Children’s education must come before private profit

ECE Funding

Parents are right to be outraged that two year olds in early childhood education will be used to subsidise the government’s 20 hours per week free education for three and four year olds.

This will be a certain outcome of the policy due to be implemented from the middle of this year. Government subsidies for the 20 free hours will range from $4.09 to $10.60 per hour per child for 3 and 4 year olds provided the centre offering the hours does not charge a top-up from parents.

However because centres have complained the subsidies are too low the Ministry of Education suggested in a letter to centres last November that one option was for centres to “change the fees for all groups to cover the cost for free ECE”

In other words government advice is for centres to increase fees for two year olds and under as well as charge extra for any additional hours above 20 for older children. This will enable the government to claim it is providing 20 “free” hours.

This advice from the Ministry directly contradicts what parents were told at the time the policy was announced. The government then gave assurances that fees for under-3s would not be affected but its now clear the “free” hours will be part-paid by parents of other children who do not qualify for the hours.

The latest Ministry advice reduces the policy to a cynical exercise of government spin as it gives with one hand and receives the kudos while forcing early childhood centres to take with the other.

But the low rate of subsidy is not the only problem. There are two other fundamental concerns which threaten parent involvement and the integrity of early childhood education into the future.

Firstly the initial policy announcement said the 20 free hours were available for every 3 or 4 year old but only in teacher-led centres. This excluded most kohanga reo and playcentres because they tend to be parent-led and may not have qualified teachers.

On the one-hand this aspect of the policy could be seen to encourage better quality teaching but it necessarily discourages the involvement of parents. Early childhood education is an area of intense interest for most parents and parent involvement which has been championed by playcentres and kohanga reo involves a genuine community-building experience. Parents who meet and work in these centres form binding community networks which are of enormous benefit to the whole community.

The new funding policy looks at education through the narrow lens of the teacher rather than the wider context of child, family and community. Parents who make this choice should not have it undermined.

The second problem arose in the heat of the 2005 election campaign when the then Minister of Education Trevor Mallard announced the policy would be extended to private “for-profit” centres pumping another $50 million into their businesses. The Business Roundtable was thrilled.

The argument of the private sector is that the ownership of the centre doesn’t matter – it’s the quality of the children’s experiences which count.

It’s a simple, seductive argument – but it’s wrong. Ownership matters absolutely in determining the quality of experience a child receives because in the private sector quality is only available for those able to pay for it. In fact the “for profit” private ECE providers have lobbied hard over the years through their organisation – the Early Childhood Council – for lower minimum standards of training for those running ECE centres and the staff they employ. A range of quality at a range of prices is always the way they do business. No prizes for guessing who gets the lowest quality.

Meanwhile the corporate sector is rapidly expanding and taking over our early childhood centres. The largest, aptly named Kidicorp, was in the news last week because its share price rose 10%. The Australian corporate has just swallowed another two Montessori centres in Wellington and now owns 80 centres nationwide catering for almost 4000 children. The company has big expansion plans. No wonder. Business is good on the back of New Zealand government subsidies. The other two major chains, Forward Steps, owned by Macquarie Bank, and ABC Learning Centres are also Australian owned.

The new policy is grossly distorted. It rewards private corporates with subsidies while our community owned and operated centres install EFTPOS machines for parents to pay increased fees. It’s based more on corporate-building than community-building.

The alternative is a system where quality early childhood education is seen as a basic right for all children and is provided by the government on the basis of high quality for everyone.

Bush beats war drums against Iran

It’s tempting to think that George Bush and his warmongering White House are on the defensive. The war on Iraq has proven to be the disaster predicted before the illegal invasion four years ago. We all knew “weapons of mass destruction” was a cynical ruse. It was always about oil and empire.

And so Iraq is a quagmire of Bush’s making. 3000 US troops have died but more than 100 times that number of Iraqis have been killed. The internal conflict rages out of control. Popular opinion in the US strongly opposes the war and overt opposition from within the ranks of front line troops has been growing unprecedentedly.

Despite threats of court martial more than 1000 serving US troops have joined a website appeal to bring the troops home.

But Bush is escalating the war with his “surge” of 20,000 more troops announced last week.

Should we just shake our heads with Jim Anderton and see this as a repeat of the US bloody-mindedness in Vietnam which ended in a rout?

No, because US war drums are beating again but the focus is shifting from the unholy mess in Afghanistan and Iraq to “regime change” in Iran. Congress has approved more than $100 million to finance covert and overt activities to provoke insecurity and undermine the country’s economic, social and political stability.

But Bush has bigger plans. He has rejected proposals from his own officials for negotiations with Syria and Iran to help de-escalate the war in Iraq. Diplomacy is anathema to Bush. Instead a full-scale air attack on Iran will be the centrepiece of the new strategy. The 20,000 extra troops for Iraq are a sideshow to the main event.
The attacks will be conducted from the Persian Gulf where fully armed US aircraft carriers and support ships have been gathering over the past two months.

Bush used his “surge” speech to prepare the US population for the next war. He says the new strategy “begins with addressing Iran and Syria…we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq”. Simplistic, hypocritical and deadly.
Shortly following his speech US troops attacked an Iranian consulate in northern Iraq and detained five Iranian representatives.
Bush wants the Islamic leadership of Iran overthrown because of the country’s growing strength in the region. Iran’s nuclear programme will be the nominal target despite no evidence it is for anything other than peaceful purposes. Bush hopes the attack will cool the situation in Iraq as well as undermine Iranian support for Syria and the Palestinian struggle. The big bonus will be greater control of the oil and gas reserves of the region.
The 20,000 extra troops fit into the plan because they will be used for no-holds-barred attacks on Iraqi militias aligned with Iran.

And so with the cards stacked heavily against him in Iraq Bush will try the gambler’s double-or-nothing strategy.

The attack on Iran is predicted to take place before April. Bunker busting bombs and possibly tactical nuclear weapons would be used to penetrate and destroy Iran’s uranium processing plants. The US will claim the attacks are aimed at the regime but will of course include attacks on electricity and water supplies, sewage treatment plants, major transport networks, government buildings and the Iranian leadership.

The one country in the region which supports this strategy is Israel which has nuclear weapons of its own and which fears a strong, Palestinian-supporting, anti-zionist country in the region. Unlike Israel, Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It’s not whether you support justice and international law but who your friends are which counts.

As with the attack on Iraq, the plan once more is to replace the rule of law with the brutal thuggery of the schoolyard bully. The US will bypass the United Nations and create another feudal hell-hole in the Middle-East.

With Bush cornered in Iraq the US is at its most dangerous. It is a threat to its own citizens as well as to peace and security everywhere.

In the meantime Bush will keep his cards close to his chest to allow less time for an international coalition to develop anti-war momentum.

Once more decent people in the United States and around the globe will unite in opposition to Bush’s latest war plans.

If we are to stop this madness the world must mobilise to stop the number one terrorist state. New Zealanders need to play a full part in this alongside the majority of humanity.

The poor state of our democracy

The state of our democracy

As we have a beer by the barbecue, slop on the sunscreen and swim in the surf the last thing most of us want to do is think about politics or politicians. In itself this is a reflection on the poor health of our democracy.

It’s not that most of us don’t care what happens in the country but our ability as citizens to be actively involved in developing and influencing policy and outcomes seems even more remote now than it was a generation ago.  And it is.

Our major political parties once existed as large organisations where policies were proposed and developed through robust debate at party meetings and regional and national conferences. However where policy once emerged from the “bottom up” it is now developed via advertising agencies, spin doctors and focus groups. Democracy has been reduced to a series of products in a political marketplace.

Labour and National Party membership is low with little priority given to recruitment. The party base in the community is needed only to get voter turnout on election day every three years.

Even when it comes to fundraising, party membership has drastically reduced in importance. As in the US and most Western democracies, no party can hope to win power without substantial funds from large companies. The simple truth is that one substantial donation from a single source will easily swamp the income from thousands of cake stalls.

Inevitably the focus of our major political parties has turned to getting these big donations and delivering the policies the donors expect.

And so our democracy is a hollow shell. We feel powerless because we are and this is expressed through a profound, widespread cynicism.

Two recently released books identify the source of the problem. The first is Michael Bassett’s biography of Rod Deane and the second is Nicky Hagar’s Hollow Men.

Bassett’s book describes how a small clique of Labour Party politicians and far-right businessmen hijacked the party’s economic policy in the 1980s and used problems created by the previous Prime Minister, Rob Muldoon, as the pretext for extreme monetarist policies. Our major assets were sold and hundreds of thousands of kiwi families were driven into poverty where they remain trapped today.

The important point is that at no stage did New Zealanders ever give their democratic support to these policies. Quite the opposite in fact. The majority of kiwis strongly opposed the sale of our state assets by Roger Douglas and his small group of anti-democratic plotters.

Hagar’s book covers similar threats to democracy particularly leading up to the 2005 election.

On the one hand it’s no surprise to any of us that political spin dominates the media comments from political parties. But in the world of the then National Party leader Don Brash, his key advisors (most from outside the party) and far-right business connections, democracy appears as merely a nuisance with its subversion being a justified political strategy.

This extended so far as an attempt to set up a separate campaign team for Brash which was to operate outside the National Party. It would be controlled instead by a small number of wealthy businesspeople with fat wallets to bankroll Brash’s election. As with Douglas in the 1980s the aim was to deliver the policies these wealthy clients wanted.

But the most disturbing aspect of the debate around Hagar’s book is that most commentators, uncomfortable and embarrassed by the revelations, have been more interested in attacking the messenger than analysing the lessons from the message.

What Hagar’s book reveals is a democracy in retreat.

It’s important to remember that democracy itself is not a static entity and neither does it mean just five minutes in the ballot box every three years. All aspects of our democracy have only been established through community struggle. When our first government was established in 1852 only relatively wealthy males (owning land) were able to vote. This was extended later to all men and then finally in 1893 to women after well-organised community campaigns.

At every stage of our history, and the British history from which we derive our version of democracy, citizens have had to fight for positive democratic changes against powerful interests. Our last attempt to improve our democracy came with the campaign for MMP which at the time was fiercely resisted by a well-funded business lobby.

Our democracy will either move forward and develop or it will continue to wither.

The first healthy sign will be when our current cynicism turns to anger and significant sections of the community work together to demand the political power which must accompany the right to vote.

Privatisation is on the agenda again

Privatisation reared its ugly head last week when new National Party leader John Key signalled “partial privatisation” of state assets as the party’s policy going into the 2008 Election.

Key says National will sell a 30% stake in Solid Energy to “a mix of mum-and-dad investors and others”. This partial sale would be used “to prove the case” for the partial privatisation of other state-owned enterprises.

However the case against privatisation has already been proven as a disaster. When Labour and National privatised our New Zealanders assets in the 1980s and 1990s they told us that the private sector would be able to run these businesses more efficiently, the services would improve and competition would keep prices down. An added bonus would be that the financial risk of failure would stay with the private investor instead of with taxpayers. It was going to be win, win, win!

The opposite happened. Instead of focusing on provision of services for the public good the focus became profit for private, usually foreign, shareholders. Money that should be invested is siphoned off into the back pockets of these shareholders and we have been left with run down infrastructure and poor quality services. Broadband, rail and electricity are good examples.

Adding further insult the risks have never been borne by the private investors. Taxpayers bailed out the failed privatisation of Air New Zealand and we are also paying well in excess of $200 million for the upgrade to our rail tracks while those who bought our rail network walked away with hundreds of millions in their bulging pockets.

Privatisation was a con of monumental proportion for which we are paying a huge price every time a phone bill or electricity bill arrives. What these privatisations showed was the conflict which exists between the short term extraction of profits and the long-term interests of New Zealanders and their families.

So with privatisation having been such a demonstrable failure what would be changed with “partial privatisation”? Is there something different at work here?

Key acknowledges the case cannot be made for the sale of assets to repay government debt as the return to the taxpayer from the investment we have is greater than the cost of funding the small amount of existing government debt. Key is right and in fact this same argument can be extended to reject Labour’s policy of private toll roads and to re-nationalise our key infrastructure such as electricity, telecommunications and transport.

John Key has suggested three benefits from partial privatisation. He says it will allow external analysts to critique the company, there will be less political stacking of the boards and that “the businesses would be held to account on a relative basis”.

These arguments don’t hold water. They are meaningless political puffery. Shifting accountability towards private shareholders rather than taxpayers would bring no benefit but multiple problems.

These problems are obvious in Air New Zealand which has a private/public mix and came into focus with the partial privatisation of the Auckland electricity company Vector in 2005 when it brought in private shareholders to fund the purchase of the Natural Gas Corporation. As a result Vector shifted from 100% public ownership to 75% public and 25% private.

The conflicting interests came to a head late last year when three directors resigned in a flurry of publicity complaining loudly about the behaviour of the chairperson Michael Stiassny and his close relationship with the majority community shareholder, the Auckland Energy Consumer Trust. At one level it was a clash of personalities but at the heart of the problem is the fundamental conflict between long-term community priorities and the shorter term commercial interests of private investors.

The partial privatisation proposed by Key is a refusal to face the failure of past policies. Just like a druggie who can’t survive from one day to the next without a fix National seems addicted to privatisation.

The policy doesn’t arise from popular concern in the community and the reasons to justify it are contrived and disingenuous. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the policy is being promoted because John Key needs to be seen to deliver to the big-business constituency which wants control of our public assets and which is the source of so much party-political funding.

The final insult must be Key’s claim the policy will benefit “mum-and-dad shareholders”. It’s a sweet phrase that hides an unpalatable truth. Kiwi mum-and-dad shareholders will actually lose their shares which are currently held on our collective behalf by the government while wealthy mum-and-dads with spare cash to invest would be the winners.

New Zealand doesn’t need more of this same diet.

Scrap the honours

Scrap the honours

The government’s twice yearly awarding of “honours” at New Year and Queen’s Birthday is something most of us have mixed feelings about. We like the idea of recognising those who make an outstanding contribution to New Zealand but we are uneasy about the process, suspicious of political patronage and often enough appalled at the recipients.

Unfortunately our system of honours was not home-grown but imported from the British colonial heartland of the second wave of immigrants. Labour had a go at removing the worst excesses of this colonial hangover when they abolished “Sirs”, “Dames” and references to the now defunct British Empire.

But despite the reforms the honours are still conferred by the English Queen “on the recommendation of her Ministers”.

The Order of New Zealand is now the highest ranking award – limited to a maximum of just 20 living New Zealanders. But despite its fine title it has a barely recognised status and little public respect. It has not been accepted by New Zealanders. Most of us would struggle to name even two or three of the holders of this supposedly prestigious honour.

There are two main problems. Firstly the community has no sense of “ownership” of the award. It was not developed from public discussion or debate but foisted on us after recommendations from a government appointed committee. Secondly the appointment of some of the recipients is either a total mystery or obviously politically motivated. The mysteries include the wife of a former Governor General and what else, other than political motivation, could explain the appearance of Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan, Mike Moore or Jim Bolger? Even the trade unionist member of the Order of New Zealand, Ken Douglas, could only ever claim to have made an “outstanding contribution” to New Zealand by working feverishly to undermine trade union opposition to the destructive policies of Roger Douglas.

But the worst politically motivated appointment to the Order of New Zealand would have to be former parliamentary speaker Jonathan Hunt. Despite more than 20 years as an MP and the last few as speaker it seems quite impossible to find what exceptional contribution he has made to this country. Aside from being a time-serving servant of the Labour Party he is remembered as the Minister who split up the Post Office into Telecom, New Zealand Post and Postbank and prepared them for privatisation. And all the while the standard of living of the constituents in his working-class New Lynn electorate deteriorated.

I must confess that whenever I see Jonathan Hunt I’m reminded of the line from an Alexander Pope poem “And wretches hang that jurymen may dine”. In Hunt’s case it should perhaps be changed to “And people pay taxes that politicians may self-indulge”.

The old system was bad enough with knighthoods awarded to those such as Bob Jones and Roger Douglas. Since when has driving tens of thousands of kiwi families into poverty been worthy of an honour?

The government which introduced the Order of New Zealand has repeatedly undermined its credibility. The honour never had a chance to fly and will now never gain public confidence and respect. It should be scrapped. This would be much more preferable than trying to force the false respect of the community onto those who so demonstrably follow agendas aside from the welfare of New Zealanders.

Suggestions have been made that we could perhaps improve things by removing the awarding of honours from a committee of government Ministers and instead establish an outside body to take on the role. However the same problems would surface in different guises.

The heart and soul of our awards system is supposed to be the Queens Service Order and the Queens Service Medal. Here it is that the hard-working unsung kiwi heroes receive some recognition for their dedicated, mostly-unpaid, work in the community. These are not the self-servers of the commercial world, time-serving politicians or self-important political leaders. There is a case to recognise these kiwis, nominated and supported from within their communities, who do work that does not come to national attention.

But even here a credible award system is doomed to fail. Aside from the obviously anachronistic “Queen” in the title, should we really differentiate between parents who struggle valiantly 24 hours a day to bring up children with severe disabilities for example and those who co-ordinate the local “meals on wheels” services?

The discomfort we feel about an honours system is not something we should see as a weakness which we should try to “get over”. In fact the egalitarian principle at the heart of our unease should be nurtured as one of our greatest strengths.

Scrap the honours.