Saturday, March 31, 2012

Laila Harre Joins Greens

When the Rena disaster first hit the headlines I discovered an interesting parliamentary exchange between Laila Harre and Jenny Shipley regarding the planned deregulation of coastal shipping. Interestingly if you remove the references to shipping the two arguments actually sum up National's current approach to governance and the Green Party's concerns:

Laila Harre: How can the Minister ... (insert just about any current National initiative) the total absence of any objective analysis of the costs and benefits of the policy in terms of employment, local business development, and the environment; and is not her answer simply another case of substituting ideology and anecdote (still National's approach) for objective and independent analysis?
Hon. Jenny Shipley: These matters were well traversed at the time that the legislation was passed through the House, and there was a great appeal from the cloth-cap brigade, who argued that no change could be entertained because it would affect different groups of people. What is clear is that new employment opportunities are emerging because of new activity ... Every time we can get a reduction in the costs...., we allow the provinces (and usually just big business) to prosper, and that is one of the goals of this Government.

We all know that it was some time after this exchange that the benefits of National's policies were catastrophically reversed with the leaking buildings ($11.5 billion in costs), the Pike River mine disaster (substantial fiscal and human costs) and the collapse of poorly regulated finance companies (SCF payout of $1.25 billion). The planned sales of our State Assets will do little to reverse these debts and make it less likely we can afford to pay for any future "government initiated" disaster.

I'm looking forward to the added value that Laila's experience, knowledge and undoubted skills will bring to the Greens to support the growing recognition that they are the most credible opposition party.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Solid Energy and the Tobacco Industry

I can see many parallels between the coal and tobacco industries and this became more apparent with the attempts of Buller Coal and Solid Energy to have greenhouse gas discharges removed from consideration in resource consents applications. Buller Coal plan to mine the environmentally significant Denniston Plateau and Solid Energy hope to proceed with their Mt William mine on the West Coast (the Mt William mine alone would be responsible for releasing 11.5 million tones of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere).

Like the tobacco industry attempted, the mining companies are claiming that they can't be held responsible for the use of their product, they only mine the stuff. Solid Energy also tried to minimize the emissions that would eventually be produced by claiming that the gas released would be minuscule in a global sense (obviously every individual mining operation internationally could make a similar claim). The coal will be exported to China, India and Brazil and Solid Energy want our Resource Management Act to be more compatible with the climate obligations and controls of those we export to. We need to lower our standards to increase export opportunities.

The importance of job creation was also mentioned, with 225 jobs being created once the coal exports start flowing out of Westport. The tobacco industry also created lots of jobs but many had to be paid by the taxpayer as the health effects on smokers created huge demands on our health services. The external effects of such job creation are never considered and the future losses of employment caused by climate change will be significant.

In "Merchants of Doubt" Oreskes and Conway describe how the tobacco industry funded pseudo NGOs or scientific organisations to question science and to mitigate negative information. This also appears to be occurring with the mining industry here with the establishment of the pro-mining "independent" organisation Straterra. The main focus of this seemingly respectable organisation seems to be to question the science around climate change and the claims of those who question mining proposals. Bernie Napp the "Senior Policy Analyst" for Straterra rarely engages with the facts and science against mining and when pressured has to resort to some bizarre claims.

The positive element out of all of this is that the lies and misinformation of the tobacco industry were eventually countered and the truth won through in the end. Many of those opposing the expansion of the coal industry have huge credibility (Dr James Hansen, Dr Wright, Sir Geoffrey Palmer) and I'm sure in time we will win over the influence and interests of few profit driven miners and an ideologically blinkered government. I just hope that it doesn't take the decades of damage and debate that occurred with tobacco before our miners are brought under reasonable control.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Politics and Pumpkins.

It is easy to become despondent and angst ridden when living under a National Government. Their arrogance, sense of entitlement and plain ignorance oozes from every statement and their splatter gun approach to governance is hugely unsettling. They seem to be firing half baked, ideological mush everywhere they can while hoping that some of it will stick. Our teachers, DoC staff, diplomats, beneficiaries, wage earners, local body councils and probably most New Zealanders are trying to survive and get on with their lives while also trying to avoid each shower of sloppy decisions being fired from the Beehive in their direction.

When I get tired of writing submissions and letters, supporting protests, signing petitions, demanding referendums, counseling victims of ACC cuts and attending endless meetings, I take refuge in my garden and marvel at my pumpkins. While I may not live in a mansion, my humble quarter acre is very productive and sustains us for much of the year. I wonder what John Key grows in his garden? I wonder if he realizes that it isn't the size of the garden that counts, but how you use it?

Can you spot the veges?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Wetlands Symposium Winds Up Wonderfully

Prior to European settlement a good amount of the Southland Plains comprised of wetlands. In those early days wetlands were known as swamps and were regarded as having little value unless they could drained and converted into farmland. One workshop presenter told the story of his father visiting the Catchment Board a few decades earlier to gain permission for a building near the Waituna Lagoon, the reply across the counter, "Do what you like, it's only a swamp!"

Few people saw the value of wetlands, even internationally, and the first time that I became aware of their true value was when I read a small book written by Sir Peter Scott, only son of Robert Falcon Scott. Sir Peter is probably less well known than his explorer father, yet he probably achieved far more in his life. As well as being a highly regarded painter of birds he was one of the founders of the World Wildlife Fund. He led a movement to restore wetlands in Britain as a way of  ensuring the survival of the aquatic birds he loved and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust he founded now manages nine reserves and has 200,000 members.

Locally it has mainly been a few farmers and duck shooters who saw the value of wetlands and some would even create ponds on their farms, ostensibly for duck shooting, but often because they actually enjoyed the wildlife they attracted. One such farmer is Peter McLeish whose enthusiasm for developing and maintaining wetlands goes well beyond a minor hobby.  A bus tour on the final day of the Wetland Symposium took us around much of Southland to visit notable wetlands, other than the Waituna and Awarua,  and first we visited was Peter's Long White Lagoon that he had bought from Fish and Game a few years before.

Mark Sutton and Jan Riddell, members of the Waiau Trust and passionate wetland advocates, led our visits to the ambitious Waiau Mouth where we viewed the beginnings of the Whitebait Habitat Project...

and also to the extensive Rakatu Wetlands...

I was incredibly impressed by the enthusiasm that both Jan and Mark exuded as they talked about the areas they devoted much of their time to and the financial sustainability of the projects. $5 million had been provided by Meridian to offset the damage done to the Waiau from the Manapouri power scheme and the Trust had wisely invested the money and financed the projects through the resulting interest. The Trust also  left some of their land as productive farmland and this provided another steady income stream.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Guy Salmon Warns Loss of Regional Councils

The keynote speaker for the first day of the National Wetlands Symposium was Guy Salmon and his speech was largely about the failure of governance, at both regional and national level, to protect our water resources. Guy also explained how wetlands had received poor support in the past because of the difficulty in defining what they are, they are not just land or water but a combination of the two.

Guy is a member of the Land and Water Forum which represents 62 organisations who come together to make policy recommendations regarding land and freshwater management. The Forum's 2010 document, "A Fresh Start for Fresh Water", contained policies that were intended to influence the National policy Statement for Fresh Water Management. However the Government's water rules had some major deficiencies according to Mr Salmon and the Forum has now been asked to make recommendations on methods, tools and governance processes that could better manage water quality and quantity. A further report will be made to the Government this year.

Guy expressed the view that the current poor state of our rivers and lakes is due to central government ignoring the issues and regional governance being dominated by farmers (while farmers make up 1% of our population, they comprise 35% of regional councils). He felt the FPP system that elects regional councils results in few or no representatives from iwi or those with environmental interests and such people would provide greater balance in decision making.

While Nick Smith's resignation today may slow the process, Mr Salmon explained his concerns regarding the proposed changes to local governance, especially if we end up with unitary authorities and therefor losing our regional councils. He explained how the environmental focus of regional councils will be replaced by governance with greater commercial interests and the loss of many valuable and experienced staff. Guy was also concerned that the process of local body change will not be managed in an informed or fully democratic way. He urged all of us to be proactive in ensuring that the public become fully aware about what may be lost.

While Guy's speech provided a bit of a dark cloud over the symposium the majority of day was spent in brilliant sunshine beside the sparkling, but threatened, Waituna Lagoon.

 Polly from DoC explaining how new plantings are being managed on retired farmland.

 Dean Whaanga explaining the Maori history of the region.

 The Waituna Lagoon, looking beyond the bar towards Bluff Hill and Stewart Island.

 One indicator to the health of the lagoon is the presence of the macrophyte, Ruppia.

 DoC Scientist, Hugh Robertson, explaining the importance of Ruppia within the lagoon ecosystem.

 Lloyd Esler doing what he does best, making natural history both entertaining and educational.

 The white sand visible in the middle of the picture is where the opening was made (Ruapuke Island just visible behind)

The Lagoon from the observation platform.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Treasury Head Hits Education

The Editor

The attacks on our education system and our teachers are increasing with Treasury head, Gabriel Makhlouf, joining the fray (“Change Manager”, March 24).

According to Makhlouf maintaining our top five ranking in most international assessments isn’t good enough and our struggling tail of underachievers is largely due to underperforming teachers. Using raw data to measure teacher performance is his answer to improving practice. The fact that 30% of students leave school without achieving NCEA level 2 is not helping the productive capacity of the country, Makhlouf claims.

While our education system is not perfect, it certainly isn’t failing and our teachers have no difficulty getting jobs around the world, such is the regard our profession has internationally. New Zealand teachers are not afraid of having their performance appraised, as Makhlouf (and the Listener’s own editorial) claims, but judging teacher performance based on raw data, without any qualitative context, is crude and inaccurate.

Margaret Wu, an internationally regarded authority on educational assessment, claims that only 10% of all the determiners of education achievement can be related to teachers. The fact that 25% of our children live in relative poverty would logically have some bearing on the other 90%.
University Entrance was the equivalent of NCEA level 2 in my day and, considering how few achieved that then, I would have thought the current 70% pass rate should be something to celebrate.

The New Zealand Institute has compared our country’s performance with other nations within the OECD and their online report card of New Zealand’s social, economic and environmental wellbeing has education scoring the second highest mark. Why then are we creating a crisis where none exists and why are we not addressing the areas of poor performance instead?

Sadly if Act and Mr Makhlouf have their way, and we continue to adopt failing United States models, we will find our education ranking plummet over ten places to something similar to theirs.

Yours sincerely...

Monday, March 19, 2012

National Park or Amusement Park?

I strongly oppose the application from Riverstone Holdings Limited for a concession to build a monorail through the Snowdon Forest Conservation Area on the following grounds:

1.    The application has huge implications for the immediate environment and although the monorail will be built within a Conservation area it will not benefit the majority of New Zealanders who would visit the region but will generally cater for the wealthy elite of the tourist market.

2.    The construction of the monorail may take many years and have a negative impact on all those visiting the area over that time, including the potential restriction of access do due safety concerns.

3.    The current transport infrastructure is adequate for accessing Milford Sound and when compared to similar areas internationally, travel times are not excessive. We should encourage tourists to stay in places outside Queenstown and the existing route to Milford Sound, through rural New Zealand, is widely admired for its own beauty. The need for an alternative transport route is not convincing and the monorail appears to be promoted as an attraction in its own right and is not compatible with Section 17 U( 4) of the Conservation Act 1987 that provides that a concession application to build a structure or facility should not be granted if the activity could reasonably be undertaken in another location that:

a.    Is outside the conservation area to which the application relates; or
b.    Is in another conservation area or in another part of the conservation area to which the application relates, where the potential adverse effects would be significantly less.

4.    This project goes against the philosophy and values of our conservation areas by introducing an unnecessary manmade structure and is incompatible with Section 17 (U) (3) of the Conservation Act 1987 that states ‘The Minister shall not grant any application for a concession if the proposed activity is contrary to the provisions of this Act or the purposes for which the land concerned is held.’ The land is held as Conservation Land and is part of Te Wahipounamu South West World Heritage Area. The World Heritage Committee gave our southern national parks World Heritage status because they were "natural areas of outstanding universal value protected against the threat of damage in a rapidly developing world."
5. Even though it is estimated that the proportion of forest that would be removed is a small percentage of the total conservation area (around .05%) the 22 hectares (22,000 m2) is still considerable as is the 32.3 hectares of total vegetation that will be cleared. This is a large loss of habitat.

6.  If this application is successful it will also open the conservation estate for further development under the 1997 Ngai Tahu Deed of Settlement. Under sections 5.2 and 5.3.1. the Minister for Conservation cannot withhold consent to a similar project from this iwi:

5.2     If the Minister undertakes, or permits any other person to undertake, any development in the conservation area bordering the Land which is in the same visual catchment as the Land when seen by a person standing on the land, the Minister will not withhold consent under clause 5.1 for any proposed development by the Landholder on the Land which is of the same type as, and which has no greater impact on the natural landscape character referred to in clause 5.4 than, the development undertaken or permitted by the Minister

5.3.1   If the Minister permits the undertaking of any development of any form of road or railway between Lake Wakatipu and the Milford road through the Snowdon conservation area (the permitted development), the Minister will not withhold consent under clause 5.1 for any proposed development of the same kind or a similar kind by the Landholder on the Land if the area affected by the permitted development has ecological and recreational values of equal or greater significance to those development, and the Landholder's proposed development has no greater impact on the environment than the permitted development.

The fact that Skyline Enterprises/Ngai Tahu Holdings have a proposal for a gondola in the Caples-Greenstone, accepting the Riverstone Holdings application could force the Minister to accept the other.

7. The use of the monorail construction track as a recreation mountain bike track is nonsensical when the majority of mountain bikers would find riding beside a monorail track diminishes the experience of being in a natural environment. 

While the consents and submission process is bound to looking at each individual project on its own merits and impacts, it has to be recognized that there has been a documented shift in the way our conservation estate is being governed. Money has been cut from the government departments that have conservation responsibilities and the efforts to preserve our natural heritage for future generations have been increasingly constrained.

The fact that commercial interests are being considered above environmental impacts and what would be in the interests of public good, causes me some concern. When there are so few areas of natural wilderness left in the world, that suffer little in the way of human impacts, it is important to preserve the those that remain. The monorail proposal will not support this worthy goal.

I would be grateful if this submission receives due consideration

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Planning for Southland's Future.

Dear Sir

Ali Timms, Environment Southland's Chair, wrote a very good opinion piece (March 17) in which she discusses possible local council reform. While there could be perceived savings in the establishment of a unitary authority (a single council replacing the current four) that would reduce duplication of services, there already exists a growing level of collaboration. Ali describes the cooperation between councils in creating Emergency Management Southland and the development of our regional water plan as being good examples of these.

The "South Island Strategic Alliance" also has potential and it appears that the parochialism and patch protection that may have existed in the past is giving way to greater pragmatism.

I share Ali's concerns regarding the Resource Management Act and the expensive and often protracted process that can  result. As someone who has presented submissions under this act, its limitations can be cause for frustration.

The advantages of having regional plans for the likes of water is that many proposals are turned away at an early stage because they are not compatible with the plan and therefore save the time and energy needed in following the normal consents process. A regional development plan would serve the same purpose, it may take time to set up but much of the background work already exists with Topoclimate Survey and Venture Southland's highly regarded Energy Strategy.

The difficulty with the current consenting process is that the wider ramifications or merits of a given project often cannot be taken into account. A robust development plan would have environmental and economic sustainability as a priority and proposals that don't contribute to that will not proceed. It is currently possible for those who see potential for personal gain through the exploitation of our resources to be successful despite causing a negative impact on the environment and having wider economic ramifications. Let us make sure that the future prosperity of our region is one that we can all benefit from and is sustainable into the future.

Yours sincerely...

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Neoliberalism Infiltrates DoC

In speaking to my submission against the Holyford/Dart tunnel today, I tried to express my frustration around the huge philosophical shift that has occurred within the Department of Conservation.

When DoC was originally set up in 1987 the intent was very clear: "To protect natural and historic heritage and provide recreational opportunities. Nature was to be protected for its own sake and protected for New Zealanders and future generations to enjoy."

This admirable purpose no longer exists and has been replaced by "conservation leadership for a prosperous New Zealand".

No longer are our wild places to be protected in perpetuity for future generations but will be viewed for their potential to generate a short term economic return.

When looking at the list of DoC's new roles it is obviously no coincidence that "working with tourism operators and others running businesses on public conservation areas" precedes "Advocating for the conservation of natural and historic heritage."

The World Heritage Committee gave our southern national parks World Heritage status because they were "natural areas of outstanding universal value protected against the threat of damage in a rapidly developing world."

The National Parks Act of 1980 gives the definition of a national park as:
"For the purpose of preserving in perpetuity for their intrinsic worth and for the benefit, use and enjoyment of the pubic, areas of new Zealand that contain scenery of such distinctive quality, ecological systems, or natural features so beautiful unique or scientifically important that their preservation is in the national interest."

I don't see how a tunnel built for the benefit of some international tourists only; where the construction will produce 270,000 cubic metres of spoil; result in a large industrial site in the middle of the park; remove 8,500 square metres of vegetation and potentially contaminate the waterways, can be justified under World heritage principles or under DoC's original purpose. Yet all these factors have been deemed "minor impacts" by the new DoC and the project has been approved in principle.

I find it unbelievable that the duty of care and guardianship that once guided the actions of the department has been corrupted to this extent. Let us hope the 800 or so submissions against the tunnel force common sense to prevail.

The following photos were taken after I left the meeting and depict scenes tourists would experience on the current route between Queestown and Milford Sound. Although it was a dull day the vistas are hardly ones that be should be avoided and would hardly justify the need for a tunnel. Milford Dart Limited claimed that many of the submissions in support of the tunnel were from tourists who claimed the journey from Queenstown to Milford was too long, surely they do not have to do it in one day:

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Greens Leading the Opposition

The Green Party's ability to articulate the issues we face and present a coherent and rational plan for the future was hugely instrumental in shifting their share of the vote to well over 10%. Now that the dust has settled after the election and the different parties have had a chance to adjust themselves and regroup, it is still the Greens who are leading the charge.

The Maori Party have become the ragged remnants of what they were and those who are left have endured  the tainted National Party atmosphere for too long. They have lost their fire and have accepted their role as crumb sweepers, scrounging tidbits from under the National caucus table. Their only real warrior, Hone, abandoned the party waka when he could see no end of bailing was going to keep it afloat. However, Hone, despite his passion, lacks the discipline to make much headway and many of Mana's potential supporters didn't even bother to vote.

Winston (the political phoenix) has risen from the ashes too many times, his plumage is not what it was and the group of MPs who clung to his feathers as he rose this time are a mixed bunch. His speeches in the house appear to lack the energy of the past and his punching lacks precision. It is hard to know what the new incarnation of New Zealand First will stand for and I am awaiting their new website with interest.

Labour's election campaign was a muddled affair, it was a series of policy announcements that looked as though they were making things up as they bumbled along. The majority of their painfully dragged out pronouncements just appeared to replicate what the Greens were already campaigning on and the embarrassing sight of Phil Goff struggling to explain their costings was painful to watch.

Things have not greatly improved for Labour under Shearer's leadership, we still do not have a clear take on where they stand on most issues. While Darien Fenton stays true to her union background, her leader is less decisive and, despite constant requests for a strong stand on the POAL situation, he has been less than forthcoming. When working New Zealanders are under an attack as great the one brought by the Employment Contracts Act, strong political leadership is needed to balance the huge employer bias emanating from National. The fence sitting from Shearer just doesn't cut it.

It was the new Green MP Denise Roche who quickly made clear where the Greens stood on the casualisation of our workforce and the abandonment of good faith bargaining by the POAL. When you compare Denise's statement with Labour's first response from Darien, four days later, it is easy to see which party provides the real advocacy for working New Zealanders.

Education is also experiencing huge attacks under National and during the election campaign it was Catherine Delahunty who drew the largest applause in education meetings for her passion and understanding of what really constitutes a quality public education system. Now that the Greens have more MPs, and Catherine's portfolio load has been reduced, her ability to focus on education will be so much greater. Labour on the other hand have decided to spread the education portfolio across seven or more MPs and, when it took them until the end of the election campaign to openly criticize National Standards, using a committee to speak for education is rather concerning.

It was the Greens co-leader Russel Norman who became the "go to guy" during the election for any clear understanding of economic policy and he even was able to articulate how the capital gains tax would operate while Labour was still trying to formulate a policy. His Christmas speech has had over 13,000 views on Youtube and his speech on the Mixed Ownership Model (asset sale) Bill was hard hitting.

The Government's Green Paper for Vulnerable Children appears well meaning and the consultation welcomed, yet it will take a year or so before anything comes of it and meanwhile the attacks on the poor grow. It has been Metiria Turei who has led the political charge to support our struggling children and considering that she shares a similar background to Paula Bennett the contrast in style and compassion is patently clear. I am yet to see Labour produce an advocate for children and a foil for Paula Bennett as effective as Metiria.

It was also interesting to note that when Labour's rising star, Jacinda Adern, had an opportunity to help a struggling young mother she was accused of "Pimping the Poor" by Cameron Slater. Slater is not known for his support of the Greens yet he was fulsome in his praises for yet another new Green MP, Jan Logie. He acknowledged the genuine efforts of Jan to help Tania Wysoki, despite the difficulties of adjusting to a new role in a party with more limited resources.

 Another new Green MP who has hit the ground running is Eugenie Sage. Eugenie was a hugely respected councilor with Environment Canterbury before it was replaced by commissioners and her knowledge and experience of water issues has already been directed at the Waituna Lagoon. Her fight against the intrusion of the 1% and their elite schemes in our National Parks is also apparent while Labour hasn't even indicated an awareness of the issue.

Of course Kevin Hague, David Clendon, Holly Walker, Gareth Hughes, Julie Anne Genter, Kennedy Graham, Mojo Mathers and Steffan Browning (the other Green MPs) haven't exactly been quiet either. It is interesting that we may now be at a point where the public may be able to name more Green MPs than Labour ones and considering the difficulties the Greens have in getting media exposure, this is no mean feat.

The Green's three election priorities of "children, rivers and jobs" resonated with ordinary New Zealanders and since the election their importance is greater than ever.  As National drives through as many damaging changes as they can before the end of their second term a strong opposition is essential for challenging their  credibility inside parliament and galvanizing New Zealanders into effective opposition outside. Labour's "softly, softly"and "steady as we go boys" approach will not do this, Winston can't do this, it is time for the Green Machine to shift into an even higher gear and continue their upward momentum as the real opposition.

Friday, March 9, 2012

"High Stakes" Assessments Fail to Deliver

I felt very fortunate to recently hear a presentation from Margaret Wu, an internationally respected authority on educational assessment. If only the National Government had sought her advice before embarking on the ideological nonsense that formed the basis of their National Standards, then we may not be dealing with our current mess.

Margaret's quietly authoritative style and conclusions based on a distinguished career in educational research effectively exposed the myths that form the basis and justification for the National Standards.

Myth Number One: New Zealand's long tail of underachievement can be addressed principally by raising the quality of teaching.

Given that New Zealand is already ranked in the top five of education systems internationally it was always going to be difficult to significantly improve an already strong system. Margaret made the enormity of that claim even more ridiculous by presenting the determining factors for any child's academic attainment. When all factors are accounted for; family income, ethnicity or culture, past experiences etc - the influence of a teacher is only 10% of all determiners. With the current consultation on the government's Green Paper for Vulnerable Children, most people are beginning to realize where our attentions should really be aimed. To claim, as the government has, that failing children are the result of a failing education system and poor teaching is highly misleading and patently untrue.

Myth Number Two: National Standards will provide the Ministry with useful data to identify failing schools.

Margaret explained how any raw data provides little information on causes and any attempts to correlate data can be misleading. She gave the example that when there are increases in ice cream sales there are always similar increases in crime, the real relationship between the statistics is that warm weather contributes to the increases in both and there is no direct correlation. Margaret explained how the differences in achievement between schools are more likely to be related to income inequities between communities than school performance.

The fact that the majority of New Zealand schools have just over 100 pupils or less is problematic because the numbers are too small to draw useful conclusions on school performance. I recently taught in a rural school that suffered from the transient nature of the dairy workforce. On "Gypsy Day" the school could easily find 25% of the children would change and only around 50% of any class would have pupils who had been in the school for most of their education. To use achievement data in these schools to assess school performance ignores the small amount of influence a school may have on some children's learning.

The existing qualitative assessments provided by ERO  are already able to identify struggling schools better than National Standards will ever do. The National Educational Monitoring Project (NEMP) also provides high quality research that looks at the strengths and weaknesses of current teaching practice in each learning area in a more practical way than National Standards ever could.

Myth Number Three: The creation of league tables from the National Standards data will help parents choose the best school for their child and provide assurances regarding their school's performance.

Margaret was adamant that conclusions drawn from raw data, without qualitative support, have very little value. Parent communities will not be able draw any accurate conclusions from such comparisons to usefully guide their choice of a school because their ability to interpret the data will be limited.

Myth Number Four: National Standards will force schools to lift their performance, especially when the data will enable comparisons between schools and create competition.

Margaret called this scenario "high stakes assessment" and claimed it created data that was not reliable. Even with the best of intentions and professionalism there will be a temptation for teachers and schools to slant their results more positively than what may be the reality. If a teacher was asked to assess a child to determine what level of support they may need to assist their learning, then that assessment is more likely to be focussed on the child's needs. If you asked a teacher to assess a child's attainment so that the assessment will be used to determine their ability as a teacher and to help rate the school, the focus has shifted from meeting the child's needs to something completely different. The accuracy of teacher judgements would understandably vary greatly depending on other pressures and expectations being placed on individual teachers and each school.

Myth Number Five: National Standards will lift child attainment because of their "aspirational" settings that are above current norm-referenced assessments. 

Overseas research has found that National Standards systems did produce a short term lift in achievement, but Margaret noted that such leaps in achievement, especially in "value added" models are unsustainable. Children do not continue to make huge leaps in their learning year after year. Also, unless the other factors contributing to the tail of under achievement are addressed, any broad improvements in the education system may lift all attainment slightly but the spread of achievement will remain the same.

Myth Number Six: The publishing of each school's National Standards data will just highlight the results of demographic groups and the privacy of individual students is assured.

Margaret did not directly comment on this except to refer to the difficulties of assessing the performance of small schools where pupil numbers are not enough to allow for any accuracy in conclusions. The concern from schools and teachers from any public release of the data is that even though children aren't identified by name it will still be easy for school communities to identify the results of individual children. Now that schools have been told to report on the achievement of all children, if they have only one child with an established disability their scores could be easily identified from amongst all the others. Similarly if the results of Maori or Pasifika children are highlighted and there are only a few of these children in a school it would be relatively easy to attribute individual scores to the child. This is a highly unethical situation.

I found Margret's presentation and her answers to our questions hugely valuable, many of her conclusions were not new, but the fact she could express them so succinctly and support them with valid research was very useful. It is hugely frustrating that such useful knowledge and our own academics are still being ignored by the National Government as it continues to implement this highly flawed assessment system.

A recent meeting of NZEI Te Riu Roa with the new CEO of our Education Ministry made it very clear what level of engagement the profession will have regarding any changes over the next three years. Under the new regime teacher organisations only exist to represent teachers on industrial matters and will not be consulted regarding professional issues. The government has already indicated that there are too many people in the Ministry with links to NZEI (through their teaching backgrounds) and their influence needs to be reduced. I was recently talking to someone who had just left the Ministry and she described an obvious culture change as those with bureaucratic and administration backgrounds were replacing those who had always worked in education.

I can see another three years under a National Government being a very challenging one for our quality public education system, or even maintaining the quality we currently have. One of the biggest concerns for most of us who work in education is the narrowing of the curriculum due the Standard's unhealthy focus on literacy and numeracy.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Ports, Profits, People & Prosperity

Arriana Huffington's book "Third World America" provides ample warning for our current government and business leaders regarding the dangers of putting short term profits before people and maintaining important infrastructure. Efficiency drives are also dangerous when the desired outcome is cost savings rather than improved outcomes. The Port of Auckland dispute has exemplified many of the issues confronting our country under our current leadership regime.

The POAL is the largest container port in the country and is the second most efficient port in Australasia. Last year cargo volumes were up by 24% and there was a very healthy 2.1% increase in normalised profit (providing the company almost $25 million after tax).  The 6% dividend that Auckland City receives from this "council owned enterprise" appeared to be a very good return considering a generally subdued economy. I wouldn't have thought huge changes were necessary and the demand that the dividend be increased from 6% to 12% appeared excessive.  This Gulf News article provides a balanced description of the background to the current dispute.

The casualistion of a workforce is the almost complete abdication of an employer's responsibility to recognise basic workers' rights. A casual position has few of the securities provided by permanent jobs; annual holidays, sick leave, the right to notice or severance pay do not apply. When work may be intermittent and unskilled it is understandable that a casual workforce would be a pragmatic solution, as in many bars or restaurants, but where the work is constant and skilled to force casualisation on employees is cruel and unnecessary. The fact that the POAL is prepared to pay around $9 million in redundancy and severance pay  displays the level of determination to smash the workers into submission. Len Brown's callous response to calls for his intervention is a real concern when someone with his "Labour" background supports the erosion of working conditions over profit.

We are losing the big picture around what constitutes and creates prosperity. The US is beginning to discover that lack of investment in infrastructure and a skilled workforce stifles economic growth and reduces economic competitiveness. Our roads, rail networks and ports need to be efficient to enable businesses to get their products to markets in a timely and cost effective manner. While it is important to ensure that such infrastructure is sustainable financially the main driver should be the level of service it provides. The best service from a port would gained through a workforce that is experienced, skilled and  works collaboratively. The best employment model to ensure this must surely be one where there is job security a collegial approach to working and a level of goodwill created through employer acknowledgement of the value of  the work. I can't see how this could be delivered through a casualised model.

Real prosperity should be regarded in a national sense and something all New Zealanders should share. As the POAL increased profitability and cargo volumes, rather than recognise the wharfies by sharing the economic fruits of their efforts they have been cruelly cast aside and treated abominably. If this government is so concerned to keep a skilled and well qualified workforce in New Zealand it is certainly not evident in practice. With the casualisation of skilled labour, cutting thousands of high qualified jobs from the state sector, outsourcing much of our manufacturing and keeping wage increases well below the CPI we are effectively forcing the exportation our most capable workers. 

As we develop into a low wage economy, with an increasingly casualised workforce and any gains in productivity being captured by our wealthy elite I can see justification for a book called "Third World New Zealand".

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Unions and Balance

I have just returned from our NZEI Te Riu Roa National Executive meeting and because of the continuing attack on education from this government it was another intense one. We are a very united but varied group who really do represent the diversity of our membership. We have early childhood teachers, school support staff, primary classroom teachers, resource teachers of maori and special education and primary principals. We all have direct connections with children, schools and communities where we work and are united in our view that an accessible, quality education system is paramount. A good deal of our discussions over the last two days were around the professional work and research that we are involved in. The highlight of the two days was an excellent presentation from Margaret Wu, an internationally acclaimed expert on educational assessment.

The New Zealand Educational Institute began life in 1883 as a largely professional organisation for teachers and has grown into a union of over 50,000 members that includes a broad range of sectors under the education umbrella. While much of our work has a professional and pastoral care focus the negotiation and support of our many collective employment agreements is very important. We are unapologetically a  "union".

Last month I supported our local Field Officer and a staff member responsible for our student membership for a promotion at the Invercargill campus of Otago University's College of Education. Students have little need for industrial support but NZEI membership provides professional opportunities and connections with practicing teachers. One young student was reluctant to join or be associated with us because her family held the view that unions were "bad" and sadly this view is not uncommon.

The demonising of unions probably occurred from when the first ones were formed and it continues today. The messaging rarely changes, unions are hot beds of militancy, they're full of "socialists" and their goal is the destruction of our economy. Without unions businesses will thrive and our economy will become more competitive. When unions take industrial action they are behaving extremely selfishly and do not care about public inconvenience or the economic consequences.

Prime Minister, John Key, and his Ministers often talk about the need for balance. A balance between the environment and the economy, and a balance between wages and profits. Their definition of what "balance" looks like has seen 80% of of our lowland rivers become seriously polluted, real wages to stagnate, 27% of our young people become unemployed and 25% of our children living in poverty. Their version of balance has seen private sector unions decimated, real wages drop (while CEO salaries skyrocket) and the health and safety of workers compromised. We have also seen 29 miners die and many other workers injured around the country as safety is ignored, working hours are extended and the workforce becomes casualised.

Education Minister, Hekia Parata, recently explained to teachers attending a professional conference during their holidays that the Government's education spending was largely on their salaries and implied that she, as the Minister, expected a good return on that investment. More and more employees are treated like commodities and with increasing casualisation employers are able to turn on and off their supply of workers like a tap. The fact that it is people and their lives that are affected by employer whim is not considered, as exemplified by the POAL dispute and others breaking out around the country.

Any episode of "Undercover Boss" revealed that the value of the employees generally exceeded what they were paid and it was often hard to appreciate, or understand, that their "boss'' would be paid at least 20 times more. The relationship between boss and employee is actually a symbiotic one and without unions this is often forgotten. To many employers their only contact with those who they employ is when they see a printout displaying inputs and outputs, it is the role of unions to humanise the workforce for employers and have their human needs met and their work realistically valued.

Isn't it about time we had real balance restored?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Hospital Heroes

Today and for the second time in as many years I found myself feeling my age and physically vulnerable. I also felt extremely privileged to have good friends and live in a country that still has an excellent public hospital system.

We had just finished our day's meeting in Wellington and I was returning to our hotel when I became aware of a peculiar fluttering sensation in my chest. It didn't feel like anything digestive so out of interest I checked my pulse. It appeared that every fifth beat was being missed. I didn't feel particularly unwell and thought it was just a minor anomaly that would eventually sort itself out. However after walking to the restaurant where we were dining, doubt began to eat away my confidence and I decided to phone my GP wife for reassurance.

Was there any pain? No. Was I short of breath? No. Did I feel clammy? No. It's probably nothing to worry about, but if it gets worse, check it out...

 A few minutes later it felt as though every second beat was missing and anxiety rose. The waiter was asking for my order but I decided that A&E was where I wanted to be. One of my colleagues insisted on accompanying me for moral support and within fifteen minutes I was filling out my personal details and next of kin.

Having experienced A&Es on a number of occasions over the years it seemed like a quiet night and the staff were particularly patient and pleasant. I was asked to rate my pain or discomfort on a scale of one to ten. This was embarrassing as I didn't really feel unwell and apart from the "fluttery" feeling and a little lightheadedness, I felt even one was an exaggeration.

All the nurses and the doctor were extremely patient and polite and even apologised for the fact that I had to wait for a few minutes before I was attended to. Of course Murphy's Law took over, my heart stopped its unusual behaviour just as I was being examined. After an ECG, a general check over and a blood test I was found to be perfectly healthy and discharged.

At all times I was treated respectfully and not made to feel I was wasting time or being overly paranoid. This is despite the fact that after I commented that it seemed like a quiet night I was informed that it was actually very busy, with a number of acute cases. The calm and efficient manner of the hospital staff belied the reality and made me feel personally reassured.

Thank you Wellington A&E, you provided me with excellent, professional service and I will make a point of informing our Health Minister, Tony Ryall the same.

A big thank you, also, to to my colleague and friend who generously missed out on his meal to spend an evening in A&E and provided me with great company. I promise that I will drink less coffee and exercise more to ensure that it won't happen again.