Govt policy fails the poor

The Government’s announcement of its long-awaited policy on climate change last week was predictable.

The policy centrepiece is a so-called “cap and trade” market-based solution which involves carbon emissions being set and traded between those industries which emit greenhouse gases and those that soak them up.

Polluting factories will purchase the right to pollute from areas such as forestry. This system will be phased in over several years with New Zealand’s most climate-hostile industry, farming, left to pollute unabated till 2013.

The policy has a major problem. It won’t work. Climate change is already upon us but rather than reduce or stabilise New Zealand’s level of carbon emission these levels will continue to rise rapidly in the immediate future.

High dairy prices mean New Zealand farmland is being converted to dairying with big increases in herds and greenhouse-gas emissions. Over the next six years, at least, farming’s contribution to global warming will rise steeply. Agriculture alone already accounts for almost half New Zealand’s greenhouse-gas emissions.

Meanwhile, food prices are rising around the world and are expected to continue to rise quickly. Protests have already taken place in Italy against the rapidly rising cost of pasta and tens of thousands took to the streets of Mexico to protest a quadrupling of tortilla prices earlier this year. These sentiments are being echoed elsewhere as the price of wheat skyrockets.

Here in New Zealand the price of bread is expected to increase by as much as 30 per cent over the next year.

We produce just one-third of the wheat we consume – the rest is imported, mainly from Australia which faces a much reduced harvest largely thanks to global warming.

The same problem is occurring in other parts of the world where climate change is reducing harvests. The OECD suggests the world will face overall food-price rises of between 20% and 50% over the next decade. So, while the most optimistic of forecasts is for increases in food prices the more realistic is for worldwide famine.

It’s ironic that farming, which touts itself as an efficient food producer, is contributing so significantly, through global warming, to the looming global food crisis.

The problem is compounded with the transfer of land from food production to the production of crops for biofuels. More irony. Biofuels that aim to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The idea is that these biofuels recycle the same carbon again and again rather than bringing new carbon into play which happens when oil and petrol are burned. The science is sound but the context for humanity is absolutely impractical as a rational way forward.

The United States aims to produce 35 billion gallons (132 billion litres) of biofuel by 2017. Last year 20% of the whole maize crop in the US was used to this end and yet this represents just 2% of the fuel used in US cars.

These changes in land use are happening particularly in North America but multi-national corporations are increasingly taking over the most productive land in developing countries for biofuels.

The strain over food prices is once more being felt the most by those least able to cope. More than a billion men, women and children go to bed hungry every night already. This figure will increase as Western desire for biofuels overrides local needs for food. As food prices increase so does the cost of food-aid to the poorest.

Lester Brown, president of Worldwatch, puts it simply: “The competition for grain between the world’s 800 million motorists, who want to maintain their mobility, and its two billion poorest people, who are simply trying to survive, is emerging as an epic issue.”

It’s the market, stupid. No morals, no ethics, no humanity – just the lure of mammon.

New Zealanders will face this crisis along with the rest of the world. We should accept that producing high-priced, protein- based food is inefficient, globally damaging and no use to our fellow human beings whose needs are the greatest. The Government’s policy skips around these global realities. It has neither the will nor the courage to tackle climate change in a meaningful way. It seems the focus has subtly shifted from trying to prevent climate change to accepting that global warming is a reality and best left to the market to sort out.

The subtext to the Government announcement would be something like this: “Don’t frighten anyone; people will get used to the warmer climate, changed landscapes, higher prices for food and electricity, water shortages and even mass starvation (provided it’s not them).”

There are alternatives, as there always are, but the only ones presented are those confined within the moral vacuum of the capitalist marketplace.

New entity means white-collar criminals can now breathe easy

White collar crime has never been a priority for any New Zealand Government but last week’s announcement of the scrapping of the Serious Fraud Office reveals just how unimportant it has become.

On the face of it the Government is simply merging the SFO into a new entity called the Organised Crime Agency (OCA) within the police. Minister of Police Annette King says organised crime has moved on and New Zealand has to move on to keep ahead of it. She says a specialised agency is the only way to beat increasingly sophisticated criminal rings.

However, when the focus of the new agency is revealed it is clear that concerns about white-collar fraud have been sidelined. We are told the target of the new agency will be organised crime such as drugs, money laundering, cyber-crime, paedophile rings and identity theft.

Major fraud (cases involving more than $500,000) doesn’t rate a mention.

What’s more, the additional powers held by the SFO will not be transferred to the new agency. Because of the complex and hidden nature of white-collar crime the SFO was given additional clout to conduct investigations. For example, it has the authority to force those being scrutinised to hand over documents and co-operate with an investigation.

Powers such as these will be lost in the new agency. Annette King says it will not need them and the police have not asked for them. This is unsurprising given the main tasks the police see for the new agency – investigating major fraud is not one of them. It’s an interesting contrast to the additional powers heaped on the police to deal with gang activity and all manner of “street-level” crime. How is it that the police need all these extra powers to deal with the Mongrel Mob selling drugs but less powers to tackle multimillion-dollar fraud?

Media reporting has a lot to do with it. Aside from the high profile cases such as insider trading allegations against Michael Fay and David Richwhite (who paid the Securities Commission $20 million in an out of court settlement to avoid prosecution on insider trading allegations relating to Tranz Rail shares), fraud cases generally get little coverage. A solo mum charged with fraud because she has a live-in boyfriend she hasn’t declared is likely to get as much publicity as a multimillion-dollar fraudster.

We can all agree on the importance of effectively tackling the criminal groups behind drugs and paedophilia, etc, but just because these crimes are given more media attention than major fraud is not a reason to ignore our biggest thieves.

New Zealand First’s Ron Mark says hopefully that lack of skills and time has been a barrier to police investigation of commercial fraud and the resources of the new agency would help to boost its capacity. However, there is nothing to suggest this will occur. Large fraud cases will be less likely to be investigated, while the major resource will be focused towards issues of police priority.

It’s worth remembering that the SFO was set up in 1990 after the sharemarket crash of 1987 revealed a huge amount of white-collar crime, fraud and grubby dealings among New Zealand’s corporate elite. As well as huge amounts of money lost, investor confidence in the sharemarket plummeted. Restoring that confidence for investors was a driver in the SFO being established and at that time it had wide support across the community.

Perhaps the policy to scrap the SFO means Government and business feel that investor confidence has been restored sufficiently to allow the Government to once more ignore our biggest ripoffs – until the next crash, anyway.

This decision is handing our leading white-collar criminals a freedom-from-prosecution card so they won’t even need a get-out-of-jail-free card.

The Government has the resources to seriously hold business criminals to account but not the willpower. It doesn’t do a Government any good to pressure business too hard when political survival depends on being able to gain the large corporate donations which enable a party to campaign in modern, expensive, media-driven election campaigns.

It’s better to be seen to be tough on street crime than on the grey-suited thieves who steal millions with a ballpoint pen and go free while those who steal hundreds with a knife are jailed.

The pen might be mightier than the sword but is nowhere near as sexy.

The Government highlighted again last week that there is more than a grain of truth in the old saying that jails are where the big criminals put all the little criminals.

Ali Panah should be treated with humanity, not xenophobia

I hadn’t heard the expression “rice Christian” until a couple of months back. It refers to someone who claims Christianity to gain a benefit – such as rice from missionaries in earlier times.

Here in New Zealand we are not in the habit of questioning the personal religious beliefs of others. For most of us the idea of classifying someone as a “rice Christian” as opposed to being a “real Christian” would be repugnant, and rightly so.

Religious beliefs are a personal matter – of no justifiable interest to the State and neither should they be. In Iran, of course, they are the centre of public interest. Religious minorities, Christians included, are under increasing pressure. A couple of weeks ago a man found with a Bible in his car was given 34 lashes.

Iranian Ali Panah finds himself caught up in this debate with his commitment to Christianity being very publicly questioned by Minister of Immigration David Cunliffe.

Panah arrived here and claimed refugee status but his application failed. Cunliffe says Panah has been given a full and fair hearing through multiple appeals, with Panah’s testimony being rejected as implausible and not credible.

The Refugee Status Appeals Authority came to this conclusion after pointing to what they described as inconsistencies in his story. The Government has directed reporters to the RSAA website where refugee decisions are available for public perusal.

There are no names but with a discreet word to the right journalist the relevant decision has been dissected and the details of his case made public. The most interesting thing is that most of these discrepancies, if not all, appear to be relatively minor and clearly explainable. However, even accepting those findings at face value does not address the problem for people in Panah’s situation.

From those directly associated with him over the past few years – his workmates, his parish vicar and his fellow Anglican parishioners – he is a devout Christian man. Catholic priest Father Terry Dibble, for example, is a chaplain at Mount Eden Prison where he says mass once a week for Catholic prisoners. He also runs a scripture study session at the prison on a Friday where Panah is a regular attendee.

Dibble describes Panah as a deeply religious person, well versed in the Bible with his copy being a translation into his first tongue – Farsi.

A woman has also come forward to say that her conversion to Christianity came after Panah took her to attend a service at his church. Similar comments about his deep commitment to his faith have come from all those who know him as a real person, as opposed to those who met him briefly to question him as a suspicious refugee.

The solution for the Government has been there all along and still goes unheeded. It’s the simple action of issuing a temporary visa to Panah (and the tiny number of others in his situation) to allow him to be a productive member of the community instead of costing huge sums to taxpayer through incarceration. Such a visa would enable him to remain here until it is safe for him to return to Iran.

This is the solution proposed by groups such as Amnesty International. They say outright it is unsafe for these people to be returned to Iran.

Australia we usually think of as a country which treats refugees very poorly, but it has several dozen Iranian Christian converts who have been given temporary visas to live and work in the interim along with the opportunity to apply for permanent residence in the longer term.

Other countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Belgium and Holland have similar policies. Not here under Labour however.

The Government says it worries about a big influx of dodgy Christian converts, but where is the evidence? Australia hasn’t seen a problem so who is Cunliffe kidding? Most potential refugees are prevented from getting onto a plane to New Zealand in the first place.

When the Minister of Immigration says New Zealanders don’t have the full story, he’s right. If the Government showed a bit more humanity and a bit less attention to the xenophobic elements in New Zealand First it would be a relief to us all.

One Iranian is still in prison. Amir Mohebbi – detained for over three years – is the longest serving remand prisoner in the history of New Zealand. He had a High Court hearing for bail on August 23. We should hope the court will step in humanely where the Government has failed.

Mohebbi’s three New Zealand children (aged three, five and seven) will be delighted to have their dad home again.

David Cunliffe will be annoyed and the Government will appeal against any decision to grant bail as they have in previous cases.

Even a rice Christian can see there’s nothing Christian about that.

Rating review carries a reminder of global trail of destruction

It says a lot about the outcomes the Government wants from an inquiry when one looks at the person they appoint to lead it. In the 1980s, Labour chose businessman Brian Picot to propose a new model for school management and we got Tomorrow’s Schools which sees them as competing businesses in a marketplace.

In 2001, John Banks as mayor of Auckland picked ex-National MP Bill Birch to make proposals on Auckland City finances and, needless to say, savage cuts were proposed. Last year, Labour set up an inquiry into local body financing after a public outcry at rapidly rising rates. The person they appointed to lead the inquiry was David Shand who had recently returned to New Zealand after many years overseas, including eight years working in Washington for the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The World Bank and the IMF make up two-thirds of what is known as the “Washington consensus” (the other third being the United States government). This so-called consensus is the view that economic progress requires countries to privatise their resources, sell their assets and deliver policies such as health, education and water supply through the private sector as “user pays” services.

These policies have been implemented around the world under “structural adjustment” programmes whereby financial assistance is provided to countries on condition their governments agree to restructure their economies to match the needs of international business.

The trail of economic destruction these undemocratic, unelected, all- powerful bodies have left throughout the world can perhaps best be described as a crime against humanity. Under their policies poverty for the world’s poorest has deepened with basic services now frequently unaffordable. The benefits go to the companies that now own the infrastructure and assets at the expense of ordinary people.

Frequently the indebtedness which has led to the structural adjustment programme in the first place has come from World Bank and IMF advisers who have encouraged countries to borrow heavily for large infrastructure projects. When the host country has difficulty making the repayments these same organisations then insist on their business-friendly policies. The debt is restructured and the economic screws tightened further. The IMF and World Bank are really just a more sophisticated version of the shop-front loan shark.

So what did David Shand’s report suggest were the answers to our high rates? In the report released last week there should be no surprise that the solutions proposed are along the same lines as an IMF prescription.

It’s not a structural adjustment programme but it has all the same elements. Shand is proposing such things as user-pays charges for water and wastewater, more flat charges for services, bringing in the private sector to build infrastructure such as roads which we would be charged tolls to use.

Shand knows public opinion is strongly opposed to more asset sales so he has not advocated outright that council sell its assets but in an exercise of verbal gymnastics says councils should justify not selling these assets such as ports and airports.

In true IMF style, he is also proposing councils go into debt for long-term projects. Future councils would then be faced with the sale of assets to cover these debts. (Government debt was the reason given for selling off our prized assets 20 years ago.)

The single biggest change he recommends is to “remove the business differential for rates”. Translated into English this means a massive shift in the rates burden from businesses to householders. It shouldn’t be any surprise that the report has been welcomed by business groups. David Shand has done them proud.

The report does say that government and councils should keep a close eye on the affordability of rates for “the two lowest income quartiles”. In other words, Shand realises his prescription will increase hardship markedly for low and middle-income households and this line is a sop to notions of social responsibility.

Councils should keep down their spending – fair enough. There are plenty of projects local body politicians dream up as monuments to themselves rather than to meet community needs. But this problem has been used as an excuse for transferring the rates burden onto those least able to pay.

It just doesn’t make sense. Rather than stabilising or reducing the burden, local body rates and service charges will increase rapidly for most of us under Shand’s proposals.

Earlier this month, the Government appointed the same David Shand to head the Tertiary Education Commission. Grim tidings for the future Labour sees for education.