Parliamentary politics run by the rich

It’s been an embarrassing week to be a New Zealander. Our semi-transparent democratic veil has been ripped away to reveal our political system in all its awfulness, bared to the world by Winston Peters.

He has railed against undisclosed big business donations to political parties for decades but like the American televangelists who rant about immorality from their moral soapboxes before being caught in brothels with their pants down, Winston has painted for us a naked self-portrait.

Two weeks ago questions were raised about a donation to New Zealand First from billionaire Owen Glenn. For six months Peters has denied any such donation exists but was finally forced to reveal his lawyer had received $100,000 from Glenn to help pay for the 2005 Tauranga electoral petition Peters launched after losing the seat to National’s Bob Clarkson.

Now multi-millionaire (or is it billionaire?) Bob Jones has revealed he made a donation of $25,000 to New Zealand First in 2005 after having been asked by Peters for a contribution. (Jones had previously given $150,000 to New Zealand First) Not only does this undermine Peter’s criticism of big business donations and the political influence which goes with them, but the money was laundered through a trust account and not declared as a donation despite electoral rules requiring donors of more than $10,000 to be named.

For many years Peters has angrily declared arrangements like these to be political corruption. He was right but while pointing the finger at others channelling secret donations through unaccountable trusts he himself has been gorging quietly from the same trough. His personal commitment to openness and transparency with political donations is as hollow as National or Labour.

Whatever the outcome for Peters and his party we should all be deeply worried at the wider issue of undue influence in the political process by wealthy business interests.

Prime Minister Helen Clark says the problem will remain until there is political acceptance of public funding for political party campaigning. I think she’s right. It is far better for election campaigning to be conducted in the open via tightly controlled public budgets than persisting with current arrangements which throw political parties into the hands of unsavoury wealthy individuals and corporate interests.

Once upon a time election campaigns were waged with fundraising from cake stalls and garage sales. But modern political campaigning requires much bigger money and can’t be waged on the proceeds of cake stalls. So where to go for funding? Our major political parties know precisely where – wealthy individuals and big business interests.

Labour and National both agree on this. However they make the fatuous claim that there is a wall between the party organisation and the politicians. They claim politicians are not told who the big donors are and this therefore prevents moneyed individuals having undue influence on policy development. They say the golden rule (those that have the gold make the rules) does not apply. But this claim is simply not credible.

In the lead-up to the 2005 election Don Brash, as leader of National, organised dinner occasions for wealthy individuals the party was lining up to make big donations. Don’t tell me Brash was unaware who were National’s big donors and what policies they wanted National to adopt. Labour does the same or similar. Winston Peters certainly did. Peters asked Bob Jones a number of times to donate and Jones obliged.

In his argumentative way Peters will no doubt claim there is a difference between asking for a donation and actually knowing whether or not a donation has been received but this is semantics. All party politicians will know who their major donors are even if there is no explicit paper trail to prove it.

Bob Jones described the relationship this week as a donation in return for the opportunity to give some policy advice. There is a wide gap to read between the lines of that comment.

From 1984 to 1996 there were five governments elected, two Labour and three National, which were captured by big business interests to a greater extent than most previous elections. The extreme right wing economic policies followed by both Labour and National through this period reflected the complete dominance of big business interests in funding both parties and in the development of policy.

The same occurs in all market-dominated societies where a cosy alliance exists between wealth and politicians who know which side their bread is buttered on. It is destroying democratic values.

Do we care? Or would we prefer to just let the Exclusive Brethren, the Business Roundtable and our bought-and-sold politicians just keep on doing us over?

Condoleezza Rice and her policies are not welcome here

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is a picture-postcard representative for Bush’s America. She is intelligent, articulate, attractive, well- groomed and fashionably addressed.

She seems cool, calm, even queenly.

She is the ideal person to represent the US and drive American interests because she provides the soft public face for a host of aggressive, immoral policies to expand the empire.

Condoleezza Rice was National Security Adviser to George Bush in his first term as President and graduated to US Secretary of State in his second term.

She helped lead the charge to invade Afghanistan in the wake of the World Trade Centre attacks despite there being no good intelligence as to who the culprits were. Most of those responsible turned out to be nationals of US ally Saudi Arabia but invading Afghanistan was the more important strategic option. The New Zealand government supported this charade, sending troops to invade and occupy. Seven years on we are still there and still shamefully complicit in the enormous human suffering which marks this disastrous intervention.

Condoleezza Rice also helped drive the invasion of Iraq, claiming Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Instilling fear in the US public and creating a compliant populace to be bent to the will of a small political elite was her role. As we all now know it was a strategy based on lies, damned lies and deceit. She can also take a good deal of credit for the belief, held by a majority of US citizens, that Saddam Hussein was involved in the attacks on the World Trade Centre. Now that was a great propaganda job – well done, Condoleezza. If innocent Iraqi civilian lives were valued then Rice would be charged with war crimes a million times over.

Everywhere she has directed her attention on behalf of the US the objective has been to expand American interests irrespective of democratic voices. Attacks on the democratically elected Hamas government in Palestine; support for Israel’s apartheid policies against its Arab population; condemnation of popularly elected Latin American governments and of Iran’s nuclear programme are examples where she sees democratic principles as impediments to US interests.

As we would expect, she was appointed to her senior US government role because she is well versed in US business interests. She has sat on the boards of some of the most powerful US corporations including Chevron, Hewlett Packard, the Rand Corporation and the Carnegie Corporation.

In the US she is seen as a person of contradictions. For example, she grew up black in Alabama during the civil rights struggle but has always lived a privileged life.

Even so, one might have thought she would retain some sympathy for oppressed peoples such as the most abused group of human citizens in the world today, the Palestinians. But no, she is wedded more closely to a privileged lifestyle than to any empathy for the struggles of others.

Many in the black community of the US describe her as a black woman who doesn’t know how to talk to black people. Social class always trumps race.

This representative of the empire will be here this week for a visit and meetings with Prime Minister Helen Clark, Foreign Minister Winston Peters and National Party leader John Key.

The visit will be the highlight of Winston Peters’ term as New Zealand Foreign Minister. He says the visit shows the relationship with the US is strong and will stress that New Zealand and the US have worked closely together on issues including Afghanistan and North Korea’s nuclear programme.

Peters will talk to her importantly about his visit to North Korea and how New Zealand can be a loyal ally and how much the Government would like a free trade agreement with the US.

Peters will positively preen beside the most powerful woman in international politics. It will be an embarrassing, nauseating sight. Keep a paper bag handy.

She will also meet John Key and this private meeting will be his opportunity to tell her that under a National government New Zealand would have sent troops to support the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Perhaps he’ll tell her that under his leadership we’d have joined up by lunchtime.

She will reassure us we are good friends of the US. She will thank us for the close friendship from which the greatest US benefit is the intelligence we gather, on America’s behalf, at the Waihopai spy base outside Blenheim.

For many New Zealanders and people the world over, Condoleezza Rice embodies the worst aspects of US foreign policy and there will be protests against her visit. Neither she nor the murderous policies she represents are welcome here.

Shame on TVNZ and Radio Network for cover-up

Tony Veitch has reminded us we have a longer way to go with domestic violence than we might have thought.

The high-profile radio and television sports personality by his own admission lashed out at his former partner in 2006. From unchallenged media reports this was an attack which left his victim physically battered and emotionally shattered. By all accounts she had damaged vertebrae leaving her in a wheelchair for a time and unable to work for an extended period.

In the normal course of events an attack such as this would bring a vigorous prosecution by the police, condemnation from a judge and a lengthy prison sentence. The so-called Sensible Sentencing Trust would be leading the charge. But for two years Veitch has kept the attack hidden from public scrutiny through a deal involving his girlfriend’s silence being bought for a reputed $170,000.

Normally one to crave media attention, Veitch hid in the bowels of TVNZ avoiding the spotlight for two days. He then fronted the media, apologised to all and sundry in what appeared to be a legally prepared statement before scuttling off in a rush, refusing to answer questions. It was a dramatic departure from normal behaviour for this media creation.

Alongside the condemnation from many has also come a chorus of support for Veitch in newspapers and the internet. One online poll was two- to-one against him being sacked for his violent behaviour. John Tamihere says we should not be too quick to judge. Others have been more blunt saying he should be left alone because it’s his private business.

Television New Zealand and The Radio Network which both employ Veitch in high-profile presenter roles seem to agree. Their failure to explain when they first heard about the attack reinforces the feeling they had known for a long time beforehand. It’s inconceivable they were unaware of the rumours which were circulating in the intervening two years. For them it seems Veitch’s crime was failing to keep the assault out of the public arena rather than that the attack took place in the first instance.

They have both now suspended Veitch and say they will conduct their own internal investigations. They are two years too late for their belated concern to have any credibility. It suited them both to turn a blind eye until the whole fetid mess was exposed in the newspaper.

I don’t think for a minute the issue of domestic violence is worse in New Zealand than elsewhere. Women take a subservient, second place in most cultures and religions where the man is the head of the household and the relationship can easily track a downward path to domestic violence from there.

In New Zealand, we have our own versions of this unequal relationship and the sporting culture exemplified by Veitch and his media personality is at the very heart of one of these versions.

The TV show Game of Two Halves which Veitch hosts is a good example. Between him and the likes of Marc Ellis and Matthew Ridge, we have a group of adult men who bring to our TV screens the sporting culture of an under-20s rugby changing room.

It’s a popular show and there’s nothing wrong with blokes clowning around, but one would have hoped these older men would have moved on by now and left these boozy, juvenile antics behind them. However, it seems that puerile, adolescent behaviour is the peak of male culture for these men. They are still in the changing rooms of their sporting youth, refusing to grow up. They are our Peter Pans of sporting culture.

Is it any wonder what emerges from such shows is a kind of crude sexism where women become vulnerable targets? Veitch was forced to apologise for his on-air comments referring to black tennis player Serena Williams. “Do you know where the apes come from? She is a reminder,” Veitch told his radio audience a few years back.

No doubt Veitch would say it was all a joke with no harm intended but surely he could do us all a favour and just grow up.

Among the large numbers of men who believe Tony Veitch should be left alone because what happened is none of anyone’s business will be many who would say “There but for the public spotlight go I.” Domestic violence is a huge, male-dominated issue here in New Zealand and elsewhere. As the ads say, domestic violence is not OK. And neither are blind-eye cover-ups. Shame on TVNZ and The Radio Network.

Selfish schools pass on bullies

Last week I went to a meeting with a mother and family in support of her 13-year-old son who was the victim of serious bullying at a church-based boarding school earlier this year. The Ministry of Education describes the school as “low-decile”.

Attending the meeting was the school principal, hostel manager and a representative of the school board. The family had decided the boy would not be returning to the school (he has enrolled elsewhere) but wanted to impress on the school the serious consequences for their son. The family wanted an independent review and changes to school policy which would help prevent this happening to other students in the future. 

The mother described her son as a soft, country kid who grew up in a rural Maori community. He’d had a serious health problem as a child and was home-schooled for much of his primary school education. Coming up to secondary school he wanted to experience wider friendships and was keen to attend the boarding school.

He settled in well initially and loved the experience. He liked his teachers and found he was able to keep up with the work without a problem. It was an easier transition than for his mother who found the adjustment of “losing” her boy much more difficult.

However within a couple of months a series of bullying incidents occurred as street-wise bullies moved around at night-time harassing and “dry-humping” other students.  

The boys didn’t report the problem at first and it only emerged when the school investigated another situation. Other issues surfaced, his mother was horrified and withdrew him from the school till the problems were sorted.

It all could have been handled more effectively by the school whose representatives were apologetic. From their point of view they have to do their best by all the students but although they had applied their discipline procedures there were gaps where following through with the families of the suspended bullies and victims was too slow resulting in further concerns.

What emerged though was a wider problem. Over recent years the school has taken on several so-called troubled students tossed out of other schools. They have been prepared to see the good in students whose schools, communities and even families may have given up on. The board chair talked about one such student who had been given a last chance by the school. There were problems but he settled in and eventually became the school dux. It was a life-changing experience and one the school emulates every day in all sorts of ways with other students.

These are the kind of school leaders we need across all our schools but they shouldn’t have to deal with an overload of problems they face from kids expelled from other schools.

This particular school has suffered negative publicity in the past over bullying and any outsider would assume the school deals poorly with such issues. This is far from the truth. Dealing effectively with bullying is a challenge for all schools but this school already does a lot more than most. They still have changes to make however because the unfortunate outcome in this case was that two well-adjusted kids left the school while those involved in the bullying remained, albeit on a shorter leash.

Last week the Children’s Commissioner Cindy Kiro launched an investigation into school bullying and the Minister of Education helped launch a student-inspired card with positive messages aimed at creating a climate in schools which isolates bullying while encouraging students to feel self-confident. It won’t solve everything but it’s a positive initiative.

However the focus still remains on schools dealing with bullying more effectively and while this is important it overlooks the build-up of problems when schools, usually higher decile schools, chuck out students at the first sign of a problem. Here in Auckland Westlake Boys High School is the most high profile recent example. It boasts a “zero-tolerance” policy to all kinds of student misbehaviour but it’s hard to see this as anything other than a mechanism to export problems and create a favourable image in the community.

Setting firm, clear boundaries for students is always important but it’s no excuse for piling up trouble for schools elsewhere. And why should lower decile schools be regarded as dumping grounds for social problems wealthier parents would rather avoid than confront?

The next time you hear a problem of bullying or bad behaviour at a school think first about where the problem originated before blaming the school.