Monday, April 30, 2012

When you really need a distraction...ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS

Poor old National must at the very least be sweating a bit under the collar at the moment. It's asset sale legislation is wildly unpopular and has spurred the biggest protests since the mining backdown; the ACC scandal just won't die, and what's more has exposed a rift within the Ruling Party; the pokie-machines-for-a-convention-centre deal with SkyCity has hit an unexpected public backlash as people have realised those with the least will be "cross-subsidising" SkyCity's future profits (we find this odd: a key tenet of New Zealand's particularly manly species of neoliberalism is that cross-subsidisation is a Bad Thing and consumers should pay the real price of whatever it is they're purchasing); and now, overlapping with the unpopular casino deal, National's Majority of One, in the person of John Banks, is under pressure to stand down for not declaring large donations from SkyCity and the "memorable"  Mr Kim Dotcom.
So how to distract an increasingly vexed public when something that really gets people in a lather is required. 
ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS! MASS ARRIVALS OF ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS!
 (Picture source: Wikimedia.org)
Illegals are different. They spit on the footpath. They don't respect our ways and they're jumping the queue.
According to Immigration Minister Nathan Guy the law needs to be changed to allow for the mass (11 people) detention of illegal asylum seekers because the 10 Chinese nationals who made it to (ahem) Darwin shows New Zealand is a target for dangerous and illegal mass arrivals by boat. (Those of you paying attention would have noticed that 10 - the number of Chinese - is smaller than 11 - the number that will constitute a mass immigration.)
While you think about that, here's a map to assist:
The first thing to note is that it is approximately 5,800 kilometres by sea from Darwin to Auckland. To get around Australia and to New Zealand our hapless boat people have to squeeze through a narrow gap between Australia and Papua New Guinea, and then hope they don't crash into any islands along the Queensland coast as they make their dangerous and illegal way to our fair shores. 
Not to be deterred by simple geography, the Minister goes on:
"We had concerns back in 2010 that we could be a destination sought by some...by some I mean a large number on something like a steel hulled vessel that made it 13,000 kilometers all the way across to Canada..."
The Minister then admits that New Zealand has never had such an invasion, and that once arrested under the proposed mass warrant, the government has no idea where to put the detainees anyway but the point is it's dangerous and illegal and National really needs a distraction.
Good luck with that.
As an aside, the pattern overseas has been for private prisons to keep themselves filled up by lobbying for tougher immigration laws. So, for example, Australia has been tough on asylum seekers for about the same length of time its mass detention centres have been privately run. We are privatising our prison system as fast as Judith Collins can sign the papers. What a shame we're unlikely to get boatloads of people washing up on Ninety Mile Beach to fill them.
So, to end, here's a picture of some Villawood detainees enjoying an evening pop concert put on by their concerned private detention centre providers.
  

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Aotearoa Not For Sale

Auckland hikoi and march, Saturday 28th April.
Some signs and stuff we liked.
This was a big march, with approximately 7,000 people turning up (not the 3,000 dutifully underestimated by the Herald). This meant that it wasn't just the usual handful of rabble standing in the cold. Here's are some of the disgruntled clogging Queen Street down past the Civic.

 













We love this:  














And some random banners that expressed the general feeling of the crowd.



 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Conventional wisdom

The triangulation of three jobs/industrial relations stories provides a glimpse of how desperate New Zealand political elites are to look good by facilitating jobs growth - any job growth - even if those jobs add to the sum of casual, insecure jobs that increasingly characterise the New Zealand economy. The first is the sordid tale of the government's casinos-for-a-convention-centre deal with SkyCity in Auckland; the second is the sale of Dunedin's Hillside railway workshops by state-owned enterprise KiwRail and its sister story the Ports of Auckland dispute; and the third is the news that some Australian companies are moving operations to New Zealand.
 

A convention centre for pokies

As widely reported, the heart of this deal is that the government gets the convention centre it alleges Auckland needs in exchange for relaxing the rules on the number of gaming machines that SkyCity can install. The convention centre has been costed at $350 million, a considerable sum SkyCity has offered to pay in full if they get the pokie machine concession. The whole tender process has been dodgy and looks like yet another National pork barrel deal, as can be seen by this timeline. The benefit to ratepayers is also highly suspect. SkyCity only returns about 3% of its pokie takings to the community and to date hasn't been pursued too rigorously by the Gambling Commission to adhere to its host responsibility programme, even though this is a condition of their licence.  
But of more interest here is SkyCity's claim that the convention centre will create 800 jobs: indeed, the government was so sure we would be grovellingly grateful for this crumb that they seemed to assume the deal would go ahead with little opposition. Curiously, however, the Herald has reported that a larger convention centre in Melbourne employs only 133 full-time staff and 273 casual staff, and 800 is "four times the staffing levels of other convention centres compared in a 2009 feasibility study for the former Auckland City Council".  
So what sort of jobs? Some will be full-time, but most will be part-time, casual, low-paid service jobs of the sort that dovetail so well with National's drive to force sole parent beneficiaries into work. These crappy jobs serving canapes and coffee will be subsidised by problem gamblers predominantly from Auckland's low-income suburbs.
According to the conventional wisdom prevailing in policy circles, Auckland really needs this convention centre for its economic development, and because we don't have a real international-sized convention centre. But do we need one, and can we justify it? A 2009 Bloomberg article showed that in the US the building of convention centre floor space had far outstripped demand. Every city and town wants a convention centre, all for the same reasons as Auckland. But in reality, in a de-industrialising economy convention centres are throwing in the economic development towel. They say 'we can't make our own money so we'll host people who do make money and hopefully get some of theirs'. John Key's bizarre vision of New Zealand as a global financial transactions processing centre carries the same message.  
Then there is the issue of demand. There are those who say 'build it and they will come', but Mysak's article clearly shows building convention centres is no guarantee that anyone will come. A 2005 paper by the Brookings Institute described the fixation for convention centres as the "convention centre space race" and found "convention centres themselves are expensive, money-losing propositions". The report noted that despite substantial (often public) investment, the number of conventioneers was falling. And this was in 2005 well before the Great Slump.
The graph shows the number of short-term visitors to New Zealand who put the reason for their visit as 'Convention/Conference'. In the year ending December 2011 this was about 1,500. Will another 2,000 people per annum come to a country at the bottom of the world with no ready access to illicit drugs and hookers when they could go to Vegas, Anaheim or Melbourne? (My apologies to the minority of conventioneers who are women). Plus, those places are closer to home and cheaper to get to. Auckland will also be competing with Australian cities which have convention centres. The difference is they're richer and have better public transport for visitors to move around. Auckland is terrible for pedestrians, downright dangerous for cyclists (it is easy to hire a good bike and ride around Melbourne), and has no public transport any conventioneer wants to use. If a convention centre is going to work as envisaged by local and central government, it needs to be done as part of a broader plan ungrading central Auckland's public transport, including a rail link to the airport, and much easier access to tourist facilities. We're a long way from any such integrated vision, and the only good thing about this SkyCity proposal is that it won't (at least on the information we have so far) be a white elephant for Auckland's ratepayers.  
Go away SkyCity, John Key and anyone else involved in this shonky deal, and think about coming up with a plan for some real economic development.
 

KiwiRail sells the Hillside workshops

National was apoplectic when Labour bought back the railways prior back in 2008. They have certainly never accepted that the purchase was generally approved by the public, and Bill English's constant whining about the price paid failed to get the traction he obviously wanted. So upon entering government National appear to have decided that rather than selling KiwiRail they would reprise the role of its previous private sector owners, and simply run it into the ground. This is being achieved by expecting KiwiRail to survive with no government subsidies by returning to profit through its so-called "turnaround plan". It is rare internationally for rail to be profitable, and a good discussion of the dilemma of whether to subsidise or not can be found here. Other, more sensible jurisdictions use the profitable parts of the rail to cross-subsidide the less profitable parts in the interests of maintaining a coherent and cohesive rail network, and because it keeps some proportion of freight off the road. For New Zealand's economic fundamentalists, cross-subsidisation is, of course, a Bad Thing unless it's a convention centre being cross-subsidised by low-income problem gamblers.
Part of the turnaround plan involves selling its Dunedin Hillside heavy engineering workshops. Apparently the Hillside workers were just paid too much for the workshops to be profitable so KiwiRail has put the workshop on the market. From the news reports it appears no one seriously thinks the workshops will find a local buyer, which means if this arguably strategic asset is bought at all, it will be bought by overseas interests. Much as the Auckland Council has managed to wash its hands of the Ports of Auckland industrial dispute, the government has pleaded this is an operational matter and refused to step in to save the workshops and the jobs. While the Ports of Auckland locked out its workers to try to force them onto casual contracts with stevedoring companies, the Dunedin workers will be lucky if they keep their jobs, and if they do it will likely be under much reduced pay and conditions. This will make the workshops 'competitive'. With...who, exactly? 
The drive to strip Auckland's port workers of pay and conditions, and the likely redundancy of Dunedin's Hillside workers suggests that while not actively undermining labour conditions, the government is happy to let wages and conditions for ordinary workers fall with a nod and a wink to employers. The disgrace here is that those employers are publicly-owned companies. Similarly, the government's lack of interest in the bitter, ongoing AFFCO dispute (which seeks to reduce conditions for meatworkers) also suggests they are happy for workers to have less pay and job security rather than more.  
While all this was happening, the Prime Minister was in Singapore telling anyone who would listen - hand on heart - that: "We want to increase the level of earnings and the level of incomes of the average New Zealander and we think we have a quality product with which we can do that." This desire to increase incomes stands in stark contrast to the Prime Minister's indifference to the proletarianisation of an ever-increasing number of professions and workers. Interesting also that it is unionised labour that is at the heart of these disputes. The New Zealand experience since 1991 has been that the fragmentation and de-unionisation of the workforce has led to lower wages, more precarious employment, and reduced capital investment as employers have substituted cheap labour for technology. Which means if you want to increase your level of earnings and make the PM happy, you should probably move to Australia.
 

We're competitive alright - with Bangalore

The last corner of the triangle comes from the news - welcomed by the government and political elites - that jobs have started moving across the Tasman from Australia to New Zealand.
According to the DomPost, Heinz Watties and Imperial Tobacco are moving production across to New Zealand from Australia. Woolworths is also moving 40 jobs to New Zealand. Why? According to Hastings Mayor Lawrence Yule, this is because New Zealand has a "more holistic" view of employment. What can this mean? According to Mr Yule, lower levels of unionisation, the ability to operate outside traditional daytime hours, and greater use of seasonal employees. A non-unionised, low-paid, casualised labour force, in other words. 
Is this really the best we can do? Really really? 
And what of the 40 Woolworths jobs? They're call centre jobs. Normally Australians send their call centres to the Philippines or India. But the fact we speak (sort of) real English and we're cheap means that Woolies is sending its call centre here rather than Bangalore. According to the latest Household Labour Force Survey there's about 155,000 unemployed New Zealanders. Bill English might be happy for us to be the Australia's Mexico but it's going to take a lot of call centre jobs to make a dent in our unemployment rate.
Yep, we're competitive alright: English-speaking, cheap, and pathetically grateful for crumbs from the global labour market. It almost makes one wish for the naive optimism of the knowledge economy.
 

Proletarianising employment

Jobs! Jobs! A convention centre for jobs! Here in New Zealand the government witters away about a high growth, high wage economy and practices an industrial relations policy that will lead us in exactly the opposite direction. As the long grind of the Great Slump takes its toll on families and people become more desperate for work, any job will do. Even if it's part-time, casual and involves jollying along Woolies' Australian customers. The government has stated its goal is to enhance New Zealand's competitiveness, and its plan for this seems to be building roads, cutting welfare and providing the conditions for employers to secure cheap labour. It's an odd sort of competitiveness for a government that bangs on about knowledge and skill. The reality is we're setting ourselves up to be a low-skilled precariat, vulnerable to global economic booms and busts.
Convention centres, casual contract labour and the sale of strategic assets are all signals New Zealand is playing a game it can't win on someone else's terms. We should leave the table while we still can.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Families Commission backtrack on paid parental leave

The Families Commission having supported increased provision of paid parental leave for some time, it has now been reported that Families Commissioner Carl Davidson has backtracked, and sided with the government in its claim that extending paid parental leave would just be too expensive in these straitened times (of course they wouldn't be so straitened if National hadn't gone ahead with its clearly inappropriate tax cuts, or Treasury had done its job properly and barred South Canterbury Finance from the retail deposit guarantee scheme).
Now public figures are allowed to change their minds, especially if new information comes to hand that materially changes the situation. But we do wonder if some unidentified men in trenchcoats threatened Mr Davidson's pets because the grounds upon which he has changed his mind are - how you say? - odd.
"When you compare them [New Zealand's paid parental leave provisions] to other countries, for instance the United States, actually our state-supplied parental leave system is a very generous one. And I'm not seeing lots of Americans flocking here to take advantage of our paid parental leave."
Actually, the US is the only OECD country with parental leave provisions less generous than New Zealand. And the bit about Americans flocking here is strangely irrelevant.
But having gotten himself into a hole, Mr Davidson then keeps digging: "So it's in the country's interests as well to make sure that women can discharge their parenting responsibilities in that early period ... so they can go back and be economically productive once ... those early weeks of child-raising are done."
So the Families Commissioner doesn't support extending paid parental leave because women should be back out in the workforce as soon as their tired legs can carry them. Nice one, Carl. Were the men in trenchcoats poking the dog with a sharp stick by this time?
There is another possibility. Mr Davidson was appointed by Her Westieness Paula Bennett, a staunch bootstrapper who has introduced legislation requiring sole parents to return to part-tme work when their youngest child turns 5 (or 1, if the child is born while Mum is on a benefit). The press release announcing Mr Davidson's appointment stated "My [Ms Bennett's] clear expectation is that Mr Davidson will provide the leadership necessary to make the Commission an expert centre of quality family research, which can be used to inform Government policy." Or simply agree with it. Here, Mr Davidson's arguments are not very expert but they will almost certainly meet the Minister's expectations.


Mary rues her lack of 
economic productivity

Sky City: Using prejudice to defend the indefensible

SkyCity is in the process of doing a shonky deal with the government whereby SkyCity builds a $350 million convention centre in return for being allowed an unspecified number (probably about 500) of gaming machines over and above what the existing legislation allows. There's a lot wrong with this (even the Herald's Fran O'Sullivan agrees with us!!), especially the 'legislation for sale' aspect, as National once again rolls over to corporate interests.
The deal has been criticised by a range of social agencies and others on a number of grounds, but especially because it will add to Auckland's already significant gambling problem. Problem gambling is largely a problem of pokie machines. It is no accident that a disproportionately high number of gaming machines outside the CBD are located in South Auckland in order to take advantage of a poor, desperate population which sees no prospect of social mobility through more conventional means (for example, decent-paid permanent jobs).
Now, SkyCity's boss, Nigel Morrison, has come out swinging in defence of the deal. In doing so, he has unwittingly put on public display the corporate world's contempt for the poor, and the prejudice it employs to justify its shabby behaviour.
According to Mr Morrison, pokies are less harmful than Lotto. Well, that's a surprise to anyone familiar with the problem gambling data. 70% of people who present with gambling problems have problems with pokie machines, not Lotto. (A refutation of almost all Mr Morrison's assertions are in this interview with Professor Max Abbott and the Problem Gambling Foundation's Graeme Ramsey.)
But the gem is this: the greatest risk of gambling is "convenience" gambling by "South Auckland mums" at local pubs and clubs.
**Embarrassed cough**
South Auckland mums? Not Dads? Not mums from West, central or north Auckland? And can we assume that although unspoken, our South Auckland mum is brown  because, you know, everyone in South Auckland is brown? And poor. And too stupid not to lose all their money playing pokies. SkyCity doesn't know of any high-income problem gamblers, for example people who might have stolen millions from their employers to gamble at its casino? No? The problem is all about South Auckland mums, eh?
Moving on, Mr Morrison asserts that Sky City is  "destination gambling". OK, so it's not down-the-road-at your-local-pub gambling. We accept that. But the reason this exonerates Sky City from any - ANY - responsibility is that to get there poor people have to catch the bus. No, really: "The reality is public transport in Auckland isn't that great. You don't just arrive at SkyCity. You make a deliberate decision to go to SkyCity." 
This is odd because it seems to contradict media reports of people who may or may not be from South Auckland driving their cars to SkyCity and leaving their kids in said car while they **embarrassed cough** gambled. Indeed, a former cop we know loathes SkyCity because he got tired of rescuing kids shut in cars while mum and/or dad played the pokies. 
But there's another, more hidden aspect to Mr Morrison's rancid argument. As most people are aware, Auckland's population is projected to grow by up to 1 million people over the next few decades. A number of suburbs have been penciled in as high-growth areas, mostly low-income suburbs along the rail corridor. Yet no money has been put aside by any past or present Council to provide much-needed additional infrastructure to cater for this population growth, and corporate lobby groups of which SkyCity is undoubtedly a member, have lobbied hard to make sure as little public money as possible is spent upgrading facilities in these areas. Yet SkyCity is arguing that the additional machines are needed to cope with Auckland's population growth. 
The government can obviously afford social infrastructure when it wants, even if it is through backhanded corporate welfare. Just don't expect a community near you to get any infrastructure it actually needs anytime soon. Especially if you're a South Auckland mum.