Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ending Child Poverty is Not Dopey!

It has been estimated that the cost to our economy for poor child outcomes is around 3% of our GDP which equates to around $6 billion a year. This includes costs in health, welfare, remedial education, crime and justice expenditure and lower productivity. We have one of the lowest expenditures in the OECD on children in their early years and one of the poorest records for child health and safety.

A universal weekly payment of around $120 for all children under six would cost the country around $2 billion a year, the same amount as it has cost us annually to provide tax cuts to the wealthy. It cost $1.7 billion to bail out South Canterbury Finance and the government is spending around $14 billion on roads that we largely don't need.

A $2 billion investment in our children when they are most vulnerable and most deserving of support (the first 6 years are crucial for their long term prospects) will obviously pay dividends over time. Given that most families with young children are struggling, a universal payment will mean the majority of recipients will benefit and it will reduce the costs of managing the payment if it goes to all children.

The Prime Minister's response to a universal payment for children - "Dopey!"

I'd like him to look at just one of the 270,000 children currently living in poverty in the eye and say that again.

(Key's responses to Metiria's reasonable questions and Simon Bridges remark that she had "been smoking too much of the dope again" were just deplorable.)

"A View to the South" BERL Report

This evening I attended the launch of the WWF funded BERL report, A View to the South: Potential Low Carbon Growth Opportunities for the Southern Region. With Solid Energy having purchased around 5,000 hectares of arable land with the intention of mining lignite, many in the South have been led to believe that this is the best option for growing jobs and boosting the local economy. WWF saw this report as a useful document to present other alternatives for economic growth that would be low in carbon emissions and more sustainable in the long term. The report was prepared by Dr Ganesh Nana, a very respected business and economic researcher and analyst, and his colleague Fiona Stokes.

Dr Nana presented the report to a packed meeting room in the Invercargill Library and he provided an overview of his approach and the intent of the document. The report initially looked at the current economy of the region and produced projections based on existing activity and continuing a business as usual (BAU) approach. Dr Nana's projections revealed that BAU would see the local GDP increase by about 2.34 % per annum. He saw this as a comfortable increase but was under realizing the potential of the region.

The report then compared BAU with four existing and prominent industries that had the potential to be developed further and these were: Forestry, Engineering, Education and Horticulture/Crops. Dr Nana suggested with appropriate leadership and investment in science and innovation then both GDP and job creation could be advanced well beyond the return from BAU. Within each industry the report looked at different aspects that had the potential for further development.

Dr Nana talked about the importance of exports to support a healthy economy and made much of the fact that the Southland region did more to support exports than our major cities. Considering its relatively small population (just over 2% of the total pop.) Southland's economic value to the national economy was over 11%.

Dairying representatives at the launch expressed concern with the fact that continued investment in dairying was questioned. Dr Nana explained that there needs to be a decision on how much we should invest in one industry and suggested that greater diversity in farming was important as an investment strategy. Any good investment portfolio should have investments spread over a number of interests so that any down turn in one area could be compensated by growth in another and this should also be true in farming.

Dr Nana made it clear that if we wanted our local economy to continue strongly into the future we had to take account of environmental sustainability and plan ahead. When someone suggested that we have little influence over our government and are limited in what we can progress ourselves, he disagreed. Because our economy contributed substantially to the national one, Dr Nana explained that we had considerable influence and leverage if we cared to use it effectively.

I am hoping that this report can be used in other forums around the region to spark discussion and debate. I want Southlanders to feel empowered in taking ownership of our economy and becoming unified behind a well considered regional plan that will enable us to have a sustainable and low carbon future.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Shocking Unemployment Figures revealed!

Over the last few months we have had more evidence of the growing inequities that exist in New Zealand society. We have had the release of the NBR rich list which has shown that New Zealand now has a considerable group of very rich people who, for the most part, have suffered little from the world's economic down turn. The collective wealth of this group is considerable ($52 billion for the top 100) and, with a fortune of over $50 million, Prime Minister John Key doesn't even make the top 150. Most are still seeing steady increases in their wealth over and above the 20% average increases recorded last year.

When the government decided to reward our wealthiest with tax cuts, it not only reduced the tax take by an average of $2 billion a year since, but put the tax rate for upper earners below Australia's. It is generally accepted that a large proportion of our wealthy generate their income through untaxed property investment and most of them would be investing in property to some extent. It has been estimated that around 40% of the income for our richest New Zealanders, on average, is derived through property investment. When you take into consideration the amount of income that is untaxed it becomes clear that the overall ratio of tax to income for the rich would probably be far less than the average tax payer. It was also rather shocking to hear the other day that 50% of our richest New Zealanders practically pay nothing. Although their total wealth may be in the tens of millions, few declare an annual personal income greater than $70,000. Many avoid tax through family trusts and, even though these are now taxed more than they once were, trusts are still regarded as an effective way of avoiding personal tax and protecting fortunes from losses through litigation.

At the same time as we have learned more about our most financially privileged we have a growing understanding of the extent of poverty in New Zealand. Even though Paula Bennett refuses to accept any official poverty line it has been widely accepted that a least 20% of our children live in relative poverty, where the basic necessities of life (food, healthy home and appropriate clothing) are not guaranteed.

We have seen the average family income increase but closer analysis reveals that the increasing wealth of the rich has lifted the average and the mean has actually dropped. Maori and Pacifika families have suffered the greatest drops with Maori families losing $40 a week over the last four years and Pacifika Families, $65.

We have comforted ourselves to a certain extent by the thought that our unemployment levels have not reached the excesses of other OECD countries, where around 20% unemployment is a reality for some. Our recent rise to 6.9% unemployment still seemed reasonable in comparison until Roy Morgan produced statistics that are a little different from the official Government figures, while they accept there has been some growth in employment the true extent of our unemployed has not been properly recognized. Rather than hovering around the 6% level the reality is actually 3 percentage points higher and we currently have 9.1% unemployed and a further 9.6% that are underemployed. This means that almost 20% of our workforce, or around 470,000 people, are not able to find full-time work. Of course this doesn't include those who are in full-time work but on the minimum wage (many are now included in the growing numbers of "working poor" who still need financial assistance to survive).

It seems extraordinary that this government has focused heavily on reducing expenditure on benefits and other areas of social support when the need for it has increased. The reason for the cuts in government spending is largely due to a reduced tax income and yet little has been effectively done to deal with the avoidance of tax from those who should and could pay more. In fact this National led Government is deliberately shifting our nation's wealth into the pockets of a few and has callously ignored the growing struggle for most New Zealand families and the damage being inflicted on a large number of our children. They continually use the economic crisis and the Christchurch earthquake as an excuse for their lack of income and increased borrowing and yet the top ten percent of our income earners have never had it better.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Worrying Similarities Between Milan Brych and National

While watching the docudrama about the medical fraudster, Milan Brych, I realized some strong similarities in this story with the National Party's governance of our country. It may appear to be an over the top comparison, but please bear with me as I explain how I came to this conclusion and you will see that it isn't that far from the truth.

In both cases we have a smiling benevolent facade, making claims that appeared convincing but had little substance behind them. The only real difference between Brych and the National Party is how they arrived into their position of power, Brych arrived from nowhere and with no proof of his past, whereas the National Party do have a documented past that includes Nicky Hagar's "The Hollow Men". However, in both situations people had got carried away with the promise of better things and were willing to ignore evidence (or lack of it) and take a gamble. The National Party promised a "brighter future" and Brych promised something similar for his patients.

The National Party have been injecting New Zealand with a toxic cocktail of mining, motorways, intensive farming, cuts in government spending, National Standards, Charter Schools and asset selling. They have claimed that this cocktail will bring the country back to life and provide a long, prosperous future. Like Brych, those who have invested in National have found good returns on that investment with increased wealth and privilege, when the money is pouring in you don't question the source.

When Brych was challenged by Professor John Scott to produce his research and evidence for his treatment he did not receive the open response he expected from a medical professional and was met instead with blocks and prevarication. The Green Party has received the same kind of responses from National Ministers when asked to produce evidence to support their numerous treatments. Brych used the demand for his treatment, and the hope he provided, as justification for continuing in practice and National use the same kinds of justification for theirs: they are building the motorways because people want them, they had a mandate for National Standards and they are selling state assets because of the 2011 election result.

It took a number of years before the growing cemetery on the Cook Islands provided convincing evidence that Brych's treatment wasn't delivering what was promised and we are beginning to find serious consequences under National's treatment. Under National we have increased unemployment, growing family poverty, widespread pollution, high teenage suicide,  poor child safety and welfare and it's getting worse.

Many people defended Brych despite the growing examples of incompetence and strongly criticized Prof Scott for daring to question him. The Greens have suffered a similar fate for questioning the government and have been under attack from National's supporters for daring to do so. While Green MPs haven't had their houses broken into there have been some extreme comments written in the blogosphere.

I hope you have come to realize, like me, that my comparison isn't entirely preposterous and that National needs to be instructed to stop their treatments forthwith before our economy and social fabric suffers fatal consequences.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Fiordland or Disneyland?

John Beattie, Director of FiordlandLink Experience (monorail), wrote a reply to my earlier letter in the Southland Times directed to the Minister of Conservation. He took exception to my "selective approach" that favored conservation over commercial development and oddly referred to section 6 (e) of the Conservation Act as if it somehow justified the construction of his monorail.

This is my reply:

Dear Sir
John Beattie (August 24) claimed that I was being very selective in my approach then attempted to do the same thing himself to justify the construction of his monorail.

Interestingly he referred to section 6 (e) of the Conservation Act, as if it opened the door to projects like his own and interprets the phrase "tourism is not inconsistent with its conservation"as meaning anything goes. Until recently there were vigorous controls on new tourist ventures, however one only has to talk to recently retired or sacked former employees of DoC (and there are a number of them since the Government cut the budget by $54 million) to know that the Department is not what it was. Small businesses get hit with the full weight of bureaucracy but large commercial projects appear not to have the same thorough scrutiny.

I am not averse to tourism, and I believe that some commercial activity in our conservation estate is necessary, but I do not want to see our national parks develop into "theme parks" that cater mainly for the rich. Most New Zealanders will not use or benefit from the monorail nor the proposed tunnel and yet we will have to pay for the external costs of roading etc and lose the quality of experience when visiting the parks ourselves.

The World Heritage status of our parks is based on the pristine, unaltered nature of the environment and most tourists want to experience that too and if they don't, there is always Disneyland.

Yours sincerely...

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Brownlee Suffers Knockout in Transport Debate

Julie Anne Genter continues to grill Gerry Brownlee about the evidence he has used to determine National's $12 billion dollar investment into the Roads of National Significance (RONS). Yesterday there was another dismal effort from Brownlee, who could produce no research or evidence to prove that the roads were the best value solution for our transport needs. As far as he was concerned we need them because there is some congestion and the only evidence necessary was the electoral returns in 2011. When Genter called for a point of order regarding the fact that Brownlee had not provided specific evidence, the Speaker (with a rueful smile) explained that he didn't think she would get a better answer other than the Minister believed the motorways were a good idea and that was what he was basing his decision on. He invited the Minister to respond to the point of order but got no further explanation.

In the process of asking her questions, Genter provided a range of evidence that would ring alarm bells for anyone other than Gerry Brownlee. The New Zealand Traffic Agency (NZTA) monitors traffic volumes and their graph (Pg 4) shows minimal growth in traffic since 2004. The price of fuel continues to rise and although there is ample evidence that this will be a continuing reality. Brownlee's response regarding the price of fuel was bizarre:
"...the relative price of petrol to decisions people make about transport modes is inelastic."
Surely the stagnant traffic growth and the increased demand for public transport suggests otherwise?

Possibly the most frightening evidence that Genter provided was the fact that the collapse of the Greek economy was somewhat due to their borrowing to build motorways. Brownlee attempted to bluff his way out of the worrying comparison by claiming that it was extraordinary spending on "large, monolithic" rail systems that was the country's downfall. Genter, never one to not do her research, tabled a report from the European Commission on Greece's transport investment priorities that showed that the vast majority of transport spending was on motorways. Brownlee's claim that it was rail that dominated Greece's spending was just another example of the apparent (but unsubstantiated) facts he plucks from nowhere, and yet is reported as fact by lazy journalists. Greece's Egnatia Odos (modern road) project has been described as  "...the most ambitious and expensive public project ever to have taken place in modern Greece."

If this was a boxing match Brownlee would have thrown numerous loose punches, received several standing counts and the match would have been concluded with a knockout. Brownlee may be considered a political heavyweight but Genter was better prepared and punched with devastating accuracy.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Kate Wilkinson, the Minister of Consternation.

Conservation Minister, Kate Wilkinson, had a stern response to Lesley Soper's claim that DoCs decision to grant initial approval to the Fiordland tunnel and monorail was inappropriate. In Today's Southland Times her letter explained that the public hearings and acceptance of submissions had allowed proper process to be followed. Her letter concluded with:

"For Ms Soper to suggest this as being "inappropriate" is erroneous both in fact and law".

Sadly Kate Wilkinson is doing what many National Ministers do, reinterpreting the law and ensuring the "facts" are shaped to suit their agenda. Considering the amount of stress and anxiety she is causing amongst those of us who care about preserving our natural heritage within our conservation parks I felt obliged to write another letter:

Dear Sir

Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson attempted to reassure us all in her letter (21 August) regarding the good process and public consultation being followed for the proposed tunnel and monorail in Fiordland. For those of us who genuinely care about the environment and status of our National Parks we were not reassured and support Lesley Soper's view that DoCs process was inappropriate.

Sadly, however, the inappropriateness of DoC's decision to give initial approval to those two commercial projects only applies to the old DoC that existed before the National led Government changed the playing field. 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." Under DoC's original model neither the tunnel nor the monorail would have been considered compatible with the Parks Management Plan and would have been rejected immediately. This would have saved much money and anguish and given certainty to both the private developers and those who support the conservation of the park.

Under a National led Government DoC's purpose has been changed to "conservation leadership for a prosperous New Zealand". It is also probably 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" in the list of DoC's new roles.

I do hope that the local petition that collected 25,000 signatures, the many hundreds of detailed submissions and the twin campaigns of "Save Fiordland" and "Stop the Tunnel" are successful, but DoC isn't what it once was and this Government has a clear agenda that doesn't appear to value the same things I do.

Yours sincerely...

Monday, August 20, 2012

National Making Huge Splatter/Zombie Movie

This National led Government likes to fast track change, they claim they need to act with urgency to save us from wasteful spending and to improve front line services. Within the last four years they have attacked numerous state departments and sectors, slashing budgets and demanding greater efficiencies. To them the process is simple: take away the money, set targets and tell people to work harder. The trouble is, change isn't that simple and simple thinking does not necessarily lead to positive outcomes. 

A difficulty with ongoing change is that we are continually looking forward to prepare ourselves for the next wave to hit and have little time to look back to see the resulting debris. Well, I have looked back and it isn't a pretty sight. The earthquake damage to Christchurch City was bad enough but National has wrecked havoc across the entire country with social structures and government infrastructures crumbling and literally thousands of people emerging from the dust and rubble like dazed zombies. If it were a film it would be an R rated "splatter" movie (including heaps of cutting, hatcheting and blood letting, led by the "Smiling Assassin")

Education has suffered multiple hits, adult education was the first to go and community classes across the country were slashed. Then it was early childhood's turn as $400 million was wiped, the 100% qualified teacher target was cut to 80%, teachers lost jobs and fees rose. The Ministry of Education had its budget cut by $25 million to improve frontline services but resulted in deteriorating performance and frontline staff struggling to meet identified needs. Primary schools have had the majority of their curriculum advisors sacked and teaching effectively narrowed to literacy and numeracy through the fast tracked introduction of National Standards. The introduction of Charter Schools will see more savings as unregistered teachers can now be employed to teach and their pay and conditions can be determined outside of the normal collective agreement. 

Both primary and secondary schools barely escaped an aborted attempt at cutting teachers' jobs and while Education Minister, Hekia Parata, failed in this attempt it is clear that the policy has been set aside for a later opportunity. Tertiary education has also been targeted with $60 million less available this year than in 2011. 4-5,000 students will also have their allowances cut and this will probably affect the number of postgraduate degrees that will be completed. 

DoC has seen it's budget slashed by $54 million and the resulting losses of staff involved with pest  control will see many of our protected areas under greater threat and an increase in the loss of threatened species and biodiversity. Our 100% pure brand is largely dependent on our conservation estate and this will be put at risk if we can't protect them. The commercialization of DoC will potentially see our World Heritage park lose its status as one of the world's more pristine environments as it becomes more like a theme park.

ACC had budgets cut and staff provided with incentives to refuse cover for long term claimants. Sexual abuse counseling has been hugely affected and many deserving people have lost their financial support for reasons that cannot be properly justified. After the last four years the culture of ACC has deteriorated to a point of being highly dysfunctional and the recent breaches of privacy has been the last straw for many.

Housing New Zealand was already suffering from under investment with almost half of the homes on its books being the Michael Savage originals built 70 years ago. It has been also estimated that Auckland needs to build around 11,000 homes to meet the increasing demand. Not only has the government removed state houses from affluent areas to suit developers but they have cut local services and set up an under resourced call centre (again to purportedly "improve" services).

The IRD received similar treatment to Housing New Zealand with 156 jobs slashed from regional offices around the country and an inadequate call centre established instead.

305 jobs were to be cut from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to save an annual $25 million from its budget. The process has been hugely messy, demoralizing frontline staff and costing millions in consultants fees.

As the Government keeps salaries low in state services and increases the workload through staffing cuts there are numerous examples of deteriorating service and low moral.

The most expensive of all the high priority and urgent government initiatives are the $12 billion Roads of National Significance (RONS). No cost benefit analysis was done at the beginning and those done since have revealed that many will not warrant the expenditure. Most of the motorways are to be built around Auckland and the provinces are suffering from cuts to their road maintenance budgets to support their construction. 

The government's enthusiasm to cut budgets for border control staff and reduce regulations for overseas trade has seen a reduction on spending for biosecurity with some devastating consequences to our beekeeping, tamarillo, kiwifruit and potato industries. 

The Government is behaving like a change juggernaut crashing through one change after another and their next victim looks as though it may be local government, where they are hoping to dissolve many councils to create cost cutting unitary authorities. They are also encouraging councils to sell off their assets to help with funding and stick to narrow areas of expenditure like rubbish collection and sewerage. 

We have yet to see any benefit from the government's slash and burn approach, unemployment is up, borrowing has leapt to over $70 billion (an increase in over $40 billion since they took office), child and family poverty has increased dramatically, income inequity has increased faster than any other OECD country and we have one of the worst rates of child health and welfare. 35,000 new Zealanders left for Australia last year (our worst net migration loss for over 11 years) and we now have one of the highest youth suicide rates in the OECD. The tax cuts given to the rich has seen their increased wealth spent on extravagant mansions, expensive cars and property, rather than spending on job creation and developing our productive sectors.

New Zealand was once a prosperous, egalitarian society that led the world in education, environmental protection and child welfare. We were world leaders in the way we promoted social justice and had well functioning support services for those who needed it. National's ideological agenda and change processes are destroying almost everything that once defined us. I don't want to continue living in what feels like a crazy movie set!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Norman Reveals Threats to Privacy and Democracy

Russel Norman has exposed the truth behind this National led Government's inability to plan ahead and their total disregard for basic rights of privacy. Apparently if something hasn't happened, and is therefore "hypothethetical", then they can't actually determine a policy to manage it and anyone who dares to criticise the government stand to lose their anonymity and rights to privacy.

Russel used examples of real and hypothetical situations regarding the release of personal information  by government ministers to establish this horrifying reality. He began his series of questions, addressed to the Prime Minister, with one that established what a person must be prepared to do under this Government if they question any of their policies or initiatives:

"Does he agree with the statement made by the honorable Bill English, in relation to the release of Natasha Fuller's private details by his Social Development Minister. that, 'People who enter into public debate are welcome to do so... and should provide their full information to the public'?"

On behalf of the Prime Minister, Gerry Brownlee's answer was, "Yes!"

Presumably then a rape victim, who has not received counseling support from ACC for their emotional stress because of a shift in government policy, would have to be prepared to make public the details behind their concerns (and this isn't a hypothetical situation).

After this horrifying revelation Russel then tried to establish the circumstances that might trigger a Minister to release private details of anyone who questioned them:

"When Taleni Lafo entered into the public debate about the state of Housing New Zealand Corporation homes, under what circumstances would the Prime Minister consider it appropriate for Ministers to access her personal details and those of her family and make these details public?"

Gerry Brownlee's immediate response on behalf of the Prime Minister was, "That is a hypothetical question, and I am not answering a hypothetical question."

After getting a similar response with another plausible scenario, Russel then raised a point of order and explained that he was attempting to establish the Prime Minister's policy for guiding Ministers on releasing private information. The Speaker explained that the Minister had already indicated that in certain circumstances it would be desirable to do so.

 Russel's questions had revealed the following:

1) The Prime Minister has no policy, that he is able to share, that provides guidelines to his Ministers around the appropriate release of private information.

2) That there would be circumstances where releasing private information would be acceptable and, as there has been no denouncement from the Prime Minister regarding the Social Development Minister's release of Natasha Fuller's details, that any critic of the Government could potentially be considered free game.

Although Brownlee tried to deny it, Russel's own conclusions (after receiving the prior responses) seem reasonable:

"...having a Government that releases the private information of people who oppose Government policy - information that is available only to the State - is an approach that silences dissent, chills dissent in a democratic society, and is not acceptable in a democratic and free country..."

While I appreciate that Brownlee's refusal to answer questions that included hypothetical situations was just a weak attempt to avoid a reasonable (but potentially embarrassing) line of questioning, the fact that he thought it an acceptable response was also revealing. There are so many hypothetical scenarios that have and could become reality that have been actively ignored by this National led government.

I guess all those who are brave enough to point out the Government's lack of planning and investment in preventative action will know what to expect. Attacking individual dissenters rather than confronting the issues has obviously been effective so far, and I say this from personal experience.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

15 Ethical "Fails" Under National!

What is ethical behaviour?

Ethical behaviour is characterized by honesty, fairness and equity in interpersonal, professional and academic relationships and in research and scholarly activities. Ethical behaviour respects the dignity, diversity and rights of individuals and groups of people.

Ethical behavior is the standards that you hold for yourself of the attributes of honesty, responsibility, and how you treat others in all facets of your life. The same standards are applicable to whatever position you hold in commerce, in your community, and even behind your own doors where only you know what you do. Ethical behavior is applying these standards even when it is inconvenient to do so.

Read more:

I am continually astounded by the National Party Ministers who brazenly approach their responsibilities as if governing should only only involve the barest legal or fiscal considerations. Conflicts of interest are brushed aside, abuses of power are common and the recognition of human rights and human dignity are considered unnecessary extravagancies:

  1. How can Paula Bennett claim no abuse of power or breach of privacy in releasing the details of a beneficiary (and show no inkling of remorse)?  
  2. Did Bill English ever believe that claiming $1000 a week for a housing allowance for living in his own home was ethical when the median wage is less than $550 a week?
  3. Does John Key really feel comfortable about advancing a bill that embeds travel perks and annuities of around $250,000 a year for past Prime Ministers?
  4. How could Nick Smith have ever believed that writing letters to ACC on behalf of a friend (and using his Ministerial letterhead) didn't constitute a conflict of interest?
  5. How could Kate Wilkinson promote the erosion of worker rights when employers already have an unfair advantage in today's employment climate?
  6. Why did Gerry Brownlee denigrate a friendly country to make a political point and why does he allow landlords to profit out of desperation?
  7. What caused Lockwood Smith's difficulty in understanding why a deaf MP shouldn't have to use her own funds to be able to fully engage with parliament?
  8. What allows Judith Collins to believe that it is reasonable for ACC case workers to be paid incentives for refusing services to clients? 
  9. How can Hekia Parata stand by her policy of increasing class sizes to improve the quality of teaching when most of her colleagues send their children to private schools that actively promote the benefits of small classes?
  10. Why do John Key and Hekia Parata allow "ropey" National Standards data to be made publicly available so that flawed judgments can be made about school performance and also allow individual children to be identified in small schools?
  11. How does Steven Joyce sleep at night when he supported lending $43 million to his old company, "Media Works" despite receiving advice not to?
  12. What justifies Gerry Brownlee's  request for more borrowing to extend the $12 billion already tagged for motorways that do not pass simple cost benefit analyses? 
  13. How can John Key believe that honesty and ethical behaviour are not necessary for John Banks to continue as a Minister in his government?
  14. Why would Anne Tolley believe that gloatingly standing on the crushed car of a teenage offender are the dignified actions of a Minister?
  15. How can Murray McCully not take responsibility for the failure of the Rugby World Cup "Party Central" celebrations, that were his idea, or the MFAT debacle that he initiated.  
Judging by the enormous ethical vacuum that exists within this government, some education in this area is desperately needed! 

Feel free to add more examples, I got too depressed after listing 15.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Rail is Worth the Investment!

Of all political issues outside of welfare it is the status of our railways that most appears to polarise political ideologues. For those on the right any form of state owned transport is an anathema and nothing brings more joy to them than fleets of privately owned trucks roaring along newly constructed motorways. For those on the left the railways represent the pinnacle of state enterprise and a unionized workforce providing thousands of jobs across the country.

From the fifties the dominance of rail for transporting freight and passengers has steadily eroded because of the competition of improved roading, air travel and deregulation. In the 1950s the New Zealand Rail department had more than 1,530 railway stations and employed almost 30,000 workers, by 2001 Tranz Rail cut employees to 4,000 workers and only 100 stations remained in use.

KiwiRail's CEO, Jim Quinn, was interviewed on Q+A regarding the viability of our rail system and the wisdom of outsourcing the construction of new engines to China. Quinn was adamant that rail should and could operate profitably (as he has been employed to do) and supported the Chinese manufacture of the engines despite the questions around quality. The Q+A panel had Helen Kelly and Bryce Edwards strongly advocating for the social good that the system provided in terms of employment and Matthew Hooton took the line that our population is too small to support a national network and if it couldn't exist without government support it shouldn't exist at all.

While everyone would accept that rail has to exist in a different technological environment than the 1950s it is hardly redundant as a transport system, as Hooton would have us believe. Our Rail system was not given the ability to adapt and compete with other transport systems when it was sold off to a US company and merchant bankers Fay, Richwhite for a paltry $328 million. The New Zealand Railways Corporation became Tranz Rail and over a period of 15 years suffered from severe underinvestment as it struggled to provide a reliable service with its aging engines and rolling stock and poorly maintained tracks. The government bought back the rail and ferry operations from the later owner, Toll Holdings, for $665 million in an attempt to rescue what remained of the network and has been playing catchup ever since.

Contrary to Hooton's ill informed views, rail is experiencing a substantial renaissance, railways are shifting record tonnages of freight and now carry more than they did before deregulation. In 1994 9.4  tonnes of freight was carried and Kiwi Rail predicts over 16.5 million tonnes will be carried in 2012 (up 1.5 million tonnes from the previous year). As fuel costs rise and as concerns around the environmental effects of road transport increase, rail is an increasingly attractive alternative.

Increased road traffic and the convenience of improving passenger services have seen rail passenger numbers rapidly increase in Wellington and Auckland. Wellington has recently recorded over 12 million passenger journeys a year while Auckland's passenger numbers have more than doubled over the last ten years (exposing National's irrational obsession with motorways as the main solution to Auckland's transport problems). The Tranzalpine is regarded as one of the most scenically impressive rail trips in the world and there would be value in reestablishing other passenger routes (I see much potential in linking our growing number of scenic cycle trails with trains).

What the likes of Matthew Hooton, and others with a Neo Liberal agenda, fail to recognize is that rail should not be regarded within narrow business parameters. Due to years of under investment and a lack of promotion it will take sometime to bring the infrastructure up to a more contemporary standard and immediate profits are an unreasonable expectation. We must consider the external benefits of a strong rail network and the advantages to business of being able to transport bulk freight cheaply and reliably within our country (also enhancing our competitiveness as exporters).

Our Addington and Hillside workshops once employed over 1,700 skilled engineers and boilermakers and by closing these workshops we have lost a skilled workforce and potential employment for many of our disenfranchised young people. While we may need to subsidise the upgrading of the system for sometime yet, the long term benefits to our economy and social health makes it worthwhile. This investment also allows us to future proof our transport systems in the event of future increases in fuel costs and ensures that we can maintain a skilled workforce.

If Sir Dove-Myer Robinson was able to progress his rapid rail scheme, Auckland would not be suffering from its current transport crisis. Surely we have learned the lesson that to underinvest in rail just increases costs at a later date, spending on rail is future proofing our transport infrastructure. It is the most energy efficient method of transporting large amounts of freight and as a passenger system, the most effective way of moving large numbers of people.  Rather than being the transport of the past, rail is increasingly becoming the transport of the future.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Facts Around the Fracking Frenzy

Over twelve months ago very few New Zealanders had heard about fracking and now it is becoming one of the most hotly debated issues involving a good deal of emotion. Gareth Hughes has become the face of the opposition to fracking and has had to endure some fairly strong personal attacks from right wing bloggers and even the Taranaki Regional Council have seen fit to openly criticize him.

With L&M looking at the potential of fracking in Southland the issue is becoming something closer to home. While the industry claims that the process has minimal environmental effects it was recently revealed that some worrying, uncontrolled fracking has already occurred in our region. In 1995 two fracking wells were set up just south of Ohai, resulting in a toxic mix of chemicals (mainly formaldehyde and coal residue) being poured into a nearby stream.

The Minister for Energy and Resources, Phil Heatley, and the former Conservation and Environment Minister, Nick Smith,  have been very dismissive of Gareth Hughes' attempts to get a moratorium on fracking until the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment releases her report.

Nick Smith even felt compelled to write an opinion piece, that featured in a number of newspapers, claiming the opposition to the industry was "a lot of fracking nonsense". While admitting chemicals are used and small earthquakes are caused by fracking he explained that the environmental risks were minimal, especially if there were proper controls and monitoring. While his claims were largely factual he has down played the realities and mentioned some things that are basically untrue (Bryan Walker questions the accuracy of Smith's claims in his post on Hot Topic).

While the natural gas extracted by fracking produces half the emissions of coal at the point where it is burned there is a lot of gas released during the retrieval process that is unaccounted for. When you combine the uncaptured gas with what is burned the climate change impacts are actually similar to coal.

Heatley and Smith have also claimed that if we didn't frack then we will kill our geothermal industry, this is factually incorrect. Gareth's enquiries have revealed that fracking isn't used here at all to extract geothermal energy. 

Taranaki woman, Sarah Roberts, has been chasing the Taranaki Regional Council for over a year and found they do no monitoring, they rate fracking jobs as compliant when their own reports show they have not complied on a number of counts, and they appear to accept the industry's word for the safety of their operations.

In the US, where fracking is most prevalent, insurance companies refuse to insure the industry and the EPA has launched a number of investigations into its environmental safety. Gareth Hughes has done an excellent job of raising real concerns about the known environmental effects and the potential damage caused by an uncontrolled industry.

Dr Jan Wright has agreed to write a report on fracking in New Zealand and her respected independent view will be necessary to sift fact from industry spin and bring some sense to the issue. The Commissioner may even come out in support of the industry and we must be prepared for that possible outcome. Whatever her decision, it is already patently clear that without proper independent monitoring of the industry there is potential for poor practices to occur that would result in environmental damage and negative effects on people's health. This is not an industry that can be relied on to self regulate.

Drew Hutton is a widely respected Australian environmentalist who has campaigned successfully on managing toxic waste and he is now focussing his energies on fracking. This has been mainly a battle being fought by Australian farmers and Drew's "Lock the Gate" campaign has brought an awareness of the issue to those living in urban areas.

"I’m from Queensland and a couple of years ago I went bush to investigate coal seam gas. And I said to farmers out there, we can’t win this as purely a farmer’s battle. And we can’t win this as environmental battle. What we’ve got to do is bring the two together, bring farmers and environmentalists, city and country together."

Anyone who wishes to hear a non industry perspective on fracking should attend one of the following meetings during Drew's New Zealand speaking tour:

Wellington: 22nd August, St Johns in the City, 170 Willis St, 6.30 pm.
Dannevirke: 23rd August, The Hub, Allardice St, 2pm.
Hastings: 23rd August, Heretaunga Taiwhenua, 821 Orchard Road, 7-9pm.
Gisborne: 24th August, Gisborne District Council Chambers, 2pm.
Te Karaka, 24th August, Rangatira Scout Hall, 7pm.
Rotorua: 25th August, Keynote speaker at Ka Nui Conference, Rotorua Convention Centre 3pm.
Hamilton: 27th August, Waikato University room S.G.03, 7pm.
Taranaki: 28th August, Norfolk Hall, S.H3 Norfolk (near Inglewood), 7pm.
Gore, 29th August, James Cumming Wing, Ardwick St, 7.30pm.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Teachers, Petulance and Political Agendas

NZEI Te Riu Roa President, Ian Leckie

Today's Southland Times editorial accuses teachers of petulance and operating under political agendas after a decision from the Chief Ombudsman. Dame Beverley Wakem has unfortunately decided that schools should follow the directives provided by the School Trustees Association (STA) rather than the advice of the New Zealand Eucational Institute.

It is difficult to provide all the information needed to to refute a lengthy editorial in a 250 word letter but I had a go:

Dear Sir
The editorial (Friday 10th) claim that NZEI and primary teachers are reluctant to release because of petulance and a political agenda couldn't be further from the truth. It is the Government that has the political agenda.

While our education system isn't perfect it is still highly regarded internationally and is consistently ranked in the top five. None of the highest performing education systems use league tables.

Of all the determiners of a child's academic success teaching takes a back seat to influences such as poverty and family support. When 25% of our children live in poverty it is unreasonable to put the bulk of the responsibility of lifting underachievement onto teachers and schools. The Government has largely ignored the huge socio-economic deficits that exist in many communities.
Our Prime Minister himself has admitted that the National Standards data is "ropey" and to use that data so that schools can be compared, and judgements on performance be made, would be unethical and unprofessional. Most of our Primary Schools have rolls of 150 or less and the fact that individual children may be identified from the data provided has meant many schools have refused to comply for this reason alone.

Teaching and learning is complex and to focus on only two learning areas is missing all the other things that good schools provide. Schools and communities have already suffered from the misuse of the decile system of funding by wrongly attributing a school's decile number to performance and the same will occur with league tables based on ropey data.

Yours sincerely

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Yin and Yang Applied to Governance

The importance of balance has probably been recognized since the first people wandered through the African savanna. Much of Chinese and Eastern philosophy is based around the concept of Yin and Yang, the idea that opposite but complimentary forces are needed to allow the world to properly function. Natural dualities such as dark and light, hot and cold, male and female and fire and water are regarded as manifestations of Yin and Yang. When one element dominates the other then the natural balance no longer exists and there are negative consequences.

Our society, our economy and our environment are suffering because the ancient understandings of balance have been ignored and the consequences have become even more pronounced over the last 4 years. I have already written about my concerns regarding gender based discrimination but an article in the latest Listener has emphasized this further.

I am involved with a number of organisations at a governance level and in each there exists a good mix of men and women. In every case the strength of governance has been enhanced by the diversity of representation and the decisions made have been more robust.

It is claimed that there needs to be at least 30% of one gender on any board for it to have any impact and while we are doing well in the public sector (40.7% women) our private sector has only 7.5% of their directors as female. It was probably the testosterone dominated decision making of many finance companies that contributed to their inevitable failure when research has shown that diverse representation on boards provides a 35% higher return on equity.

If we are going to move forward in a more positive manner we need to ensure that we don't become captured by monocultural, testosterone fueled governance. When one observes the antics of Bill English, John Key, Steven Joyce and Gerry Brownlee and their National Party (only 3 women in their top 15 in the last election), we see lots of high risk and rough guess decision making occurring that doesn't bare close scrutiny. We could do with less support for boom and bust economics, less gambling with our state assets, less spending on motorways and sport ($36 million to America's Cup) and a greater focus on sustainable business and addressing our high levels of child poverty. I guess we will just have to wait for a change in government and real diversity in our elected representatives for this to occur, I can't wait...

Monday, August 6, 2012

Addressing the Failures of Rio

17 year old New Zealander Brittany Trilford speaking to the conference on behalf of her generation.

Kennedy Graham has published a series of posts on Frog Blog where he has described his experiences of Rio's 3rd Earth Summit, expressed frustration at the lack of determination and resolve from the attending states (our own government sent a junior Minister) and offered his own solution to addressing climate change.

I have huge respect for Kennedy, he is very experienced at operating in international and diplomatic forums and is very knowledgeable about international law and process. He suggests an organising framework that will enable a closer working relationship between the scientific community and the United Nations and greater powers and commitment to address the anthropogenic causes of climate change: 
  • UN Security Council attention to all components of the Ecological Crisis as a threat to international peace and security;
  • an empowered Secretary-General, taking more personal initiative as sanctioned under the Charter; and
  • a high-level panel, acting on behalf of the Secretary-General, operating as intermediary between the scientific community and the policy-making community with regard to the nine planetary boundaries (or any revised version of this as recommended by the scientific community).

Kennedy explains how binding protocols have been successful for managing ozone depletion and they that would be effective in dealing with climate change if there was a real commitment to do so. 
While I fully support the organising framework Kennedy proposes, I have real doubts about how effective the framework would be, even if it was supported the majority of UN member states. Given the battle it took to recognize anthropogenic ozone depletion and the fact that the world's economy is so heavily reliant on fossil fuel, this is a hugely problematic issue

The world’s largest powers have a history of ignoring the UN if directives would have a negative impact on their economies and national interests. The US is currently refusing to give up control of the internet to the UN mainly because of the impact it will have on US businesses.

We also have the issue of how we manage the dominant multinational corporates and the world’s largest banks (Exxon Mobil is the most profitable company with JP Morgan Chase a close second). Oil and gas, mineral mining and banks continue to dominate our richest companies and because they also operate as multinationals they are effectively beyond the influence of individual governments or the UN. With Government debt soaring, individual companies’ wealth and assets now exceed the countries where they operate and that wealth buys huge political influence.

New Zealand is held to be the least corrupt country in the world and yet we still see attempts to legislate responsibly for our national good being successfully stymied by wealthy companies and industries that will potentially suffer economically. Despite the collapse of financial institutions due to poor regulatory controls (causing substantial suffering to ordinary New Zealanders who lost their life savings) the industry has successfully lobbied to have much needed regulations watered down. The alcohol industry has clearly managed to water down the Law Commission's recommendations in legislation designed to address our huge issues around alcohol consumption. This is despite the fact that there are massive health and legal costs that the government has to cover due to misuse of alcohol.
Yes, the international community of states may indeed reach a consensus around the actions necessary to save our planet but how do you propose they can convince Exxon Mobil and JP Morgan Chase that business as usual is no longer an option?