Why do we court leaders who are complicit in murder?

Democracy is a problem for the rich everywhere in the world, and no more so than the Philippines. Like most countries in South-east Asia it has a minority of enormously wealthy people, while the vast majority live in poverty and squalor.

Most of us remember President Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the country with an iron hand from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s. He was America’s man helping to keep the country safe for American investment and as a staging post for United States intervention in South-east Asia.

Marcos’s wife, Imelda, will be remembered for her hundreds – or was it thousands? – of pairs of shoes. While she lived a life of extravagant luxury, she also cried crocodile tears for the poor. But she was as divorced from the slums of Manila as Queen Marie Antoinette of France was from the poor of Paris two centuries before.

The problem for the ruling elite is how to keep the poor in check. Whether or not they have a nominal vote, they have the habit of objecting to being treated like expendable slaves. Worst of all, they create organisations and political movements to get a fairer deal.

So how did Marcos keep these unwashed masses at bay? Early in his life, he was convicted of murdering one of his father’s political opponents, and when he came to power, he used the same brutal methods on the representatives of the poor.

Targeted assassinations were a feature of his rule. One military historian has detailed 3257 extrajudicial killings, 35,000 torture victims and 70,000 people incarcerated during his reign as president.

About the same time, in nearby Indonesia, a similar programme was carried out, which would better be described as genocide. The vicious dictator Suharto oversaw the killing of more than one million citizens. Trade unions and political movements advancing the interests of the poor were the targets. These were communist sympathisers, and in this purge Suharto was backed by the US.

Marcos was eventually overthrown in a popular rebellion in 1986, and Suharto was deposed in 1998, but little has changed in either country since.

In the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has been president since 2001, and she has used the same brutal methods to remain in power as Marcos. No fewer than 837 people have been assassinated on her watch, and a further 198 have disappeared.

In response to international protests, the United Nations sent special rapporteur Philip Alston to the Philippines to investigate the killings. He confirmed what was already known.

“Virtual impunity” prevails in the Philippines with regard to the extrajudicial killings, which are “convincingly attributed” to the military. No surprises there.

Alston’s report, released in March, said: “The executive branch (of the Philippine government), openly and enthusiastically aided by the military, has worked resolutely … to impede the work of party-list groups and to put in question their right to operate freely”.

This has meant not only the killing of activists, but the arrest and imprisonment of elected parliamentarians such as Satur Ocampo, representative of the Bayan Muna (People First) political party, which wants a better deal for the poor. About 130 members of Bayan Muna have been murdered.

Also under arrest is union activist and Anakpawis (Toiling Masses) party representative Crispin Beltran or “Ka Bel” as he is popularly known. The 74-year-old is in ill health and has been detained for 16 months in hospital despite international appeals for his release. As Ka Bel puts it, “if helping the poor and fighting for freedom is rebellion, then I plead guilty as charged”.

Two weeks ago, Arroyo was re-elected president in an election farce, with 126 assassinations carried out in the lead-up to the ballot. No prizes for guessing which political groups were targeted for killings.

This week, Arroyo, fresh from this electoral bloodbath, will be hosted by the Prime Minister, Helen Clark, at an “inter-faith dialogue” at Waitangi, which aims to “strengthen regional security while promoting peace and tolerance”. How bitter is the irony of that?

Also, within the last week New Zealand has welcomed the former foreign minister of the Suharto regime, Ali Alitas. Alitas was the chief apologist for Suharto’s genocidal policies and the invasion and occupation of East Timor, in which about one-third of the population was killed by Indonesian troops.

Along with Alitas is the current Foreign Minister of Indonesia, Dr N. Hassan Wirajuda, who is the regime’s spokesman for the oppression of the people of West Papua, where since 1962 the Indonesian military has killed 100,000 locals.

It is a bad week for human rights when New Zealand welcomes people who in other circumstances would be charged with complicity in murder and genocide.

New Zealand has been keen to condemn the likes of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and ban him from the country, but when murder and mayhem take place much closer to home, our Government’s concerns are quietly murmured. Once more, we stand with those complicit in murder rather than with those fighting for a fair go.

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Kiwisaver is privatising national superannuation

For most of us, saving for retirement is one of those “yes-I-must-look-into-it-sometime” kind of topics. And so, till the budget at least, the government’s KiwiSaver scheme has failed to excite anyone but the fund managers of large financial institutions.

Last week’s announcements of additional encouragement and incentives to save with KiwiSaver will change this and create a lot of discussion in smoko rooms up and down the country.

Previously the government established the Government Superannuation Fund to provide some long term underpinning to national superannuation but even when it reaches its full potential the fund will only contribute some 14% of the income needed to fund the retirement of the baby boomer generation.

Alongside this we are constantly told we are poor savers and this is one reason why inflationary pressure is high. And so on the face of it a scheme such as KiwiSaver which encourages New Zealanders to save for their retirement seems a good proposition. It kills two birds with one stone – helps ensure a decent income in retirement and dampens inflation.

But there are two substantial interlinked problems with the scheme – both of which herald a bleak future for many of us in retirement.

The longer term problem is that KiwiSaver is paving the way for wholly privatised national superannuation. It’s Roger Douglas all over again. How well off you are in retirement will depend on what you personally are able to save for yourself. To some extent this has always been the case but once KiwiSaver is established the writing is on the wall that over time the safety net of national superannuation will be hacked away and large numbers of retired New Zealanders will fall rapidly into poverty.

This was retirement as it used to be whereby those unable to save during their working lives, predominantly women and the low paid, lived in rat infested hovels or boarding houses, dependent on charity from church or community groups funded by philanthropists.

Is this a far fetched scenario? Not any more than the 175,000 New Zealand children who now grow up in families living below the poverty line. Whoever thought this would be tolerated in New Zealand?

We have already seen agonised efforts from both National and Labour to reduce the long-term expense of national superannuation. The age of eligibility has risen from 60 to 65 and attempts have been made to claw back payments through a superannuation surcharge.

To their credit older New Zealanders fought and won against attempts to undermine their retirement income. One of their successes is that only a tiny percentage of the elderly are living in poverty while the opposite applies for the nation’s children who have much less lobbying power. We need baby power as strong as grey power.

The other more immediate problem is that low-paid workers will struggle to get started. For those joining the scheme payments must be made at either 4% or 8% of gross pay. Even at 4% this will mean a drop in take-home pay of more than 5% for families. This is simply unsustainable when we already have one in seven families borrowing money for daily living expenses such as buying the groceries or paying the electricity bill. These families, the working poor, will not only miss out on the $1000 government start-up but more importantly will fail to get any of the on-going benefits of government and employer contributions.

Finance Minister Michael Cullen himself estimates that only perhaps 50% of workers will take up the scheme in the first few years. This means the $3.2 billion going into the scheme in the first four years will be taken up by high and middle income earners with low-income workers effectively locked out.

And it gets worse. There are scenarios now being considered which could see collective agreement negotiations based, for example, on a 3% pay increase alongside a 2% additional employer contribution to KiwiSaver. This will be attractive to businesses because with tax benefits they will pay less than the 5% received by the employee but workers unable to afford KiwiSaver will be left with just a grindingly low pay increase.

In the developmental stages of KiwiSaver the government was lobbied to lower the 4% threshold but refused.

There are now other schemes being proposed which would have just a 2% or perhaps a $5 per week minimum saving but while these would be more easily affordable for low income families they will not attract the benefits of the government scheme.

Most of these benefits will accrue to those on higher incomes with huge numbers of low-income families missing out altogether.

Many of these people when they retire will find themselves relying on another of the budget’s announcements – a projected increase in charitable donations due to the scrapping of the rebate threshold.

Terrorism amendment bill a threat to our civil liberties

Here we go again. Our democratic freedoms, civil liberties and human rights are under threat once more under the guise of the war on terror. The most recent assault comes under cover of the Suppression of Terrorism Amendment Bill 2007, which is before Parliament’s foreign affairs, defence and trade select committee, with submissions due by the end of this week.

The Government says it is just doing its part supporting international moves to isolate and control terrorism. In reality, it is part of the United States leadership’s drive to have its foreign-policy objectives adopted by governments around the world.

New Zealand has been a willing follower. Since 2001, our Government has passed three pieces of legislation to “suppress terrorism”, with the fourth now before Parliament. This latest bill contains provisions already rejected or watered down in the previous legislation. So having failed to get the harshest aspects passed into law earlier on, the Government is bringing them back and having another go.

This wearing away of civil liberties and freedoms has been a dominant feature of anti-terrorism legislation around the world, and has the potential to severely curtail legitimate political activity.

So what are the latest proposals and why are they dangerous? Under the proposed law, as Green Party MP Keith Locke has pointed out, even people with no intention to harm anyone or destroy property can qualify as terrorists.

A terrorist would be someone who, for political reasons, causes “serious disruption to an infrastructure facility, if likely to endanger human life”.

There are many examples of protest activity and civil disobedience from events in the past, such as the 1981 Springbok Tour, which could now be classified as terrorist.

Why not use the more sensible definition of terrorism as worded by the United Nations? This talks about “criminal acts, including those against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the public”.

Instead, New Zealanders working to support liberation struggles, democracy and human rights overseas would now face the prospect of being charged with supporting terrorist organisations.

Previous legislation allowed support and assistance to organisations, provided that it was “for the purpose of advocating democratic government or the protection of human rights”. Unbelievably, the Government now proposes this protection be removed because “it gives scope for a donor to argue that funds provided to a designated terrorist entity were provided for legitimate reasons associated with democracy or human rights”.

Under the new proposal, it would have been illegal to provide support for the African National Congress in the fight against apartheid or for campaigns to have Nelson Mandela released from jail. It could easily also be used against New Zealanders supporting Palestinian groups such as Hamas, despite it being democratically elected to power in Palestine.

So why remove this protection for New Zealanders? It becomes clear when one sees that under this legislation New Zealand would automatically adopt the UN’s list of terrorists and terrorist organisations. In this process, identifying terrorists involves countries putting forward names on a good-faith basis. Given the powers at play here, it is the US which will dominate the compilation of these lists.

Previously, New Zealand would adopt UN designations “in the absence of evidence to the contrary”. However, the Government proposes that New Zealand should give up its right to make its own assessments. We are proposing to remove our own checks and balances.

We would also be sidelining our courts. At present, if the Prime Minister designates a terrorist organisation, this is reviewable by the High Court after three years. The court’s intervention would be removed and the Prime Minister alone would have this power. Why should the Prime Minister be judge and jury? The reason is that if this power remains with the Prime Minister, the Government will easily accede to international pressure, to the detriment of all concerned. At least with the courts, there is a semblance of independent scrutiny.

This assumption of power by politicians over court processes is shown most clearly by the US with its treatment of Guantanamo Bay detainees and the CIA’s “rendition” programme whereby suspected terrorists have been clandestinely transferred around the world to face torture. In both cases, the courts have been sidelined. It would be a disgrace for New Zealand to follow.

Why should we give up our rights to curry favour with those whose polices and actions in recent years have in themselves been inherently terrorist? The bill should be scrapped.

Economic correctness gone mad

What are we to do? Every politician, economist and commentator seems to agree that the New Zealand dollar is valued too high and is damaging our economy.

It’s not a new problem and has a simple genesis. The only instrument the Reserve Bank has available to fight inflation is to raise interest rates. But when it does, as it has regularly in the last few years, investors and currency speculators borrow money overseas at low interest and bring it to New Zealand, where they can get a higher return. This pushes the value of our dollar higher, and we get a lower return for what we sell overseas.

Export industries suffer and we lose manufacturing jobs. The latest involves 350 workers being made redundant at Fisher and Paykel, which is moving a section of its whiteware-manufacturing business to Thailand.

And the extra money coming into New Zealand? As well as fuelling credit-card debt, large chunks go into mortgages, as wealthier New Zealanders buy investment properties. This is part of the reason house prices have climbed out of the reach of ordinary Kiwi families.

The big Australian-owned banks (ASB, ANZ, Westpac and the BNZ) are loving it. In an average year, they reap about $2 billion in profit from New Zealand, but this year the figure will be closer to $3b flowing back across the ditch.

Let’s try to be objective here. We have an economic direction that cripples local manufacturing and destroys quality jobs, makes Kiwi workers redundant, rewards speculators, makes outrageous profits for banks, pushes house prices out of the reach of even middle-class families, encourages irrational spending, drives families into poverty, and the Prime Minister, Helen Clark, says there is no crisis.

It’s only imbalances in the economy, she says. At least this part is right. Those who are suffering are those who work to earn money, while those who speculate are living high.

It is a barely believable scenario for our little country. International financiers, banks and currency speculators are running a very successful farming operation using human sheep in New Zealand to produce their incomes.

So can we beat down inflation only by beating up working families?

It was our politicians, under sustained pressure from the business lobby, who passed the likes of the Reserve Bank Act and the Public Finance Act to reduce the power of politicians to manage the economy.

Business saw politicians as economic meddlers. Liberate the free market from political influence, they said, and all would be well. It was Alice in Wonderland stuff.

National and Labour both took part in this hog-tying of our economy to the dictates of business. Instead of the Government deciding our dollar’s value, for example, it is decided by a cabal of international currency traders, a role John Key filled before becoming National’s leader.

So having largely given up the democratic control of our economy to business, have our politicians learnt anything from the latest economic fiascos? It seems not. The Minister of Economic Development, Trevor Mallard, says that any significant changes to the way the Government manages our economy would have to have the support of both major parties.

In the wake of the parliamentary consensus on the bill to reduce violence against children, Clark says she hopes for more bipartisan co- operation over the economy.

This dead hand of economic correctness, which prevents sensible government intervention in the economy, hangs over New Zealand and the lives of working people. Our quality of life is being reduced. It is not that the Government cannot change the rules, it is terrified to do so.

National’s response has been pathetic. The nice-guys image carefully cultivated by Key and National’s deputy leader, Bill English, slipped last week. Carried away by seeing Labour in trouble, they didn’t criticise the impotence of the Government in managing the economy. Instead, in an opportunistic, self-serving display, Key said the problem was government spending, while English hinted at the need for more labour-market flexibility. We all know what that means. Under National, even more of the pain must fall on working New Zealanders.

Sensible policies such as a capital-gains tax on investment properties have been rejected by the Government, which would prefer to wring its hands helplessly and see Kiwi families suffer, before it challenges our speculators-come-first policies.

Let’s call it what it is: economic correctness gone mad.