Sunday, December 20, 2015

A Diary of NZ's Child Poverty Crisis

This post will serve as a rolling post where I aggregate stories about child poverty to show how incredibly harmful our economic policies are. 

15 April 2016: Inequality and education

According to a new UNICEF report released, "New Zealand is in the bottom third for inequalities in education". While this government continues to keep saying they cannot measure poverty, the rest of the world is condemning us for being at the bottom of the heap.

The framing of child poverty is about failed parents and adults. Yet, child poverty has an impact on education and health thus condemning this kids to a lifetime of poverty. And these very same kids will be chastised as adults for being poor even though that is effectively the life sentencing we are giving them.

Universal Basic Income is something that has been discussed recently which may go some way to addressing child poverty but solving income inequality on its own is not enough. Poverty is a multi-pronged policy failure and unless it is considered in the context of government services, wealth inequality, labour rights, taxation of corporate profits, concentrated inherited wealth, and our values, we cannot solve this grave economic problem. 

16 February 2016: Child poverty and government inaction 

Today the Children's Commissioner and the Salvation Army have had exposed how lack of government action has lead to a worsening situation.

"Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills has described the Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill as a wasted opportunity which will not improve the often-appalling conditions in which children live."

This government has a habit of implementing policies that are not designed to be effective and then blaming 'government' as the reason why they were not effective. This then serves as an excuse for privatization or complete inaction. Add to this, now they are are being accused of cooking the numbers to make them look good. Somehow I'm not surprised that Government agencies might be creating fake targets to give the appearance of "success" since this Government brought in their Better Public Service targets.

These targets are meaningless without a whole of government approach to meeting the needs of our society. If agencies are more worried about looking good to the government of the day, they are not going to be spending time coming up with policy solutions to solve the problems that the public faces. The government's own Ministerial Committee on Poverty continues to achieve nothing.

This is an appalling statistic and our entire nation should hang its head in shame. Housing should be a key social policy and a key priority for this government if they want to actually tackle child poverty. Unfortunately I don't think tackling child poverty is the legacy John Key is after.

11 February 2016: Child poverty and education 

According to the OECD:

Poor children in New Zealand are more than six times more likely to do badly at maths than well-off children, a new report from the OECD says.

This was reported by RNZ 2 days ago. Last year when he was questioned about uni students in hardship he said - "They can get a student loan with no interest, they can get a student allowance they never have to repay. There's lots of entitlements that they get that better-off kids don't get."

Labour has announced a policy of free tertiary education which has the potential to help many in hardship but if childhood poverty and hardship prevents kids from getting a solid education, university will be very challenging and unproductive. We would be basically setting up these kids to fail.

While the National Party is seen as good economic managers in the short term, this spells disaster for the future on New Zealand. We have a situation where 1 in 3 Kiwi kids are growing up in poverty. A third of an entire generation of children are going to enter the workforce at some stage in the future with inadequate skills. The fact that National are putting winning elections ahead of their responsibility to govern is predictable. No amount of trade agreements will solve the hole that child poverty will leave in our future books.

20 December 2015: NZ's looming economic crisis - child poverty 

Today we have a story on RNZ headlined: “Child poverty 'moral crisis' for New Zealand”. While the headline focuses on 'moral crisis', the person they were quoting - Dame Diane Robertson, who is the outgoing head of the Auckland City Mission, said: "It's an economic crisis, it's a social crisis and it's a moral crisis."

It is an economic crisis.

In 2008, academics writing in the Journal of Children and Poverty[i] said, “apart from considerations of equity and justice, it may be in the nation’s material self-interest to reduce poverty.” My perception of the issue is that the moral argument is failing. There seems to be very little appetite for equity and justice for roughly 50% of the voting public. And this is reflected in what we believe are the “real issues”. Personally, I do not think National voters or even right wing voters are ‘evil’ and I think that they do care about child poverty. But their preferred solution is not working. We know it is not working because their preferred government has been in power and child poverty is rising.

Prime Minister John Key tried to deflect the issue by linking child poverty to drug use. It is clever but if it indeed is drug use (which it is not), then it is also a government failure in its inability to treat addiction as a public health issue. In fact, this government implemented a drug testing policy for beneficiaries which has largely been a failure. There were 47 positives from about 30,000 tests - a huge waste of resources on an ideologically bigoted witch-hunt. Despite the deflection, the facts provided by his own Children’s Commissioner is that children are living hardship whether their parents are on the benefit or in work.

The facts are that working parents are not making enough and their children are in poverty. This is a travesty. To add to all of that, 31,000 people had their benefits cut because of not disclosing foreign trips in the last financial year. No doubt there were children living in those households. National raised benefits by $25/week and then dropped 31,000 people (!) from it. It seems that the attack on beneficiaries is slightly more sophisticated now compared to the 90s. Their social and economic policy is such a massive failure that it does not matter whether people are on the benefit or working.

No matter how anyone looks at it, 300,000+ children living in poverty is disastrous for our economy. And so I am going to subvert the spirit of Christmas and say that this economic failure is going to personally disastrous for me. I am going to be selfish. Child poverty is not in my 'material self-interest'. After the current home-owning wealthy baby-boomers are long gone, I will be in my 60s and these kids are going to be in their peak working age. The statistical association between them and their likelihood of having lower earnings, being less productive, being more likely to commit crime, and having poor health is high. That is a fact. Not only will they not be contributing to my society, I will be bearing the economic cost in the form of rising public health costs and an expensive justice system.

If we are in fact going to be discussing morality, I would rather my tax dollars go towards the well-being of a child rather than housing an adult in prison. A latter position is unarguably immoral. Letting ideology get in the way of dealing with child poverty because one might have to be slightly socialist in the short term seems like a small price to pay. Yet I do not feel that argument has been made by the Opposition at all. A larger participating workforce can only be good for our economy. It means more goods and services being bought (yay Capitalism!). 

Child poverty is an economic issue and as such it is an economic failure. According to the Children’s Commissioner, child poverty costs us somewhere around $8 billion a year[ii]. To be absolutely precise, this is an economic management failure. Whether RNZ wants to call the government out via their headline is an editorial decision and the motivations behind their headline choice is not known to me. Perhaps in the spirit of Christmas it makes more sense to appeal to our moral obligations. But plainly put, this is an economic management failure. And as such, I will put the blame squarely at this Government’s feet.

National has been far more successful in its messaging on almost all of the issues. Our political discourse is now much more cynical. We look at how something (whether policy or action) will play with the public rather than the merits of that something. And if that really is the case, I think it is time we start talking about child poverty in economic terms rather than moral terms. Because I think this government has lost its moral compass and as such cannot provide leadership on that. And in the absence of leadership, I do not think appealing to moral conscious is working. I do not know if it is the GFC or years of neo-liberal economic policy that has hardened us, but I feel our empathy levels are very much exaggerated. Yes, during times of national crisis we are really good at coming together but that is not just a Kiwi thing. That is a human thing. All countries do it. Underlying our sporadic empathy burst however, is a lot of apathy, distrust of poor people, bigotry, and selfishness. But if I am wrong, how is 300,000 children in poverty not a national crisis? How is fixing it not our #1 priority? How can we be so heartless?

Merry Christmas and thanks for reading.

[i] Harry J. Holzer, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach , Greg J. Duncan, and Jens Ludwig, “The economic costs of childhood poverty in the United States” Journal of Children and Poverty Vol. 14, No. 1, March 2008, 41-61
[ii] Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty (Office of Children’s Commissioner), “Solutions Child Poverty in New Zealand: Evidence for Action”, December 2012 

Saturday, December 5, 2015

You don't actually want peace.

I’m not a religious scholar but it is always laughable to me when people say Islamic texts are inherently violent. Without examining the context within which they were written, pretty much all religious texts can be interpreted negatively. And they are. Islam is about 600 years newer than Christianity and if one thinks back to Christianity in the 1400s, one can easily find out how violent Christianity was capable of. It takes a long time for any kind of religious reformation to happen and it never stops.

I don’t think the Bible itself has changed too much but the way it is interpreted is markedly different now from even 100 years ago. And in fact, reformation in Christianity still continues. The Pope himself seems to be ushering in a new brand of Catholicism. People have a problem with Sunni and Shia divisions, yet everyone seems to accept the 10+ different brands of Christianity that have developed over time and block out the clashes between Catholics and Protestants. Even now, even in America – in the so called land of the free, Christian groups want to stop progress. They would take away women’s right to choose and LGBTQIA people’s right to even exist.

I myself grew up in a fairly progressive but devout household. My maternal grandfather was an Islamic scholar and taught me to read the Quran. My paternal grandfather built a Mosque and Madrasa right in front of our family home in Bangladesh. But growing up, none of the women in my family wore a burka or even a hijab (my dad is one of 9 siblings and my mum is one of 6, so no shortage of women in the family). But this has changed in the last decade. A lot of my cousins and primary school friends have started to wear the hijab and it has become sort of a cross between fashion statement and distinguishing socio-economic factor. Wealthier folks tend to be embracing this new “religion as a fashion statement” movement.

Many in western countries seem to think that Islam needs reformation. They are not incorrect but my observation is that Islam was already on the path to reform well before the western world took any notice. People think Islam needs reformation because of terrorism, whereas Muslims like myself think terrorism is what’s stopping actual reformation.

The victims of Islamic terrorism are overwhelmingly Muslim. The countries that are root cause of this problem are tied to the United States and Europe. When I look at pictures of Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan in the 70s and how progressive women’s clothing was and compare them to the situation now it becomes very obvious to me that Islam was already being practiced in conjunction with progressivism but it was halted. War and political unrest fueled by US and UK involvement has not only prevented reformation, it has taken it backwards. In the absence of personal security, people turn to their faith and anyone who can promise them security. People are afraid and most importantly terrorists and their ideology have a lot of power - the combination has proven to be lethal to all who are involved. 

Progressive Muslims are not backed by anyone. Feminists, academics, and scholars are working independently to try to affect change with no help and constant threats. Think about the regimes that US and UK support, think about the amount of war that is waged on innocent civilians, think about how Muslims are treated in the Western world. All of this contributes to the hostility we see all around the world. I have no problems reconciling my feminist values with my faith but that seems to be incredulous to everyone because the only interpretation of Islam anyone ever talks about is politicized Islam in the context of terrorism and violence.

There is no doubt that Islam needs to be separated from the state’s business. But this is challenging. Just look at Christianity in American politics. There is no doubt that women’s voices have to be included in this reform. There is no doubt that barbaric acts should be denounced whether they are in the name of religion or notions of freedom and security. Our collective humanity cannot justify torture for the security of wealthy white people while denouncing beheadings. We cannot claim that Islam condones oppression of women when domestic violence and our rape culture continues to oppress women in our own society. New Zealand is not an Islamic country, so then why are women oppressed here?

Eradication of Islam will not eradicate terrorism. We need to fundamentally re-think our foreign and military policy, our allies, and who we fund in order to eradicate terrorism. Self-determination, implementation of universal human rights, democracy in the form people’s ability to participate in free elections, economic security, and freedom from war is the antidote to terrorism and a progressive Islam. 

People ask for liberal voices in Islam. Well I am here but nobody actually wants to listen to me or those who are like me. White men in power and hawks who control the military agenda don't actually want to listen to us. They would rather put terrorists on a pedestal on our behalf and listen to their rhetoric. Fox News would laugh at us. Illegitimate "leaders of Islam" would put fatwas on us. 

All the while Rome burns.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

On Twitter, free speech, and activism.

A couple of days ago I pointed out Whale Oil’s post on ISIS and Palestinians and his call to kill all Muslims on Twitter. Giving oxygen to Whale Oil’s hateful rhetoric is obviously counterproductive and many people responded to me by saying it is best to ignore. And perhaps they are right. As a Kiwi Muslim, while it is hard for me to stomach it, I have enough experience with bigotry to know that these views are prevalent and accepted in NZ and there’s not much I can do about it by drawing more attention. However, WO (Whale Oil) has a close and personal relationship with our Prime Minister and several other National MPs including Judith Collins who has referred to him as a close friend. It is troubling to me that our nation’s lawmakers and leaders are so comfortable associating with a deeply troubled and bigoted man and that it is accepted as normal. What I presume John Key and others would say is that he is entitled to his view but that shouldn’t stop their friendship. Fair enough. I myself might be knowingly or unknowingly “friends” with people who have questionable positions but I certainly would not take political advice for them. And if I was a in a political position, I would not be texting them regularly and then deleting those texts. That is what troubles me. And that is why I tweeted that.

Following my tweets, some people tried to defend his post by saying that it was not about Muslims but about ISIS and Palestine and that I was trying to limit his free speech. Let’s make one thing clear, I have absolutely no power to limit his speech. I only have the power to criticize and that is my right. Some did try to point to legislation that could be used to stop him and were quickly corrected on the limits of the law. It shouldn’t be shocking to people, that a call to kill entire groups of people was upsetting to some folks and made them want to put a stop to it. Bigotry induced desires to KILL entire groups of people should make everyone upset. Because that post wasn’t *just* about ISIS and Palestine.

At one point a person tried to tag WO into my tweets, which I found highly offensive and frankly scary. I think one of the problems with Twitter is the misguided belief that it is an equal playing field for all voices. It absolutely is not. There are many many documentations of transgender people, women, PwD (people with disability), and PoC (people of colour) facing violent and distressing threats on Twitter and other social media. These threats include murder, rape, assault, and extremely degrading language. This is taken lightly by many because it is not considered “actual harm”. As someone who has faced milder versions of this, I can assure you it is absolutely “actual harm”. I have been harassed on Twitter, Facebook, and via email. I am utterly helpless to stop this harassment as it continues to this day and it takes a horrifying emotional toll. People have told me to leave twitter and stop engaging. I see this as equivalent to being told to stop wearing short skirts in order to not be raped. Why should I have to stop using a public platform? And while people do condemn those who make these threats, they don’t seem to want to make stopping them a priority. They, however, have no problems using their time and energy to tell me to leave social media – literally one of the only mediums available to me to speak out.

I digress.

Under no circumstances should WO have been tagged into that conversation. He is a dangerous person who actively tries to destroy people by finding out personal information about them and using it against them. This is well documented. And even if one were to be unware of the history, my deliberate exclusion of his handle should have been enough of an indication that he should not be involved in that conversation. This person, I am told, now has deleted that tweet.

This leads me to a broader topic of New Zealand Twitter and particularly the recent vitriol against political twitter users by some journalists and political commentators. There is anecdotal evidence that the most politically engaged users of Twitter fall into the “left wing” category. This has not been empirically tested at all and is only based on follower counts and number of tweets. Any number of social media experts can explain that follower counts is not an indication of engagement. However, most people who comment on Twitter as supposed “outsiders” are actually completely ignorant of how social media reach works and its use as a tool. So they make broad assumptions and write “provocative stories” designed to dismiss and poke fun at Twitter. Bryce Edwards, a political science lecturer and popular commentator on NZ Herald and on TV has twice used my tweets in his columns to say that I had been “complaining”. And I’m not the only one that has been subject to his subtle denigration. 

I have written in the past with Matthew Beveridge on the use of Twitter as source of stories. “Twitter reaction” has become fodder for stories not just in New Zealand but all around the world. Twitter is often first to break on the ground news and every day citizens have now become “reporters”. My personal observation is that this has led to resentments among the more established commentators and reporters. Anyone can now call themselves a “commentator” and that makes some people extremely uncomfortable. For example, 10 years ago hardly anyone was questioning media narrative and coverage about transgender people even though they had been literally dying because of their gender identity. Now that marriage equality is becoming a ‘settled matter’ in the developed western world, other LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual) issues are starting to take prominence. Many people who fall in this category have been told to wait for their turn and they are now taking their turn and refusing to wait. Unsurprisingly this makes those who are in positions of power, those who have benefited for oppressing these groups, extremely uncomfortable.

Allies are forming. Intersectional feminism is gaining confidence. And one of the most important tools they/we have is social media. The biggest benefit of social media is our ability to form social movements and groups without the need to be in the same place physically. This means that lack of funds to travel, lack of time to invest is no longer a big barrier to engagement. One can have a full time job and still participate and submit a counterpoint publicly. And when large groups of people are mobilizing to educate and disrupt the narrative enough to the point that mainstream media is taking notice and having to report on it, it is very problematic for those in power. Calls for more PoC, women, LGBTQIA, PwD representation are only going to get louder and proportional representation is only bad news for one specific group – white CIS heterosexual able bodied males. 

If we were to have a hierarchy of privilege, there is absolutely no question that they are the most powerful in the New Zealand governance. Whether it is Cabinet, House of Representatives, board rooms, Chief Executives, media, business, they are the ones in power.  And so it is no surprise that this group has the biggest problem with alternative voices on Twitter. That is not to say they are the only culprits by no means at all. But they are undoubtedly the majority. As for why, my explanation is that if it isn’t motivated by explicit hate and bigotry, is it absolutely motivated by fear, fear of diluted power. One of the Fairfax journalist who is particularly peeved has been Tweeting non-stop about this:

What’s particularly hilarious is that gossip is not even limited to Twitter. In my experience, everyone gossips – yes, including men. The fact that people are forming social groups on Twitter and that it leads to the occasional gossip should not be surprising or of any concern to him. I have no doubt people say things about me behind my back – I tweet a lot of ridiculous things. If people want to gossip, they can. People gossip about people in real life so why should social media be any different? What is interesting here is the use of the word “toxic” and “cleanse”. He obviously wants to get a reaction out of some people because those words are deliberate. I don’t know if he did or not but it is highly disturbing to see someone who has access to one of the most powerful communication platforms in New Zealand – Fairfax – try to shut down opinions of the general public on Twitter.

On Twitter!

Twitter, which has been declared a left wing echo chamber, apparently needs cleaning out because the conversation is not to his liking. How ironic and how pitiful. Schrodinger’s Twitter has managed to be utterly pointless and all powerful all at the same time depending on whether they have a story they need to write and they can’t think of a topic. The discomfort that he is feeling isn’t limited to him.

White feminists are being forced to think about other kinds of misogyny and while there is some resistance, there is a lot of positive collaboration happening. I am hopeful. As a PoC feminist, I think allies are important. And there are a good number of cis white heterosexual men on Twitter and in life are helpful allies. But the sheer number of people from this group who don’t want to listen, change ingrained behaviours that are proven harmful, and make room for alternate viewpoints that challenge the status quo is apparent.

I was not always this person. When I was 15, I firmly believed being gay was wrong. I had been raised to believe that and in fact I had such a sheltered life that I didn’t even know gay people existed before I was 15. Obviously that changed and when I made the effort to think about it on a logical and rational level, I was forced to abandon my utterly bigoted beliefs. When I try to think about this change, I don’t recall feeling personally attacked when people tried to explain to me why my beliefs were misguided. Instead of questioning the people and their experiences, I questioned my religion and my faith. If my faith could not accommodate accepting people as they want to be, as who they are, with all the equal rights and freedoms that I had, then I had to rethink my own worldview. But most people don’t want to do the same because faith is seen as irreproachable and the absolute truth despite the fact that there are thousands of religions in the world with different interpretations of God. And those who are not guided by faith are guided by some other ingrained value that they are unwilling to question. In the end it is all the same.

I am not going to lie, there were a couple of extremely uncomfortable years as I tried to reconcile the accepted bigoted beliefs that were prevalent in my faith and my rational conclusions of the world. And I think my views are still being challenged. Twitter is the first place I learned about non-binary folks. After being raised and having lived in a society that are so rigidly divided by genders with particular gender norms ingrained into my brain, getting out of that viewpoint took some thought. There were times I may have said things that were probably not the right things to say and there were times I assumed gender identity of people that was not right. I was wrong. There is no way around it. And I’m still learning. I go about my fairly comfortable life, working, Tweeting, instagramming lunch like very other millennial and sometimes someone writes a post on chronic illness/pain or struggle with depression/anxiety and I am forced to think about how privileged I am – this is a good thing. This forces me to think about the kind of changes I want to see in our society to ease the suffering. As a student of public policy, it forces me to think about people I wouldn’t think to think about first. Social media gives me the chance to testify and amplify. I can share my experiences and challenges of trying to be seen as an equal member of the society and I can amplify the voices who are facing other kinds of experiences and challenges. And then, there was also this: 

What he fails to understand is perfectly summed up by his colleague at NZ Herald:

Social media is not an absolute safe place but it is a great place to bring and challenge voices. The idea that nobody can be corrected or that groups shouldn’t create rules or conventions to make it safe and minimize the risk, is ludicrous and in no way is "bullying". We are not going to be tagging in dangerous people into our conversations just because we are talking about them. We are going to point out when some speech is offensive and dangerous. What we do will make certain privileged groups uncomfortable. Change has never been comfortable. So no, you can’t ‘cleanse Twitter’. And no, ‘Twitter’ isn’t toxic, denigration of marginalized groups for speaking out is. Here’s the thing – if you don’t like it, you are more than welcome to show yourself out. They will no doubt continue to put you on TV and radio and print your columns and people who look like you and represent your interests will continue to run this country. The rest of us don't have that luxury. 

Friday, July 31, 2015

On arming the police

Last year when people were questioning whether police forces in the United States have become too militarized, the president of New Zealand’s police association (NZPA)  called for our police to be “fully armed”. He claimed that incidents that might require a police having to use a fire arm are not “isolated” incidents.

At the time I found myself with questions. Questions that I have not seen any answers to. Either crime is dropping or this stuff is not isolated. They can’t both be true. And what does it mean to be fully armed? Just a gun? Or do we want to head towards US-style militarized police?
Someone went on a “psychotic episode” according the president – and Mr. O’Conor’s response was that police need to have guns. Wouldn’t the cost of arming our police officers be better spent in mental healthcare services? When tasers were brought up, he said “Tasers are never an option against any scenario involving a firearm”. However yesterday, it was announced that tasers can now be carried by those who are trained at all times on-duty. Police Commissioner Mike Bush thinks that the feedback from frontline staff merits this change, which will lead to more effective “staff and public safety”.

Last year O’Conor said that apparently our “police officers are already in danger” and it’s only a matter of time when something worse will happen. So basically his advice was we should transition from a routinely unarmed police force to an armed one because of something that might happen. I wouldn’t call that effective or evidence based policy-making.

At the time Mr. O’ Conor also claimed that New Zealand police officers are shot at greater numbers proportionally compared to Australia. Well that’s not good. But I’d like to see the numbers. What is he basing that on? I don’t recall anyone asking him what the actual number is. Then the Police Commissioner said that arming the police would change their relationship with the public beyond repair, and it was incorrect to say that the Police Association was talking on behalf of all police staff. So I did a little bit of a digging (not comprehensive) to see what work has been done on arming of the police. There’s lots of stories on the UK but it’s really hard to find a lot of substantive information.
Ross Hendy at the University of Cambridge is looking into routinely unarmed police officers and their police-citizen interactions in England, New Zealand, and Norway for his PhD. He also wrote an article in the Policing Journal looking at Scandinavian experience of routinely armed and unarmed police in the context of New Zealand’s on-going arming conversation. In his paper he mentions that a survey of the NZPA in 2010 found that 72% wanted to be armed – decreasing to 63% in 2013. Yet news articles have reported that the NZPA unanimously wanted to be armed. Which is it?

Hendy surveyed Scandinavian police officers and Norwegians – who like the Kiwis have their guns in their cars – had interesting perspectives. The whole article was interesting, but here’s what one Norwegian officer said:
“We have, as you may know, the firearms … with us in the cars. It take[s] me less than a minute to take them out and be ready to use them. In my opinion the most sufficient argument is that it gives us time to think instead of getting the sidearm on the hip and just running in to solve a case … As a result of not thinking over the situation, they [are] getting into [a situation where] they will be forced to use their firearm instead of using time to think. It’s not that much time I am talking about, maybe a minute, two minutes, three minutes; maybe we get some assistance as four officers are a better job than two. … It’s important for the mental preparation…”
The article goes on to analyze how the arming is more about the police feeling safe rather than actually being safe. What still remains are many questions as to what we want from our police and what our country needs. Should arming the police be our priority or are other changes within NZ Police more important? Police culture? Their interaction with the public? At present the discussion is about tasers and not guns and this from lawyer Graeme Edgeler is useful: 
The public needs to understand the power that the state can wield via the police. The police need to understand the limitations of that power. All of this has to happen in the context of public safety. Perhaps recent news about US Police’s interaction with the public clouds my judgement but with police brutality constantly in the news, one cannot be too cautious.

Some articles I read for this blog:

A version of this blogpost first appeared on on October 29, 2014

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Reporting poll results under MMP

This topic has been on my mind for quite some time and has been discussed at length on Twitter. Under MMP, is it useful to present National vs. Labour anymore? The electoral landscape of New Zealand is not only multi-party but multi-tiered between the party vote and the electorate vote. The Māori Party, United Future and ACT wield considerable power based on their electorate support that is disproportional to their overall party support. I do not think this is a bad thing per se. If you are a good electorate MP or if you are of some use to the governing coalition, then so be it. This is the way our electoral system is currently set up. However, the problem is that National basically monopolizes 'the right' in party vote and no other party on 'the left' has that capability. 'The left' is far more fragmented in terms of party allegiance. I, for one, think this is a good thing for the left. People who identify with 'the left' have choices and there is also far more robust policy discussions. The Greens and New Zealand First are formidable ‘opposition’ parties and when taken their support into account the wedge between the Government and the Opposition is much smaller.

This morning Radio Live tweeted the following:

This is a factually correct tweet but ultimately useless under MMP. Let’s take last night’s complete poll results for instance –
National: 47%, Labour: 31.1%, Greens: 11.4%, NZ First: 8.4%, Conservatives: 0.7%, Māori: 0.6%, ACT: 0.5%, UF: 0.1%

When comparing National vs Labour, the numbers for the left seems grim indeed. So let’s rearrange them differently:

*The reason I have Conservatives as “irrelevant” is because not only are they not in Parliament, it is unclear whether they would fall under “opposition”. They seem to be ideologically aligned to the right but at the same time seem to run on a platform of “opposing” the government.

The numbers look extremely different and not as grim one might add. Now, many will say that it is not fair to put NZ First with the “opposition” when they a) would not necessarily want to work with the Greens and b) could potentially end up in coalition with National. This is a fair point. However, I deliberately do not call it “the left”. I call it "the opposition" because my assumption is that if folks are choosing New Zealand First, they have a problem with the current government, its policy agenda, and/or its leadership. Even if we take out NZ First from the "opposition", the fight seems to lie in roughly 10% of the electorate rather than the roughly 20% when presented as National vs Labour. 

Next year, we would have had the MMP electoral system for 20 years. There are folks who vote in NZ elections who have never voted under (First Past the Post) FPP, including yours truly. The National vs Labour narrative is wholly useless to us once we take into account strategic voting in Ōhāriu, Epsom and Māori electorates as well split votes in places like Wellington Central. There is no democratic efficacy in this kind of reporting and I believe that our established media should reconsider the way they report poll numbers in the interest of democratic principles. 

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Sunday feature: What is actually going on with Serco?

First there was the “fight club” allegations
Private prison company Serco has admitted it received reports of organised "fight clubs" in its prisons two months ago but will only investigate now, after fight footage was shot and shared online.
Then Labour’s Kelvin Davis brought into light an “initiation ritual” at the Mt Eden prison called “dropping”. Apparently prisoners are thrown over a balcony as part of the initiation. This may have even led to a person’s death in the Serco-run prison which was kept quiet until now and has been dismissed as well. 
We may never know what actually happened to the prisoner in Mt Eden because it has turned into a case of "maybe" or "maybe not" and "allegations" not "facts".

Then Minister of Correction Judith Collins at opening. 
From: NZPA
Last year Fairfax ran a story of an ex-prisoner describing his life behind bars at Serco-run Mt Eden. The description is fairly horrific and of course dismissed by officials. The prisoner spoke of being deprived of basic necessities such as toilet paper and how the prisoners threatened to riot. Back in 2011, there was another story about how Serco was accused of “bribing inmates with bigger helpings and food and television in their cells to encourage them to behave”. They probably weren’t getting strawberry shortcake or whatever stock photo Herald decided to use and dessert really isn’t the issue here. This accusation came from the prison officers’ union known as the Corrections Association who also suggested that this “allowed the private prison operator to get by with a skeleton crew but guards were feeling vulnerable and leaving on a daily basis”. 

It makes one wonder what kind of due diligence the government actually did before awarding the contract. Early this year there was a Financial Times article featuring a former Serco executive Richard Johnson who said Serco tries to win contracts at any costs and because they are aware that governments usually award the contract to the cheapest bidder, they will spend the money upfront to get the contract and then cut corners later to make it the cheapest bid. He added - "The trouble with poor outsourcing contracts is that “no one wins in the end — not the government, not the contractor...New figures released this week shows that Mt Eden priosn run by Serco has the most inmate assaults in New Zealand. We certainly aren't winning. The idea behind contracting out public services is that the private sector will bring innovations to the public sector. And while the majority of New Zealanders might not care about what happens to prisoners, what Serco is doing isn’t innovation. It is mostly about cutting costs and making a profit which is unsurprising. There's a difference between working profits and working within a budget which what governments do. Comparing government to industry is basically like comparing apples and snakes. Yes, I said snakes because at least apples and oranges are both fruits. Privatization is usually about transferring public wealth to private profits and it is usually driven by "knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing" in the words of Oscar Wilde.

This isn't the first time this has happened in New Zealand and New Zealand isn't the only place either. The previous National govt also allowed Mt. Eden to be run by the private sector, but that contract was canned by Labour and Alliance in 2005. I'm not suggesting that privatization is the sole problem either. The problem is even if the prison system wasn't privatized our Ministers probably wouldn't take responsibility. They would say it's an operational matter.

Meanwhile a prisoner custody officer died after being beaten by a prisoner in a Serco run prison in the UK earlier this month. In Australia, the Fiona Stanley Hospital review blasted its Serco contract. And school staff in Lincolnshire are "still not being paid" despite Serco and county council's assurances. These stories are all from this year and doesn't in anyway represent the magnitude of Serco's problems. But back to New Zealand. There’s absolutely no doubt that Serco has been in breach of contract. For instance see below from the contract and how much a prisoner's death is wroth in our society. 

This explains the fact Minister Tolley initially was fairly dismissive of about prisoner safety calling them “bad people”. Mt Eden is a remand prison and she was deliberately ignoring the fact that these people haven’t been found guilty in a court of law. While it might not be unusual for there to be violence in prisons, it shouldn't be accepted. And breaking the law doesn't make people "bad". That kind of primitive thinking is what leads to an ineffective justice system but perhaps that is for another blog. 

Over the weekend there were multiple stories with various titles suggesting that the Government was taking over Mt Eden prison following the accusations. This is extremely misleading because the government isn’t actually taking over but merely bringing in “upto 20 people to oversee the day-to-day running of the jail for the immediate future”. It is misleading because the contract hasn’t been terminated.

As Max Harris rightly says, Serco’s contract with the government does allow that. And further to that:

And it seems the Serco and the Minister have very different ideas of what is actually happening. Again Max Harris points out: 

Serco has been fined $300,000 in the past and we still don’t know what it was about. The lack of transparency which has been a hallmark of this government now extends to those we contract out to as well. Serco’s 10 year contract is valued at around $300million AUD and it's overall revenue globally is around $9billion NZD, so these fines may seem substantial but there is no doubt they will do everything they can to recoup those costs and it will at the expense of prisoners who aren’t seen as humans deserving dignity already by this government.

On Saturday, TV3 ran a story whose headline was Government still a fan of private prisons. With the Sky City debacle, Charter school problems, talk of further privatizations of housing and other social services, this should be a huge concern. But this is a central ideological position of the right. They can’t afford to be failure with Serco because this has the possibility to undermine the entire government agenda.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

These aren’t the xenophobes you are looking for

Yesterday’sHerald story on the housing crisis fueled by apparent Chinese foreign investment brought out the semi-regular discussion on xenophobia on social media. Suffice to say there are a bunch extremely defensive people who say that the data justifies the apparently non-xenophobic aversion towards Chinese house buyers. Labour absolutely made the wrong move defending their untenable position of picking on Chinese names to justify a policy proposal to ban foreign purchases.

Here are some things they could have done:

1. We have been given a list of Auckland home buyers from a specific realtor and we are deeply concerned at the suggestion that somehow Chinese people are to blame for the current housing crisis. We understand that foreign home buyers include people from China, Britain, America and a number of other countries but the government refuses to collect and publish that information making it extremely difficult to assess the impact of foreign ownership on New Zealand House prices. We reject xenophobic analysis of home-buyers using Chinese last names and instead ask that the government make efforts to collect information about non-resident home ownership.

2. We are concerned about the lack of representation of Māori and Pasifika names on the list which suggests to us that any policy needs to include ways we can increase Māori and Pasifika home ownership given housing poverty among these groups are the highest in the nation. The government has continuously failed address this problem.

Labour MP Phil Twyford
3. We think there are several factors that are driving house prices up and pushing Kiwis out of ownership. The Government urgently needs to consider policy options such as restricting foreign ownership, introducing a Capital Gains Tax, and finding ways to insure that wages keep up with housing costs. The government has failed to enact evidence-based policy to deal with the housing crisis that seems to be growing at an unprecedented pace.

4. This is what Labour would do in Government [insert non-xenophobic policy proposal] and this is why we believe this will ease the crisis [insert non-xenophobic impact analysis].

But Labour did not do this. Instead they sent one of their brightest performers, Phil Twyford, to go on The Nation and defend an allegation - foreign investment is shutting Kiwis out of the housing market - by using xenophobic data analysis based on extremely unreliable and inaccurate data.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Twitterati

Once upon an avo dreary, while I pondered, bleak and sneery,
Over many a deleted and faved volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly fapping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently beeping, beeping at my notifications door.
“’Tis the Twitterati,” I muttered, “beeping at my notifications door—
Only this and nothing more.”

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak September;
And each electorate a dying ember wrought its votes upon the floor.
Desperately I felt the sorrow;—Mainly I thought it bizarro
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost candor—
For the rare and perfect discourse which the Twitterati always bore—
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken, sad, beat of the faving of each blue tweet
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic errors never felt before;
So that now, to still the retweeting, I stood repeating
“’Tis some Twitterati entreating entrance at my Twitter floor
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my notifications door;—
This it is and nothing more.”

Presently my fingers grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your disappearance I implore;
But the fact is I was fapping, and so gently you came beeping,
And so faintly you came beeping, beeping at my notifications door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
Twitterati there and nothing more.

Deep into that interwebs peering, long I stared there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no journo ever dared to dream before;
But the Twitterati was unbroken, and their illness gave no token,
And the only thing there spoken was the whispered “biased, you’re”
This I whispered, and a tweet beeped back “loser, sore”—
Merely this and nothing more.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

In Plain Language: TPP (Part 2)

Today the US Senate passed fast track authority (TPA) for the TPP. I wrote about the implications last week as there was some who viewed that this wasn't going to pass because it was being separated from the TAA. So now what does this mean?

Basically POTUS now has powers that all other previous presidents have had when negotiating a trade deal. When the deal is completed and comes to Congress, it's "ratification" will be an up or down vote (no amendments) and with a simple majority. While this shores up the administration's negotiating powers the lack of TAA still poses a problem. That legislation is designed to protect US workers from job losses from the trade deal and the US politicians haven't come to an agreement on that. However, this is an issue for US domestic politics and has far less bearing on the actual deal or how it affects the rest of us.

So does that mean everything is over? 

In short, yes. Probably. However, there is a period of time the TPP text will be available to the public before Congress votes. The public can consider it and persuade their representatives to give a down vote if they don't like the deal. If there is enough opposition in the US maybe the majority will vote against it which is highly unlikely. I stress this because it's basically impossible.

What does it mean for Kiwis? 

I think we should be afforded the same privilege. I think we should be able to see the text too just like Americans. I don't know what the timing of it will be but maybe if we also get to the see the text or Parliament doesn't get to vote on it until the text is available to Americans, we can buy some time until the next government. This also means the next government cannot be a National-led government. In short, we are fighting a losing battle. As I mentioned, our concerns are not the same as the Americans'. Our biggest concern should be our healthcare system and given the attack it's under due to the TPP, that should be the central issue. The problem is - most Kiwis were against asset sales and making that a central campaign issue didn't change the outcome of the election. The Brits love their NHS but threats of dismantling didn't stop the Tories from getting it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Refugee quota: What should NZ do?

UPDATED: Some facts about previous refugee intake was incorrect which has been corrected.

There are serious allegations that Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia may have authorized payment to people smugglers to turn back a boat headed towards us. Our own Prime Minister could not shine any light on the issue as per usual saying he didn't know and nor did he ask his counter-part. The refugee crisis exists worldwide and countries are being condemned for their inaction. So what should New Zealand do?

In New Zealand the refugee quota is 750 per year and the Greens are calling for that to be increased to 1,000. This should be welcome news for the left except for one little glitch. Last year and the year before, for example we met the quota. But the 4 years prior to that we did not meet the 750 quota. This begs the question - what is the point of increasing the refugee quota if we aren't even going to meet the existing quota?

According to Radio NZ, the government reviews its refugee quota every three years and the next review is slated for next year. However, Budget 2015/15 shows that that the government has already cut spending on refuges for the coming financial year. Essentially the government hasn't even allocated funds for the current level of refugees let alone increased refugees. At this point the government could easily give into the Greens and just raise the quota. Over at Curia, DPF is probably already polling the issue. But it won't make much material difference if we never actually meet the quota and fund it adequately.

Climate change refugees might be a looming issue and we as a country haven't decided how we will deal with that. It is time we adequately funded Immigration NZ to meet the existing refugee quota. Let's all agree that we aren't going to meet this illusive budget surplus and even if we did what is the cost of that surplus? Human lives perishing at sea or in the hands of people smugglers. Can we live with that?

In Plain Language: TPP

The TPP is a complicated trade agreement between 12 countries in the Asia-Pacific region. In my opinion which is shared by many, the US is involved in this trade agreement to elbow out China's growing influence in the region. New Zealand already has a free trade agreement with China so from our perspective we just want to be open for business globally.

Much has been written about this agreement based on leaked documents because the text is not publicly available. I am sympathetic to the idea that it is difficult to conduct negotiations on such a level by making everything available. For instance, I myself worked briefly on Treaty negotiations and I know that it would be impossible if every step was constantly made public. However, and this is a big however, this agreement can be detrimental to Kiwis day to day lives with significant impact on our health system. It has been suggested that the agreement could lead to large pharmaceutical firms with powers to increase prices of drugs and limit access to cheaper generic drugs. The corporate control of public health should be extremely concerning to all New Zealanders. 

What is fast track authority and why is it important?

Currently President Obama is seeking fast track authority from the US Congress which will allow him to pass the final version of the agreement with a simple majority and no amendments (this is very crucial for its success). This part of the legislation also includes a thing called the "Trade Adjustment Assistance" or TAA which is a program that will help workers in America who lose their jobs as a result of trade deals. Democrats are largely against this and that's why they have been voting down the fast track authority. 

Experts believe that democrats would vote for the fast track authority on its own but for that to happen, the legislation would have to go back to committee and be separated. But this is also a problem because President Obama said he would veto fast track authority if it does not include the TAA. But could he change his mind to push forward the deal?

UPDATE: It looks like maybe Obama will not veto a bill that is solely fast track authority. See this article from the Hill.

Why should we care about the TPP? 

Noam Chomsky calls the TPP a neoliberal assult to maximize promit and domination which will lower wages and increase insecurity. The New York Times also notes the unlikely agreement between Republicans and Obama on the TPP calling it  little more than enhanced corporation power branded as free trade. The TPP agreement goes well beyond trade and there's virtually no input on it through any democratic institutions because nobody is allowed to know what is in the text. We should not sleep soundly at night just because the TPP is facing roadblocks in the US. Their objections are different to ours and they are only looking out for their own economy. We should also be worried about our own and we should not rely on the US Congress to stop the TPP. We need to write to our MPs and register our own objections in our own voice. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Blogging moratorium lifted!

I am back!

Masters – check.

Resuming blogging – check (will ease into it).

Over at Dimpost, DM says “neoliberalism is dead.” Good riddance I say. But you cut off the head of one monster and another one appears. Well this particular monster has been around for a while - silently gaining power in the background waiting for its time in the limelight. The politics of populism has always been around but never have politicians been able to master corporate interest to be served by wielding public opinion. One would have thought that after the 2009 GFC we would have reined in corporate interests in a big way and for a while we tried but I think it’s safe to say that we largely failed. The Koch Brothers in the US have announced they will donate $1 billion to the 2016 Presidential Elections for the Republican candidate. That’s an extraordinary amount of money. Yet, Americans seem largely ambivalent to this. Over in New Zealand, no one can deny the influence of corporate interests over the current government. Whether Warner Bros or SkyCity, we are willing to let our representatives pass legislation that only favours them because we think somehow it will favour us. Maybe it will. But I’m not convinced.

Budget 2015 has largely been an accounting exercise as Bill English desperately tries to build his surplus legacy. Overshadowed by the extremely popular Prime Minister, you can’t blame the guy for wanting to achieve something tangible even though it makes little fiscal sense. Cuts here and additions there does not make for good governance but I don’t think that’s factored into re-election.


One of my professors told me that it is the number one goal of politicians and the only way for the public or businesses to achieve anything is to exploit that. Businesses have resources that the public doesn’t so it’s much harder for us to exploit their re-election goals. But we hold the vote. Thankfully despite being “people”, corporations do not vote. But we have done an extremely poor job of voting for our own interests or the interests of our fellow humans. Left voters particularly have to justify their votes when their side loses which makes very little sense to me. None of us should have to justify our votes. Politicians, on the other hand, are required to justify their position and decisions but these days they have no interest in answering our questions. Whether Question Time or Post-Cab Press Conference, our beloved Prime Minister is all too comfortable letting his impressive poll numbers do the talking.

I just finished a Master’s in Public Affairs and despite the inspiring words from all the speeches, I feel slightly deflated about the future. I worry that the current economic and political decisions will leave us worse off in the long term. Expanding prison population, decreased access to quality education, decreasing access to preventative health, looming climate change problems, erosion of civil rights, growing inequality among other policy issues have left me troubled. Neoliberalism maybe dead but self-interest of the few dictating the lives of all is alive and well.

Watch this space as I try to find some solutions.