Corporates at the heart of obesity epidemic

The worst thing I’ve eaten would have to be a “double happy”. I bought it at a school tuckshop for a dollar.

It looked like a large sausage roll but that’s where the resemblance ended. It had some traces of meat but was mostly a pile of breadcrumbs soaked in fat and covered in pastry. It hit my stomach like a dead weight and stayed there like a leaden lump for several hours.

Students bought them because they were cheap and filling unlike the salad rolls with fresh lettuce, carrot and cucumber which were twice the price and left them still hungry. Even more than taste, the price and how well it fills you are key elements of food choice for kids.

So while in the classroom we taught the healthy food pyramid with fats, oils, salt and sweets in a small place at the top and bread, fruit and vegetables at the bottom, out in the tuckshop and in their real world the pyramid was inverted.

This was a school in a low income community where “double happies” and the like are at the heart of daily diets and the obesity epidemic. Choice of food is a wonderful thing but as with choice anywhere it is constrained by income.

Last week yet another Ministry of Health food survey revealed just how distorted our food intake has become. The figures showed that families spend more on sweets each week than on fresh fruit while close to ten times more is spent advertising fast foods than advertising fresh produce. In fact a total of $124 million is now spent each year advertising sweets, chocolate, fizzy drinks, fast-foods and eating out compared to a paltry $6.2 million on fruit and vegetables. With these figures should we be surprised at the obesity epidemic? 

There has been lots of hand wringing at the Ministry of Health but little effective leadership from the government. Reports are piling up on reports, summaries and briefings. It’s a big issue and the government knows it needs to be seen to be doing something but so far it’s more like the bumper sticker “Jesus is coming – look busy”.

Overall the government focus seems to be on changing dietary patterns at the bottom of the cliff although the Ministry has announced it is considering putting restrictions on the food in vending machines in workplaces. However if this is the best idea to emerge so far we are heading up the creek without a paddle. We are all resentful at having choices forced onto us but families and kids are quite capable of making good decisions about what they eat if the right environment is in place.

How about these three simple steps that would have some bite and would begin to tackle the problem at its source? Firstly remove GST on fresh fruit and vegetables. Secondly ban the advertising of fast-foods and fizzy drink on television before 8.30pm and thirdly introduce a 10% tax on fast-foods.

The first would significantly reduce the cost of fruit and vegetables for families and make them a more accessible choice for those who need it most while the other steps would start to put legitimate and reasonable restrictions on the activities of the fast-food chains which are the main drivers of the epidemic.

These companies rely on the “nagging effect” whereby advertising to children results in pressure on parents to patronise fast-food outlets. We are the victims of sophisticated advertising agencies which cynically manipulate the young on behalf of their profit-hungry fast-food clients.

Like the cigarette companies before them, they know to catch children when they are young as the best way to hook them for life.

But while the profits are large, so too are the losses to the community in the enormous cost of obesity-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. However facing up to the real long-term cost is unattractive to governments which work on three-year election cycles. Minister of Health Pete Hodgson will be long-gone by the time we have half the population wanting heart bypass operations and/or treatment for diabetes.

Such steps as I’ve suggested to free New Zealanders to make good food choices would also be vigorously opposed by powerful lobby groups.

Businesses would rail against new taxes which they say will “distort the market”. Fast-food companies will cry foul and armies of well-paid lobbyists in suits will descend on parliament to stifle effective government action.

The difficulty is not in finding effective steps to take but in finding the courage to take them. At the moment the government would prefer to spend tens of millions on ineffective strategies at the bottom of the cliff rather than confronting the business behemoths at the source of the problem.

A glimmer of hope for our schools

A small glimmer of hope for our schools passed almost unnoticed last week in a comment to Radio New Zealand by Minister of Education Steve Maharey.

Maharey was agreeing with an educational academic that it was time for a review of Tomorrow’s Schools. He said the government would “have a look” after the school Board of Trustee elections next year. He said while Labour supported the BOT model it could perhaps be improved. This is an understatement of mammoth proportion.

Tomorrow’s Schools came in as education policy in 1989 after a government-appointed taskforce led by supermarket businessman Brian Picot recommended a radical change to the way we run our schools. The Picot Report as it was called became the blueprint for Tomorrow’s Schools and inevitably the model had an unequivocal business focus.

Although it was never presented to the public in such a bald fashion, the model the Labour government adopted was based on schools competing for students – just like supermarkets compete for customers or baked bean manufacturers compete for market share. The idea was that the “best” schools would attract the most students and the “worst” schools where student numbers dropped would close like a failed business.

Picot’s model was sold as giving schools more autonomy to respond to local needs, make their own decisions and give a better education (“meet the learning needs of their local children”) without interference from “educational bureaucrats” which it was claimed were stifling education and holding back our schools and our children.

The new dawn of Tomorrow’s Schools we were told would bring parents to the heart of their children’s education. They would have a real say in the running the schools while schools themselves would adapt to local concerns and priorities. Parents would have more power and more choice with schools as liberated zones for innovation and creativity under the control of their communities.

At the time I was teaching at a school in a low income community and our Maori principal returned from a government briefing with a bright fire in his eyes as he described the unleashed potential the new model would create for our school. At last, he told us, we would be able to make plans for the school together with the community and respond to local needs. We would be freed from the heavy hand of bureaucracy.

Within just 2 years however the tale of Tomorrows Schools became a tale of disparity and educational failure.

Across the country schools in high-income communities flourished. They had highly skilled BOTs – plenty of accountants, lawyers and such like – who managed the new system well. Schools in low income communities struggled. All the goodwill in the world from their parents could never hope to make up for the lack of critical skills needed to oversee the management of a complex school community.

When the support structures were stripped away from these schools with the abolishing of Education Boards they were left to sink or swim. Many sank but it wasn’t the government which got the blame but the BOTs made up of hardworking, well meaning parents.

The Education Review Office reinforced the market model and mercilessly slayed struggling schools instead of condemning the appalling conditions in which their demoralised staff, unskilled BOT, crumbling buildings and decrepit classrooms were expected to operate.  The whole structure was a cruel hoax whereby the educational equivalent of Labour’s economic reforms of the 1980’s were introduced into our public schools.

National accelerated the damage in the 1990’s and once again the brunt of the reforms were worn by those schools and communities already hugely disadvantaged.

Is it any surprise that while students in our high and middle-income communities compete with the best anywhere in the world New Zealand has a long tail of underachievement from schools in our low-income communities? The Tomorrow’s Schools debacle is the reason. Many parents lost their most important choice – a high quality school in their local neighbourhood.

Since the mid 1990’s some small concessions have been introduced to put additional resources into schools in low-income communities but it amounts to little compared to the quantum of damage inflicted. Even today a typical decile 10 school in a high income community has 25% more income per student than a decile one school where the learning needs are much greater. The extra resources for schools in low income communities is swamped by school “donations” and the fees from foreign fee-paying student at other schools.

Under Tomorrow’s Schools the quality of education is increasingly dependent of the ability of parents to pay fees instead of being provided by the government at the same high quality to all children irrespective of their parents’ income.

Tomorrow’s schools doesn’t need the tinkering Maharey suggests. It needs a complete overhaul.

Carbon credits not the way to fight climate change

It’s a rare occasion when our two main political parties publicly agree on major policy but we saw this last week on climate change. Labour and National are both pointing to trade in carbon credits as the main solution to global warming.

With a consensus like this it’s tempting to think that at least on one issue we must be heading in the right direction. Unfortunately this is not so.

Like so much policy that has sprung from neo-liberal economics in the past 20 years this proposal has all the hallmarks of a myopic business-driven approach by which we will consume and pollute our way to a greener planet. It won’t work.

Labour previously suggested direct taxes on the main polluters. Agriculture produces about half of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions – from livestock – and the government proposed a so-called “fart tax” to raise $8.4million to begin the mitigation process. Such was the farming outcry the proposal was abandoned. They next proposed a carbon tax but timidly backed down after a business-led revolt.

Both parties are now proposing a cap-and-trade system whereby supposedly the total man-made emission of carbon dioxide is capped and then carbon credits are traded between companies to regulate the amount of this global warming gas in the atmosphere.

Companies which burn fossil fuels such as gas and oil would purchase carbon credits to offset the carbon they are releasing. These credits could come from companies involved in such ventures as forestry projects, which store carbon in trees, or investment in renewable energy sources.

This is a very seductive proposal because rather than change our lifestyles it suggests we can continue to burn fossil fuels in the same profligate way as at present. We can continue to drive as much as we want in our SUVs, take a flight to Sydney for a weekend shopping or buy out of season fruit and vegetables specially transported here from all over the world. The carbon traders tell us that we can do all these things and salve our conscience with, for example, just a small investment in a forestry project in the developing world which will soak up the carbon emissions from our fossil-fuelled activities.

If only it were so simple.

Tree plantations at best provide only a temporary store of carbon which ends with harvesting, disease, fire and natural decay while the burning of fossil fuels creates a permanent increase in the amount of carbon which is actively cycling through forests, oceans and atmosphere. David Bellamy has suggested, only semi-seriously, that we may need to bury whole forests to remove carbon from cycling in the environment. A botanist from Cambridge University, Oliver Rackham, puts it more bluntly “Telling people to plant trees (to solve climate change) is like telling them to drink more water to keep down rising sea levels”.

The future of global trading in carbon credits is the unprecedented dislocation of people in developing countries as they give up their land for forests needed to soak up the carbon spewed out by the wealthy industrial world.

It’s the majority of humanity in these countries who will pay with their land, their freedom and ultimately their lives to maintain the developed world in the lifestyles to which we are wedded.

Of course if we only give them a chance the markets will find another solution when sea levels rise and climates change around the world. The wealthy will be able to abandon their homes near expanding deserts, violent storms or coastline swamps as “the market” revalues land and allocates it according to ability to pay. Our business leaders and assorted profligates will pick up the prime real estate in a globally-warmed planet. It might be a resort by a lovely lake in the Sahara or perhaps a vineyard high in the Southern Alps where snow is a distant memory.

Because market ideology is so dominant in both Labour and National we are working towards dead-end solutions to global warming and are discounting the chance for more effective nationally planned solutions. Ideas such as free buses and trains in our larger centres paid for with a steep increase in tax on petrol would be a healthy start.

Getting serious about the planet we leave our children and grandchildren means getting serious with the mindless mantra of economic growth and putting in place policies which reflect the true meaning of sustainability.

The last word here should go to Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network in the US. “Powerful interests have hijacked the climate debate and are forcing a corporate, free-market approach to the earth’s peril”

Detention without trial a nasty political secret

Most New Zealanders have never heard of Thomas Yadegary. The government would like to keep it that way because his story is one of its best kept and nastiest political secrets.

Thomas is an Iranian who has been in detention without trial for the past 23 months in Auckland’s Mt Eden prison. He arrived in New Zealand in 1993 as a political asylum seeker. While waiting for his case to be considered he studied English and trained as a chef working in top Auckland hotels. He worked hard, paid taxes, saved money, made lots of friends and became a Catholic. He even had his photo taken with Bill Clinton on one of Clinton’s visits to New Zealand (see photo attached) His application was turned down but he appealed at each opportunity hoping and praying he would be successful. All appeals failed however and on 1 November 2004 he was detained and taken to Mt Eden prison to await deportation.

One of the ironies is that because Iran is not a safe place for him the government requires his agreement to be deported before he can be put on a plane. In other words the government needs political cover in the likely event he is arrested, attacked or killed on his forced return to Iran. However Thomas has refused to endanger his life by signing an agreement to be deported despite huge pressure on him from immigration officials.

He is effectively being kept hostage in prison – to be released only if he agrees to be deported to Iran!    Every 28 days he comes before the District Court where Immigration Ministry lawyers argue vigorously for his ongoing detention, because he is “uncooperative” and the judges duly rubber-stamp his on-going incarceration. This is the type of human rights abuse New Zealand governments of all persuasions have condemned in many countries around the world over many years.

In his various appeals Thomas has had the strong support of a wide circle of friends and his Christian community which includes support from his Catholic bishop. Although I have never met him I have no reason to believe he is anything but the honest, hard-working, fun-loving person most of us would be delighted to have as a next-door neighbour.

Thomas made a final appeal to the Minister of Immigration but last week the Associate Minister of Immigration, Clayton Cosgrove, rejected it. In three brief sentences Cosgrove washed his hands of the case and Thomas’s two-year old legal limbo continues.

In another irony, MP David Cunliffe wrote a glowing letter of support for Thomas and said he would do all he could to support him. Cunliffe himself is now the Minister of Immigration and deaf to all appeals on Thomas’s behalf. Such is the corrupting influence of expedient politics on moral behaviour.

Thomas has been deeply stressed by all of this and has been under a great deal of pressure both psychologically and emotionally. Despite his out-going personality he is often depressed and suffers recurring headaches. His friends say that hope and prayers are keeping him going.

New Zealand immigration policy has always been an ugly mix of prejudice, political expediency and plain racism. The infamous dawn raids carried out by the 3rd Labour government against Pacific Islanders is the most celebrated example but the open-door approach for self-confessed white supremacists from South Africa as apartheid was dismantled and the appalling treatment of the young Sri Lankan girl by Lianne Dalziel when she was Minister are also vivid examples. The 5th Labour government continues to make grubby history with the “hostage detention” of Thomas Yadegary.

It is quite impossible to believe that had Thomas been a white Zimbabwean farmer he would have been treated in such a shameful, appalling way by a country which professes support for human rights.

Why is it that Labour politicians so often lose it on immigration? Why do they keep a man who has shown himself to be an asset to the community in jail and denied any semblance of natural justice? Why is Thomas Yadegary forced to soak up tax money in jail instead of working and paying taxes?

Perhaps in some contorted way the government fears it may be perceived to be not pulling its weight in the war on terror alongside the racially-based immigration practices of Australia and the US.

Whatever the reason the outcome is a bizarre travesty of natural justice, deeply shameful to New Zealand and a disgraceful abuse of human rights. We have our own little Guantanemo Bay right here in the heart of Mount Eden courtesy of David Cunliffe and Clayton Cosgrove.


We fail to value our history

There is nothing like travelling overseas to sharpen perception of the best and worst in one’s own country. 

I’ve had this opportunity over the past month visiting several centres in Europe, meeting family connections and friends as well as doing “touristy” things. 

In terms of goods and services the overwhelming feeling is of “sameness”. Much of the time we could have been anywhere in the world as the same multinational names and “brands” turn up with depressing frequency whether its marketing companies, accountancy firms or fast foods.

Too many main streets and shopping centres are dominated by the likes of Starbucks, McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hutt and Subway.

There is growing community resistance to the dead hand of these multinationals and one bright spot is the suburb of Stoke-Newington in London where we stayed.

The local council has succeeded so far in keeping the multinational fast-food chains out and the benefits are obvious. The area is a rich treasure trove of small family eateries. Talk about value and variety! The argument of the multi-national chains that they provide extra choice is rubbish. They remove choice as they use their huge resources to destroy local competitors.

Another area of “sameness” is the content of political debate. Aside from the Iraq war Helen Clark’s Labour government has mirrored its policies on Tony Blair’s New Labour Party in Britain. The same arguments we are familiar with here over health, education and poverty for example are aired daily and like New Zealand, political debate is governed by the concerns of the middle class. Labour and National here talk about “mainstream New Zealanders” while British politicians like Gordon Brown, the heir-apparent to Tony Blair, has based his leadership appeal around policies for “middle England”. Like New Zealand the poor don’t get a look in and appear most commonly in the media on the backs of outbreaks of criminal violence from the social breakdown associated with ingrained poverty.

And if you thought the quality of political debate in New Zealand was low then it is undoubtedly worse in Britain. The huge number of daily tabloids bring an even stronger media focus to the sideshows of politics where bubble-gum journalism abounds. It’s like having a dozen “Truth” newspapers to choose from every day with headlines and content to match. Another case where “choice” is an illusion.

Perhaps the most sobering difference we encountered was the value which other countries place on their history compared to New Zealanders. We have often made excuses that we haven’t been here long enough to have a decent history although this view is thankfully changing. With a thousand years or so of Maori settlement and more than 360 years of European contact we have a history as long as most parts of Britain.

Despite this we don’t relish it as do the Scottish for example who base so many “tourist attractions” on their history. While in New Zealand we advertise our scenery, outdoor activities and Maori culture in our tourism promotions, the Scottish advertise the likes of Edinburgh Castle, the royal mile and the William Wallace (the Braveheart of popular renown) memorial at Stirling near the site of his most famous battle.

Middle-class New Zealanders in their tens of thousands flock to historic sites such as these every year and this is understandable as many trace their ancestors from this part of the world. But by comparison how many of these same New Zealanders have visited sites of struggle here? For example how many would have visited the site of the battle at Orakau Pa, perhaps the most famous battle of the New Zealand land wars of the nineteenth century?

In this battle, since portrayed in one of our earliest movies as “Rewi’s last stand”, Maori chief Rewi Maniapoto led a small band of valiant defenders against overwhelming odds and although defeated pulled off a daring, dramatic escape. The battle marked a turning point in our history and is every bit as colourful, interesting and riveting – both factually and historically – as Wallace’s battle at Stirling Bridge and yet it is largely unknown to New Zealanders and invisible to our tourists. Should you visit the battle scene today you will find just a small parking bay and a plaque which briefly describes the battle.

This speaks volumes for our lack of understanding and ambivalence about so much of our history. We have a long way to go before we feel comfortable enough with it to celebrate it ourselves and promote it proudly to our visitors.