Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Following Failure For Education Future

We are currently enjoying the company of a Chinese Wwoofer who happens to be a teacher in Hong Kong. She has been granted a year's leave to travel and she came to New Zealand because she heard it has one of the best education systems in the world.

She was able to spend time in an Auckland primary school and she was very impressed with what she saw.  She explained that in Hong Kong and China the curriculum has narrowed because of a huge focus on literacy and numeracy. All their testing is focussed on these two areas and judgements are made about children, teachers and schools based on these assessments. Teachers in Hong Kong focus all their teaching on the assessments so that their children can meet the standards and the wider needs of children are forgotten.

What impressed our Wwoofer most was the independence and creativity of the New Zealand children she observed in our classrooms. Hong Kong children have few opportunities to create original artwork or be involved in creating music or dances. When everything is focussed on assessment, children lose confidence in trusting their own views and experimenting with ideas. Many Hong Kong parents are so concerned that their children won't achieve above the standards that they "pressure cook" them into learning how to read and write from as early as a year old.

"Our children don't really enjoy school," our Wwoofer explained "and the teachers just have to get on with implementing the Chinese Government's policies that most of us don't agree with." She was appalled to hear that our Government is becoming very much like her Government.

Monday, February 27, 2012

ACT's Influence Over ACC & Education Remarkable

Roger Douglas and Derek Quigley formed the ACT Party in 1993 with a strong libertarian base and supported by their own lively (although in my mind, misguided) intellect and enthusiasm. New Zealand has aways struggled with political extremes of any sort and although it achieved fourth party status and over 7% of the vote in 1999 and 2002 ACT has never looked like achieving more and has been in decline ever since. Subsequent leaders, Richard Prebble and Rodney Hide maintained a certain amount of support through their spirited, attacking politics but the quality of many of their MPs let them down and they began to drift from their Libertarian roots. Attempts to revive the intellectual credibility of the ACT Party resulted in resurrecting an aging Roger Douglas and a messy coup by a past National Party leader and Reserve Bank boss, Don Brash.

On going scandals and infighting has also affected the ACT Party's credibility, including allegations of fraud against Donna Awatere Huata, David Garrett's bizarre theft of a dead baby's identity, Heather Roy's messy sacking as deputy leader and eccentric behavior from a number of their MPs, most especially Hilary Calvert's relationship with a Dunedin brothel.

In recent elections ACTs survival has been based on National's support of Rodney Hide's and John Banks' candidacy in Epsom. In John Banks, ACTs shift from its libertarian roots is very apparent. Banks is very open about his conservative social policy views and his true political leanings were revealed when he campaigned not on ACT policy but to help return a "John Key led government". The fact he appears to look favourably at working with the new Conservative Party is also very telling.

With John Banks being the only ACT MP left in parliament, his election largely due to National's support and the Party only getting 1% of the party vote (6th party overall), their level of influence should be very small. Instead we see an amazing coalition agreement that conveniently supports a number of neoliberal policies that ACT never really campaigned on but were always part of National's, not very public, agenda.

The introduction of Charter Schools was always going to be unpopular within the education community, as it is hard to articulate how they can be justified when our schools are already very independent and autonomous in their management. The appointment of Lesley Longstone as head of the Ministry of Education in the middle of last year revealed that National had planned the introduction all along but ACT provided a useful vehicle if everything went pear shaped and they wanted to deflect responsibility.

ACC was another area where National wanted to bring in private involvement. They have already tried to justify some change through a fabricated crises created through a drop in the returns of ACC's investment portfolio (which embarrassingly  recovered). Again there is no justification, other than ideological, to have private providers competing with the state in accident insurance and possibly much to lose with probable increases in costs. It is very convenient, again, to have ACT fronting this unpopular and unnecessary change.

The New Zealand Institute provides a useful independent view of New Zealand's economic, environmental and social situation in relation to other OECD countries. Nowhere in their "Report Card" do they express concern at the management of ACC or our education system, both systems are highly regarded internationally and are widely promoted as successful models. Why, then, should substantial change be considered for both and why should a failing political party with only 1% of the vote be allowed to have such extraordinary influence?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

More Mixed Messages For Education

Our previous education Minister, Anne Tolley, announced at last year's National Party conference that our primary education system needed systemic change, despite international assessments that placed us in the top five in the OECD. National has been enthusiastically delivering that change, and has plans for more, but it doesn't take close scrutiny to establish that what they are doing just doesn't stack up.

National Standards were forced on all schools and all children despite lacking any trial or sound research. When our most respected academics, the majority of our principals and over a quarter of our school boards voiced grave concerns at the obvious flaws in the new assessment system they were aggressively ignored. Boards refusing to set targets based on the standards were threatened with sacking and being replaced with commissioners. It shows the depth of the government's intransigence (or plain arrogance) when a recent OECD report expressing serious concerns at  how the standards were implemented has been welcomed by the government as support for what they are doing.

During the election campaign National crowed about the increased spending that went into primary education but closer scrutiny reveals an interesting picture. A huge proportion of that spending ($1.5 billion in fact) went on fixing leaky school buildings, a problem National itself created in the 90's when they deregulated the building industry. A further $26 million was spent on implementing the standards and it seems more than a mere coincidence that this figure is not dissimilar to the $25 million cut from the Ministry of Education's budget, "to improve frontline services". Sacking most of our school curriculum advisors must have saved a bit of money too and I wouldn't be surprised if it involved the other million needed to make the difference.

After all this "extra" spending National has decided some belt tightening is necessary, and are seriously looking at the Treasury's advice to close schools and increase class sizes. To justify this they have latched on to their favourite academic, John Hattie. His view that it is the teacher, not the size of the class that makes the biggest difference to children's learning was morphed into support for larger classes. The fact that John Hattie has also been very critical of National Standards has been conveniently ignored. Despite the OECD finding that New Zealand's education system performs well regardless of its comparatively low funding, National feels there is more fat to be cut.

National have also "reluctantly" agreed to ACTs coalition terms and will implement Charter Schools, despite their mixed results in countries ranked well below us educationally. They claim that Charter Schools will enable greater autonomy and flexibility in curriculum delivery for schools in lower decile communities. It is especially strange that they feel the Charter system is needed to do these things when another OECD comparison has ranked our schools as being amongst the most autonomous and flexible in the world.

So National Standards are going well when the evidence says otherwise, spending on education has increased but not on anything that will make a real difference, we have fat in the system that can be safely cut when we clearly haven't and Charter Schools will bring autonomy and flexibility to a system that already has it. We are having substantial change being forced on a system that clearly doesn't need it!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Lignite Presentation to Environment Southland Council

Robina and I were granted time to present our concerns regarding lignite mining to the full council of Environment Southland. We were told that we would be restricted to 10 minutes but the information we provided must have been compelling because our time was extended to 25 minutes. We appreciated the leniency shown by the Council Chair, Ali Timms, to enable us to get the detailed messages across.

Here is the overview of my presentation which was powerfully supported by Robina's powerpoint. Robina had visited farming districts in Australia that were being supplanted by coal mining and her images showing the physical impacts to those communities were very compelling.

Apologies for my difficulties with formatting when transferring from a word document.

  • ·      Solid Energy has a commercial interest in the lignite and the Government’s Energy Strategy strongly supports accessing our fossil fuel resources. Solid Energy has spent the last 6-7 years buying land and promoting their projects to local government and community groups.
  • ·      The presentation of opposing views has been limited and the public’s ability to be involved in decisions has been actively suppressed by Solid Energy.
  • ·      We understand that Environment Southland is a regulatory authority that must work within legislated parameters but we think it is important that councillors are fully informed about the wider issues involved in mining lignite.

What is lignite?
  • ·      A very low-grade fossil fuel, high in moisture and low in energy
  • ·      When burned, releases large amounts of carbon dioxide and leaves a lot of ash.
  • ·      In raw state has limited use and transporting is problematic due to the weight and high moisture levels.

Solid Energy’s Plans
  • ·      5,000 hectares of prime agricultural land purchased to enable access to lignite.
  • ·      We are potentially looking at a mine in the valley, 7km long, 5km wide and over 100 metres deep.
  • ·      Pilot briquette plant already consented. Briquettes have no established market and are of poor quality compared to coal. SE is looking for potential markets off shore.
  • ·      Lignite to urea plant to support farming industry by cutting costs of importing fertilizer.
  • ·      Lignite to diesel plant to provide some future proofing of fuel supply especially for farming industry.
  • ·      Solid Energy lacks the necessary capital to develop these independently and hope to generate more capital through selling 49% of the company.
  • ·      If all projects go ahead the Mataura valley will become a huge industrialised area.
  • ·      Solid Energy see the viable life of any lignite based industry will be 50 or 100 years (they have used both figures in different presentations).
  • ·      They plan to restore much of the farmland but will be left with large holes unfilled which would then become “recreational lakes”.

Environmental Concerns

·            Water
o   The potential to damage aquifers and water tables are unknown.
o   Little information has been provided on how water will be protected and managed.
o   The fact that the mines will extend below sea level may have unpredicted consequences on water.
o   The potential toxicity of mining sediment has not been assessed and the impacts of such sediment on water is unknown.
o   The viability of the lakes as safe for recreation is unknown. It has been achieved for Lake Weaver in the Waikato from an old open cast coal mine but it does take time.
o   Our rivers and soils are already suffering from excessive urea and the production of more from the lignite could encourage more overuse with an increase in environmental consequences.
·             Dust
o   The lignite is very wet compared to coal and the dust produced is not as great, however dust from the current New Vale Mine still extends some distance from the mine.
·            Noise
o   Farmers living near the current mine can hear the noise from the mine while inside their home and can even hear it when watching their television.
o   As mining is a 24 hour operation the noise will be more obvious at night.
·            Light Pollution
o   Those living next to current mine describe the light at night being similar to living beside a large town.
o   With future mining becoming more extensive the lighting involved will be more noticeable.
·              Roads
o   With increased heavy traffic that will result from transporting the lignite for processing road maintenance in the area will be under greater pressure.
·             Soil
o   Solid Energy intend to restore much of the mined land back into productive farmland, but restoration is hugely difficult and success in other mining areas has been mixed at best.
o   Restoring coalmining land in Queensland, Australia, has been very problematic and establishing viable topsoil afterwards to return the land to previous productivity has so far proved difficult.
o   There is real concern that the Mataura Valley is currently regarded as amongst the best arable land in New Zealand and its future value for food production will be lost.
o   Demand for food is thought to be one of the most pressing concerns globally, especially as we are rapidly losing food producing land at a considerable rate.
o   Our local campaign slogan is “Save the Soil, Leave the Lignite” due the value we place on the true economic future of the area.
·             Carbon Emissions
o   Coal and lignite are the most damaging sources of greenhouse gases that currently exist.
o   Carbon dioxide has a much longer life than gases like methane.
o   Up to 8 billion tonnes of carbon will be released by accessing Southland’s lignite.
o   New Zealand’s current emissions are around 70 million tonnes of carbon, annually, and Solid energy’s plans will increase that by around 20 million.
o   RMA does not include climate changing gases in its scope and the Climate Change response Act has limited authority.
o   Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) can occur in a limited way by planting trees, but the volumes of carbon produced by lignite mining will far exceed anything that can be managed in this way. Carbon sequestration technology is in its infancy and has been attempted in a minor way through using retired mineshafts or oil wells. The carbon is liquefied then piped into the mine, which is then sealed. Long-term success has yet to be evaluated and leakage has already been identified as an issue.
o   Solid Energy has suggested that the Great South Basin is the most logical source of storage capacity but the technology and expense of achieving that is unknown. It is also dependent on the oil industry establishing itself in the region.
o   The carbon emissions have been identified as the most damaging consequence of mining lignite and the New Zealand Institute has identified in its “New Zealand Report Card” (an organisation that Don Elder supports) that we have amongst the highest carbon emissions per capita for the OECD (26th out of 30). Accessing the lignite would possibly make us the worst, hardly good for our “clean, green” image.
o   Diesel produced from lignite has twice the emissions of standard diesel.
o   At the Copenhagen Conference in 2009, New Zealand took responsibility for reducing our annual greenhouse gas emissions to between 10% and 20% below the 1990 level by 2020. Even with the current Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and other measures in place, our greenhouse gas emissions are on track to be 30% above the 1990 level by 2020.
Economic Concerns
  • ·      It has been suggested that Solid Energy’s lignite emissions will be subsidised by the Government, which will shift the cost onto the taxpayer.
  • ·      The extra emissions will hinder our ability to reach our country’s carbon targets and cost us dearly in the long term.
  • ·      If our lack of commitment regarding the management of our carbon emissions damages our environmental credentials it could seriously affect our ability to trade under that image.
  • ·      If Solid Energy sells 49% to an overseas owner the legal ramifications of our free trade agreements could bind us to projects that cause environmental damage but we will be obligated to continue with or pay expensive compensation.
  • ·      The economic benefits to the Mataura region will be limited when one considers the jobs already generated by the farms will be barely matched by the mining and Solid Energy have openly admitted there will be few jobs available to locals. The suggested 6,000 jobs claimed to be created if all projects come to fruition need to be considered in context. When the Dongwha operation was being established 500 jobs were predicted but only 100 eventuated and few locals were employed.
  • ·      Arable land is becoming increasingly valuable in the world and losing such land would be removing the long term value it would have. What will be the value of the land if Energy abandons the mining in fifty years as it sometimes predicts?
  • ·      Australian Farmer Sid Plant currently farms beside a coal mine and in a presentation recently he described the decline of the local community and the loss of local businesses because of the mining.

Social/Health Concerns
  • ·      Mining towns in New Zealand and throughout the world are not prosperous ones.
  • ·      The physical and mental health consequences of opencast mining have been established as enough to cause concern. Many concerns have been identified by Ora Taiao, an organisation of senior doctors and health professionals concerned with the health consequences of climate change.
  • ·      The stress suffered by farmers beside the existing New Vale mine will be replicated as the mining expands.
  • ·      The health and safety record for workers in New Zealand mines, both underground and opencast, is not a good one.

What we would like to see
  • ·      Solid Energy to provide convincing explanations of how they intend to manage the millions of tonnes of carbon that will be released (exporting the resource overseas to become the buyers problem is not a moral solution).
  • ·      Solid Energy to provide reasonable assurances, with independently provided evidence, on how they will manage all other environmental concerns.
  • ·      A moratorium on lignite mining for at least ten years, or until the technology exists to manage the resource with minimal environmental, social or economic damage.
  • ·      That we actively pursue other areas of economic development like making the farming in the area more profitable or developing other resources with less environmental consequences, such as silica.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Southland is Under Siege!

Dear Sir

Southland is under siege and much of it is happening under the radar and without our input.

We haven’t had the Chinese try to buy multiple farms but already overseas interests have quietly bought up many.

We have had 5,000 hectares of prime farmland bought by Solid Energy to turn into opencast lignite mines and fracking is already occurring in the region.

Our rivers are suffering and our internationally recognized wetland is close to flipping.

Finally, a road tunnel for tourist buses has been approved in principle to go through the mountains from the Dart Valley to the Hollyford Valley so that wealthy tourists can save a few hours of bus travel.

All of these things have an environmental and economic impact on Southland and Southlanders and yet I don't recall being given a real opportunity to have any input. If we don't have a shared plan for the development of our region then we will continue to be taken advantage of by those who seek to profit from our resources with little care for the long term consequences.

We are being dug up, dug through, fracked, our farms industrialised and our water compromised. Isn't it about time we regained control over our own future and made sure our children will be able live in a province they can be proud of?

Yours sincerely...

Monday, February 20, 2012

Milford/Dart Tunnel Submission

Upper Hollyford Valley 

I was a bit pushed for time, but I hope it is accepted. My submission:

I strongly oppose this application for the following reasons:

1.    The application has been approved in principle despite the fact there is insufficient information to support it. Why should this application get preferential treatment?

2.    The application has huge implications for the immediate environment and although the tunnel will be built within a National Park it will not benefit the majority of New Zealanders who would visit the area.

3.    There doesn’t appear to be enough funding to maintain the boardwalk on Stewart Island’s Rakiura track (promoted as one of the great walks of New Zealand) and if this tunnel project receives approval it will indicate a bias for the wealthy elite over average New Zealanders and tourists. Our National Parks should be managed in an inclusive way.

4.    The environmental consequences of the tunnel construction could be enormous and without proper analysis we will not know the true impact.

5.    The construction itself will take many years and have a negative impact on all those visiting the area over that time, including restriction of access.

6.    There appears to be no guarantee around who is responsible for managing any long-lasting environmental effects. Maritime New Zealand is currently responsible for managing any accident involving offshore drilling and the costs absorbed by the taxpayer. Will DoC be responsible for any lasting environmental effects of the tunnel?

7.    The current transport infrastructure is adequate and when compared to similar areas internationally, travel times are not excessive. I could predict more travel bottlenecks if travel times are shortened through the use of a tunnel. We should encourage longer stays in New Zealand and the existing route to Milford Sound, through rural New Zealand, is widely admired for its own beauty.

8.    This project goes against the philosophy and values of our National Parks and ignores the fact that one of the determining factors for attaining UNESCO World Heritage Status is that the environment has not suffered greatly by human intrusion. 
I hope that my submission will receive due consideration because the approval of the tunnel proposal sets a dangerous precedent for the future exploitation of our National Parks for the benefit of an elite few.

Yours sincerely... 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Media Fuels Anti-Teacher Hysteria

"Sex, drugs, violence - and that's just the teachers" was a common headline in a number of newspapers around the country last week and was yet another example of shock journalism with little substance. The impression one gets from these articles is that there are a lot off dodgy teachers around and the descriptions of the very worst cases would generate understandable concern amongst parents.

Further reading of the article reveals that some exaggeration was involved and the true levels of misconduct are actually quite low. If the 664 complaints since November 2009 are broken into years it makes an average of 330 complaints a year and it was also stated that 260 complaints, "some vexatious", were dismissed. We are now talking about 200 complaints with any basis for each year and of those around 25 teachers had their license to teach removed. The misconduct related to this final group of 25 could very well be serious physical misconduct involving students but could just as well be theft, or behaviour that did not actually occur in the course of their job.

The Teacher's Council is the body charged with investigating and managing teacher conduct and includes teachers from early childhood through to tertiary level, with the number of registered teachers they oversee being around 50,000. If it is only .05% of teachers who are struck off each year and less than 1% have reasonable complaints made against them, it hardly justifies the headline. According to a commentator on National Radio this morning, when compared to other sectors like journalism or the police, the levels of complaints against teachers are minimal.

The Police had 552 complaints against their members last year compared to 330 against teachers and with 8856 sworn officers we are talking about a 1:18 ratio of complaints compared to the number of police and 1:160 for teachers. In no way can the two jobs be compared and being in the frontline of difficult situations, the police are more likely to receive criticism, but it does help to put teacher complaints in perspective and question the motives behind the newspaper article.

The article fueled anti-teacher comments on "rightwing" blogs where the teacher unions were held responsible for protecting dodgy teachers and Cameron Slater called for a dismantling of the current unions due to their monopolizing of the sector. All this manufactured angst supports the Government's plans to further strengthen teacher appraisals, change the operations of the Teacher's Council and introduce some form of performance pay.

Meanwhile, the majority of teachers, the other 99.5%, are attempting to get on with the job of teaching and learning in a politically charged environment with newspaper headlines creating doubt and concern at their ability to do so. The fact that we are in the top five of all OECD countries for the performance of our education system is conveniently forgotten, again.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Causes of Child Poverty Still Ignored

Research, documentaries, NGOs , international comparisons and basic statistics are consistently showing we have a huge crisis in New Zealand, our levels of child well-being rank us closer to third world nations than developed ones. Our current record for looking after and protecting our children is abysmal for a supposedly asset rich nation with a small population.

25% of our children do not have their basic material needs met because the homes they live in do not have a sufficient income to do so. This means we have large numbers of children who lack proper nutrition and live in substandard housing. With the median income in this country being only $27,000, and many earning far less, many families are dependent on the state and community groups for support.

The National Government is always reluctant to invest in anything relating to environmental and social issues but is prepared to spend millions on World Cup Rugby, and billions bailing out investment companies and building motorways of doubtful significance. They go through the motions of supporting our vulnerable children by producing a green paper that was effective in delaying action and ensuring they had the research written by those who would be more likely to provide the "right" outcomes. As with most National Governments the responsibility of dealing with social and environmental issues are shifted substantially away from themselves. Spending in these areas is seen as a cost, not as an investment.

Most actions and initiatives under National so far have been piecemeal and contradictory, providing something on one hand then taking away with the other or publicly talking strongly on the action needed  while effectively doing the opposite:

  • Demanding that mothers of young children find work while not providing well paying jobs to go to (65% of mothers with children under 12 months work).
  • Increasing demands for childcare while cutting funding and the quality of teaching in early childhood  education.
  • Forcing young, poorly qualified parents into low waged employment while cutting training and study opportunities and keeping the minimum wage low. 
  • Demanding better teaching but sacking advisors and increasing class sizes.
  • Not providing financial support unless budget advice is received but a shortage of advisors causes lengthy delays 
  • Wanting higher standards of support for vulnerable children but refusing reasonable pay and conditions for teacher aids. 
  • Children coming to school suffering from poor nutrition and then removing the requirement that schools provide healthy food.
  • Requiring the identification of vulnerable children but not providing the funding or resources to properly support the families involved. 

The  National Government expects to meet the crisis with minimal effort or funding from their part. Some direct quotes from the Green Paper will give an idea of where the government gains its inspiration and what will likely happen:

"There may not be a need for more money to be spent on vulnerable children, but rather a willingness to make better use of the resourcing we already have."

A little like cutting funding to Ministries and state departments "to improve frontline services" and therefore having higher expectations and over working those who remain.

"Other countries are adopting a more rigorous approach to identifying which are the best programmes and services to invest in. In the United States, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy was established as an independent source of advice on evidence-based, cost-effective programmes and policies. The Washington State Government has adopted many of its recommendations."

For some bizarre reason this government looks to the United States for models in social and educational policy yet the US has its own own crisis with child poverty. Why not look to countries that have the best outcomes for child well-being, like Iceland, Sweden and Denmark rather than one of the worst?

"New Zealand has a tradition of innovative programmes and services being started by iwi, individuals or small groups. There needs to be a process to evaluate good ideas and consider whether those ideas are suitable for investment." 

New Zealand has many existing programmes and initiatives that have proven to produce good results yet the government refuses to properly fund and resource them and wastes millions on flawed ideological initiatives like National Standards. The process to evaluate good ideas to deem them suitable for investment does not currently involve respected professionals but Ministers with limited understanding.

"Moving to a more rigorous evidence-based approach to resourcing decisions may mean: 

  • Some programmes or services that people like or passionately support are not funded or are scaled back
  • Researching for the New Zealand context, taking into account the diversity of New Zealand society and including a kaupapa Māori approach
  • Setting up robust funding and planning mechanisms. Robust research and evaluation will take time and needs to be carefully planned so that programmes and services are not dismissed because they are evaluated for outcomes when they are still in the establishment phase
  • Providing fewer services to children at lower risk of poor outcomes."
The government has a long record of cherry picking research and evidence, for instance they support academic, John Hattie, when he says that class sizes aren't the most significant factor in educational outcomes but ignore his concerns regarding National Standards. All initiatives appear to be fiscally driven rather than child outcome driven and because this government bases spending on short term goals any initiative that will have long term significance will not get the support it deserves.

Rather than apply new funding to areas of need, the Government intends to take funding from other areas. Often when assessing need, arbitrary levels of ability are used that do not take account of the whole situation. I heard of a phone assessment of a ninety year old lady where they asked her questions about her mobility and because she was physically capable they removed her support. However, the women was blind and no question was asked about her vision. As a teacher I have had support taken from children who only function well because they have received support and when it is removed their learning deteriorates and they immediately become part of a higher need group again. 

Of course all of this ignores the major causes of the whole crisis, low family incomes, poor housing, limited job opportunities and growing income inequities. Until these are addressed all we will be doing is dealing badly with the symptoms, not the causes, meanwhile the crisis grows and so do the future costs to our country.

Alan Johnson, author of "The Growing Divide", is interview here and clearly lays the responsibility for action in the Government's lap.
In a earlier post I attempted to use a narrative, based on my teaching and special needs experience, to show the reality of what poverty means for a child in New Zealand

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Crafar Farm Sale Exposes Shoddy Governance

It is common knowledge that the John Key style of governance is very different from Helen Clark's. While Helen made sure that any decision was based on wide ranging advice, Key is very much a solo act and the fact that he wings it on so many crucial decisions is a real concern and this is also true of many of his Ministers. There is also obvious cherry picking of advice and research to support a predetermined position and this is especially noticeable when education academic, John Hattie, is used to support larger school classes but is ignored when he criticizes the National Standards. In the case of the Cafar Farms the Government did accept the advice of the Overseas Investment Office but considering the high interest in the decision one would have thought due diligence would require wider views. That Justice Forrest Miller feels that the Crafar farm decision needs a rethink is a sad indictment on the quality of governance under this National Government.

There are many arguments used to support the Crafar sales that don't stack up and are worthy of proper analysis. The sale of the sixteen farms as one block has justifiably caused concern in the farming sector and Federated Farmers have explained how this has cut out smaller investors within New Zealand. It is already hard enough for our young prospective farmers to get a foot hold in the industry but to deny 16 opportunities to spread farm ownership is flawed thinking. Fewer and fewer farms are in individual ownership and the growing number of large or multiple holdings is exasperating the growing inequities within New Zealand.

Key has countered the concerns about selling to foreign interests by claiming that only 1% of our farmland is owned by those outside the country and more land was sold off in the past. This is misinformation as most of the land sold previously was in forestry and the total land in foreign ownership is thought to be closer to 7%. The fact that we are now selling off prime productive land, when such land is increasingly valuable internationally, ignores the long term value that it has for future generations. We are selling our sovereignty of what could be our biggest asset, our capacity to produce food. Russel Norman has been particularly articulate in making this point.

Although I have posted before on the more sustainable nature of Landcorp's farm management compared to many private owners the fact that they may take over the day to day running does not change the fact that the ownership is elsewhere. There would be no guarantees that the Chinese won't eventually take full control, as they have in Africa, and they have not got a good international record as employers.

Key's claim that the outcry will be seen as racist ignores the protests that occurred when US singer, Shania Twain, first indicated an interest in buying her 25,000 ha property and the fact that the German purchases in Southland occurred under the radar due to a slow accumulation of individual properties.

It is simplistic thinking to promote the view that because we are a small country with limited access to development finance that the answer lies largely in foreign investment. We have had too many past examples to show that without careful safeguards we are opening ourselves to asset stripping and losing profits overseas. When both National and Labour allowed our railway infrastructure to be almost destroyed and currently watch $9 billion of banking dividends cross the Tasman, I feel seriously concerned about the fate of our farmland.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Bill Defends Dodgy Mandate for Asset Sales.

When it was learned that Bill English was attending a "consultation" hui on the Murihiku Marae (regarding the future of Section 9 in the State Owned Enterprise Act), some of us decided it was an opportunity not to be missed. We organised a protest at the road entrance to the marae and stood with the media and our placards for the arrival of Bill in his BMW. The protest had limited value as the car flashed passed in a few seconds and I doubt if Bill could have read even one of our many messages. The local runaka (runanga), however, were particularly welcoming (as many supported our views) and we were invited in to participate in the proceedings.

Bill explained, and admitted, that because of Section 9 the government, in good faith, had to consult with Iwi about ongoing treaty obligations during the sale process. Once the assets were removed from the SOE Act and into the control of the Public Finance Act, unless the government introduced a particular clause to recognize the Treaty there would be no reference to it. Any introduced treaty obligations would only apply to the government in the "mixed ownership" model and the owners of the other 49% would be exempt.

Bill was asked if this consultation was just a necessary process to enable them to tick it off because there was no way the sales could be stopped from proceeding. This was confirmed in his reply and Bill made it clear that National had campaigned on asset sales and they had a mandate to continue with them. This statement was not received positively by the majority of those present and there were a number of questions about the true value of doing so.

Interestingly Bill took the line that there was greater advantage in selling the assets to generate revenue than to hold onto them for the dividends they produced over the long term. When he was questioned to provide more detail about the annual dividends expected compared to the estimated $5 to $7 billion generated from the sales Bill muttered that he didn't have the exact figures as they were difficult to properly quantify but thought there was only a 2% return currently. This was met with general laughter and disbelief and someone asked rhetorically - if the returns were that low, who would buy?

The New Zealand Maori Council had representation at the hui and a statement from their Chair, Sir Graham Latimer, was distributed. Sir Graham had the view that the sales could not go ahead until the ongoing issues around Maori rights to water had been settled. He believed that because most of the SOEs up for sale were hugely dependent on access to water that there would be future litigation and difficulties if this issue wasn't resolved first. Bill had the view that the same issues existed currently and did not effect the ability for the SOEs to function and any further negotiation could just continue in a similar manner with the new owners.

I asked a question regarding the government's commitment for progressing sustainable revenue sources rather than opting for short term fixes that would deprive my children of a valuable public asset. I cited the annual $2 billion loss of revenue through providing tax cuts to the wealthy and the government's dependence on Australian Banks that have  shifted $9 billion in dividends to Australia over the last few years. Bill answered that by getting some cash to invest in essential infrastructure like schools and hospitals without having to borrow would boost our economy. He ignored my reference to the tax cuts. He suggested that we all could shift banks if we didn't like the Aussie ones but didn't mention that the Government itself uses Westpac to manage their money.

I later asked for clarification on what the legal standing and authority of any treaty clause would be when our free trade agreements would become part of the mix. I cited the concerns with our agreement with China and the secret discussions that are currently occurring within the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership).  Although I know that there can be no legal assurances around protecting treaty obligations within any free trade agreement, Bill shrugged off the question by saying the legal interests of Maori are not under threat. He went on to say how wonderful such agreements were because they opened markets for our exports were were an essential part of our economic viability.

I don't think Bill's performance was convincing or reassuring for those who attended and I felt there were many potential signatories for a petition supporting a binding referendum on the issue.

Monday, February 13, 2012

If John Clarke was Still in New Zealand

I wish we had the sort of political commentary that John Clarke does in Australia with his satirical send ups of Australian politicians while being interviewed by his mate, and straight man, Bryan Dawe. I am no John Clarke but in the absence of his genius, here is how I think he may portray John Key.

Bryan Dawe: Thank you for coming in this evening, Prime Minister.

John Clarke as John Key: My pleasure, Bryan.

BD: Prime Minister I understand you are going to do a major review of our public service.

JC/JK: Thats correct, Bryan.

BD: Surely you must have reviewed the sector before, I mean you've already cut over 3,000 jobs.

JC/JK: Well, sort of a review, Bryan. Bill and I looked at how much they were funded, and well, we spend millions on them and I haven't used any of their services. I was talking to the guys at the club and they hadn't either...

BD: With respect, Prime Minister, how did you establish how much funding should be cut from each department and ministry?

JC/JK: Well, very scientifically, Bryan, of course.

BD: Scientifically? I thought you didn't agree with scientists?

JC/JK: Well, there's science and there's scientists isn't there, a lot of science can be really useful but lets face it some scientists can be really annoying...

BD: I don't understand, Prime Minister?

JC/JK: Well that scientist, Mike Joy, for example, I bet he's never had to run a business or had to make make a profit. It's all about balance and sometimes a few snails and the odd river have to be sacrificed for the good of the economy. I mean poor Andy from the club was going to get his usual 50% increase and all this clean river and farmer compliance stuff meant he was only offered 41%, the poor guy was gutted. Anyway we sorted that problem by cutting DoCs budget by $54 million and that fixed the science to a large extent. That's what I mean when I say the decision was purely scientific.

BD: And the cuts to the education ministry, that was scientific too?

JC/JK: Don't be silly, Bryan, you can't deal with those education people scientifically, we used an academic approach with them.

BD: Academic?

JC/JK: Yes, Bryan, there were so many of them criticizing our National Standards, and some them were asking really tricky questions, it was very annoying. We cut their budget by $25 million and that got rid of quite a few of those academic people. So the decision wasn't scientific it was decided on a purely academic basis. Anne came up with a brilliant idea, and she doesn't have many, for explaining the cuts to the public and teachers- we said it was to improve  frontline services.

BD: And did they?

JC/JK: Hell no, we don't want to support teachers too much or they have time to ask tricky questions, too. That's why we introduced National Standards, most teachers are now spending all their time trying to make them work rather than being annoying. It would be useful if there weren't so many of them but it is quite hard to cut numbers quickly so we have decided to just close the odd school and increase class sizes a little each year. We've had more success with early childhood teachers and we've managed to cut back the qualified ones by 20%.

BD: Thank you for that explanation, Prime Minister, it was very enlightening. Now that we have dealt with how the previous state service review was managed, how are you going to progress this next review?

JC/JK: Well this next one will be much bigger, we'll go beyond the club and canvass at least thirty people.

BD: You mean by including state sector unions?

JC/JK: Hell no, Bryan! We don't talk to unionists, well, apart from that women during the election campaign, but that was an accident... she wasn't wearing a cloth cap or carrying a placard. I mean how can you spot a unionist now? I actually think it is dishonest if they disguise themselves to look like ordinary people.

BD: So who will you talk to?

JC/JK: The people who can make a profit by providing the services we cut of course. Obviously we'll leave those services that aren't profitable and we'll see if we can get volunteers to do those. Wonderful people those volunteers, Bryan, did you know that we have the highest level of volunteering in the world? I guess if you're unemployed you have to do something, and good on them.

BD: So if the public service is reduced even further, will people notice a reduction in service?

JC/JK: Well I haven't noticed any difference after the cuts so far, have you Bryan?

BD: Well actually, Prime Minister, I have noticed that...

JC/JK: Hold on, Bryan, you're not a bloody unionist are you?

BD: No, but I have noticed...

JC/JK: You're an ex-teacher aren't you? I should have spotted your tweed jacket...

BD: No I'm not, Prime Minister, but I have noticed that the level of...

JC/JK: That's it, you work for National Radio....I thought we had cut your funding enough to get rid of all the clever interviewers...this is an ambush! (to his EA off stage) Colin, you know I don't do National Radio, we don't even let them have our policies! What's that, Colin? We don't have our own policies? Oh, that's right, we get them from the teachers, scientists or unionists there, eh Colin?

Replicating US Models Dangerous

I have been reading Arianna Huffington's very compelling description of the United States' economic and social decline, "Third World America". She describes, with much factual support, how the wealthy elite have resorted to sucking the wealth out of their middle classes to fund their increasingly extravagant lifestyles.

Income inequity has exploded to absurd levels in the US, with CEOs now earning almost 500 times what their average worker would receive (although rapidly increasing, New Zealand's CEOs earn around 20 times their average worker). Yet despite the majority of the United States' wealth being held by an elite minority they pay little tax and even Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, revealed he was only required to pay 13% tax on an income of over $40 million. This has shifted the burden of supporting state services and maintaining the country's core infrastructure to the increasingly impoverished middle classes.

The US can no longer maintain their roading infrastructure and there are now more road fatalities due to failed bridges and poor road conditions than to alcohol consumption. Their water and power supply systems are aging and spending on maintenance is declining. Trains are slower than forty years before and manufacturing cities like Detroit are resembling ghost towns. More than one in fifty children in the United States are now homeless and with mortgage foreclosures increasing, many suburban areas are looking derelict. The US public school system is one of the worst performers in the OECD and supporting the disabled, elderly and the increasing numbers of poor has become a huge challenge for cities.

My most recent experience of the US was just over a year ago when we stopped over in San Francisco on the way to the UK. The friendly women managing the airport showers explained how she held down two full time jobs to support herself and her and pay for her daughter's college education, she slept in her car between jobs and still could barely survive. In walking between the city centre and the Fisherman's Wharf (a popular tourist route) I was surprised at the poor state of the housing and roads.

Even watching Billy Connelly's Route 66 documentary on TV one becomes aware of the general decline of US society, at one point he remarked that everywhere he went there were garage and car boot sales.

What frightens me about this book is that I see the National Government blindly dragging New Zealand in the same direction.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Banking Profits Vindicate Occupy NZ Stand

I didn't see many low wage earners dancing in the streets when they received an extra fifty cents an hour but I'm sure there were a few ANZ bankers dancing in the privacy of their plush offices when their 25% increase in profits gave them a tidy $1.1 billion for the past year.

Green Party Co-leader, Russel Norman has earlier voiced concern about the drain to the New Zealand economy of around $9 billion dollars in dividend payments going to the parent banks in Australia.  He describes the exporting of our money as "strip mining our national economy of capital". The big four Aussie banks are driven by ensuring their own profitability at the expense of we New Zealanders and they have already been caught bending the rules and made to pay $2.2 billion in owed taxes. It was probably at considerable cost to the country for the five years it took to achieve the High Court ruling.

With most New Zealanders struggling to survive, many are questioning the excessive and unnecessary fees demanded by our banks, estimated by Consumer NZ (in 2008) as costing the country around $2 billion dollars. The United States' tax payers bailed out their banks by $700 billion only to see the very bankers who were responsible for the meltdown paying themselves huge bonuses from public money, $218 million worth in the case of AIG. New Zealand bankers, while not so blatantly morally corrupt, use the unnecessary fees to support their huge salaries. The local COEs of our four main banks collectively earned $15.3 million over the past year.

It is too difficult and expensive to rein in our bankers, far easier I guess to close schools and increase class sizes to raise extra cash and our state assets must be worth a bob or two as well.

When Gary McCormick was asked on National Radio recently for his views on the Occupy movement, he was very supportive and thought the issues around income inequities and bankers greed were real and still need to be addressed. He felt the only crime the Occupy movement could be charged with is killing grass and I think there is ongoing justification for sacrificing more public lawn.


I have just removed a post for the first time after receiving a range of responses. What was intended as a bit of provocative fun probably went too far.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Waitangi Day, the Constitution and the Waituna

Today I was treated to the hospitality of the Awarua Runanga at their wonderful Cliff Whiting decorated Te Rua Aroha Marae and wharenui. The Powhiri included an acknowledgement of the Green Party by Sir Tipene O'Regan and some "foot in mouth" moments from the Deputy Prime Minister, Bill English, when he put down northern iwi in an attempt to curry favor with Ngai Tahu.

Sir Tipene explained the background of the constitutional review that he and Professor John Burrows are chairing. He described a constitution as being the overarching rules that dictate how we manage ourselves through legislation and law. Rather than just letting ivory towered academics dictate the form it may take he  would like the people of New Zealand to have an input on how they want New Zealand to be.

Bill English and Pita Sharples are the parliamentary representatives who will present the final report to Cabinet. Bill explained that the review will be carried out independently of politicians but expressed his own view that we don't have a constitution presently and that we do very well solving problems without one. He cited Zimbawe's constitution as the best he had seen, but that it didn't seem to influence the current regime.

Bill was mistaken in his view that we have no constitution because although not formally recorded as such, we do have a collection of statutes, treaties and constitutional conventions (similar to UK) that serve the same purpose. It does make sense that we should formalize a constitution to make sure the Treaty of Waitangi is properly recognized and to pave the way for inevitably becoming a republic. The Treaty currently only exists in law where there is specific mention of it in legislation and as it was originally an agreement between Maori and the crown, a shift to republicanism will make it redundant.

My personal view is that a formal constitution could recognize the Treaty of Waitangi in law, would properly recognize basic human rights (often ignored in current legislation) and also include environmental guidelines. Parliament currently operates with few checks and balances and without an upper house or formal constitution, has full legislative sovereignty. It is true that Zimbabwe's constitution has not limited the excesses under Mugabe but any document is only a collection of words that only has value or power if there is the will to recognize it. New Zealanders are generally fair minded and law abiding so that a formalized constitution would probably have the status it deserves, especially when you consider how the Treat of Waitangi has been recognized.

The longest session of the day was devoted to the Waituna Lagoon and we had presentations from iwi, scientists, Environment Southland and Fonterra. I have already covered similar ground in other posts to what was covered during this hui but I was impressed by the PR from Fonterra. The Fonterra representative (whose name I don't recall) did his job well with a polished mihi and a convincing presentation that explained how effective partnerships with voluntary groups had seen wonderful riparian planting and how their leadership was also driving higher environmental standards from their farmers. The reality of course is that they are spending more on PR like family fun days then on environmental initiatives  and their record for influencing farmer practice is abysmal.

Friday, February 3, 2012

More Tui Announcements for Education

Dear Sir

Every time the government announces a new education initiative I can't help seeing them in the form of a Tui advertisement.

I do struggle to see how cutting funding to the Ministry, forcing flawed or untested systems onto our children and increasing class sizes will improve our top five international ranking for educational achievement. I guess I should accept that I'm just a "politically motivated" teacher who has no idea about what is good for education and should leave such important decisions to the likes of the ACT Party and our Treasury.

Yours sincerely