Friday, July 31, 2015

Government Tilts the Playing Fields

The most shocking example of Government bias can be seen when comparing the treatment of the Problem Gambling Foundation and Relationships Aotearoa with how it bails out failing private schools and Charter Schools.

Wanganui Collegiate is an elite Private School of around 400 students with a staffing ratio that is almost twice that of a public school. In 2012 it appealed to the Government to become an integrated school because it was experiencing financial difficulty from necessary building work. The Ministry and the Education Minister advised the Government not to bail out the school because there were already 1,400 empty places in secondary schools in the region, the integration would hurt local schools and the money would not be serving priority learners. The Government went against that advice and integrated the school, providing it with $3.1 million year of extra funding (over $7,000 a year per student).

It then transpired that not only did Wanganui Collegiate own $3 million of freehold land but it also charged amongst the highest school fees in the country ($10,900 a year for day students and $21,850 for boarders). John Key explained, when questioned about the reasons the Government did not follow advice regarding the school, that the school deserved support because of its high attainment levels.

The Northland Charter School Te Kura Hourua ki Whangaruru was provided with 1.6 million to set up with a starting roll of 61 students and $1.5 million of operational funding ($ 24,600 per student). Over it's first year of operation the school was found wanting by ERO, citing issues with learning, teaching, management, leadership and student engagement. Despite ongoing support the school continued to fail and out of 49 students entered for NCEA credits only one school leaver gained a formal qualification. Student numbers have dropped and the roll is now 37 students while still being funded at a guaranteed minimum roll of 71. That means Te Kura Hourua ki Whangaruru now receives $40,500 per student, around five times more than what most state schools would receive.

Again the decision has been made against the Ministry advice to close the school and Education Minister Hekia Parata has even decided to provide $129,000 of extra funding to cover the costs of implementing a remedial plan. Parata defends the decision because she claims it is in the best interests of the 37 vulnerable students to remain in the failing school until at least the end of the year. Nothing will be done about the unaccounted $4,000 of cash withdrawals made through the school's debit card and the purchases from McDonalds, KFC and Burger King that are not usually considered normal operating expenses.

Since 2012 Wanganui Collegiate has received around $9 million of taxpayers money to support 400 children with privileged backgrounds and over two years a failing Charter school will have received around $4.8 million for less than 50 students.

The extraordinary support received by the schools mentioned above was not extended to Relationships Aotearoa that had served around 25,000 people annually and had been providing professional counseling services successfully for over 66 years. The Government had passed on many of the counseling services it had once been responsible for to the NGO but then cut its budget by around $4 million. Despite Relationships Aotearoa investing in improved systems and being lauded as an example the Government wanted other NGOs to emulate, RA went over their budget by $271,000. In submissions the organisation questioned the unrealistic contracts and meagre funding the Government provided. Without any transition plans for the thousands of clients involved, the Government cut the funding and Relationships Aotearoa was forced to close its doors.

Another effective NGO almost received the same fate. The Problem Gambling Foundation is internationally regarded as an effective organisation in reducing problem gambling. It employs around 70 staff and has helped over 250,000 problem gamblers. One of the ways it has achieved its success is through encouraging communities to have a sinking lid policy on the number of pokies and this has been hugely successful.

The Government has a close relationship with SkyCity and part of its conference centre deal was a special allowance to increase its gaming machines by 250 and have 40 new gaming tables. The gambling industry has had its profits impacted by the effectiveness of the PGF and consequently the NGO found that it was no longer the preferred service provider and a surprised Salvation Army won the contract instead.

The Associate Health Minister Peter Dunn defended the decision and claimed the process was a fair one but the PGF challenged the decision in the High Court. Unsurprisingly the Court ruled against the Ministry, finding that proper procedures weren't followed and the tender process wasn't fair. Sadly even though the decision found in favour of the PGF the battle may not be over. Christchurch's Phillipstown school won their court case against the Minister of Education regarding a forced closure, but it occurred anyway.

This Government has clear agendas and to achieve those it will readily tilt playing fields unfairly. If an organisation questions government policy or challenges the profits of the wealthy it can expect an uphill battle.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Ministry of Primary Industries New Environmental Regulator

I attended a consultation meeting today for the new National Environmental Standard for Plantation Forestry ( NES-PF) document. It was a very concerning experience, not only for the precedent that is being set that a single industry can determine environment standards, but also for the fact that GE-GMO trees are going to become permissible without any public mandate or wider economic assessment. A Green friend attended a similar meeting in Northland and he commented that it felt like the Ministry 'for making money' is being allowed to decide what is good for the environment.

Staff from the MPI presented a logical case for greater consistency when larger forests encompassed more than one region and therefore would need to include different environmental and bureaucratic expectations in their planning and operations. These new standards would apply to the forestry industry's wider activities and would mostly override the district plans and the regional council rules (there were some exceptions but would generally would be the case).

The document does contain some sound environmental standards, but some others will allow for less stringent rules for forestry activities around waterways, reduced protections for indigenous vegetation and the potential for clear felling on erosion risk land (as some examples).

This document is intended to make it easier for commercial forestry to expand and operate, but many of the potential costs of mitigating any adverse effects will be passed on to environment councils and ratepayers. Someone from Environment Southland asked whether this is a sign of the future and whether the Council may have to manage a similar set of unique standards for the likes of the dairy industry in the future. This possibility wasn't discounted.

I questioned the need for separate rules for different land uses and put forward the idea that if we had national standards that covered all land use it would be much simpler. I also suggested it should be the role of the Ministry of the Environment to set environmental standards, not the MPI. Why should a farmer building a road across his farm to a forestry block have one set of rules for crossing his paddocks and another for inside his plantation? I was told that if the local council wanted to adopt their rules for consistency's sake, they could. It sounded a little like the tail wagging the dog to me and all the onus would be placed on the councils to make the differing rules work.

Environment Southland Councillor, Robert Guyton, questioned the manner in which the use of GE-GMO trees was slipped into the document with little acknowledgment. He read out a statement from the appointed Commissioners for Environment Canterbury who had voiced concerns about the wider ramifications of introducing GE-GMO plants with no transparent or democratic process. By including this in the Environmental Standard as a fait accompli it does not allow any region to assess the impacts of it on their local industries especially those relying on an organic or GE free environment. It was admitted that there had been no research into the impacts on other industries or the trade implications of losing New Zealand's GE free status.

Commercial foresters were keen to allow the use of GE-GMO Douglas Firs (as one example) that cannot reproduce. These trees grow well at higher altitudes but are notorious for the spread of wilding trees if they are allowed to seed in their natural state. This would be very useful for commercial foresters and would reduce the cost for dealing with a rampant pest, however, once introduced it would then change the country's GE status forever with huge consequences for other industries.

While forestry has been poorly served by this Government and reforestation is needed to regrow the industry (and increase its capacity as a carbon sink) this document is a step too far.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

National's Ideology a Cancer to Public Services

The National Government has a philosophy of reducing government and increasing privatisation. It has attempted to cut 30,000 jobs from the state sector, introduced Charter Schools, private prisons, PPPs and has sold off state assets. None have been supported by evidence, research or consultation, it is pure ideology and a cancer to our public services.

The Government's determination to deliver an improved public service by setting targets, shifting contracts to NGOs and the private sector does not bear close scrutiny. Shifting what were Government services to private providers and NGOs has proved problematic when the budget to provide the services is reduced to a level well below the previous costs to manage them. The Government's belief that others can provide quality public services more cheaply has had setbacks when Relationships Aotearoa had to close its doors due to serious funding shortfalls despite a long history of good performance.

After removing $25 million from the Ministry of Education budget, frontline workers in special needs were cut and the debacle of the Novopay payroll system occurred (costing $45 million to fix). While New Zealand's public education system was once the envy of the world it is rapidly dropping in international rankings and becoming more inequitable.

Ignoring widespread concern from the education sector, and no mandate from voters, five Charter Schools were approved (and funded well above state schools). The education profession questioned the wisdom of nonprofessionals leading the schools and using unregistered teachers. After eighteen months, and costing almost three times as much per student as state schools, the experiment has been a dismal failure. Te Pumanawa o te Wairua has constantly struggled to deliver a safe environment or acceptable teaching standards, despite lots of professional support. Rather than disestablish the 37 student school (it opened with 71) Hekia Parata has decided to provide even more funding to keep it going until at least the end of the year. The school will now cost the tax payer $45,000 per student compared to $7,500 for children in state schools.

Teachers in the state sector were also appalled by the Government's decision to bail out the 400 student Wanganui Collegiate private school by $3 million (against advice) when there was ample capacity to absorb the students in the neighbouring public schools. When children with special needs struggle to get enough support this generosity to support a few affluent students was unjustified.

Private prisons have a mixed record overseas. To maximise profits they are often run on minimal staffing and as little as possible spent on rehabilitation programmes. The Government gave Serco prison contracts despite its chequered reputation and struggling financial situation, and when the new Auckland South prison facility is full, the company will be responsible for 25% of New Zealand's prisoners.

What has been revealed in the Serco managed Mt Eden prison is similar to what has occurred in its other facilities, minimal levels of inadequately trained staff and poor management of the detainees. Many injuries and even a riot appear to have gone unreported as such incidents incur penalties. Serco has already had to pay out $300,000 for such things as insufficient staffing, mixing accused prisoners with other prisoners, minimum entitlements and incident notification.

When at least 1 in 120 New Zealanders are homeless or housing deprived and children and adults are ill and dying because of damp, overcrowded and unhealthy houses the Government has decided that it no longer wants the responsibility of social housing and has started  a programme of selling them off. This is despite the low standard of many private rentals and the reluctance of other organisations to take them on.

The National Party does not understand the ethos of public service, it can never be managed by arbitrary budgets and targets or narrow contracts. Most who work in the public sector do not do the work for money alone and financial incentives just corrupt the professional ethics that many are used to operating under. When ACC staff had financial rewards for reducing the number of long term claimants they ceased working in the best interests of the individuals concerned.

Most of our public services exist to support a properly functioning society full of healthy, well housed and educated people. There are not just humanitarian reasons for providing these services, but economic ones too. It is a financial drain on our health systems when thousands of children present to our hospitals with respiratory illnesses due to poor housing and there is a cost to businesses when workers call in sick or are off work for long periods because of a poorly resolved injury.

Providing social services can never be considered something that the private sector can do well. A good business must make a profit and return dividends to shareholders. This means that if a government has a set budget for a particular service all of that money can be directed to service delivery while in the state sector. If the same amount is paid to the private sector for doing the same thing (it is often less) then the necessary profit must be sucked out of wages or by cutting corners in delivery.

No developer or private company could provide social housing in the way the Government can, it won't have access to low interest loans or compete with the economies of scale. When state houses are not well maintained or their supporting services fail, it is not because governments are no good at providing good social housing, but because there is no will to do so.

We need to cut out the cancer of neoliberalism from our public service before it becomes a terminal condition!