Sport boycott an option

Three years ago, Zimbabwe was in turmoil. After years of abusive tyrannical rule its leader Robert Mugabe had instigated Operation Murambatsvina (Clean out the filth) to get rid of informal housing settlements. Tens of thousands were bulldozed from their homes amid international condemnation and well-reported brutality.

In New Zealand, the Black Caps cricket team were preparing to tour Zimbabwe. Appeals came from all sides for the tour to be called off. Former Zimbabwean cricketer Henry Olongo toured New Zealand at the invitation of the Green Party while Human rights activist Judith Todd (daughter of New Zealand’s Garfield Todd who led Zimbabwe in the 1960s when it was a British colony called Rhodesia) did the same at the invitation of Global Peace and Justice Auckland.

New Zealand Cricket and the Government were under pressure to act. Foreign Minister Phil Goff and Prime Minister Helen Clark railed against the regime but refused to pressure the cricketers to abandon the tour.

Phil Goff put up a range of straw men to knock down in speeches and news bites. He said New Zealand would be adopting the same anti-democratic practices as Mugabe if we prevented our sportspeople going to Zimbabwe.

Nothing of the sort had been proposed, however. What Goff and Labour were asked to do was simply make a formal request to New Zealand Cricket on behalf of the Government for the tour to be postponed to a more opportune time.

An election was looming and the Government was worried about a backlash from sports fans if they stood on any sporting toes. So Goff worked hard with an extraordinary amount of bluff and bluster to try to deflect attention away from Government inaction. He went so far as to say New Zealand would work with other Commonwealth countries to build pressure for a wider sports ban on Zimbabwe. He said New Zealand acting alone would be a futile exercise. Getting all the Commonwealth working together would be far more effective. Let’s do the job properly rather than make a half-baked unilateral stand, said Goff.

And so in what has been a long tradition of political gutlessness and sporting amorality in the face of a humanitarian crisis, New Zealand Cricket’s Martin Snedden turned a blind eye and the Black Caps toured. Mugabe breathed a sigh of relief.

Cancelling that tour three years ago would have sent a strong message to Zimbabweans struggling for freedom from oppression. It would have been a critical step in isolating Mugabe and undermining his regime. New Zealand was in the international spotlight as the world reeled from Mugabe’s outrages. We missed a critical opportunity to act effectively against a violent, anti-democratic regime.

In the meantime, the crisis has deepened further with more than 90 opposition supporters having been killed in the past few weeks during the presidential election run-off between Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

The election has been so mired in violence that Tsvangirai has pulled out of the race. Mugabe supporters are furious.

Leaving aside the predictable condemnations of the aging, tin-god dictator from around the world and the failure of South African President Thabo Mbeki to pressure his dependent land-locked neighbour, what can we do?

The most encouraging action has come from the Durban wharfies who two months back refused to unload a shipment of Chinese arms and ammunition destined for Zimbabwe’s armed forces. After they closed the door at Durban ports countries across Africa responded and the ship left the continent without unloading.

But in the last few days its been encouraging to see international cricketers reconsidering Zimbabwe’s place in world cricket. Even the New Zealand cricket team are reportedly looking askance at their planned tour to Zimbabwe next year.

The cricketers now need a strong political lead. Perhaps the normally voluble Phil Goff could check back on his speech notes and recall that he championed this approach three years back. A lot of people have died during his three year silence but better late than never.

On the one hand worrying about sport seems irresponsible in the face of such appalling human rights abuses but for New Zealand it is the most effective action we can take.

Boycotts in sport are highly visible and impossible to brush off. They give encouragement to the oppressed and psychologically undermine the oppressors. They are hugely effective. They are the least and the best we can do.

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Schools start to stand up

Until now, criticism of the Government by principals has been confined to irregular grumbling.

The bill I received from our local high school this year for my son in Year 11 (Form 5) was $624. It comprised $75 for sport/cultural activities; $60 for woodwork materials; $75 for NCEA exams; $64 for curriculum books and $350 for the family donation (I have two boys at the school).

Aside from these costs, there is an incessant stream of requests for money for all sorts of things from stationery to photocopying to school trips. Every parent with children at school faces the same drain on the wallet each year to take part in compulsory education.

With this in mind, what a pleasure it has been in the last couple of weeks to see school principals finally standing up strongly on the side of parents against government underfunding of education.

It’s taken a long time. Until now, criticism of the Government by principals has been confined to irregular grumbling. Schools have preferred to use parents as a soft touch to bring in the money needed to breach the chasm between government funding and the amount needed to provide high-quality education.

It started with a group of schools on Auckland’s North Shore and has spread through principals’ associations, teacher groups, school trustees and parent organisations. The result is a concerted chorus of disapproval towards Minister of Education Chris Carter’s assertions that schools should be grateful for the 5 per cent increase in operations grant funding they received in the Budget.

Schools had hoped the Budget would be a circuit-breaker. After years of funding increases which hovered around the rate of inflation, schools were hoping for a significant increase. The 5% announcement was a letdown. Inflation to March 2008 was 3.7% and is expected to already have risen above 4% on an annual basis. Labour, however, preferred to put $10 billion into a tax-cut package than make a significant difference to critical social services.

Carter defended the small increase and pointed to the big increases in education spending since Labour took power in 1999 but once the spin is removed, actual operations-grant funding for schools has struggled to keep pace with inflation.

The problem arises because the Government does not fund the actual needs of schools but provides a single sum of money, a bulk fund, for schools to spend on their day-to-day operating expenses. If there is a shortfall, the Government simply says the school must re-prioritise its funding to provide education and stay within its budget.

This has been a growing problem. Does a school pay for a new paint job on the peeling gymnasium or provide a teacher aide to help kids with special needs successfully integrate into a mainstream classroom? Crude choices such as these are at the heart of so-called school self-management.

It is no surprise the failure to fund education properly is felt most keenly at schools in low-income areas where the educational needs are greatest. The Government uses increased funding to low-decile schools to help but it is not much more than a sop.

Through foreign fee-paying students and requests for large parent donations, schools in high-income areas, ironically the ones who have led the recent charge, make up the shortfall in government funding more easily.

To gain extra government funding, schools can apply to various Ministry of Education contestable funds – there were over 30 the last time I checked. These give the illusion of extra funding but each produces only a small number of winner schools while the majority languish.

National’s education spokesperson Anne Tolley got a warmer reception than Carter at a recent meeting of principals when she said a National Party government would cut bureaucracy in education and return this money to schools.

Cutting red tape and compliance costs is always popular, but on past performance National is even more wedded to bulk funding than Labour.

The harsh truth is that both parties would increase education costs for parents. User pays and creeping privatisation are endemic in their policies.

We need a radical new approach to funding schools according to their actual needs and abandon the ludicrous system whereby each of our nearly 3000 schools have to reinvent the wheel themselves 3000 times over in a multitude of ways every day of the year.

A good start would be for the Government to pay directly the salaries of school support staff, teacher aides, admin staff and caretakers etc.

Funding for the educational needs of schools would also mean we could ban schools from soliciting donations from parents and put the free back into free education.

Ponder the cost of NZ’s US-like economic policies

We have all been sickened at the callous brutality in the killing of New Zealander Navtej Singh last week.

This father of three young girls was shot during a botched robbery of his bottle store in Manurewa.

This was not a planned, premeditated crime. It was a hapless, pathetic attempt to get booze and cash.

There is argument about the police response and the time taken before clearance was given for an ambulance to tend to Singh but while issues like this are important, they are dwarfed by the bigger picture.

For a long time now, we have been on a relentless downward spiral of social breakdown.

More than any other developed country we are undergoing nothing less than the transformation of New Zealand into a mini-America, a place where the rewards are great for the few while hopelessness grows for the many.

We tend to think other countries are on the same path but we are well ahead on the road to riches and desperation.

The gap between rich and poor has grown more quickly here than in any developed country over the past 20 years. We have the least regulated economy in the developed world but while we have low unemployment, this merely masks the degree of poverty and alienation associated with the working poor who inhabit our low-income communities.

But still we feign shock and outrage when the social consequences of economic policy repeatedly smack us in the face.

We tend to respond in much the same way as the United States. We want the Government to harden up on crime. Our major political parties, and most of the minor parties, compete to see who can be the toughest on lawbreakers. More and more extreme measures are proposed and then adopted into policy because the greatest political dread is to be seen as soft on crime. The mindless cry of the many is for tougher parole, more prisons and harsher sentences.

So while we worry about underfunded schools, long hospital waiting lists and poor public transport, we never question the amounts spent on the bottomless, dead-end pits which are our prisons. Already in the developed world we rank second only to the US in the proportion of our population in jail. We will surely overtake them if we try just a little bit harder.

The same people who want more in prison also applaud the arming of the police with pepper spray, guns, rifles and Tasers, and are ready to extend police powers at the drop of a hat. Civil liberties are for pansies, they say.

Lobby groups, well funded by the corporate sector, advocate for harsher sentences. Until, of course, someone is charged with the murder of a tagger when suddenly these same people spring to the defence of the man charged and claim the murdered tagger got what he deserved.

All this serves to divert attention from the reasons for rising crime. We need to accept that the increased crime we face goes hand in hand with extreme free-market economic policies.

It’s no coincidence that New Zealand’s economic policies more closely resemble the US market model than other developed countries which have not suffered social breakdown to the extent New Zealand has. The simple truth is there is a strong correlation between the degree of free-market economic policies and the degree of social breakdown. The US and New Zealand have big doses of each. Countries such as Australia have more moderate amounts of each and so it goes through to Scandinavian countries which have much more modest amounts of both.

So while there’s never any excuse for vicious criminal activity, neither is there any excuse for us not to recognise this relationship.

The unregulated free market has seen our low-income communities flooded with pokie machines, loan sharks, bottle stores and the garish glare of fast-food outlets. Community attempts to control these have been ignored by political parties which have been happy for this unregulated market activity to flourish on the backs of poor families and poor communities. Our leafy suburbs are not afflicted by these parasitical services.

Labour is unlikely to form the next government and future historians will point to its failure to deliver policies to build dignity and respect for families and communities. Just this year, Labour reduced business tax by 9.1 per cent while the working poor, facing big increases in the cost of living, will receive around 3%. Beneficiaries have received nothing and the 180,000 New Zealand children living in poverty is the result.

Some applaud New Zealand’s rush to become a US lookalike. The rest of us should ponder the cost.

Govt’s shameful exploitation of the world’s starving

Capitalist growth based on corporate agriculture will never be the answer to food security for the world’s poor.

It says a lot for New Zealand’s commitment to helping solve the world food crisis that we sent Agriculture Minister Jim Anderton with a $7 million cheque to the food crisis summit in Rome last week.

In doing so, New Zealand made only a token gesture to address the enormous problem of one billion people going to bed hungry every day. More worryingly, we are telling the world that we believe the underlying problem is agricultural subsidies and tariffs.

The Government reasons that if all countries dropped agricultural protections then the most efficient food producers would survive and produce more food at a lower price.

New Zealand will benefit because we will have better access to overseas markets for our meat and dairy products. Anderton is right to point to agricultural subsidies in Europe and the United States as part of the problem because they are based on production _ the more production the greater the subsidy.

The lion’s share of these subsidies (as much as 90 per cent in some cases) goes to agricultural businesses rather than small farmers producing for local markets. The outcome is huge quantities of subsidised food from Europe and the US being dumped onto markets in developing countries to undercut and destroy local food production.

There is no point giving seeds to farmers in developing countries, as suggested at the Rome gathering, when their efforts will be undercut by subsidised imports from corporate farm owners in Europe and the US.

If Europe and the US regeared their subsidies so they were provided only for small farmers producing for local markets there would be benefits all around. Rural communities, lifestyles and environments would be protected while agribusinesses would not be able to undercut and destroy food production in developing countries.

New Zealand should take the same approach to agricultural production for our local market. Rather than paying inflated world prices we would have the cheapest dairy and meat products in the world. And why not?

But it is tariffs which are New Zealand’s main target and here Anderton comes unstuck. By arguing for their removal, Anderton is trying to screw the scrum in our favour. It’s a one-eyed, opportunistic view of a human catastrophe delivered in a self-righteously smug manner.

The developing countries which are faring best in the current crisis are those who have protected and nurtured their local food production with tariffs to keep imported food in the background.

Uganda is a good example. Tariffs on imported rice have stimulated local rice production by 2.5 times since 2004, so that local rice prices are similar to what they were a year ago while prices elsewhere have more than doubled.

Most people in developing countries typically spend up to 80% of their income on food, so they are much more vulnerable to price increases than the rest of humanity. So when food prices are set in Anderton’s global free market the 3.5 million children who die from malnutrition each year can’t afford the prices paid by businesses wanting grain for animal feed or biofuel production.

Like Anderton, our Minister of Trade, Phil Goff, also saw the Rome gathering as an opportunity to push a partisan policy on behalf of Fonterra. Fresh from an Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation meeting in Peru, Goff said importantly that the food crisis is putting pressure on governments to move ahead with free-trade discussions in the so-called Doha round of World Trade Organisation talks.

This translates as extending the very policies which have deepened the food crisis in the first place. Capitalist growth based on corporate agriculture will never be the answer to food security for the world’s poor.

The solutions will always be around policies which stimulate local food production. These include tariffs on imported food in developing countries, assistance to small farmers producing for local consumption and abandoning subsidies for exported food from the US, Europe and Asia.

Also trying to divert attention from the real problems is the US. Some 100 million tons of US grain, subsidised to the tune of $7 billion, will be diverted from food to biofuel production this year. Trying to get off the hook the US argues that biofuels are responsible for just 3% of the rise in grain prices, but more credible estimates put the figure at 30%.

Let’s put starving kids ahead of SUV drivers suffering climate guilt and abandon this eco-myth.

In her book Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein describes how the corporate world and their political allies use crises to extend their control of economic resources and economic policies for their own benefit.

It’s a disgrace to see Anderton and Goff using the suffering of the world’s poorest citizens to do the same thing.

Unfettered police power a danger to all of us

Much has been made of the failure of three high-profile prosecutions in the last two weeks. In the cases of Chris and Cru Kahui, Charlene Makaza and farmer Jack Nicholas, juries acquitted those the police had charged with murder.

Some have suggested Crown prosecutors are to blame because they decided to proceed with murder trials while others have suggested the police botched the investigations by building cases against the accused before gathering all the relevant evidence. There may well be some truth in this with closed minds delivering self-fulfilling prophecies.

Setting up a public prosecutions office independent of the police as other countries have has been suggested. This would help and deserves serious consideration. However it seems each case was largely based on circumstantial evidence and the prosecution failure rate in such cases will always be higher.

Of more concern should be the announcement 10 days ago of the police intention to use the Bushmaster rifle as their preferred weapon (in place of the Glock pistol) in response to possible armed situations, golf clubs and hammers included. Previously this weapon was available to the Armed Offenders Squad but now all frontline police are to be trained to use these high-powered semi-automatic weapons. 

This decision has had no independent, democratic oversight. There has been no public discussion nor obvious political involvement. No submissions were requested, no other opinions sought. It was an in-house decision.

The timing of the announcement tells the same story. It was dropped into the dead-news time of 2.30pm on a Friday afternoon to avoid the glare of the public spotlight. The release itself was made to look innocuous with the focus on training needed to implement the decision. The police didn’t want media scrutiny. Their focus was to manage public perception rather than encourage public input or public debate on a sensitive topic.

However decisions to escalate the arming of the police are decisions in which we all have a big stake. They are not simply operational decisions for the police alone. They go to the very heart of the relationship between the police and the community and yet we are politely being told to butt out by the top brass.

With more powerful weapons more readily available they inevitably come to be used as the first response rather than as a later response. We have seen this with the police use of pepper-spray where the original guidelines have gone out the window and it is now used liberally by front line police.

Safeguarding the police and community is best served by careful, independent oversight of decisions about the arms police carry and wide public discussion.

Many overseas police forces are a law unto themselves and there are plenty of danger signs our police force feels similarly. For example as well as the latest announcement the decision to trial taser stun guns was made by the police who then announced they would consult with the community – yeah right!

Anti-democratic tendencies such as these are never far from the surface in policing. The lack of respect for democratic protest has been well documented in cases such as the police abuse of the rights of demonstrators protesting against Chinese President Jiang Zemin in 1999.

Similarly their dramatic overreaction in the so-called anti-terror raids last October should give us all pause for thought.

Meanwhile Labour and National politicians work hard to outdo each other in ever more extreme policies to curb crime.

Labour has a Criminal Proceeds Recovery Bill before parliament which would allow police to seize property allegedly from the proceeds of crime. They won’t require proof, just probabilities. Government Minister Phil Goff has said the new law “targets people who have not been convicted because the police have not been able to reach the standard of proof in a criminal court”. This should be a huge concern to us all. It extends police power to work outside the court system and would allow them to impose their own sentence on top of a court imposed punishment on the basis of suspicion alone.

National Party leader John Key spoke recently to the misnamed Sensible Sentencing Trust and proposed another round of even more extreme policies to widen police powers which include allowing surveillance without warrants and the forcible taking of DNA samples from people charged with offences punishable by imprisonment. Almost any offence in other words.

Given their recent track record the police are lucky they won’t have to prove anything to use these proposed new powers but we should all be concerned at any extension to unfettered state power over our lives.