Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Rich List, Poor List

I am not an economist (although I did study economics at high school in the 70s) and yet I can clearly see glaring examples of economic mismanagement by this National led Government. This became even more obvious over the last two days after reading a copy of the NBR's "Rich List 2012" and then hearing the news report that the incomes of Maori and Pasifika families had dropped considerably over the last four years.

Since first becoming the Government in 2008 National has made it very clear that it is the already wealthy who deserve the most support and ordinary New Zealand workers and families need to make sacrifices to ensure the flow of money goes up, not down to those who need it the most. Dropping the tax rate to upper income earners has been the largest contributor to growing our income inequities and declining government income. Tax revenue plummeted in the two years following the tax cuts by $5.7 billion and the claim that this would be off set by an increase in GST never happened. It is now four years after the tax cuts and the last annual tax income was still $150 million short of the 2007/8 total. The Government's income from tax has dropped by an average of $2 billion a year since 2008.

Last year our richest New Zealanders averaged a whopping 20% increase in their wealth while the average wage only increased by 1.9%, hardly keeping up with increases in inflation or the CPI. While the Prime Minister used to make much of their aim to catch up with the Australian economy he obviously had no intention of relating this to ordinary incomes. The median income in New Zealand is now $28,500 and if you were lucky to earn $30,000 you would pay $4,780 in tax. If you earned the same income in Australia, the first $6,000 is tax free (they don't tax paper boys) and the total tax would be only $3,600 (around 25% less). While poor Australians are supported by lower tax, their wealthy pay considerably more. Someone earning $200,000 in Australia pays almost $70,000 in tax, in New Zealand they would pay around 20% less ($56,920).

The other major difference between Australian and New Zealand tax law is that Australia has a capital gains tax, while New Zealand does not. This has resulted in around 40% of most wealthy New Zealander's incomes being almost tax free and has diverted investment away from the the more productive sectors into property. Most of our wealthy New Zealanders derive a large amount of their income from property investment and this has pushed up the value of average homes beyond what most New Zealanders can afford.

A quick analysis of the NBR rich list revealed interesting information:
  • Around 25% of our 100 richest New Zealanders derived the bulk of their incomes from property investment. While the last year or two saw a stagnation in the property market it appears that it is now recovering. Houses here are 30% more expensive than in Australia and our incomes are around 30% less.
  • Around 10% of the top 100 are involved in the alcohol industry (wine/brewing) and one would have to wonder how much influence they have had on weakening attempts at managing our problematic alcohol consumption.
  • Those involved in supplying luxury cars have seen strong profits, Neville Crighton saw his wealth increase by $10 million from the previous year.
  • Kevin Hickman derives his income through the aged care industry and while many see those who work in the industry being treated like slave labour, Hickman saw his wealth increase by $15 million.
  • I could only count 10 women who got a mention in the top 100 and only two who were listed in their own right and not part of a family dynasty or a joint business with their husband. 
  • Those in the top 100, whose income is substantially from property, had a collective wealth of over $7 billion and while more productive industries earned substantially less, especially those that would be more likely to earn much needed export dollars.
  • Peter Huljich, worth $100 million, is being investigated by the Fraud Squad for misrepresenting the performance of the Huljich KiwiSaver scheme. 

The way that this government have manipulated the economy has resulted in the disposable income of most New Zealanders being considerably reduced. The only people who are capable of spending money on much more than the necessities of life are the increasingly wealthy minority and the collective wealth of the 100 richest New Zealanders, $52 billion, is now rapidly approaching the Government's annual income of around $70 billion. This is also why Owen Glenn, our 11th richest man, can afford to spend considerably more on helping poor families than the government. It has also caused the domestic economy to mainly focus on delivering goods and services to the rich while there is little available to the poor except food parcels and a growing number of second hand clothing shops.

When the Gore food bank has seen a 76% increase in food parcel demand and are not just supporting the unemployed but low and middle income earners, then we should be hearing warning bells. The Salvation Army are nationally providing over 1000 food parcels a week. Continually rising power charges and rental costs are eating into incomes that don't increase. Our "Rich List" comprises of widely recognized individuals and families who live in houses and have lifestyles that were once thought to only exist in Hollywood.

Our "Poor List" is too large to be able name individuals and probably comprises over 30% of our population.  While the average European New Zealand family saw their income increase by a paltry $11 a week over the last four years, Maori families have seen their weekly income drop by $40 and Pacifika families lost $65. This may not sound much to someone like Jenny Shipley who earns $1000 a day to oversee those leading the Christchurch recovery but for someone on the median weekly income of $550 a week (before tax) it is huge. $65 represents half the weekly food bill for a struggling family, one meal and a glass of wine for a government consultant or half of what Graeme Hart earns every time he blinks.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

National Party Ultimate Steampunks!

The National led Government is a conservative government and as such they prefer the reassurance of long held ideologies and views. They call themselves "centre right" and while they reject the hardline Neo Liberal views of the Roger Douglas brigade, this is more to do with political pragmatism than a rejection of the philosophy. I'm sure if voters were amenable, they would embrace a flat tax and the privatisation of everything.

Risk taking for National is using contemporary research and academic thinking to inform policy. How can you trust anything that hasn't been around for fifty years or more? Scientific confirmation that greenhouse gases were contributing to climate change was widely accepted by much of the scientific community in the fifties and sixties and although few National MPs will question it now, there is still a lack of urgency in acting on this knowledge.

The Emissions Trading Scheme was never fully supported by the Green Party when Labour first introduced it as it had serious flaws and omissions but was better than nothing. A direct tax on emissions would be far more effective in changing behaviour and limiting the release of carbon, while a trading scheme allows wealthy emitters to continue emitting through clever paperwork and greenwash. The fact that National have also protected our worst emitters through delaying bringing them into the the scheme has meant our emissions have steadily increased since 1990 (the base line for the Kyoto Agreement) and cost tax payers $1.5 billion last year alone. We are effectively subsidising the industries who have been given an unnecessary reprieve and because of this they have made little effort to change practices.

National keep stating that there is no point in addressing our emissions if our trading partners and competitors aren't doing the same, they claim it would be economic suicide. Yet it is our 100% Pure, clean green brand that supports our exports and we are now one of the worst in the OECD for carbon emissions per capita. The National led Government also seems hell bent on increasing our emissions by supporting farm intensification, and encouraging lignite mining in Southland and new coal mines elsewhere (Solid Energy's plans for using our lignite will see a 20% increase in carbon emissions). Building new motorways and not substantially investing in public transport has seen our transport emissions remain high and make us eighth in the world for car ownership per capita.

When there has been so little investment in alternative energies, improving farming practice and creating more efficient transport systems, the next government (if it isn't a National led one) will have to look at dramatic change rather than using a more incremental process had we started the journey earlier.

National's determination to hold strong with the energy source that fueled the industrial revolution must surely make them the ultimate steam punks. After all it was Gerry Brownlee who coined the phrase "sexy coal".

Friday, July 27, 2012

John Key's House of Cards

Since 2008 John and his National Party playmates have been carefully stacking cards to build a "brighter future" for all New Zealanders. Each card provides the structural support for another and they have been busy stacking them higher and higher while telling anyone who will listen how skilled they are at doing this. John bragged that they could make a tower as tall as Australia's.

John and Bill began the base of the structure with the "lowering the tax for the rich" card and Nick placed the "weakening of the ETS" cards on top. Gerry was a bit careless with his "drilling, mining and fracking our future" cards and caused a bit of a shake as thousands marched up Queen Street to protest their placement, and then Christchurch shook (but I don't think he was responsible for that). Gerry slightly adjusted the wobbling mining cards and then was given the responsibility of placing and supporting the "Christchurch recovery" card.

Anne was trusted with placing the education cards of "National Standards" and "early childhood education cuts". She was very aggressive in her card positioning and her cards began to wobble. She was later replaced with Hekia who didn't think to readjust Anne's cards before placing her "larger class size" card on top and it immediately fell off. She had to quickly replace it with a "League Tables" card which looked a little precarious.

Steven had a number of "motorway" cards that he enthusiastically placed on top of the growing structure and although some people on the sideline questioned his positioning, he stacked them anyway. He also had some "rugby" cards and when one fell off he quickly blamed Len Brown before placing it back again.

Kate caused some concerns by removing some cards from the base, but explained that a bit of tunneling underneath and some extraction of cards wouldn't do any damage to the structure and we could add them to the top.

Paula had a heap of "welfare" cards that required her high heels and a bit of a stretch to place. Her positioning was a bit random and haphazard and it was suggested that they weren't her cards to play with in the first place. She had apparently snatched them from some beneficiaries who were trying to build their their own houses and wanted them back.

Nick had been adding the "ACC" cards and although he had claimed he didn't have many of them, it turned out he had lots up his sleeve and had been cheating. Judith was given the responsibility of removing some of them and trying to steady what remained.

It transpired that John Banks had supplied and paid for one of the base cards, but it was rather thin and had little strength so the police were called in to prop it up.

John promised the Maori Party that they could place a few cards too, but only gave them one. Unluckily it was as thin as John Banks' card and a little soft (someone had dropped it in a puddle outside a Treaty hearing) and it was secretly placed near the base.

Although they were running short of cards they had a plan to sell a few of the asset cards at the bottom so that they could purchase more, the Mums and Dads were keen to buy them.

John is very proud of the tower that he and his mates are building, he got the plans for the structure from his old friends at Merrill Lynch, who are renowned for their card houses. In parliamentary sessions he sits gloating from top of his tower (on a seat he constructed from cards he was given after a Sky City visit) and shouts:

 "I'm the Prime Minister, they call me John Key! For I am the Ruler of all that I see !"

At the base of the tower a small burp was heard...

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Innovative, Energy Efficient Housing Needed Urgently

I currently organize Green Drinks for Invercargill, this is an apolitical social group that meets monthly in a local cafe. This was originally started by Invercargill Transition Towns as a way of connecting all those who share similar green ideals, aspirations and lifestyles. We often invite people with expertise in a given area or have a particular theme, but mostly we just enjoy talking to like minded people about topical issues or life in general.

I have decided to have energy saving houses as a theme this week as many people I know are building new homes and trying to make them as energy efficient as possible. My youngest sister and her husband have relocated and refurbished a house onto a few hectares of land and will be off the grid and largely self sufficient. They wanted to install a composting toilet and recycle all their grey water but the costs of local body compliance has been huge and they have had to compromise on many of their ideas that would have worked had they not been so expensive to progress.

I have tried to make my own early 30s bungalow more energy efficient and we have installed solar water heating and have underfloor and above ceiling insulation. I found the paperwork and compliance costs for the water heating excessive and can understand why solar heating hasn't got much support for those wishing to retrofit. I also felt rather discouraged when I completed a Homestar energy efficiency survey of our house only to discover that, after all that we had done, we still only scored a 2 out of 10. If we only got a 2 then many homes in Invercargill must be 1 or 0, we have a long way to go to bring our housing up to anything like a reasonable standard.

The government has no commitment to improving the quality of New Zealand housing and we have a huge shortfall of low cost, quality homes in Auckland and Christchurch especially. I'm sure, given the quality of our architects and designers we could come up with some great housing solutions, our students even got a third placing in a eco home design competition in the US recently. Our housing is generally overpriced, inefficient and poorly designed and I thought the links and images below may help to show what we could be doing:

Monday, July 23, 2012

Paula's Food Parcel Proposal

It was recently revealed under the Official Information Act that the government has spent $216 million on roading consultants for motorways that appear have rapidly diminishing significance. Some have failed the cost/benefit analysis that was done after the decision to build them. The Government has already spent $11.4 million on the "holiday highway" and the Minister has admitted there will be no financial advantage from its construction.

The National led Government has thrown a substantial amount of money on dubious projects and yet have refused to increase spending on areas where real need has been clearly established. 50% of our children experience poverty at some time in their lives and most young families are struggling financially with their incomes dropping in real terms. We now have working poor, families with both parents in work but because major living costs such as housing are increasing and minimum wages fixed at a level that is unlivable, they are dependent on financial support. It is within this context that the Government is looking at how they manage emergency grants for families.

$62 million a year is spent on groceries for beneficiaries and struggling families and Social Development Minister, Paula Bennett, wants to address this spending and cut costs. As with many decisions that the National Government appears to make, Bennett is ignoring professional advice and research and referred to her own views to justify an ideologically driven commercial solution. Rather than a family receiving a $150 food grant to spend at their own discretion, Paula Bennett is talking to Supermarkets regarding the possibility of them delivering prepackaged food parcels. This may indeed result in huge savings for the government, but allowing corporates to manage such support is a dangerous concept and I had visions of Jamie Oliver's revelations about how the US food industry had dictated the quality of the food served in schools.

Bennett claimed that  her views were based on "anecdotal evidence" from people around the country showing that beneficiaries don't know how to cook and generally rely on instant food. The Minister is deliberately creating the impression that food parcels of processed food is acceptable and, as this is what most beneficiaries eat, more expensive healthy food is wasted on the poor. While I am sure there are many families that do indeed rely on such food, the implication that most beneficiaries and recipients of food grants fit this description is unreasonable and simplistic.

Supermarkets will receive funding to provide the parcels and, because they are profit driven, will naturally look at how they can make financial gain from the scheme. The most obvious would be to fill the food parcels with less popular lines or products close to their "best before" dates. They would also look at products that provide the greatest profit margins and in this way make enough to cover the costs of deliveries and still provide a good return overall. Nutritional needs will not be the sole driver for determining the food parcel's contents.

For some families what they receive in the parcels may actually be of greater nutritional value than what they may have purchased themselves but I can imagine for a great many more the parcels will not meet their needs. They will receive "one size fits all" packages that will probably not recognize the diversity of food needs that exist: cultural differences, food allergies or dietary preferences. When families purchase their own food they can tailor their purchases to meet their specific needs and take advantage of the savings available from different retailers. I can imagine a higher wastage of food when families discard the food they didn't want and then have to spend more of their restricted funds to buy  replacements.

National have cleverly created an image of beneficiaries as a hopeless group of people who are unable to cook or manage their finances and should be grateful for anything they receive from taxpayer funds, including these wonderful food parcels delivered to their doorstep. The fact that at least 25% of families may have to receive such a parcel is conveniently ignored and so is any determined effort to address the causes of the poverty that made the parcel necessary. I guess the Supermarkets will be grateful for this windfall and, with profits already very strong, will ensure that more money shifts to those who need it least.

This is not what Paula proposes. 

Post Script: Given the hundreds of millions the government spends on consultants I wonder if they would make greater savings in food costs if they limited what consultants charged for meals in expensive restaurants as revealed by this article.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Save Fiordland, a Green Perspective

Barrier Peak, Darren Mountains (one of my first climbs)

I have been asked to speak at a public meeting in Queenstown this evening to provide a Green Party perspective. I decided to demonstrate why it is crucial to have a strong Green presence in the next government:

We currently have a National led Government that puts economic gain and balancing the budget ahead of environmental and social consequences. They have an ideological agenda that is not informed by science, research or sustainable economics. They are motivated by the sugar fix of quick financial returns that ignore the long-term consequences and they put corporate interests before small businesses and ordinary New Zealanders. The sale of State Assets is a prime example.

This approach has had a direct impact on government services and departments and we have seen the evidence in the operations of both ACC and DoC, with some very serious consequences. In both cases the core purpose and public mandate for their existence has been side lined.

I am a member of the Green Party because I believe our charter and founding document provide the answers to the issues we are being confronted with and we have the people with the knowledge and credibility to make a positive difference.

Four principals guide our party’s policies and decisions and they also address the issues that confront us this evening.

The first principal is ecological wisdom. This principle accepts the fact that we live in a finite world and much of our resources can only be used once. We have a moral obligation to ensure that we pass on a world to the following generation that is as good or better than how we found it. We now have few areas left in the world that support and sustain biodiversity that have not been substantially changed by human intervention. Areas like our National Parks are recognised internationally as extremely valuable, hence their World Heritage status. We have a responsibility to maintain the natural values of our parks, not only for New Zealand, but for the world’s sake.

Our second principle is Social Responsibility and this refers to the just distribution of our social and natural resources. For private interests to be able to dictate the management and use of our parks in an exclusive way is not just nor reasonable. The fact that rate and taxpayers will probably have to pay the external costs of the tunnel and monorail rail projects when most will not benefit from the facilities isn’t equitable. We also need to consider any project in terms of the wider effects on the region’s economy and ensure that the tourist dollar is not captured and monopolised by a few.

Our 100% pure, Clean Green brand is also extremely important for our national economy. Pure Advantage estimates that 75% of our exports are reliant on this brand. Even though our environmental monitoring is poor compared to the rest of the OECD, 80% of our lowland rivers are polluted and we have one of the worst levels of carbon emissions per capita in the world - it is actually images of Milford Sound and Fiordland that sustains a brand that probably isn’t deserved. To seriously compromise our last remaining natural environments through large scale commercial developments only attacks the credibility of what remains of our 100% pure, clean green status.

Social responsibility is also about how overseas tourists and New Zealanders experience our wild places, those experiences should be the best that we can provide both now and into the future. It is not socially responsible to limit the experience of Fiordland for tourists by shortening the journey unnecessarily. By cutting much of the trip it would also reduce the appreciation of the wider geography of park and for many the drive through the Eglington Valley is an important part of the full experience. It does not have to be a one day trip.

It is also not socially responsible for huge allowances to be made for commercial enterprises that have substantial backing and yet not make the same allowances for small businesses and projects. Why should DoC have to struggle in maintaining tracks and facilities for ordinary New Zealanders and overseas trampers and yet allow corporate interests drill tunnels through mountains.

Our third principle is appropriate decision making. This means giving proper consideration to all the issues involved: social, cultural, economic and environmental. Although the current government often refers to the need to have balance in decision making it is clear that there is no balance, especially when promoting economic growth over protecting the environment. Our natural resources appear to be up for sale to anyone keen to buy and the checks and balances one would expect around their use and access just don’t exist. Not for oil drilling or lignite and coal mining and the royalties we get in return would probably struggle to cover the costs of a major disaster.

Appropriate decision making also means making decisions at the level where the most impact will occur and including those who will be impacted in the process. It means making informed decisions based on research, evidence and what will be sustainable into the future. It is also really important to me that we don’t take more than we need from my children’s future to support the greed of today.

Appropriate decision making means honouring the commitments set in place by earlier generations to protect the natural values of our conservation estate and natural heritage for future generations in perpetuity. This government has ignored that commitment and have tried to open schedule 4 land for mineral exploration and extraction and while we did stop them from exploiting those places we have not stopped them from:
·      Privatising conservation land on the Craigieburn Range so that a Russian owned company could develop an alpine tourist resort with no public input.
·      And allow overseas owned Oceana Gold Ltd destroy more than 235 hectares of the Victoria Conservation Park for an open caste gold mine, again there was no public input into DoCs decision.
New Zealand is not ranked 3rd in the world for the ease of doing business in for nothing.

This National led Government does not have a mandate from the people of New Zealand to allow overseas interests to exploit the resources in our most treasured places for minimal benefit.

The fourth and last principle is Non-violence and this applies at all levels of our society and the way we manage conflict and different points of view. This not only refers to physical violence but the respectful way we treat those who hold opposing views to our own. It means addressing the argument without attacking the person or the messenger. We are seeing protests up and down the country at a level not seen since the Rugby tours of the early eighties. People only march when they feel they have no other avenues of communication and their views are being ignored. I was involved in organising Invercargill’s anti mining march and more recently our one against the asset sales, the people who marched beside me represented all sectors of society, Grey Power, students, wage earners, professionals and mums and dads. They all felt disenfranchised, their interests ignored and their values not respected by this government.

Finally I wish to acknowledge the tremendous work that is done by our Green MPs.  As a Southlander for most of my fifty something years I am used to living in a province that is largely ignored by decision makers in Wellington. When there was a proposal to raise Lake Manapouri many of the Government Ministers at the time had never visited the area and I understand the Minister of Tourism, our PM, has never visited Milford Sound. Green MPs refuse to make decisions in such a detached and uninformed way and despite the fact that we have no Green MPs living this far South they have maintained a direct and personal involvement with our issues. Rod Donald provided personal support to the Southland Building Society as it rejected merging with an Australian Bank and remained independent and New Zealand owned. Russel Norman is the only MP who has personally spent time in and around our polluted Southland rivers and has met with local authorities and farmers to find solutions for saving the Waituna Lagoon. Gareth Hughes is the only MP I am aware of who has personally met all the stakeholders involved with the lignite mining in Southland to try and fully understand the issues. And Eugenie Sage is so passionate about saving Fiordland from unnecessary development that she even walked the route of the monorail and helped make a video to demonstrate what would be lost if the project went ahead.  She has written a submission against it and also took time out of a Queenstown local body conference to speak at the launch of the Save Fiordland Incorporated Society. As far as I now she is the only MP who has written articles voicing concerns about the tunnel and monorail.

In conclusion I would like to remind all of you that it is the efforts of publicly motivated and driven groups such as the Save Fiordland Society and Glenorchy’s Stop the Tunnel that can shift the government's thinking and galvanise public support. The anti mining marches were successful and so can you be. While the Green Party will support you all as much as it can as an opposition party, remember in two years we will have an election and there is only one party I know of that truly and sincerely understands why it is important to protect our natural heritage and has the commitment and the knowledge to create positive change.  We can best do this if we are in Government and we have two years to make that happen.

The view towards Milford Sound from the Gertrude Saddle.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Private Tunnel Impacts on Park

In today's Southland Times, S Osborne attempted to support the construction of a private tourist tunnel in Fiordland National Park by claiming the impacts would be minimal. Using the Manapouri Power scheme as an example of minor impacts only displayed the ignorance of the writer.

Dear Sir

I wish to correct some rather large misrepresentations from S Osborne (20/7/12) regarding the impacts of a private tunnel in Fiordland National Park.

To claim the effects would be minimal couldn't be further from the truth and to use the Manapouri Power Scheme as an example of "maximising the natural environment without leaving a blot on the landscape and yet still enhancing our world" was a poor choice.

Constructing the Manapouri power scheme involved diverting up to 510,000 litres of water per second into Doubtful Sound and substantially reducing the flow of the Waiau River. The construction was hugely disruptive at the time and the pylons and supporting road hardly constitute minor impacts to the park. Although it is an amazing feat of engineering I would hardly wish to repeat such a scheme in Fiordland again.

The proposed Dart/Hollyford tunnel will involve a huge amount of spoil that will be used to raise the small Hollyford airstrip by 8 metres and, due to the high rainfall, much will probably wash into the Hollyford river. It is proposed that the historic Gunn's Camp will be replaced by modern accommodation for the workers and, although this will be a privately owned and managed tunnel, tax and rate payers will be responsible for upgrading and maintaining the roads at either end.

I still cannot understand how traveling through a tunnel can match the experience of traveling through the Eglington Valley, we would only be short changing tourists to maximise the profits of a few.

Yours sincerely...

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Our Children, Our Shame!

The statistics and evidence clearly exists, New Zealand has a huge problem with domestic violence and a large number of our nation's children are suffering because of it. Green MP, Jan Logie, asked some very direct and searching questions of the Prime Minister yesterday regarding the lack of action or commitment from the government to address this issue and got some bumbling, evasive replies.

There are around 73,000 police callouts a year related to family violence and 70% of those callouts also involve incidents of child abuse. When it is obvious that we have a problem in this area Jan wanted the PM to explain why the Government had closed the Family Violence Unit in the Ministry of Social Development and cut funding to domestic violence education programmes. The PM responded by brushing aside the claim that domestic violence was a growing problem, "information we have show it's  probably leveling off". The PM claimed that the Government had shown their commitment to dealing with the issues of family violence and vulnerable children through the Green Paper, a Health Select Committee inquiry and a ministerial advisory group looking at solutions to child poverty.

Jan also wanted the PM to explain why the Government wouldn't support Owen Glenn's call for a Commission of Inquiry into family violence, given that the Green Paper and various committees looking at vulnerable children didn't directly address the issue. Again the PM fobbed of the question by saying that by looking into issues around vulnerable children they had to also look at family violence. The only statement that I supported in his answers was the view that we already had a good deal of information on the issue and that Owen Glenn would be better to direct his money into practical solutions. Yet despite this statement the Government has only invested $6 million into dealing with vulnerable children while Owen Glenn, a private individual, is putting up $80 million.

We are now into the 4th year of this National Government and the issue of child poverty and vulnerable children has existed since they first took power. It is clearly obvious to all those who work with children or care about kids that, even while you have inquiries and committees looking at the issue, stuff still needs to be done. A child born into a violent dysfunctional family when National was first elected will now be four years old. For these children, and the families they struggle to survive in, little has practically been done to support and help them, in fact the reverse has occurred:
  • Family Violence Unit closed.
  • Domestic violence education programmes have funding cuts.
  • Failures within CYFS where 71 children were abused in one year while under their care (30 of them by a CYFS approved care giver).
  • Average families are now $11,000 worse off than in 2008 while families with an income of  $250,000 are $12,000 better off.
  • Early childhood education subsidies have been cut.
  • Funding for 100% qualified EC teachers in centres cut to 80%.
  • Costs for housing has increased, new homes are unaffordable and there is now a severe shortage of high quality low cost housing.
  • Housing New Zealand has been rendered dysfunctional through funding cuts and loss of regional  staff. 
  • Growing urban ghettos of low income communities full of substandard unhealthy homes. 
  • Vulnerable families that are dependent on ACC or DPB are finding they are under increasing pressure to justify their need for support and have to endure public criticisms implying that they are not deserving of that support.
  • 61% of mothers of children under 12 months old are working, one of the highest levels of working mothers in the OECD yet increasing demands that more should seek work.
  • Median income in New Zealand only $28,500
  • Minimum wage increases not keeping up with CPI.
  • The requirement for healthy food in schools is removed.
  • The funding for the fruit in low decile schools has been cut.
  • $155 million cut from youth services in 2012 budget.
  • New Zealand now has one of the worst levels of child health and safety in the OECD.

The Government recognizes that there is an issue with domestic violence, child welfare and family poverty and they can only spare $6 million over four years to support vulnerable children and yet can find $200 million to pay roading consultants. There is no issue with a lack of available money just poor priorities, no real commitment and a huge lack of compassion.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Implementing League Tables Dishonest and Unethical

When National Standards in Education were first implemented four of our more prominent education academics wrote an open letter to the then Education Minister, Anne Tolley, opposing them. In that letter Professors Thrupp, Hattie, Crooks and Flockton stated:
"...in our view the flaws in the new system are so serious that full implementation of the intended National Standards system over the next three years is unlikely to be successful. It will not achieve intended goals and is likely to lead to dangerous side effects."
 The letter was ignored and three years later the same flawed Standards are going to be used to inform a league table to rank schools across the country. The Prime Minister himself has stated that the standards are "ropey" and yet he is supporting the use of them to compare the performance of schools.

Such is the concern regarding the damage that will be done by using such flawed, unmoderated data to inform league tables that 100 education academics from across the country have signed a joint letter to the current Education Minister, Hekia Parata:

"We are a group of New Zealand academics teaching and researching in universities. As a group we are very concerned about the proposed publication of ‘league tables’ of primary school performance based on National Standards, whether compiled by media organisations or by Government. We believe that National Standards achievement data and the available school and student level contextualising data are so clearly unsuitable for the purpose of comparing school performance that to purport to do so would be dishonest and irresponsible. We also believe, based on the experience of other countries, that the publication of league tables will be extremely damaging for New Zealand primary education. As academics we will condemn and disregard any published league table of primary school performance and we urge the New Zealand public to do likewise."

Hekia Parata refers to teaching as a profession and yet the way the Government has managed education and engaged with teachers and academics, it is clear that their regard for the status of the teaching profession is minimal. Professions are defined by an extensive body of specialised knowledge and those who work as professionals require years of study, training and assessment before they can be registered to practice (teaching generally requires four years of study and two years of advice and guidance before registration). Professionals have ethical standards and codes of conduct that inform and direct the way they work and manage their relationships with their clients, patients or students. Professions need to be autonomous and self regulating, not for their own purposes but to provide those whom they serve with the confidence that the professional's prime responsibility is working in their best interests without political or outside influence.

This Government has decided that their political agenda for education trumps the huge body of research and knowledge within the education profession that, up until now, had informed curriculum, assessment and good teaching practice. The government has determined that numeracy and literacy should be the main focus of primary education and has cut resourcing and support to all other curriculum areas like science and technology. This government has decided that comparing schools according to unmoderated assessments of literacy and numeracy achievement and then ranking them on a league table will provide useful information to parents and provide an incentive to schools to lift their standards.

In Prof Martin Thrupp's interview on National Radio this morning, he listed a number of very real concerns regarding the damage that will be done to individual schools and the quality of education delivery to children if the league tables are introduced. He described how measuring children's height and weight is easily and accurately quantified but comparing the performance of schools is virtually impossible due to the huge range of variables involved and the breadth of factors that make a successful school. Prof Thrupp suggested that ERO reports, talking to other parents and actually visiting the school provides richer and more useful information than a league table ever would.

If league tables were established it is likely that parents will be influenced by them and schools that are unfairly ranked near the bottom of the table will suffer and will probably lose the support and confidence of their community. Due to the "high stakes" nature of the Standards, schools will focus overly heavily on getting "good" results and shift their main support to those students who are more likely to boost their achievement numbers. Children who are very able students and those who have learning difficulties will not receive the same level of attention. No longer will assessments be used only to help diagnose the needs of students and report to parents but they will be skewed to ensure that the teacher and the school is seen to be doing well according to limited criteria.

There is also the huge issue of privacy of information. Considering half of all primary schools have rolls of less than 150 students, it will be quite possible to match published results in small communities with individual children. The ethical concerns regarding this are considerable and many schools have refused to pass on their assessment data for this very reason. In extreme cases I can imagine the shame or pressure applied to families whose child's achievement results may be instrumental in pulling down the ranking of a small school. Poor results in one year group in a small school may also be misconstrued as poor school performance and we already have an instance where there has been heavy handed action taken against a school based on limited information.

I know a parent who has a child with autism and she has expressed her concerns about the limited information that National Standards would provide in helping her choose the best school for her child. The best school for her would be one that is very inclusive and accommodating of children with high needs and teaches in a holistic way that is likely to engage the interests of her son. No child is the same and all children need to be in a learning environment that celebrates their unique and individual talents and meets their learning needs in creative and engaging ways. Even if National Standards were properly moderated and did provide an accurate assessment of achievement in literacy and numeracy, the league tables would still only provide information on a very small part of what makes a successful school.

National Standards are seriously flawed, their inconsistent unmoderated nature means there will be no value in their collective data and for the Government to endorse a league table based on them would be unethical and dishonest. Judging by the government's performance generally, perhaps honesty and ethics are not regarded as criteria important enough to reverse their decision.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Save Fiordland Society Incorporated

The Southland Times

Dear Sir

A recent business report revealed that around 75% of New Zealand's exports are reliant on our "clean green" brand and yet the reality is very different from our image. We are amongst the poorest for environmental monitoring and pollution controls in the OECD, 80% of our lowland rivers are polluted and our per capita carbon emissions are amongst the highest.

It is our largely pristine and untouched national parks that underpin our clean green brand and Fiordland's Milford Sound provides one of the most internationally recognized images of New Zealand.

It appalled and horrified me when the department charged with protecting our national parks would grant initial approval to two private proposals (bus tunnel/monorail) that would irrevocably change the natural values of Fiordland if they were to proceed. Not only will the environmental damage be substantial but the external costs for roading upgrades will be considerable as would the negative impacts on regional economic development.

It was heartening to witness the establishment of an incorporated society, "Save Fiordland", in Te Anau on Sunday. With Professor Sir Alan Mark as the founding patron and representation from local government on the executive, this society intends to do all that is possible to protect a national treasure from inappropriate development. For the sake of our nation and my children's future, I wish the society every success.

Yours sincerely...

It was great to have Green MP, Eugenie Sage, take time out from a Queenstown conference to speak to the society and share her extensive knowledge.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Maori Party in Abusive Relationship

It always amuses me when people refer to "the Maori" as if they are a homogenous group that act and think alike. The Maori Party were always going to have trouble representing the breadth of Maori interests and iwi aspirations, and when they went into coalition with National the pressure placed on those supporting the left and environmental concerns became intolerable. Even Hone Harawira, who is the political face of this breakaway element (Mana), does not truly represent this group as a social conservative.

The Maori Party has always claimed they can achieve more for Maori by sharing a bed with the National Party than by not sleeping with them. If I continued with this analogy I would have to say that the Maori Party have endured an abusive relationship with their coalition partner. National have benefited the most from the relationship, the majority of their policies have a negative impact on Maori (who make up the majority of New Zealand's poor and disadvantaged) and having the Maori Party support these policies has limited potential protest.

This relationship has cost National very little, most of what they have given up has been symbolic. It cost nothing to have the Rangatiratanga flag fly from the Auckland harbor bridge or to sign the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. While these symbols may mean a lot to Maori they mean little to John Key and the National Party, whose base lines are legal rather than moral or ethical. John Key's statement after the signing of the United Nation's declaration made this clear:

"I think it is important to understand that the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is just that—it is a declaration. It is not a treaty, it is not a covenant, and one does not actually sign up to it. It is an expression of aspiration; it will have no impact on New Zealand law and no impact on the constitutional framework."

Key's response to the Waitangi Tribunal deliberations on Maori water rights just continues his dismissive attitude towards Maori interests. He knows that the Maori Party will continue to lie between his blue sheets because Whanau Ora was conceived between those sheets. Whanau Ora is the most important initiative to come out of the relationship and if the Maori Party were to seek a divorce then its future cannot be guaranteed, and it is already struggling. The past four years of lying back and thinking of Aotearoa as National has had its way will only be worth it if Whanau Ora survives childhood.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

KiwiRail Job Cuts Cause Unnecessary Risk

The 220 jobs that are being cut from KiwRail's engineering department are not insignificant. These are the guys that repair, maintain and upgrade the track and oversee general rail infrastructure. Our rail systems were hugely run down during the years of privatisation and have still not returned to the standard they were before. The main goal of this exercise is to save $14 million without losing "essential skills and competencies".

It all sounds a little like the cuts to our biosecurity staff where we were assured that we would not lose essential frontline staff and yet information gained through the OIA revealed otherwise. Twenty five frontline staff had been cut and two x-ray machines were taken out of service. An independent report identified shortcomings in our biosecurity that led to the entry of a devastating kiwifruit vine disease that will cost around $400 million in lost revenue.

If our track maintenance is compromised because of these cuts the potential for a major accident or failure increases. The Government appears to rely on the short memories or the general apathy of the public when it continues to cut frontline staff from our government departments and SOEs. While there may be savings of a few million in wages and salaries, and the government's books may look good, the costs down the line may be considerable. I'm sure our KiwiFruit industry, the Pike River families and those living in leaky homes would say that the risks involved in such indiscriminate cuts aren't worth it.  

Monday, July 9, 2012

Housing Crisis Demands Immediate Action!

While the government anguishes over our  education system and spends much time, energy and money trying to fix what isn't broken, other areas of greater significance are being ignored. New Zealand housing is in a crisis situation and the capacity of our construction industry is in decline.

Most of the housing currently being built is for the elite market, as the cost of building a new house is now beyond most New Zealanders. The average house being built in New Zealand places us third in the OECD for size, just behind Australia and the US, and they are three times bigger than those being built in Sweden or the UK. According to last week's Listener, it is also 30% more expensive to build a house here than in Australia and, as our wages are 30% lower, this just increases the unaffordability for the majority of New Zealanders.

We have a huge shortage of low cost housing. Auckland alone needs 11,000 houses over the next two years and Christchurch will potentially need similar numbers. Our state housing stock is still below the numbers we had in the 1990s even though the demand is greater. Around 50% of our state houses are still those built in the 1940s and the shift to greater private provision of low cost rentals has seen a general decline in the quality that is available. New Zealand's housing is generally well behind Europe in quality and we have been compared to being similar to Sweden fifty years ago. Huge numbers of New Zealand families still live in old uninsulated wooden villas with inefficient heating systems and no double glazing.

Common south Invercargill housing

The government does not see the availability of high quality, low cost housing as an issue and even allows rental profiteering in Christchurch where demand is high. I was told the other day of a family forced to squeeze themselves in to a "truckers" motel due to the lack of availability of anything they could afford. The government is even actively putting the housing needs of the affluent ahead of the poor by removing state housing from areas where developers could prosper through redevelopment.

We are also having to deal with a huge back log of leaky buildings, around $1.5 billion of leaky schools to fix and another $10 billion of private structures. The repairs and rebuilds are as urgent as the Christchurch repairs and have been around for much longer.

Meanwhile, the construction industry is in decline (15% of the workforce have been lost over the last 5 years) and it isn't even being promoted as a potential career on the government's own career website. There has been minimal investment in training and building capability and the government appears to be resigned to bringing in an overseas work force when demand in Christchurch grows. Considering 27% of our youth are unemployed this lack of foresight seems almost criminal.

Even our training methods and qualifications for construction workers and builders lack the sort of robust support necessary to engage and grow a capable work force. I recently met an English builder who has worked in New Zealand for a number of years, he is passionate about improving the quality of industry texts and qualifications to that of the UK builders guild. He patiently explained to me how the texts and training in New Zealand excludes many young men (and women) who are very practical and capable but cannot engage with the unnecessarily high literacy demands of our qualifications and courses. When the need for employment is great and the demand for housing is huge we should be doing as much as we can to fill the gaps.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Racism Apparent in Our Legal System

My previous post was a response to the strong financial incentive for legal aid to gain guilty pleas from their clients. We know from statistics that a large proportion of those using legal aid will be poor and Maori. Maori make up 15% of our population but constitute 50% of all male prisoners and 60% of female prisoners. One could say that this is purely because Maori offend more than the rest of society and "if they do the crime, they should do the time", however the evidence says otherwise.

I have become increasingly aware that when it comes to policing, and our legal system, there is not a level playing field for all of our citizens. I have been appalled at the treatment Maori/Pacifika friends of mine have experienced from the police and the way their law abiding children have been harassed. If you are young, brown and out and about at night, if you haven't committed a crime then you are about to. A 1998 survey of how Maori perceived the police revealed a high level of mistrust and feelings of victimisation. Women and transgender Maori especially reported concerning levels of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the police and few complained because it was felt that the whole system was corrupt, so there was no point.

Fourteen years have passed since the report but it takes some time to change a culture and the heavy handed response from the police in the Urewera "terror" raids in 2007 was further proof of the disregard of basic human rights where Maori are concerned. An entire Maori community found themselves under siege from armed police, their houses broken into, school buses stopped and innocent children traumatized. A 2011 report on police culture found "decisive change" was still needed.

Once Maori are charged by the police they then face our court system and judiciary and the victimization continues. In the 2011 Ministry of Justice report on "Trends in Convictions and Sentencing" it was noted that drink driving made up a large proportion of offenses:

"Drink driving makes up over half of the offences in the traffic and vehicle regulatory offences category, and is the most common offence for which people appear in court. Over 30,000 drink driving charges were laid in 2011 (11 percent of all charges laid in court). Drink driving has consistently been the most common charge laid in court over the past ten years, and is strongly influenced by the number of breath tests conducted by police."

Young Maori men again produce a disproportionately high level of convictions for drink driving, but it is not a truly accurate reflection of those caught offending. If you are charged with drink driving and are pakeha and academically able there is a good chance that you will escape conviction. In today's Southland Times it was reported that a 20 year old trainee pilot was not convicted for driving with a breath alcohol limit of 778mcg because it would delay his ability to gain his commercial licence. A couple of weeks earlier a fourth year law student also escaped conviction because, although his level of intoxication was high, a conviction "could be a barrier to his career and professional development". There was an assumption by both judges that a similar conviction for young Maori men would not have as much of an impact on their lives and therefore a damning and racist judgment on their potential to contribute to society.

Rethink Crime and Punishment is a strategic project focussed on creating public debate and looking at alternatives to managing crime. They have developed some researched based principles that deserve to be noticed:

  1. Criminal sanctions are important, but by themselves they are inadequate. Public safety requires social and economic justice and a range of political interventions to suit.
  2. Crime cannot be managed by the State alone. There must be community sanctions and engagement.
  3. Criminal justice interventions should be proportional, and based on evidence of that necessary to achieve inclusion, reparation and deterrence.
  4. Criminal justice policy and practice should achieve minimum resort to custody and other restraints on liberty while giving due regard to public safety.
  5. Criminal justice policy should address the crimes of the powerful (both individual and corporate) and the impact of corporate crime on the community, as well as those crimes associated with the least powerful sections of society.
  6. Criminal justice policy should be consistent with international, human rights norms.
  7. Criminal justice policy requires a broader appreciation of who are victims, and should treat victims, offenders, suspects and witnesses with dignity and respect.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Unethical Incentives Skew Service Delivery.

This National led Government thinks in fiscal rather than moral or ethical terms. When John Key was questioned regarding the ethical nature of John Banks' nondisclosure of donation sources he claimed that as long as Banks hadn't broken the law (and he admitted the law was vague), he was comfortable. When it comes to money, it seems, as long as it is vaguely legal anything goes and the human consequences are not a major consideration. National operates a little like the tobacco industry as exemplified by one of their managers when Hone Harawira asked in a select committee if he thought that their business was a moral one, "It's legal" was the reply.

When ACC staff were provided with financial incentives to remove people from long term support then it totally changed the context in which the service was being provided. It has since been revealed that not only have thousands lost the support that they genuinely needed and deserved but hand picked medical assessors were used to provide assessments favouring ACC (sometimes multiple assessments were required until the "right" response was achieved).

A similar approach is now being used for legal aid. Under the new legal aid fixed fee system it is now 531% more lucrative for lawyers if their client pleads guilty at the earliest opportunity. Obviously an early guilty plea would save substantial court costs, but with such a large incentive I can imagine many clients will end up with criminal records when they were actually innocent. I can understand the frustration that must occur when someone who is actually guilty wastes considerable time and energy by not admitting so, but when the system is heavily stacked towards gaining an early admission of guilt then proper legal advice and representation will be compromised.

We are seeing the continual erosion of the rights and dignity of the most vulnerable in our society and when we are experiencing growing inequities of income we are also seeing growing inequities in the provision of services and support. In the case of ACC the unethical culture had existed for some time before the reality was confirmed and I dread to think how pervasive this approach may be throughout all our government services. Jim Bolger once campaigned on National creating a "decent society" and I can't imagine John Key even contemplating using a similar slogan.

We now have a society where being poor and a beneficiary implies that you are probably: a drug abuser, lazy, a benefit fraudster, a poor parent, sexually irresponsible and promiscuous and a criminal. When the most vulnerable in society are demonized it is then easy to justify cutting support and have incentives to achieve this and you only need a few examples to taint the reputations of the rest. "Decent" people are pakeha and wealthy and as such deserve tax cuts and shares in our energy companies and if poor people live in an affluent area they should be shifted away to live with others of their kind. Our decent society is becoming an increasingly segregated society.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Key Admits Standards are "Ropey"

After three years and tens of millions of dollars, the National Standards in Education are still not embedded nor functioning as intended. 78% of schools are still not fully using them and around 1/5 aren't meeting even basic requirements.

The teaching profession asked for a trial before full implementation and this was ignored, we had also asked for dialogue around addressing the many flaws and this was also brushed aside. The past education minister, Anne Tolley, set up an advisory group that initially included representation from the profession but then refused to discuss concerns with the Standards themselves. The group only existed to progress the implementation.

Now the profession are being told that league tables and performance pay is on the agenda and National Standards will be used to inform both.

We should be proud of our quality public education system that consistently gets ranked in the top 5 internationally and, although we can still improve, the constant introduction of half baked schemes will only have a negative impact. If change is to occur it needs to follow the process used to develop and introduce the New Zealand curriculum. A co-construction model was used and the curriculum was researched, written and reviewed over a period of 5-6 years. The result was understood and owned by the profession and was supported by research and tested in practice. The curriculum is well regarded internationally and the implementation was underway when National Standards was thrown into the mix.

The National Standards began life as an unformed political idea and was implemented at the same time it was going through the design process. The initial information to parents was published by the National Party and not through the Ministry of Education. Professional development to support the introduction of the Standards was confusing as the facilitators could not keep up with the constant revisions and adjustments that occurred over the first year.

The Standard's narrow focus on literacy and numeracy has changed the culture of our schools and important learning areas like Science and Technology are being underdone. Already we have heard warning bells regarding our slipping achievement levels in Science. Even schools that have staunchly refused to engage with the Standards are experiencing perceptible changes in their curriculum delivery and school culture according to researcher, Martin Thrupp.

The current Minister of Education, Hekia Parata, is attempting to engage and have ongoing dialogue with the profession. Her focus, however, is still around supporting the National Party's agenda and not discussing whether the agenda is appropriate in the first place.

The National Standards are indeed "ropey" and unless they are substantially revised and appropriately moderated, will never provide reliable or useful data. League tables are not used by the highest performing countries in education and performance pay based on flawed data is doomed to failure.

We need to focus on stuff that does deliver; properly implementing our curriculum, quality professional development for teachers, smaller classes, well funded resourcing and teachers starting each day in the classroom feeling positive about their job and feeling valued for they do.

Reducing child poverty and deprivation would also help.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Two Business Stories about Sustainable Success

I heard the first story yesterday through attending Te Kuhui Whetu, the annual conference for Maori education for NZEI Te Riu Roa. We had a impressive presentation from Tumanako Wereta the humble but impressive chair of the Tuaropaki Trust. Tumanako has led what must be considered one of the most remarkable Maori business success stories. An amalgamation of the land belonging to seven Mokai hapu in 1952 resulted in a business trust that has seen a growth of assets from $45 million to around $600 million over the last ten years.

The success of the Tuaropaki Trust is largely due to a strong vision and good deal of self belief. Their vision statement simply says that the Trust will "act as a beacon of hope and prosperity for our people", however it is the carefully thought through strategy that has provided the substance to the vision. Making the best use of their land and resources, four key areas of business development were pursued: temperature controlled horticulture, geothermal power generation, sustainable farming and communications.

With no government support the trust found reliable investors and embarked on developments that would be sustainable and provide a strong and growing business future for following generations. Having left my Southland home where unsustainable dairy farming practices are wrecking havoc on our rivers, aquifers and estuaries it was refreshing to hear about the Trust's worm farms that managed farm and dairy factory waste and turned it into high value fertilizer. There were also other examples of sustainable farm practices that demonstrated what could be happening elsewhere.

The second story was the Stuff news item about a survey of the top fifty "green" companies that showed an average growth 15 times the national average. When you combine the results from this survey with the Pure Advantage report on the international green business race, it provides powerful support for a change in direction from the fossil fuel future being planned for us by our Government. An aspect about green businesses that I found especially interesting was the fact that many were not so dependent on capital from off shore, they provided a range of jobs (from low qualified to highly specialized) and much of the profits and dividends remained in our country.

I'm sure there are many other stories out there that demonstrate the advantages of a green and sustainable economy, if we only look. These stories also show that we can find our own economic solutions, without replicating models from Australia and the US, that better suit our environment and our culture. We can be the masters of our own destiny, maintain sovereignty over our resources and work towards a really sustainable future.