Predictions for 2008

Predictions are notoriously difficult in the fickle business of politics but there are plenty of safe ones to make for 2008.

We’ll be reminded ad nauseam for the next 11 months or so that we are in “election year”. This will be drummed into us with incessant polling and excited discussion of the multitude of possible election scenarios and new coalition governments we could expect.

Personalities will dominate debate between National and Labour. Policy issues will focus on the shades of grey which differentiate the big parties and these will be magnified to suggest there are significant differences.

The self styled centre parties, New Zealand First and United Future, will become more vocal as they try to “differentiate” from Labour and present themselves as the voting choice to keep the big parties honest. All rather tawdry. Who could possibly have confidence in Winston Peters or Peter Dunne to keep themselves honest let alone anyone else?

The Greens will continue to be the party in parliament which more frequently advocate policies based on principle and concern for the wider community. Their voice is the most honest among the hubbub of free-market apostles who dominate parliament.

National’s hollow men and Labour’s iron woman will slug it out for public favour and given the tendency for New Zealanders to vote against governments, rather than for them, National will remain the clear favourite.

Many of us will issue an audible sigh with all this because in reality the election is just a vote to decide whose turn it is to run the free market economy on behalf of big business.

Sometime in 2008 Taito Phillip Field will face trial on charges of bribery and corruption as an MP. He says he is looking forward to clearing his name but whatever the outcome in court he should be ejected from parliament. He has stayed silent while the people of his Mangere electorate – the lowest income electorate in the country – have fallen further behind. Pokie machines are sucking the lifeblood from families, loan sharks are mushrooming in the gap between family income and family need while the obesity epidemic is raging out of control. Field gives the impression of a ineffectual, pompous, self-righteousness parliamentarian without giving any evidence to the contrary.

On March 5th the depositions hearing will begin for the 17 people arrested in nationwide “anti-terror” raids on October 15th. 

Another attempt will be made by their lawyers for a stay of proceedings. The widespread publishing of suppressed evidence by the media means the public pool of potential jurors has now been so polluted as to render a fair trial impossible. It’s likely the application for a stay will fail, the trial will proceed and some of the 17 will be convicted for relatively minor firearms offences.  The judge hearing the case will express grave disquiet, say the defendants are lucky not to have been charged more seriously and will praise the police for their vigilance in keeping the community safe.

At some point the police will apologise to the people of Tuhoe who were caught up in the raids. These are the people Police Minister Annette King contemptuously referred to as “collateral damage”, an American term for civilians injured or killed during US military attacks.

It will be a carefully crafted apology from Howard Broad which will attempt to restore some Maori confidence in the police. The rest of the country will move on but the smouldering resentment of the police action will remain.  

Assorted other court cases will dominate headlines and create more fear and anxiety. Some will be prosecutions for violence against children in struggling families. Media outlets and the middle-class will wring their collective hands and say “its nothing to do with poverty – most poor people treat their kids well”. The second part is true but not helpful. It conveniently sidesteps the fact that the risk factors for children escalate rapidly with poverty.

It’s a safe prediction that the most interesting developments won’t happen anywhere near parliament. They will take place out in the real world, particularly among working New Zealanders in low income areas. Various initiatives are underway – some well established and others finding their feet.

One such initiative is the proposed merger of the National Distribution Union with Unite and the Service and Food Workers Union. This will create a single large union for low-paid workers with the potential to campaign and win a much better deal for the kiwis trampled in the corporate rush for profits.

These community based efforts are where our best hopes lie for a better future from 2008.

Apartheid and Palestine

Tomorrow celebrates the birth of a remarkable figure from Middle-East history. A Jewish child who grew to be a storyteller, a teacher, a prophet and a reluctant community leader.

He was raised in Palestine, the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, which was at that time under occupation by the Roman empire.

The area was a melting pot of people and cultures and reflecting this is the fact that Jesus of Nazareth has a central place in each of the three major religions of the area – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Perhaps this in itself is the greatest tribute to his message of tolerance and respect.

Palestine has been hotly contested through human history and no less so today. Most recently the Zionist movement, advocating a separate state for Jews within Palestine, gathered momentum and now controls 78% of the land of Palestine and within this state Jews have prior rights over everyone else. In its creation hundreds of thousands of Arabs were driven from their homes and villages and have been refused the right to return to their homeland. Their houses and land have been taken and made available to Jewish families who are encouraged to immigrate from around the world.

The creation of Israel was sanctioned by the United Nations in 1948 but their so-called two-state solution is never going to work. It looked feasible on paper to diplomats in New York but is gravely unjust and indefensible on the ground.

An artificial state for four million displaced Palestinians to govern themselves over several disconnected pieces of poor quality land not wanted by Israel is not viable in any meaningful sense of the word.

One of the problems Israel and its allies have faced is finding credible Palestinian leaders who are prepared to sign away Palestinian rights to their land and liberty. It’s never going to happen. Despite all the brutal oppression they have suffered these past 60 years and continue to suffer on a daily basis they are standing firm. It is now widely accepted Palestinians are trapped in what amount to huge open-air prisons. Last year they elected a Hamas government and were pilloried by the US and European Union for voting for the wrong grouping. Their starvation rations of aid were cut. They were supposed to vote for the discredited Fatah political grouping which was more “moderate” and more prepared to accept second-class citizen status for Palestinians.

The situation has gone on so long the Israelis are now beginning to worry. If they can’t get Palestinians to agree to a two-state solution then where does this leave Israel?

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been candid in his assessment. A couple of weeks ago in an interview with the newspaper Ha’aretz he said if the peace talks fail then Israel is “finished”. He explained it this way. “If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses and we face a South African style struggle for equal voting rights for the Palestinians in the occupied territories, then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished. The Jewish organisations which were our power base in America will be the first to come out against us, because they will say they cannot support a state that does not support democracy and equal voting rights for all its residents”.

South Africa solved the problem of a white minority being outvoted by a black majority simply by declaring blacks as citizens of other places – the Bantustans. These were supposedly self-governing areas of land where black tribes could have their own ineffectual vote for their own ineffectual leaders to run their own pretend economies.

This grand plan called apartheid was racist, immoral and declared by the United Nations to be a crime against humanity.

Olmert is right to point to similarities in the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian people with that of apartheid South Africa and its black majority. But this is not an apartheid which comes into play when the two-state solution fails. It is apartheid which is here today – alive and well in the land of Jesus Christ’s birth.

Any solution in the Middle East which formalises apartheid (as the two-state solution would) would cement in place racism and inequality.

On tomorrow’s celebration of the birth of this Middle-Eastern giant of history give some thought to the Palestine of his birth where peoples of many and varied races, religions and cultures co-existed side by side despite the Roman occupation.

A single state is the only path to peace.

University decision will hit those with most to gain – and lose

A few days ago I ran into three ex-students of mine from Auckland’s Tangaroa College.

When I left the school two years ago they were in the fifth form. Now they have finished their Level 3 NCEA exams and all three young women have applied for tertiary education courses. Two are planning to attend Auckland University, one to do a Bachelor of Arts and the other a degree in health science.

They were excited but nervous about the prospect of university. It is a fraught step from the protective, familiar school environment where teacher-student relationships are the focus of learning to a huge impersonal education institution 50 times bigger than their school. For these young Pacific Island students it will be more difficult because despite Auckland being the largest Polynesian city in the world the university has just a tiny proportion of Pacific students. And many of the Pacific students enrolled there are from middle-class families and this difference in social class is typically greater than a difference in ethnic background.

Tangaroa College is in Otara at the heart of a low-income community. When I arrived there to teach in 2000 there were three or four students each year qualifying for university entry. We put in place a programme aimed to increase achievement and enrolments at university.

It was clear the various mentoring programmes were not working. Typically these programmes link up young (usually Pakeha) professionals from the inner city to meet and interact with senior Maori and Pacific students where they talk goals and future pathways. Our students got a variety of good experiences from the relationships but educationally it made little difference. One of the main problems was the lack of support from the student peer group. There was no common experience relating to university and unwittingly their friends were discouraging them by making them feel outsiders.

The programme at Tangaroa focused instead on the peer group as a whole and at a much earlier stage. Bus trips to Auckland University for large numbers of Year 9 and 10 students were organised at the end of each year where university departments had these students sit in lecture theatres, perch on stools in biology labs peering into microscopes and spending sessions on computers using the latest sophisticated software to design an engineering marvel.

The aim was to demystify university and put it on the educational radar screen from the outset of secondary school. Many would never go to university but they provided support for those who would through having a shared common experience of what university meant. Parent support was engaged with the school organising evenings with specific invitations to parents and wider family to find out about future university study for their young 13 or 14-year-olds. In the middle of winter 200 parents and family would come to hear from university staff and ex-students of Tangaroa now at university. Parents themselves began to take on board and think through the implications of university for their children and families for the first time.

Weekly visits from current university students (organised and paid for by the university) to work with students in science classes kept up the momentum and our students could see that these “brainy” students were really no different to them.

Over a number of years the programme gathered momentum such that 29 students were planning university enrolment for the 2008 academic year.

They face huge problems and while I don’t know the dropout rate it will be high. I’ve known families unable to sustain the cost even when the student gains a prestigious full fees scholarship. The daily bus trip to Auckland University from South Auckland alone costs over $2000 in a year.

Last Monday, Auckland University made the shameful decision to put another barrier in the path of these students. From 2009 the university says it will restrict entry to all its degree courses even for students who have qualified for entry to university. Students from schools in low-income areas will be hit the hardest because they are more likely than most to be in the group who currently scrape though at entry level.

These New Zealand kids with the greatest capacity to benefit themselves and their families through university education are to be sacrificed while no restrictions are planned for foreign students. As a sop to criticism the university says it will conduct an investigation into the effects of its decision. An institution which served its community would have done so well before, but not here. The guardians of privilege on the Auckland University Council are above such trifles.

I left my three ex-students all promising faithfully they would visit me next year in the first week at university in the inner-city office where I work. They should be OK, but there will be fewer following in their footsteps from Otara.

A taste of economic democracy

I had my first taste of economic democracy in the late 1970s when I attended the annual general meeting of the New Zealand Insurance Company.

The company had investments in South Africa which were helping prop up the apartheid regime. Nelson Mandela was in jail, the ANC (African National Congress) and other black groups were banned and the black leadership asked the world for help through an international campaign to isolate the regime.

New Zealand’s anti-apartheid movement joined in and one tactic was to purchase small blocks of shares in companies which had investments in South Africa and attend the annual general meetings to ask questions about the support they gave to apartheid.

And so in the plushest of places we raised the issue and were booed and abused for having the temerity to question that anything other than the bottom line should be of the slightest concern to those whose income was earned from the efforts of others.

When it came to voting at these meetings, economic democracy was put to work. Instead of one person-one vote it was one dollar-one vote. We represented about 5 per cent of the people at the meeting but less than .001% of the votes.

We don’t have this money-based voting system for general elections but I don’t think we are as far from it as we’d like to think. Nominally each person has an equal vote but before we arrive at the ballot box the practical realities mean those with wealth have the opportunity for much greater influence than the nominal single vote they cast.

The Electoral Finance Bill being debated in Parliament seeks to redress some of the balance but it has been a shambles.

Labour deserves condemnation for the process it has followed and National deserves ridicule for striving to protect the interests of those with the money to buy elections.

Labour says it wants to stop the likes of the Exclusive Brethren who worked with National Party politicians and officials to spend up to $1 million in anonymous attacks on the Greens and the Labour Party during the 2005 election campaign. Fair enough. But so ham-fisted has been their process that it has been the very travesty of democracy they claim to uphold. Initially, they put the focus on clamping down only on third parties while exempting political parties and government agencies from the same scrutiny. Democracy it seems was too precious for people and must be rationed among political parties.

Under pressure they have now extended their brief to limit the amounts which can be donated secretly to political parties. This will be a problem for Labour but a greater problem for National. Instead of laundering political donations through secret trusts, National will now be required to reveal them. This move is unlikely to succeed, however, because those keen to disguise their political preferences could simply arrange for family and friends to front with anonymous donations just under the limit and we are back to square one.

National’s role has been scurrilous. They have fought the bill tooth and nail in the name of defending democracy, human rights and freedom of speech. This is the same party which worked behind the scenes at the last election to encourage and co-ordinate various wealthy lobbies to boost National’s election chances.

Nicky Hager’s book The Hollow Men reveals the extent of the deception. Big business backers of National bankrolled a biography of National leader Don Brash. Racing industry heavyweights, the Maxim Institute, and a host of the usual suspects in the conservative business community were involved.

It’s worth remembering that democracy and freedom of speech to the extent we have them were never granted freely to anyone. People have only gained these civil rights after bitter, violent struggles within societies to wrest power from wealthy elites who believed they were born to rule.

Even now these same interests have undue influence on the political process. Turning cash into political power is the natural instinct of those who have run campaigns such as that mounted against the extension of democracy via MMP.

In the current debate the near hysterical reaction of some at the thought their wealth may not be able to buy unlimited election advertising is a reminder that democracy is more fragile than we think.

We should have had an independent commission developing these electoral law reform proposals, hearing public submissions and drafting legislation. Instead, the rules for running our elections are being made by the very people and parties who have vested interests in power rather than the health of our democracy. It’s our democracy – not the politicians’ democracy.

The debate on the Electoral Finance Bill should remind us that the bumper sticker “Don’t vote! Business always wins!” is more truth than cynicism.

Caring for our children in need

Why is it that so many people respond brilliantly to single children in trouble but can’t relate to them in the plural?

The recent outpouring of support for “Little Pumpkin” after her mother was murdered and she was abandoned by her father was impressive. It’s more than just responding to a defenceless middle-class child left to the wolves because similar surges of sympathy and support have come for the Kahui twins and Nia Glassie.

It’s a response to the vulnerability of children. We’d all like to have given them a few hugs and kisses. The human urge to protect our children appears to be very strong.

But is it? New Zealand has vulnerable children in the hundreds of thousands. These are kids who leave for school hungry every day; are well behind in basic education; rarely have a holiday away from home; have appalling health statistics; may be abused and even killed by violent parents or relatives; suffer sexual abuse at the hands of caregivers, etc. Where is the public sympathy here?

It’s as if some people can cope with the plight of a single child but print a list of stats about children in poverty, despair and living lives of quiet misery and the same people turn off. They quickly resort to a well-rehearsed litany which justifies ignoring these kids by blaming their parents. There are irresponsible parents behind the suffering of some kids and this can never be excused, but the reasons for hopelessness and despair in the lives of families and children follow directly from economic and social policies.

Two reports released by the Paediatric Society last week show appallingly poor health among children from low-income families in New Zealand. We may not have reached the top half of the OECD for much else but we are second only to the United States in the levels of child disease related to poverty.

There is little point regurgitating here the grim statistics which condemn our economic and social polices in hundreds of pages of depressing reading. We all know it’s a no- excuses indictment.

And it’s not getting any better. Spokesman for the Child Poverty Action Group Associate Professor Mike O’Brien says the health of children in low-income families, whether on benefits or in work, has not improved in the last four years. At best it has stopped deteriorating for some diseases.

He makes the point that policy change over the past 20 years has undermined the incomes of the poorest families by allowing low wages and benefits to fall so much compared to everyone else.

Most tellingly he says, “Children most severely affected are those from beneficiary families, trying to cope on incomes languishing at levels set in 1991. With family assistance increasingly linked to people’s ability to work, children of parents on benefits miss out and, predictably, are becoming sicker.”

You may remember 1991 produced the “mother of all budgets” delivered by National’s Ruth Richardson, who proudly boasted her courageous slashing of benefits. Sixteen years later, with the last eight under Labour-led governments, and these families and their children are still barely third-class citizens.

Reading the Government’s response, one could be forgiven for thinking the worst of the problem was behind us with just a few remaining issues to deal with. Health Minister David Cunliffe says the reports “highlight recent gains as well as the remaining challenges”.

He says the Government is “committed to the challenge of child health” and goes on to say the Government wants to ensure that our children and young people, who make up a third of our population, can achieve their full potential.

This is feeble sophistry.

Government policies continue to punish children in benefit-dependant households by denying dignity and respect to their parents and caregivers.

These comprehensive child health reports show the health trends as well as the current situation are alarming and yet the causes are easily identifiable. We can sort out these problems readily with the right policies.

We must ensure every family has adequate housing, family assistance is based on need irrespective of the employment status of the caregivers and basic healthcare funding is likewise prioritised on need.

In the past, New Zealand saw these as higher priorities. Most of us do care but not yet enough to demand the changes needed to give all kids a fair go.

Just because tens of thousands of our children are hidden in anonymous statistics rather than portrayed as individuals on the front pages of our newspapers, they are no less in desperate need of attention. They are all our responsibility in this land of plenty.