Columns published in the Press

Thanks for visiting the website. Below are my columns published in the Christchurch Press from January 2006 to June 2010. You can find them all using the archive directory on the right hand side of this page.

Until late 2010 I wrote a blog on the Fairfax website which you can access here http://www.stuff.co.nz/business/blogs/frontline

Since then I’ve written a few posts for the Scoop website here http://auckland.scoop.co.nz/ but shortly ( late March 2011) will begin a regular up-to-date blog on this site.

Regards,

John Minto

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Schools are the defenders of our kids education

We should warmly congratulate New Zealand primary school principals and teachers for their dogged determination to challenge poor educational practice and confront government policies which will damage children’s learning.

I’m talking about the on-going rebelliousness against the government’s so-called national standards in schools. Just when Education Minister Anne Tolley must have thought she had seen off the worst of the opposition the policy is on the ropes again.

The latest attack has come from the Auckland Primary Principals’ Association whose President Iain Taylor has written to principals suggesting they boycott the Ministry of Education’s training to implement the standards. This has created another round of ripples which show principals and teachers throughout New Zealand are prepared to boldly defend our kids’ education.

Anne Tolley is right to say New Zealand has an educational crisis. She says the long tail of under achievement is a disgrace and that she’s determined to tackle it. Sounds good so far. She goes on to say national standards will identify under achieving children and enable schools to work with parents to get their children up to speed.

But behind these sound bites the policy can’t deliver. Her approach won’t lift achievement and will cause significant collateral damage along the way.

Identifying under achieving children has never been the problem. Every teacher can tell which students are falling behind and the interventions they need to help bring them up to speed. What’s missing are the resources: smaller classes; extra teacher support in classrooms; quality professional development and additional government funding to enrich all our kids’ educational experiences. None of this is on offer. In fact despite national standards being the cornerstone of National’s education policy there is no new funding for schools – it’s expected to be done within existing, poorly-funded school budgets.

Worse still the policy takes no account of how children actually learn and will de-motivate huge numbers of kids by labelling them failures at an early age. And because these standards will have high stakes for schools there will be the inevitable narrowing of the curriculum as schools cut out wider experiences in favour of “teaching to the tests” in numeracy and literacy.

And underlining all the ministerial handwringing is the ugly truth that the long tail of underachievement is the long tail of poverty and that the solution, as it is with other social problems, is to reduce income inequality. Unfortunately the government is doing the opposite.

The latest attack on national standards has come via a principal who was a former cheerleader for National’s bulk funding policies for schools in the 1990’s. Now as head of decile one Manurewa Intermediate School, Iain Taylor told school parents in the March school newsletter:

“I have now developed some serious misgivings; over and above the few I did have ie. the fact that National Standards could well narrow the curriculum with schools focusing on only Literacy and Numeracy. This is more paramount in my mind as I sit here in the beautiful sunshine looking out to sea from Motutapu Island where I have been all week enjoying the challenge and fun of our school wide Survival Camp. These are the experiences that kids remember and are important learning steps from everyone and it is these activities I would hate to see go from our schools as our curriculum focus becomes so narrow with testing, assessing and evaluating too much.

“I am constantly reminded and have been even more so at camp as I watch students who suddenly ‘click’ – they suddenly make the connections with their prior knowledge – in other words the learning becomes meaningful. This is not dependent on age! It is a developmental ‘happening’ that is about children being ready.

“I believe that national standards compromise this understanding because it puts unnatural pressure and urgency on stages of knowledge that can be unnecessarily traumatic for both teachers and children.”

New Zealand is well served when we have principals and teachers prepared to speak with such clarity about dangerous government policy which in this case focuses more on creating an educational marketplace of winners and losers than lifting achievement and opportunities for all our kids.

So despite every government effort to force this policy through, principals and teachers are in the front line opposing it. They deserve our admiration, respect and support.

This is my last column for the Press. I’ve been doing it for four and a half years and I’ve appreciated the opportunity to put an alternative viewpoint to the dominant corporate agenda.

Thanks to all those who have contacted me to agree or disagree. I’m sorry I haven’t always had the time to respond to everyone but thanks for taking the time to give feedback.

If you’re interested in continuing to follow my commentary on topical issues you’re welcome to visit my blog on the stuff website www.stuff.co.nz

ENDS

Learning from the Cuban experience

Ask most people about Cuba and they’ll tell you it’s a socialist country with Fidel Castro as head, big Cuban cigars, old 1950’s cars and great music courtesy of such groups as the Bueno Vista Social club.

Except for Fidel, who has been replaced as head by his brother Raul, it’s all true but far more important are the brilliant health and education programmes which make this poor country the healthiest and most literate in the world.

It has achieved all this while under severe international pressure from its close neighbour the US which is desperate to stop the country becoming a positive role model for social development. America’s political elites don’t want the tens of millions of their own underprivileged population asking why the wealthiest country in the world can’t provide the same services to everyone as can their poor neighbour.

It’s an American nightmare so a 52-year campaign of misinformation and denigration has run to demonise Cuba and its achievements. The anti-Cuba lobby in the US is probably the second biggest lobby after the pro-Israeli lobby.

Since the overthrow of Cuba’s Batista dictatorship by the Castro-led socialist revolution in 1958 the US has initiated or supported numerous campaigns and terrorist activity aimed to undermine and destabilise the Caribbean country. Cuba’s big neighbour supported the Bay of Pigs invasion where an attack by US-based Cubans was driven off by the organised defence of the Cuban people. It’s all been part of a continuous campaign of misinformation and denigration to paint Cuba as a Caribbean hellhole.

Another good example of US anti-Cuban hysteria was the arrest and imprisonment of five Cubans who had entered America to monitor right-wing extremist groups which have carried out numerous terrorist attacks against Cuba. The US supports and encourages these groups and for this reason these five Cubans entered America to give early warning of potential terror attacks and thwart the groups involved.

However the five men were arrested in 1998 and tried on false charges of “conspiracy to commit espionage” and “conspiracy to commit murder”. They were convicted in a frenzied anti-Cuba atmosphere and given sentences of up to several life terms of imprisonment. It’s easy to see why an international campaign has been underway for their release and has received the support of many high-profile Nobel prize winners, international jurists, politicians, intellectuals and writers.

The Cuban five (Gerado Hernandez, Antonio Guerrero, Ramon Labanino, Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzalez) are patriots and national heroes in Cuba but political scapegoats for a paranoid, hypocritical US government.

Two weeks ago we saw a welcome thawing in Cuban relations with Australia. The Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith hosted Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and spoke warmly of Cuba’s medical aid programme which assists developing countries throughout the world. In East Timor for example Cuba is training hundreds of locals to become doctors.

It’s a similar story throughout the Pacific where countries such as the Solomon Islands receive much needed community medical support from Cuban doctors. In fact Cuba provides no less than 25,000 doctors to 68 developing countries. This unheralded and usually unreported assistance comes without the attached strings which are common in what passes for aid from much closer neighbours such as New Zealand.

Foreign Minister Smith said there was great potential for Australia and Cuba to join forces and help small island states in the Pacific and the Caribbean to boost their medical services.

He said “given Cuba’s world class credentials in the medical training area, given our world class expertise in child and maternal health care, we believe there is potential for us to work together.”

Smith went on to say Australia was looking at assisting Cuba build a medical facility in quake-hit Haiti.

We should expect New Zealand to take a similar attitude to Cuba and work with a country which has far more limited resources than New Zealand and yet manages such high standards of health care at much lower cost. The benefits to Pacific countries are obvious and the bonus for New Zealand would be in learning from Cuba how to defeat third world diseases, particularly in children, which are now endemic in this country.

As Australian doctor Jeannie Ellis told Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recently “Maybe Australia should take a leaf out of the Cuban healthcare system’s book where they have something like $20,000 less per capita and they have exactly the same healthcare indicators as Australia. I’ve lived in Cuba for a long time and I can tell you that they run a very, very good healthcare system and they get a lot of bang for their buck over there.”

With our healthcare system struggling along with decreasing health statistics for the most vulnerable New Zealanders, we can learn a lot from the Cuban experience.

ENDS

Soccer World Cup is not sport as we know it

The Soccer World Cup in South Africa is underway but aside from the enjoyment of the games (Bravo the All Whites!) there is little else to celebrate as the full economic and social cost to the host country is becoming apparent while the predicted long-term benefits are evaporating.

The notoriously ruthless Fifa (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) are calling the shots. They expect to make a profit of over $4 billion while loading the costs onto the South African economy.

10 new or revamped stadiums are being used at a cost of $4.5 billion – much of it wasted. Fifa insisted on a new $400 million stadium for Cape Town instead of upgrading the existing stadium in the so-called coloured township of Athlone because it wanted TV views of Table Mountain, not squatters.

The new Durban stadium – dubbed the “alien’s handbag” tells a similar story. Trevor Phillips, former director of the South African Premier Soccer League asks “what the hell are we going to do with a 70,000 seater football stadium in Durban once the World Cup is over? Durban has two football teams which attract crowds of only a few thousand. It would have been more sensible to have built smaller stadiums nearer the football-loving heartlands and used the surplus funds to have constructed training facilities in the townships.”

However it’s the needs of the sponsors which are paramount rather than the needs of South Africans. Andrew Jennings who wrote the soccer expose Foul says “The unaccountable structure (Fifa have) installed is honed to deliver the game to the needs of global capitalism – with no checks or restraints. Just cheques.”

The poorest and most vulnerable South Africans are expendable. Thousands of homeless people and shack-dwellers have been uprooted and dumped outside cities, informal traders have been banned from soccer venues and in the last few weeks the police have been active suppressing dissent.

Three weeks ago Police Minister Nathi Mthetwa told South Africa’s parliament the government was instituting tough restrictions on democratic rights to “prevent domestic extremism, strike action and service delivery protests” during the world cup.

In an echo of the edicts from the ruling regime in China at the time of the Beijing Olympics Mthetwa told parliament that no protests would be allowed within 10km of any of the soccer stadiums.

Local authorities are putting this suspension of democratic rights into place for Fifa’s sponsors. Within the last week protests organized by the Landless People’s Movement and the Anti-Privatisation Forum have been banned. The ANC government hopes these abuses of democracy will be lost in the orchestrated fever and contrived nationalist hype of the tournament.

Such are the negative effects on poor communities that the Cape Town-based Western Cape Anti-Eviction League is organizing a Poor Peoples’ World Cup. They say they feel excluded from the official tournament. They don’t benefit from any of the investments and can’t afford tickets or transport to get there. They say the poor are not only banned from trading near the stadiums and fan parks but have frequently been evicted from their homes and relocated to transitional camps.

So in protest the PPWC will be played on the next four Sundays with 36 teams from 40 different poor communities each representing one of the official World Cup countries.

Don’t expect to read too much about the world cup negatives in our newspapers or media outlets. The all-powerful Fifa requires journalists to agree not to bring Fifa into disrepute as a condition of gaining accreditation to the tournament. They define disrepute as anything that “negatively affects the public standing of the Local Organising Committee or Fifa”.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation is playing along. Last month they refused to broadcast a documentary critical of the cup and its negative impacts on South Africans. Spokesperson Kaiser Kganyago says “our job is obviously to promote the World Cup and broadcasting anything which can be perceived as negative is not in our interest”.

South African newspaper columnist Jabulani Sikhakhane says “The biggest cost of hosting the World Cup will be the loss of dignity and the suspension of the rights of citizens that are the major Fifa condition for allowing us to host the tournament… Shame, not pride is what we should feel”.

All this should be of interest to New Zealand which is hosting the Rugby World Cup next year.

We have already seen hundreds of millions wasted in poor-quality spending and legislation introduced by former Sports Minister Trevor Mallard creating an exclusion zone for non-sponsor advertising anywhere near the rugby venues. Be prepared to also see attempts at suppression of the right to protest during the tournament here.

And so who are the most likely winners of the Soccer World Cup? There is intense speculation as to which country will take away the beautiful game’s biggest prize. But despite the competing interests my picks for the biggest winners are Adidas first, Nike second and Rupert Murdoch third.

ENDS

Gaza stance embarrassing for New Zealanders

Sometimes it’s an embarrassment to be a New Zealander.

It was one of those times last week when Foreign Minister Murray McCully sided with the US and Israel over the latter’s brutal attack on the protest flotilla bringing humanitarian aid to the beleaguered people of Gaza.

While other countries were condemning the Israeli outrage and ordering ambassadors in for a diplomatic dressing down McCully simply invited the Israeli ambassador in for a chat and told media he had left the ambassador in no doubt as to New Zealand “concern” over the deaths. That was as strong as it got. He then told us the ambassador had “outlined the difficulties faced by Israel in relation to Gaza, and the importance of the blockade to the security of Israel and issues around Gaza.” In other words McCully became an apologist for the cowardly act of brutality which saw at least nine aid workers killed in the Israeli military assault.

Under widespread criticism McCully later strengthened his language but in a self-defeating manner. He condemned the violence and the deaths but refused to condemn the instigators of the brutal attack. McCully says we should wait on the result of an investigation before pointing the finger of blame. The fact the attack was an act of piracy on the high seas and made on a boat carrying food, medicine and building materials for a people suffering starvation and deprivation under a primitive military siege was lost on McCully. Throughout last week he closely echoed the words of US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. Our foreign policy is once more being written by the US embassy.

The attack on the flotilla has thrown a long-awaited spotlight on the Israeli/Egyptian blockade of Gaza which followed from Hamas freely and fairly winning the Palestinian elections in 2006 and ousting the corrupt Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas.

Immediately following the election the US and European Union froze aid to the West Bank and Gaza. It’s clear the US support for democracy survives only as long as those elected to power support US policy. Hamas didn’t. There’s plenty to criticize with Hamas such as its views on the rights of women but it has provided the only infrastructural support for Palestinians under military occupation.

A year later the Palestinian Authority tried to wrest control from Hamas but after a brief battle Hamas reaffirmed its control of Gaza while the discredited politicians of the Palestinian Authority took over the west bank and suppressed dissent.

Since then Israel has maintained a land and sea blockade with enormous hardship to the people of Gaza. The nominal reason has been to stop arms reaching the people of Gaza but in reality the food and aid supplies have been drip-fed in the misguided hope that the collective punishment of Gazans would lead to abandonment of Hamas. If anything the opposite has been the case. Palestinians retain a truly admirable fighting spirit which has survived every brutality to which they have been subjected.

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, says the Israeli embargo is illegal.

She says “international humanitarian law prohibits starvation of civilians as a method of warfare and … it is also prohibited to impose collective punishment on civilians.”

Amnesty International agrees. In its recent Annual Human Rights Report it says the blockade has “deepened the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Mass unemployment, extreme poverty, food insecurity and food price rises caused by shortages left four out of five Gazans dependent on humanitarian aid. The scope of the blockade and statements made by Israeli officials about its purpose showed that it was being imposed as a form of collective punishment of Gazans, a flagrant violation of international law.”

The United Nations representative in the territory, John Ging, has gone further and called on the international community to break the siege because of the humanitarian crisis. However western governments and their local allies have ignored the suffering. It’s been left to aid organizations to try to breach the blockade.

Israeli outrages closely resemble the brutality of the apartheid regime in South Africa which used similar methods to suppress dissent. Let’s hope the massacre on the Mavi Marmara is a marker for Israel just as the Sharpeville and Soweto massacres of 1960 and 1976 respectively marked the beginning of the end for South Africa’s racist policies.

In the meantime New Zealanders can’t rely on Murray McCully to carry our conscience. He is part of the problem. It will be ordinary New Zealanders who work effectively for a solution on Palestine as they did against the apartheid policies of the South African regime.

ENDS

Kiwibank benefits should accrue to us all

The best reason for the government to abandon the idea of selling Kiwibank is the flood of interest in buying it.

Within a few days of Bill English thinking out loud about part-privatising this iconic asset the vultures were circling.

Ex New Zealand First MP and now Chief Executive of the Federation of Maori Authorities Ron Mark says his members are keen to buy state assets such as Kiwibank if and when the government puts them up for sale. Ngai Tahu Chief Executive Mark Solomon says such assets could become “state-iwi assets”.

Chief Executive Officer of the New Zealand Superannuation Fund Adrian Orr says the fund would be keen for a stake in Kiwibank. It is working to increase its New Zealand investments and high quality state assets would provide a welcome opportunity.

On the face of it a sale to Maori Corporations or the New Zealand Superannuation Fund would at least keep the bank in New Zealand hands. But this would only be in the short-term with no guarantees longer term. Green Party Co-leader Russel Norman makes the point that “once Kiwibank is privatised it will inevitably end up in foreign hands whether it is first sold to small shareholders and then on-sold, or if it is first sold to the Super Fund who are then required by law to liquidate their assets.”

The experience with previous privatisations bears this out.

These investors see a chance to make money where the risk is carried by the government which also provides a guaranteed revenue stream. Even though the government would retain a majority shareholding in Kiwibank the private shareholders would mount constant pressure for improved dividends. The bank’s emphasis would shift from service delivery to customers and competing to keep the Australian banks’ interest rates down to delivering higher profits to the minority private shareholders.

Remember the privatisation of our trustee banks? Previously they were owned by their account holders but once they were bought up by the big Australian banks their customer service ratings dropped while their profits soared and left the country. In contrast one of the few remaining trustee banks, Taranaki Savings Bank, ranks consistently at the top in customer satisfaction surveys.

The big four Australian banks have acted more as a cartel than as competitors and New Zealanders have been fleeced. In response Kiwibank has grown strongly since 2002 and now has assets of $12 billion and 700,000 customers.

Despite this National has always hated Kiwibank and Labour hasn’t been much different. Helen Clark reluctantly agreed to its formation under pressure from the Alliance and refused to shift the government accounts to the New Zealand bank. John Key has shown similar disinterest and the government still banks with Australian-owned Westpac.

John Key has said he would prefer to list a part-share of the bank on the stock exchange to give “mums and dads” the chance to buy into a high quality investment. This is part of a plan to rescue the New Zealand Stock Exchange which has struggled to attract investors. New Zealand companies are performing poorly (how much lower can Telecom go?) and investors have been stung with the spectacular collapse of finance companies. Unsurprisingly people have been investing in property rather than the likes of the sharemarket.

Stock Exchange Chief Executive Mark Weldon says investors need good quality investments. He doesn’t put it like this but the public sector is again being asked to bailout private sector failure.

Meanwhile the bank needs extra funds to expand and John Key says these could come from private investors. However the funds needed are minimal and could be raised simply through reinvesting existing government dividends from the bank.

The effect of Key’s plan will be to reduce the shareholding of ordinary mums and dads and transfer them to those who will have extra to spend after their windfall tax cuts.

New Zealanders are very wary. The privatisations of the 1980s and 1990s have been a disaster. Among the worst were Telecom, Air New Zealand, the electricity sector and New Zealand Rail. The Labour government of the time told us privatisation would bring greater efficiency, better services, lower prices and greater accountability. National told us that breaking up our electricity supply into multiple competing companies in production, distribution and retail would bring similar benefits. The outcome has been the opposite – a series of sick jokes at our expense.

Selling Kiwibank would give us more of the same. It’s a valuable asset which should remain in the hands of all New Zealanders rather than be part transferred to a select few who have the resources to get an extra share of benefits which should accrue to us all.

ENDS

Budget for top 5%

Any rational discussion of the budget we might have hoped for was drowned out in a self-congratulatory chorus of government ministers and business leaders supported by largely uncritical media commentary.

Ex-National Party candidate and Breakfast Television host Paul Henry made no pretence at journalism when he gushed his congratulations to the Prime Minister for his “inspiring” budget.  Person to person one could almost calculate the size of their personal tax cut by the exuberance of individual reactions to the budget.

Then within 24 hours the government moved from confident to smug with Finance Minister Bill English telling a business lunch the government sees its next big economic policy movement as privatisation of state assets such as Kiwibank following next year’s election. It’s become an Act/National government rather than the other way round.

The consensus among the business, political and media elites is that the budget was a bold move in the right direction for New Zealand. They have bought the line that shifting taxation from incomes to spending will encourage saving and investment rather than consumption and that tightening up property tax somewhat will push this investment to the productive sector rather than fuelling another housing bubble. Finally we are told the cutting of the top tax rate will stop tax avoidance, stimulate economic growth and encourage young New Zealanders to stay here.

A cautionary note should sound to anyone who looks across the Tasman at the robust Australian economy with pay rates at least 30% higher than New Zealand. Like New Zealand they have just completed a major tax review but are doing the opposite to us. They are leaving GST at 10%, keeping the first $16,000 of earnings tax free (we’ve never had this), retaining a top tax rate at 45c in the dollar, significantly increasing tax on mining companies while increasing employer contributions to worker superannuation by 30%.

But none of this seems to bother those who stand to get personal windfalls from the policy. Prime Minister John Key can expect an extra $272 per week and Telecom CEO Paul Reynolds will get an extra $6,640 a week while the vast majority of workers will be lucky to get some loose change after the GST rise and ACC increases announced earlier this year.

The iniquity is obvious. The top 5% of income earners will receive a third of the total value of the cuts. Are the rich overtaxed such that they deserve such a windfall? John Key thinks so. He says the top 10% of income earners pay 44% of income tax. That’s true but only because they get the lion’s share (34% in fact) of the national income. The lower-paid half of wage and salary earners receive just 16% of the country’s income and pay 11% of the tax.

New Zealand is now so unequal that if our top 150 income earners gave up just the increase in their wealth each year we could eliminate child poverty and almost double the incomes of the half a million New Zealanders earning less than $15 an hour.

Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary Finance Minister Bill English says the budget will leave the gap between rich and poor “about the same”. Pure delusion. This is a budget of the wealthy, by the wealthy and for the wealthy.

None of the other reasons given for the tax changes in the budget stand scrutiny either.

Dropping the top tax rate will not lead to economic growth if past experience is anything to go by. A US study found that between 1950 and 2002 the periods of strongest growth occurred when the top tax rates were the highest. In 1993 for example the US increased its top tax rate from 31% to 39.9% which preceded a period of rapid growth. The same effects have been experienced here in New Zealand. After Labour reduced both the top tax rates (48c and 66c) to 33c in 1986 we were told to expect economic growth and improved living standards across the board. Instead our economy stagnated while Australia with its progressive taxation forged ahead.

A similar thing happened here in 2000 when the Labour/Alliance government increased the top tax rate to 38c. Economic growth increased despite National claiming it would be a brake on the economy.

The most interesting theory I’ve seen to explain this is that many of the rich are inherently lazy and they work hard only when their share of national income is reduced by taxation. If they have it too easy they spend even more time over long liquid lunches and the like and because they control most of the capital for investment, the economy falters. Remember the awful behaviour and conspicuous consumption which marked the tax cuts of the late 1980s? Expect to see another round after 1 October.

ENDS