Free trade fails New Zealanders

As I was growing up in the 1960’s, self sufficiency was a frequently stated goal of our economic policy.

The idea was that we develop our industries and manufacturing sector so we would be less reliant on imported goods. One important aspect of this drive for self sufficiency was the need to diversify our exports away from reliance on agricultural products. These were our major income earners and our standard of living depended too much on international prices for wool, meat and dairy products.

To work towards self sufficiency we protected our industries with tariffs on imported goods so locally produced goods could not be undercut by cheaper imports. It was a sound strategy and the same as adopted by every developed country while it got its industries established.

This all went out the window in the 1980’s as Dave Lange’s government embraced globalisation and its “free trade” agenda.

The idea behind “free-trade” is that the world in future will become one single free market.   Countries must develop competitive products for this market.   We have a “competitive advantage” with agriculture and therefore our future lies in getting other countries to open their borders to our wool, meat and dairy products.  In other words we decided to put all our eggs in the agriculture basket but to achieve better access for our farm products into overseas markets we would have to give up other areas of our economy to foreign imports. 

In fact we jumped the gun, eliminating tariffs ahead of any other country and saw factories close and tens of thousands of quality jobs in our manufacturing sector lost as cheap imports flooded the country. We won this race to the bottom and we are continuing to pay a heavy price socially and economically.

Meanwhile New Zealand’s holy grail of agricultural access to foreign markets remains as elusive as ever with the World Trade Organisation’s Doha round of free-trade negotiations failing on this very point last week.

The US and the European Union refused to reduce barriers to imports of agricultural products in return for developing countries opening their borders to non-agricultural goods from the developed world.

On paper it seemed like it could have been a fair trade-off. However in the previous Uruguay round developing countries were shafted as they made a host of concessions concerning foreign investment etc while getting nothing of worth in return. Because of this brutalising experience the new Doha round was called the “development” round and was touted as the chance for developing countries to have their turn. But this idea evaporated quickly as negotiations progressed because the drivers of the WTO and its agenda are not governments but transnational corporations with no interest in “development” per se.

In fact it’s no exaggeration to say that governments provide a façade for these corporations at the WTO. A recent study showed that no less that 93 per cent of the 742 official external advisors to the US trade department represented business groups and corporations and they had access to confidential WTO negotiating documents. With more than two-thirds of world trade conducted by transnational corporations, rich countries field huge teams of corporate representatives, lawyers and negotiators to make sure they get the lion’s share of what’s on offer.

Here in New Zealand we should be thankful Doha was a failure. A “successful” outcome would have been bad for the developing world as well as a long term disaster for New Zealand.

It is stupid to rely so heavily on agriculture. Global warming and climate changes means our farming future is uncertain at best.   We also invite further damage to our environment through increased intensification of farming practices as we squeeze the last millilitre of milk from the last blade of grass.

A “successful” outcome would have continued the destruction of our manufacturing sector as even more cheap imports pour in. We would have seen more well paid manufacturing jobs replaced with low paid, part time jobs which would drive more of our families into poverty.  

A “successful” outcome would also have seen even more millions of peasants around the world losing their land to large agri-businesses and being forced into urban ghettos. 

When the WTO was established in 1994 its purpose was to raise standards of living, ensure full employment and a growing real income for all the world’s people.   Precisely the opposite has happened under their policies in New Zealand and around the world.

Our experiment with “free trade” has been a failure. We were first out of the trenches and the most serious casualty in the developed world. Small wonder no-one has followed our path. Other countries are staying closer to self sufficiency. So should we.

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ANC betrays fight for freedom

1981 brought a winter of bitterness and discontent as a Springbok rugby team toured New Zealand amid widespread protest and international condemnation of our government and rugby union.

Tomorrow is the 25th anniversary of the cancellation of the Waikato Vs Springboks game of the tour when some 300 protestors invaded the pitch and former flying-doctor pilot Pat MacQuarrie flew a light plane from Taupo to buzz the Hamilton ground.

The cancellation of the game was probably the single most important contribution New Zealand made towards the ending of apartheid policies but a sober assessment of events in South Africa since raises the question – was it worth it?

The protests were directed against South Africa’s apartheid policies which enshrined in law discrimination against blacks (and in fact anyone who was “non-white”) on the basis of race. This legislated racism was backed up by brutal police and army firepower in suppressing the struggle for human rights while with harassing, torturing and killing those organising opposition to the regime.

There was a familiar litany from these apartheid policies: blacks could not vote; they were paid far less than whites for doing the same job; black students received an inferior education; there were appalling health services and shocking child mortality rates for blacks with the best of everything reserved for whites.

The United Nations called it 20th century slavery. Black South Africans appealed to the world for help. They didn’t ask for an invading army but for a boycott of the white regime to bring pressure for change. Most of the world responded quickly but the old white western nations, businesses and sports organisations were slow to respond. Rugby ignored the cry for help and yet it was rugby which was the most important link we had with white South Africa. It was the most sensitive pressure point New Zealand could use to support the struggle against apartheid.

This was the backdrop in 1981 against which New Zealanders took to the streets. It was a human rights movement supporting civil disobedience action. It was a movement which said that the rights of New Zealanders to play and watch rugby was not as important as the rights of black South Africans to basic human rights. 

The action of the protest movement here was part of the international pressure which eventually saw Nelson Mandela released from prison and black South Africans winning the right to vote. Negative discrimination on the basis of race was eliminated from the laws. Apartheid as such disappeared.

However, in the 12 years since the election of the ANC to power the political rights gained have led to no improvement in the social and economic position of the big majority of black South Africans. In fact for most their economic and social situation has worsened.

One study has shown that the average white household income has risen by 15 per cent under ANC rule while the average black household income has dropped by 19 per cent.

It’s a sorry picture. With the ANC election to power the oppression of blacks has shifted seamlessly from race to income so while blacks gained the right to buy a house anywhere in South Africa for example the vast majority could not afford to move. Ending apartheid was a symbolic victory only.

It is true that small sections of the black community have done well. There is a small black middle class and there have always been a few black millionaires but for those in the poorest communities the situation has deteriorated. The proportion of South Africans living in absolute poverty almost doubled from 1996 to 2004.

No-one expected things to change overnight and the ANC government can point to improvement for many people in housing, healthcare and education but taken overall the situation is worse.

The reason is very simple and familiar. The ANC have followed the same failed, free-market ideology that has driven our economy for the past 20 years. Privatisation of community assets and commercialisation of community services are rampant. Just as New Zealanders have seen an explosion in poverty levels and whole communities going backwards, South Africa has likewise seen a “reversed Robin Hood” situation with wealth forced uphill from the poor to the rich.

So with hindsight should we have bothered to stop the apartheid gravy train just long enough for the ANC leadership to jump on? The answer must be yes. It was a step, but just one step, towards freedom. A much greater struggle now looms for impoverished South Africans of all colours to build a movement to challenge the ANC government in which so much hope was misplaced.

Ignoring New Zealand’s rising tide of poverty

It took just 24 hours for last week’s most important story to disappear from radio news, the pages of our newspapers and our TV screens.

In my local paper it went from a feature spread on page three to a footnote story at the bottom of page 6 the following day.

This was the fate of the Ministry of Social Development report on the rising levels of poverty in New Zealand.

The story didn’t come as a surprise. It confirmed in dramatic fashion that poverty is on the increase under the Labour government with 8% of our population now in the “severe hardship” category – up from 5% in the previous survey in 2000.

In other words there has been a 60% increase in people in the “severe hardship” category of poverty since Labour came to power.

The increase has come about largely because of the plight of beneficiaries.

Two-thirds of beneficiary families with children are now suffering severe or significant hardship. This equates to 250,000 New Zealanders.

It says a lot about the New Zealand of today that the politician at the centre of attention, Social Development Minister David Benson-Pope, has not been under great political pressure over this scandalous situation despite the fact it is the “other half” of the Kahui twins tragedy.

Benson-Pope acknowledged the figures but neatly side-stepped saying the data was collected before the Working for Families package came into effect and that WFF will have made a real difference in the meantime. He also pointed to the drop in unemployment to indicate that recent improvements had taken place for low income families.

Neither of these arguments holds water. Beneficiaries specifically miss out on the “in-work” payment which is the key financial component of WFF. The package was specifically designed to “incentivise work”. This means it aims to keep beneficiaries in poverty to pressure them into jobs irrespective of their home or family circumstances.

At the same time a drop in unemployment will have no effect on the level of incomes of those on benefits and simply means that more people join the “working poor” on part-time, low paid jobs.

National’s Judith Collins made some predictable criticisms that the problem lay in Labour “fostering welfare dependency”. She is right in the sense that poverty is a direct result of government policies. In fact poverty is always a failure of policies, not a failure of people as Collins would have us believe. For example, from 1987 to 1993 the proportion of Maori households living in poverty doubled. It was government policies which drove them into poverty. Needless to say there was no evaluation of these policies. Instead we saw a round of beneficiary bashing and the “saving” of $1.3 billion by cutting benefits in Ruth Richardson’s 1991 budget.

We have seen it many times before. When a policy failure affects low-income families then get in quick to blame the people and put a “there is no alternative” smokescreen around the policy.

When benefits were cut in 1991, household disposable income for beneficiaries fell from 72% to 58% of the equivalent household income of the rest of the community and Benson-Pope agreed this week that benefit levels are still lower than they were before those infamous 1991 budget cuts.

So where did the money go? Between 1981 and 1995 the disposable income of the poorest 10% dropped by 19% while for the top 10% it rose by 18%. Government policies were to blame.

There will be no evaluation of policy failure this time through either. Instead the Minister baldly says the government is “pretty sure” it has the support levels for beneficiaries “about right” but it would look at the figures and decide what, if anything, would need to be done. In a less direct but just as deliberately punitive a manner as National, Benson-Pope is saying that beneficiaries are to blame for their situation and they can expect to continue to suffer “severe hardship” under Labour.

Labour and National are singing the same tune.

For all the community shock and outrage at the deaths of the Kahui twins, the issue of poverty rates only a sideways glance and yet this is the critical context in which those innocents lost their lives.

Despite this, within a few days of their deaths ACT and National successfully shifted the focus onto the alleged “welfare bludging” by the family and sidelined the policy failures.

We are locked into the familiar pattern we have seen so many times before. The policy failure drags on and yet we blame the victims instead.

New Zealand stands with the bullies in the Middle East

The “Middle East” has become shorthand for sand and blood, guns and bombs, death and vengeance.

Most of us take this for granted. We have never experienced a peaceful Middle East with which to contrast the regular reporting of death and destruction.

The past two weeks have seen another spike in the conflict. An Israeli soldier was taken prisoner by armed Palestinians after a gun battle. Israel’s response has been to destroy a power station, cutting power to thousands of Palestinian homes; blow up bridges; fire on the offices of the democratically elected Palestinian administration; abduct a third of the cabinet and use low-flying aircraft to create sonic booms over Palestinian communities to keep families awake and on edge.

There has been no international outcry. Most of us see the “Middle-East conflict” as intractable and it’s not surprising that most blame “Palestinian militants” for the trouble. Numerous studies have shown the appalling bias in reporting which reduces Palestinians to “militants and extremists” while Israel is “fighting terrorism”.

Any yet given its central importance to a stable world we must understand much more of this conflict if we are to play any positive role in helping resolve it.

Underscoring the violence is the simple proposition that there can be no peace without justice. The “Middle-East” has plenty of injustice and therefore no peace.

The gravest injustice of all is the dispossession of the Palestinian people of their land, their sovereignty, their freedom and their dignity.

Since 1948 the Palestinians have lost 78% of what was once Palestine through the creation of the state of Israel. In the process hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced from their homes and villages and fled as Israeli militias cleansed the land they wanted for a Jewish state. These Palestinian victims are now living as refugees in their own country as well as having been dispersed outside their borders. Israel refuses to allow them to return.

The United Nations originally proposed a so-called “two-state solution” (Israel and Palestine existing side by side) despite the fact that in Palestine itself neither Jews nor Arabs were asked their opinion. Driving the UN support was the embarrassment and shame of many countries that so little was done to stop the Nazi holocaust against Jews in Europe in the 1930s and 40s.

Even today those that criticise Israeli government policies are often accused of being anti-semitic. This is of course ludicrous.

58 years on and not only has a Palestinian state not been established but Palestinians are fighting a war against an overwhelming military force of occupation.

It is a one-sided war. A state which possesses nuclear weapons is up against stones, home-made rockets, the bravado of youth and the ultimate in powerlessness, the suicide bomber. It is a great credit to their spirit that Palestinians have never given up the fight despite the odds being stacked so highly against them.

Israel claims the Palestinian fight-back against military occupation is terrorism. This was the same charge levelled at the French Resistance who fought German occupation of their country in the Second World War and is just as phony a charge now as it was then.

Today the “two-state” solution is all but dead. For its part Israel has ensured that a Palestinian state is not viable politically, economically or socially. There is simply no economy for the Palestinians to run. In fact so often they must try to commute to jobs in what is now Israel.

The best land, water, port facilities and essential infrastructure are in Israeli hands while what is proposed to be “Palestine” consists of several small, discreet areas of land enclosed by Israel which controls movement at all points.

In recent times the closest parallel would be the attempts by South Africa to establish self-governing “Bantustans” within it’s borders for different black groups during the apartheid era. By erecting its massive separation wall – referred to by the locals as the “apartheid wall” – Israel adds credibility to the analogy.

New Zealand claims its position on Israel/Palestine is even-handed. It is not.

Our Foreign Minister Winston Peters recently welcomed the strengthening of diplomatic relations between New Zealand and Israel after the passport scandal when Israeli secret agents tried to obtain a false New Zealand passport. Peters said New Zealand and Israel shared democratic traditions (sic) – a remarkably similar comment to Muldoon’s statements on the close relations between white South Africa and New Zealand during the apartheid era.

New Zealand has also refused to back Palestinian calls for an international peace-keeping force to be sent to Palestine and yet this is possibly the single most important step we could take.

We in New Zealand like to think we have a tradition of standing alongside the underdog. Not this time. We are standing with the bullies.

Murder of innocents in Mangere predictable

Reports of murder send something of a chill through us all and the younger and more vulnerable the victim the more intense the reaction. And so the appalling murder of the 3-month-old baby twins in Mangere brought shock and anger from across the community followed by frustration and fury at the family’s lack of co-operation in finding the killer.

 

Thank heaven for the anger. It’s a sign that we care. These twins felt like they were ours. Everyone in the country knows their names and we feel violated in this callous killing of innocents.

 

But from here on the reaction will tell us more about ourselves than we might care to know because we must face the difficult question – Why did these murders occur?

 

There is no sign the Kahui family are able to confront this question and deep down we all know the answer won’t come from a police interview. There will be some shallow, pathetic explanation given for the vicious attack that killed the babies but it won’t provide the answer. 

 

Helen Clark has called for a multi-party approach to the issue of violence against children and yet probably few of us believe this will make any significant difference.

 

In all likelihood the eventual outcome from this committee will be some more funding for community groups to help identify and assist “at risk” families and more money for social work training programmes etc

 

This will “settle down” community concern until the next appalling outbreak of violence when the country will once more erupt in shock and cabinet ministers will again rush to the scene to be seen to be at the heart of community concern.

 

The answer to the question won’t come from politicians and yet it is as plain as a wart on one’s nose. Violence against children is directly linked – in every society around the world, without exception – to poverty and income disparity. Heaven knows we have produced this in spades over the past 2 decades with the result that we have now rocketed close to the top of child abuse statistics.

 

Relative poverty increases pressures on families and we should not be surprised at increases in all aspects of domestic violence. Worse though for the families of Mangere and other low-income communities in New Zealand is the fact that they have suffered in quiet desperation at seeing their incomes and their standards of living decline over a generation. Incomes in these communities have dropped as tens of thousands of stable, relatively well paid, skilled and semi-skilled jobs have been lost from the economy to be replaced by low-paid, part time, rostered jobs.

 

Not only have these families not been able to “get ahead” in the tradition of kiwi families but they have been forced backwards. Middle-class New Zealanders, even if they want to, can only guess at the degradation, shame and alienation this develops in families – especially on the part of breadwinners who, even if they work a 40 hour week, won’t bring in anywhere near enough income to provide for their family. And so these families, bringing up “our” babies, are struggling against an overwhelming tide. In extreme cases some of them are now so deeply isolated from mainstream society that their values have become badly skewed and their behaviours inwardly destructive.

 

Maori families have suffered through this more than any other group because they are disproportionately represented in our low-income communities and because so many urban-based Maori have become alienated from their culture as well as from the economy. At the same time child murder remains much lower in Pacific Island families despite many having incomes as low as Maori families. The big difference however is that the cultural base of Pacific people remains strong and this brings self-respect and the ability to “stand tall” in the community. Pacific Island families know they have a homeland where their language and culture are strong and safe so it’s easier to walk tall here. Not so many of our Maori families in low-income communities.

 

There can never be any excuses for child abuse. But while pointing the finger at the perpetrators of this violence is well justified, there is a time to face some home truths about the reasons why it occurred. Here are just a few.

 

The slide into a relative, alienating poverty has been as a direct, deliberate, well predicted result of economic policies inflicted by powerful elites and their parliamentary allies.

 

The full employment we supposedly have is a myth. Yes there are plenty of jobs but they are part-time jobs on poverty wages.

 

There is clearly what may be described as moral weakness in some families but there is a far greater moral weakness in the hearts of those who so callously perverted our economy in favour of the wealthy when they absolutely knew the outcome would be disastrous for vast swathes of our community.

 

If there is one greatest crime we have perpetrated against the children of this country it is that we no longer guarantee that a hard-working breadwinner can work a 40 hour week and bring home enough income to provide a decent standard of living for the family.

 

This is a crime on a monumental scale. If we expect our families to look after our children then their parents and grandparents must have the chance to build dignity, self respect and pride.