Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Matter of Trust

"Fonterra botulism crisis was false alarm"

Before the current National led Government New Zealand was perceived as the least corrupt country in the world, but this has dramatically changed with a recent survey that has seen us plummet almost thirty places to a similar level as Spain and Portugal. Transparency International interviewed 1000 New Zealanders and it revealed the following:
  • Political parties are seen as the most corrupt institutions, 75% felt they were effected by some level of corruption and 12% thought they were extremely corrupt.
  • 75% felt that the media is affected by corruption to some degree.
  • 64% of New Zealanders surveyed stated that levels of corruption had increased over the last two years.
  • 3% of those surveyed stated that they had paid a bribe to help with accessing a government service.
  • 79% of new Zealanders believe the country is being run by a few big entities acting in their own interests.
A recent poll revealed that 76.5 percent of New Zealanders did not fully believe what John Key says despite still rating him as an effective leader. After almost five years of this government people seem to have accepted that politicians are essentially dishonest and that such behaviour is just business as usual.

Despite John Banks' obvious dishonesty John Key is happy to have him remain in parliament on a legal technicality and provide the one vote majority to pass numerous controversial bills. We are told that the election mandated this National led Government to virtually do as it chooses and democratic process and consultation are not a necessary part of governance. Whether it be the Skycity deal, the Salisbury and Christchurch school closures or the way the GCSB bill was rammed through, with little attempt to gain cross party consensus, the "right to rule" permeates through National's Governance style. Judith Collins' decision to ignore the Electoral Commission's MMP recommendations, because they didn't suit her party, exemplifies this approach.

This Government is clearly driven by ideology more than evidence and when the evidence is contrary to their plans it is ignored or other evidence is obtained. When John Key was challenged in a BBC Hard Talk interview regarding New Zealand's environmental image and Scientist Mike Joy's evidence was used to question our record, Key stated:

"That's Mike Joy's view, but I don't share that view...he's one academic and like lawyers I could provide you with another one that would provide a counter view."

The Government actively obtained "counter views" on numerous occasions. When advice and evidence doesn't support their initiatives they actively seek and pay for new advice that will provide them with what they want:
  • When the majority of New Zealand's most respected educational academics came out against National Standards and Charter Schools, the Government found US and English academics to support them and placed a UK Charter Schools advocate in charge of the Ministry.
  • When National based its $12 billion Roads of National Significance programme on Gerry Brownlee's opinion, different criteria had do be established to justify them (few passed the usual cost benefit analysis).
  • When a highly respected Canadian juror decided that David Bain deserved compensation, Judith Collins quickly employed a local lawyer to discredit the findings and come to a different conclusion.
  • When the Government decided that they wanted to limit ACC payments, special doctors were employed to overturn original diagnoses. 
I find it very worrying when evidence of botulism was found in a Fonterra whey product by AgResearch, which caused much embarrassment for the company, yet recent "independent research" has found that it wasn't after all. These new findings have supposedly cleared Fonterra and shed a more positive light on their actions. In this environment, where independent evidence is discouraged and the government deliberately manipulates data and evidence to suit themselves, it is difficult to trust anything that comes out as an "official" or "independent" finding. 

Could AgResearch have really got it so wrong? Why weren't these same tests done at the time when the first concerns were raised? When our economy is so dependent on Fonterra's exports how far would the company go to provide "a counter view"? How corrupt have we really become? Is Fonterra becoming the Monsanto of milk? Who can we really trust?


I would like to make it clear that I don't actually believe that Fonterra is anything like Monsanto and it is probable that Fonterra products are perfectly safe (however there are still serious questions around Fonterra's handling of the crisis and I would hope the inquiry will reveal shortcomings). The purpose of my post is to emphasize the fact that if we want to be a trusted exporter of food products we need to make sure we have an international reputation for honesty and minimal corruption. Sadly, as with our environmental reputation, our reputation for being an honest society is also slipping. Remember China has already identified that we have failed in other areas where quality control and good regulation is important, our $11 billion building regulation failure. It would be logical to question our abilities to manage quality control elsewhere.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

National's Pre-election Handouts Begin

You can tell that election year is looming as the money starts to flow in some new directions and it is particularly obvious in education.

National's bias towards the already wealthy was obvious as soon as they were elected into government in 2008. Despite the looming recession they gave upper income earners a substantial tax cut that reduced tax revenue by around $2 billion a year and supported a sudden increase in income inequity.

The new National led Government then gave private schools a $35 million boost while at the same time cutting funding to the Education Ministry by $25 million. Against all advice the Government bailed out Wanganui Collegiate (400 elite students) by $3.9 million and committed to supporting the school by $3 million a year from then on. Research has shown that high decile schools are better off by around $1,000 a year per pupil (despite decile funding that favours lower deciles) and private schools receive the most taxpayer support for special needs. Kings College (attended by the Prime Minister's son) was able to get special needs funding for almost 25% of students sitting NCEA.

Education Ministers Tolley and Parata both declared that the supposed tail of under-achievement was their main priority and have voiced special concern about Maori and Pasifika attainment. National Standards were introduced with the explanation that they would help identify struggling students and enable support and funding to be targeted towards those with highest need. Despite all the good words this has not reflected the reality.

The Government has closed residential schools for high needs children based on mainly economic considerations and has taken the same approach when closing Christchurch schools. In both cases there have been serious concerns around the decisions and the level of meaningful consultation (the reverse happened with Wanganui Collegiate).

Primary school principals I talk to claim that they now have less support for their high needs children than before. Special Education Services have fewer staff and larger case loads (since the Ministry budget cuts) and RTLBs have had their roles expanded to the extent they are spread too thinly to be fully effective. Teacher Aids, who work directly with our high needs children, still have amongst the worst pay and conditions of any workforce. Any progress that has occurred has been a result of hard work from teachers in an increasingly hostile education environment, which hasn't been helped by the Novopay debacle.

After almost five years in government there is sudden announcement that $27 million of new funding will be spent over the next four years, aimed at 'priority' children. One of the programmes getting a funding boost is Ka Hikitia which existed before National become the Government and was largely ignored while National Standards were being implemented.

$27 million sounds like a generous sum of money and many will feel that it is a substantial effort by this Government to support struggling children, but we should put this put this into perspective. Around 4% of children attend private schools and yet they have received around $40 million of extra money and get the bulk of special needs funding. The Government claims that they are concerned about the 20% of children who are struggling and yet the funding they are prepared to commit is still chicken feed compared to what is spent on our most privileged. Even though the National Standards data was seriously flawed it still revealed that the most affluent communities tend to do better educationally and this government has been determined to keep it that way.

The $27 million of education funding for priority children should be seen for what it is; a pre-election handout that is too late and too little to have any real impact, especially for those who needed it five years earlier.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Image vs Substance

Who will fill the seat?

Labour's leadership change reveals much about the current political culture and New Zealand society in general when one observes what is being discussed in different forums. It appears that possible contenders are not so much being evaluated in terms of their grasp of policy or economics nor their skills as a leader, but on such concerns as how overtly gay they may be or whether it matters that they are liked by their caucus.

During the 2011 election campaign many people appeared to have voted for John Key rather than the policies he and his party campaigned on. I often heard people explaining that they actually didn't like National's policies, but they just preferred John Key as Prime Minister over Phil Goff. Despite the fact that Key lives in a Hollywood style mansion and holidays in his $5.6 million dollar Hawaiian bach he has managed to cultivate an image of being an average kiwi bloke. Perceptions are everything.

A few years ago I visited the New Zealand Portrait Gallery and viewed an exhibition called The Cabinet Makers - New Zealand Prime Ministers. What fascinated me wasn't so much the portraits (which were mixed in quality) but the biographies that accompanied them. When judging our current political leaders it is hard to negotiate through the spin and hype to get a true measure of the person. When viewed historically our most charismatic and popular Prime Ministers have often struggled as caucus leaders or left a legacy that was hardly substantial.

David Lange was widely recognized for his skill as an orator but history has exposed his flaws as a leader. Jim Bolger and Geoffrey Palmer will never be regarded as charismatic and yet Bolger is now viewed as one of National's most astute leaders and Geoffrey Palmer has possibly had a greater influence on our legal and constitutional frame work than other politician in New Zealand's history. A prime minister's public persona is not always a true reflection of their real worth or influence.

Even before all names have been thrown into the hat, the media have been conducting polls on who should be Labour's leader. Although the public cannot vote on what is a party decision, it is clear that outside influences will dominate the process. Labour have changed their leadership election process from a purely caucus decision to one that gives  members and affiliated unions a dominant share of the votes. Their caucus and wider membership each have a 40% share of the of the deciding vote and their affiliated unions have 20%. I can imagine that many Labour members will be more influenced by media commentary and polls than their own gut feeling or knowledge of who they would prefer.

Green Party leaders are subjected to a vote from delegates at every AGM to confirm their positions and the same process was used following Rod's death and Jeanette's retirement to determine their replacements. Luckily for us the scrutiny and public interest has not created the same pressures on our delegates as Labour's will experience and having dual leadership has meant that the responsibility on any new leader can be managed until they find their feet.

For National and Labour leaders the the responsibility of the role instantly rests solely on their shoulders and, while the odd initial gaff may be forgiven, the honeymoon period is limited. Already National are looking at shaping the public perceptions of any potential leader and John Key has already been suggesting that Robertson was never a loyal deputy to Shearer and had even actively supported his demise. Character assassinations have become an art form for National and their ability to destroy the messenger rather than deal to the message has been largely successful.

The Civilian's recent post on the leadership contest probably has a element of truth, whoever takes on the job will be lucky to have the full support of the party and will have to parry some forceful character attacks from Key when they first rise from their seat, as Labour's leader, and say the immortal words:

"Does the Prime Minister stand by all his statements?"

Friday, August 23, 2013

Leadership, Popularity and Politics

David Shearer's resignation was obviously a real surprise to many of his Party colleagues, even though it has been on the cards for some time. I have heard few people say anything negative about Shearer's character and he appeared to be a genuinely nice guy. The manner of his resignation was an honorable and honest one. He had obviously tried hard to be what everyone wanted him to be but continually missed the mark and it was his own awareness of this that probably dictated his decision. His lack of success as a leader reveals much about what it takes to be successful in politics.

Shearer ticked all the boxes for Labour, he was internationally recognised for his humanitarian endeavors and had been successful in numerous leadership roles. On paper his credentials placed him on a higher plane than John Key, whose money trader past provided little evidence of empathy towards those less fortunate than himself or the potential to win the hearts of a wider constituency.

Sadly Labour have learned that the real popularity contest that determines a successful leader isn't the one decided within their caucus but the public one shaped by the television media. Their new leadership voting rules will hopefully produce a leader capable of challenging John Key, who has been able to easily dance around the previous two.

More than one commentator has observed that any successful political leader needs a degree of "mongrel" in their personality and Helen Clark recently referred to one of the prerequisites of leadership is really wanting it. Shearer often appeared as if he was driven by duty rather than personal ambition and mongrel is not the first thing one would attribute to him.

Mike Williams mentioned on Nine to Noon that Clark had also faced a high level of public rejection while her party struggled in the polls (it was actually far more extreme than what Shearer had faced). Under Clark, Labour had dropped to less than half of where it is currently polling and her personal support was around 2%, it was her determination and self belief that enabled her to become one of New Zealand's most successful and enduring leaders.

Labour has a difficult job ahead, they need to choose a new leader who has an abundance of ego, who actually wants the job, can think on their feet and can produce a sound bite on cue. Popular Prime Ministers of the past have also given the impression that they know what they are doing and where they are going (even if they didn't).

Meanwhile, we Greens already have two highly effective co-leaders with eleven years experience between them. I am hoping we will see more of them as Labour spends the next few weeks choosing someone who will have the following twelve months to prove themselves. While I am happy with our own leadership I wish Labour well in their search because we still need a strong and united Labour Party as we head towards the next election.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Critics of GCSB Dealt To, Muldoon Style

A full inquiry was rejected and so was any attempt at a multi-party consensus on how we should manage our internal security. All that mattered was that the Government had the numbers and the Government Communications Security Bureau and Related Legislation Amendment Bill was passed into law by 61 votes to 59.

Through it all John Key reigned supreme. We were asked to trust him implicitly as he alone was party to all the highly sensitive information that justified the law change. Random snippets and hints of confidential espionage information were shared on radio shows and in answers to journalists' questions but not with the leaders of opposition Parties or their MPs. We heard about Al Qaeda operatives in New Zealand and multiple cyber attacks as justification for the radical changes.

Key also refused to state whether the US provided funding to assist the GCSB operations as it does for the equivalent agency in the UK, claiming mysteriously, "It's not in my interests or the country's interests to answer that question."

The Prime Minister and his Ministers attempted to discredit those who were critical of the bill in a manner that would have made Muldoon proud.

Key described the Human Rights Commission as "tardy" and claimed that their report wasn't very good. He also made a veiled threat about their future funding.

Attorney General Chris Finlayson described the views of respected historian and academic Dame Anne Salmond as "shrill and unprofessional". He also questioned the ability of the presenter of the Law Society's submission, Rodney Harrison QC, to "come to grips with the bill".

Now that many of our most respected and authoritative New Zealanders and institutions have been put in their place and the law has been passed, I guess we can only wait to see what will unfold. I also think that there may be a number of people in the United States Five Eyes office who will be having a quiet (and most probably secretive) celebratory drink.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Iniquitous Inquiry Bill

While all attention is on the passage of the GCSB Bill another bill is being passed through largely under the radar. The Inquiry Bill has been lying on the bottom of the pile since 2009 and is being resurrected after the Fonterra debacle. The current legislation that guides inquiries is around 100 years old and the Government has decided that it needs more teeth to enable a more contemporary and robust approach. This Bill has been scrutinised by the Law Commission and, in fairness, was probably being pushed through with genuine intentions, however Holly Walker has revealed some concerning elements.

The mismanagement and over-reach that occurred during the Henry Inquiry has shed a different light on the Inquiry Bill and enables us to place the proposed legislation into a recent context. This has exposed some powers that will be given to future inquiries that probably go beyond what was intended and clauses 21 and 23 are of particular concern and they include the following:

"An inquiry may, as it thinks appropriate for the purposes of the inquiry, require any person to produce any documents or things in that person's possession or control or copies of those documents or things."

"An inquiry may, on its own initiative or the application of another person, order any person to disclose to any person participating in the inquiry any specified document, information or thing that that person has produced before the inquiry."

The penalties for not complying to any request from an inquiry are quite severe and could involve a $10,000 fine or a charge of contempt being taken to the High Court.

If this legislation had existed at the time of the Henry Inquiry it would have potentially had the power to demand an MP to disclose his or her personal correspondence and force a journalist to reveal their sources.

While robust, transparent inquiries are an important part of good governance, so too are the rights of MPs to operate independently of the Government and be able to have confidential conversations with their constituents. It is also important that journalists are able to protect their sources.

We await the Government's response to Holly's concerns.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Big Boys Club Membership Achieved

"In the Last two years New Zealand has been invited for the first time to the "Big Boys Club", the Major Economies Forum, because of the particular contribution that New Zealand makes"

Tim Groser (8.8.13)

Prime Minister John Key, together with Finance Minister Bill English and the Minister of Trade Tim Groser held a joint press conference to make a special, public pronouncement. Barely able to suppress their excitement they announced in unison, "We're big boys now!"

All three proudly showed off their special Big Boy Club lapel badges to the gathered journalists and then John Key explained the journey that had culminated in this momentous achievement.

The Major Economies Forum is an exclusive club containing the biggest emitters of green house gases and there are few countries as small as New Zealand who have been allowed to join. New Zealand had to prove that despite its small population it could pollute as well as the rest of them. On quantity of emissions New Zealand was ineligible to join but the Government made a strong case that our country was able to punch well above its weight with regard to environmental damage and contribution to climate change.

The Prime Minister explained that before 2008 New Zealand had moved dangerously close to becoming regarded as environmental outsider and having a dangerous reputation for putting the environment before business. New Zealand's green house gas emissions are amongst the highest in the world per capita and Labour's ETS needed to be quickly dismantled to be able to maintain our international ranking. It was especially important to ensure that our biggest producer of emissions wasn't included in the restrictive legislation.

According to Tim Groser, for New Zealand to remove itself from having binding targets under the Kyoto Protocol was hugely symbolic. Only the really big polluters have stopped setting targets and New Zealand now joins the likes of Russia and Japan that have also put economics before the health of the planet.

Bill English then explained the importance of displaying our commitment for the ongoing use of fossil fuel. Sadly Solid Energy's plans to access lignite (the dirtiest of all fossil fuels) had to be put on hold through financial mismanagement, but access to the Denniston Plateau ensures that our reputation for mining coal in any environment continues.

Apparently what has really impressed the other big boys is our enthusiasm to support the oil industry and opening so much of our offshore areas for oil and gas exploration has been hugely welcomed. While deep sea drilling does pose considerable risks for oil companies, the New Zealand Government has kept royalties low and ensured any major environmental damage will be covered by the tax payer.

John Key was careful to explain that on going membership of the BBC was not guaranteed and that New Zealand had to continue with the Government's programme of dismantling environmental protections such as the RMA and neutralising the effects of the opposition. The GCSB bill would be hugely useful in tracking the activities of those who would seek to sabotage our international status as a major polluter. The passing of the bill will also bring us in line with other members of the Five Eyes alliance who are also prepared to put commercial interests ahead of human rights and the environment.

While the Prime Minister admitted that ordinary New Zealanders would probably not notice any benefits from the BBC membership, it would open many doors for our Government Ministers. "We would have access to places we have only dreamed of previously."

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Clean Green Government Needed

My recently published letter in the Southland Times:

The National led Government has a little over a year left before the next election and they have a few months to tidy up and make things look attractive to voters.

They know, and we know, that they have made a dogs breakfast of it all and their mismanagement has had negative impacts on Southlanders and our Southland environment. It will take more than paying mining giant Rio Tinto $30 million to hang around for a few years (while they hock off Meridian Energy) to impress us.

The Fonterra scare and the international focus on our ‘100% Pure’ brand has kicked a hole in the Hollywood facade ($55 million to Warner Bros) and shone some light on the sad reality around us: our dirty rivers, our child poverty, our poor housing, our struggling state services and our sullied reputation.

Obviously the remaining months are not enough to clean up the mess, so National is resorting to scaremongering spin to retain power. Apparently we need to allow John Key and the GCSB to have the capacity to spy on New Zealanders because of Al Qaeda operatives in New Zealand, and the world will end if the Green Party got into Government.

I would never say that the world would end if National continued in power for another term (it would only feel like it), but we have had enough of dirty deals, lack of consultation and the ignoring of good advice. 

The quickest way to restore our clean green brand and bring some honest fresh air into the corridors of power would be through a clean ‘Green’ government.  

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Bennett Bold or Just Bluff & Bluster?

This Government is very good at setting targets and making strong demands of those involved in working with the most vulnerable in our society. Sadly, passing legislation and drawing lines in the sand is only the first step and properly resourcing those who have to do the work is equally important. Paula Bennett's tough stance on child abuse hit a raw nerve but enacting her proposals may actually make things worse and not address the real causes.

I am worried that more harm will be done to hundreds of vulnerable children who will be removed from one dysfunctional situation and be placed in a worse one. Children placed in the care of the state have often had to endure more abuse than what they experienced in their own home. There are also genuine concerns about potential breaches of civil rights and situations where people will have to prove their innocence, rather than have guilt established, after unsubstantiated charges of child abuse.

I am very aware that there is a shortage of good carers and many of our social workers are over worked and not fully trained. This Government has not got a good track recording in ensuring that those charged with the extra work have the capacity to do it. I am also not sure where these "families for life" will come from given the huge shortages of suitable foster homes and the common occurrence of children shifting through multiple carers.

This Government has also not got a good record for supporting the vulnerable who have already been identified. The Government has closed most of our residential schools and placed children with challenging behaviours back into mainstream schools. I have already heard of numerous schools that have been forced to take on young people without suitable support and there have been unfortunate consequences. Rather than increase numbers of Special Education staff to deal with an increased case load, the $25 million cut to the Ministry of Education budget has produced less.

Poverty is seen as a contributing factor for many dysfunctional families, where unusual hours of work and lack of money adds extra stress onto already struggling parents. When the median family income is dropping we will just see more cases of neglect.

Alcohol is another huge contributing factor to child abuse and yet this Government backed away from the opportunity to pass effective law to deal with it. Victim support is also badly underfunded, especially in the area of rape crisis.

Paula Bennett is indeed talking tough but I fear that, yet again, we are hearing tough words but little real commitment to doing things well.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

National Standards Failing Boys

In the olden days (before this National led Government and National Standards), we had the National Education Monitoring Project (NEMP). Rather than focusing on dodgy raw data to compare and shame schools, the project did useful qualitative research. In those days it was widely accepted that a child's background was a large influence on achievement, but this research took a cross section of children in years four and eight, from all over the country, and and assessed their knowledge and skills in different curriculum areas. The published results provided teachers with in depth analysis of where the gaps existed and the activities used to support the research provided many great ideas to enhance teaching and improve assessment.

This Government has arbitrarily decided that we need only focus on literacy and numeracy to determine a child's level of capability and we have reached a situation where achievement overall appears to have plateaued and girls appear to be progressing faster than boys. 10% more girls are now achieving NCEA level 3 than boys, and the difference is growing. 

Ten years ago, Prof Terry Crooks from NEMP presented a paper to the combined annual conference of the Australia and New Zealand Associations for Research in Education: The Relative Achievement of Boys and girls in New Zealand Primary Schools.

Prof Crooks had combined the results from 11 years of research and multiple assessments in curriculum areas to compare the levels of achievement between boys and girls and what he found should have become more widely known. Boys scored significantly higher than girls in Science, Technology and Physical Education. Girls performed better in Writing, Listening and Art. 

I am concerned many of our boys are being set up to fail under our current system of assessment and heavy focus on literacy. If many boys do best in subjects like Science and Technology, and we no longer focus on those subjects, we are only limiting their enjoyment of school and feelings of success. Surely science and technology are vital to our future economic development and the fact that we are having to import people with these skills means we have large gaps in our education and training systems.

Boys dominate statistics of those needing remedial support for literacy and those whose behaviours require special intervention and this just feeds a perception that boys do not do as well in school. Are we not trying to push many boys into learning experiences that do not capture their interests or allow them to excel? I wonder how many early childhood centres have hammers and nails available to play with and how many primary classrooms do practical science experiments? I know that in Southland a past science advisor (the position no longer exists) had mobile science labs constructed for all schools in the region and now most collect dust in back rooms. 

Martin Thrupp's qualitative research into how National Standards has changed the culture of teaching in learning in schools is revealing what many in the teaching profession feared. Our wonderfully holistic curriculum has been sidelined to meet the demands of the Government's data driven agenda and many boys are suffering as a consequence. 


Sunday, August 11, 2013

30 Protest Outside 2019 Green Conference

The National Party experienced large protests outside its conference after being in power for five years and now it was the Greens turn to experience something similar outside their 2019 AGM.

The suffering under a Green Government had been substantial for the thirty who had gathered outside the conference. A number carried placards and several emotional speeches were made through an expensive portable sound system.

One speaker, a property developer, barely managed to finish his protest speech before breaking down as he described the suffering he had endured after the introduction of a capital gains tax and being forced to build lower cost housing. He explained how his profits had been halved and he was having to consider selling one of his three holiday retreats.

A luxury car dealer held a placard with the inscription "Save Our Cars". The Greens had almost killed his business as many of his wealthy customers now preferred to commute by train and were buying smaller electric cars and even bicycles. "This is no longer the New Zealand I loved," he lamented. "All these bicycles and trains everywhere is making Auckland more like Zurich or one of those other foreign cities."

A couple of dairy farmers poured milk into a gutter in protest at how difficult it was to sell their milk. Stricter environmental regulations had meant than unless they met the environmental standards their milk wouldn't be accepted for processing. "All this concern about about swimming in our rivers is a nonsense," complained one, "that's what swimming pools were for!"

An elderly investor was almost beside himself with fury. He had invested his life savings in Meridian shares and had seen their value drop as power prices plummeted. "People may have cheaper power," he fumed, "but what about us share holders?"

The one female in the protesting group held a placard "Bring Back Choice". She explained her frustration at not being able to tell which school she should send her children to. "Since the Green Party has insisted that all schools should be supported to provide a good education, how do we know which is best?" she complained. "Now that we have little poverty all children seem the same. One used to spot a poor school because the children had no shoes and didn't carry lunch boxes, they all look the same now."

Opposition MP, Stephen Joyce was found amongst the protestors, he looked a little uncomfortable and admitted it was his first protest. Despite the Greens remaining high in the polls he insisted that they had no idea how to govern. "All this consultation and listening to expert advice is a nonsense and just shows how weak they are," he claimed. "A National Government provides true leadership, we are natural rulers, just ask Hollywood or any oil company and they will tell you that we were the best government that they had ever dealt with."

Joyce was sure that once the lengthy investigations regarding the mismanagement of the Bain appeals were completed then National leader, Judith Collins, would be fronting a strong campaign in 2020.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Million Dollar Men and a Dirty Pipe

Fonterra CEO Theo Spierings earns something in the region of $5 million a year (based on his predecessors income). Twenty six Fonterra employees earn over a million dollars per annum each. This would mean that the Fonterra management collectively earn around $30-40 million (perhaps even more), not bad for a farmer's co-operative.

We still don't know the full story behind the Fonterra crisis and who was responsible, but we do know that the twenty six millionaires were not able to stop this from happening, or manage the crisis effectively.

There is also someone whose job it is to ensure that a certain pipe is kept clean, and I wonder what their salary/wages are?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Flatlining Literacy, What to Blame?

There was more anguish expressed today about the languishing rates of literacy in New Zealand and commentators and experts are pointing their fingers at where they think the blame should lie. Much of the criticism is being based on data and I heard few comments based on qualitative research.

PIRLS is the most widely regarded international assessment on literacy and is useful for comparing the performance of our education system to those of other countries. New Zealand has consistently scored amongst the the best in the world for many years but it has become apparent that while many countries are trending upwards with their results, New Zealand's achievement levels have remained static over the last ten years.

As appears usual, the blame for the lack of progress in literacy is being placed firmly on our education system and I heard especially strong criticism of our Reading Recovery programme. Again we have concern expressed about Maori and Pasifika achievement and how we are still failing these children.

While it is always good to reflect on the performance of our education system and look at where further development may occur, we will make little impact on achievement if this is where we focus all of our energy. Margaret Wu is a respected authority on assessment and is also involved in PIRLS. Based on her own extensive knowledge and research she claims that the influence of teachers and schools on a child's academic achievement is much less than we would imagine. When all influencing factors are accounted for (family income, culture, language, disabilities...), the impact of teachers makes up only 10% of all determiners. Even if we were to double the performance and effectiveness of our schools, 80% of the factors that are impacting on a child's learning would be beyond a school's control.

When one looks at all the other influences on children's lives, and what has been happening in New Zealand society over the last ten years, one will realise that it is remarkable that we have managed to maintain achievement levels as well as we have. Our teachers and schools have actually done a remarkable job in an environment of increasing challenges. I wonder if any of those demanding even more from our education system considered any of the following:
  • PIRLS data shows that the resources found in a child's home has a large impact on achievement. Only 37% of New Zealand children came from well resourced homes.
  • 25% of our children are experiencing poverty and 50% have experienced poverty.
  • New Zealand is increasingly multicultural and for 20% of our children english is a second language.
  • Housing conditions are deteriorating for low income families, with overcrowding common.
  • There is less overall funding supporting children in low decile schools compared with those in high decile schools (Decile 8-10 schools average $1,000 a year more per child than a decile 1 school).
  • Programmes specifically designed for supporting Maori and Pasifika students have been underfunded while $35 million of extra funding was given to private schools. 
  • With increasing alcohol consumption amongst young women there is a worrying increase in children diagnosed with foetal alcohol syndrome
  • We have one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancies in the OECD. 
  • We have one of the worst records in the OECD for child wellbeing
  • The median family income is dropping. 
If we are wanting to target funding or attention on something that would make a significant impact on children's learning, why don't we start by making sure that the environments where children spend the most significant part of their lives are the best that they can be? If children walk through school gates having eaten breakfast and come from a well resourced home and a supportive whanau, then teaching and learning must benefit. Interestingly the Government is spending millions on measuring literacy and refuses to measure poverty.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

How Others See Us, 100% Pure Joke!

For decades we have rested on our laurels and relied on earlier achievements to maintain our reputation. We were the first country to give women the vote, we once had an enviable record in child health, we built lots of state houses to ensure all New Zealanders had good homes and we exported safe food for many decades.

Tourists are attracted to this country through our 100% pure branding and the scenery captured in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. 75% of our exporters rely on our clean green brand to establish and maintain their overseas markets.

For years we have smugly looked down on countries like China because of their political systems, human rights abuses and their levels of poverty. I think most New Zealanders would be surprised at how others may see us now. After the Fonterra botulism scare, China is looking at us and making judgements that we once applied to them.

Xinhau of the China Daily asks, "Where is the quality control?" and then proceeds to use our $11.5 billion leaky building debacle as an example of systems failure:

"One could argue that the country is hostage to a blinkered devotion to laissez-faire market ideology. Many New Zealanders fell victim to this when the construction industry was deregulated two decades ago resulting in damp leaky homes that quickly became uninhabitable."

When our Prime Minister is quoted as saying that our 100% pure brand is just like McDonald's advertising, "'s got to be taken with a bit of a pinch of salt," it is time to take stock. John Key's relaxed attitude to environmental control was also exposed a while ago in a BBC interview when he tried to defend our brand by claiming that scientist Mike Joy's claims of degradation were just his opinion and as with lawyers he could find (pay for?) another that had a different view.

It took a long time to establish our reputation and it now appears that it may only take a few years to wreck it. How long will it take for China and other countries to discover that:
I can imagine some will regard this post as almost treason for highlighting our failings and would rather I joined the state supported conspiracy to ignore or hide what is really happening. I think we are well beyond coverups, the evidence of corruption, poverty and degradation are now too difficult to hide. If we start the cleanup now we may be able to restore our reputation within the next decade (even with the best will it's going to take some time). Meanwhile we can hardly take the moral high ground when judging other countries, our own backyard is now no better than most. 

Monday, August 5, 2013

NZ in World News For Wrong Reasons

Aljazeera: NZ botulism scare triggers mass global recall

China Daily: New Zealand milk stokes fears

The Cambodia Herald: China stops imports of N. Zealand milk powder: NZ minister

Ria Novosti (Moscow): Russia Bans New Zealand Dairy Giants Products over Botulism

The Times of India: New Zealand diary giant issues global botulism alert

The New York Times: Botulism Threat Found in Infant Formula Ingredients

BBC: Fonterra 'sorry' for contaminated product scare

CNN: Fonterra dairy recall shakes China consumer confidence

The Australian Financial review: Fonterra seeks to limit damage from safety crisis.

I am hoping that the worst case scenario does not occur and that the Government and Fonterra can restore international confidence. If we don't have our dairy industry, what else do we have? The Government is spending hundreds of millions on continuing dairy expansion and intensification, is this a case of too many milk bottles in one basket?

Important Lessons as Fonterra Falters

Ganesh Nana finished introducing the BERL report "AView to the South" (which looked at industries that had unrealised potential in the Southland region), when a local dairy farmer asked the question:

"You haven't mentioned the dairy industry in this report, surely there is still potential for growth?"

Nana responded by explaining that his economic background caused him to be cautious about over-investing in any one industry. A strong investment portfolio, he believed, was one that had a broad mix of investments. If any one sector experienced a downturn in a mixed portfolio it could be compensated by growth in another. Nana questioned the wisdom of the dominance of dairying in the province and was reluctant to in promote further growth in this industry.

No one would dispute that Fonterra has been hugely successful and largely responsible for earning us the title "The Saudi Arabia of Milk", but our reliance on this single industry has become obsessive and potentially dangerous. Despite our dairy production increasing by 77% over the last 20 years, and Fonterra is the largest single dairy exporter, we actually produce a little over 2% of the total world milk production. Most countries do not rely on our milk alone.

What gives us an edge in the world food markets is our reputation of being clean and green and safe, and this perception has taken generations to establish. However, Fonterra and the National led Government have had a cavalier,  gold rush mentality when growing the industry. The focus has been on increasing production above all else: 
As production has increased, and the money has poured in, there has been minimal regard for the environmental effects of the rapid growth and ensuring that our clean green image had some basis in fact. "Dirty Dairying" has become a commonly used label as the external effects of the industry became more apparent and the quantity of product has became more important than quality:
  • Around 80% of our lowland  rivers are now significantly polluted.
  • The industry is operating at a level that is not locally sustainable with imported fertilizer being a major contributor to our trade deficit.
  • Many farms can longer feed their herds on what they grow themselves and the amount of imported feed (1.6 million tonnes of palm kernel over the past year) is growing. 
  • Fonterra converts over 90% of its milk into powder and its largest plant, Edendale, powers its drier on lignite (one of the world's dirtiest fuels). 
Fonterra has survived two earlier scares that threatened its reputation as a safe producer. The Chinese Melamine scandal involved the Chinese Sanlu Group, partly owned by Fonterra (43%), resulted in six infant deaths and 54,000 babies being hospitalised. The second scare was the revelation that traces of the nitrate inhibiting agrichemical DCD was found in Fonterra products. This third and latest scare, the discovery of botulism in a Fonterra whey product (used in infant formula), has been the most damaging. After three safety issues our reputation has taken some severe knocks and it is reasonable to imagine that there will be greater interest in how our industry operates and what supports our clean green brand.

I hope what has occurred will provide a useful wake up call to both the dairy industry and the Government. If we are truly going to establish a sustainable economy and strengthen our export potential we need to ensure our clean green brand is supported by reality and we do not continue to rely on a single industry to carry our economy. We need to invest in other sectors like grain and meat and fibre and ensure our environmental practices can withstand scrutiny. It will be interesting to see whether lessons have been learned or it will be business as usual. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

Evidence Clear, Disparity Growing

Two articles today provided a clear indication of the direction we are heading as a country.

The first was a front page piece on Gore's Salvation Army food bank. The hardcopy version was more detailed to the one that I have linked to and described a worrying new trend. Kaye Byron has worked with the organisation for 18 years and has been upset by the recent numbers of pensioners asking for help. Most have been independent for all their lives and have never had to ask for food before. Coming to the food bank was a last resort.

"They are really embarrassed. They don't want to be's just absolutely horrible."

Other food banks around the province have reported similar trends and the Southland Food Bank Charitable Trust co-ordinator Ron Maynard has reported almost double the number of food parcels being given out in Invercargill compared to last July.

Invercargill Salvation Army food bank co-ordinator Brenda King believed that the rising costs of power, petrol and health services were major contributing factors.

"People are just really, really struggling."

For this to be happening in Southland is proof that the Government's policies in addressing poverty are failing. Economically Southland is doing better than any other, 72% of the population is in employment (Northland 56%, Gisborne 58%), dairying is booming and despite having only 2% of the county's population we produce over 11% of the nation's export income.

Southland is achieving what the Government is expecting elsewhere and yet poverty is still growing in the south. The argument that a stronger economy will help all New Zealanders and will alleviate poverty is clearly not the silver bullet it is made out to be. Many young families in employment are not able to survive on their income and a recent report on food poverty in Whangarei recorded that:

"Families on low incomes or benefit in some instances can just manage if they don't smoke, drink, gamble, have no car, no debt and don't go out."

The trickle down theory that National Governments continue to rely on does not work for all those who will always be dependent on state support or are reliant on a minimum wage (especially one that is not adjusted to reflect actual living costs). It is the Government that will always determine the incomes of these people, not market forces.

The second article that caught my interest was a report on a comprehensive survey of 8500 Auckland Secondary students. It actually contained positive data regarding our education system and the attitudes and wellbeing of most of our teenagers, but the fact that caught my eye was in the section on money. 11.5% of teens reported that their parents worried about not having enough money for food "often or all of the time". This was a significant 3.5% increase from the last two surveys. Those families who never have to worry about money for food dropped from 64.4% to 55.7%, an even more significant change.

Something is clearly wrong when over the past three years the NBR rich list has recorded extraordinary increases in wealth (averaging almost 20% per year) and a collective wealth increase from $38 billion in 2010 to  $60.4 billion in 2013. The Government is crowing about an economic turnaround and yet 45% of families worry about having enough money for food. In a land of milk and honey to have such high levels of food insecurity is incomprehensible.

Paula Bennett's determined effort to hide the reality of poverty and her Government's effectiveness in addressing it, by refusing to apply any form of measurement, it is being increasingly challenged by all manner of evidence. Holly Walker exposed the reality behind the Government's callous agenda  in a recent question to the struggling Minister of Social Development.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

John Key, Blame Shifter

Watching John Key wriggling and squirming his way out of political corners of his own creation could be entertaining if it wasn't for the fact that he is the Prime Minister of our country. It appears that no matter what happens the buck never rests with him. Apparently lack of oversight and ignorance excuses him of any responsibility and he never questions what he is told. It is like watching the comedy "Yes, Prime Minister" and the Prime Minister in this New Zealand version has little influence over his staff, who operate in a randomly independent fashion and constantly cause embarrassment to him.

Yesterday Phil Heatley followed Russel Norman's powerful speech about journalistic independence with a petty little speech that focussed on selected pieces from Green MP's biographical statements. His intention was to question their characters and imply that they would lack the gravitas to function as Ministers of the Crown. This is an often used ploy by the National Party where they pose the hypothetical question "what would a Green Minister do?" as if it were a scenario not worth contemplating.

However we do have evidence of how Green Ministers may operate and it is quite different to the image that National likes to foster. We rarely see the Greens in the house braying like donkeys when they think one of their own has scored a hit against an opposing member or shouting abuse when speakers make points against them. In terms of policy and working collaboratively with other parties the Green's memorandum of understanding with National created the very successful home insulation scheme that National now claims as its own and even promotes it is one of their key policies to address poverty.

It is also worth remembering how the Green's managed a situation that caused the Party some embarrassment during the 2011 election campaign. Russel Norman's handling of the billboard defacing incident was in stark contrast to Key's management of this current situation and many that have occurred before. When the Russel heard that a partner of a Green staff member had been responsible for defacing a number of National billboards with alternative slogans, he immediately made an unequivocal apology to the National Party and offered assistance to put things right. The staff member involved had their conduct reviewed and there was concern that she hadn't passed on valuable information in a timely fashion. The Greens had never instigated the behaviour concerned but as it involved members and staff, immediate and direct action was taken and the matter dealt with publicly. It also made it very clear to members of the party that unacceptable behaviour will not be tolerated and that there was an ethical bar that should not be crossed.

The billboard situation pales in comparison to what Key is having to deal with, but the Prime Minister's management is very different. Rather than acting immediately on information he receives, his first instinct is to ignore it and hope that no one will notice. Once something becomes public knowledge he then attempts to brush it off as an opposition beat up and nothing of consequence. When questioned further as new evidence becomes available he shifts the blame onto staff and Parliamentary Services even though the enquiry was under his name. He claims no responsibility for his staff misinterpreting his expectations (a little like John Banks is innocent based on a legal technicality). Unbelievably Key also refuses to front up to the Privileges Committee because he was only a "bit player".

Imagine if he applied Russel's approach and as soon as the error was noted it was publicly revealed and a fulsome apology was made to the journalist from the Prime Minister himself. The matter would have caused some embarrassment, but it would have appeared as if it had been a genuine mistake and there would be some reassurance that the PM was on top of his responsibilities. He didn't do this and a rotten smell is now wafting out of his office.

Southland Chamber of Commerce & the Feds

This year I have attended the annual meetings of two institutions that many would not consider natural Green allies, Federated Farmers and the Southland Chamber of Commerce. One could imagine a cold reception for anyone openly green when in a room of farmers or businessmen, but we are now living in a different time and Southland is a unique place.

Southland is not a conservative backwater as many may think and it is not as politically blue as people may imagine. The old Awarua electorate (now largely Clutha Southland and currently held by Bill English), elected a Labour MP in the 70s. The Invercargill electorate had a Labour MP for four terms before National's Eric Roy was elected. Southland is a province of independent thinkers and when I fly out of Invercargill to meetings further north I often find myself sitting beside leaders of national organisations who are based in the south. Although we have only 2% of New Zealand's population we punch well above our weight. We know what it takes to be successful in the sporting or business arena and have the determination to see it through.

A couple of months ago I attended Southland Federated Farmers AGM and joined a meeting of their meat and fibre section. There was a lot of frustration and robust self-reflection going on within this sector. The only sheep farmers remaining in Southland are the most efficient and resilient ones and the success and dominance of dairying just highlighted the opportunities missed by the meat and fibre industry. I was very impressed by the discussions and the leadership being displayed and there was already a Southland group leading a national drive to reshape the industry. They had a detailed strategy that involved managing the seriously flawed freezing works procurement system that operated more like a lottery for farmers. There was also a need to unify the industry into a single marketing entity that had proven so successful for the dairy industry. There are times when Southland farmers' proactive approach to perceived barriers can be problematic but in this particular forum I felt proud to be a Southlander (there was even strong support for environmental responsibility).

Tonight I was present at the Southland Chamber of Commerce AGM and the guest speakers were representatives from Shell. They presented a condensed version of a presentation I had already heard regarding their plans for the Great South Basin. I was prepared to ask a few questions to ensure those present were aware of the concerns we Greens have for deep sea drilling, but I didn't have to. Our Southland businessmen are pretty sharp and actually asked every question I had listed and had the Shell people struggling for answers. Their explanation for how any potential accident would be managed was not reassuring and it became abundantly clear that there would be few economic benefits for Southland.

In speaking to members of the board after the meeting there was genuine interest in engaging with the Greens and understanding our policies. I was even encouraged to become a member, which was very tempting because the speaker for their next meeting is Andrea Vance. We don't miss much in the Deep South.