The demise of Don Brash

Don Brash is on his way out in politics and yet there is no reason to think that his political behaviour has been any different from that of other National or Labour members of parliament.

It was clear he had become a liability for National. When reporters asked uncomfortable questions he was not smoothly evasive with his answers. Unlike more seasoned politicians he lacked the animal instinct to cover his tracks properly.

To be underhand and evasive is good politics but to be caught out in the open is the road to oblivion.

On the night of his resignation he told a TV interviewer that he didn’t think he had ever knowingly or deliberately misled the public. This leaves open the question that if he wasn’t sure he hadn’t deliberately misled us then on his own admission he may have deliberately done so. Not a good look.

It is rare for genuine leadership to coincide with political adroitness and still rarer for it to coincide with honesty. None of these stars lined up for Brash.

At the end of the day his evasions appeared too obvious in a system where political reputations are built and maintained by public perception rather than by policies or leadership.

Brash entered parliament as a neo-liberal who had more in common with ACT than National. He was even referred to as the 10th ACT MP when ACT had nine in parliament but his free-market economic thinking has been toned down in the pursuit of political power.

 

Labour has tried to portray Brash as a hard-line right winger supporting unfettered free-market policies. This is Brash’s background but it is also the background of the senior leadership of the Labour government which sat around the cabinet table with Roger Douglas in the 1980s.

On the surface Brash has moved National in a more pragmatic direction as he has tried to wrest control of the middle class vote from Labour. He has even gone so far as to say that tax cuts must come second to providing decent health and education to everyone.

It is precisely because the policy differences between National and Labour are so small that argument about perceptions drives what passes for political debate.

Healthy cynicism of politicians is a good thing but this has deepened as a result of the neo-liberal reforms of the past 20 years. From 1984 to 1996 there were five elections in New Zealand in which the party which won did the opposite of what they promised. No-one ever voted for the sale of our state assets, GST, Tomorrow’s Schools, tax cuts for the wealthy, low wages, destruction of manufacturing jobs, poverty or low-quality employment and yet they have been delivered in spades by Labour in the 1980s, National in the 1990s and continue with Labour today.

Working class New Zealanders in low-income communities are the ones who have always borne the brunt of Labour and National policies. These communities are largely disaffected and disengaged from the political process. It is here where voter turnouts are lowest and when they do vote it tends to be for Labour although it’s a vote based on habit more than hope. They don’t see our parliamentary politics as having the capacity to improve their lives in any meaningful way and they are right.

Even when Labour is voted in things get worse for the most vulnerable. Our City Missions and food banks around the country report ever growing demand for food parcels and there is a wealth of statistics to paint the full ugly story. We know for example that Pacific Island families are worse off now than when Labour was elected. In fact in the first 4 years of this current Labour reign the percentage of Pacific families suffering severe hardship increased from 16% to 30%. Labour’s failure knows no bounds.

So while National under Brash has moved pragmatically to the “left”, so have Labour’s policies moved to the right to such an extent that the parties now frequently pass each other in the middle of the marketplace. 

John Key is a younger, fresher version of the free-market Brash and is the frontrunner to lead National. He’s a reminder of the bright young men in suits from the 1980’s who took New Zealand for a ride on the back of Roger Douglas’s reforms which released all kinds of economic lunacy on New Zealand.

Whether he is successful will depend on his ability to connect with the middle-class. This is the ground on which elections are won or lost. It’s the territory where both National and Labour pitch their electoral spin.

But whether Key becomes prime minister or not matters less than we think. At worst it will be a continuation of the existing free-market policies which have been so destructive for so many for so long.

Advertisements

A draft curriculum for narrow capitalist economics

Most parents will never read the draft for the new school curriculum published by the government earlier this year. It’s available if you know where to get it and if time can be found to read it and understand its implications.

At one level it seems like a collection of well-meaning, uncontroversial, motherhood-and-apple-pie statements about what students should be taught and why these things are important. At another level it contains clearly coded messages about the relative power of the various lobbies who would have been consulted in putting it together.

Most of the focus of public debate so far has been on the expunging of The Treaty of Waitangi from the draft curriculum – a deficiency astonishing for its crude cynicism. Can you imagine a US curriculum without a prominent place for the Declaration of Independence?

Absence of the Treaty sends a message to the wider community. The government is pushing Maori into the back seat.

As well as the slap in the face to Maori there is included throughout the draft the handiwork of big business lobbies. They have been hard at work behind the scenes with the government to skew the curriculum in favour of narrow capitalist economics.

It starts in the first paragraph on the first page where the vision focuses on children being equipped to “contribute to the growth of the economy”. Central to this vision is children becoming “entrepreneurial” – running businesses to make profits – and even when the draft talks about values, “economic values” are included.

The business ripples then run through the entire document. The “economic life of New Zealand” gets plenty of coverage in the main curriculum strands while the Social Studies curriculum has been positively colonised by the “economic world” and the injunction that children “use this knowledge to understand their place in the economic world”.

 

Business is determined to inculcate our children with the values of the capitalist free market where profit is god and the needs of human beings are subservient to the needs of entrepreneurs and profiteers. 

The Enterprise New Zealand Trust is the key driver of this “entrepreneurialism” with their aim to “create tomorrow’s entrepreneurs today”. Organised, funded and supported by big business interests they have a complete package of well resourced programmes to deliver to our children and the draft curriculum will give them the “in” to every school in the country.

In the meantime business influence in schools has been a quiet rust eating away at the options our children may conceive for themselves and their community in the future.

Consider programmes such as the ENZ Trust’s Primary Enterprise Programme at Paengaroa Primary School in the Bay of Plenty where for six weeks of the year the teachers create their own “real world” for children with their own currency, business plans, advertisements, job applications, interviews etc. A real learning experience on the one hand with lots of maths, language development and interesting activities but think about the values and learning inherent in the program when the teacher in charge says-

“The scary part about it is how it does mirror society in a big way. They make things and sell them, we have thefts and children who get sacked when they don’t do their work. We haven’t got to the stage where we have the dole but maybe next year. I’m absolutely sold on this approach to learning. Already I can see the children who will be entrepreneurs one day.”

Do we want our children to brand themselves as economic winners and losers when they are at primary school? Surely the focus should be for students to critically question the world they live in and explore other economic possibilities. What about work co-operatives, credit unions, trustee banks, profit sharing? 

Imagine the outrage from business if the teacher had created a trade union for six weeks and the children had elected delegates, run recruitment drives for members, organised meetings and worked co-operatively to improve the pay and conditions for low paid employees. 

The fury of Enterprise New Zealand Trust’s backers would be palpable and yet this would be a much more appropriate approach. Almost a third of our children grow up in poverty and a large proportion will take up low-paid, part-time jobs for much of their working lives. They need to question and think critically about the economic alternatives to the failure of New Zealand’s economy to work for people aside from a small numbers of wealthy entrepreneurs.

In the early days of Tomorrow’s Schools we had Bairds Primary School giving naming rights to Mainfreight. The school now called Bairds Mainfreight will forever be the symbol of government failure in education.

Unless we can erase “entrepreneurialism” from the curriculum then Education Minister Steve Maharey may as well sell the naming rights. How does the New Zealand Business Roundtable curriculum sound?

Stadium for Auckland is world class stupidity

I live down the road from Eden Park.

As we all know it’s in the middle of a residential area and at the time of the debate about whether it should receive resource consent to erect lighting for night games in the mid 1990s it was described by a local resident as “a second rate stadium in a third rate location”. And so it is.

Local residents objected to the lights going up because daytime experiences were bad enough. Waikato games were always the worst. The boys from the farms would drive up to the games and bring a “yell till you’re hoarse, drink till you vomit and drive till you crash mentality”. Boot parties before the games, hooning, rubbish and urine soaked shrubbery after the games.

Local residents lost the lights battle and Auckland lost the chance to relocate the stadium to an industrial area. For the big games now we now have port-a-loos on the corner of our street, extra rubbish tins and a police blockade for hours before and after.

Now the issue is alive again with the out-of-nowhere debate about a stadium for the World Rugby Cup final in 2011. Michael Cullen talks about Eden Park as though he’s been resident here for years. It’s not so much in sympathy with residents however as it is to push for a “first class city” alternative in the form of a waterfront stadium.

The government says that if Eden Park is upgraded then Auckland should pay most of the $385 million cost but the government would contribute a lot more of the possible $1billion cost of a new “national” stadium on Auckland’s waterfront.

The government is thinking big. It is even basking in the warm glow of commentators who point to the stadium proposal and Helen Clark’s “first sustainable country” speech as signs of a government which still has fresh, new ideas even after part way through its third term.

But the waterfront stadium idea is ludicrous for at least three reasons. Firstly because it continues the long tradition of ad hoc planning which has dominated Auckland city administration for 40 years now and has left us in an absolute mess. Right-wing councils who supported public services with a small p have always lacked the vision of what a city should or could be. Like many New Zealand local bodies, our city fathers have been elected by popular apathy neatly summed up in one of the first pieces of political graffiti I saw when I came to Auckland “Don’t vote – Fletchers always wins”.

The city is a disaster zone. It has pathetic public transport, clogged roads and it is accepted by most that these problems will now never be solved – they can only be mitigated. More ad-hoc planning around the cabinet table in Wellington is the last thing Auckland needs.

Secondly the 35m high “bed-pan” design being shifted around on maps is particularly ugly and as many here have pointed out would be another barrier separating Auckland from our harbour. It’s a pleasure to walk around the Wellington waterfront but a struggle to get more than a cramped glance from anywhere near Auckland’s city centre.

Thirdly and most importantly though is the reckless abandon with which the government is opening the chequebook for rugby. Sports Minister Trevor Mallard who has prided himself on being the minister who says no to budget proposals for spending by other ministers is quite happy to spend hundreds of millions on a stadium which will be filled to capacity for possibly two rugby games in 2011 and extremely rarely afterwards. This might be Mallard’s national spending priority but few others would agree.

A sizeable proportion of New Zealanders enjoy rugby but a sizeable proportion wouldn’t walk across the street to watch the All Blacks and are tired of the endless hype of sponsors, advertisers and politicians looked for reflected glory from national sports successes.

Mallard’s greatest contribution as Minister of Education was to close schools, underfund the NCEA and trash Maori initiatives in tertiary education. As Minister of Sport he may well be remembered as a wasteful spendthrift. His proposal will give us world class stupidity rather than a world class city.

He should take a cold shower.

Going back a year the first proposal for 2011 was a $45 million upgrade of Eden Park involving mostly temporary seating. This common sense solution is the least of the evils on offer and the park board should raise the funds themselves just as schools have to run cake stalls for our kids’ education. Mallard should be able to give them some sensible advice about that.

Food miles are catching up with our economy

A visible shudder ran through the government last week. Not the sign of a passing cold but a sign of a chronic illness we have not faced up to before.  

It came in the buzz expression “food miles”. New Zealand as a food producer and agricultural exporter to the rich countries of the “global north” on the other side of the world has been the focus of attention because the energy used in shipping or flying our food to these markets means our food is not as “environmentally friendly” as food produced locally in Europe.

The issue came into the open after the release of a report by Nicholas Stern, former World Bank economist on the expected global cost of climate change. European politicians then took potshots at the food miles associated with Zealand products. It’s an issue which has always been there on the stage of the sustainability debate but the spotlight has mercifully missed us till now.

Helen Clark and Phil Goff both claimed this was just the latest version of agricultural protectionism from the European Union countries but their dread was palpable. Had we just been outed?

Minister of Agriculture Jim Anderton called it a “smear campaign” and said that “if European producers want to expose the real costs to the environment of food production then they are on a hiding to nothing”. Brave words and he is right about the smear campaign but wrong about the cost to the environment.

The unpalatable fact is that the best environmental option would be for Europeans to produce butter and lamb efficiently themselves for their own people rather than import it from half-way round the globe.

On top of this, anyone who has visited a dairy farm lately will realise the picture of Farmer Brown’s cows grazing lazily in the lush meadow by a stream is a long-gone, hopelessly romantic version of farming. Modern intensive and “efficient” practices are putting a huge strain on our land, water supplies and animal welfare practices. In economic terms we may produce butter more cheaply but the cost to the environment is much higher than the supposedly “inefficient” European producers.

Anderton is on stronger ground when he lambastes gas fired hothouses on the other side of the world which produce tomatoes in the off season for their locals when these tomatoes could be produced at less cost to the environment elsewhere and shipped to Europe. But even here it is doubtful. The environmental cost of fuel for transport may be less than the fuel burned to heat greenhouses but what about the cost of building the ships and the associated transport costs? All the energy expended to extract and smelt the ore into iron and steel needs to be taken into account over the lifetime of a boat. Looking at the whole picture it is Anderton himself who is on a hiding to nothing.

The issue was raised just a few days after Helen Clark had made her address to the Labour Party’s annual conference where she talked about New Zealand becoming the first sustainable country on planet earth and this included the goal of us becoming “carbon neutral”.

The harsh truth however is that we have no chance of sustainability when our economy is based on agricultural trade to the other side of the world. Environmentally aware consumers will simply not buy the idea that New Zealand butter or lamb transported halfway round the world is a good option for the environment. Neither would most New Zealanders accept that buying Australian biscuits, Californian grapes or baked beans from China when we produce them all here is good for the planet. It isn’t.

I for one resent the fact that they are on our supermarket shelves in the first place and often at a cheaper price than local products. The real cost to the environment of all this transport is never expressed in the price at the checkout.

Anderton’s comments run parallel to the half-baked argument that a person can have a “carbon neutral” holiday by simply planting a tree before they get on a plane. It’s rubbish because again the true cost to the environment is never built into the calculations.

There is a wider problem of course. In the 1980’s New Zealand abandoned the concept of self-reliance and embraced globalisation. The idea was that we would let factories close if they couldn’t compete with a flood of cheap imports and that instead we would focus our economy on what we did better than anyone else – produce and export agricultural products at a lower cost than anyone else in the world.

It was always a dumb strategy. European and North American countries continue to protect their own agricultural sectors and now quite rightly raise questions about the environmental basis of our main source of income.

How could we have been so stupid to have put all our eggs in a basket with a faulty bottom?

We have been caught like possums in the headlights.