A woeful week for justice

It’s been a woeful week for justice with legislation introduced for John Key’s boot camps alongside Act’s “three strikes and you’re out” policy and the Maori Party calling for iwi to invest in private prisons.

We all know none of these proposals are sensible, either economically or socially, and yet the politicians blunder on inventing new programmes at the bottom of the cliff while the erosion at the top is ignored.

National and Act are following their tried and true path on law and order. It’s important for them to keep the focus on self-righteously blaming society’s victims rather than facing the social and economic changes needed to sort out the problems. Even when crime rates decline they do their best to whip up fear and loathing with expressions of pompous indignation.

They are helped by the media who present us with murder and mayhem as the new entertainment. Crime is now sensationalised like never before and we are encouraged to wallow in the shocking behaviour of the few. It’s all presented in easily digestible sound bites with suitably nasty criminals held up as subjects for our collective loathing.

There’s always been a boot-camp streak running through New Zealand. It’s regularly fanned into flame by politicians who see easy votes in the frustrations of communities dealing with crime. Give them some discipline to straighten them out is National’s answer. Lock them up for life is Act’s answer.

We know neither of these will make a blind bit of difference but politicians calculate there are less votes to be had addressing the problems than there are attacking the symptoms so we have brain-dead debates about boot camps.

John Key is right in suggesting we have 1000 or so “ticking time bombs” among young New Zealanders. You might think a politician would conduct a bit of research about this group before embarking on a $35 million project to sort them out. However we all know what would be found. These young violent offenders will all have more than their fair share of the risk factors associated with youth crime: poverty; poor health and housing; low educational achievement; dysfunctional family life; unemployed or erratically employed adults in low-paid, casualised work at unsociable hours; drink and drugs. Combinations of these factors bring social breakdown, alienation and criminal behaviour.

None of this is unclear and instead of focusing on the individuals we should first tackle the environment which leads to this behaviour in the first place.

There are plenty of places to start. Why not begin looking carefully at the decision of the Human Rights Review Tribunal released just before Xmas last year which found the so-called in-work tax credit discriminates against some 200,000 of the most deprived children in New Zealand? The decision came from a case brought by the Child Poverty Action Group and challenged the provision of tax credits for children only if the parents are working.

It was a Labour government policy to “incentivise” people into work. Instead it has helped drive families and children further into poverty. National’s response of boot camps, teenagers with tracking devices worn at school and more prisons is equally hopeless.

And why the army? This is the last place to prepare people to make good life choices. Harshness and deprivation of liberty don’t teach self-reliance and self-discipline. They teach blind obedience. Kim Workman best described this proposal as “correctional quackery”.

Then the Act Party’s three strikes legislation went to a select committee last week. Under this policy criminals convicted of a serious offence for the third time would be sent to prison for a minimum of 25 years. It is not designed to stop crime or protect the community but to keep blaming the victims of Act’s free-market polices implemented in the last 25 years by Labour and National.

There is never any excuse for violent, criminal behaviour but neither is their any excuse for ignoring the social and economic drivers of the problem.

Another visionless disappointment was Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia’s announcement encouraging iwi groups to tender to run or provide services in privately run prisons. Turia says she’s sure “if the privatisation of Ngawha Prison was going to be up for consideration Ngati Hine and Ngati Rangi would be extremely interested – as indeed for other iwi considering the location of prisons throughout their rohe”.

Having gained some financial redress from treaty settlements Turia is suggesting it be invested in keeping people, disproportionately Maori, behind bars. It’s a proposal to invest in Rodney Hide’s prisons policy rather than the welfare of Maori families.

A more bleak investment would be hard to find.

Dividends should drop to zero before anyone loses a job

The first small waves of the economic crisis have reached us. Redundancies are rising, unemployment is growing and mortgagee sales have reached frightening levels compared to this time last year.

Last week a food-bank in the Waikato had its largest ever weekly demand for food parcels and similar stories abound around the country.

We all know the pain is going to get worse and who will suffer the most. Workers on low incomes, who are disproportionately Maori and Pacific workers, will be hit hardest. The only argument is how deep and long the recession will be and how much taxpayer money will be needed to save capitalism from itself.

On the surface the public discussion has focused on how to keep people in work and prevent unemployment rising. Bringing forward infrastructure projects and other tinkering has been announced and the Prime Minister has called an employment summit for later this month. He tells us the focus will be to retain as many people in jobs as possible.

The undeniable undercurrent however is that the purpose of these measures is more to protect the incomes of company shareholders than protect the livelihoods of working New Zealanders. In a particularly cynical decision stock exchange chief executive Mark Weldon has been chosen by the PM to head the employment seminar. Weldon’s day-job is to increase shareholder value and boost sharemarket prices. How can he make the transition from representing a system which sees workers as a resource to be used by shareholders to one where workers are part of a civil society of inter-dependent people?

In Weldon’s world workers add value to businesses in good times only to become the responsibility of taxpayers via the dole queue when there is a business downturn. Choosing Weldon to lead the summit is like asking weasels to guard kiwi eggs.

Instead of workers being expected to shoulder the heaviest burden what about expecting management and shareholders to do the same? Why has there been only the most muted calls for these wealthier groups to take cuts in the interest of preserving the dignity of everyone in employment?

Will the summit call on Telecom to put on hold its plans to send 450 call-centre jobs overseas through outsourcing to the Philippines? Will it call on Air New Zealand to retain engineering jobs in New Zealand and abandon plans for further redundancies during the downturn?

It’s not as though any of these companies can’t afford to keep New Zealanders on. In Telecom’s case it has bled from New Zealanders over $14 billion in profit since it was privatised in 1990. When times get tougher surely it’s time to give something back?

Rio-Tinto is another good example. This company has also bled New Zealanders for a long time, using 15% of our electricity supply and paying just a fraction of the price paid by New Zealand families.

It has called for workers at its aluminium smelter in Bluff to take unpaid leave or work shortened weeks to help the company weather the financial storm. By all accounts they have plenty of people volunteering to get a better work-life balance but the important point is why should any company pressure workers onto reduced hours or reduced pay while their shareholders continue to receive dividends?

I can hear the chorus of wailing from big investors. Shareholders have already taken big hits they say and the capital value of their shares in the likes of Telecom and other companies has dropped dramatically over the past year. Many have also experienced significant losses as up to half our finance companies have fallen over or gotten into financial strife. This is all true enough but aside from the finance company collapses the rest are paper losses which will disappear in the longer term once governments rescue capitalism once more.

In the meantime why should any worker lose their job while a single cent remains in profit for shareholders? If this system works for everyone then profits should be used to maintain people in employment before any excess value flows to non-working shareholders.

I can hear another chorus claiming requirements like this would “distort the markets”. This is no time to keep following failed economist Milton Friedman whose edict that the social responsibility of business is to increase profits has no place in a civil society. Buggar the markets. Every breadwinner thrown out of work has their family life distorted with our whole of society deformed even further in the process.

Dividends should drop to zero before anyone loses a job.

Take an apple for the teacher

Early this year the media widely reported research by Auckland University Education professor John Hattie telling us that smaller class sizes had minimal effect on student achievement and it was a teacher’s relationship with his or her students which was the most important factor.

Hattie went on the say it would be a waste of money for the government to reduce class sizes and instead it should introduce so-called performance pay for teachers.

What gives John Hattie’s research such prominence is the claim it is based on a “meta-analysis” of 50,000 pieces of educational research world-wide which involved some 83 million students.

Some have called his results education’s “holy grail” because it has supposedly gotten to the bottom of what actually makes the most difference in improving student achievement.

Unsurprisingly Education Minister Anne Tolley was thrilled. She welcomed the research and says it will have a “profound influence” on National’s education policy. She wants John Hattie to discuss how “performance pay” for teachers could work and he’s a keen starter. National has longed to introduce “performance pay” with its real purpose to break down national teacher pay scales. It was thwarted when it failed to get bulk funding of teacher salaries introduced in the 1990s but Hattie’s public statements now open the door for National’s ideology to enter centre-stage.

However the research has only just been published and has not yet been subject to serious analysis by other New Zealand education researchers. It is therefore irresponsible for John Hattie to make the sweeping claims he has at this time. So how much store should we put by his conclusions ahead of a critique of his research and scholarly methods?

We should certainly withhold judgement, as should Anne Tolley and the media, until the research is evaluated. In the meantime there are plenty of warning signs. His

dismissal of class size as a significant factor is extremely suspicious because there have never been properly controlled studies anywhere in the world where similar groups of students have been taught the same material by similar teachers in classes of 15 students compared to 30 for example. It would be expensive and governments worry positive results would lead to parental pressure for more spending to reduce class sizes. Most comparisons in New Zealand would involve comparing classes of 26 to 30 with any valid comparison being undermined by a host of other factors.

John Hattie freely admits he hasn’t read all 50,000 pieces of research and we shouldn’t blame him avoiding such an Herculean task but it will likely take much more credible research before dismissing class size as blithely as he does.

In the introduction to his research Hattie says his book is “not a book about what cannot be influenced in schools…thus critical discussions about class, poverty, resources in families, health in families, and nutrition are not included…but this is not because they are unimportant, indeed they may be more important than many of the influences discussed in this book. It is just that I have not included these topics in my orbit”.

This is a small entry in the fine print by which Hattie acknowledges he has ignored several elephants in the room. There is plenty of robust research to show the most important determinant of student achievement is the socio-economic status of the family and community from which he or she comes. This is not what politicians want to hear because it means the long tail of underachievement, the greatest issue facing education in New Zealand, is a result of government social and economic policies.

For politicians it’s much better to do some teacher bashing and we’ve seen it many times before.

Several years ago research in South Auckland on an initiative to improve literacy claimed to show achievement was not related to the socio-economic background of the students. Education Minister Trevor Mallard was taken in and excitedly proclaimed the magic bullet for underachievement had been found and teachers were to blame. However a peer critique of this research showed the claim was not supported by the research data. Quite the opposite in fact.

This is not to say teachers cannot have a strong influence on student achievement and there are no excuses for any teacher to make assumptions about students or have lower expectations based on race or class. In fact teachers in schools in low-income communities need higher expectations of their students to try make up the missing ground. Improved levels of professional development for teachers are what is needed most. Performance pay is an ideological red herring.

The purpose of educational research must never be to tell politicians what they want to hear and quietly self-censor in areas they’d prefer to ignore. Teachers face enough stress without being political footballs. Instead of taking John Hattie’s research too seriously yet, take an apple for the teacher when school starts this week.


I’m not an Obamaite

Call me cynical if you like but I can’t get enthusiastic about Barrack Obama.

We’ve heard and seen so much of his soaring rhetoric, his message of hope and his appealing charm that half the world seems mesmerised. Some of the attraction is simply that he’s not George Bush and coupled with his sentimental appeal as the first black American to get to the white house and people hang on his every word.

We all want to believe that decency, integrity and respect for democracy will win out against the deadly decay personified by George Bush so I’d love to be a believer but it just won’t work for me.

I’m afraid the old saying that actions speak louder than words will catch up with Obama. Not because peoples’ expectations are higher than he can possibly deliver but because he is so enmeshed with corporate America and its political elite that his options to act are hopelessly constrained.

I’m afraid it will all end in tears. I’d love to be proved wrong but there is nothing I’ve seen or heard to make me think he will make much difference within the US or internationally to improve the lives of our human citizens on planet earth.

Just like every President before him, Obama is heavily beholden to corporate America because winning an election requires huge financial backing. Obama’s team will tell us the small $5 and $10 donations from ordinary Americans across the country got him to the White House but it isn’t true. Big money makes the difference and I’ve seen nothing to contradict the claim Obama received more corporate financial backing than any presidential candidate in the history of the US.

Big capitalists backed Obama because he was someone who could deliver the message of change people wanted to hear while preserving the economic status quo, albeit with a few more regulations to control the financial sector.

A look at his policies on any of the major issues he faces and it’s a change of style rather than substance when compared to George Bush.

The crisis in Gaza for example has been the number one international issue this past month. The world has watched while the Israeli military bombed and brutalised their way through Gaza killing more than 1300 people and laying waste to the territory.

Appeals to Obama to speak out fell on deaf ears. His supporters said he wasn’t yet the US leader and didn’t want to compromise his ability to work for peace before he got his feet under the presidents’ desk. This argument doesn’t wash. Obama’s silence gave unreserved support for the racist policies of Israel just as has every US president before him these past 61 years. And what did he do on his first day as president? He phoned the leaders of middle-east countries to say he was determined to work with them as partners for peace. He phoned Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Egypt’s corrupt dictator Hosni Mubarak but he did not phone the democratically elected representatives of the Palestinian people.

Instead he phoned Mahmoud Abbas, the discredited leader of the Fatah party which was defeated by Hamas in the 2006 election for the Palestinian National Assembly by 74 seats to 45.

It’s the same old US story. Obama will preach democracy provided people vote for US approved leaders. For its part Hamas has repeatedly called for a 10-year ceasefire and a negotiated settlement based on Israel withdrawing from Palestinian land to its 1967 borders. Israel however wants Palestinian land more than it wants peace and Obama will do whatever it takes to back them.

In his earlier days Barrack Obama was a strong supporter of the Palestinian struggle for nationhood. He had to give that up to be considered a presidential candidate such is the fear of US politicians being labelled anti-semitic or worse if they don’t give unconditional backing to Israel.

With the financial crisis Obama again mirrors George Bush. During the presidential election campaign he went to Washington to give unequivocal backing to the Bush bailout of the financial sector. There was no question of a plan to support the victims. The first priority was to protect the perpetrators of the crisis.

There were brief moments in his inaugural address when he pointed obliquely to the culprits. He talked about the US economy having been badly weakened by “greed and irresponsibility on the part of some” and that “a nation cannot prosper long when it favours only the prosperous”.

As well as an epic understatement these comments are designed as a sop to working Americans who create the country’s wealth. Obama will not seriously challenge those who backed him get into the White House.

The face at the top of the US has changed and let’s say that’s a relief but the key policies are heading in the same direction. So no – I’m not an Obamaite.