Funerals are for the living

Funerals have come a long way since I was a boy. I was often called out of school to perform the role of altar boy at funeral services for local Catholic parishioners in South Dunedin and they were all similar mundane affairs.

The casket was there of course but always closed. There was never a eulogy and just a few references to the person by name during the service but without any personality attached. The purpose of the service followed the purpose of life which was to prepare for death. Once the grim reaper came calling the task was to pray for the soul of the deceased to be delivered via a merciful God to the joys of heaven rather than the eternal damnation of hell.

It’s hard to generalize from South Dunedin but it seems such experiences were similar across the country – in pakeha communities at least.

Nowadays however things are much healthier. Largely released from a one-dimensional view of death even traditional religious services are now more a celebration of life than a dirge for the dead. People grieve openly with laughter and tears as they share publicly their recollections and anecdotes of the life of the deceased.

Other positive changes have rubbed off from Maori and Irish culture. Often now the body will be taken back to the family home to lie in an open casket in the days before the service. Relatives, friends and neighbours pay their respects formally and informally while the daily routines of life continue.

One recent development I’m not a fan of is the printing of T-shirts with an image of the deceased person by which to show a public display of remembrance. It seems to me a bit tacky. Remembering is surely just that – what each of us takes away from the service with our personal memories and the shared recollections of others rather than putting on a display for strangers.

All this came to mind as I attended a relative’s funeral in Napier last weekend. He was an 89 year old much loved uncle from my childhood. Last Wednesday he biked to the local fish and chip shop to get a meal for himself and my auntie. When the order was ready the shop owner noticed he appeared asleep and tried to rouse him but to no effect. CPR was performed on the shop floor and an ambulance was called but a history of heart problems meant it was a fruitless exercise.

There was unanimous agreement in the family that it was a great way to go. A more kiwi passing would be hard to find.

The funeral notice used an Anzac Day photo of him as an old soldier at the Napier dawn parade which had appeared on the front page of Hawkes Bay Today a couple of years previously. As he had every year before he’d turned up in his medals to take part in a service to remember his fellow soldiers who died fighting fascism in Europe.

My uncle’s service was more traditional than “modern” as he specifically requested no eulogy.

Because he was an old soldier the Returned Services Association organised the playing of the last post and members of the Marist Third Order of Mary paid their own prayerful tribute to an unassuming New Zealander who was helpful, compassionate and forever self-effacing.

After the service at the graveside the family pitched in to fill the grave. Several shovels, including his own, were shared around. Having done this at several funerals in recent years I think it’s a more helpful way than most in saying a final goodbye.

Ironically he’d been at a funeral service for another old soldier just the day before his death and had come home to discuss his own funeral arrangements with my auntie. Just four days later he was buried in the grave next to the burial he’d attended earlier in the week.

He’d never had children but made up for it as a loved uncle to so many as well as a scout leader with a big, appreciative reputation.

The fish and chip shop is in Napier’s poorest neighbourhood and as people gathered they were turned away at the door by a police officer. The policeman told the family later that all the local kids said they knew the old man and they said he’d always spoken to them the same – meaning it was always kindly and respectfully. A small thing perhaps but one which carried a significant experience for the kids.

As in all deaths his legacy remains with the living.


Domebusters provide better security than the SAS

It’s disappointing that despite the events of last week most New Zealanders wouldn’t know of Katharine Gun.

I’m not aware of her name appearing anywhere in mainstream newspapers or radio and yet she gave crucial evidence in the Wellington District Court last week in the case of the three ploughshares activists charged with slashing one of the satellite dish covers at the Waihopai spybase.

Gun worked for the British equivalent of our GCSB (Government Communications Security Bureau) and in early 2003 she leaked a memo showing how the network of spybases, of which Waihopai is a part, was being used to build pressure for the war on Iraq and undermine opposition to US plans from other UN security council members.

The leaked memo was from Frank Koza, head of regional targets at America’s National Security Agency and it requested the network to mount “surge” of surveillance on the diplomatic communications of UN Security Council members. Koza said the countries to be targeted particularly were Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Mexico, Guinea and Pakistan. These were the so-called ‘middle six’ delegations whose votes were being fought over by the US and Britain on the one hand who wanted war on Iraq and France, China and Russia who wanted more weapons inspections.

Koza also requested any information which could be gleaned on the domestic communications of non-UN Security Council members containing anything relating to the Security Council. He said the Americans wanted information on “negotiating positions, alliances and dependencies”.

Charges against Katharine Gun for leaking the memo were eventually dropped and last week she gave affidavit evidence in Wellington pointing out how Waihopai and the other spybases in the network were working with the US to spy on diplomats from other countries, undermine opposition to an illegal war and abuse the democratic principles on which the United Nations was founded.

Helen Clark was Prime Minister at the time and would have been unaware of Waihopai engaging in this support for the war despite official government opposition to the invasion. We can say that with confidence because even former Prime Minister David Lange, who approved the building of the base back in the 1980s, said it wasn’t until a decade after the base was built that he realized its purpose after reading Nicky Hagar’s 1996 book Secret Power.

It seems clear the base is run by New Zealand security officials who see their duty to support US interests ahead of the national interest of New Zealand.

So where was any of this covered by the mainstream media? Where were the questions being asked about the role of the base? Or about democratic control over what it does? Or in whose interests it is run?

If this had been a grisly murder we’d have had wall to wall television coverage with evidence reported in gruesome detail. Instead we had coverage on the opening day and then the jury verdict nine days later.

Small wonder then that the public reaction to the verdict was shock, surprise and sometimes horror. I wasn’t at the trial but having read reports from those who attended throughout the trial,  the jury verdict was the logical, just result.

The media let the public down badly. Not only that but we then had the spectacle of a range of newspaper editorials and media commentators such as Paul Holmes writing the most extraordinary drivel from a position of absolute ignorance. Having not followed the issue for 10 days Holmes, who likes to be considered one of New Zealand’s top current affairs journalists, clearly had no conception of the issues. “They look like silly undergraduates who have never grown up” was his supposedly insightful conclusion.

Similarly most of the media didn’t even get to first base in explaining to the public what was going on. The most common conclusion seemed to be the men were honest and sincere but naïve and misguided.

One newspaper, while ignoring Katharine Gun’s evidence altogether gave great weight to the views of a minor US official who suggested the attack on the base was supporting the likes of Al Qaeda and the Taleban. This woeful comment ignores the fact the US faces terrorist threats precisely because its foreign policy has abused so many peoples of the world for so long in demands for their resources. By tying us into US foreign policy Waihopai itself poses a significant terrorist threat to New Zealand.

Despite the shallow, inaccurate, reporting and idle commentary many more New Zealanders will now look at the satellite domes and government assurances with a healthier scepticism. If it worked for Dave Lange it can work for anyone.

I’ve always had more respect for those who work hard to prevent war than for those who fight them. That’s why I think the three Waihopai domebusters and people such as Katharine Gun have much more to contribute to New Zealand security than Willie Apiata or the SAS in Afghanistan.


Supercity contracts out democracy to the private sector

The dangers in the ACT/National coalition agreement are becoming clearer by the day.

The agreement goes well past maximising ACT’s 3.5% electoral support. As part of the arrangement ACT Leader Rodney Hide got himself one of the most influential cabinet roles as Minister of Local Government ahead of the development of the so-called Auckland supercity.

Up till now the focus on democracy has been how the councillors will be elected. Firstly ACT vetoed guaranteed Maori representation on the council but supported the proposal for eight councillors to be elected at large alongside just 12 elected from local wards. This proposal was eventually defeated as it would have given huge preference to the electoral grouping with the most funds and therefore greatest ability to campaign across the region. In Auckland’s case this is the ACT/National/business lobby which campaigns as Citizens and Ratepayers.

The focus has now shifted to ACT’s most audacious attack on local democracy.

The new structure proposes seven CCOs (Council Controlled Organisations) to run 75% of Auckland’s local body services leaving elected councillors to twiddle their thumbs on the sidelines.

The directors of each CCO would be appointed, initially at least, by none other than Rodney Hide himself. I’ll leave readers to guess the type of appointees we can expect.

These CCOs will control how the majority of ratepayers money is spent but without democratic accountability. The proposed transport CCO for example will spend over half the new council’s ratepayer income without even needing to publish minutes of its meetings which can be held behind closed doors. Despite what Rodney Hide and Minister of Transport Stephen Joyce assert, there is at best only nominal accountability to ratepayers through CCOs.

A couple of years back I had a personal experience of just how high-handed and arrogant these CCOs can be after a dispute with Metrowater which runs the retail arm of Auckland City’s water supply. I had challenged how the organisation calculated water use for our property but to no avail. The senior management refused to even meet to discuss the issue so eventually I attended a meeting of the city council’s Finance and Corporate Business Committee which had responsibility for Metrowater. I explained our situation and answered questions from committee members who had also received a report from Metrowater on the issue. I asked the committee to require Metrowater to attend mediation to sort out the dispute. A long discussion followed about whether or not the committee was able to require the CCO do so. The council Chief Executive said it was not legally possible for the council to interfere in Metrowater’s management of the business.

Eventually the majority of the committee took my side and voted to recommend the CCO agree to mediation. This was as far as they were allowed to go but I assumed the moral weight of the council sub-committee would get Metrowater to the table even if the council lacked the legal authority to require this CCO to do so.

How wrong I was. Metrowater wrote to me following the council recommendation and flatly refused to attend mediation. In an act of unaccountable corporate arrogance they gave me and the council committee the fingers. It was only after publicity that Metrowater eventually agreed to sort it out.

The proposed CCOs are also the organisations which will hold most of the $28 billion of Auckland’s local community assets and we can expect them to work hard to prepare these assets for privatisation. Auckland Regional Council Chair Mike Lee says these CCOs could “…set up companies, sell assets and enter into major financial commitments without the approval of Auckland Council, even where the transactions may leave the council with significant liabilities or commitments”.

All this would be done by unelected directors without democratic accountability. Our local body democracy is being contracted out to those who will do the bidding of business. The transport CCO for example will have roads, roads and more roads as their top three priorities while public transport will again be sidelined.

The government is backing Hide with National’s Minister of Transport Stephen Joyce working alongside the ACT leader to force these proposals through.

Joyce is best remembered as the National Party campaign manager at the 2005 election who co-ordinated the secret Exclusive Brethren support for National’s campaign to have Don Brash elected Prime Minister. We can’t expect much respect for democracy here.

These ACT/National proposals are so extreme that even the Auckland Chamber of Commerce and mayoral candidate John Banks have expressed reservations so they don’t get caught on the wrong side of the debate when a significant public backlash develops.

It’s a case of the ACT tail wagging the Auckland supercity dog and dog is as good a term as any to describe what would pass for local body democracy under these proposals.


Death sentence for more New Zealand kids

Act MP David Garrett’s suggestion the government pay bad parents to be sterilized will resonate with a lot of people.

Like all of us Garrett says he’s concerned at the numbers of children abused and killed each year in New Zealand and suggests a $5,000 incentive to such parents who agree to a vasectomy or tubal ligation.

He uses a straight economic argument. It would be cheaper to pay for the operations and a cash incentive than pay for state care for the children of parents unlikely to cope. Moreover he thinks it would decrease the numbers of our kids murdered and abused each year. He uses the parents of the Kahui twins as examples.

It’s a crude proposal with the germ of a good idea. Along with free contraceptives, freely available vasectomies or tubal ligations should be part of state provided health services.

However incentivising such operations for particular people would be preaching from a high horse and do nothing to counter child abuse. Violence towards children so often comes from other family members besides parents. We would be entering the same league as that where cash changes hands for the donation of a kidney in some countries. In both cases human beings with minimal economic resources are placed at the mercy of markets. Like ACT’s three strikes policy Barrett’s idea is a simplistic, slogan-driven proposal.

By focusing on the symptoms of the problem Garrett misses the main point. There will never be an excuse for mistreatment or murder of children but there’s also no excuse for anyone to close their eyes to the cause.

It’s now well documented that not only is child abuse more prevalent in countries with bigger gaps between rich and poor, such as New Zealand, but that there is a direct causal link between income inequality and social breakdown. It’s not how poor you are that counts but how much further down the social gradient you are compared with others in the same country. Destructive, anti-social behavior blossoms when a significant section of the population feels it has no place in the mainstream and when every political message and economic policy from Garrett and politicians like him rams it home. Garrett would call this the politics of envy but it’s the social effects of marginalization and alienation.

I’ve mentioned before in this column the stunning research carried out by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett which shows the positive co-relation between income inequality and the level of social problems and a direct causal link between the two. Countries such as New Zealand and the US with high income differences have enormous social problems which includes high rates of child abuse, neglect and murder of innocents. Countries such as Japan, Norway and Sweden have similar levels of average wealth but much lower income differences between rich and poor and therefore much lower rates of child abuse and murder. It’s the same for educational achievement, life expectancy, imprisonment rates, teenage pregnancy and mental health etc.

In their book The Spirit Level the researchers go a step further to show that everyone, rich and poor alike, benefit from a more equal society.

Another point worth noting is that birth rates among the poor are always higher than the well-off anywhere in the world. It’s been the same throughout the history of human existence as has the somewhat ironic fact that birth rates drop when living standards rise.

My parents generation tended to have large families while their better off offspring have had much smaller families. The secret to population control and preventing child abuse is not forced or incentivized sterilizations but improving the standard of living of the poorest sections of a community.

Right-wing politicians like Garrett are unlikely to ever read The Spirit Level. Instead it’s easier to vent at the hapless alienated individuals caught up in appalling behavior towards helpless infants.

Similarly talkback radio hosts who think in one-dimensional comic-book slogans are happy to condemn further generations of children to brutality by railing against the symptoms while supporting policies which exacerbate the causes.

It’s no surprise David Garrett pushes for government policies which would increase the gaps between rich and poor and push more New Zealand families off the cliff into dehumanizing poverty with its appalling consequences for children.

Just look at looming government policies which will increase GST while providing a tax windfall to the rich. Bill English’s budget will be a death sentence for more New Zealand kids while Garrett and others celebrate their personal good fortune.

Telecom: bastard offspring of the market

The story of Telecom is the story of New Zealand.

I’m not just talking about events of the past month but the tale of the company and the country since Telecom was privatised in 1990. Telecom is struggling for the same reason our national economy is struggling. Market values have replaced the values of service and citizenship.

It might seem strange to people under 35 that the government ever ran a telecommunications network. But it did, and it did so competently. The service wasn’t flashy but it was brilliant compared to what Telecom has offered. Accountability came through elected ministers who knew service breakdown meant their heads were on the block.

20 years ago the failures of the past month would have seen politicians grilled mercilessly on radio and TV. Not now. Who knows the name of the minister responsible for telecommunications? The government has been all but invisible and we are left with the bereft figure of an unelected Scotsman apologising repeatedly to the public for the multiple failures of a major communications network and the collapse of the 111 emergency call system.

Democratic accountability through the rights of citizenship has been replaced by the rights of consumers in the marketplace. If we don’t like the service we can change providers. Except for 111…

Telecom’s present troubles go back to its inception and the running of the company for shareholders rather than phone users.

Writing in 2004 economist Bill Rosenberg summed up the main issues:

Telecom’s overseas owners have failed to live up to the promise of making new technology available to New Zealanders… They have sacked thousands of employees and have extracted billions from New Zealand in profits and capital, while over-charging for services (such as broadband networking to the home) …using every possible means to keep out the competitors who would not have been necessary had it been providing a decent service. From 1995 to 2004 it paid out more than its net earnings in dividends (reported earnings of NZ$6,464 million and dividends paid out of NZ$6,698 million), for most of that time, its capital expenditure barely covering reported depreciation. It was running down its assets.

The same problem continues today.

The company has worked hard to keep out competition and New Zealanders were slow to get new technological developments and when they arrived they were expensive. Former Board member Rod Deane explained in a biography how the company employed over 90 lawyers. Don’t think these bods were there to keep the phones running. They were there to fight any attempts at government regulation and to thereby maintain what until recently has been a private monopoly.

It’s also worth remembering the revealing words of former Telecom CEO Theresa Gattung who admitted deliberately deceiving Telecom customers while speaking to a meeting of financial analysts in early 2006:

“Think about pricing. What has every telco in the world done in the past? It’s used confusion as its chief marketing tool. And that’s fine,” she said. “You could argue that that’s how all of us keep calling prices up and get those revenues, high-margin businesses, keep them going for a lot longer than would have been the case.

But at some level, whether they consciously articulate it or not, customers know that’s what the game has been. They know we’re not being straight up.”

Knowing you’ve been screwed by Telecom is a familiar feeling for New Zealanders.

Just last year the company forced its maintenance employees to become dependent contractors. These workers now pay for their own tools and vans and must rely totally on calls from Telecom to attend maintenance callouts. The workers are now on much lower incomes while the company is absolved from the provisions of the Employment Relations Act such as providing sick leave and annual leave. Meanwhile the Telecom CEO is the highest paid person in the country – $7 million last year.

The national economy has suffered the same hollowing out as Telecom. The private sector has cannibalised the profitable parts of the economy and left us heavily in debt. Workers are on low wages, facing higher taxes and lower levels of government-provided services while the country searches for capital for investment.

If Telecom was still publicly owned we’d have politicians baying for blood and the likes of Rodney Hide squealing like a stuck pig and demanding accountability.

The disgruntled workers at the Philippines call centre who texted “f**k you” to New Zealand Telecom customers a couple of weeks back missed their target. They should have been communicating with the hapless Scotsman and our free market cheerleaders in Wellington.