Gaza on fire

As I write this reports are coming in of a massive wave of air strikes on Gaza by the Israeli air force.

Initial counts show 250 Palestinians killed and over 800 wounded. Gaza’s morgues are overflowing with the dead while hospitals are overwhelmed with the wounded.

It is reported as one of the highest death tolls for Palestinians since the formation of Israel 60 years ago. Israel says the attacks are directed at “terrorist infrastructure” in retaliation for the firing of rockets into Israel since the recent cease-fire ended.

The US is the only country to come in behind Israel. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice says “the United States strongly condemns the repeated rocket and mortar attacks against Israel and holds Hamas responsible for breaking the cease-fire and for the renewal of violence in Gaza.”

However the problem is not the amateur rockets fired into Israel from Gaza but Israeli policies which have turned the Gaza strip into a massive open-air prison for one and a half million Palestinians. Israel has blocked off land, sea and air access while regularly choking off energy and food supplies along with work access for Palestinians.

Under these appalling of circumstances it would be astonishing if Palestinians did not fight back. The have lived in an Israeli-created hell-hole of deprivation and oppression for 60 years. It’s the modern-day equivalent of a decades-long medieval siege.

Israel gets away with this barbarism because there is a feeble understanding of middle east history. Most in the west have grown up believing that plucky little Israel is fighting valiantly for peace against hordes of filthy, sweaty Arabs.

We shouldn’t be surprised so many New Zealanders reflect this view because bias in media reports from international news agencies has been well documented.

It’s no wonder surveys have so often found the majority in countries like New Zealand believe Palestinians occupy Israeli land rather than the reverse when Palestinian fighters are called terrorists or militants while Israeli fighters are referred to as soldiers.

There seems precious little use in complaining. A recent New Zealand Press Council decision on a complaint of biased reporting on the middle-east was not upheld on the basis our newspapers don’t have the resources to report in an unbiased manner.

The Press Council effectively says we will have to get used to bias in reporting of international stories and there is little responsibility on our media outlets to do otherwise.

New Zealanders who take the time to visit the Palestinian territories are always appalled at what they find. New Zealand author Elizabeth Laird did so and says “I visited both Gaza and Ramallah, in the occupied territories in 2002 while leading workshops for Palestinian writers. I was appalled by the circumstances in which people were living, and became aware that we in the west know very little of what life is like for Palestinians living under military occupation.”

She wrote a stunning book called “A Little Piece of Ground” about life for young Palestinians. It’s aimed at teenagers but it’s a brilliant read for anyone. More material like this read more widely will help bridge an appalling knowledge gap for New Zealanders.

So what about the argument that it’s Israel’s right to retaliate to keep its people safe from rocket attacks. Yes any government should keep its people secure but there isn’t the slightest moral or military justification for the strikes against Gaza because the Palestinians living there have the moral right, if not the military means, to fight back against their oppressors.

New Zealand supported the French resistance fighting German occupation of France in the 1940s and we should do the same for the Palestinians.

Having been driven from their homes and land 60 years ago by Jewish terror squads the Palestinians are left with just 22% of the land of the original Palestine. Not content with seizing most of the land for an exclusive Jewish state the remaining Palestinian land on the West Bank is criss-crossed with Israeli-only, military-patrolled roads which link together new Jewish settlements being built on Palestinian land. All this despite innumerable UN resolutions calling on Israel to abide by international law.

Meanwhile the occupation of Palestine continues along with the daily debasement of Palestinians at checkpoints along with food and fuel shortages and air strikes.

New Zealand should condemn Israeli brutality and applaud the fighting spirit of Palestinians. We should also celebrate the actions of Israeli activists such as Neta Golan who was arrested by Israeli police earlier this month for joining the crew of the fifth boat to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza, bringing much needed supplies to the territory.

Brutality against Palestinians will continue while the US supports Israel. It does so not because it believes what Israel is doing is right but because it suits US interests to have a client state in the middle-east.

It’s time for real pressure on the US and the rogue state of Israel.

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Police Spying threatens democracy

State security infiltration and spying on protest groups is nothing new. Both police and the Security Intelligence Service infiltrated such organisations as the anti-Vietnam war movement and protest groups aiming to stop the 1981 Springbok Tour.

However last week’s revelations police paid Rob Gilchrist to infiltrate and spy on various animal rights, environmental and trade union groups over a 10-year period should ring alarm bells for us all. Greenpeace, the Green Party, Peace Action Wellington and Unite Union were among the targets.

Embarrassed by publicity from their spy who came in from the cold, the police have refused to engage in any significant public debate other than to darkly hint they’re perhaps more interested in individuals than organisations. However requesting personal information for state files on the lives and loves of individuals involved in democratic dissent is as repugnant as targeting legitimate organisations.

To put it simply when it comes to judgements on protest activity the police cannot be trusted. Their assurances they respect the right to protest have been shown to be demonstrably false on numerous occasions. These rarely gain public attention but it’s worth recalling one which did. It was the police handling of a protest by Free Tibet supporters outside the hotel where the Chinese President Jiang Zemin was attending a function in 1999.

After meeting with Chinese officials beforehand instructions were issued that police should “make every effort to minimise the impact of protest …”. What followed was a flagrant abuse of police power. Their actions, which resulted in a parliamentary inquiry, included standing on Tibetan flags to prevent them being waved while the President’s motorcade drove past; using buses to screen off the protests; closing the road (without legal authority) and pushing and shoving the protest group 100 metres down the street away from the hotel.

The police response, after an eight year (sic) investigation by the Police Complaints Authority was to change their guidelines for handling protests. The new instructions say protesters can be removed from the sight of visiting dignitaries if the protest behaviour is disorderly, or personally offensive and humiliating to the visitors. In other words the police will be able to justify similar actions in future because in this case the Chinese regime’s representatives felt humiliated by the Free Tibet protest.

Two aspects of this latest saga should be of added concern. Firstly police surveillance of protest groups is now routine. On any significant demonstration they turn up with video cameras to film everyone taking part. The last time I challenged this in writing the Police Commissioner blandly replied to the effect that it’s not illegal to operate a video camera in a public place and they reserved the right to archive the film for their own uses.

He’s right on the first point. Tourists regularly operate video cameras in public places but when those entrusted with enormous state power and huge resources spy on people exercising their democratic right to dissent then we should all be worried. This Orwellian state behaviour, which was a feature of Soviet Russia and is actively practiced by the current Chinese regime, is a threat to democracy itself.

Secondly the police have even greater powers and resources to spy on citizens than when they first recruited Rob Gilchrist 10 years ago. Since 2001, under the guise of the so-called war on terror, a plethora of legislation has been passed to extend their power to snoop and spy and they’ve been provided with fat budgets to do so.

Interestingly it’s the same group within the police who monitor so-called anti-terrorist activity who are charged with spying on protest groups. It’s no wonder they lose the plot. In a country which has demonstrably not been a terrorist target and where there are no terrorist groups operating it’s inevitable the focus of this police group shifts to groups active in political protest.

We saw the stupidity of this combination most clearly last year with the so-called anti-terror raids whereby political activists were targeted in a hugely expensive and pointless surveillance operation lasting some 18 months with little more than a pile of hot air to bring to court. The police are still tilting at windmills.

Neither is it OK to accept the hoary old line that “if protest groups are acting within the law they have nothing to fear”. Tell that to the five Free Tibet protestors who were arrested at the Jiang Zemin protest.

Yes the police have a hard job to do but targeting the right to dissent is not one of them. A public inquiry is needed alongside a lot more healthy scepticism of police action in relation to protest.

Dear Ms Wilkinson (Minister of Labour)

It must have felt a bit daunting in parliament this week pushing though National’s 90-day bill. We all heard the jeers from the other side of parliament but perhaps you feel relieved after surviving what may have seemed a baptism of fire for a new Minister of Labour.

It was certainly smart politics to push this law through in mid-December. In the mad rush to Christmas people are distracted by the demands of families and holiday breaks but then we have a long tradition of grubby politics using this time to stifle public debate and suppress organised opposition to unpopular policies. It’s also your government’s honeymoon period so what better time to forge ahead when the media will cut you more slack anyway.

And what a stroke of genius to avoid a select committee examining the bill. Was this your idea or your spin doctor’s? Your excuse it had already been considered by a select committee a couple of years back when Wayne Mapp introduced a similar private members bill doesn’t wash. Your bill is significantly different and circumstances have changed. Democracy demands better than ramming through this detested law under urgency and without select committee oversight.

I’m sure you’re proud of your new law but it lacks moral authority and since you’ve denied me the opportunity to make a submission I’ll point out here why it’s a bad law and why you should not imagine it will be respected..

In your speech introducing the bill you said – “This Government is committed to getting New Zealanders into jobs and providing the right encouragement to employers to employ them.  This is important in the current challenging economic times”

Why does getting people into jobs necessitate stripping workers of their rights? Listening to you one might think a person taking up employment had a job for life. They don’t. Employees can be disciplined, sacked or made redundant. All that’s needed is a fair process. By suspending the fair process for the first 90 days you are rewarding the nastiest of employers – the worst of the bunch.

And surely the challenging economic times to come are the very reason the government should be protecting workers and their employment rather than throwing them at the mercy of unscrupulous employers? You have taken job security from 100,000 employees who are in the first 90 days of employment at any time in the 97% of workplaces which are covered by this law.

Your lofty claim the new law is good for employees who want a chance to get into the workforce but who don’t have a good work record would have more foundation if the National Party had a history of support for vulnerable workers. It doesn’t. Can you give me a single example in New Zealand parliamentary history where progressive employment law has not been vigorously opposed by National?

So don’t treat us like idiots and pretend you have noble motives with this law change. You don’t. Your legislation will undermine the most vulnerable workers at the margins of the labour market. The very people who need the greatest employment protection have had it ripped away.

Your best line so far has been to claim this law is not about taking away rights – it is about giving opportunities.  Yeah right!

It sounds like the sort of PR spin your media team would have produced. A sound bite arguing that winter is summer.

You go on to say the trial period will only be entered into by agreement and that no one is being forced into a trial period.

This is surely your most woeful comment. A person looking for a job is in no position to bargain with an employer. Any prospective employee who says they won’t agree to a trial period simply won’t get the job. End of story.

I’m also unimpressed with your claim it will remain illegal to sack someone on the grounds of discrimination. Just last week I was talking to an employee at a workplace where the boss is a religious conservative who called the employee into his office after the employee announced he was shortly to get married. The boss challenged him on his marital status because he’d assumed he was already married. A difficult and tense discussion followed. Here’s one employer who will welcome your bill. Of course he won’t say he’s sacking someone because he doesn’t approve of their living arrangements. Your law says he won’t even need to give a reason.

Ms Wilkinson I’d respect you more if you avoided the weasel words and the spin doctoring and simply told it like it is. This law is a power play by employers to screw the scrum even further in their favour.

ENDS

Phil O’Reilly rips off the mask

I’ve never met Phil O’Reilly but he seems a decent sort of chap. He looks like everyone’s favourite uncle – warm and energetic with a way of speaking that suggests a good sense of humour.

He’s the spokesman for Business New Zealand which has replaced the Business Roundtable as the main advocate for business interests. The Roundtable’s reputation for hard-line ideology and support for the cruel policies associated with former Labour Finance Minister Roger Douglas meant it was unable to relate to New Zealanders and their families.

Enter Phil O’Reilly. It was a successful PR initiative from our business barons. Here was a moderate voice able to connect with people when the beady delivery of the Roundtable’s Chief Executive Roger Kerr turned people off.

These last few years O’Reilly has sounded sensible talking about business desires to work with the Labour government and the community to promote growth and development to get pay levels of New Zealand workers and their families back onto a par with Australian incomes. Business has been everyone’s friend with Phil O’Reilly. He has been Santa to Kerr’s Grinch.

All this has changed since the election. O’Reilly has lost his common touch. The mask has come off. Seeing the opportunity for a power grab Business New Zealand is now striving for major policy changes to advantage business owners at the expense of wage and salary earners.

Not satisfied with National’s draconian no-workplace-rights-for-90-days bill in the pipeline, last week O’Reilly released a list of employment law changes Business New Zealand would like the National-led government to invoke. They say business “requires changes to employment relations policies to allow for improved productivity, growth, flexibility and freedom in the workplace”. They say our employment law is rigid and a “barrier to nimbleness”.

For those unfamiliar with employment practices many of the proposed changes seem innocuous but in fact they represent a determined attack on the rights of New Zealand workers to organise and improve their working conditions.

For example Business New Zealand wants the government to remove the preference for unions to negotiate collective employment agreements. This means going back to the 1990s when employers themselves paid consultants to come in and form company unions, known as yellow unions, and negotiate collective agreements. These consultants would sign sweetheart deals with the employers and thereby prevent real unions from becoming involved. Employers often did this before they planned major restructurings which they knew their employees would resist. However being tied to a yellow union deal signed for them meant the workers were disarmed before they had the chance to object.

Measures such as this would seriously weaken the ability of unions to organise to improve wages and conditions.

The Business NZ proposals are worded to imply unions have far too much clout and what’s needed is a more balanced approach to industrial relations.

The facts tell a very different story. Across all private sector businesses only 10% of workers are covered by collective employment agreements negotiated by unions. The simple reality is that unions have never recovered from the decimation of National’s 1991 Employment Contracts Act.

Despite nine years of Labour-led governments most of the large unions have in fact decreased in size in recent years. The only bright spot is Unite Union which has successfully begun to organise the most marginalised low-paid workers in industries notorious for exploitative labour practices.

Business NZ’s opposition to unions is ideological. They don’t like workers organising together to get a better share of the wealth the workers themselves produce. They’d also like employers to have the chance to tie up their worksites ahead of the coming recession to prevent workers resisting job cuts and pay cuts.

Certainly this has nothing to do with reducing the wage gap with Australia. The Business NZ proposals will have the opposite effect.

The factor most responsible for the increase in the wage gap with Australia these past 17 years were National’s employment laws. They undermined unions and their ability to negotiate better pay and conditions. Australia forged ahead while New Zealand workers stagnated and fell behind.

During the 1990s businesses did well, not because they were innovative or invested in new technologies, but because they were able to drive down pay and conditions of employment. Australia never followed the same route.

Reducing the wage gap with Australia requires worker-friendly policies and a strong union movement. This is anathema to Business New Zealand members who are itching to put the boot into workers again.

Will John Key oblige?

ENDS

Hapless Bill English seeks private sector help

It’s obvious the government has little idea how to handle the looming economic crisis.

Having formed his government quickly after the election John Key took time to travel to Peru for the APEC meeting to give his input and get a good international perspective on the catastrophe.

But his speech at APEC provided no new insights or new ideas on how to tackle the global meltdown. We shouldn’t have expected any better because his role as a currency trader put him at the heart of helping create the financial crisis in the first place. It would be more appropriate to get his apology than expect a useful lead.

During the election campaign both Labour and National downplayed the problem. Labour didn’t want to suggest it was anything they couldn’t handle while National didn’t want to frighten voters with predictions of doom before the storm struck. Both said bringing forward infrastructure projects was the most important step to stimulate the economy and reduce the impact of the recession.

Now in government the infrastructure plans look uncertain. Underlining this last week Finance and Infrastructure Minister Bill English called for advice and assistance from the private sector to help the government get its infrastructure plans in place quickly. English clearly had no plan to offer himself and called on the private sector to bring its own plans to the government instead.

National and ACT would like to use PPPs (public-private partnerships) to develop infrastructure but these are never viable even in the best of economic times. They are always more expensive because most PPPs are financed through heavy borrowing and the private sector always pays higher interest rates than a government. The so-called credit crunch will make borrowing even more difficult and expensive for the private sector.

The counter argument is that PPPs shift the financial risk from taxpayers to private investors but in reality this doesn’t happen. If a project is successful the revenue streams are enjoyed by private profiteers but as soon as ones gets into trouble it’s taxpayers or ratepayers who bail them out.

National’s approach was dealt a serious blow last week with a major infrastructure developer signalling PPPs were not really viable in New Zealand. Mark Binns, chief executive of Fletcher Building’s infrastructure division, said the projects were generally too small and even for big roading projects the traffic volumes were likely to be too low to make them worthwhile as PPPs.

This is good news for public ownership and common sense but will count for little in the face of ideology. The most likely outcome will be the government pressing ahead with expensive PPPs while around the rest of the world they are a deep embarrassment for politicians and the private sector.

If the proposed infrastructure thrust falters as seems likely then the government will come under serious pressure from ACT and the business elite to adopt more traditional right-wing policies involving serious cuts to government spending as tax cuts make social services unaffordable.

The Auckland City Council showed how to do it ten days ago with Auckland Mayor John Banks appearing on national television to tell the country people were hurting out there and councils had to reign in spending to keep rate rises affordable.

It was a remarkably successful public relations con. When the Mayor and Act aligned councillors had finished their speeches and the TV cameras were packed up the council moved to slash spending on projects in low-income communities of Auckland over the next decade. More than half the $800 million cuts were made from the council’s Tamaki ward while in other low-income areas such as Otahuhu and Avondale where the needs are greatest, the spending for swimming pools and community facilities has been slashed. The council however has retained $5 million to re-sand inner-city Judges Bay for its millionaires and their offspring.

The council then moved to dramatically increased its annual fixed charges so that rate increases in the city’s most affluent areas have been kept to 5% but increases in low-income areas are as high as 20%.

When John Banks said people were hurting he meant the wealthy were suffering and needed a hand-up from the poor.

These classic ACT-type policies will be vigorously promoted by Minister of Local Government Rodney Hide across all New Zealand local bodies and will likewise be heavily promoted by business interests and their political agents at the first sign of government faltering.

Bill English invited just this response over the weekend when he told the Chambers of Commerce he wanted to hear from them if they thought the government wasn’t getting it right.

Such hapless comments within a fortnight of being sworn in mean we are closer to the ACT option than we think.