Sports brawls and the pro-smackers

Just what are we teaching our kids in school sport?

The spectacle of an all-in brawl involving players and supporters from Kelston Boys’ High and Auckland Grammar 10 days ago was an ugly symptom of a bigger problem.

Incidents like this are more common than we might think but this one was treated more seriously because it was caught on camera. The outcome was public shock and plenty of debate before and after the judicial findings were released.

The outcome was four Auckland Grammar players suspended from rugby for up to six weeks while seven Kelston players were banned from playing for between 10 to 16 months.

So why all the interest? We regularly see sports brawls on TV and here in New Zealand it is more commonly in rugby than other sports. Any physical contact sport where brute strength plays an important part will raise tempers and outbreaks of violence from time to time are inevitable.

What surprised was that these were teenagers attacking each other with fists rather than adult men. It shouldn’t have been surprising. Why should teenage schoolboys be expected to behave better than their adult role models?

Even worse was the result of the disciplinary hearings. If these were All Blacks they would have received the slap-on-the-hand-with-a-wet-bus-ticket treatment and been off the field for a few matches. By comparison these Kelston boys have been harshly treated. For an All Black a suspension for a couple of weeks is significant. For a schoolboy a year’s suspension is a lifetime. I agree with those who think these punishments are unreasonably severe. They are outrageously beyond what usually be contemplated at higher levels of rugby.

If we want our boys to behave better then tackle the behaviour of the men first. Until then give these boys a break. In the meantime hypocrisy is a more influential teacher than the bans they face.

It would have been good to hear the disciplinary body criticise the initial reactions of the two school principals involved. They both made excuses for the behaviour and tried to turn the blame on the opposing team. And what about the spectators who threw punches? Only school students were punished. Here again the anti-violence message is clouded for the young men who sit in these school assemblies.

The overwhelming feeling from this episode is that many schools see their status as more important than outcomes for their students. One commentator has suggested this has been exacerbated by Tomorrow’s Schools whereby a school’s reputation is an important marketing tool and there’s a lot of truth in this. Bearing this in mind it says a lot about New Zealand that these schools saw their reputation in rugby as more important than the worry they might be seen to be excusing violence.

Another side of the violence argument was on show over the weekend. Those who campaigned for the right to strike their kids without fear of prosecution celebrated in style at an Auckland hotel. Not a good look. Isn’t there something unsavoury about raising a glass to make merry of the right to hit kids? Yes the majority agreed with their loaded, misleading question and were swayed by their disinformation campaign. If they had been more honest and asked “Should parents have the right to hit their kids without fear of prosecution?” the vote would have swung the other way.

The debate now enters the unsavoury area of just what violence is acceptable and what “smacking” means. Some think open-handed smacks are OK; Family First’s Bob McCroskie thinks wooden spoons are fine; other think belts should be used and a few even think fists are acceptable.

If people like Bob McCrokie really wants to put children and families first then they must face up to the reality that violent abuse of kids is one of a whole raft of social problems which are exacerbated in societies where there is greater income inequality. The evidence is plain, unassailable and sobering. We don’t need a Royal Commission as Family First suggests. To reduce and eliminate child abuse we must first adopt economic and social policies which value all members of society and level the income field for families and children.

To reduce child abuse and alleviate the awful social problems which bedevil the country we need economic policies which redistribute wealth from those who haven’t earned it to those who do the work. Taxes on capital gains (on all but the family home) and heavy death duties are the logical place to start. A financial transaction tax should follow and GST should be abolished.

Tax and income policy should be based around what is needed for a breadwinner to maintain his or her family at a decent standard of living after a 40 hour working week based on sociable hours.

This is what putting families first is all about.


Booze barons rule in liquor review

Earlier this month the Law Commission released its issues paper reviewing the sale and supply of alcohol. Since then there has been paltry public comment with most reporting being focused on the tentative suggestions the Commission made for law changes.

These include: reducing availability of cheap alcohol to price-sensitive younger drinkers; increasing the age for purchasing alcohol from bottle stores to 20; reducing tax on low alcohol products; reducing the hours of purchase and increasing conditions on the granting of liquor licenses. The public has been given three months to make submissions on these and any other changes we’d like to see in the laws.

The Commission’s 279 page report points to the high social and economic costs of alcohol and the growth of youth binge drinking. It doesn’t say so bluntly but we drink in an effectively unregulated market where the money spent advertising alcohol and alcohol promotions swamp the public health messages.

The alcohol lobby have resigned themselves to the fact that there will be law changes so they are arguing to push responsibility onto drinkers rather than regulate producers and providers of alcohol. They want more spent by the government at the bottom of the cliff rather than face regulations at the top. For example the hospitality sector suggests we should re-introduce the offence of being drunk in a public place as a way to bring home to drinkers the unacceptability of their behaviour. This is fair comment but it seems more designed to try and head off proposals for reduced drinking hours or anything which will reduce consumption in pubs and bars. These purveyors of so much misery want to blame the individuals for the anti-social problems created by the products they sell.

All of this misses the point. We are in a drink-soaked culture where the unregulated market is creating ever younger victims each year. The massive economic power of the booze industry largely dictates the direction of public debate and policy development.

Instead of decent laws we have voluntary codes of conduct around advertising. The Commission points to the problems with the voluntary code in this example.

“Consider that in New Zealand the Code for Advertising Liquor requires that advertisements not be “sexually provocative or suggestive or suggest any link between liquor and sexual attraction or performance”. While recognising the humorous context, the central feature of a recent advertising campaign for a well known beer brand was the physical attractiveness of the female ‘employees’ featured in the set of advertisements. In this way, self-regulatory systems can permit promotions that connect alcohol products with aspirational values or underlying messages ….”

They are talking about the bikini clad models in the Tui adds on TV which shows the voluntary advertising code is all but worthless. Youngsters and young teenagers are bombarded with sexualised images promoting alcohol brands.

The booze barons say all they are doing is trying to increase their market share rather than engage youngsters in drinking. This is the same cynical argument used by cigarette companies to avoid regulation. The sheer economic power of the booze industry and the lack of effective regulation means they have a captive market of youngsters who are as vulnerable to advertising as Hitler youth were to those holding public power at that time.

We have alcohol outlets on too many street corners, especially in our low income areas, alcohol adds on TV, billboards, magazines and alcohol product promotions associated with popular bands.

Incidentally here in Auckland last week the tenth liquor licence was issued for Auckland’s Karangahape Road but the licensee is appealing against the decision. He’s incensed that the hours of opening have been reduced below that of other outlets in the street.

Despite all this the Law Commission is opposing any significant ban on advertising for the perverse reason that such a ban could be in contravention of Section 14 of the Human Rights Act. This section covers freedom of speech and apparently a ban would raise “commercial free speech issues”. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Why should the so-called rights of the booze barons with enormous economic power supersede the rights of teenagers to live in a healthy social environment?

Are our policy makers so enthralled by corporate power that they rule out the single most important factor in curbing our dangerous drink culture before they start?

My suggestion is we level the playing field for our kids by banning all advertising and promotion of alcohol.

Among developed countries France has bitten the bullet and delivered a comprehensive ban on alcohol advertising. New Zealand should do the same.

MPs caught wallowing in the trough

Think back two weeks to the announcement by parliament’s speaker that travel costs of MPs would be released for us to get our first real insight into their expense claims.

Now ask yourself why was it that, well before the announcement, the major parliamentary parties had agreed on a non-aggression pact to not criticise each others expense claims.

This outbreak of peace in the parliamentary sandpit was unusual and the only viable explanation is that MPs were worried they would taken to task for their profligacy in robbing the public purse. They planned to stay quiet and hope the public and media would move quickly on.

The announcement itself when it came was routine because details of individual claims were withheld and only the quantum of each MP’s spending revealed. But what followed was not a pretty sight.

There was ex Finance Minister Roger Douglas spluttering outrageously at being questioned about his trip to London to see his son and grandchildren and having 90% of the cost paid by taxpayers. This MP has done more damage to New Zealand’s social and economic life than any other single politician in my lifetime. Before Douglas got to work on the economy in 1984 we ran Telethons to raise money for such things as cancer research. Now we raise money for children living in poverty from policies he enacted. We shouldn’t be surprised to find this recycled MP now with both feet in the trough.

Roger’s leader, former perk-buster Rodney Hide, was nowhere to be seen. He stopped the gravy train just long enough to jump on himself and he’ll wait just a bit longer for the dust to settle before lecturing us how government spending must be slashed further to help the wealthy survive the recession.

Ex-labour minister Chris Carter similarly choked with indignation trying to explain his love affair with international travel and its enormous cost to the rest of us. He was worried his expenses were presented “out of context” and the public “didn’t understand”. Like hell we didn’t.

It got worse when MPs accommodation expenses came into the spotlight. National ministers were revealed to be renting out their personally-owned Wellington properties and then claiming up to $1000 per week from taxpayers to live elsewhere in the capital. Finance Minister Bill English was at the centre of the spotlight. He has been claiming over $900 per week from the taxpayer to live in his Wellington home with his family.

“It’s not about the money” he said. “It’s about the support I get…which enables our family to be together under the pressure of politics”. Bollocks. It was all about the money. Bill English has stayed with his family in Wellington for over a decade. After his latest ministerial appointment he transferred ownership of the family home to his wife and this enabled him to claim up to $47,000 per year for his accommodation rather than the paltry $24,000 he claimed previously. If this is not a rort on the public purse then I can’t think what would be. It’s unnecessary to point out the obvious hypocrisy from a man who has preached restraint on everyone else while at the same time exploiting parliamentary rules to his personal pecuniary advantage. The fact that it was within the rules as PM John Key says doesn’t excuse anything.

Bill is apparently struggling to keep his family together on his salary of $276,700; accommodation allowance of $24,000; expense allowance of $14,800; all his bills for rates and services such as electricity and phones paid; generous allowances for out-of-town accommodation and numerous other perks which include gold-plated superannuation whereby he gets $2.50 from the taxpayer for every $1 he saves – up to 8% of his salary. This means up to another $55,000 each year from the taxpayer going into the English family coffers.

It may come as a surprise to Bill that most New Zealanders will have more sympathy for another family of eight on TV last week who were struggling to feed their children on the low wages the father earned.

I remember former Green Party leader the late Rod Donald telling me once that for all the flak he took from other MPs simply for being in the Green Party nothing matched the intensity of scorn he faced when he called for a reduction in MPs allowances.

John Key will announce the details of a review shortly but he says it will focus solely on the accommodation subsidies for ministers. As Green Party leader Metiria Turei says it should be a wider review to cover all aspects of their remuneration. For example a couple of decades back a backbench MP would receive the equivalent income to a senior school teacher. Now the teacher earns around $80,000 while an MP’s base salary is $131,000. It’s time to get things back in perspective and remind our MPs they are public servants and we expect better from then than whining that they are hard-working and their expenses are misunderstood by an ungrateful electorate.

In place of embarrassment they should be confident they can justify every last dollar as legitimately spent for the benefit of our democracy. We have a long way to go yet.


Cowardice in Afghanistan

News reports over the weekend confirm what most people who have followed the Afghanistan conflict have known for many years – New Zealand was a participant in US operations which led to torture, abuse and death of suspects.

From 2001 to 2005 there were three deployments, numbering from 40 to 65, of our so-called elite troops, the SAS (Special Air Services), to Afghanistan. They took part in “snatch-grab” missions whereby suspected terrorists were captured and handed over to the US for detention and interrogation. By all accounts our SAS handed over between 50 and 70 suspects but they did so without taking identity details. Instead of being photographed, identified and having their weapons properly registered the suspects usually had their heads shaved and their belongings thrown into a single pile.

We are signatories to the 1949 Geneva Convention and the 1984 UN Convention against Torture which prohibit degrading, humiliating or torturing prisoners and from transferring them to countries which do so. And yet this is precisely what happened.

It’s seems clear it was common knowledge among the New Zealanders that the suspects they captured were being mistreated. One SAS soldier is quoted saying “we sort of knew what would happen to the prisoners, Americans being Americans”.

There were some early signs of concern. There is the suggestion that after one incident the New Zealand commander “remonstrated with the Americans about the way they were initially handling people who were handed over to them”. Then in April 2002 SAS commander Lieutenant-Colonel Jim Blackwell evidently convened a meeting with leaders of the Danish, Norwegian, German and Canadian special forces where similar concerns were expressed.

New Zealand Defence Force Brigadier Kevin Riordan says New Zealand takes its responsibilities under the Geneva Convention seriously and there were difficulties getting the names of those they snatched. Defence Force Chief Jerry Mateparae says the rules about handing over prisoners had been tightened since the SAS first went to Afghanistan.

None of this counts for much. Raising concerns is not a substitute for insisting international law is upheld. American torture of detainees was an open secret from very early on in the piece. If the US sidelined the Geneva Convention it’s no excuse for New Zealanders to do the same. The effect of the actions of New Zealand soldiers, their commanders and politicians back home was to turn a blind eye. We have all heard of the bravery of SAS soldier Willie Apiata in Afghanistan when he carried a wounded comrade to safety while under fire. It’s a pity such bravery did not extend to New Zealanders standing up to the US for the most basic rights of the suspects they had captured.

That there were breaches of international law is clear. And such breaches mean our soldiers could be guilty of war crimes.

Prime Minister Helen Clark showed no courage. She was asked at the time to protest about the murder of two detainees in US custody in Afghanistan when this was publicised but she refused. She also refused to confirm or deny what the SAS were doing in Afghanistan.

Subsequently we sent a PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) of army personnel and since then we have been regularly treated to good news stories about the great work these soldiers have been doing in rebuilding schools and health clinics. Warm fuzzies all round. It’s been so successful as a public relations exercise that most New Zealanders want the PRT to stay despite John Key’s intention to end the mission.

It shouldn’t have gone in the first place. It may come as a surprise to many that there are lots of builders, electricians, plumbers and drainlayers in Afghanistan. The $180 million we have spent keeping the PRT there would have been much better spent channelled via non-governmental organisation to give the work to local Afghans to do the building for themselves. The money would have stretched a lot further to build a lot more schools etc.

Alongside closing the PRT mission John Key wants to send SAS troops to the country again. In the coming days and weeks he will tell us we need to be there to prevent the country becoming a terrorist haven.

We shouldn’t buy into this redeployment. For the past eight years we have helped the US turn Afghanistan from a terrorist haven to a terrorist incubator with the starting point for terror in the first place being US foreign policy.

The invasion and occupation of the country has been a disaster. The US and its allies are losing a war they should never have started. We should get out and stay out. Better late than never.