it is almost like all the good things happen at once and the pressure to get through them takes away much of the pleasure. Easter in the Northern Hemisphere developed out of the pagan Spring festivals and the chicken and egg symbolism just doesn't fit with our falling leaves and darkening days. 

Much of my youth was spent searching for some sort of spiritual truth, even to the extent of taking Phenomenology of Religion at university, but although I no longer consider myself Christian I still have an attachment to the traditions of my childhood. As a family we have accepted the commercially driven elements of Christian festivals and have included elements of our own, it seemed unfair to deny our children the things we enjoyed when were young even if the initial meanings have been largely lost. I do think it is important that my children do know the Christian stories behind our festivals because, like any myths or traditions that come with any culture, they have contributed to making us the people we are. The fact that many people do still hold strong to their Christian beliefs I feel it is important for my children to have an understanding of them and to decide for themselves where they fit in their lives. 

For all our adherence to our european heritage in this country, perhaps it is about time we re-evaluated who we are and what we want to collectively recognize as a country. More and more we are becoming a multi-cultural nation, we have the largest polynesian population in the world and our asian population is steadily reaching significant levels. All of our cultural minorities have their own beliefs and traditions and while I think it is vital that they continue to recognize them (as it is both important for them and adds vitality to our country in positive ways) but what should we celebrate together? We need some festivals and celebrations that bring our whole country together, ones that celebrate both our uniqueness and feelings of unity. 

We are quick to accept traditions from beyond our shores, like Guy Fawkes and Halloween, but reluctant to have the confidence to support our own. Anzac Day is shared with Australia but has become something of our own and Waitangi Day is ours but has had a chequered  history with differing views on what it really represents. We tried New Zealand Day for a bit but it never quite gelled and we have had some recent support for Matariki as something that would brighten a Winter devoid of much to look forward to. I think it is time to have some healthy conversations and feel comfortable about our shared heritage. Why can't have celebrations that are uniquely our own, that bring us together as people of Aotearoa, who share the same wonderful place that isn't England or the US and be proud of who we are?

Friday, April 22, 2011

ANZAC DAY (Part Two), "the price of citizenship" .

I strongly recommend the book Nga Tama Toa: The Price of Citizenship, C Company 28 (Maori) Battalion 1939-1945  by Monty Soutar. Even Monty's presentations on how the book came to be is an emotional roller coaster  and a revelation to many. 

Monty, with his team of researchers spent 16 years interviewing and collecting stories from C Company soldiers and their families. What resulted is a huge collection of narratives; sad, truthful, heartwarming, horrifying, informative and uplifting. 

The book tells us about the people from Eastern Bay of Plenty to the south of Gisborne, marginalized in their own country and treated as second class citizens. Maori were not allowed to drink in pubs and did not receive the same benefits and status as their pakeha neighbours. In the first world war Maori soldiers had a supporting role well away from the frontlines and were not treated as worthy of equal military status. On their return they were not offered the financial assistance that pakeha soldiers were, no gifted farms or subsidies or loans to improve their land, nothing.

C Company were nicknamed the Cowboys by other battalions because most lived on isolated farms and horses were a common form of transport. Many of the C Company boys had never been to Gisborne let alone overseas. The stories of their departure were emotional ones, many had lied about their ages and were as young as 16. Once becoming soldiers they were kept in accommodation in Gisborne and isolated from their families until their departure. There were stories of young men punching holes in the surrounding corrugated iron fence with their bayonets so they could see and say goodbye to their mothers.

Once away overseas and on to the battlefields these innocent young men drew deep from their collective whakapapa and the connections with their warrior past and scared the living daylights out of their enemies. Their hakas shook the battle fields and their courage and intensity of purpose saw them become the driving force of any campaign they were part of. They fought hard and with considerable distinction, experienced some horrific battles and suffered heavy losses.

Those who were lucky to return home were changed men, many were permanently damaged by what they had experienced. However, nobody questioned them when they wearily entered pubs on their return and asked for a beer. They had achieved citizenship in their own country, but at a massive cost.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

ANZAC DAY, how war brings people together.

I thought I would write something around ANZAC Day but found a number of themes started to crystalize in my mind, so I have decided to separate them into different posts. Today I would like to focus on a positive aspect that came out of the great wars.

Although New Zealand is populated by relatively recent migrants (in historical terms even Maori are  recent inhabitants), travel was expensive and for many the voyage to New Zealand was their last major journey and later generations only dreamed of returning to their family and cultural origins.

With both world wars the opportunity to travel and see new places was a big part of why many young men, and a few women, signed up. Despite the horrors of battle and the tragic consequences that results from mass conflict the wars also brought the nations of the world closer together in a way that mere travel could never do. Strong alliances were formed between allied countries, many soldiers were welcomed into the homes of the countries they fought in and many new families were established through relationships formed abroad. A ship was commissioned after WW 2 to transport around 600 English brides so that they could join their New Zealand husbands and many local women left our shores to join their US serviceman husbands.

War has even brought past enemies closer together with thousands of young New Zealanders and Australians returning to Gallipoli to see for themselves the battlefields that were instrumental in shaping our respective country's identity. The Turks were admired as adversaries and have been appreciated as welcoming hosts in the following years.

My own relationship with my English born wife, Vicky, has a direct connection with WW2. Vicky's mother and uncles were sent to New Zealand through Britain's flawed attempt to protect its children by sending them out to safer parts of the British Commonwealth. Although many children suffered through being separated from their parents and many were badly mistreated by their host families, Vicky's mother had a very positive experience (even becoming Dux of Wellington East Girls College). Although Vicky's mother and her brothers returned to England after the war their connection with New Zealand was a strong one and consequently when Vicky was contemplating working overseas a job advertised by Southland Hospital looked very attractive.

I am also writing this with some degree of sadness because Vicky's uncle, David Salkeld, has only just passed away. David's love of New Zealand never ended and he and his wife made countless trips back here to visit old school friends and members of his extended family. He was a remarkable man in many ways, he had a high rank in the RAF and was badly injured by an IRA bomb, which caused severe deafness and some disfigurement. His injuries never stopped his interest in travel and his keen intellect was always evident as he pondered various world mysteries and loved to share his latest theories on their possible origins. A stroke a few years ago was largely overcome with amazing determination as he regained his speech and letter writing skills.  David's personal enthusiasm and genuine interest in friends and family connected many people across the world and demonstrated how courage and determination can overcome the violence that can occur within it. I feel honoured to have known him and he will be greatly missed.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Two New Posters

What do you think?

Lignite Mining, what price for future generations!

I wrote the following after attending Jeanette's presentation in Invercargill last night, hosted by Forest and Bird and the Coal Action Network of Aotearoa:

Jeanette Fitzsimons has retired from her parliamentary position and leadership of the Green Party and after decades of fighting for the environment one would think she deserves a well earned break, however, Jeanette is not the sort of person to rest when there is important work to be done. She began her presentation by patiently explaining the real consequences of climate change and said that most of us in the room won't be around when the full enormity hits "but you will" she said to a young girl sitting shyly beside her mother. What drives Jeanette and compels her to continue fighting is the possibility we can leave a world worth passing on to following generations.

The single most barrier to maintaining a stable planet is carbon emissions, through the continued use of fossil fuels, and the proposed lignite mining in Southland will be the largest new project that will contribute to that problem. Lignite is already being mined in the area to support the huge Fonterra dairy factory in Edendale and Jeanette struggled to understand  how Fonterra can promote our milk as coming from a clean green environment yet power the processing with one of the dirtiest fuels in existence.

Lignite is high in moisture, has a very low energy content,  produces large amounts of ash, is uneconomic to transport in its natural state and releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide when burned. All in all it is a low grade, highly inefficient fuel. Jan Wright, our current Commissioner for the Environment, recently wrote a very conservative report on further mining of lignite and concluded it was best to leave it in the ground. Yet this government's   prematurely released Energy Strategy clearly favours fossil fuels over environmentally sustainable sources.

Three separate companies are looking to mine in Southland; our own SOE, Solid Energy, L&M a company whose ownership can only be traced to Belize, and Greywolf, a subsidiary of the huge Chinese energy company Qinghua. The likely destination for the bulk of the briquettes, urea and diesel (that will be potentially produced) will go to China to fuel their rapidly expanding economy. A worrying element of allowing large international companies access to our resources is that our current trade agreements lack robust protections and if we decide, down the track, that we want to limit access then we could have costly litigation to deal with.

New Zealand will gain some royalties, a few jobs (most specialist positions tend to be internationally sourced), a dirty great hole and the general environmental effects that are still to be quantified. There are very few wealthy, thriving communities situated close to mining operations and the potential damage to related aquifers and local infrastructures (roading etc) hasn't been fully established. The science behind much of what Solid Energy claims are environmental safe guards are still unclear, especially the capture and storage of carbon emissions (carbon sequestration). The proposed lignite recovery will release up to 17 million tonnes of carbon emissions into the atmosphere annually and even if the majority is released in China, the original source is still New Zealand and we have the moral responsibility of allowing it to happen.

Environment Southland and the Gore District Council need to seek the best advice possible in deciding where the most sustainable future lies for our communities and environment. In supporting the mining of lignite they need to think beyond the initial financial benefits and look at where we will be placed in ten or twenty years time because of that investment. They should also look at other alternatives for economic sustainability and the value of the resources we would lose because of the mining; the rich top soil, the clean aquifers and the visual beauty of the area. They should look at local communities, both here and internationally that exist post mining to see how much better off they are to live beside an open cast mine and the remains of an abandoned industry. Solid Energy's PR machine is driven by commercial imperatives and alternative, equally valid views, will not necessarily have the same slick delivery but still need to be heard.

There are times in our history when we reach important crossroads, where decisions made can have binding long term consequences for future generations, this is one of those times!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Cost of Milk and Child Poverty.

Chris Farrelly, CEO of Manaia Health, presented some worrying statistics on Nine to Noon this morning and and shared some shocking stories about child health in the northern region he has responsibility for. He talked mainly about child poverty and the lack of commitment in this country to really look after our children.

Kathryn Ryan sharply questioned him about the causes of poor child health and suggested it was just poor parental choices and that we had adequate welfare support. Chris explained how low wages, high housing costs and inadequate benefits limited choices. It is generally considered that it is reasonable to spend 1/4 of one's income on food but many poor spend over 80% and then struggle with rent and other living costs. With benefits and wages falling behind inflation, and food costs largely driving that inflation, poor families are in a no win situation. At least 25% of our children currently live in homes experiencing a degree of poverty and a two day conference was organized last year in an attempt to address the issues. New Zealand's shocking position at the bottom of the OECD (24th out of 25) for child health and welfare was a major determiner for organizing the summit.

Apparently only 10% of our dairy production remains in the domestic market and the prices we pay reflect those overseas. Milk consumption has dropped by a third since the 1980s and many parents are buying soft drink because it is cheaper, positioned prominently in shops and more attractive than water. Chris's shocking stories of children under five having all their teeth removed was bad enough but the commonality of this occurring in his region was horrifying.

There was a time when supporting our children was a high priority in New Zealand and at one time we had free milk in schools, dental clinics at every school, thorough immunization programmes and a well funded Plunket service. Over the years we have seen family support fall in real terms, dental clinics dismantled, immunizations levels fall, healthy food in schools not directed, funding to early childhood education cut and a huge increase in income inequities. Poor health in children leads to ongoing health costs as they progress into unhealthy adults, a poor start in life can never be rectified.

I thought Chris's final remark particularly powerful, ".....when we know and do nothing, we are complicit!"

Monday, April 18, 2011

Mataura is not a hole!

The combined efforts of my ideas and my son's graphic design skills. What do you think?

Semantics, Spin Doctors and Common Sense

It may be just an anal obsession with semantics, but I think the meanings of words can carry heavy connotations and there can often be a huge difference between the dictionary definition of a word and the practical reality. When it comes to describing political persuasions or philosophies the semantics become blurred by countless spin doctors, local mythologies and pure ignorance.

Act MP, Heather Roy, presented this explanation to Victoria University recently and a local blogger and followers (including myself) have provided some more light hearted definitions.

Research has shown that the majority of voters are not swayed by detailed policy statements but by emotional connections and surface perceptions. The main challenge for political parties in this coming election will be around crafting and shaping an image for themselves that resonates with the voter. Obviously the Green Party hasn't access to the funds and resources of a governing party who already have invested heavily into spin doctors to the extent they may even out number legitimate advisors.

I am very concerned that, despite the fact that the Green Party has had some very successful campaigns and our advertising has won awards and accolades, the media dominance and manipulation of the National Party will carry them through. It is important that voters look beyond what the National Government are claiming and see what they are actually delivering, it doesn't take careful analysis to see a huge disconnect and some future Tui advertisements:

We are cutting funding to improve frontline services

National Standards assessments will raise the achievement levels of disadvantaged children

Cutting the goal of 100% qualified Early Childhood Teachers to 80% will provide better outcomes

Billion dollar investments in motorways are sound investments as oil prices rise

Expanding the dairy industry ahead of water management rules is economically justified

Private built schools and prisons will deliver good value for money

Shifting the responsibility from communities to one Minister, will deliver the best outcomes for rebuilding Christchurch

Cutting benefits to students and beneficiaries and borrowing is the best way to fund Christchurch's recovery.

Perhaps others could add to this list?


Sunday, April 17, 2011

Solar Energy Supported in the South

We in the South may be battling the worrying side effects of the rapid expansion of the dairy industry and  are being threatened with losing the Mataura Valley to open cast lignite mining, but the Southland sun will soon be shining on some more sustainable activity.

Venture Southland, together with the three southern councils have instigated the first region wide, solar energy pilot. Solar Energy is something the Green Party has always promoted and even managed to get a centrally funded subsidy to support take up. However the initiative was not as successful as we would have wished, for a variety of reasons; the cost of the units were prohibitive because the market was relatively small; there weren't enough fully trained installers and many initial installations were poorly done which didn't help the promotion.

The southern scheme already looks to be highly successful, with minimal advertising it has attracted lots of interest and the company that is providing the systems has a good track record and reliable chinese and New Zealand made units that have been well tested in southern locations. A 75% reduction in annual water heating costs is considered to be very achievable.

As we were intending to replace our aging hot water cylinder anyway, we jumped at this opportunity. We have had an initial consultation and it looks as though the total cost will be around $5,000. We looked at how long we intended to continue living in our present house, the potential resale value it would have with such a system in place, and thought it was worth the investment.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Solid Energy vs Good Governance

I couldn't believe Peter Owen's suggestion in today's paper that seeking views and advice outside that of Solid Energy's was naive. Peter suggests that we should ignore experts who have opposing views because it will result in costly legal bills and make life difficult for the Gore District Council and Solid Energy. The bizarre claim that supporting an invitation for Dr James Hansen to speak in Gore is demonstrating bias is nonsensical.

This is my response:

Dear Sir
I had great difficulty understanding Peter Owen’s definition of neutrality and what constitutes good decision making (April 16). He appears to suggest that in considering the merits of Solid Energy’s lignite mining proposals, the Gore District Council’s interest in consulting a range of expert advice is naïve.

Mr Owen expresses astonishment that the GDC would associate themselves with Dr James Hansen, who openly opposes coal and lignite mining. I presume Mr Owen’s dismissive manner is due to the fact he is not aware of Dr Hansen’s international reputation.  As an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University and the director of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies I would have thought Dr Hansen would have strong scientific credentials. The fact that his advice has regularly been sought by the US congress is also worthy of mentioning.

Solid Energy is a commercial entity that strongly pursues business opportunities within its sphere of expertise. Extracting coal and lignite is what it does best and the Matuara Valley has a resource that would hugely benefit the company’s financial success. It is our central Government and local authorities who have the responsibility of tempering short term commercial demands and business interests with the potential social and environmental impacts on local communities and our long term national interests.

The Mataura Landcare Group represent a growing section of the local community who see the soil above the lignite as providing the best long term benefits for their community and are concerned with the lack of science and environmental assurances behind Solid Energy’s proposals. I would have thought consulting widely and looking beyond the information provided from Solid Energy’s well funded PR machine would demonstrate wise governance.

Yours sincerely
Dave Kennedy

Friday, April 15, 2011

Arts vs Sport

I am currently chairing the governing committee of our local Art Gallery and it is exciting to be contemplating and promoting some really strong proposals for future development.

Our Gallery has been managed for over 60 years on limited funding, minimal staff (one full-time person only) and a heap of goodwill and voluntary support. Despite our whole annual budget being little different from the annual drinks bill for Rugby Southland our art collection and gallery management has been recently assessed as being equal or better than other provincial galleries in New Zealand.

As a passionate supporter of all visual and performing arts in Invercargill I see incredible quality and value in our local artistic ventures. Southlanders are also great supporters of the arts and our local theatre is generally packed for a variety of performances. I don't think many people are aware that Invercargill's Civic Theatre is the only theatre in the South Island, outside Christchurch, that has the capacity to present full ballet productions.

The debacle around Rugby Southland's budget blowout has led to some general soul searching as people begin to question the value they get from sport. The huge salaries many players received within the Southland Stags now seem excessive (especially as most would earn twice the remuneration of our Gallery Manager).

I have been pleased to hear from a number of sources that, after many decades, the tide is turning within community funders and we may have some very favourable responses to any requests for financial support.

It is time to get some balance back in our communities and recognize the transient nature of sporting achievement (the Ranfurly Shield?) compared to the ongoing value we gain from our Art collections and artistic performances.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Issue or the Man?

I feel far more comfortable debating issues and solutions then attacking individuals and questioning personal motives and it was with some reluctance that I responded to a letter from Eric Roy in today's Southland Times.

Robert Guyton's irrepressible cheekiness in an earlier letter had sparked a strong response from Eric and a supporter, who described Russel's recent visit to the Waituna as a publicity stunt. They accused the Greens of just criticising from the sidelines and doing nothing when they were in government (we have never been in government).

On a personal level, I have found Eric to have a real interest in the environment and he has always been a keen outdoorsman like myself. While I have climbed, tramped and kayaked around much of Fiordland and Mt Cook, Eric has tramped, fished and hunted similar areas. The main difference between our shared interest in the environment is our political background and this dictates our perceptions around solutions to environmental issues. The National Party's core philosophies are around supporting economic growth and reducing regulations and impediments that could limit that growth. In practical terms this results in weakening existing environmental legislation and limiting consultation.

The Greens have a different approach, rather than looking at short term economic gains we would rather ensure any industry is viable over the long term. It may involve more regulation and consultation but what then develops is far more cost effective and sustainable. We only need to see the economic catastrophe that resulted from the deregulation of the building industry in the 90s to see how short term profits can turn into billions of dollars of damage control.

National recognized some time ago that green issues were generating greater public support and their Bluegreens initiative was largely developed to take advantage of this. I have found, however, through conversations with genuine Bluegreens, that there is a good deal of frustration through the lack of real commitment to addressing environmental concerns. Eric mentions the national fresh water strategy as a potential way forward but Nick Smith has been sitting on the clean water rules for 15 months and there is a real worry that the farming lobby will influence a dilution of the rules to the extent they will be largely impotent by the time they are legislated. They will be too late and not enough to save the Waituna.

My letter:

Dear Sir
Once again I feel obliged to write a letter to correct misinformation from Invercargill MP, Eric Roy.

“Sitting on the sideline” has never been a Green strategy, in fact the very reason we know about the impending disaster in the Waituna Lagoon is because of the $8.8 million the Greens managed to get from the 2007 budget for protecting wetland areas. Before this money was available the science around wetlands was almost nonexistent and the current advisory group for the Waituna and the related community initiatives have been funded out of this money also.

While I don’t question Mr Roy’s personal commitment to the environment, I am aware of a good deal of frustration from many genuine Bluegreen members who see short term economic gain being favoured over the environment time and time again. As highlighted by Campbell Live the other night, the milk industry has become a powerful juggernaut that is causing real damage, both environmental and social, as it bulldozers its way to huge profits. While the income from dairy is important for our economy, the sustainability of the industry is dependent on how well we manage the resources it relies on. 40% of our total water use goes to the dairy industry and the quality and availability of that resource is being compromised in many areas around the country.

Mr Roy mentioned meeting with various groups to look at ways of stopping the degradation of the lagoon, but what he should be doing is ensuring his own government takes the necessary action (through strong fresh water management rules) to give local authorities the mandate and teeth to do their job. We already know what needs to be done and the longer we delay the less likely the Waituna Lagoon will survive an overload of polluting nutrients.

Yours sincerely...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

National Standards; a train wreck in the making.

It is unfortunate that the National Standards debate has shifted out of the professional arena where it should rightly be. The fact that the Minister has no professional understanding has meant she will not engage at all with education academics, who are united in their condemnation of the Standards. Her insistence that any opposition is union and industrially based has no foundation, but if constantly repeated, begins to stick in the public mind.

There is no argument about the importance of having standards, both teachers and parents should expect and demand high standards in the education of our children. It is the form that the standards take, the implementation and the lack of evidence and research behind them that cause concern. It is interesting that in surveying the views of parents last year the New Zealand Herald found that while 73% liked the Standards only 11% fully understood them and a later survey found that as understanding grew, support for the standards dropped.

Despite being called standards the reality is that these standards are not standards at all. The Minister of Education and her Ministry have described them as “aspirational” and “signposts to learning” and at some age levels up to 70% of children will not achieve them. These standards do not have a basis in sound research and are badly out of alignment with the curriculum teachers are expected to teach and the common tests and assessments that teachers generally use. The Education Institute has repeatedly asked for a trial and the flaws to be addressed but the Minister has refused to do this, instead she has demanded that all schools and children should suffer through a three year “bedding down” period. The Minister refuses to act on the advice of her “independent” advisors, refuses to engage with our most respected educationalists (or answer their questions) and ignores the many letters of concern from schools and their boards.

Parents want “honest and accurate’’ reporting, and this is perfectly reasonable, but the reality is that the majority of schools provided this already and many parent communities have complained when their schools switched to the reporting templates for National Standards as recommended on the Ministry’s web site. There was real concern and confusion when children previously (and accurately) described as working above average were assessed as not achieving the standard for their age, it was distressing for parents and demoralizing for the children.

The concern that focussing on "Reading, Writing and Mathematics" would narrow the curriculum has proven correct. Despite the fact that science and technology are key areas for innovation and developing industry these are now second class curricula and all supporting advisors have been sacked. Recent research on science achievement in schools has shown a decline in understanding. New Zealand's recently introduced curriculum had been lauded internationally for its focus on children's needs and recognition of individual communities, National Standards hijacked the implementation and destroyed the passion and innovation being developed in schools. New Zealand is constantly ranked amongst the top five education systems in the world and it seems ludicrous to drastically change what we do because of a fabricated crisis. 

The Minister of Education initially claimed that the Standards were introduced to assist those children who struggle to learn and are well below average levels of  attainment, the infamous 20% failure rate (the 80% who are successful are conveniently ignored). We all know that it is not assessments that make children learn it is good teaching and targeted resourcing and unfortunately to fund these flawed standards we have lost many of our curriculum advisors and support systems. This Government is prepared to pay $90,000 a year to keep someone in prison yet the money now being made available to assist each struggling child is a miserly $60 a year and two hours per school of professional advice.  

The Minister claims that most schools are working with the standards and this is quite different from saying most schools support the standards, it is a legal requirement to work with the standards and many schools reluctantly do so. More telling statistics reveal that the requirement to report National Standards based targets to the Ministry by January had only seen 5% of schools do so, around 300 school boards now refuse to engage with the Standards and a recent conference of 750 principals unanimously supported a vote of no confidence in the Standards. 

Trevor Mallard revealed a worrying reality, last year, when he asked Minister Tolley to explain a rather obtuse and jargon filled standard in plain english. The Minister carefully explained that she wasn't required to understand the Standards, just to implement and resource them. If the Minister doesn't understand the Standards and she is the one driving them, against all good advice, then we have a train wreck in the making!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Lying, Fudging and Misinformation

Honesty in politics is often thought to be a misnomer, the two words are not really considered compatible. I'm not quite sure if it is because of this commonly held view that allows John Key to maintain a good level of popularity, people don't expect him to be honest, but at least he's got a nice smile.

However, it really concerns me that  dishonesty and misinformation are not being properly challenged by our news media and the constant contradictions are not getting exposed effectively. During the last election John Key had a few shaky moments when he was caught out and he appeared like a possum in headlights, but now his relaxed and dismissive manner when discovered bending the truth now seems largely successful and he is getting away with some pretty heavy stuff.

We will put to one side the statements around not raising GST, the early claims that National Standards were going well, the claims he knew nothing about the BMWs (despite test driving one and having memos cross his desk). The latest porkies that worry me are around the preferential treatment given to Media Works; the meetings that weren't meetings, the urgency in the house, the connections with Steven Joyce and the $43 million dollar loan that isn't a loan and the advice from the Ministry of Economic Development that there wasn't a strong case for the loan and it would be carrying an unnecessary financial risk. Key has described his government's actions as supporting the whole radio industry, yet Media works gets $43.3 million and the rest get only $300,000.

A cynic would say they have pretty good control over TV1 and by cutting funding to TV7 they have further cemented their dominance. By gifting this large sum to Media works one could imagine a more circumspect approach to the National Party in news items and in interviewing Ministers, especially as the election looms.

Lying, fudging and misinformation is the way that this government operates, lets put a stop to that on November 26!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Sun Shone on the Waituna

The sun shone, the water sparkled and the birds exploded into the air as our kayaks approached. The Waituna Lagoon may not have the towering grandeur of Milford Sound but it has its own wild beauty that is appreciated with a passion by the local residents who have fished, shot ducks and watched over it for generations. Local Ngai Tahu have revered the lagoon for centuries as one of their most important sources of food and both long and short finned tuna (eels) can be found here in abundance. The international importance of the Waituna Wetland was established when it was the first in the world to be recognized by the Ramsar Convention in 1976.

One local farmer feels a connection more than many after his dying father told him that it was now his responsibility to look after the "lake". This resulted in him giving up half his farm to act as a protective buffer between the lagoon and the farmed land beyond. Another farmer told us with understated feeling that he just wanted his children to experience the lagoon as he had.

Knowing these stories and this history made it especially painful when I listened, with Russel Norman, to the data being presented by DoC and Environment Southland scientists. The levels of nitrogen and phosphorus have steadily built over time and the last three years have seen a sudden and rapid deterioration of the lagoon's ecosystems. The lagoon is at imminent risk of "flipping" and it has only been a combination of dry weather at a crucial time and good luck that has stopped it from happening before. Flipping would turn the lagoon from the clear water that exists now, supporting a myriad of birds and plant species, to a turbid, murky mess dominated by algal slime. Once flipping has occurred the chances of pulling it back are near impossible and the expense of attempting it would be huge.

We met with members of the Awarua Waituna Advisory Group, the Waituna Landcare Group and some local farmers in the old Kapuka South School, now a community centre and home of the local gun club. The majority were locals who had their family roots established in the area generations before (one farmer felt the need to apologize for having arrived into the district only seven years earlier) and they all came with concern clearly etched on their faces. They were worried about their lagoon and some were concerned that possible solutions may affect their livelihoods. They knew urgent action was needed and one farmer had even brought a list of possible improvements to farm practice that he thought could make a difference.

The messages that Russel brought to the gathering were tough ones, he likened the lagoon to a patient in intensive care and needing to be put on immediate life support. If we had a human patient at deaths door it would be considered gross malpractice to continue injecting the cause of the illness while hoping a few minor improvements would see a gradual recovery. If the lagoon was at the point of flipping we needed immediate action and the high levels of nutrient input had to be immediately and drastically cut.

Russel admitted it was a hard message but there was no alternative but to quickly reduce stock numbers in the immediate and wider catchment. The regulated farm effluent accounted for only 10% of the extra nutrients that entered the environment, the majority came directly from the animals themselves as they grazed in the paddocks of grass or winter feed and every fall of rain exacerbated the problem and a major storm could easily form a killing blow.

I noticed nodding heads amongst many in the room and I knew that the life of the lagoon was something they were more than prepared to make sacrifices for, however the general farming culture had changed over the last ten years and those who had strong family connections to the area were rapidly becoming the minority. As we drove the gravel roads towards the lagoon I became aware that the names of the farms we passed were less likely to end in "dale" or "vale"  but "investments" or "corporation". Such farms often employed short term managers with different value sets and operating agendas than those of the group we met today. Such managers tend not to be swayed by the local's passion for protecting the environment as they attempted to maximize profits for their employer. The only directions that these managers needed to follow, other than those from their employer, were the enforced requirements from the local regulatory authorities.

If we are to make any difference at all, local councils need the legislated strength to do their job properly and currently there is a noticeable vacuum at national level where clear and consistent direction is needed. It was pointed out to me today by an Environment Southland councilor that a model of effective regulations already exists for air quality, we now urgently need them for water!

Friday, April 8, 2011

But will he walk the talk?

Nick Smith has released the Government's Freshwater Reform Report and in his introductory statement he says the right things. The real test of his resolve and that of the "Bluegreens" will be how they respond to the crisis in the Waituna Lagoon.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Power & Responsibility

I remember reading reading Ursula Le Guin's book A Wizard of Earthsea as a child and being strongly impressed by the underlying moral theme running through it.  Like the Harry Potter books, that it predates by almost 40 years, the story involves the education and development of a talented young wizard (Ged) who has to endure some difficult situations before finally confronting a dark and evil presence. Coincidentally, both central characters had their key mentor perish in their defense.

Despite the similarities between the two stories there is a key difference between Rowling's view on magic and Le Guin's. For Harry Potter, magic was an exciting and useful tool that was wielded with enthusiasm and could be used for fun or as a weapon. The education that young Ged received emphasized the responsibility and thought required in using any spell, large or small. Magic, in Le Guin's vision, was a direct intrusion on the natural order of things and should never be used without an appreciation of its direct or indirect consequences. The struggles Ged experiences are because of one impulsive act of magic that had an unexpected and catastrophic outcome.

The National Government can be likened to a young and impulsive wizard, they can wave their governing wand and instantly create change with no thought to the consequences, slash a budget here, introduce legislation under urgency there. They have the wand and they'll use it how they want, thank you!  But they don't see the consequences; the families struggling on food parcels because they can't access the required budget advice necessary to gain financial support; the well staffed early childhood centre that had to let go two teachers because of a cut in funding; The young widow labeled as a bludger if she chooses to stay at home to look after her two preschool children....

Power comes with responsibility and this National Government's narrow view of the world and rushed, ideological decision making could easily leave a trail of destruction equal to an earthquake in its long term consequences.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Too Many Deficits!

Dear Sir
Just how many deficits does this Government wish to run?

After rejecting the Green’s suggestion of an earthquake levy, which would more equitably share the cost of Christchurch's reconstruction, the Government has chosen to cut benefits and borrow. We will find those with the least will suffer more while the wealthy get to keep their tax windfalls. Cutting spending and borrowing will just delay the inevitable costs and will lower our international credit rating.

While the financial deficit is bad enough this Government is compounding our problems with a huge deficit in visionary thinking. While China is now leading the world in the design and manufacture of ecologically sound and sustainable energy sources the National Government’s prematurely released Energy Strategy revealed that fossil fuels still dominate their thinking.

I would rather live in a clean green country that leads the world in sustainable food production and innovative, carbon neutral energy sources than live by an open cast lignite mine that would lead to yet another deficit, a negative balance in carbon credits.

Yours sincerely.... 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Sshhh, SIS Secret Stuff

I am sorry to say my rise up the Green Party list may be hampered by my lack of effectiveness in standing up for human rights and the environment. The true evaluation for any environmental and human rights activist appears to be the size of their SIS file. 

When it was revealed that Keith Locke had been under surveillance since the age of 11 and both Sue Bradford and Catherine Delahunty had impressive files, the status in having one was immediately established. I had always thought that my 35 years of involvement in fighting environmental degradation and supporting human rights, including my public battles with Norman Jones (ex-Invercargill MP and well known homophobe and anti-socialist) in the early eighties, had been noticed. The fact that I used to subscribe to both Time and a Soviet monthly must have also attracted attention, especially as I always found the envelope containing the latter had been tampered with. After enthusiastically sending away for my file, I was brought down to earth by the reply. I received a letter to inform me that the SIS had no file dedicated to myself, but there was the diplomatic suggestion that there was a possibility my name may appear in other's files.

To some extent the operations of our Secret Intelligence Service has been treated as a bit of a joke. Its credibility has been questioned since the legendary "Pie and Penthouse" incident in 1981 and subsequent activities have revealed an obsession with environmental groups and human and Maori rights activists. The SIS is supposed to support the security of our national interests and the safety of New Zealand citizens, but the track record of the agency reveals the opposite. In most of the high profile cases the SIS appears to brush aside the normal rights of personal privacy so that it can spy on those who are attempting to expose actual threats to the fabric of our society and environment and often the inadequacies of the ruling Government. Sadly when a real threat to our nation's sovereignty has occurred, as in the Rainbow Warrior incident and when Mossad was found to be acquiring NZ passports for illegal use, it was the police who found the evidence.

For those of us who haven't been the subject of SIS attention it is easy to dismiss them as inconsequential, however, for all of those who have been subjected to their intrusive attentions the experience has been highly upsetting and disruptive. Greater public scrutiny would have mitigated the excesses of past activities and there would have been no loss of national security had this happened. To insist that all submissions to the Security Intelligence Service Amendment Bill needed to be dealt with in secret is just another appalling joke and will allow a continuation of the status quo. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Very Fruitful Day

It is very satisfying when you can fill your kitchen with food at no cost and this has been one of our best years for fruit in the 17 years we have lived here. The apple trees are so laden with fruit their branches are almost touching the ground, the green house is full of the aromatic scent of ripe grapes and Vicky and I managed to fill two containers with blackberries from the side of a popular walking track. 

Vicky was concerned we were taking more than our share of the blackberries but despite being right beside the walking track there was no evidence of anyone else taking advantage of the bountiful supply. It was nice to have the fruit to ourselves but sad that others don't experience the prickly adventure of harvesting them and then the pleasure of eating homemade blackberry and apple pie.

Daylight saving ended today and the Autumnal feeling outside was more pronounced due to the heavy cloud and crunching leaves underfoot, but inside our house the smell of  grapes, blackberries and drying apples is a little like we have captured a bit of Summer to tide us over the Winter. 

Crime & Punishment, what's behind the rhetoric?

I found myself agreeing with much that Judith Collins was saying on Q&A regarding our crime statistics. While good policing probably has made a positive difference to crime there is an on going problem with an element of police culture which needs to be resolved and she is quite right to expect that this should happen. Drug and alcohol rehabilitation would also make a huge difference, but it is just a pity that stronger controls over the sales and advertising of alcohol couldn't have supported such initiatives. The high expectations placed on the private prison sounds good too, but if this prison is expected to deliver on expectations, and make a profit, I can see cuts will be made in the pay and conditions of staff. Private residential homes for our elderly ensure profits buy employing non-qualified staff and having minimal employment conditions and private prisons have an international reputation for the same. While removing cigarettes from prisons makes sense on one level, the potential for black markets and increased violence must also be a consequence. I find for every seemingly reasonable statement that the Minister made, the reality behind them provided cause for concern.

It is only when we compare our crime and imprisonment figures with other countries in the OECD that we really see where we stand internationally and despite the recent drop in crime, our imprisonment figures are disturbing. Our rate of incarceration is still second only to the United States and at an annual cost of $91,000 per prisoner I am surprised that this isn't a focus of future savings rather than beneficiaries.

Surely it is addressing our appalling inequities of income, providing support for struggling families and quality early childhood education that will truly make a difference to crime statistics. If our young children have a good start in life there is a good likelihood that they will become capable, resilient adults and contribute positively to society.

Tough action on cigarettes and a private prison is not going to make a difference!

Friday, April 1, 2011

April Fools!

I had hoped that the employment legislation taking effect today was part of an elaborate April Fools trick. Extending the 90 day trial to all employers was such a ridiculous idea as was the right to request proof of illness within the first three days of sick leave. I know Gerry Brownlee sometimes displays a sense of humour and Anne Tolley's grim visage can sometimes show a hint of a smile, so a witty trick on April the 1st was entirely possible.

I listened carefully for the midday news to hear the public announcement that the changes to the Employment Relations Act 2000 was just a clever trick, there was nothing. The Act is real and the crazy changes are now law.

Wetlands are not Wastelands

This is an image from the viewing shelter on the edge of the Waituna Lagoon at the heart of the Awarua Wetlands. It is one of the largest remaining wetland complexes in New Zealand and is nationally and internationally regarded as important for wildlife, especially trans-equatorial migratory birds. Over 80 bird species have ben identified in the area, 65 of which are dependent on this type of environment for all or part of their lives.

In 2007 the Green Party managed to wrangle $8.8 million from the budget (The Arawai Kākāriki project) for three significant wetland areas, with Awarua being the largest. This money has allowed for:
  • The science around wetlands to become substantial 
  • The partnerships with surrounding communities and farmers to collaboratively create huge changes in land use 
  • Providing effective public education
  • Develop public accessibility  
Despite all of this the ongoing scientific research has detected a negative change in the quality of the water entering the wetland. Farmers in the immediate catchment have made huge changes to their practice and are operating well within regulated requirements yet it has been found it is not enough. The intensity of farming still allowed in the area and the wider catchment has meant that stronger measures are needed. Environment Southland recognize the problem but can not operate outside of the regulations they are bound by and DoC knows what is needed but can only make recommendations. 

Federated Farmers are adamant that the viability of the farming industry must come before all else and want the science peer reviewed. Local farmers, who have made huge changes in practice and personal investment in improving environmental outcomes, have their livelihoods under threat. Southlanders have now accepted the wetlands as something worth saving and there is much public and media support for strong action. DoC has reached the limits of their capability, Environment Southland can make little more demands on landowners, the ball is now in the Government's court.

It will all come down to how genuine the National Party's Bluegreen iniative really is. I fear we will discover the blue becomes hugely dominant and the green pales into insignificance?