Speaking out would be an Olympic performance worth gold

In the closing stages of the Olympics, there is a rising sense of deep disappointment at the lack of visible protest from competitors against the human rights catastrophe around them.

There were earlier signs that some significant protest could be mounted by athletes to challenge the Chinese regime while it basks in the limelight in the centre of the world stage. There was talk of orange and yellow armbands, symbolic protests and solidarity activities.

The encouraging aspect was that this discussion went on despite attempts to muzzle athletes by various governments and Olympic officials, including New Zealand.

This year, New Zealand Olympic officials required our athletes to sign themselves to silence on China’s human rights abuses. They were to avoid any public political comment or involvement in political activity while in China.

Olympic officials said they were simply protecting the athletes. It’s worth noting that the same hopeless justification was given by our rugby union 50 years ago as it refused to select Maori rugby players for the All Blacks tour to South Africa in 1960. They told the country they were doing so to protect the Maori players.

It was only after public pressure that the offensive part of the Olympic contract was withdrawn. Why should New Zealand athletes give up their right to speak out because the host country refuses to give the same rights to its own citizens? All the more reason for our athletes’ voices to be heard.

Our Government won’t want any protest. Having signed the first free- trade agreement with China while Chinese troops crushed the aspirations of the people of Tibet, our Government would be rightly embarrassed if our athletes showed them up.

For oppressed peoples, protests by those able to from outside are hugely important. They give hope to those in struggle and corrode the authority of the tyrants in power. Yes, there are plenty of Chinese who support their leadership, but there are just 40 million or so living lifestyles similar to that of developing Western countries like New Zealand. At the other end, the vast majority of China’s 1.2 billion population live in greater poverty than they did before the adoption of unfettered free market capitalism. This huge majority is invisible on our TV screens.

Meanwhile, the Games’ sponsors have plied their carefully managed advertising campaigns to get maximum exposure with minimum public association with China’s rulers. Television broadcasters have been making a mint from advertisers who in turn are raking in the cash from increased sales associated with the heavy promotion of their products to worldwide prime-time audiences.

We can’t expect these international corporations to step up to the plate. They are part of the problem. Last year, major United States and European companies appealed to the Chinese regime to abandon plans to pass new laws to improve the pay and conditions of Chinese workers. The US Chamber of Commerce produced a 40-page condemnation of the new laws. Their big backers (including major Olympic sponsors) want to keep making big profits from China’s low-paid workforce. An international outcry caused these major corporates to back off in public but the damage was done. The proposed law changes were watered down dramatically and Chinese workers lost another battle.

So it’s over to the athletes.

Will we see such a dramatic protest as the black-power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico Olympics during the medal ceremony for the 200m sprint?

The image of that moment brought hope to black Americans in the civil rights struggle as well as providing a potent symbol of the on- going fight against oppression around the world.

There were a few high-profile banner raising protests in the few days before the Games opened which were swiftly suppressed by the authorities, but little has happened since. The regime basks in reports of a very well run international event. The infrastructure has been stunning, the organisation brilliant and the spectacle impressive.

I hope I’m speaking too soon and that in the closing days some significant, visible protest will emerge from the athletes to signal to the Chinese people who are working for economic change and genuine democracy that the world cares about their struggle and empathises with them.

At the time of writing, New Zealand has achieved three gold medals and sundry others. I mean no disrespect to the athletes involved but I’d trade in all our medals for a single New Zealand athlete who used his or her freedom of speech while in China to speak for those whose freedom of speech has been denied.

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Tacky porn is best hidden

New Zealand is a small country such that local titillations anywhere frequently make the news everywhere.

It’s Auckland’s turn to star, with self-proclaimed pornographer Steve Crow organising his annual boobs on bikes parade down Queen Street. Its an annual publicity stunt to draw attention to the popular Erotica Expo where apparently all manner of interesting, helpful and odd offerings are on sale to stimulate one’s sex life.

Crow is an unlovely figure. He looks like a middle-aged, bald biker with an unrefined vocabulary centred on his right to offend. If people don’t want to see they should stay away – there are plenty who do so let them enjoy what’s on show, says Crow.

Arguments about the rights of women not to have their gender exploited as sexual chattels is just PC nonsense to this businessman.

So he sets off down Queen Street with a few blonde bombshells stripped to the waist and proudly displaying their silicon-enhanced breasts for all the world to see. Alongside them is the ageing, leathery Crow. It’s a scene straight out of Playboy.

Each year there is a public squabble and attempts of various kinds to ban the ride. The council has refused to issue a permit and the police say they can’t stop it on grounds of indecency which apparently exists only below the belt. This year the council is having another go. Crow has thumbed his nose at it for too long.

With every council attempt he puffs his generous chest self-importantly and says it makes him more determined than ever to stop the small minds on the council from raining on his parade. If ever there was justification for defining a male as a life-support system for a penis then Crow would come close.

Late last week he got top billing on national television news because city councillor Cathy Casey has successfully lobbied the council to apply for a court injunction to stop the parade. If that fails she and other women are prepared to lie down across the street in its path. The scene is set for a real bun-fight (or is that a bust-fight?).

Cathy is a spirited woman among a council dominated by conservative men. They recently passed a new bylaw to bar public events associated with pornography. The law was aimed squarely at Crow but he is giving their newest effort the fingers so they are off to court.

The public seems bemused by it all.

The most common argument is that it’s best to ignore the issue because challenging Crow gives him priceless publicity. It plays into his hands. Alongside this argument is another large group which says there’s nothing wrong with a bit of naked flesh voyeuristically displayed in public in any case.

We’re told we shouldn’t be so uptight – it’s just a bit of harmless fun. The women stripping are volunteers, after all, and look like they are enjoying being the centre of attention.

On the face of it women have a lot more trouble getting agreement to breastfeed in public places than Crow has to run his parade.

The difference, of course, is the sexualised image of women promoted by Crow. It is degrading and dehumanising to women as a gender and all women get the backlash from antics such as these. When it comes to nudity context is everything.

I’ve been to previous Hero parades in Auckland and I think it’s a real shame they’ve run out of steam. Back in the 1990s they were a huge public celebration of gay pride and sexuality and there were exposed breasts there as well, among other things, but the context was very different. They were a celebration of being human.

There is a little bit of the voyeur in most of us, which explains why crowds collect for Crow’s parade. They also flock to the Erotica Expo, but for the most part this shows more a healthy interest in sex than in degrading pornography.

No-one would lose any sleep if Steve Crow were jailed for defying a court order but I can’t see it happening. Crow will fight the court injunction one way or another even if it succeeds. He will have his next moves well sorted. However, it’s a useful stand from the council, if for no other reason than to remind us that sex should be celebrated, erotica enjoyed but tacky pornography is best out of public sight.

Perhaps next year Crow might organise a testicles on toast parade with himself as the star. I might get down to see that one myself.

National’s secret agenda presents a new low in New Zealand politics

Have we reached a new low in politics?

Any number of commentators and politicians are suggesting so with the publication in the last week of private comments made by National Party politicians attending their annual party conference.

An interloper questioned three senior party figures at a cocktail party on sensitive policy areas and with their guards down each provided some quotable quotes much to the embarrassment of the party.

Deputy Leader Bill English was caught saying Kiwibank would be sold by National eventually, but not now. MP Lockwood Smith explained that “there’s some bloody dead fish you have to swallow . . . to get into Government to do the kinds of things you want to do”. Nelson MP Nick Smith said National was in a neutralise phase with its election strategy. To cap it off, National Party staff are suggesting someone has been going through the rubbish at John Key’s party office in Helensville while police are investigating a break-in at Labour Minister David Cunliffe’s electoral office where sensitive computer files are reported to have been stolen.

Perhaps we’ll see photocopies of sauce-stained jottings made by Key of a dagger through the Kiwibank logo or a draft David Cunliffe letter to a migrant family apologising for the appalling treatment he has meted out to them in his former role as immigration minister.

United Future MP Peter Dunne has called on John Key and Helen Clark to make a clear statement denouncing dirty politics and I’m sure they will but we shouldn’t expect anything to change.

None of the revelations from National so far would be surprising to those who follow politics with even a mild interest. We know National reveres the private sector and has an almost pathological dislike of public ownership of anything. While they have promised no privatisations in a first term of government we all know they will work hard preparing for that objective. They will move quickly to sell state assets once they feel they can do so without too much electoral fallout.

Selling Kiwibank is an ideological goal for Bill English. Instead of apologising for his poor choice of words, English should front up to what he believes in. The apology he offered was an added insult to the electorate.

We also know the dead fish Lockwood Smith refers to. These are the policies National fought against but which are popular with voters and therefore too dangerous to toss out. Such things as support for Working for Families; interest-free student loans; nuclear-free policy; keeping Kiwirail and Kiwibank (for a while at least); KiwiSaver (albeit with changes) etc.

Nick Smith’s comments about neutralising issues we have seen before too. Ahead of the last election he proposed that National inoculate itself against unpopular policies. Leaked emails revealed him urging National to identify its weak spots and neutralise them early on.

At that time he saw these as four-weeks holiday (which National had opposed but which the electorate supported), asset sales and national superannuation.

He said he thought National in 2005 had already successfully neutralised the nuclear issue and tax cuts for the rich.

National did indeed neutralise its remaining unpopular policies in 2005 just as it has already swallowed a lot of dead fish this year.

Most of us would not want our private comments examined in the public spotlight but when the private comments of politicians are about matters of legitimate public interest and are at variance with what they tell us publicly, then they can hardly complain. Whether it’s National Party politicians at a cocktail party or Labour President Mike Williams taped privately telling party delegates how to avoid electoral spending limits by distributing government information leaflets, they are fair game.

The most sensitive revelation was Bill English’s comment that National would sell Kiwibank and one might think this area of privatisation is where real differences in party policy show up but the differences are small.

Labour opposed the sale of Auckland Airport to a Canadian company last year but in the next breath approved the Wellington electricity network being sold overseas.

Both parties are now talking about so-called public-private partnerships. This is the new description for privatisation where we are told it gives us the best of both worlds, the supposed financial discipline of the private sector with the guarantee of investment in the public interest.

Labour has opened the door to PPPs in roading while National wants to extend the idea for the likes of funding the building of schools and managing prisons.

However, most of us also know that overseas experience with PPPs show they contain the same mix of rip-offs, corporate greed and community debasement we have seen so many times before.

PPPs are the next new low in politics.

It’s time to give New Zealand’s most vulnerable children a fair go

Kids with special education needs are not getting a fair go.

This has been obvious to parents and schools for many years and is now openly acknowledged by Ministry of Education officials.

Last week, the IHC lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission alleging government policies and practices are preventing children with disabilities from fully participating in education at their local schools.

The complaint targets government actions which the IHC says place barriers in the way of young disabled learners. Meanwhile, the Ministry agrees there are serious problems for parents and students but puts the blame on schools.

So what are outside observers supposed to make of this hot potato exercise shortly to be played out before the Human Rights Commission?

It’s important to understand a bit of background.

In 1989, the Labour government introduced its Tomorrows Schools policy whereby schools were to become self-managing. They were to elect their own Boards of Trustees made up mainly of parent representatives and these boards would run their schools.

The committee which devised the new policy was chaired by businessman Brian Picot, who managed a chain of supermarkets. Not surprisingly, Picot suggested running schools like competing businesses. Suffice to say its been an unfortunate educational experiment.

Under this reorganisation, the government initially retained direct responsibility for funding children with special needs.

Later in the 1990s most special needs funding and resources were bulk funded to schools which were given the responsibility of allocating funds and meeting the learning needs of these students. But lack of adequate government funding and poorly targeted funding have bedevilled special education. Just as with the school operations grant, which is also bulk funded inadequately, special needs funding has not been adequate for special needs kids to become successful learners in mainstream classes. Poorly targeted funding has added to the problems. For example, the special education grant (more than $40 million) is bulk funded to all schools irrespective of how many children with special needs are enrolled. A school with two such children receives the same funding as a school with 20.

This means schools which actively discourage enrolment of children with special needs will still receive the same funding as schools which welcome such children and which have to spread their available funding much thinner over a larger number of students. It provides the perverse incentive for schools without special needs children to keep turning them away while making it harder for more welcoming schools to say yes to a greater number of special needs students.

Some of the unsavoury outcomes are parents being asked to take their children home when the money to pay a teacher aide runs out or parents being asked to contribute $100 or $200 each week to supplement inadequate government funding for their child. Schools have even asked parents to come in and stay with their child in the class because the school can’t afford teacher aide support.

With inadequate and poorly targeted funding these students are simply “maindumped” – put in a mainstream class without proper support which is not fair on the child, the teacher and sometimes the other children in the classroom.

These government policies which have led to such school/teacher/parent stresses have been roundly criticised for many years but they have been defended by any number of Education ministers on spurious grounds. The latest Minister, Chris Carter, is no exception.

The Government says its role is to provide the funding but schools have the responsibility to meet the learning needs of all children with the available funds and teaching resources.

This is a cop-out. Yes, there are odd schools which may spend some money poorly, but any number of reports over the years indicate big structural problems with the funding of special education.

A report conducted by the Quality Public Education Coalition two years back showed 97 per cent of schools said their Special Education Grant was inadequate, with most saying it needed to be at least doubled. Most schools thought the Government should double the number of students who receive targeted funding with 80% saying the targeted funding itself was inadequate.

Meanwhile, it was revealed last year the Government is quietly aiming to save $23 million from special needs funding allocations between 2006 and 2010. The trend began several years ago.

Figures revealed in November 2006 showed government funding for special education services decreased by 3.49% from 2001 to 2006.

The National Party described this as “picking on the most vulnerable children in society to slash funding”.

We’ll all be keen to see if National’s special education policy matches its rhetoric.

The IHC is to be applauded for its direct challenge to government policy. It’s time to give our most vulnerable kids a fair go.