Redundancies – an “own goal” for free-market policies

In a week when more than 340 jobs were lost from the economy it was not surprising – but still nauseating – to see politicians ducking for cover or looking for political advantage from this crisis for working New Zealanders and their families.

More so because the loss of these jobs is an entirely self-inflicted injury.

The list of jobs lost is beginning to look like a World War I casualty list.   The first redundancies were at beef jerky maker Jack Links in South Auckland where 102 jobs were lost with another 75 going at Christchurch’s GL Bowron factory. 

They were followed by Panahome in Rotorua (112), Renaissance Furniture in Christchurch (20) and companies supplying materials for Click-clack products (35)

And the indications are that this is just the tip of a redundancy iceberg.

The loss of export orders because of the high value of the New Zealand dollar has been given as the reason for the layoffs and sure enough this is the immediate cause.

However delve just a bit deeper and the reason becomes clearer.   The blame sits squarely with successive Labour and National governments which have legislated away their ability to manage our economy.

The Reserve Bank – working under the dead weight of the Reserve Bank Act – has control of inflation as its number one objective but the only mechanism it has to do this is to change interest rates.   

And so the bank has been slowly but surely increasing interest rates to keep the rate of inflation below 3% as the legislation requires.   This has led to New Zealand having one of the highest interest rate regimes in the world.   Enter the foreign investors and speculators.   They gain a better return investing in New Zealand compared to most other countries.   This extra demand for the New Zealand dollar pushes its value higher and has kept it at a level described as “ridiculously high” by Click-clack chief executive John Heng.

This is good news for importers because they can import goods more cheaply – they get more for their money when buying overseas because our dollar is worth more.   Not only does this worsen our balance of payments situation as we import more and export less but the cheap imports will sink more local companies and more New Zealand families will end up on the free-market scrapheap.

When Labour was elected in 1984 the government could directly intervene to control the value of the New Zealand dollar and in fact those incoming politicians devalued the dollar as virtually their first act of government.  

However the dollar was later floated to let the “market” decide its value without government interference.   This means foreign currency speculators and assorted economic parasites now decide the value of our dollar and hence the problem for working New Zealanders.

With no power to act decisively to reduce our dollar’s value we can only cringe with embarrassment at the news of our Treasury and Reserve Bank officials travelling the world to plead with investors to leave New Zealand alone.

If the Reserve Bank Act wasn’t bad enough the 1994 Fiscal Responsibility Act (later incorporated into the Public Finance Act) put further heavy restrictions on the government’s ability to manage the economy.   One provision of this legislation for example requires the government to always run a surplus.   This prevents the government from “evening-out” the economic bumps from year to year as governments did successfully for many decades previously.  

So with a government with both hands tied behind its back our economy is left to the madness of the market.  

It’s easy to see why businessman Hugh Fletcher said in a 1995 interview “The authority that a New Zealand parliament has today, as against 20 or 30 years ago, is so small.   Increasingly, they’ve got to run their fiscal and monetary policy to stay within the bounds of what is acceptable to global capital”

New Zealand must break free from the constraints imposed by the free market on our democratically elected government.   This will take courage and strong government leadership so don’t hold your breath.    Michael Cullen and John Key are men of the market who policies have led directly to our inability to manage this growing crisis.

At the same time however the debate on our economy is hopelessly stifled by the “economic correctness” of the free market which prevents discussion of any serious alternatives to the suffering of working New Zealanders and their families.  

In the meantime most of those losing jobs will find work but for many it will be in low paid, part-time jobs and for those families their standard of living will drop – pushing even more kiwi families below the poverty line.   

New Zealand needs an economy which works for people instead of people working for an economy.

 

 

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Children with special needs deserve better policies

There is a long standing tradition of government agencies announcing unpopular policies or releasing controversial reports in the lead up to Christmas.   The idea is to minimise public scrutiny during the festive season.

Late last year two reports from the Education Review Office concerning special education were dumped into the Christmas rush and sank without trace in the mainstream media – not even a ripple.   The reports are dated June 2005 –  the government held them back 6 months to get the right time to release them.  

The reports focus on how schools are using their special education resources – in particular their ORRS (On going and Reviewable Resourcing Scheme) funding – for children with high and very high needs and their SEG (Special Education Grant) funding – for children with moderate to high needs.

ERO found that while many schools are using their special education resources well 27% of schools had significant weaknesses in managing their ORRS funds while for SEG there was variable performance and a wide range of problems identified.  

The reports point to serious problems with special education across a wide range of schools and it’s easy and apparently logical for education officials to blame schools and teachers for these problems as ERO does.

However in these reports there is no evaluation of the funding levels or funding mechanisms for special education and it is these which have been at the heart of parent and teacher concerns over the past 8 years.  

When big changes were announced for special education in the late 1990’s it was intended that 2% of school age children would receive ORRS funding but this was dropped to 1% while the remaining children were to receive help through SEG funding.   However SEG – all $39 million of it – is bulk funded to schools based on school roll and decile so that a school with 20 children with moderate to high special needs gets the same allocation as a school with just 2 children with the same needs.

Consequently schools which discourage special needs enrolments still receive SEG funding while other schools – “magnet schools” – which are more welcoming of children with special needs have to spread this funding more thinly over a larger number of students.   More often than not they simply don’t have the resources for these children to become effective learners in a mainstream classroom.  

Too often these students are simply “maindumped” – put in a mainstream class without proper support which is not fair on the child, the teacher and sometimes the other children in the classroom.   

ERO then criticises the schools by saying that “…of particular concern to ERO was that many schools fitted students, irrespective of their needs, into predetermined programmes that were funded by their SEG instead of designing programmes to fit individual student needs”.

In many ways this comment goes to the heart of the problem but it is not a problem of the schools’ making.    “Designing programmes to fit individual student needs” is fine if you only have one or 2 such students and a large SEG grant but particularly for schools in middle to low income communities where there is likely to be many more children with special needs the task is impossible.   The government’s own figures show children with moderate to high needs are seven times more prevalent in schools in low income communities compared to those in high income communities.   Instead of a 7:1 funding ratio between these schools however, the ratio is 2:1  

The irony is that schools which are most welcoming and supportive of children with special needs are being set up to fail while other schools have plenty of plenty of special education funding through discouraging such enrolments because they don’t fit the “image” the school wants to project in the community.   Cambridge High School is the most celebrated example.

The full extent of funding problems was gauged in a survey conducted by QPEC (Quality Public Education Coalition) last year which among other things found that serious under-funding across special education was resulting in overworked, sometimes struggling, professional staff and lack of quality options for parents and teachers.   

97% of schools said the Special Education Grant was inadequate to meet the needs of their children with most saying it needed to be at least doubled.    Most thought the ORRS threshold was too high and 80% said the funding for ORRS students was inadequate.

Two changes in government policy would make a big difference for children with special education needs.   Extending ORRS funding to 2% of the school age population as originally proposed and allocating SEG to schools based on the actual number of children with special needs enrolled.   Schools are already required under education regulations to identify their children with special education needs so the allocation could be made simply and relatively painlessly.

Special needs children have the same right to high quality education as all children.   It’s time government policies adapted to their needs.

A summer’s weekend at waihopai

The foreword of a book is probably one of the last places one would expect to find a breathtaking revelation.

Not so in the foreword to Nicky Hagar’s 1996 Book “Secret Power” which describes the operation of New Zealand’s security and intelligence apparatus – in particular the electronic surveillance bases at Waihopai near Blenheim and Tangimoana in the Manawatu.

The foreword to the book was written by David Lange who was Prime Minister for 5 years during which time the Waihopai base was built and commissioned and includes the bald statement “…it was not until I read this book that I had any idea that we had been committed to an international integrated electronic network.”

This is an outrageous situation.   Aside from his Prime Ministerial role he was also the Minister responsible for Security and Intelligence and chair of parliament’s Security and Intelligence committee and yet he was given no idea as to the real purpose of the secret base he authorised.

It is clear that he was specifically and deliberately misled by the bureaucrats who run the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) which is responsible for managing the Waihopai base.   The Prime Minister was apparently not deemed a fit person to have the true purpose and operation of the base explained to him.

So what was withheld from our Prime Minister?

Firstly that New Zealand is part of a super-secret alliance called UKUSA which was set up to share defence intelligence between the 5 member countries – New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom with the United States as the senior partner.

For its part in this deal the GCSB operates two electronic surveillance bases – the one at Waihopai monitors satellite communications and the other at Tangimoana monitors communications involving ships and aircraft.

Waihopai is the most important.   It has two satellite dishes which are directed at Intelsat communications satellites which orbit the earth above the Pacific equator.  

These dishes receive all electronic communications which go to and from New Zealand and our Asia/Pacific neighbours.   This includes all telephone, fax and email communications from and between individuals, companies and governments.

Powerful computers then sift through this information.   It’s like a massive Google search using keywords to intercept all “communications of interest” with encrypted messages decoded before processing.    Most of these keywords are supplied by the US with the data fed directly to the partners in the UKUSA Agreement, specifically the US National Security Agency (NSA) which compiles the information into intelligence reports for US government agencies.

From research compiled by Hagar it is clear that the information obtained includes commercially sensitive material on trade and investment involving private companies as well as diplomatic communications between governments and international communications involving New Zealanders.     Big brother is much bigger than we think.

Many European Parliamentarians have been so concerned that a parliamentary inquiry was held into the “commercial espionage” conducted by what is called the Echelon network of which Waihopai is a critical part.   In particular it was alleged the European companies Airbus Industries and Thomson-CSF were monitored through the UKUSA network to favour US companies gaining commercial contracts.

From the outset the development of the base was directed by the US.   So much so that during its planning and development from 1984 to 1987 a US intelligence officer, Glen Singleton, was Director of Policy and Planning at our GCSB.   He was paid by the US government and stayed in a house rented for him by the US embassy in Wellington.     Needless to say our democratically elected government was oblivious to this relationship which ensured the base would operate as the US had planned.

Aside from the obvious privacy issues for New Zealanders, Waihopai is – in all but name – a US spybase operating on New Zealand soil.   It is operated in the US national interest – both militarily and commercially.    It is a critical link in their worldwide surveillance network and in this way it is our greatest contribution to US global strategies such as the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Forget about ANZUS – UKUSA is the real McCoy and Waihopai is its baby!   

Lange concluded his foreword to Hagar’s book with the suggestion that it is time we had a rational debate on security and intelligence issues.   Yes indeed!   The reckless arrogance with which our New Zealand security leadership and their US handlers treat our elected representatives and our democratic traditions is an outrage.  

Neither of the bases run by the GCSB has a legitimate role to play in New Zealand’s interests. 

Later this week I will be joining other New Zealanders in a protest at Waihopai to call for the base to be closed.

Ozymandias is alive and well and living in New Zealand

Every New Zealander has places around the country that make them feel good about our corner of the world.   They are places we return to again and again with our reaction going to the heart of what makes us who we are.

One of those places for our family is Tawharanui to the north of Auckland where we have a camping holiday before Xmas each year. 

It is a farm on a peninsula of land which was purchased in the 1970’s by the Auckland Regional Council.   It is progressively being developed into a magnificent public park for camping, swimming, surfing, snorkelling, bushwalking etc

Much of the original farm is being returned to native bush while wetlands, sand dunes and other natural features are being restored to their natural glory.   A massive replanting programme has taken place over the past 30 years with scores of volunteers helping out on weekends.  

More recently a partnership has been developed with local volunteers who have formed an incorporated society to develop Tawharanui as an “open sanctuary” with its first major project being the establishment of a predator-proof fence across the neck of the peninsula.  

Weasels, stoats and possums have been eradicated and already the signs of increasing bird life are evident.   The endangered dotterel and oyster catcher – once scarce on the beaches are now more abundant.   Native geckos have been introduced to the bush and there are plans to return a host of native birds to the area including kiwis.

Part of the coastline has been established as a marine reserve with snapper 7 times more prevalent in the reserve than elsewhere.

Without wanting to sound like a travelogue this is a magical part of our country – a place which annually soothes thousands of fractured city souls.   It is one of the jewels in New Zealand’s coastal crown.

And so it was with a mixture of shock and disbelief that we were confronted on our last visit with a huge mansion perched on a private block of land at the end of the main beach.   It is a double storied monstrosity – all terracotta tiles and yellow stone which dominates the coastal view.   It draws the eye with Ozymandias-style arrogance.  

In all its gaudy glory it gives a two fingered salute – via two large chimney stacks which arise from the second story – to the hard work that has been done to create a place of immense value to New Zealanders of the present and future generations.

Adding insult to injury is that while the view for the many thousands of visitors to the park each year has been seriously downgraded, the owner will have a magnificent coastal view forever – knowing it will never be destroyed by private developments such as the one he has undertaken himself.

It has been built by an Austrian national who spends just 4 weeks a year here.  

Dominated as they are by local business interests most district councils – the Rodney District Council in this case – see economic growth as their first priority.   They use talk of “progress” and “economic development” to regularly dismiss widespread public concern and most would happily rubber-stamp virtually any development.  

Our government is no better.   Last year parliament passed the Overseas Investment Bill.    It was presented to the public and media as a tightening up of the law – specifically in the controversial areas of coastal and high country land – on land sales to foreigners.    However it has made most such purchases a lot easier by removing the need for approval of purchases of land by foreigners if it involves less than five hectares in area and/or less than $10million in value.  

The parliamentary select committee reviewing the bill dismissed the large majority of submissions calling for tighter control of land sales to foreign nationals by citing New Zealand’s obligations under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and the free-trade agreement with Singapore.

This is one of the uglier sides of so-called free-trade agreements.   In essence they take the power to control our country from our elected representatives and transfer it to wealthy foreign interests.   Most New Zealanders have no idea about the GATS agreement.   It has never been the subject of public debate and yet it is increasingly restricting our right to regulate in our national interest.

The edifice at Tawharanui and the values it represents are alien to most New Zealanders.   Protection of our country, our culture and coastline must move to centre stage ahead of the private interests of wealthy foreigners.

Every New Zealander has places around the country that make them feel good about our corner of the world.   They are places we return to again and again with our reaction going to the heart of what makes us who we are.

One of those places for our family is Tawharanui to the north of Auckland where we have a camping holiday before Xmas each year. 

It is a farm on a peninsula of land which was purchased in the 1970’s by the Auckland Regional Council.   It is progressively being developed into a magnificent public park for camping, swimming, surfing, snorkelling, bushwalking etc

Much of the original farm is being returned to native bush while wetlands, sand dunes and other natural features are being restored to their natural glory.   A massive replanting programme has taken place over the past 30 years with scores of volunteers helping out on weekends.  

More recently a partnership has been developed with local volunteers who have formed an incorporated society to develop Tawharanui as an “open sanctuary” with its first major project being the establishment of a predator-proof fence across the neck of the peninsula.  

Weasels, stoats and possums have been eradicated and already the signs of increasing bird life are evident.   The endangered dotterel and oyster catcher – once scarce on the beaches are now more abundant.   Native geckos have been introduced to the bush and there are plans to return a host of native birds to the area including kiwis.

Part of the coastline has been established as a marine reserve with snapper 7 times more prevalent in the reserve than elsewhere.

Without wanting to sound like a travelogue this is a magical part of our country – a place which annually soothes thousands of fractured city souls.   It is one of the jewels in New Zealand’s coastal crown.

And so it was with a mixture of shock and disbelief that we were confronted on our last visit with a huge mansion perched on a private block of land at the end of the main beach.   It is a double storied monstrosity – all terracotta tiles and yellow stone which dominates the coastal view.   It draws the eye with Ozymandias-style arrogance.  

In all its gaudy glory it gives a two fingered salute – via two large chimney stacks which arise from the second story – to the hard work that has been done to create a place of immense value to New Zealanders of the present and future generations.

Adding insult to injury is that while the view for the many thousands of visitors to the park each year has been seriously downgraded, the owner will have a magnificent coastal view forever – knowing it will never be destroyed by private developments such as the one he has undertaken himself.

It has been built by an Austrian national who spends just 4 weeks a year here.  

Dominated as they are by local business interests most district councils – the Rodney District Council in this case – see economic growth as their first priority.   They use talk of “progress” and “economic development” to regularly dismiss widespread public concern and most would happily rubber-stamp virtually any development.  

Our government is no better.   Last year parliament passed the Overseas Investment Bill.    It was presented to the public and media as a tightening up of the law – specifically in the controversial areas of coastal and high country land – on land sales to foreigners.    However it has made most such purchases a lot easier by removing the need for approval of purchases of land by foreigners if it involves less than five hectares in area and/or less than $10million in value.  

The parliamentary select committee reviewing the bill dismissed the large majority of submissions calling for tighter control of land sales to foreign nationals by citing New Zealand’s obligations under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and the free-trade agreement with Singapore.

This is one of the uglier sides of so-called free-trade agreements.   In essence they take the power to control our country from our elected representatives and transfer it to wealthy foreign interests.   Most New Zealanders have no idea about the GATS agreement.   It has never been the subject of public debate and yet it is increasingly restricting our right to regulate in our national interest.

The edifice at Tawharanui and the values it represents are alien to most New Zealanders.   Protection of our country, our culture and coastline must move to centre stage ahead of the private interests of wealthy foreigners.