Thursday, October 31, 2013

Pedalling Backwards on Climate Change

Kennedy Graham was in Invercargill this evening as part of his tour around the provinces where he is sharing the Green vision of a future New Zealand economy that could better manage our responsibilities around climate change: "The Great Transformation".

Kennedy explained how we can approach change in a more positive way, instead of avoiding the issue as the current National led Government has done. Although there is a target of reducing emissions by 50% by 2050, we have actually been seeing a steady increase. This has largely been because of the Government's disengagement and deliberate weakening of the ETS. Our current situation is dire, thanks to National we have:
  • Refused to sign phase two of the Kyoto protocol to avoid the financial penalties of not meeting our targets.
  • Weakened the ETS by refusing to include farming as originally planned and allowed cheap Eastern European carbon credits into the country that dropped the price to such a low level that they no longer provide a financial incentive. 
  • Refused to set binding targets.
  • Provided no incentive for reforestation.
  • Refused to implement a comprehensive strategy for managing climate change.
  • Put $12 billion into building roads while we have declining traffic volumes.
  • Encouraged the mining of coal (the worst producer of carbon emissions).
  • Encouraged exploration and drilling for oil in our territorial waters (deep sea). 
The Government claims there is no point in doing much because, in the big scheme of things, our total emissions are a small fraction of the world total, but this ignores the fact that per capita we are one of the worst emitters in the world. Our clean green image is a fantasy.

With the right economic signals from the Government of the day we can turn the economy around to one that is climate sensitive without great suffering.  While as a small country our efforts alone won't save the planet, at least we will be doing our share and setting an example to others.

Here is Kennedy explaining to a Local TV journalist what it is all about, the interview starts 7:45 min in.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Overblown Management Salaries Not Being Earned

Fonterra's independent inquiry into the botulism scare made 33 recommendations to improve on current practice. One area that was identified was the "lack of senior oversight for crucial decisions". Fonterra's last boss grossed over $40 million over his eight years heading the company and was paid an $8.2 million golden handshake when he finished. 26 Fonterra managers earned over a million dollars each over the previous year and a number of them would have had some part in overseeing the botulism incident and the fact that it was managed so badly is concerning.

It has been very apparent that during the so called recession we have seen a tight reign on wage increases but some spiraling increases for managers and CEOs. The number of high profile company and department heads and well paid boards of governors who have failed to provide the oversight they are paid to do is a regularly reported phenomenon:

If managers and CEOs get paid over 40 times what many of their employees earn, and over double that of middle managers, one would expect a high level of oversight and an exceptional level of skill and expertise. This is plainly not the case, these people may actually be very capable but I am sure there would be many who work beneath them who could also do the work if given the opportunity.  

If the pay of our managers and CEOs weren't significantly greater than the average employee there wouldn't be the expectation of superhuman performance and more likely to be shared responsibility of outcomes. Research also shows that if employees are paid well and have the ability to have an input into the management of a business then their productivity tends to be higher. 

I like the idea of a CEOs salary being linked to the lowest wage in the business. If the CEO's salary was always set at 12 times the lowest wage, for instance, then any increase in profitability and productivity would have to be shared. I have difficulty understanding why any CEO should earn more that 12 times the lowest paid employee because even if it was based on the minimum wage it would still be $343,000. 

The last CEO of Fonterra earned $5 million, a salary 174 times greater than the minimum wage...

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Challenging Our Constitution

Otago University academic Professor Janine Hayward has written a great overview of New Zealand's Constitution and the need for a robust conversation.

Prof Hayward loves to challenge her students with the frightening reality of what is constitutionally possible:

"If Parliament decides to forcibly take the babies of beneficiary parents into state care, it can, if it has 51% support in Parliament."

While many may consider this a shocking possibility and not likely to happen, we need only to look at Labour's Seabed and Foreshore legislation where a Labour Government removed indigenous rights to gain popular support. This year the National led Government removed the legal rights of family carers of the disabled. They passed an Act that capped the number of families who can be paid for looking after a family member, limited the level of those payments, denied spouses rights to be paid and specifically prevented anyone testing these issues in a court. Breeches of human rights abound in New Zealand law.

Unlike many democracies New Zealand has a sovereign Parliament that is answerable to no one and a constitution that doesn't exist as a single document but consists of a collection of statutes, the Treaty of Waitangi, Orders in Council, letters patent, decisions of the courts and unwritten constitutional conventions. Political parties are reluctant to push for greater constitutional clarity because of the power available if they get control of the Government benches.

The National Party has pushed its legal powers while in Government to the ultimate level by claiming they have a mandate to do as they wish because their party received the greatest number of votes (47%). The only democratic control they feel is necessary are the three yearly elections, in between these autocratic governance is completely reasonable.

What makes me most concerned about the current constitution is how easy it is to push through significant legislation with little scrutiny and often disregarding basic human rights. The National Party has been able to dismiss legal and academic opinion, avoid having to consult with those directly effected by significant changes in law, use urgency to avoid select committee scrutiny and pass legislation through parliament by a majority of one vote. In many constitutions a threshold of 65% support is necessary to pass changes in rules or law and this seems entirely reasonable.

Surprisingly this Government has supported a Constitutional Conversation and a panel of advisors have been promoting discussions around the country. Most of the engagement has been by iwi, for whom the place of the Treaty in any future constitution is problematic but hugely important. I believe in the possibility that the Government deliberately set up the panel as a distraction, knowing that few New Zealanders would really engage with the complexities of constitutional law and if they were ever challenged regarding their autocratic style of Governance then they could honestly direct people to join the 'conversation'.

No matter what comes out of the Conversation the current Government is unlikely to adopt anything that will reduce their powers, they have already rejected the recommendations from the electoral commission with regards to MMP and will probably ignore a negative result from the asset sale referendum. It appears that under the current Government real constitutional change is unlikely and dictatorial, ideologically driven governance from an electoral minority (47%) will continue.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Government Generosity Overwhelming

Struggling families welcomed the recent news that the minimum family tax credit will be increased by $1 dollar a week. Revenue Minister Todd McLay explained how working families, who qualify for the minimum family tax credit, will see their after tax annual income increase by $52. Mr McLay wished to ensure that working families were rewarded for being in work and that their incomes were adjusted to meet any increases in inflation.

This would make a real difference to these families' weekly budget and address the fact that median family income has been dropping. Maori and Pasifika families were also pleased to hear about the increase as they had experienced the biggest income loss over the last few years. The median income for Maori families had dropped $40 dollars a week over the past four years and $65 dollars for Pasifika families. The $1 increase was a move in the right direction.

One family (who wished to remain anonymous) had already written a list of things that they could now buy with this weekly influx of funds:
  • Just under half a litre of petrol
  • Half a loaf of bread
  • Half of an item from a $2 shop
  • 8 units of electricity 
The same family thought that they may open a savings account to get most value from the windfall and the interest (minus bank fees) accrued may give them an extra dollar over the year. The $53 dollars saved could buy something really substantial like a pair of shoes.

The generosity shown by this Government for those on minimum incomes has been impressive over the last five years with the minimum wage having increased by $1.25 since 2008. The Government has also supported private schemes to fund breakfasts in schools for hungry children and has plans to build a few low cost houses sometime shortly. Charity organisations have found the Government has been very encouraging for them to do more to support struggling families and children.

Many families have also applauded the National Standards in Education that were designed to address low rates of achievement for children in difficult socio-economic circumstances. Without the Standards, parents claim, they would never have realised how far behind their children were. 

This National led Government should have their support of struggling families properly recognised when they stand to be re-elected in 2014.  

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Data Culture and the Forgotten Kids.

I was working with a school principal this morning to organise our local function for newly registered teachers. After the organisational stuff was dealt with we discussed the worrying trends occurring in education and the effect it is having on our children.

This Government came into power with one very clear goal - raise the achievement of the educational tail. They identified a group comprising 20% (debated) of all children who were failing to meet minimal levels of achievement and they determined that a high percentage of these children were Maori or Pasifika.

Their method was clear, they would introduce an assessment system across all children (including the 80% of children who were succeeding) and the resulting data would better identify struggling children and enable them to target resourcing to where it was most needed. This was the vision.

Our whole education system has been shaped into one huge data collection machine. All teaching and testing has shifted from the needs of children to the demands of data creation. National Standards dominates professional development, and the literacy and numeracy focus has narrowed teaching and learning and constant testing is the reality in most schools. The most important thing teachers must now concentrate on is the accuracy of their data.

It is extremely difficult to get meaningful data consistent within schools and across the country. Around $60 million dollars has been spent trying to make National Standards operate consistently and most of the Ministry's professional development budget has been focussed on this endeavour. The first published National Standards data was even described as 'ropey' by the Prime Minister but they did reveal something that teachers and educational academics already knew, the higher the decile of the school (or the greater the wealth of the community) the higher the levels of achievement.

After five years of this Government and four years implementing National Standards, one would think that if lifting the achievement of our struggling learners and the Maori and Pasifika children (we had already identified through earlier assessments) was the priority, then we would see some targeting of resources and an improvement in results.

The reality is (as John Key and Steven Joyce like to say) that there has been minimal progress with lifting our struggling learners. The Government's claim of shifting resources to those who need it most has not occurred. In talking to principals I hear that the support they used to have from Special Education Services (SES) for their highest needs children has actually been significantly reduced and the criteria to get that support has had the bar raised. The next line of support are our Resource Teachers of Learning and Behaviour (RTLBs) and they have had their workload significantly increased, and are therefore stretched to meet the demand.

SES suffered from the $25 million Ministry of Education Budget cut and have struggled to provide the same level of frontline services that the Government had actually claimed would improve after the cuts. RTLBs have taken on much of the higher needs support once managed by SES and have less time to spend with those with moderate needs. Lower decile schools (that have a larger proportion of struggling learners) find it difficult to access special education funding because of the costs involved in getting the required assessments.

Sadly the new, targeted funding has never really eventuated and much of the new money has not gone to the lower decile schools as one would have expected but to the private schools that serve 4% of the school population and cater for our most affluent families. These schools capture most of the special needs funding and extra spending. $35 million extra money was given to private schools at the time the Ministry had its funding cut and Wanganui Collegiate (an elite private school) was bailed out of its financial difficulties by $3.9 million while special needs schools were being closed. The $27 million recently set aside for struggling learners in our public system is actually chicken feed when you consider the numbers of children we are dealing with and the prior cuts in funding that it partly addresses.

Our children have had their teaching and learning shaped to support the National Standards data collection machine and the Ministry is setting up systems and repositories to collect and store all of the data. I am sure many people will be employed to analyse the data and produce graphs and tables that will only reconfirm that the same children are failing and that achievement is heavily influenced by socio-economic backgrounds. By working really hard these graphs and tables will become more and more accurate and we will be able to present the same information with even greater certainty.

In five years the children this Government claimed were their priority have been well tested, some may have breakfast provided, and the really lucky ones may get a few hours extra support from an unqualified, low waged teacher aid (or no wage, depending on Novopay). Most will go home to families still struggling on minimal and declining incomes and over-crowded, poorly insulated houses.

This Government promised much and has delivered little to our public education system, their real priority has always been to ensure that private schools (where their own children go) are well looked after.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Ethics Exit and Carter's Credibility Crashes

The National led Government is taking a battering at the moment, and for good reason, yet the Speaker is doing his best to protect it. Since first coming to power there have been numerous examples of decisions and behaviour that raised concerns about National's understanding of ethics and morality. Since I wrote an earlier post titled 15 Ethical "Fails" Under National there have been a number more. The Skycity judgement revealed poor process and an unfair advantage and Hekia Parata has been found wanting in two legal cases that demonstrated a lack of proper consultation and diligence involving school closures.

The issue of the moment is National's blindness to the obvious conflict of interest that John Banks has regarding his vote on the Skycity deal. Metiria's questioning of the Prime Minister's views on the matter put Key on a back foot. The logic of Metiria's argument was irrefutable and his mumbled responses lacked his usual bravado.

At one point Metiria asked:

"How can he consider that John Banks does not face a conflict of interest when the CEO of Skycity needs Banks' single vote to ensure the casino secures a massive increase in business, while that same Skycity CEO is in court giving evidence that could sink John Banks' political career?"

Key's reply, "I don't accept the proposition from the member," followed by a quick intake of breath was hardly convincing. He didn't even try to put forward a different take on the situation.

And later:

"Is the Prime Minister seriously telling the house that he is genuinely unconcerned about allowing one of his Ministers, who is dependent on the Sky City CEO (who could make or break that Minister's political career), to have the deciding vote on a deal that is worth more than $400 million dollars to the Sky city casino?"

"I don't accept the proposition from the member, for the Skycity convention centre, which I understand these days that the Labour Party's supporting, quietly."

Key's last statement drew loud responses from Labour MPs who tried to use points of order to ask why the speaker allowed the Prime Minister to comment on their party's position (and providing deliberate misinformation) when he had no authority to do so. Key had cleverly avoided attention to his weak answer to Metiria by creating a diversion. Labour could not understand the subsequent ruling from the Speaker that although it was Metiria's question, Key's jibe at the Labour Party in his answer was acceptable. David Carter explained that Metiria had asked a politically loaded question (really?), therefore the Prime Minister's response was understandable. With the support of the Speaker, Key had successfully sidestepped proper attention to his weak answer by creating an argument with Labour (sadly, rather than support Metiria's question line they bought into Key's strategy).

Key's lack of ethics and integrity allows him to easily exploit the self righteous rage of others by pressing buttons as the need arises. His smug smile when he is successful is telling. He will stop at nothing to ensure that John Banks' vote will carry the day.

Due to the highly unsatisfactory answers the day before Metiria tried again in the following session to get a definitive answer from the Government how they could tolerate a clear conflict of interest. Unfortunately she was blocked from asking a question that described the Skycity deal as sleazy and was ordered out of the house when using a number of points of order to try and establish which part of the question was inappropriate (after the Speaker had explained he had no objection to the use of the word sleazy).

It is apparently perfectly ethical and above board to:
  • Do a back room deal with Skycity, that included changes in law to benefit the company, and not offer the same deal to competitors.
  • Gifting Skycity 510 gaming machines and tables (the equivalent of another large casino), in exchange for a convention centre, while at the same time the country is attempting to reduce the number of pokies because of the social and economic harm they cause.
  • Build a convention centre effectively on the misery of hundreds of new problem gamblers (each new machine produces an average of .8 of a problem gambler).  This would also impact on hundreds of families and businesses many of the gamblers will defraud to feed their addiction.  
  • Allow the  casting vote for the Skycity bill to come from a recently resigned Minister on trial for fraud, whose freedom and political career is dependent on a testimony from the CEO of the company that will profit from his vote.
  • Continue with a convention centre deal that will create more problem gamblers than actual jobs
It is obviously not OK (according to the Speaker) to describe the deal by including the word "sleazy". Also, according to his rulings, questioning the ethics of the Government is deemed too politically loaded to expect a direct and clear answer.   


Friday, October 18, 2013

National's Chickens Coming Home to Roost

When National grasped the reigns of power they had two agendas, their neoliberal semi-secret one and their public one.

Their secret agenda was well described in Nicky Hager's The Hollow Men and it hasn't changed much from the Brash vision pre 2005. The National Party is no longer the broad church it was in the 1960s; champions of small business, farmers and rural New Zealand. Over the last twenty years it has become much more an enthusiastic advocate for big business and their door is always open to well paid PR people and corporate lobbyists.

National never campaigned on giving large tax cuts to the wealthy, gifting tens of millions to private schools and providing corporate subsidies to the likes of Warner Bros, Rio Tinto and Sky City, but it happened anyway. Making sure employment law favoured employers and further marginalizing unions was also a secret priority, as was removing impediments to business developments by weakening environmental protections and limiting community consultation.

They have largely achieved their secret agenda and their rich and corporate supporters have benefited hugely and New Zealand now has the fastest growing income inequality in the OECD. John Key and his cabinet mates have enjoyed all the grateful attention of those who they have served so well.

The National Party's public agenda hasn't gone so well and they have largely failed to deliver on the assurances and promises they made to ordinary New Zealanders. They were going to bring prosperity to us all and lift our incomes to that of Australia. We were going mine and drill for valuable minerals (where ever they may be) and build many Roads of National Significance. They wanted mum and dad New Zealanders to profit from the partial sale of our state owned enterprises, not only would it allow many more of us to profit from valuable shares but we would have more money to build schools and hospitals. If all else fails we can always rely on a rapidly expanding dairy industry. They planned to grow chickens into golden geese and everyone was supposed to benefit.

Things have not gone to plan, the chickens are coming home to roost and they look more like damaged battery hens with no sign of a golden egg and only a few handfuls of crumbling lignite briquettes instead. It's a sad story indeed:
  • National Standards were going to be the panacea for all our educational ills and it was forced onto schools, despite professional concerns, with threats of sackings and commissioners. League Tables have been produced using the ropey data (Key's description) and yet five years down the track Maori and Pasifika children are well tested but no better off. National Standards have failed and their introduction of Act's Charter schools are predicted to perform just as badly as they have overseas.
  • National's enthusiasm to mine, frack and drill the living daylights out of our country received a few setbacks when tens of thousands marched against mining in our National Parks. The flagship of the mining policy, Solid Energy, then went belly up when its dreams of a coal nirvana turned out to be lignitemares and is now being bailed out by $155 million of taxpayer money and Australian banks are becoming major owners.
  • The National led Government opened our territorial waters for oil exploration to all and sundry and despite the moderate royalties and enthusiasm from oil companies, the Gulf of Mexico and the Rena disaster are still fresh in our memories. Energy and Resources Minister, Simon Bridges, has failed to reassure Kaikoura people whose lives are dependent on a clean environment. Bridges' manic Campbell live interview was illuminating when he evaded questions regarding the potential hazards of drilling at a depth twice that of other rigs we have hosted. Despite the apparent robust layers of regulations he claimed were in place, the fact that exploratory drilling isn't a notifiable activity (the Gulf drilling was also exploratory) and protestors have been banned is an obvious concern.
  • The Roads of National Significance are also receiving closer scrutiny and proper cost benefit analysis fails with many.  A number of regions are complaining that the cuts in road funding to finance the $12 billion initiative are causing economic disadvantage.
  • The Christchurch reconstruction was also supposed to provide jobs for New Zealanders but we have seen a lack of investment in trades training that will mean that much of the workforce employed in our construction industry will be imported and their wages will be largely heading back to their home countries. Our unemployment levels are little changed and our youth are particularly suffering. 
  • The dairy industry has expanded rapidly with irrigation subsidized and an Environment Council sacked when water wasn't made available fast enough. While Fonterra has played a huge role in providing a steady export income, it has cost us our rivers. The success of Fonterra has been threatened with some international revelations that our clean green image is a sham and the admission that the Ministry of Primary Industry is seriously underfunded. We have all our agricultural eggs in one basket and we are close to losing them.
  • The sale of state assets has resulted in angry protests, a successful referendum, dropping share prices and a buy back. Meanwhile electricity prices have continued to rise. 
After five years of a National led Government the top 30% of earners have done well but the remaining 70% are becoming aware that the promises and plans directed at them have been poorly researched, shockingly implemented and are largely falling apart. We have experienced governance of the rich, by the rich, for the rich and the rest of us are becoming even more aware about what we need to do in 2014.  

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Local Bodies and the Green Tide

For the first time the Green Party supported local body candidates under our green banner. There were three reasons for doing this:
  • We had the resources and local structures to support a local body campaign.
  • Local body issues are also green issues; waste management, transport, housing, land and resource use, planning and environmental management, climate change, community development...
  • There is greater public acceptance of the Greens as a reliable political force.
We also ensured that we had quality candidates and all those who wanted to stand for us had to go through a similar robust selection process that we use for our national election candidates. Local body representatives do not have the same level of support and resourcing as our MPs so we needed to insure that our candidates had a good understanding of their roles and that there was solid support from their local Green branches. 

Local body elections have shown declining levels of participation and reason for this has been widely discussed but I believe apathy is not such big part of it as some would think. Many people spoke of the difficulty they had in determining who they were voting for. The majority of candidates were unknown to voters and even the biographies provided with the voting forms were not enough to provide a clear indication of future performance. Local media were generally not able to provide much information on campaigns and little critique of performance, so many voters were voting blind or ticking familiar names (which is probably why incumbents are more likely to be re-elected regardless of performance). 

David Farrer has claimed that party politics has no place in local body elections and he expressed the view that the voting public don't want it. This has been disproved by the success of our Green candidates across the country, a high percentage were successful and many more missed out by narrow margins. Corin Dann, on Q&A, thought that the low turnout was due to the fact that people did not know what many candidates stood for and the fact that the Greens were able to do that successfully worked to our advantage.

While Green branded candidates were successful in getting elected to many councils and boards, our strongest result was in Wellington where green leaning Mayor Celia Wade Brown was returned and all five Green candidates who stood for the city or regional council were successful. A green tide of change is slipping in across the country and our future is looking brighter.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

CTU Conference and the Importance of Unions

I have been a member of a union for over thirty years and have had leadership roles for half of that time, but recently attended my first CTU conference. The impression many have of unions is shaped by those who oppose them and that manipulated image would have been challenged for anyone who had the opportunity to be there. The conference wasn't full of card carrying communists in cloth caps, around fifty percent were women and some of the largest attending affiliates consisted of professional people. Only 20% of workers are now represented by a union and those not represented are most likely to be on the lowest wages and in casual work.

It is now 100 years since the Great Strike when Massey's Cossacks were used against the striking watersiders.  Unions had not had a long history in New Zealand at that time, with the New Zealand Federation of Labour only being formed four years before. It is important to remember the appalling conditions that many workers were subjected to at that time and how much workers have gained because of unions. Tea and lunch breaks, health and safety laws, reasonable hours (the forty hour week) and adjustments to keep up with the cost of living were all achieved because of collective bargaining and unified action.

Sadly we are now losing much that had been gained when unions were strong enough to balance the power of employers. By blocking worker representation in employment matters we are seeing a return to the bad old days of profit before people. The Pike River disaster and the shocking number of deaths and injuries in the forestry sector would probably not have occurred if we had a stronger union presence.

Proposed changes to employment law will see the balance tipped even more in the employer's favour. Tea and lunch breaks will become optional and collective bargaining is now something that employers can avoid. We have around a quarter of our workforce earning wages that they cannot live on without extra support and the increased casualisation of employment means many have no certainty of income or hours of work. That 270,000 children now live in relative poverty while the wealthiest New Zealanders have never had it better and CEO salaries and director fees are skyrocketing demonstrates a need for bringing more balance to wage bargaining. New Zealand is currently experiencing the fastest growing income inequality in the OECD.

The CTU's major campaigns are around the living wage, casualisation, vulnerable workers, health and safety and gender inequity. It was notable that the presidents of the New Zealand and Australian councils of trade unions and the International Confederation are all women. Women are more likely to suffer poor working conditions and pay than men and the gap between the incomes of men and women in New Zealand is growing. Jobs that are female dominated tend to be given a lower value and our aged care workers, teacher aids and cleaners often find themselves earning around the minimum wage no matter how many years that they are in the job. The Green Party's campaign to support a living wage is using the plight of the parliamentary cleaners to highlight the lack of recognition given to important low waged work. Many of these cleaners are the main income earners for their families and have been doing the same job for many years but still earn similar pay to a school leaver.

Unionists aren't marxist radicals who are plotting revolution and attempting to destroy the economy, we are hard working New Zealanders wanting fair wages and working conditions and a fair share of the productivity increases that we have provided to our employers but have consistently been denied.

The speeches from Green Party and Labour leaders expressed strong support for New Zealand workers and the unions that represent them. We now have a clear choice, we can continue on the current path of growing inequality or vote for a government in 2014 that will reintroduce the concept of fairness to our employment culture.    

Thursday, October 10, 2013

More Illegal Behaviour Linked to Parata

A High Court Judge decided today that the process used to close down a Christchurch school was illegal.  It was obvious from the very beginning of the process to close and merge Christchurch schools that the Minister had an idealogical agenda and did not want a high level of community or school involvement. An Ombudsman had been so concerned by the shoddy process that he did his own investigation and the Chief Ombudsman, Beverly Wakem, is currently carrying out a more comprehensive inquiry.

Christchurch schools had become battle weary, not only were they trying to hold things together and maintain a stable environment for children and families after the earthquake, but they had endured the forced implementation of National Standards and the Novopay debacle. It was difficult for them to find the extra energy to engage in the truncated consultation and submission process that the Minister forced upon them.

One school did somehow find the energy to fight back. Tony Simpson, Principal of Phillipstown School, was so appalled at the deliberate manipulation of facts and blatant dishonesty in the process that he refused to roll over as many others had done. In one meeting with him he patiently explained to me how the Ministry (on the Minister's behalf) had attempted to use a number of bizarre, and plainly false, justifications to merge them with Woolston School:
  • The claimed liquefaction in the school grounds wasn't true.
  • The surplus building (supposedly above code and under utilised) identified by the Ministry turned out to be a technology centre that was heavily used by surrounding schools.
  • The suggested poor achievement levels also had no foundation. The school's last ERO report had identified that Maori children (one of the Government's target groups) "Continued to achieve well, with many of them achieving at higher levels than their non-Maori peers". For a Decile 1 school, Phillipstown had developed strong parent and community support and was performing extremely well.
Tony's experience of the submission process echoed what the ombudsman had found, the school was provided with little information that they could respond to. It appeared that a decision had been made purely on the economic benefits of combining two schools on one site. The interests of the children and the community were seemingly not regarded as being important.

Despite what the Minister has claimed, the Government has shown little interest in supporting low decile schools or those that cater for high needs students. Salisbury School also received a legal judgement in their favour when the Minister tried to close them down. The judge in this case determined that Parata had not given enough consideration to the health and safety of the high needs girls who attended the school. 

When you contrast the treatment of Phillipstown and Salisbury schools with that of what Wanganui Collegiate received it is clear that already privileged students are favoured over those at the other end of the social and economic spectrum.

The Phillipstown School community has suffered unnecessarily under a callous Minister and Ministry and despite winning this particular battle they may still have to endure another period of consultation and future closure anyway. If this does occur it will show just how disconnected this Government is from the lives of ordinary families and communities. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Dairy Dilemma

The growth of dairy industry in New Zealand has been likened to a gold rush. Production has risen 77% over the past twenty years and the number of dairy cattle has doubled (3 million in 1989 to 6 million in 2009). The total export value of the dairy industry has increased by over $5 billion in the last four years ($15.5 predicted for this year). We only account for 2% of total world milk production but because we have a small population, and domestic consumption is limited, New Zealand accounts for around one third of cross-border trade in dairy products.

Sadly there is a downside to dairy expansion, the cost to the New Zealand environment has been considerable. In many regions the growth of the industry has been so dramatic that it caught local authorities on the hop and there were not the regulatory controls or monitoring systems in place to manage the growth. In Southland many dairy farms were consented on land not suited for the purpose and water quality plummeted to the extent that it became the major local issue for the 2011 election. Almost 90% of Southland rivers were rated as poor to very poor and an internationally regarded wetland was close to flipping because of the increase in nutrients and sediment flowing into it.

New Zealand's desperate need for export earnings has made the dairy industry an economic golden goose and those, like Mike Joy, who have spoken out about the environmental costs have been attacked as traitors. The recent botulism scare saw New Zealand's environmental credentials being questioned and Dairy NZ and many farmers have made some solid efforts in improving industry practice in an attempt to lose the "dirty dairying" label. However with every effort to lift environmental practices there is more money being poured into expanding the industry.

The lack of balance shown in weighing environmental costs with economic benefits has been recently exposed through the consent process for the Ruataniwha Dam. It appears than any scientific opposition to the irrigation scheme, designed to support greater dairy intensification, was been blocked.

In today's Southland Times the editorial and a lead article highlighted the dairy dilemma. The article celebrated the improved compliance from dairy farmers in managing their effluent. While this is indeed worth celebrating it does provide a false sense of security because the compliance mainly relates to dairy shed effluent and which is only about 10% of what is produced. The bulk of what is excreted by dairy herds gets deposited on the paddocks and much of it gets washed into our rivers when it rains. Environment Southland warns people to avoid contact with our rivers after any rainfall because of the rapid rise of fecal coliforms and toxic sediment.

The editorial expressed concern about the rapidly declining state of our estuaries that are being steadily suffocated by polluting sediments largely washed from farms. The suffocation of our estuaries is a real worry because of the importance of these environments for the aquaculture industry and as nurseries for commercially important fish. Estuaries are considered one of the most productive ecosystems on earth and it appears that by expanding one industry we are actually killing off another.

By investing so heavily into the expansion of our dairy industry we are effectively losing the resilience of a mixed economy and are exposing ourselves to the potential risks that come with boom and bust economies. If the worst happens we will be left with a hugely compromised environment and limited options for other industries to fill the vacuum. Our dependence on the dairy industry is becoming an addiction that we need to acknowledge and manage appropriately.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Don Lamont 1922-2013, A Great Southern Man

My relationship with Don was a brief one. His book lined home in Gore became the meeting base for Coal Action Murihiku. He was a welcoming host and an enthusiastic supporter of our cause. It was always hard to believe he was over ninety years young. Yesterday was Don's funeral and I became fully aware of the true greatness of the man.

Words that often came up when friends and family spoke of him included: loyal, compassionate, thinker, writer, activist, wise, determined, original and spiritual. He was a man for whom the environment and social justice dominated his life and while he was a natural leader it was always the cause, not self promotion, at the forefront. A great example of Dons humility was in his book The Wind to Ride: Fifty Years of IHC in Southland where he documents the history of the organisation in Southland, yet never mentions himself as a founder and driving force behind it.

Don was also an active and leading member of Forest and Bird and Men of the Trees. When he purchased his Pine Bush farm (as a returned serviceman) the only trees on the property were two poplars and now, many decades later, trees dominate. One of Don's daughters explained how her father approached farming differently from those surrounding them, while others were trying to replace tussock with pasture, Don was busy establishing areas of tussock. His farm became the flagship of farm forestry and shelter in Southland. Gary Morgan from Environment Southland lauded Don as a great advocate for "...the integration of trees on farms and the benefits they provide for stock shelter, soil conservation, water quality, wildlife habitat and commercial return."

One of Don's most recent projects was the restoration of the old Gore landfill site. Through the joint leadership of his wife Margaret and himself, native plantings are converting an eyesore into a reserve. The Lifetime Achievement Award that Don received this year for his service to conservation was well deserved.

Don was also politically active and was continually writing submissions, promoting petitions and taking part in protest marches. He was involved in the iconic Save Manapouri protest and marched against the war in Iraq. Don hated injustice and social inequities and he was determined to fight for the protection of our environment against unnecessary commercial exploitation. He was never strident in his activism and many spoke of his persuasive arguments (based on his wide reading and deep thinking) that often caused people to re-elavuate and shift their views.

The environment has benefited immensely from Don's 91 years on this Earth and many people's lives are much better because of him, his legacy is substantial. I feel privileged to have known him and to have experienced his friendship and support.

Rest in peace, Don.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Education and the Importance of Creativity

I am currently attending the annual conference of the New Zealand Educational Institute. Our keynote speaker was Prof Yong Zhao an internationally regarded scholar, author and speaker. Prof Zhao is an elected fellow of the International Academy for Education and was named as one of the ten most influential people in educational technology by the Tech and Learn Magazine. His speech was strongly critical of most education systems and especially those that use national standards and competitive assessment systems.

Prof Zhao explained how modern economies now operate has meant that we need to have a different approach to teaching and learning to best prepare our students to be successful in the current and future employment environments. Increased mechanisation has seen the end of mass jobs in the manufacturing sector and a growing need for those who have creative and entrepreneurial skills. Far more people are self employed or work in service industries and there is a huge increase in jobs that revolve around the food industry.

Once when a person got a job they remained in a similar line of work until they retired, but now few young people expect to remain in the same job all their working life and many see themselves changing jobs often, whether by choice or circumstance. To remain employable, or in constant work, school leavers need to be adaptable and multi-skilled.

The sort of skills and attributes that school leavers and graduates now need are complex. Successful entrepreneurs, for instance, need self confidence, people skills, creativeness, ability to identify and meet needs and good organising skills.

Many countries, including our own, are attempting to measure the success of their education system by using the international assessments PISA and TIMMS, which only measure a fraction of what is taught in schools. Sadly by focussing on the areas assessed (literacy and numeracy), and supporting them with National Standards, has narrowed what is taught. Many learning areas such as the Arts, Science and Technology no longer receive the same levels of resourcing or professional support.

Research has revealed that many countries that heavily assess literacy and numeracy and create competition between students and schools may get some good results in those areas but most students develop a lack confidence in their ability despite generally achieving well. Countries that do not encourage children to develop their individual talents, or celebrate success in the wider curriculum, display much lower levels of creativity and resilience.

Prof Zhao was adamant that all children needed to discover what they do best and have their talents recognised and developed. Those who are confident in themselves and their abilities are more likely to pursue their dreams and be successful. Lorde, the dyslexic John Britten, Aaron Cruden and Peter Gordon may have all been assessed as below the standards under the current regime.

I cannot see how a data driven system that values a small fraction of what schools can do will produce innovative, enthusiastic and resilient school leavers. Prof Zhao explained how too many education systems use a one size fits all approach that is able to turn out endless uniform sausages, which is fine as long as we don't need variety and can use lots of sausages.

One of my earliest posts, on mono culture education, discussed a similar theme.