Saturday, April 9, 2016

A note on the Panama Papers

Mossack Fonseca is apparently the fourth biggest provider of offshore services. Which means there are 3 others that are bigger and probably handle even more high profiled folks. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out who those people might be. Folks at the highest level of economic and political power don’t get to those places without gaming the system. There are plenty of people who “work hard” but those people will never be part of this club. If the Panama Papers account for $32 trillion (!!!), what do you think the 3 others account for?

It isn’t by accident that 85 people own the wealth of half the world’s population. It is by design. It is through laws passed by those who apparently represent us that allow people to get away with this kind of robbery. There might be outrage that this is robbery via tax avoidance. We might think we are being deprived of essential services from the government because of their actions but it actually goes deeper than that. The artificially set minimum wage, the artificial fight for health benefits, the artificial fight for better wages for our teachers and our nurses – this is all created by this incredible wealth horde. It turns out that not only can some corporations and individuals afford to pay a living wage, they can afford much more than that.

Perhaps the minimum wage (everywhere) should be pegged to profits of a corporation so we do not harm small business because right now these corporations are taking advantage of these arbitrary laws to massively redistribute wealth from the middle class to the rich. This is not – annual income of $250,000 rich, this is mega rich. Effectively most of the world is in slavery – forced to work for low wages, no benefits, no holidays, no education because apparently companies cannot afford to pay them.

Don’t forget that by spending up to 90% of our income on goods and services, we are enabling these people to hoard incredible amounts of wealth. Those born into this wealth will never have to work as hard as we do and we will forever be chastised for not working hard enough and for being jealous and envious.

The Global Financial Crisis was and is continued to be used as a crutch to deprive us from access to education, health services, a fairer justice system, housing for the poor, mental health services, wages for teachers and nurses, action on climate change, prevention of environmental degradation, services for people with disabilities and chronic illness, science and technology research, arts and culture funding, dangerous working conditions all around the world, paid leave for parents, holidays for workers – the list goes on! “Austerity!” they say. What an incredible lie it all is.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

On the public's enemies: the Labour Party and TPP protesters

When we look to a change in government, we might look to Labour. They are currently the major party of the opposition and despite their less than impressive polling numbers, the next left wing government will most likely be led by them. Last month's shenanigans from certain MPs on the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP) left many of us fairly disappointed. However, given Labour’s history with free trade agreements (FTAs) and their position on FTAs generally, I am not surprised that some their more conservative MPs like Phil Goff feel they have to break away from the party position and support the TPP. David Shearer’s position is somewhat more curious; Phil Goff is running to be mayor of Auckland but it is not clear if Shearer’s position is formed by conversations with his constituents or if it's just a personal opinion. 

There is a possibility that the TPP would have looked different if negotiated under a Labour government. That is extremely speculative given Mike Moore (ex-Labour Prime Minister) has been NZ Ambassador to the US for much of the time this was negotiated. So the question remains – is the Labour opposition to TPP an opposition to National only? Or is it true opposition to the actual TPP agreement? Because if they are opposing the TPP just to oppose National, then it makes sense that that position is a lot harder for many MPs to swallow.

If this is a question about wider discipline issues in the caucus, how would we react if the party had decided to support the TPP and some MPs broke ranks to oppose? Would we be more forgiving? Arguably, a collective party position is more favourable within the MMP context rather than individual positions on major policy matters similar to what we see in the US Congress. The rampant individualism in the House and Senate is tiring, counter-productive, and leads to unstable policies. Individual positions on conscience issues is understandable – although even that sometimes seems odd because what constitutes conscience is very arbitrary. From an electoral perspective, a party position is very important because it is the party vote that ultimately determines the make-up of Parliament. The factional and often confusing position on the TPP by Labour MPs is ultimately a disservice to the public. Labour’s official line at this point seems to be that they will oppose but will accept it once it goes through Parliament. Given that National has the numbers to pass the related legislation, their 'opposition' is not material. What is needed is a clear set of reasons why this is a bad deal and those reasons need to be reiterated enthusiastically and constantly by every MP. So that the public can be informed.

Why does Labour need to inform the public? 

Auckland TPP Protest,
photo via Mohammed Hassan on Twitter
Today, there is a column about the protesters and how they didn’t really know what they were protesting. Heather du Plessis-Allen seems annoyed that protesters disrupted traffic and finds the democratic right to protest "infuriating". As Luke Tipoki pointed out on twitter in this thread – when the Springbok Tour was being protested, did the tactics distract from the issue or raise awareness? Are more people in New Zealand suddenly wondering what the TPP is really about after this weekend? If TPP protestors don’t know much about the TPP – whose fault is it and why isn’t that a red flag for our democracy and our democratic processes?

Auckland TPP Protest
Photo via Will Taylor
 Iris Riddell on Twitter
A major trade agreement has been signed and most people don’t know anything about it because it was negotiated and agreed to in secret with very little consultation with the public. This should be concerning. Obviously the details of negotiations are secret but changes to major policy direction should have had public input. In a healthy democracy, we should have had a public debate on the pros and cons of the broad policy changes in in areas like healthcare, intellectual property, and agriculture. There has been so no sit down in-depth interview with John Key or Tim Groser where a trade/economy/finance reporter has grilled them on the finer aspect of the agreement. They have no problems putting protesters on the spot but they have yet to put our Prime Minister and our Minister of Trade in a primetime slot where they answers the questions on why we should embrace this agreement. The protesters on the other hand are folks who have not been consulted with, who didn’t get to see the deal until after it was agreed to, and who are not trade expert. This imbalance of power is not acknowledged or taken into account in the reporting.

When the Prime Minister dismisses protesters as "rent-a-mob", the media faithfully publishes his allegations without any investigation into if this is actually a practice. Is every single person here "rented"? How much are they paying these protesters? Who exactly is bankrolling this? Or do they have a legitimate grievance in that they do not know anything about this trade agreement and therefore, cannot support something they do not know anything about. That they would prefer the government to wait until they do is not a hard ask. Again, it is a preposterous allegation to suggest that these people are rented but the Prime Minister's allegations seldom are challenged. Where the media should be holding the government (those in power) to account, they seem more inclined to hold the opposition (slightly less powerful) and the public (basically powerless) to account. The contempt showed towards protesters is surprising. We accept when the Prime Minister says he doesn't have the information on hand and therefore cannot answer a technical question but we are punish the general public if they do not know the intricacies of a major trade agreement. 

By all accounts, the gains from the TPP are miniscule even from MFAT's own analysis. The effect on healthcare, particularly drug prices is yet to be seen but a  number of healthcare and doctors organizations already oppose the TPP, which definitely casts a dark shadow on the legitimacy of the benefits. Protection of the Treaty of Waitangi is considered weak by legal experts. Consultation with Maori have been non-existent. In fact, John Key basically blatantly lied to the media about consultation and faced no consequences as a result. Consultation after finalizing a deal is not good faith consultation by any account. Yet, while protesters get denigrated in newspaper columns and on tv, the PM essentially lies about consultation, refuses to front up to Maori, and blames the public for being ignorant about a secret deal and there are no consequences for him. The cognitive dissonance from all parties is fairly astounding. 

MFAT has taken to justifying this agreement by saying: 
"Beyond the economic modelling, we know that free trade agreements help New Zealand exporters, because they have told us so."
Instead of doing independent analysis which is what we would expect a neutral government department to do, they are relying on businesses to direct this trade agreement which is a matter of public policy. Interestingly, they also say: 
"A recently released study estimates that gains for New Zealand from a free trade agreement with the current 11 TPP economies could be as high as 1.4 percent of our gross domestic product, or US$2.9 billion."
This is new. When the TPP was initially signed, MFAT said gains would be 0.9% and even the 1.4% is not definitive. But, that has mysteriously disappeared from their website, only a screenshot was captured: 

Source: MFAT website August 2, 2015. This no longer exists on their website. 

The current laughable rationale is that somehow the Labour Party and protesters are our enemies because they don't have a consistent position or they are ignorant. It will be years before it is fully implemented and any harm will be incremental. It will be even slower than death by a thousand cuts. Unfortunately we, the public, are not getting consistent and reliable information from anyone. Not from our news organizations, not from the Opposition, and definitely not from the Government. We are completely on our own in this and we have to educate each other because we essentially don’t have anyone looking out for us. The current Parliamentary process of ratifying trade agreements is not going to provide an avenue for change but there might be some opportunity for us to learn more about the agreements. However, only a handful of people follow what happens in the debating chamber so it’ll be up to those to get the word out. And even that will ultimately be futile. 

I end this with the following Tweet. This is what people expect protesters to be experts on: 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Nu Zilund Day should get in the sea.

As many of you know, I did not have the privilege of growing up in Aotearoa New Zealand. My parents are from Bangladesh and a few years after I was born in Christchurch, they had to move back. And then they move to America and I had to find my way back to Aotearoa New Zealand as an adult. As a result, I’ve never been a super nationalistic or patriotic person. Having grown up and lived in 3 countries, I never know who to swear my allegiance to. I’ll admit that I knew very little about Māori culture when I moved back to New Zealand at 18. I took Treaty of Waitangi Law as an elective paper at Law School and that was the first time I started to understand the legal status of the Treaty and the legal rights of our indigenous population. During my brief stint at OTS in 2013, I learnt a lot about Māoridom including the more horrifying parts of our history from negotiations meetings. But I am still learning.

Thanksgiving in America is one of my favorite holidays. I love it mostly because of the abundance of food but also because it is secular and so it feels like everyone can take part in this celebration. But one thing that is completely missing from the American Thanksgiving celebration is Native Americans. It is as if they never even existed. The extent to which Native American rights have been abused, the extent to which they are treated as second class citizens, the extent to which they are an invisible people is astounding.  When children dress up every year as pilgrims and Native Americans to re-enact the ‘first Thanksgiving’ in schools all over America, they ignore history. Many are beginning to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day as an alternative to Columbus Day but this is not widely known let alone accepted. Native Americans are basically rarely in the public discourse and it is bizarre the way history is so easily forgotten by an entire nation.

America has managed to put aside all the negative feelings that one should associate with how they have treated their indigenous population not just in the past but in modern history. There are a lot of people that believe that it would be better if Waitangi Day was akin to Thanksgiving or Fourth of July as our national holiday. We could call it 'New Zealand Day' and forget all our problems. Many are disappointed by what happens at Waitangi especially what is directed at politicians. But I am not. Many would like to see that holiday turned into a civilised family gathering and a celebration of our nationhood. I don't think that we are there yet. Not until we accept Māori culture as part of our national identity. And it cannot be just limited to the Haka at All Blacks games. 

I like that politicians have to confront the pain that is in our society, the wounds that have not healed. I like that we as a nation are forced to watch the anger on the 6’ o clock news and know that we cannot just shove our people behind a day at the beach and a bbq with the family. I like that it forces us to ask questions about whether we are divided as a nation and how we can work to bridge that gap. At least I hope it does. The Māori Party was formed because Māori had a voice. A voice they used to stand up to legislation that would take away their rights. The fact that America’s indigenous population don’t have a meaningful voice should not be something we as a nation aspire to achieve. Perhaps we can ensure better means of dialogue on the day. Perhaps the dialogue shouldn't be limited to just one day. And yes, it would be nice if Waitangi Day was a family holiday of celebration and maybe one day it will be but we don’t deserve that day today.

I am not an expert on the Treaty nor am I in any position to speak for Māori, but it does seem to me that lack of consultation, which is a major obligation, is causing a lot of grief for the government. From the flag change process to the TPP trade deal, the government hasn’t consulted with Māori in a satisfactory manner. This week’s protests and the controversy around the PM’s yearly visit to the Te Tii Marae tells me that Māori do not see their “seat at the table” via the Māori Party as meaningful enough partnership.

I see the desire for politicians to put this behind them but we are still in process of settling historical grievances. We are still continuing to deal with Treaty breaches. We don’t get to sweep this under the rug because we haven’t actually dealt with this in any meaningful way. Only Pākehā privilege allows people to disregard history because it is not “fun”. Only cognitive dissonance allows white folks to talk about immigrant assimilation while completely forgetting that they never assimilated or integrated. They merely destroyed, denigrated, and built an entire society on the backs of death and on stolen land.

Maybe it is because of that or maybe it is because I view the Treaty as a legal and political document that is the basis for the foundation and continuation of our nation. TMaybe it is because I spent a lot of time my time looking at the impact of our justice and welfare system on Māori. Maybe it is because I’m a minority and I’m forced occupy many uncomfortable spaces. But I do not find what happens on Waitangi Day uncomfortable or upsetting. There can be no partnership without dialogue and there can be no dialogue without marginalized folks having the opportunity to protest those in power. We live at a time when Pākehā actively refuse to learn the official language, learn about the culture, learn about the history, learn about the constant and enduring effects of colonialism.

We are not ready for festive celebrations. We have very little to celebrate.

[Please note: I posted a version of this in a previous blog a couple of years ago but sadly the issues remain the same]