The missing word is…

The most astonishing aspect of David Shearer’s first major speech since winning the leadership of the Labour Party last year was what was NOT in it.

I’m not talking about policy detail. It’s easy to agree with most observers that it’s too soon for such announcements from a leader who wants to “rebuild” the party and win the 2014 election.

So no, the missing word was not policy but INEQUALITY.

This is the elephant which occupies New Zealand’s living room. It’s the beast which stalks our streets from Otara to Remuera and every point between.
It’s the single most important political issue facing the country but Shearer gave not a nod to its existence. Labour and National have been studiously avoiding the elephant for decades. They pretend it’s not there and walk miles in any direction to avoid confronting it.

Inequality is now so obscene that the richest 1% own more than three times as much as the poorest half of the country. And it’s rapidly getting worse. The richest 150 New Zealanders (Prime Minister John Key included) last year increased their collective wealth by $7 billion – and most of that was untaxed. The rest of us pay tax on every dollar we earn and every dollar we spend through income tax and GST but in this country where hundreds of thousands of children live in poverty, the more you earn the less tax you pay. GST is particularly iniquitous with low-income New Zealanders spending 14% of their incomes on GST while the rich spend just 5%. Continue reading

Workers pay the price for contracting

It doesn’t take much to understand why the port workers are so opposed to their work being contracted out.
It’s not just that these workers will be forced out of their jobs and made redundant but that we can see the huge social damage from contracting out which has occurred across the New Zealand economy.
Big employers like contracting because they claim it leads to greater efficiency and higher productivity. They say contractors can ensure the job is done at the lowest cost and is the model we should follow wherever possible.
However what they don’t say is that the gains are made simply by undermining the employment conditions of workers.
Under contracting the jobs become lower paid with unstable, unsocial work patterns. Job security disappears as permanent jobs are replaced by casual employment with workers employed on permanent part-time contracts without guaranteed hours of work. Continue reading

A taste of Hurricane Katrina treatment for Christchurch

A taste of Hurricane Katrina treatment for Christchurch

Most of us remember the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina which laid waste to the city of New Orleans.

US President George Bush was widely derided for the slow response to help the low-income communities most affected but his government wasn’t slow to act when the city was rebuilt. New Orleans residents lost their public schools, public health centres and public housing. The city was rebuilt as a model of privatisation – a case of moving from one disaster to another.

Private investors were thrilled – they like the guaranteed income streams and regular, reliable profits which come from private companies providing government services.

But privatising schools and public services is always unpopular so natural disasters are often used to drive this corporate agenda. Continue reading

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

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


John Minto

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


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.


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.