The loss of Sue Bradford

Sue Bradford will be a big loss from parliament. Her decision to resign after 10 years as a Green MP removes the strongest voice for the most vulnerable groups in New Zealand.

It’s not a case of another MP stepping up to fill her shoes. There is no-one. Amongst other Green MPs there are sincerely-held concerns about social injustice but they tend to be at a more intellectual level. With Sue it’s about the unvarnished, gritty reality of life for the marginalised. She has her feet close to the ground and advocates with more passion and purpose than anyone else in parliament.

In the last few days her parliamentary career has been summed up with three achievements via the private members bills she introduced and navigated through to law; the divisive Section 59 law change which gives children the same protection from violence as adults; allowing mothers in prison to keep their babies with them for longer and raising the minimum youth wage to the same as the adult minimum.

These are significant achievements but her greatest influence has been in keeping issues of unemployment, worker rights and children in poverty to the forefront. Her mere presence will have cautioned Labour against moving even further to the right and will be having a similar tempering effect on National. If there is such a thing as a parliamentary conscience then Sue Bradford is as close as it gets.

Taking her parliamentary place will be David Clendon who says environmentalism and social justice are two sides of the same coin. This is fair enough but where will the determined advocacy come from?

It’s true the Maori Party MPs also speak with passion for low-income families and they were instrumental earlier this year in having the minimum wage increased by 50c to $12.50 However their strategy focuses on gains for Maori and through Maori institutions. This doesn’t extend across the board to all low-income families and for Maori not connected to their tribal roots little can be expected to change.

Sue Bradford’s resignation shows in sharp relief just how unrepresentative our parliament really is. We often debate Maori representation or how many women MPs we should have but what about worker representation? Or beneficiary representation? Based on our national profile we should have about 7 MPs from amongst the unemployed and half our parliamentarians from jobs earning less than the median income of around $39,000 per annum. I doubt there would be more than five percent of current MPs in that category and not a single MP would have entered parliament from a job paying less than $15 an hour despite 450,000 New Zealanders being in this category.

Our parliament is dominated by professionals, intellectuals and business people many of whom sniffily comment they have had to take a pay cut to come to parliament. I’d hazard a guess that around 90% of MPs entered parliament from jobs in the top 30% of incomes. The result is a parliament of the well-off, by the well-off and for the well-off.

The main parties don’t seem to worry and political debate revolves around the notion that’s what’s good for business is good for New Zealanders. This has never been the case and never will be.

When times are good for business we have booming profits and low wages as we saw over the past decade under Labour. Then in the recession we have redundancies, pay cuts and shortened hours. Either way the lowest paid suffer the most and yet have no effective parliamentary representation. The big parties are there for the middle class while low-income workers are expected to shut up and be grateful.

I can hear a chorus of voices saying we need so-called “successful” people to represent the country in parliament. Democracy says otherwise. I also hear the suggestion that those on low incomes should form their own political parties to advocate for economic change. This is easier said than done because of the huge costs associated with political campaigning. We won’t see a host of corporate donations going in that direction.

We have a deeply distorted system of representation which is government for the corporate and the comfortable. And that is why Sue Bradford’s voice has been so unique and so important. Prior to her election as an MP she was a spokesperson for the unemployed and has spoken out more strongly and consistently than any other MP on behalf of the growing proportion of the population who are struggling.

Auckland Mayoral candidate Len Brown says he’d welcome the chance to work with Sue on the new Auckland super city council to be elected next year. It would be good if she agreed.


Michael Laws and the charge of the anti PC brigade

Whanganui mayor Michael Laws will always be the froth on top of the wave; bubbling, hissing and occasionally roaring but with little substance.

His claims of racism against the Geographical Board early in the week over the proposal to include the ‘h’ in Whanganui were matched later in the week with his foam-flecked ranting against groups calling for an increase in welfare benefits to ease the lives of families living on the breadline.

It’s populist politics with a dark steak of racism. Whether it’s Maori gang members wearing patches, Maori children writing to criticize his stance on the name of the city or ugly statistics of levels of child abuse in Maori families the Laws answer is the same. He says Maori are to blame and they should fix up their social problems before they dare venture into public debate.

It’s a venal attitude. He may as well blame Pakeha for Clayton Weatherston’s crime. Such intolerance and a ruthless refusal to engage in argument above self-righteous sloganeering are the hallmarks of the anti-PC brigade of which Laws is the unelected leader.

Being anti-PC is the current political fashion. It avoids taking responsibility for anything outside one’s immediate self and family. It says each individual is responsible for their actions and their circumstances and ignores the context within which social problems fester. It absolves the guilty and condemns the rest. It blames the victims for their predicament and pours abuse on anyone who points to the elephant in the room which is our economic policy.

The brigade has a stronghold in the Sensible Sentencing Trust which feeds cynically on public anger at appalling crimes and serves up various vengeance-focused policies which are as outrageously expensive as they are ineffective. Again there is no need for thinking; no point in looking for causes, reasons or explanations for crime. Crime is crime they say and we need more prisons and longer sentences. End of story. Compassion is the dirtiest word in their vocabulary.

Lots of good people have been drawn into supporting the brigade and as the social gradient continues to steepen it will thrive as fear increases among working New Zealanders that they could themselves slip down the economic ladder. At other times in history this fear has provided the foot-soldiers for fascism.

It’s a grim picture of poverty, struggle and strife in a land of plenty.

It’s ironic that the people Michael Laws rails against are the victims of policies he championed as a National MP and then New Zealand First politician. There’s no need to detail them here. Suffice to say they make the Sheriff of Nottingham look like a do-gooder.

Despite unemployment rising and poverty deepening for families the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich continues and there is not a glimmer of hope for any significant change in direction. Take the debate about capital gains tax for example. It’s been directionless and hopeless. We are the only significant developed country which does not have such a tax. Australia, the US and UK which we like to compare ourselves with all have one but despite the fact we face economic problems from regular housing bubbles there is no political impetus for change. Even Treasury supports such a tax but John Key is unmoved. It seems we are paralyzed with political inertia because so many politicians are themselves property speculators who refuse to countenance a tax which would hit them in the pocket but help make homes more affordable.

The combination of leadership by the wealthy for the wealthy and the fear of working New Zealanders falling behind in the recession is fertile ground for the likes of the anti-PC brigade who have a ready-made group to blame for our growing social dysfunction.

Last week the New Zealand Christian Council for Social Services released a report revealing we have 219,000 children now living in poverty – up 20,000 in the last year. One in six children born in New Zealand this year will be born into poverty.

Executive officer for the NZCCSS Trevor McGlinchey says children whose parents or sole parent receive welfare assistance were far more likely to live in poverty.

“If you were not taking any notice you would think New Zealand was full of happy, healthy kids, wouldn’t you? But no, it’s not the case. There are a couple of hundred thousand kids in NZ whose next meal is not guaranteed.”

There was a time when New Zealanders led the world with policies which promoted dignity and respect for everyone. However to the extent it once existed the decent society is gone.


Déjà vu with Labour

We’ve seen it all before.

In the aftermath of an election defeat Labour apologises to the country for getting its priorities wrong. New leader Phil Goff says it should have put people, families and communities at the centre of its policies but allowed itself to be sidetracked with so-called nanny-state policies of energy saving light bulbs, efficient showerheads and discouraging parents from smacking their kids.

According to Goff the party lost because it gave the impression it had taken its eye off the ball. But no-one should worry says Phil. Labour is now getting refocused and back on track with the things they do best.

The last time the party took stock like this was after its election defeat in 1990. At that time it had spent six years ripping the heart out of the economy; privatising state assets; reducing tax on the rich; kneecapping the manufacturing sector; increasing unemployment; destroying the welfare state; commercialising public services; enriching its friends and betraying the people who voted for the opposite of what the party delivered. Not bad for a two-term Labour government.

The latest apology simple starts the cycle of betrayal again. Labour activists are moving back to “reconnect” with community groups. After nine years of silence on the back benches Labour MPs now show up on marches and address rallies calling for policies they spent nine years in government ignoring.

Labour now apparently supports a capital gains tax, compulsory redundancy payments for workers, cuts to electricity prices, curbs on loan sharks, better funding for adult and community education and a decent start in life for our kids.

Just as it did after its 1990 election loss Labour is once more positioning itself as the champion of working New Zealanders. But next time it’s elected it will produce another pledge card with six promises, do them in the first few months and then revert to managing the market-economy on behalf of the corporate sector. This is now the stock-in-trade Labour Party approach. It became so obvious in its last term in government that Labour was frequently outflanked on the left by National.

Goff’s apology was for the wrong things.

Why not apologise for policies which saw company profits rise at twice the rate of workers’ wages? Why not an apology to the 220,000 children still living in poverty after three terms of Labour? Or the increase in pokie machines from 14,000 to 23,000 leaching the life from low-income communities? What about the failure of public television to deliver less than 90% rubbish? Or the failure to fund schools so every child gets a fair go? What about apologising for the much less-equal society we have now than before Labour took office?

Goff ignores the big failures and says his refocused Labour Party will be putting jobs, the economy and giving children the best possible start in life at the top of the list while focusing on what he thinks Labour is best at – health, education and social policy.

Don’t hold your breath. Goff spent his nine years in the Labour cabinet trying to out do National and ACT on law and order. He introduced numerous irrational policies in the justice and corrections area which have saddled the country with a rapidly growing prison population at an unsustainable cost.

But surely Labour did some good things? Goff highlighted the best as including Kiwisaver, Working for Families, tax relief and lowering unemployment. Unfortunately none of these stand scrutiny.

Kiwisaver began the privatisation of government superannuation. It gives the biggest benefits to those on the highest incomes while reducing government responsibility to provide retirement income through taxation. Tax relief under Labour was likewise delivered more to the wealthy than those on low incomes who continue to struggle.

Working for Families did make a positive difference for many but it only came towards the end of the second term of government and for many families it has been too little, too late. And because it excludes support to children whose families receive benefits, we still have hundreds of thousands of kids living in poverty.

It’s true that unemployment decreased under Labour but this disguises the fact that job growth has been in insecure, low-paid, casualised jobs in the service sector with no guaranteed hours of work. Neatly camouflaging this problem, Labour declared a person working just one hour per week would no longer be recorded as unemployed.

And so the Labour political cycle begins again. In its last two governments Labour used the votes of the poor to advance policies for the rich. Don’t expect any difference next time.


Social deniers dominate debate on kids

It says a lot about how distorted our view of children has become that another report highly critical of how we treat our kids disappeared from the media in just 24 hours last week.

The report, Doing Better for Children, was the first time the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development had reported on the wellbeing of children across 30 developed countries.

It’s a dismal read. We spend just half the amount other countries spend on children under five. We have low family incomes, high child mortality and high child poverty rates.

The OECD says our government should be spending a lot more on younger, deprived kids as well as ensuring we meet the needs of older disadvantaged children.

The lack of media interest is probably a reflection that plenty of other reports have delivered similar messages in recent years. The New Zealand Family Violence Commission says between 2000 and 2004 39 kiwi kids were murdered while a 2007 Unicef overview of child wellbeing in developed countries said New Zealand and the US are the worst countries for deaths for under-19-year-olds by accidents, murder, suicide and violence.

The list goes on. Most of us grew up to believe New Zealand was a great place to raise kids but what was once a source of pride is now just a discarded urban myth.

So where have we gone wrong with our kids? Why the big difference in attitudes between now and a generation ago?

The reason is simply that the debate on children has been hijacked by the same lobby which brought us the destructive economic policies of the past 25 years. These are the people who declared war on the welfare state in the 1980s and through a combination of free market policies drove hundreds of thousands of New Zealand families into poverty.

This lobby has successfully blamed rising social problems on the families they consigned to poverty.

This was nicely illustrated in the minor media storm around Whanganui mayor Michael Laws last week and his bullying letters to Maori students from a local intermediate school who dared to criticise his views over the spelling of the town’s name.

The pompous mayor got on his high horse and berated the kids. He did it because they were Maori. He said they should get serious with issues such as child abuse among Maori rather than worry about the spelling of the town’s name.

Yes the rates of child abuse among Maori are much higher but this is less a race issue than a reflection that Maori make up a much higher proportion of families living in poverty.

There is now a wealth of robust research which dispels the myths about social issues such as child abuse, health, education, crime, violence, teenage pregnancy and drug abuse. These problems arise directly from income inequality and have exploded in New Zealand because the gap between rich and poor has become a chasm.

We had a timely reminder of this last week with the news Telecom CEO Paul Reynolds took home over $5 million in salary and bonuses last year.

In 2000 a chief executive earned about eight times the average wage but by 2006 this had more than doubled to nineteen times. Now in 2009 we have the Telecom CEO earning 100 times the average wage.

With figures like these it’s no surprise we have among the highest income inequality in the developed world and soaring social problems. Policies which drive families into poverty through no fault of their own are policies which demoralise, dehumanise and alienate whole communities.

It’s no surprise that Laws was a National Party MP when these destructive economic policies were enthusiastically pushed through parliament. Having set vulnerable families up to fail Laws and his fellow travellers now blame them for the problems he helped create.

He has become a social-denier, barking madly up the wrong tree. All sound and fury but ineffectual in helping anyone except himself and his talk-back ratings.

Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia summed up the best place to start in dealing with our rampant social problems. She advocates removing GST from healthy foods, extending the in-work tax credit to families of the unemployed, making the first $25000 of income tax free and lifting the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Further on we should be introducing a capital gains tax on all but the family home, a financial transactions tax, steep death duties and abolishing GST altogether.

There are no excuses for child abuse but there are no excuses either for ignoring the reason we are no longer a great country to raise kids.


Welcoming the storm of outrage

Energy and Resources Minister Gerry Brownlee knew he’d provoke a storm of outrage with his plans to open up conservation land for mining companies.

His announcement came out of the blue at a speech he gave to the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy in Queenstown last week where he said he wanted to unlock billions of dollars in mineral assets held in our national parks and other land under Department of Conservation control.

He had his sound bites ready by way of defence. The government didn’t intend to dig up our national parks he said and that what was proposed was just a stocktake of what minerals were where. Conservation Minister Tim Groser was more honest when he chimed in saying “If you can extract wealth from that [conservation land], that’s what we should do.”

This minister, who is charged with protecting our natural heritage, then expressed surprise at the reaction of environmental groups. Opposition to the plan was “emotional hysteria” and people should “just calm down”. He said that when words like “rape” and “pillage” are used people should just take a deep breath. Like hell.

These ministers are softening us up to believe the mining of minerals in our conservation estate is a justifiable way to increase economic growth and bring economic benefits to the country.

I’m pleased at the strong reaction. The conservation movement has come a long way since government attempts to raise the level of Lake Manapouri back in the 1970s created the first nationwide environmental fightback. Middle-aged and older New Zealanders will remember the line from the protest song “Dam the dam cried the fantail”. It was the beginning of a community struggle to protect the land we hold in trust for future generations.

At the heart of this government policy is the false belief that economic growth is the path to prosperity and that if we let the likes of mining companies pillage and plunder the country (no apology for the words Mr Groser) we will all be better off.

For a country like New Zealand economic growth is no longer the path to prosperity. Compelling research from the book “The Spirit Level” shows that once a country’s average income rises to around $25,000 the benefits of growth level off such that there is no further improvement in indicators such as “happiness” or improving life expectancy. Underdeveloped countries have a way to go but for countries like New Zealand we can no longer expect improving income levels to improve our lives in any meaningful way.

The problem for countries such as ours is the gross inequality in incomes. Last week Telecom CEO Paul Reynolds made the headlines with his $5 million income from salary and bonuses while Rob Fyfe of Air New Zealand gets a similar multi-million dollar package. Meanwhile we have families whose income is based on 60 hours plus per week but who struggle to meet basic living expenses.

New Zealand needs to shift focus to more evenly distribute wealth as the only way to improve the quality of life for everyone and dramatically reduce our growing social problems. If New Zealand were to reduce its income inequality to the levels of countries such as Japan, Norway, Sweden and Finland we could expect child poverty to disappear and the serious social problems which bedevil the country (such as drug and alcohol abuse, education underachievement, obesity, teenage pregnancy etc) to be dramatically reduced.

This should be the challenge for Gerry Brownlee and Tim Groser but they want us to believe economic growth is the only way to improve our lives. They are wrong. Improving the quality of life for everyone relies on sharing the cake more fairly by changing the way we value the work people do.

We should have learnt this many times over by now. Most recently we had eight years of strong economic growth under Labour but still finished with close to 200,000 children still living below the poverty line.

It’s also worth pointing to the huge challenge of global warming from rampant exploitation of the world’s resources. Soothing the way for mining in our national parks is part of the same brain-dead thinking of politicians in thrall to the corporate sector and addicted to growth.

For our economic, environmental and social wellbeing proposals such as this must be fought. It won’t be persuasion which changes Gerry Brownlee and Tim Groser. It will be people organising together to stop them.

Doing the rounds on the internet is the suggestion Gerry Brownlee be emailed with the words “Just you dare” in the subject line. I’ve sent one off.