Tuesday, June 28, 2016
Even though the Green Party itself jokes about its constant calls for inquiries there is a good deal of truth to the last sentence of a 2012 satirical post: "Every time the Green Party cries wolf it turns out there is one."
Our Prime Minister has been desperately spinning the results of John Shewan's report into New Zealand's foreign trust regime. Even though there was some concern from the opposition that Shewan's insider status would mean a weak review, it hasn't panned out that way. The report is actually very damning of the weaknesses of the current regime and recommends that changes are needed around disclosure. While Shewan wasn't prepared to say that New Zealand was operating as a tax haven, we clearly didn't have robust systems in place to detect illegal activities. While we may not fit the OECD criteria for a tax haven we were obviously being used as one and had been advertised as such by trust managers.
If it wasn't for the Panama Papers New Zealand's foreign trust laws would probably not have undergone this scrutiny and most New Zealanders would have been unaware of our tax haven reputation. Before the dodgy regime was exposed to sunlight the Government was more than happy to support it and Key himself promoted the $24 million in income that was generated for the few involved in the industry. He clearly had full knowledge of what was really happening as his own personal lawyer lobbied to protect the industry and was up to his eyeballs in operating dodgy trusts.
The Government was forced into the review and even when appointing someone considered 'trust friendly' it still exposed the soft approach it has had to regulating potentially damaging and illegal economic activity.
The Government actively discourages any scrutiny of its governance and despite talking about greater transparency and openness, does everything it can to achieve the opposite. After joining the Open Government Partnership our Government has ensured it does the least possible to honour its obligations and it has recently sacked the Stakeholder Advisory Group to reduce activity and stakeholder involvement even further. This Government is very good at signing up to declarations for human rights and greater transparency and then doing the opposite. The UN's reports on New Zealand's human rights record identify more breaches and concerns each time (64 recommendations in 2009 to 155 in 2014).
The Official Information Act (OAI) was supposed to allow New Zealanders and the Opposition to have access to any information in the public interest and yet the Prime Minister was very open about the fact that information is often withheld if it was in the Government's political interests. Documents that are eventually released do not always provide the information sought because of strategic redactions (blacked out sections).
One of the most important institutions for providing authoritative scrutiny of the Government's operations is the Office of the Ombudsman. This office has had an increased work load, especially around IOA complaints. In 2013 there had been an increase in complaints of almost 30% on the previous year (13,684 complaints) but inadequate funding to do the work in a timely fashion. Even though the Government has increased funding a little there is still huge backlog and the Chief Ombudsman has requested $2.6 million to clear the 650 cases that are one to six years old.
The damning report on the highly flawed MFAT inquiry conducted by Paula Rebstock exposed how the Government deals with public servants who question their decisions. Ron Paterson, the Ombudsman who wrote the report into the inquiry, resigned after its release.
It is also interesting to note that the respected author of Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand, David McGee, also served as an Ombudsman. Just before retirement (and despite a heavy workload) he conducted his own investigation into the appalling process used to close Christchurch schools after the earthquake, such was his personal concern about reported abuses of power and poor process.
The pressure on our Ombudsmen is obviously intense and the reception to reports that negatively impact on the Government are not well received. The previous Chief Ombudsman Beverley Wakem was easily exposed in a Lisa Owen interview as being in a compromising position when trying to defend her review of the OIA. Owen quickly found evidence that showed the review was a white wash and Wakem's reluctance to criticise the PMs blatant disregard of the law was telling. It would be very interesting to know which cases have been ignored for 6 years and what influence the Government does have on the office behind the scenes.
Good governance should be based on evidence and those most affected by decisions should be properly consulted, yet neither of these are priorities for this Government. Those charged with carrying out its ideologically driven agenda are paid handsomely and those who are employed in watchdog roles are under-resourced and actively discouraged.
We owe a lot to those who risk their careers and reputation by telling the truth and exposing corruption. It shouldn't be so hard for our public watchdogs to do their work and it shouldn't be at such a high personal cost. The bad treatment of official whistleblowers isn't new (as anyone who remembers what happened to Justice Mahon will know), but it shouldn't still be happening.
Perhaps we need another inquiry?
Thursday, June 23, 2016
The Global Education Reform Movement (Germ) has spread its Neo-liberal tentacles into public education systems around the world. New Zealand's public education system has not been damaged as badly as many and this is largely because we began as a world leader and it takes some time to breakdown a professional culture that took more than sixty years to build.
The New Zealand public education system was continually assessed as one of the top four in the world for many decades, largely because of Clarence Beeby's 1940s shift to a child centred approach to teaching. Beeby believed that an education system shouldn't be driven by assessment but by lifting the quality of teaching through high quality professional development. Investing in the professional support of teachers through a well funded advisory service was considered the best way to improve teacher practice and achieve the best outcomes for children. Using evidence to inform professional development was also extremely important.
The things that made our education system a world leader have been cut and eroded over the last seven years and an earlier post (over 55,000 views) lists the multitude of damaging decisions and policy shifts the sector has experienced under the current Government. Ideology rather than evidence continues to drive change.
Despite the clear failure of the Charter Schools, Hekia Parata is allowing more to become established at great expense. The cost per pupil in Charter Schools is well beyond the expenditure of the public system and yet they are continuing amidst ongoing evidence that their performance is substandard while the operational funding for public schools has been frozen.
Some of the biggest spends in education are actually related to capital works or addressing delayed maintenance, fixing leaky schools and building new schools to accommodate an increasing population. While the Government claims the budget for education is increasing, schools are seeing little difference in their operational funding.
This Government is determined to continue with the National Standard assessment system that is not designed to identify the holistic needs of children and we are witnessing a decline in our global rankings for achievement. It continues to invest more in private schools while under funding special needs support and lower decile schools. It has only paid lip service to targeting funding to 'priority learners' and the reality for most schools is that there is little money available for those most deserving of extra support. Many schools are now more concerned about the basic health needs of their pupils and increasing transience caused by expensive housing and insecure employment than National Standards assessments in literacy and numeracy. The internationally regarded Dunedin Study has shown that if a child experiences poverty and deprivation in their early years, permanent damage will occur to their physical and mental heath as adults.
Bulk funding of schools was tried and rejected in the 1990s because of the pressure on schools to balance general operation costs with teacher pay and it is still an issue with support staff whose pay comes out of operational funding. Bulk funding also creates winner and loser schools based on a financial lottery rather than student outcomes. When there is a pay increase, but no extra funding, then a school has to cut hours or expenditure elsewhere to accommodate it. Bulk funding favoured the employment of inexperienced (but cheaper) teachers, larger class sizes and the downgrading of professionalism as a driver for recruitment and retention.
A new system of funding teacher salaries is being proposed that will operate in a similar way to bulk funding. While teacher salaries will still be paid through a central system, schools will be given a set amount to cover salaries. Any underspend will be credited back the the school and an overspend will have to be recovered. This will clearly be a one size fits all approach where schools that are staffed by a larger number of more experienced teachers will struggle to keep within their budget and schools with a larger number of unqualified or inexperienced staff will be rewarded. Staffing decisions should be based on professional suitability and having schools staffed largely with highly qualified and experienced teachers as a common goal.
I once taught with a wonderful experienced teacher in the UK many years ago, she was highly effective and loved by her students. Her passion was classroom teaching and she didn't want to lose that by taking on a leadership role. However when she attempted to apply for jobs in other schools she found that she had become unemployable. Her qualifications and years of experience put her on the top salary level and within a bulk funded system she had become too expensive for most schools to consider. I can't imagine a hospital not employing a heart surgeon because he/she is too well qualified and experienced. This is a dangerous path to take and will likely see us dropping even further in international rankings.
Monday, June 20, 2016
This National Government is clearly intoxicated with money, power and influence and has impaired vision. Ministers replying to questions in the house, especially the PM, respond with arrogance and abuse not dissimilar to a drunk being reprimanded for bad behaviour.
Drunk drivers display poor judgement and barely notice the roadsigns or the road markings. The deterioration of our country's natural environment, the numbers of children experiencing poverty and the severe lack of housing are visible everywhere one looks but have been irresponsibly ignored.
This Government is also a hit and run driver. It hits NGOs and government services with funding cuts, drives away from the casualties and blames others for the damage. The Government often appears unaware of the bumps as the wheels of its car run over the bodies of its many victims.
A drunk driver can't implement complicated manoeuvres and this National Government botched the implementation of Novopay and finds driving the complex route through new housing areas too difficult. It is crashing into side barriers, bumping over curbs and killing innocent bystanders in the process.
Despite clearly being well over the limit and not being able to walk a straight line, clever PR, distractions and using loopholes in the law have enabled it to escape prosecution.
We have a drunk driver that is oblivious to the fact that there is also a pile of unrestrained and unprotected kids in the back seat of a car that has failed its Warrant of Fitness. The Children's Commissioner has rightly pointed out that promising to purchase a new model car in the future will do nothing to protect the children in danger now.
The most sensible thing to do would be to stop the car, ask the driver to step out and remove the 'Key'.
Friday, June 17, 2016
I generally try to follow the principle of attacking the message rather than the messenger, however I have found it impossible to ignore the hypocrisy and meanness of our current Government Ministers. For many their personal conduct and past actions provide a context for what motivates and drives their decisions.
Bill English's hypocrisy is the most extreme when one remembers his claiming of a housing allowance of around $40,000 a year to live in his $1.2 million Karori family mansion. He had tried to convince us that his actual home was his Dipton family home (owned by a family trust) where he had not resided for many years. It was obvious that his real home was the one he and his wife had purchased in Wellington and where they lived for some time with their six children. English had been claiming $900 per week from the taxpayer to live in his own house. English reluctantly paid back $32,000 after much media attention, if his allowance hadn't been exposed he may still have been claiming it today.
While our Finance Minister was more than happy to have taxpayers subsidise his already affluent and privileged lifestyle he has put a lot of energy into denying others the ability to house and care for their families. As the Minister for Housing New Zealand he has spent around $30 million trying to sell off our state houses and has limited maintenance and new building by demanding that the social housing provider pay back over $100 million in annual dividends.
English's latest stroke of meanness was to lead the veto of Sue Moroney's Parental Leave Bill. The attempt to extend paid parental leave from 18 weeks to 26 weeks was supported by all parties in the house apart from National (for an international comparison Ireland provides for 42 weeks and Norway up to 45). English used the power of veto to block this vital support for young families with the claim that the predicted $60 million a year it would cost hadn't been budgeted for. This is a hollow argument when he had already spent $30 million of non budgeted funds on consultants for a failed scheme to sell off state houses.
National clearly had no qualms about throwing $11.5 million of tax payer money at an aggrieved Saudi farmer but when it came to compensating Teina Pora, a Maori man who was wrongfully imprisoned for 22 years, they were not so generous. National applied compensation guidelines suggested by Justice Hammond in 1999 to determine a payment and meanly refused to include an inflation adjustment. The $2.5 million offered is $2 million short of what was recommended by Rodney Hansen QC.
Compassion is certainly lacking in National Ministers when dealing with homeless families. MP Jan Logie attempted to get Social Development Minister Anne Tolley to explain why homeless families were being forced to pay for motel accommodation because of the Government's failure to provide enough emergency housing. Despite providing examples of desperate families with limited resources or options, Tolley insisted that the often substantial motel debts of up to $78,000 should be repaid in full.
Paula Bennett has desperately attempted to appear compassionate and then continually fails with regular outbursts that reveal her true nature. Bennett used the Training Incentive Allowance when she was a sole parent on the DPB to increase her qualifications and then was involved in wiping it once in Government. When a beneficiary questioned the cuts Bennett released her personal information to the media to discredit her and refused to accept charges of abuse of power. We have witnessed a repeat of this behaviour when Bennett's Ministerial performance was shown up by an Auckland Marae that opened its doors to the homeless and questioned the levels of Government support. Bennett's press secretary leaked to the media the fact that the spokesperson for the marae was subject to a police investigation.
In an attempt to appear to be doing something about New Zealand's social housing crisis, without spending much money, Paula Bennett even offered small handouts for those willing to leave the city (but without certainty of a home or job elsewhere). To reduce the perception of a crisis, and her own failings as a Minister, Bennett fabricated a story about fictitious flying squads (consisting of MSD officials and the Salvation Army) that were knocking on the windows of homeless people's cars and offering support. The PM repeated her story, with convincing detail, in an attempt to suggest that those sleeping in cars were refusing support and were choosing to live that way.
Michael Woodhouse is another Minister who would rather support the wealthy and ignore the needy. He refused to describe profitable but dangerous industries like cattle and dairy farming as high risk (53,000 workers were injured on dairy farms over 7 years) in his Health and Safety Reform Bill and amusingly lumbered worm farms and mini golf with that label instead. His announcement that New Zealand will answer the call to double our refugee quota by only adding 250 in two years time was embarrassing. New Zealand is currently ranked 90th in the world per capita for our acceptance of displaced people and by 2018 it is likely to be even lower. While our Government is reluctant to show compassion to refugees it has welcomed wealthy tax cheats to our untaxed foreign trusts and overseas speculators into our property market.
I could go on and describe Judith Collins' lack of compassion for rape victims, Hekia Parata's attempt to illegally close down low decile and special needs schools, Gerry Brownlee's treatment of vulnerable householders in Christchurch, but I have covered these before and the stories are numerous.
Over the last seven years National have led a significant shift of wealth up to a privileged few and has gone to extraordinary lengths to ignore the plight of our most vulnerable. Meanness and hypocrisy will be the lasting impression of this Government and it's Ministers and why we need to remove them from the governing benches.
Tuesday, June 14, 2016
David Seymour wants all refugees to sign up to our values before being allowed to enter our country. I wonder what he thinks our values are, because I certainly wouldn't want any refugee to be forced to support the values currently dominating Aotearoa:
I wouldn't want refugees to sign up to our family values when almost 30% of our children are living in poverty and we have rapidly growing inequities in the education and health of our children. We are the second worse country in the OECD for child health and welfare and domestic violence is rife.
I wouldn't want refugees to sign up for our humanitarian values when we are ranked 90th in the world for our per capita support of displaced people and refugees. Our human rights record is a sham when we sign multiple human rights treaties but don't honour them with action. We also have a growing problem with slavery and abuse of migrant workers.
I wouldn't want refugees to sign up to our values as global citizens when our climate targets are amongst the weakest in the world and we operate as a tax haven.
I wouldn't want refugees to sign up to our environmental values when short term profit comes before the state of our rivers and marine environments.
I wouldn't want refugees to sign up to our conservation values when more species are threatened with extinction in New Zealand than any other country.
I wouldn't want refugees to sign up for our values regarding housing when our homes are the most unaffordable in the world and we have 40,000 homeless.
I'm not sure what values Seymour thinks are special to our country and worth supporting other than tolerance of different religions and extreme political views such as his own. His own party supports the pursuit of personal wealth and the rights of individuals over collective good. These neo-liberal values have led to New Zealand having the fastest growing inequality in the developed world and a breakdown of our communities.
I would personally like to welcome far more refugees and embrace their cultural values that are often better than ours and have no relationship to the corrupt regimes that they are escaping from.
David Seymour is an ignorant man.
Saturday, June 11, 2016
In 2008 voters wanted a change, not because the Labour Party was particularly bad, but because a certain complacent arrogance appeared to be creeping in to the Government's leadership style. National was elected because John Key managed to convince voters that he understood what ordinary New Zealanders wanted and would be receptive to their needs. For almost 7 years that perception has remained and allowed National to continue in Government...however the facade of competence is now cracking and crumbling.
The housing crisis has got so bad that many middle New Zealand families are feeling the pinch or have connections to those that do. For the Government not to acknowledge that there is a crisis is plainly stupid and to jokingly suggest that homeless people may just be in the process of renovating instead is actually a little sick.
The Government's inaction and indifference to the housing needs of less affluent New Zealanders (at least 30% of us) is appallingly obvious. John Key's suggestion that homeless families just need to visit their local Winz office demonstrated how poorly informed he is on this major issue. Most homeless have found little support from Government departments and many on Housing New Zealand's priority lists now have waits of up to two years to be accommodated.
This Government is so lacking in practical solutions to solve such a massive problem (1 in every 100 New Zealanders are now homeless) that their attempts to do anything at all has verged on the ridiculous. Three Ministers share aspects of what should be one housing portfolio and yet each has just contributed to the huge mess that housing has become (miscommunications between Ministries are also resulting in evictions of people who have no other housing alternatives).
Bill English is the Minister for Housing NZ and his focus has been to convince us all that the Government is not a good provider of social housing and to shift the responsibility to the private sector and NGOs. By allowing the maintenance and upgrading of our state houses to fall behind, and forcing Housing NZ to annually pay over $100 million in dividends back to the Government coffers ("to make them more efficient"), we now have a $1.5 billion backlog of work. Many forced to live in state houses are becoming sick or dying and yet after spending almost $30 million on consultants in an attempt to find private providers of social housing, not one has been found.
More state houses are now being sold off than built and our country is now around 30,000 houses short of where it should be if the same trajectory of growth in state housing continued that we had from the 1930s to 1991. Housing NZ is clearly struggling with the efficiencies English wants when there are over 4,500 on its high priority waiting lists, up to a two year wait, 2500 houses on its books that are unoccupied, but only 200 of them ready for occupation.
Paula Bennett is the Minister of State Housing and Social Services. Separating the portfolio of social housing from Housing NZ seems ridiculous unless Housing NZ is considered as a business rather than a social service and there is a move to shift to the private sector for social housing supply. Private landlords have benefited from an annual spend of $2 billion on the Accommodation Supplement but they are under no obligation to take on homeless families (especially if they have other people who are more able to pay the increasingly expensive rents). This disconnect has caused a huge problem for Bennett because as English reduces the supply of state houses she has discovered that the private sector has a limited supply of appropriate social houses too. The Government used to build much of the lower cost housing, however most new houses are now being built for the affluent and profit (the houses we now build are the 3rd largest in the world).
To get families off the streets she has been forced to put them up in motels at commercial rates and then has demanded that they pay the money back. Bennett is clearly desperate and has been throwing out random solutions like paying people to leave Auckland without checking if there was somewhere they could go. Housing is obviously not a key focus for Cabinet when Bennett made the announcement of the payment without informing the PM or Finance Minister beforehand. One would have thought that if the housing crisis was a real a concern for Naional the policy would have been decided at a leadership level.
The ultimate in desperation (because there actually aren't enough houses or emergency accommodation) would be to spread the idea that homelessness is not really a growing issue and many actually choose to live in cars. To support this misrepresentation Bennett apparently told the PM that "flying squads" of MSD officials and the Salvation Army were knocking on car windows and offering support but were being turned down. This was quickly revealed as a total fabrication and the Salvation Army was forced to circulate a press release to say that they they had no part in such an operation and didn't think it was an appropriate approach anyway (they also claimed that many homeless have a distrust of officials).
Nick Smith is the Minister for Building and Housing and he has had the overview of building regulations and land supply. His own desperate attempt to be seen doing something about the housing shortage was to announce that 500 hectares of Crown land in Auckland was going to be dedicated to housing. He even led the media on a grand tour to prove that the spaces existed. Like Bennett his claims have been revealed as misrepresentation and without substance. After a year he has spent his entire budget on the project and only 5% of the claimed land has been secured.
While Bennett is busy trying to blame the homeless for their situation, Smith is blaming both the RMA and local bodies for the lack of housing supply (rather than his Government's failure to manage an overheated property market). He is claiming that the process of consenting housing developments and private construction is unnecessarily slow. However, when the Auckland City Council manages to process 98% of consents on time and New Zealand is regarded as the 2nd easiest in the world for conducting business we hardly have a serious problem with regulation.
Smith's latest attempt to shift blame (and distract from his failure to release crown land) is his claim that Auckland's reluctance to extend the metropolitan urban limit is largely responsible for the housing shortage. To make sure that this distraction is given proper attention he threatened to appoint a commissioner to replace the Auckland City Council if the Unitary Plan doesn't meet with Government approval. While the Government has replaced many school boards that have failed to do its bidding as well as Environment Canterbury and the Southern DHB, the sacking of the democratically elected council that currently governs 33% of our population is an extreme measure. Smith has conveniently ignored the fact that any greenfields development will require substantial expenditure on services (sewerage, water, electricity and cable...) and no developer would be interested in building the low cost or social housing that is in such short supply.
This Government has an ideological reluctance to do the things that will actually make the difference: a government led building programme to build at least 20,000 homes for low income families; an effective capital gains tax to reduce the rampant property speculation that has caused the hugely inflated prices in Auckland and other centres that has made our housing the most expensive in the world; a restriction on foreign ownership of property; addressing the monopolies within our construction industry that makes the costs of construction 30% more expensive than Australia; a real focus on regional development so that there are more jobs and opportunities outside Auckland; A shift in budget priorities away from building motorways and corporate welfare; a focus on improving the lives of ordinary New Zealanders rather than tilting the playing field for the already wealthy and causing New Zealand's growth of inequality to be the fastest in the OECD.
When profit focussed Australian owned banks have recognised the problem of foreign ownership in New Zealand's overheated the property market before the Government, it is a real warning sign that there is a lack of awareness and leadership at governance level.
The National Party actually has no previous credibility with regards to housing, it was the 1991 National Government that changed the building regulations that led to our current $11.3 billion leaky building problem.
If we want to fix our housing mess, we need to change the Government!
Wednesday, June 1, 2016
As Green Co-leader Metiria Turei noted at the public launch of the Memorandum of Understanding, time has moved on. There are new leadership teams fronting Labour and the Greens and a higher level of pragmatism than has existed before. The Greens can no longer be considered as minor force in politics as they are now raising more money than Labour and have an organisational capacity that is at least as strong as New Zealand's second largest party. If the Government is to change then the two parties have to work together.
A future Labour/Green Government is an attractive proposition and when one envisages a possible ministerial line up there is a good mixture of experience and skill to sort out the numerous crises that have blown up under National's watch:
Andrew Little is not a charismatic or populist leader in the mould of Lange or Key but he is clearly a strong leader for bringing together different factions and building a team in a similar way that Jim Bolger did for National when he successfully worked with Winston Peters. When we are rebuilding a country we need solid rather than shallow and flaky leadership.
Metiria Turei has become a rock for the Greens after the resignation of Norman. She is now the most experienced Green MP and a strong speaker in the House. She would make a solid deputy PM and her warm and easy manner would compliment Little's more stolid approach. I can also see Metiria making a great Minister of Justice, as a Maori woman and a lawyer she would provide a much needed different perspective to this portfolio.
Annette King has a wealth of experience and is a cheerful, rarely flustered performer and would be a useful Minister in a number of portfolios.
Grant Robertson has a sound knowledge of the finance portfolio and is an intelligent and able operator.
Jacinda Adern would make a very good Minister for Social Development and I am sure she would quickly establish some measures for child poverty so that we can clearly track progress in addressing this problem. Jan Logie would make a very useful Associate.
James Shaw's international experience and business background would make him an ideal Minister for Trade and Industry. He has already impressed the business community and is aware of the potential of new markets and technology.
David Parker would be a highly competent Attorney General.
Kevin Hague would make a great Minister of Health. He is a past CEO of a DHB and has impressed with his understanding of the portfolio and his ability to work across the house to find solutions for our many health issues.
Kennedy Graham should be the Minister for Climate change as he as a real grasp of the economic and environmental issues involved.
David Shearer would make an able Foreign Minister with Kennedy Graham an obvious Associate.
Julie Anne Genter would make a highly competent Transport Minister. She has a background in Transport management and economics (she is currently the Greens Finance Spokesperson) and has had National's Transport Ministers struggling with her well reasoned and researched questions.
Chris Hipkins has increasingly impressed with his understanding of the Education Sector and he has become one of the rising stars in Labour's lineup. Catherine Delahunty would make a superb and experienced Associate Minister as she has huge respect within the education sector.
Eugenie Sage would make a highly knowledgeable Minister of the Environment or Conservation. Her knowledge and understanding of either portfolio would be substantially greater than anyone else in Parliament.
David Clendon would make a very competent Minister of Commerce or Corrections he has a strong understanding of both portfolios through his business background and interest in prison reform.
Phil Twyford would make sure that a Labour Green Government addressed our housing crisis in a practical way.
Gareth Hughes would make a very enthusiastic and competent Minister of Science and Innovation. he already has the support of the IT industry as one of the few MPs who actually understands the sector.
This is only the beginning of a possible line up and just my own attempt at matching skills with portfolios, but already I am excited about the prospect of change and seeing some caring and competent people in the Government benches. Who knows what extra talent may appear in both parties after the election, I know the Greens have a strong list of reserves already. All we need to do now is break through National's lies and spin and promote this alternative for a more progressive and compassionate future.
As for Winston Peters and New Zealand First... I reckon Winston would make a good fist of the railways portfolio and perhaps we could have a Minister for the Gold Card.
Roll on 2017!