Monday, March 31, 2014

Transport Poverty, Bicycles Needed.

I spent last Saturday helping out with a cycling promotion in an Invercargill community market. The market occurs monthly and has been largely driven by a community minded, and recently elected city councillor, Rebecca Amundsen to revitalize a less affluent part of the city and generate a sense of community. Through her leadership the market has become an established event and the car park where the market is held has received extra funding for landscaping and public toilets have been built.

The idea of the cycling promotion was that children could bring their bikes, grab a 'bike licence' and collect stickers for completing a quiz, an obstacle course, a skill test and have their bike checked for safety. If all were completed satisfactorily then they got a bag of bike related goodies (bike bell, puncture repair kit etc). I was managing the skill test or 'Turtle Race' which involved taking the longest possible time to get between two points in a straight line without feet touching the ground. It was a lot of fun.

Sadly there were a number of children who wanted to take part, and could ride a bike, but they didn't own one. The fact that quite a number of children didn't have bikes shook my middle class perception that all New Zealand kids must have access to a bike. A quick phone call to my wife enabled the delivery of my folding bike that I could adjust for a range of ages and bikeless children could use.

The 'Bike Doctor' (who was doing the safety checks) bases himself at the nearby Invercargill Environment Centre and, for a donation, repairs bikes and fixes up donated bikes to be given away. I was told that he can't get enough bikes to meet the demand. Apparently there are even people approaching him for transport to get to work as they no longer have a car or can't afford to repair one. I have also noticed a growing number of people cycling in Invercargill on older bikes and whose appearance suggests they are struggling financially. While cycling is obviously a healthy and practical choice of transport many are obviously doing it because they have no choice.

This Government's obsession with roads and cars, and their lack of investment in safe cycling and reliable public transport, ignores the fact that while high income families may own several cars, at the other end of the spectrum there are a growing number of families that not only can't afford a house or a car, but struggle to own bicycles as well.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

TPPA, Protesting from Whangarei to Invercargill!

The Green Party treats any so called 'free trade agreement' with healthy suspicion. Such agreements are promoted as means of gaining access into new markets and our free trade agreement with China and the  CER agreement with Australia are used as successful examples.

I was interested to note when I attended a talk from the Deputy Governor and Head of Operations of the Reserve Bank (Geoff Bascand) that he wasn't prepared (when questioned) to categorically say that it was the trade agreement that was responsible for our increase in trade with China. No research had been done to confirm it and we do produce reliable quantities of protein that they need.

Australia has not benefited from their free trade agreement with the US. The resulting trade has been to the advantage of the larger power and one would have to wonder how many Australian companies have folded because they can't compete with the influx of American goods. The US continues to protect their farmers and few trade barriers were opened for Australia, whereas Australian borders opened up considerably to US products. Our CER agreement with Australia hasn't stopped their supermarkets from blocking our products and it seems that larger powers tend to be able to manipulate any agreement in their favour.

While this Government is happy to negotiate the TPPA in secret one has to wonder why the terms need to be kept undercover unless there is something to hide. This shouldn't be about commercial sensitivities involving individual companies or industries but about broad terms of trade that will have far reaching ramifications. I cannot understand why our government cannot allow public scrutiny of the terms before signing as Malaysia is doing, their democracy is obviously healthier than ours.

The US government is known to be more and more under the influence of US corporates and multi-nationals. It is now almost impossible to pass legislation in the US if there is no corporate seal of approval. Millions of corporate dollars are fed into political campaigns ($300 million in 2008) and to pay high powered  lobbyists and the pay back that they expect is substantial. Our own Government is under the same pressure and has spent millions on corporate welfare (Warner bros, Rio Tinto, Kidicorp, SkyCity) and has amended legislation to keep corporate lobbyists happy.

Although TPPA negotiations are being conducted under a veil of secrecy enough has been leaked already that ring alarm bells. New Zealand is too small as a nation to have a great influence over major powers and we are already the third easiest in the world to do business in. If we give up anything else through negotiations we would just become a corporate lapdog.

The risks are many:
It is worth noting that opposition to the TPPA is coming from all participating nations, even the US, as they see the agreement favoring multinational, corporate interests to the determent of ordinary people and the sovereignty of individual nations. 

The nationwide protest today involved cities from Whangarei to Invercargill and I spoke on behalf of the Green Party in our southernmost city to a crowd of concerned and receptive local citizens. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Problem Gambling Foundation Too Successful

The Problem Gambling Foundation of New Zealand (PGF) succeeded the Compulsive Gambling Society in 2001 and rapidly became a highly effective organisation with 12 offices spread throughout the country. It employs over 70 staff and has helped over 25,000 problem gamblers.

The PGF is internationally regarded as one of the largest and most effective organisation in the world for dealing with the issue of problem gambling and its operations have a base in university research. It identified early on that if gambling was considered an addiction, like any other, the best way of reducing the problem was to limit the numbers of gaming machines and control their use.

The PGF spends much of its time working with communities and councils to have a sinking lid approach to gaming machines. No community has demanded to have more pokies and all have been enthusiastic in reducing the numbers. The effectiveness of the PGF can be shown by the ongoing reduction of the gaming machines and a corresponding drop in the numbers of problem gamblers nationwide.

It is not taxpayer money that funds the agencies managing addiction, but levies on the industry itself. $55.3 million goes into the current problem gambling strategy that was announced by Ministers Chris Tremain and Peter Dunne last year ($215 million was spent on gaming machines alone in in 2012).

Despite the Government's apparent interest in reducing the harm of problem gambling its actions have stated otherwise. The shady deal with Sky City will see an increase of 230 new machines and 40 new gaming tables, which is the equivalent of opening a new casino in Auckland. The addiction problems associated with casinos are actually much greater than occurs with other pokie venues because of their 24 hour availability.

Green Party protest against SkyCity deal with cardboard representation of machine numbers

This Government has a record of supporting profits before social good and business lobbyists have generally had ready access to Ministers. This was most obvious when the Alcohol Reform Bill was passed with only a fraction of the recommendations from the Law Commission's report included. Despite alcohol causing huge social and economic costs to our society (over $5 billion a year) the Government was reluctant to make too many demands of the industry and we ended up with very watered down legislation. 

I suspect the same thing has happened with the decision to support the Salvation Army over the PGF. While both organisations have protested against the SkyCity deal their operations are very different. The Salvation Army has an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff approach to its support while the PGF was very active in curbing the operations of the industry.

Peter Dunne has been quick to defend the decision by explaining that there was no political interference and the panel responsible had representatives from the Department of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Health, the Health Promotion Agency and a Pacific health consultant. A Herald editorial explains how bureaucratically managed decisions can be manipulated to distance the Government from the process and effectively removing their 'fingerprints". Reasonable doubts remain and a number of questions still present themselves:
  • Why was Dunne guarded in his response to the question about whether opposition to the SkyCity deal was a factor? "As far as I'm aware..." was as certain as he could be.
  • Were reviews done on the effectiveness of both organisations to inform the decision?
  • What specific criteria was used to determine where the funding should go (I understand there was very little difference in the tender prices)?
  • Were problem gamblers themselves canvassed regarding their preferred service, and if not, why not?
I feel that yet again the financial interests of an industry responsible for social harm has been given priority over damage that it causes and another worthy organisation has had its funding cut for political reasons. 

Postscript: The national manager of addictions for the Salvation Army has expressed confusion over the recently awarded contract, they had not tendered on providing the whole service but at the same level as previously (between $1 and $2 million). There also appears to be confirmation that the gambling industry had made a number of complaints regarding the PGF's advocacy work…the plot thickens!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Life Beyond Supermarkets...

For a number of years I have supported my sister's harvest festival in Riverton. From humble beginnings it has become an iconic event in the south and is a great celebration of biodiversity. In a province where dairying is continuing to expand at a worrying rate, and supermarkets have a stranglehold on food supply, it is reassuring to know that there is an increasing number of people growing their own food. It is also great to see the growth of an underground (excuse the pun) economy with many trading food, seeds and plants with little money changing hands.

My small part in the festival has been to lead a workshop on urban gardening in Autumn, based on my own experience in our 1/4 acre Invercargill section (the photo above is an example of my own modest harvest the day before). I don't call myself an expert by any means and I find that the general discussions and sharing that occurs between workshop participants are possibly more informative than I can provide (I always learn a lot myself).

My sister has done a remarkable job of tracking down all the old farm orchards around Southland and identifying the huge variety of apples that exist across the region. The Open Orchards Project has manage to identify around fifty different apples and grafting has allowed the varieties to be saved before some of these old orchards are destroyed. We now have new orchards, schools and community groups making sure that apples never seen in supermarkets, like the massive Peasgood's Nonsuch, will continue to be enjoyed by future generations.

  Peasgood's Nonsuch dwarfing ordinary sized apples

It would be wonderful to see the grip that supermarkets have on produce sales usurped by a quiet revolution of local growers and farmers markets. Consumers will then have greater choice in the variety of food available. The flavors will also be enhanced by fruit and vegetables being picked ready to eat and not being kept in storage for long periods or transported large distances. Most of our South Island supermarket produce has to be sent to Christchurch first before being redistributed around the island. 

Have a look at the variety on display in the images from this year's harvest festival to see what the corporate domination of food supply has done to the choices we normally have. Small scale, enthusiastic growers can produce unique fruit and vegetables that can take advantage of local conditions for the benefit of their communities. Eating local food, that is seasonally available, does not necessarily mean a boring diet - we just haven't properly embraced what is possible. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

National Slumps in Polls As Ministers Struggle

In an earlier post I questioned the danger of reading too much into polls and predicting elections based on a couple of polls months out from an election.

Many commentators were claiming that National was too strong to lose the next election and were making heaps of assumptions regarding Labour's poor results and the Greens drop to 8% in one rogue poll. Few looked at multiple polls, accounted for the margin of error nor the trends over past months. Even John Key expressed caution about National's 50+ results (the last time National had more than 50% support in an election was in 1951 under a First Past the Post system).

The last fortnight has seen a complete turn around in National's fortunes with the latest Roy Morgan Poll seeing them plummet from the Colmar Brunton result of 51% to 45.5%. The Greens have apparently leapt 6 points to a solid 14%.

National have every reason to be worried because most polls tend to favour them and their results are probably always at the top end of the margin of error. Their 51% result was more likely to be around 47% which is the highest that they have ever achieved in a general election over the last few decades. This probably means that the latest result is likely to be around 42% in reality. The only party that they could possibly form a coalition with is New Zealand First and they are languishing on 3.5%.

For the first time the attention is away from the the leaders of the two largest parties and the focus has been  the Ministers and MPs behind them. John Key is a popular Prime Minister but his lack of decisiveness in dealing with his struggling Ministers and his past support of Banks and Dunne is becoming a concern for many. He has also had his successful visit to China muddied by revelations of his own dodgy connections with Oravida and the $56,600 golf photo.

National will need more than an upturn in the economy to reverse their current image of conflicts of interest, coverups and incompetence. Our success with our dairy and timber exports probably would have happened under any government and everything that they have been directly responsible for is looking a little rotten.

Bill English's reputation took a hit when he appeared to have no real ideas in how to manage the Auckland property boom and limit increases in interest rates. It appears that we will get by through another asset sale and hoping we can muddle through. His ongoing mantra about balancing the books looks even more distant with a drop in tax revenue when the economy is supposed to be improving.

Mr Fixit, Steven Joyce, still hasn't fixed the Novopay debacle and the government has spent $33 million in trying to do so.

Judith Collins' arrogance has not served her well when dealing with an obvious conflict of interest. She cannot keep passing off her meals and meetings with border control officials and company heads as casual get togethers with 'very good friends'. It is clear that the relationships between Government Ministers and Oravida is well beyond what was ever implied with SkyCity. Many commentators struggle to understand why Collins hasn't offered her resignation when other Ministers have done so for less.

Hekia Parata has had so many backdowns and miss-steps that many are surprised that she has remained in charge of the education portfolio. The class size policy failed, Novopay was taken from her, two court cases found against her decisions, National Standards are still not embedded, her Education Ministry head resigned and she can't even convince the sector that an injection of $359 million into school leadership will be useful. Her management of the Kohanga Reo Trust concerns displays incompetence beyond belief, especially when the terms of the investigation didn't even cover the key issues.

Gerry Brownlee's bluff and bluster impresses no one as he bumbles through his management of the Christchurch rebuild and the flawed processes he uses to determine the worth of his $12 billion motorways.

Tony Ryall has managed to get on reasonably well with his health portfolio until Kevin Hague discovered his inaction regarding potential fraud and the revelation that the celebrated increase in surgeries and supposed reduction in waiting lists had been created through dangerous cuts throughout the system.

Amy Adams is struggling to defend herself from the conflict of interest charges made against her as more comes out about her involvement with the removal of ECan and her family connections with Central Plains Water Ltd.

Simon Bridges has failed to present a reassuring presence when defending the Government's support of deep sea drilling. His shrill, slightly hysterical interview on Campbell Live was disconcerting for many.

Paula Bennett still refuses to measure child poverty or accept more needs to be done as every statistic related to it points to an increasing problem.

Tim Groser is more interested in being a member of the 'Big Boys Club' then genuinely looking after New Zealand's real interests.

Anne Tolley's personal and clearly racist attack on Metiria Turei was extraordinary as was the support she received from Judith Collins. Metiria's TV tour of her $130,000 two bedroom castle revealed the nonsense behind the accusations.

Now that the attention has shifted from the style of leadership to the broad competence of the different parties a different image is emerging. Labour has been looking more assured and competent. While Shearer appeared to struggle as leader he would make a solid Foreign Minister, Grant Robinson impresses every time he speaks and Chris Hipkins has Parata struggling with his questions.

The Green Party also look very strong as the overall competency of the Green MPs continues to impress. Many voters could probably name more Green MPs than National ones such is their high profile on regional and national issues. A Labour/Green coalition is actually looking more reassuring than the rather seedy and desperate image emerging from National and their increasingly extreme coalition partners (Act, Conservatives, Dunne).

All Green Party policy announcements over the last few months have been financially modest but would potentially making a noticeable difference to the lives of ordinary New Zealanders and surely that is what real governance should be all about. The Royal Society of New Zealand has also just released a report that supports a shift to a greener economy.

I think this is the beginning of the end of 'governance through corporates' as voters become more aware of what the Government has really been up to and how little they have benefited.

Greens Support Innovation and Hi-Tech Wood

In any competitive activity it is always a good idea to play to one's strengths and when it comes to industry and trade, New Zealand's strengths are a temperate climate, an abundance off natural resources and innovative people. Our major exports reflect the first two strengths only, powdered milk, meat and logs earn the majority of our income and 70% of all goods exported are primary products with little added value.

When I was growing up in the sixties in Southland I remember being aware of many amazing innovators and innovations. The Hamilton Jet was still a relatively new and exciting invention; George Begg lived down the road and sometimes tested his internationally competitive racing cars past our house; Burt Munro was breaking speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats and the prefabricated Lockwood homes (see image above) were popping up all over the place. New Zealand was often referred to as the Scandinavia of the Pacific because of our egalitarian society and our reputation for design and innovation.

We are no longer an egalitarian society and our reputation for innovation still just exists, but not because of Government investment (we commit around half the average for the OECD on research and development). Government procurement is now favoring cheap overseas tenders, which has had a detrimental effect on our skilled workforce. Our education system no longer encourages creativity and the technology and science learning areas of our curriculum have been pushed aside because of the focus on literacy and numeracy and data driven systems. It is too hard to measure creativity and technological talent.

The Green Party's latest announcement of awarding $1 million for innovative building design using hi-tech wood is a step in the right direction. It has been over 60 years since Lockwood Homes revolutionized the local building industry using an abundant natural resource and its about time we starting playing to all our strengths. Our talented innovators shouldn't be forced to sit on the reserves benches when we we are trying to compete in global markets and meet our domestic needs.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Gerry Brownlee, Making Stuff Up Again!

Gerry Brownlee has struggled to defend his $12 billion Roads of National Significance (RONS) when questioned by the Green Party's transport spokesperson, Julie Anne Genter.  Time and time again Brownlee has been reduced to bluff and bluster when Julie Anne has demanded evidence and the economic rationale behind the motorway projects.

There was the memorable occasion when Julie Anne demanded that Gerry produce his evidence to support the RONS, when all data available from the NZTA show that traffic volumes are stagnant. Gerry was not able to produce any evidence other than that roads were important and people wanted them. When Julie Anne used a point of order to force him to properly address the question, Lockwood Smith (Speaker at the time) intervened to explain that the Minister was saying that the motorways were being built because HE thought they were a good idea.

On another occasion Julie Anne suggested that the $12 billion budgeted for motorway construction placed New Zealand in a similar position as Greece, where spending on motorway construction had contributed to its economic collapse. In response Gerry claimed it was actually big spending on rail that had caused the problem. This was widely reported by the media when it was actually a lie as Greece had spent little on rail but billions on a new motorway system.

Today revealed more deliberate misinformation from Gerry as he was recorded on National Radio claiming that the Greens were demanding strong cost/benefit ratios for motorways when the Auckland rail loop only provided a .8 return on investment. This figure is a total fabrication. The 2011 analysis of the project (p 13) produced a benefit cost ratio (BCR) of 1.0 to 1.1 when related to immediate transport benefits and when wider economic benefits (WEBs) were taken into account the ratio increased to as much as 2.3. Given the increasing demand for public transport in Auckland this ratio is likely to be even better now. Gerry lied!

Brownlee never appears to be well informed and uses attack as a means of defense. His outburst against Labour MPs involved a later apology and backdown, but in most cases the media just accept and report what he says and rarely check the truth behind his statements.

I find it appalling that this country is comfortable with a government that bases its decisions and major spending on personal opinions and skewed data and that we have a media that is prepared to accept lies as fact.

Postscript: It is interesting to listen to today's exchange, where Brownlee claims that the Government does not rely on the 'bureaucratic' advice of the NZTA but base decisions on their own strategic analysis.

The Green Party's recently announced policy will have a far bigger impact on local communities and will provide a far greater BCR than the motorways.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Destruction of New Zealand's Public Education System

In 2008 New Zealand was internationally ranked in the top seven for educational achievement, and when you compared us with other countries that were also culturally diverse and experiencing growing inequality, we were extremely successful.

At that time our Early Childhood sector had received a much overdue boost in funding from the Labour Government after being underfunded (as a % of GDP) compared to other OECD nations for years. The sector was working towards a target of having 100% qualified teachers in all centres.

We were also in the process of implementing a new National Curriculum and a complementary curriculum for Maori (Te Marautanga o Aotearoa). Teachers were excited about putting all their energies into the new ideas and approaches that were espoused in these co-constructed documents that had taken around seven years to review and write. Evidence, research and practitioner input had created something that would allow us to prepare New Zealand children to become resilient in a rapidly changing world.

We were just on the cusp of something great when an election occurred…

A National led Government was elected and New Zealand's public education system came under heavy attack:
Despite the serious damage already done to New Zealand's education sector this Government is not letting up, they will not be happy until they have complete ideological control and can shut down professional engagement completely. They are planning to do away with the current Teachers Council and replace it with a new authority (EDUCANZ) that will be led by those approved and appointed by the Minister only, with little professional input. The Education Amendment Bill (No2) is currently being progressed through parliament that will support the ongoing restructuring of the system. 

Hekia Parata is also considering wiping the current support for lower decile schools and shift extra funding to those schools that perform well in National Standards. The head of the EDUCANZ transition board John Morris has recently produced a paper that suggests teachers should be paid based on the attainment of their students. 

This government is destroying our amazing collaborative, holistic public education system that recently led the world. They are determined to implement systems that have failed spectacularly overseas. Professional knowledge based on evidence and research should lead education, not political ideology. What angers me the most is what is being denied to our most vulnerable children when they should be the real focus of spending and any systemic change. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Q&A Norman vs English

Russel Norman and Bill English were each grilled by Corin Dann on Q&A this morning regarding what should be done to better manage our economy.

Russel Norman came across as having a clear understanding of where we are economically and what we need to do so that all sectors will benefit. Bill was defensive, had no new ideas and was happy to have the Reserve Bank continue to operate with a limited tool box.

Under National Government debt is now well over $60 billion, our current account deficit is the 2nd or 3rd highest in the OECD, we have a huge shortage of affordable housing and power prices continue to rise above the rate of inflation. Russel was very critical of National maintaining tax cuts as a priority rather than paying off debt.

Bill was asked if he was happy with an increase in interest rates that will cause our dollar to rise in value, result in higher mortgage interest rates and put pressure on exporters again. He looked uncomfortable and said that the Reserve Bank operated independently and he wouldn't intervene. Russel was clear about what was needed, much of the inflation was caused by the supply and demand for housing and the growing cost of power. He felt that rather than the Reserve Bank being left to manage inflation, it should be tackled at source, we needed to better manage the housing market and we needed to deal with the unacceptable costs of electricity supply. Russel was also clear that we should follow the advice of the IMF and allow our Reserve Bank to have a wider focus than just inflation.

"...the crisis has made clear that policymakers have to watch many targets, including the composition of output, the behavior of asset prices, and the leverage of different agents. It has also made clear that they have potentially many more instruments at their disposal than they used before the crisis. The challenge is to learn how to use these instruments in the best way. The combination of traditional monetary policy and regulation tools, and the design of better automatic stabilizers for fiscal policy, are two promising routes. These need to be explored further." (Rethinking Macroeconomic Policy 2010)

Bill accepted that our economy was very dependent on protein exports to China, but he claimed that the Government was focussed on increasing our markets in Indonesia and the Asia/pacific. Russel was focussed on giving our manufacturers much needed support from a less inflated dollar so that they could more easily compete in overseas markets.

Bill claimed that the country would be better off with his steady as we go approach, which is largely about tinkering around the edges of housing and power supply and cutting government spending. After five years under his stewardship the light at the end of the tunnel appears to be still as far away as it was in 2008 and more families and manufacturers are suffering. Only the already wealthy have done well and many have done exceptionally well. The wealthy love the the high dollar because their purchases of luxury goods from overseas are so much cheaper. For families attempting to heat their homes and put food on the table and for small businesses trying to export their products, higher interest rates and a higher dollar will be crippling.

The Greens offer real progressive change in economic management that will properly target the areas that are not functioning well. We need to invest in things that will build economic resilience rather than get rich quick schemes and blanket cuts to government spending. We need to fix dysfunctional markets and allow businesses and families to thrive.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

High Rollers, Rollers and Cycling

The National Party are 'high rollers' in their manner of governance, they like to spend big on things that attract them (Hollywood and big oil) and they like to gamble. They borrow big and spend big, we now have government debt of over $60 billion and $12 billion being spent on roads that will have low odds for seeing a return on the investment. If gambling funds run short then selling a few assets ensures a flow of cash and desperation can mean selling things below value (Genesis Energy).

The Government's education spending is typical of their approach, $359 million being thrown at a few privileged teachers and principals who will be prepared to support the failing National Standards policy. In the world of the High Roller, money is is always the key motivator and financial incentives and competition is how the world operates. The creation of an elite group of educators and administrators will make little difference to the learning needs of children and yet our teacher aids, who work directly with our priority learners, are given little value and continue to be paid a pittance. National's simplistic thinking has caused the disintegration of our collaborative and holistic approach to education and caused a dramatic drop in our international rankings.

The Greens' approach to solving our educational crisis is embedded in the realities of what causes educational under-achievement. Socio-economic factors and the family circumstances of children have the biggest influence on children's learning than teachers (no matter how hard they work). The Greens' modest (in comparison) $90 million schools as hubs initiative for Decile 1-4 schools will directly deal with the health and welfare needs of struggling children and this will boost their educational engagement.

High Rollers often drive Rollers and the luxury car market in New Zealand has been a growing one (18-25%) over the past few years as our wealthy look to spend their tax cuts and rapidly growing incomes. High Rollers wouldn't be seen dead on a bicycle or public transport, their luxury cars need roads and the less congested the better. As is happening with education the Government's solution to congested roads is simplistic (ignoring research or holistic approaches to transport planning), they are just going to build some motorways.

The Green's approach to transport, like education, is cost effective, holistic and multipurpose. Rather than spending $12 billion, a $200 million investment into developing safe cycling and walking infrastructure is proposed. The initial focus is on creating safe cycling and walking routes for children to get to school. A generation ago most children walked or cycled to their local school and this was good for developing their independence and supporting an active lifestyle. We now have the situation of most children being driven to their schools (causing sudden surges of traffic volumes before and after school) which has contributed to growing obesity and related health effects in our young.

The Greens' policy will reduce traffic volumes at peak times, reduce our consumption of imported oil, create safer communities that will allow children to be more independent and encourage people to adopt healthier life styles. National often promotes the importance of choice and this should also apply to transport, people shouldn't feel forced to use cars because the infrastructure for other forms of transport doesn't exist.

Most sophisticated European cities have discovered the value of supporting cyclists and pedestrians and New Zealand's obsession with cars is making us appear a little backward in our thinking.

Postscript: As with our other recently released policies this latest one is being received positively, including this Herald editorial.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Collins, Conflict of Interest and Trust

The Judith Collins conflict of interest affair has revealed again how this Government operates: lies, coverups, shifting blame and (only when the evidence is irrefutable) reluctant admissions. It is not in a National Minister's DNA to be able to admit fault or accept responsibility when mistakes are made.

Collins has not managed her Oravida activities well and it has taken some dogged questioning and background research to reveal the true extent of Collins' deception. The worrying thing is that it needn't have ended as badly if she had owned up in the first place. Collins even stated herself that it was hard for her to ever admit she is wrong:

"What's probably extraordinary is I am saying 'I apologise'. That is extraordinary for me."

The fact that she would say this is worrying in itself, apologizing is not failing, it demonstrates the ability to recognise one's fallibility and the decency to take ownership of a mistake. An honest approach and the ability to take responsibility for errors actually generates trust rather than the other way round.

For Collins to brush the original accusations aside by claiming it only involved a quick visit in passing was totally dishonest when she actually met with Oravida on three occasions: a lunchtime meeting, an evening meal with the managing director and a visit to their premises. The fact that she did not think to remember these, or think they are of consequence, is in the same league as John Banks not remembering a helicopter ride to Kim Dotcom's mansion. Unbelievable!

It is beyond naive (as Michelle Boag claimed) for Collins to think there wouldn't be a conflict of interest and bordering on incompetent that she didn't even mention the contact in her cabinet report. Nothing is wrong with supporting NZ Inc, as Collins claimed she was doing, however her husband is a director of Oravida and she definitely used her Ministerial position to advance its fortunes. It is obvious that she knew what she was doing and thought she could get away with it.

The fact that similar dishonesty and corporate favoritism has occurred often before makes trusting this Government very difficult. It is also obvious that this behaviour is part of National's cabinet culture, they all do it and try to cover each other's backs. John Key used the cabinet office to clear Collins of conflict of interest based on what he provided them. He had to later admit that the cabinet office wasn't provided with all of the information to make a proper decision.

If Collins had been up front when the Oravida visit was revealed, and apologized then for the obvious conflict of interest, the whole thing probably would have been news for a day or two, then forgotten. David Cunliffe was foolish to use a trust for his leadership campaign but he has apologized and dealt with it as openly as he could and Russel Norman managed the billboard incident by fronting up and taking responsibility immediately, even when he didn't actually have to. I can see a different style of governance will emerge in any Green/Labour coalition.

The right thing would be for Collins to now resign from her Cabinet responsibilities as Nick Smith did when it was discovered he had ignored clear conflicts of interest. It is unlikely that this will happen when the ethical bar is now so low in this Government that the word no longer appears to have a place in the cabinet manual. Ethics need only apply when one is caught.

Postscript: Grant Robertson has done well to expose the realities of Collins' failings and especially in this speech as part of an urgent debate. Gareth Hughes, in his speech, talks about how a Green/Labour Government would behave differently. Voters are now seeing more clearly the stark differences between future governments.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Greens Hit the Ground Running

I am not sure what circles Josie Pagani circulates in, because they obviously aren't green ones. In a Pundit post Pagani suggests that the left were caught on the hop with the election announcement and were not able to fully take advantage of it to launch their campaigns. I obviously can't speak for the Labour Party, but the Greens have been in campaign mode for some time and few will have missed our recent policy announcements regarding our schools as hubs and solar homes initiatives (both very well received). As soon as Key announced the September date the above image was immediately circulated throughout social media.

This is a new era for the Green Party and we are now operating at a level that can clearly compete with National and Labour. Our party machine is no longer reliant on a few volunteers and we now have our numerous committees and networks managed by employed staff.

If anyone should question the ability of the Green Party to govern (or our credibility regarding financial management) they need only see how we manage our campaigns. Without the large corporate donations of National and Labour (we do not accept money from businesses that don't support our values), we have learned to work efficiently and get the best bang for our buck. In the last election we spent less than half of what the Conservative Party spent and only slightly more than ACT and yet we managed to increase our vote by almost 70%. Far from being the 'luddites', as the fossil fueled National supporters label us, we are by far the most technologically adept party.

Our last two election campaigns were praised for having the most effective billboards and sticking to message. Our "Jobs, Rivers, Kids" themed campaign enabled our candidates to stay on message and keep the focus on what was important. This coming campaign will likely cover these familiar themes  (the real issues haven't actually changed) but the framing will be fresh.

It is unfortunate that our elections have turned into presidential campaigns that have focussed much of the attention onto the leadership of the two largest parties. National have cleverly supported this approach because they never like real scrutiny of their policies (asset sales) and it means that they only have to take advantage of their celebrity styled PM and concentrate on discrediting the Labour leader. It is likely that the media will run with this theme again as it also makes it easy for them.

The Greens probably deserve to be included in the major leader debates (we can no longer be considered a minor party), however we must complicate things by having co-leaders and adding a third party.  This is a pity because both Metiria and Russel have become highly effective and credible leaders.

Russel Norman was first made co-leader of the Greens in 2006, the same year that Key became leader of National. Since 2008 Russel has often been referred to as the real leader of the opposition because of his solid performances in the house and the fact Labour is onto their third leader over this period. Russel has won credibility with his understanding of economics and his focussed questioning. Russel is not afraid to call things as he sees them and his likening of Key's divisive and dismissive style of politics to Muldoon startled some, as has his firm stand against Colin Craig's dated thinking. He is also very adept at dealing with a crisis in a very direct and transparent way (the billboard incident last election is a good example).

Metiria Turei is now one of our most experienced parliamentarians, she is into her 12th year as an MP and has been a co-leader for over five years. Her credibility as a hard worker and focused politician is clearly shown through tracking her career. Metiria was brought up in a struggling working class family and found herself in the situation of being a 22 year old solo mother with few qualifications. Ten years later she had a law degree and was elected as a Green MP, at aged 39 she was elected co-leader. Within the party Metiria is known for her sense of humour and infectious giggle, but also as an astute leader with the ability to show leadership in any situation where it's needed. Metiria's performance in the house has proved she more than has the measure of Paula Bennet, Anne Tolley and Judith Collins. Metiria has also been a ground breaker for women, being the first to speak on Te Tii Marae.

Perhaps Josie Pagani needs to swap her red tinted lenses for green ones and she will then become aware of the strong, stable and dynamic leadership displayed by the Greens and the solid organisation and team work behind them. This spring election campaign will see progressive green messages sprouting through the current dead wood and promising a fresh, green approach to governance.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Educational Ideology and Collateral Damage

The Ministry of Education is tightening the National Standards net. Until now it was largely the comprehensive ERO reports that determined the performance or success of a school, now it is mostly about achievement levels in literacy and numeracy.

It was recently revealed that schools have been placed into three categories, those doing particularly well were to be called "no touch" schools, some were going to receive a "light touch" and the worst performing would need a "firm touch" from the Ministry. Principal Pat Newman caused some hilarity when he asked where the touching would happen and who would do it, and "what legal recourse will a touchee have if the touching doesn't come up to expectations".

In reality it is no joke, while the original titles for each group no longer exist, many Principals have discovered (around 800) that they meet the criteria for a firm touch. It became clear that practically all those notified were low decile schools. The key factor, despite all the other triggers listed (ERO reports and Charter compliance), it was the school's National Standards achievement levels that were the main determining factor.

There is a high level of anger and outrage from the recipients of these damning notifications. One principal I know was particularly upset, her Decile 2 school is well regarded and recently received a good ERO report that places it in the normal 3 year cycle. The majority of the pupils in her school are Pasifika and the rest are Maori or recent migrants. For a large proportion English is their second language and some speak up to three languages. The school is a happy, vibrant place, the children are enthusiastic learners, the teachers highly dedicated, but it is unlikely that the literacy and the numeracy achievement targets set by the Minister will ever be reached.

The notifications in many cases have been delivered in an almost apologetic manner, but the message is clear, these narrow, ideological targets (based on ropey assessments) are determining what success looks like in our primary schools. According to this Government socio-economic factors have little bearing on teaching and learning and a child who speaks three languages (but none of them English) cannot be considered competent in literacy. By bulldozing through this highly ideological system we are creating winners and losers and the collateral damage will include many wonderful children and schools.

Metiria Turei was correct, this Government is out of touch and our children deserve better.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Government Spin and Hidden Secrets

This National led Government has seriously mismanaged things and is desperate to hide the true effects of its governance over the last five years. I half suspect many of the retiring National MPs are jumping ship because they don't want to be around when the proverbial hits the fan.

National have carefully constructed showy facades that hide flimsy realities and I have attempted to give some examples below:


The facade: A Rock Star Economy

The Reality: We are enjoying the the dairy commodity boom, another property bubble and the activity generated from the Christchurch rebuild. Agricultural markets fluctuate, all our eggs are in one agricultural basket and all we need is another embarrassing contamination and we could lose markets quickly. Overblown property prices only benefit a few, a later crash is inevitable and Christchurch is a temporary phenomenon. The recovery is an unequal one, only 36% of those participating in a Stuff survey feel that they are better off and for the very wealthy the recession ended three years ago, the trickle down isn't occurring. Research and Development is underfunded as a % of our GDP. Our current account deficit is still one of the highest in the OECD and the use of GDP is not a good measure of general economic performance.

What the Government is doing: Throwing out lots of 'good news' stories and claiming anyone who points out the weaknesses are just party poopers. It is still selling assets (Genesis Energy) and borrowing heavily.


The facade: We're fixing a failing system and we're making good progress.

The Reality: Our once successful public education system didn't need fixing. It is reeling from the forced introduction of the flawed National Standards, the Novopay debacle, the constant blaming of underachievement on teachers (rather than poverty and inequity) and buying into the global eduction reform movement (GERM) that has had a devastating effect on other countries. For the first time in decades we have plummeted in our international ranking. Our teaching has narrowed to literacy and numeracy and constant data collection and our advisors and special education support have been cut. Early childhood centres are no longer funded to employ 100% qualified staff, our teachers are demoralized and our support staff feel undervalued.

What the Government is doing: Using flawed data and misinformation to give the impression of improvements (when there are none) and refusing to allow scrutiny of that data. Parata claims that Level 2 results have seen a remarkable 7% lift in Pasifika pass rates and 4% for Maori, but these statistics are being questioned. Attempts to analyze the data was suddenly blocked by the NZQA, who strangely removed the information from their website (May '13). When the Listener lodged an OIA request to see what prompted this decision, nothing could be found, it had just happened. The $359 million windfall for super teachers and principals will make little difference to achievement but will potentially buy out education leadership and make them compliant to flawed government policy.


The facade: Our environment is better than most and looks great in movies.

The Reality: 80% of our lowland rivers polluted, our wetlands and estuaries are experiencing eutrophication and 50% of our native species are heading for extinction. The growing intensification of dairying and the expansion of coal mining, fracking and deep sea oil drilling will see our greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow. Our clean green, 100% pure branding is being questioned internationally.

What the Government is doing: The RMA is being weakened and public input into consents for potentially polluting industries like deep sea oil drilling is being blocked. The Government has cut funding to an already struggling DoC and is determined to push through irrigation schemes, despite concerns, to further intensify dairying. The Government is still pursuing the mining of conservation areas. The Government stopped the comprehensive State of the Environment reporting and all reporting will now be limited to what they want the public to know. Independent scientific assessments from the likes of scientist Mike Joy have been actively discouraged.


The facade: poverty has flatlined, the Government has increased immunisations, is insulating homes  and getting people into work.

The Reality: At least 20% of children live in poverty where their basic daily needs are not met (food, clothing, sleeping arrangements) and it has been estimated that around 50% of all children will experience poverty at some time. Maori and Pasifika families have suffered more than others with the median household incomes dropping considerably over the last few years. Inequality is growing faster in New Zealand than most OECD countries. New Zealand has amongst the worst statistics (29th out of 30) for the health and welfare of children.

What the Government is doing: Lifting demands and expectations that parents should be in work (no matter the pay, hours and conditions) and encouraging growth of early childhood centres but not funding above 80% qualified staff. Keeping the minimum wage low so that we have growing numbers of working poor. No expectation that rental homes meet minimum  standards. Knowingly misrepresenting poverty statistics and refusing to measure child poverty or follow the advice of the Children's Commissioner and the Salvation Army.


The facade: The Government is creating more jobs and unemployment is dropping (now 6%)

The Reality: We still have almost double the levels of unemployment that existed when National came to power in 2008 (3.9 unemployment) and we now have one of the largest percentages of those under-employed in the OECD. Roy Morgan has assessed our unemployment as actually 2.5% above official statistics and has unemployment at 8.5% and a further 11.3% are looking for more work or are under-employed. This means that almost 20% of our workers are either unemployed or under-employed and this is equal to 519,000 people. This number has increased by 69,000 since the last quarter estimates. The working poor are being seen in growing numbers at food banks. Many manufacturers are struggling with the value of our dollar and the high costs of rental property and power. Our wealthiest business people have seen huge increases in wealth (much due to property investment) since 2011 but this has not translated to higher wages or greater investment in jobs. New Zealand is now regarded as lower wage economy with flexible employment law that is suitable for setting up call centres.

What the Government is doing: Keeping wages low with the introduction of a youth rate and using Working for Families to subsidise wages for employers ($3 billion per year). Government procurement does not support New Zealand businesses as it could and we are losing skilled workers and higher paid jobs that would employ the 25% of our university graduates that head overseas. The Government is also changing employment law to limit things like collective bargaining and removing compulsory meal breaks to favour employers.

I intend to use future posts to describe how the Green Party would do things differently and put in place  sustainable alternatives that will allow more New Zealanders to prosper. I haven't covered other secrets that are of concern, like the real truth behind GCSB operations and the secret TTPA negotiations, but this will do as a start I guess.