The real ANZAC day heroes

We will remember them.

They were true sons of New Zealand. They were men who acted with unsurpassed courage and determination in the face of war. They thought deeply and weighed the morality of their actions carefully. They stood up for their beliefs and were prepared to take the consequences. They were men who stood steadfast against the prevailing mood of the day. They were true New Zealand heroes.

These were young men who took the tough road of pacifism when the path to war was easy. They refused to wear military uniforms or join the killing of their fellow human beings.   They were our conscientious objectors.

Of those who registered as conscientious objectors at the time of the First World War, 60 were exempted from fighting and 273 were sent to prison. 14 more were imprisoned on a troopship and taken to the front line of the war in Europe where several were given “No1 field punishment”, which involved being tied to a stake in the open while the war was fought around them. Still their resolve never wavered.

According to New Zealand Prime Minister Massey “the state comes first” (before conscience) and that “if they won’t do their duty they must be driven”.

Beside these brave kiwis were others who opposed conscription and the First World War for a variety of reasons.

Peter Scott Ramsey, President of the Christchurch Anti-Conscription League was given 11 months jail with hard labour when he addressed a public gathering with these words –

“To hell with the consequences. I have the courage of my convictions. I have been a member of the peace movement since I was 14 and a half, and I am not going to give up the principles for which I have fought for so many years for the class to which I do not belong”.

In an illuminating observation on the background to the war a trade union conference in 1916 called for the conscription of wealth before the conscription of men, sought trade union pay rates for soldiers and a better deal for their dependents at home. The war was seen as having been generated by wealthy interests on both sides of the conflict which ordered young men to fight to the death.

Tuhoe leader Rua Kenana was the most celebrated Maori objector. He was arrested at his Tuhoe settlement at Maungapohatu and charged with sedition for arguing that Maori should not fight for a Pakeha King and Country when Maori ancestral lands had been taken by a Pakeha government 50 years before in the confiscations in Taranaki, Waikato and Bay of Plenty which followed the New Zealand wars.

Waikato Maori were particularly resistant to conscription. In traditional fashion they performed whakapohane (baring of the buttocks) to insult the government envoy Maui Pomare who came to plead with them to join the war. 44 Maori were arrested but refused to wear the military uniforms they were given. Six were court-martialled and sentenced to 2 years hard labour at Mt Eden jail.

Of 552 Maori called up in conscription ballots, only 74 joined.

On Anzac Day of all days we should salute the actions and honour the memories of these great New Zealanders.

But instead we will have plenty of the clichés of war – “death with honour”, “supreme sacrifice”, “gave their lives for the freedom we enjoy”, “served their country”, “sacrificed their lives” etc

It’s easy to see why. 

No less than 10% of New Zealand’s total population went overseas to fight in the First World War. We were the absolutely farthest country from the conflict and yet sent more troops per head to war than any other country. More than half of these men became casualties with 18,116 being killed. 

Two of my great uncles died in the fighting and most New Zealand families had similar experiences.

This is why Anzac day resonates so strongly through New Zealand communities. Every town – large and small has a memorial of some kind to honour those who were killed from their area. “Lost their lives” is how we quaintly describe it.

Most of our young men who went to war were caught up in the patriotic fever of the times. This was to be the “war to end all wars” and our boys would be “home by Christmas”. It was to be a “boy’s own adventure” – a chance for excitement and overseas travel. The war was to be short and victorious. How wrong they were.

I will remember my great uncles on Anzac Day. But I will remember first those who opposed the war and tried to stop the killing. They took the hardest road in the face of bitter hostility, personal suffering and social isolation.

These are our true Anzac Day heroes. We will remember them.

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Look after workers who look after our parents

At one time New Zealand took pride in its many international firsts in looking after the most vulnerable in our community.

This pride traces back to the 1891 Liberal government led by John Balance which gained power following the 1880’s depression.

One of the firsts from that era was the introduction of a means tested old age pension in 1898. It was 6s 11p per week or ₤18 per year for men over 65 and women over 60 who didn’t earn more than ₤1 per week. In 1905 it was increased to 10/- per week and in 1911 extended to widows with children.

The next improvements came in 1935 with the election of the first Labour government – also after years of depression. Care for the vulnerable was consolidated and strengthened with no government, National or Labour, for 50 years daring to interfere. It was part of what made us kiwis.

The pride we felt was the same sort that went with Hillary on Everest or Snell at the Olympics. It became part of our cultural wallpaper. We were a small country doing big things and somewhere deep in our collective soul was a gut feeling of support for the underdog – to make sure everyone got a “fair go”.

This was all ripped apart with the election of the baby-boomer generation to political power in 1984 via the Lange-led Labour government and the scene was set for private sector takeover of aged care.

In 2006, for our elderly citizens who need rest home care, the 6/11 per week of 1898 has become $650 per week in a government subsidy.

Traditionally it was church groups and non-profit community trusts who provided high quality care for our elderly.

However these groups have been abandoning this role because government funding is not enough to pay decent wages to staff and maintain a high quality of care.   Earlier this year I was talking with a director of one such church-based trust who said their trust would be out of the aged care area within two years because they were not prepared to pay poverty wages to staff or reduce the quality of care they provided. Their group was losing money and would sell their rest home facilities rather than make ethically reprehensible decisions.

As they leave, the private sector is moving in via large Australian companies with deep pockets and hungry for profits. These businesses run elderly care with 15% less staff on average and hold wages down. Where the churches can’t make ends meet these private companies are making handsome profits.

It is predicted that the current 35,000 rest home beds will be owned by just a dozen companies in 5 years time.

A spokesperson for Macquarrie, which owns Metlife and Eldercare in NZ, said last year that  “We are attracted to the sector because of its stable revenues and predictable cash flows”. By this they mean the government subsidy provides regular, reliable income and generates stable, predictable profits.

One of the finalists in the 2005 Roger Awards for the worst multinational corporation operating in New Zealand was Guardian Healthcare which runs a network of rest homes around NZ. It has been bought and sold twice in the past couple of years with hundreds of millions made in capital gains and a predicted profit of $26 million this year.

Last year Guardian offered its staff a miserly 2% pay rise. Many experienced staff receive the adult minimum wage ($10.25) and even after 23 years service one worker was receiving just $11.36 an hour.

 

We have no right to be surprised at the problems now surfacing in these privately run rest homes. The revelation last week of appalling practices at the Culverden Group resthome/hospital in Mangere, which faces closure after Ministry of Health inspections, is just the tip of an ugly iceberg.

The quality of care is being squeezed out. Successive governments have held down their subsidy to drive out the churches and save money by casting the elderly to the wolves.

From the catalogue of failings at Culverden perhaps the most chilling was the inspection which found “A second patient was noted to be in pain due to her arthritis but her medication had been discontinued upon entry to Culverden with reference to cost”.

For heaven’s sake, this is somebody’s mother living in a land of plenty where the government boasts a $6.5 billion budget surplus.

All this should be a big worry to the baby-boomers who created this system just in time to retire into it. 

The answer is not for the government to simply increase the subsidy because that just feeds the corporate habit. It’s like giving drugs to a junkie. Instead, funding increases should go to care provided by churches or non-profit community trusts with the phasing out of subsidies for the private sector.

Now there would be a real source of pride for our children and grandchildren. 

Relief after a decade long fiasco in tertiary education

Oh, what blessed relief!

Throughout the community the collective sigh was palpable. It felt like a reprieve after years of oppression.

It’s rare for any government announcement to get this response but it did when Minister of Education Michael Cullen announced last week that government funding mechanisms for tertiary education will change from “bums on seats” to focus on quality outcomes for young New Zealanders.

In a rare outbreak of unity virtually every group directly involved in education received the news with acclaim. Students, parent groups, staff organisations, university and polytech leaders, industry training organisations and most business groups have welcomed the policy change as a big step in the right direction. Signs of discontent have predictably come from the Business Roundtable’s Education Forum and some grumbling from National but the overwhelming reaction has been positive.

It comes after an awful 10 years in tertiary education. The problems have been endless with poor quality courses, lack of accountability and enormous waste of resources which has left students and the community shell-shocked and short-changed.

Among the lowlights has been the explosion of funding for low-quality, private tertiary providers at the expense of our polytechs and universities. In 1999 government funding for PTE’s was just $17million but under Labour this rose to a staggering $150million in just 4 years. This spawned an epidemic of low-quality courses – initially in the private sector but inevitably spreading to state providers as they too were caught up in the race for funding. An indication of the size of the scandal came in a survey of 480 PTE qualifications by the Tertiary Education Commission last year which showed 64% of these were of low quality or unrelated to our community needs.

The students who suffered the most were those on lower level courses – often Maori and Pacific students – caught in a merry-go-round of well funded but poor quality “going no-where, doing nothing” courses with no meaningful qualifications even after several years study.

This is a shameful legacy of market driven madness with both National and Labour to blame for the mess.  National set the ball rolling but from 1999 it was Labour’s Steve Maharey who, after initial dithering, returned Labour to its 1980’s free-market roots and adopted National’s policy whereby tertiary institutions – both public and private – would compete for students – and hence government funding.   This began a race to the bottom.

To attract more students many university courses lowered their entry criteria while some PTE’s and polytechnics offered bribes and inducements such as free cell phones or free computers to get enrolments.

More tens of millions were wasted on advertising as institutions competed for students and satellite campuses appeared all over the country as universities and polytechs fought turf wars.

Despite all this Labour has stood somehow impotent until now, unable to drag itself from a bog of its own making.

It allowed funding for low quality courses to surge in the private sector because many PTE’s are Maori providers and it suited Labour to point to burgeoning Maori tertiary education numbers while also being able to point to lower numbers of young Maori in the dole queues.

The rort on public funds only became an issue when some Polytechs developed similar unsavoury courses. National and ACT then went onto the attack. They were strangely silent over several years about the appalling waste of public money in private education but Rodney Hide and Bill English positively salivated as they described the millions wasted in our publicly funded polytechs and Wananga.

Labour tried to show it was on top of the problem and joined the bash on Maori with Trevor Mallard throwing the baby out with the bathwater in his bully-boy attacks on Te Wananga o Aotearoa.

Small wonder then at the relief last week. With Cullen’s announcement the failure of Labour’s “market-led” tertiary education policy could not be more complete. It was one of the most hair-brained conceptions to come from the free-market ideologies of the past 20 years.

It didn’t have to happen. It was predicted from the outset and just as night follows day the disaster unfolded.

Wedded as they are to the market there is still a long way for the government to go. Cullen has taken just the first step and time will tell if Labour has learnt anything substantial from this decade-long fiasco.

But out of the tertiary mess politicians have created it would be great if we all remembered that quality education at all levels is a right of citizenship rather than a mechanism to make profit.

Drinking age debate is an advertising problem

Human beings are naturally drawn to quick-fix solutions to social problems and often this results in knee-jerk reactions which treat the symptoms rather than the cause.

Longer prison terms for offenders, cutting access to the Domestic Purposes Benefit and reducing the size of parliament are all measures which have been proposed at different times but none would make an iota of difference to the underlying problems.

These so-called solutions are often focused on punishment and are often more an expression of community frustration when people would prefer not to be bothered engaging in a deeper discussion.

The problems of teenage binge drinking and consequent anti-social behaviour are now the focus of a parliamentary select committee where it has been proposed to retain the drinking age at 18 but raise the age at which alcohol can be bought to 20.

Unfortunately this proposed solution is another exercise in tinkering with the symptoms rather than tackling the problem.

 Responsible drinking is practiced in many families as parents try to model good behaviour and allow teenagers to drink moderately in a supervised family environment. However, much of this can go out the window when a group of teenage peers get together and a strong cultural drive to excessive drinking takes over. We see the result regularly on television in scenes of drunken disorder.

This drinking culture is established primarily by advertising.

Young people are immersed every day in a sea of alcohol adds on billboards, TV, radio, magazines, posters, newspapers and in cinemas.

In sport it is particularly prevalent with the big alcohol producers involved in a wide range of sponsorships. The All Blacks may wear the silver fern but they also wear the sponsor’s alcohol brand prominently on their jerseys both during games and in TV promotions. In cricket the same deal. A visitor from another planet might think a cricket game at Eden Park was a mass celebration of drinking so prominent are the sponsors advertisements and so large the number of intoxicated spectators.

Our university student organisations and myriad sports clubs often have lucrative contracts with alcohol producers whereby there are exclusive advertising rights at functions, sports events and plenty of alcohol on sale.

Even inside schools there is a problem with our drinking culture. A school rugby team was fundraising for an overseas trip a few years back and organised a raffle where the second prize was 30 dozen beer while I’ve seen another school sports team wearing tracksuits emblazoned with the name of a local pub.

There is a voluntary industry code which covers alcohol advertising. It says for example that advertisements “must not imply that liquor creates a significant change in mood, contributes to personal, social or sexual success, nor imply offensive behaviour, nor have strong appeal to minors in particular, nor advocate heroes of the young”. Even a cursory look at alcohol adds on billboards and television and it is clear this code is openly flouted.

The Tui beer website last year for example included soft-porn pictures advertising the product and a young woman binge drinking from a beer horn. In fact the website as a whole could be described as a celebration of our vacuous young-kiwi-teenage drinking culture.

Advertising campaigns themselves are very sophisticated. There is a great deal of research done to find the triggers in young people which will resonate with them and make drinking attractive to them. The role models, the images, the humour, the social groupings, the “mateship” situations are carefully chosen to target the vulnerabilities and enticements of young people.

With more than $70 million being spent by the alcohol giants each year on sponsorship and advertising they want value for money and they are getting it.

Advertising of alcohol was relaxed here in 1992 and public advertising of alcohol mushroomed. In the next 10 years alcohol consumption doubled in the age group 14 to 17 with surveys showing one-third of our teenagers are now binge drinking.

New Zealand teenagers now spend $2.7 million on alcohol every week.

Last year the government announced a review of alcohol advertising but when the steering group for the review was announced it became clear meaningful change was unlikely because this group includes representatives of the alcohol advertisers themselves.

There is an old saying that adult actions speak so loudly that kids can’t hear what we are saying. Adults need to get the social environment for our kids right if we expect to seriously impact on teen drinking. A stop to alcohol advertising and sponsorship would be the most important first step.