Thursday, June 28, 2012

The problem with Angela (and Bill)

This is really a couple of posts in one but hopefully it will make sense.
As a compulsive news reader, the Eurozone debt crisis has kept me riveted for months. Spider less so - he seems to prefer chasing seagulls or sitting on Geno. 
Throughout the crisis, Germany's Angela Merkel has played hardball - no Euro bonds, bailouts only in exchange for strict fiscal discipline of the sort that has driven the Greek economy into the ground in the last 18 months (Greece's government debt has increased since the implementation of fiscal austerity measures), and a push for greater fiscal union in the Eurozone with oversight of national budgets by Brussels. All this has made her extremely unpopular in some quarters, with some cartoonists comparing her to Adolf Hitler, or drawing her with a little pickelhaube, thus (cartoon used with permission):

So what, we have been wondering, is Mrs Merkel's problem?
Last week a photo tipped us off. If you look at this you'll see that Mrs Merkel is sitting in a meeting with some Very Important People but NO ONE HAS PROVIDED HER WITH A COMFORTABLE CHAIR.

No wonder she gets grumpy. The chair is clearly designed for a six foot man - she looks like a 5'4" woman. She's sitting on the edge of the chair, and it's too high. Give the Eurozone and Mrs Merkel a break - get her a chair she can be happy in. Please, for all our sakes.
So how bad can this be, I hear you ask. Well, the long-standing possibility of a break-up of the Eurozone has now found its way into polite conversation (they have just been kicking the can down the road for two years, now). An article in Der Spiegel outlines the problem as it stands at the moment. Accompanying the article is some graphics (see LHS), the scariest of which shows the predicted effect of a break-up of the Eurozone on European economies.
The average predicted unemployment rate is about 13%, rocketing to 27% in Spain. Combined with the loss of output, in an urbanised society, this is a depression by any measure and a formula for serious political unrest.

But we need not worry, apparently. In his latest brain fart, Finance Minister Bill English has told farmers they should focus on helping grow a more competitive Kiwi economy rather than spending too much time worrying about the gloomy state of offshore economies.
Memo to Bill: Europe's woes are already impacting on China, and this in turn is affecting us directly, and our largest export market Australia. No point blathering about what we can control - we can't control anything. We're hideously exposed to the interconnected global economy, and no amount of telling farmers how to suck eggs is going to change that. 
Better dust off Plan B.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Gibberish, cynical, a stunt..yep, all of the above

Always keen to show the public what a waste of space the public sector is except when it's dishing out welfare to large corporates and Canterbury farmers, the government has announced a range of targets it expects the public sector to meet by 2017. As others have noted, that's two elections away, and a bunch can happen between now and then. But suppose the government really is taking this seriously, what might the long-suffering public expect, apart from the increasing use of German-style capitalisation of nouns in official government press releases?
 The first target is to get 23,000 long-term welfare beneficiaries off benefits by 2017. At the risk of sounding churlish, if the government and Treasury were capable of delivering on that 170,000 jobs they said would be created in both the 2010 and 2011 budgets, then getting that group of long-term beneficiaries into paid work wouldn't be a problem. Heck, they probably wouldn't even have to try. But this is an economy haemorrhaging jobs at a scary rate, with no new jobs being created to plug the gap. Under these circumstances, moving people off benefits will mean turfing them into the street with no income. Don't think that will happen? Well, it's been happening at ACC for some time. The difference is that when ACC boots people off the books because they're deemed sufficiently able-bodied to be a carpark attendant then the next step down the social support ladder is welfare. Where do people go when they've been kicked off welfare in order to meet a random target? 
The other target that seems to have got the blogosphere quite excited is the one to reduce the incidence of rheumatic fever by two-thirds. The official release quite rightly notes rheumatic fever is preventable and more likely to occur in areas of high deprivation.
Yet despite the Associate Minister for Social Development Tariana Turia admitting that children living in cold overcrowded homes are most likely to get rheumatic fever, the State Services Commission website reveals this serious public health issue is to be dealt with by a programme of throat swabs, raising awareness (that fave of governments that don't want to actually spend any money), and that other long-term public sector pipe dream, "working across government agencies". Tellingly, it's not clear who will be responsible for meeting this target. In reality, it should be Housing New Zealand. Rheumatic fever rates will not reduce as long as children live in those cold, overcrowded houses Minister Turia talks about. Who takes the rap for failure to meet the target will be important to ensure no perverse incentives are put in place to deny children the treatment they need.
Immunisation...yada yada...Immunisation rates are constantly improving and have been for some years now. The biggest barrier is cost or the perception of cost, and middle class mums who think vaccinations will give their darlings autism. Still, it's a target already on the way to being achieved. Putting it in the to-do list is just fluffing the list up.
The goal of 98% of children having attended early childhood education is more problematic. New Zealand has a private system of early childhood education, and it is rife with market failure, which is the biggest contributor to children not getting ECE. Children in rural areas, especially low-income areas, and in low-decile suburbs in urban areas have the least access to ECE facilities (some South Auckland 'burbs have about half the number of ECE places that they need). Despite the State Services Commission talking about engaging hard-to-reach children, the problem is not one of engagement (although there will always be families that can't/won't engage), it is one of availability and access. Improving ECE rates will require actual expenditure in low-income urban and rural areas short of facilities. Until the government is prepared to direct investment to ensure this happens, this goal will not be met.
The target of reducing the number of assaults on children is interesting. The blurb talks about halting the 10 year rise in the assaults on children. What it forgets to mention is that the reporting of cases to Child Youth and Family has changed in that time, and this accounts for a large proportion of the increase in recorded assaults. The graph on the SSC website shows the number of assaults rising sharply upwards in perpetuity, but there is no evidence this will occur, and some reason to think it will not. But look carefully, and you'll notice that the target is to reduce the number of substantiated assaults on children. Loyal public servants faced with pay cuts for not reducing the number of substantiated assaults will...simply stop substantiating them. This will help achieve the target but puts in place an incentive to stop children getting the help and support they need.
But the most cynical are the targets for reducing recorded crime. Crime rates have been trending downwards for some years, helped along by the fact that we have an ageing population and the middle-aged are just less likely to be involved in crime. But not all crime has not trended downwards - thanks to campaigns such as It's Not OK reporting for some types of crime has increased. This means the campaigns have been a success. Setting targets to reduce reported crime means the police have an incentive to try to persuade people to not report in the first place or (as already happens) simply not answer calls that report non-violent crimes such as burglaries and car theft. The police have already said that domestic violence incidents will no longer be recorded. Will the targets take account of this change in data recording? Or will it be used to help meet the targets?
So yes, it's hard to disagree with others who have labeled the targets in the terms in the header. The targets are either already on the way to being achieved, completely miss the bigger picture, or set in place incentives to shaft the general public. They're not about "better public services", they're about less for less. And worse, our vulnerable kids are being used as props to promote this, well, gibberish. No mention of an actual, real live economic plan, no mention of dealing with the shortage of good housing, and no concrete measures to improve people's living standards. It's almost another distraction.       

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The political power of Big Food

On June 20th the Science Media Centre (set up by the Royal Society with funding from what used to be MoRST - details here) published a blog column on the power of Big Food and the need to subject the food industry to greater scrutiny. The blog in turn talks about a series being published by the wonderful Public Library of Science, a wiki open-access site that publishes Brainy Science Stuff. The series will look at the activities and influence of the food industry in the health arena. Specifically, they're interested in the impact of corporate food entities on public health: as the introduction to the series notes, the world food system is failing millions - one billion people on the planet are hungry, and two billion are overweight or obese. By any measure, this is a public health issue.
At the same time, Big Food has aggressively lobbied to stall any serious attempt by politicians to regulate it in the name of the greater public good. This is not entirely unsurprising: for a start, in the happy neoliberal environment in which we live, the orthodox view is that overweight/obesity is a personal failing, despite very good evidence that it is as much a product of the environment as individual shortcomings. So successive governments have tended to use social marketing campaigns to persuade individuals to change their behaviour (eat less, eat better, exercise more), meaning they don't have to tackle the food lobby head on. Then there's the fact that an overweight population creates the illusion that age-old problem of food supply has been solved. It hasn't, and overweight/obese people are often short of nutrients. But politically it's easy to say "look at people. They're overweight, they can't be hungry".
Here in New Zealand we have our own fatties, with the burden of obesity and its associated diseases being disproportionately shouldered by low-income people. A number of public health experts have sounded the alarm and asked for greater regulation on junk food advertising. A paper published late last year by researchers at the University of Otago outlined the different framings of obesity as between the food industry and public health groups, and notes that as far as government policies were concerned, the food industry won.
The SMC blog notes some comments by New Zealand food researchers on the need to scrutinise the activities of Big Food in New Zealand, including: "their influence is everywhere...the food industry position on individual responsibility dominates the media discourse" (Dr Gabrielle Jenkin, University of Otago); "A focus on food is important as is a focus on the BIG responsible players and their corporate social policy" (Professor Elaine Rush, AUT); and "Energy-dense and nutrient-poor (EDNP) foods are linked to obesity which, in turn, increases the risk of serious chronic illnesses such as diabetes.  Where products present risks to public health, it seems reasonable to review the marketing used to promote them with the marketing used to promote other unhealthy products, such as tobacco" (Professor Janet Hoek, University of Otago).
Since taking office in late 2008, the National government has proved to be a friend of Big Food. Even the tokenistic social marketing campaigns have been axed, regulations requiring schools to sell healthy food to students have been dumped, and the stalling on alcohol reform suggests that National is far more interested in its campaign coffers than public health issues. And it seems National is still throwing bones to the junk food industry. Two days after the blog arguing Big Food in New Zealand needed to be subject to greater scrutiny, National made yet another crony appointment and appointed former National MP Katherine Rich, now head of the Food and Grocery Council (you know, the food lobby group) to sit on the board of - ahem - the Health Promotion Agency.
If you've ever been in a meeting with the Food and Grocery Council, you'll know that they see their mission as blocking ANY attempt to regulate or otherwise limit junk food promotion, advertising, sponsorship of events and food labeling initiatives. Rich will be there in her role as a blocker. Her appointment to an agency that has the term "health promotion" in the name is beyond satire.
In the meantime this appears to have largely passed under the radar. A king-sized peanut slab to the first pollie to question this appointment in public, and to have the guts to say obesity is not all about personal responsibility.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Julie's scarf

Pure wool keyhole scarf in single rib. This was started in July 2011 when I thought I would have a lot of downtime. Work and tiredness meant there wasn't nearly as much downtime as anticipated, and it's only the last couple of months I've had both the energy and wit to finish it.
Because even a plain red scarf needs a bit of snazzing up, I've sacrificed two precious paua beads to the non-keyhole corners.
I hope it keeps you warm, Julie, but you'll have to come back to New Zealand to get it.


Friday, June 22, 2012

More patronising twaddle from the Minister

While we don't want to dwell on the numerous idiotic blatherings emanating from the Beehive in these trying times, occasionally something so beserk is let loose into the media wilderness that comment really is warranted.
One such blather has come from Social Development Minister Paula Bennett. This is the announcement of a toolkit for grandparents raising children. Not an actual toolkit with actual tools (although that would probably be more use) but a metaphorical toolkit in the form of a DVD.
Now stop and think about this. The target audience is grandparents. This suggests they've brought up one lot of kids and for any number of reasons now find themselves with another. But having done this once, you'd think they'd have a few clues, right?
Well, not according to the Minister. This latest spasm of government generosity involves a DVD featuring (and try to curb your enthusiasm, people) Alison Holst, Bob Kerridge and Pio Terei. Now I'm assuming this is to show grandparents how to cook, look after the cat/dog/guinea pig, and be caring Dads. Because if no one tells them, how will they know? 

But even better, gushes the Minister, at a mere $600,000 this is extremely good value for money. If Nanna and Grandad have a DVD player. And they can be arsed taking time out to watch it. And if they don't feel insulted by the whole concept. Then yes, it's great value for money.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the grandparents raising grandchildren have their own support trust, and among their other stirling work put together a submission to the government's Green Paper on Vulnerable Children. Chapter 2 lists what they identify as key issues. They are:
  • ongoing financial stress.They note "the precarious financial state" of many grandparents. A survey for a 2005 study found total family income being "less than $20,000 p.a. for 22% of respondents and less than $30,000 for 25% of respondents. Solo carers, who represented 38.6% of participants, were particularly financially compromised." 
  • grandparents have very diverse needs. Many feel unsupported and are reluctant to engage with Child Youth and Family. The submission also highlights the "rude" culture at Work and Income.
  • legal aid creating further financial hardship and other difficulties. This includes lack of access to reliable legal advice, difficulty in obtaining and then repaying legal aid, and the cost of legal proceedings.
  • accessing information and the lack of links between government departments.
  • educational progress of the children, including children with special needs.
  • housing issues including difficulty paying rent, overcrowding, and having to sell the house to pay legal and other costs.
None of these issues seems to be able to be dealt with by a DVD featuring Famous People. Perhaps the Minister should do something practical and start addressing the culture within her own department. Or have a cup of tea with the GRG Trust and ask how to provide some real help, including financial help in some circumstances if necessary. But no, instead we have this nonsense. We think the 5,000 grandparents should get one of those hammers that's also a bottle opener. At a mere $11.99 from Mitre 10, that's value for money.  

Thursday, June 7, 2012

9,000 submissions and this is the best the Minister can come up with?

In late 2011/early 2012 the Minister of Social Development made quite a big deal about wanting to deal with the issue of child abuse, issuing a Green Paper and inviting the public to make submissions. The Minister herself did a traveling roadshow to encourage people to make submissions. 
The debate around child abuse came to be dominated by one of those simple solutions the Minister seems so fond of, namely the mandatory reporting of child abuse. Mandatory reporting of child abuse is one of those quick-fix-so-we-don't-have-to-deal-with-real-issues solutions the government and much of the public are so attached to. It is also highly controversial, and while some research notes many cases of identified child abuse have come to the attention of authorities because of mandatory reporting, it is also clear that despite mandatory reporting, many people still do not report child abuse because the do not want to be caught in the subsequent legal proceedings. There is, moreover, scant evidence mandatory reporting prevents child abuse in the first place (which should surely be the goal of any rational policy).
Despite the Minister's best efforts to steer debate to simple stuff, reports from various public meetings noted that more fundamental, structural problems such as low incomes and housing featured strongly in people's reasons for what made children vulnerable to abuse. And a quick perusal of the publicly available submissions made by various NGOs and community groups shows that they, too, fingered poverty as the biggest single risk factor in child abuse. Yet poverty, particularly child poverty, has not been part of any official discourse.
The government received 9,000 submissions on the Green Paper, all presumably made in good faith by people who believed the Minister when she said the consultation process would give them "a real say in how we protect our children". Yet curiously, since submissions closed, the Minister has gone quiet on what they contained. In a highly unusual move, the submissions have not been publicly released, nor has a summary of their contents been made available. Is this because they raised questions and offered solutions the Minister and her government didn't want to hear? They wouldn't be that cynical, surely?
Well, as it turns out, yes. In her latest headline-grabbing, grandstanding effort Ms Bennett has suggested - apparently seriously although it could be a late April Fool's joke - that she is considering giving the courts the power to ban people convicted of abusing or killing children from having more children (one can only imagine the judiciary running screaming for the nearest exit at the thought of having to do this). There is no evidential basis for this bullcrap, and it just looks like another policy the Minister plucked out of her arse to distract the public from thinking about more serious problems. While the suggestion has gone down well with those responding to newspaper website polls, the question has to asked: will this stop any children being abused, and the answer is most probably not. How is the remote possibility of not being able to have future children (assuming of course this is even enforceable) going to change the behaviour of an anxious/depressed/stressed parent towards their pre-existing children? It's not. And as with other 'radical' measures the Minister has introduced to great fanfare, the practical effect of the suggested policy will be tiny. According to data from the New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse, in 2010 there were 7 convictions for homicide of children aged 0-14 years, and in 2008 there were 421 District Court convictions for assault on a child. This is in contrast to the 124,000 notifications to Child Youth and Family in the 2009/10 year, of which 55,000 required further action. So banning breeding for about 430 people per year  is not going to make our child abuse problem vanish. 
In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking it's a sideshow designed to distract people from thinking and talking about unemployment, poverty, inadequate and unsuitable housing, poor health and sending the mothers of one year old babies back to work because they've somehow violated the social contract - the stressors that contribute to child abuse, in other words. In the meantime Paula Bennett gets to market herself as leopard skin-clad action woman standing up for New Zealand children. The rest of us need to stand up for our kids and not let her get away with this.  

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Early winter

A spectacular sunset (no filters or added colours):

And a snooze in the late afternoon sun: