Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Merry Christmas to our friends, colleagues and family

Spider and I (and Junior, of course) are taking a break over Christmas and New Year. In the spirit of Christmas cheer, here's a snap of our sunflowers coming into bloom right on time. These are supposed to be dwarf sunflowers but something went wrong. They're gorgeous and cheerful so we don't mind.

Have a very merry Christmas, everyone, and a safe and relaxing New Year. May Santa bring you whatever it is you're secretly hoping for. We'll be back next year with our mostly pointless commentary on whatever takes our fancy.

 Junior ate Christmas. Never mind. Have a good one, one and all.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Infrastructure Committee resolution, 4 December 2013

Here it is, what you've all been waiting for. A copy of the Infrastructure Committee resolution pertaining to the East-West link. Who said communities don't matter?


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Roses love garlic

We weeded a big patch along the side of the shed in late winter and planted some garlic. Because I like old wives' tales, we also planted three rose bushes in the garlic bed. This gardening stereotype was also motivated by the fact that some turds have climbed the fence and graffiti-ed the street side of the shed a couple of times. Now they at least have to negotiate some thorny old English roses first.

Today lamb with rosemary and garlic was in order, but for the small problem that I forgot to get garlic at the supermarket. But wait! There's some in the garden! It's been a bit ravaged by the dry late winter and spring so is the skinniest garlic you ever saw, but here it is. It's ours, it tastes like garlic, and is presented below with three of its companion roses.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

An open approach?

Community activists in Mangere and Otahuhu have been calling on Auckland Transport and the New Zealand Transport Agency to come clean about their plans to bulldoze their way through these suburbs to make way for a motorway. After much agitation and some negative press, AT and NZTA issued a media release late yesterday (2 December) assuring those communities of an "open approach".

So does this amount to a backdown brought about by a realisation that what they are planning is appalling, or is it merely a public relations sop to calm the agitated locals? To answer this, we need to look at what the media release says.

An important area
The opening paragraph tells us AT and NZTA want the community to help them find "the best transport solutions to better link and economically growing south-west and south-east Auckland." We are alerted to the fact this is a serious issue because of the magic words "economically growing". In neo-liberal New Zealand, describing something as "economically growing" is designed to kill debate. This also suggests that years of cruddy urban design and bad traffic planning are now the problem of the communities of Mangere and Otahuhu. In the next paragraph, we are told that the suburbs of Mangere and Otahuhu are part of an "important area" that in fact covers an area from the airport in the west to Pakuranga in the east, and up to Penrose and Panmure in the north. Important but not exclusive.

NZTA's Tommy Parker then tells us there is "no preferred option", which on the evidence so far is nonsense, but just to help the citizens of Mangere and Otahuhu come to the right decision, we are told again that this is an "important issue that will affect jobs, the streets families live in, and the way people and freight can move safely around this area..." Jobs, got it? Oh, yeah, and freight. This, in case you need reminding gentle reader, is all about the current government's obsession with freight.

A key pedestrian amenity in Mangere
Then we get the mea culpa: "[we] acknowledge that we should have engaged the wider community from the start..." Well, yes. But the delay was only because AT  "wanted to better understand the transport needs of this area." This is bollocks. AT have given a couple of vague presentations to the local board, and talked extensively to the business sector in order to shore up support before telling the residents what they are going to do. 

More to the point, if AT really wanted to better understand the transport needs of the area, they could have consulted with their colleagues who are presently working on the South Auckland public transport upgrade. Or they could have talked to the community transport team, who would have told them that it is difficult to get around Mangere in anything other than an SUV, and that it is almost completely lacking in pedestrian and cycling amenities.

Conflict areas - not in Mangere and Otahuhu
Nor do the transport needs of the area appear to include dealing with a major traffic conflict area. An earlier map produced by AT shows the key traffic conflict areas to be on the intersection of Church Street and State Highway 1, and the Mt Wellington interchange. These, you will observe, are nowhere near Mangere and Otahuhu.

But back to the media release. It goes on to stress again that we NEED to do something because it's about jobs and economic growth. We don't have the room to argue that claim here but it, too, is rubbish. Suffice to say there is no logically necessary connection between a traffic conflict area in Onehunga, the fact jobs are located at the airport, and the need to put a motorway through a residential area. Indeed, if it is the presence of employment at the airport that is a concern, then AT would be prioritising the multi-modal link to the airport that includes cycle lanes and an extension of the rail because it is these that will reduce traffic volumes.

Finally, the somewhat exaggerated cross-Mangere freight problem is dumped back into the lap of South Auckland's residents again: "We’re asking for people’s patience, but more importantly we are asking for their help." 

Sure. We'll give you some help when you come  to us with an honest description of the problem, and a genuinely multi-modal plan to deal with it, including the improvement of pedestrian, cycling and public transport amenities in the area. In the meantime, stop fobbing us off with this claptrap.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A big morning

Playing with your best mate, making silly old Mum chase you across the park while you run away with a mussel shell, followed by a big breakfast and more playing. That's a big morning for a little guy. Better take a nap...

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Extreme makeover

These low-rent posters have started appearing in our little 'hood. And maybe elsewhere in Mangere and Otahuhu, too. Who knows?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Good news on vaccinations

There are times when instead of handing out brickbats, one is obliged to hand out a bouquet as well. And one such time was signaled on Friday by the news that vaccination rates among Maori and Pacific children had improved to the point where vaccination rates for Maori children exceeded that of Europeans in some District Health Board areas (Tony Ryalls' press release is here).

This is terrific news. Vaccination rates for Maori and Pacific children lagged behind for many years, and low vaccination rates were a significant contributor to these children being admitted to hospital for preventable diseases. Certainly a consequence of improved vaccination rates has been a fall in the number of hospital admissions for some diseases. It seems prevention really does deliver longer-term savings.

There are a couple of lessons to be drawn from these improvements. The first is that reversing long-term trends does not happen overnight: immunisation rates for Maori and Pacific children have been rising since the early 1990s but  improvement was painfully slow. The great leap forward came in 2005 when the Immunisation Advisory Centre pushed the Ministry of Health to set up a National Immunisation Register to measure, monitor and provide feedback on he progress of the national vaccination programme. The improvements were also helped along by setting a national target. It's been 8 years of hard slog, and well past the generally accepted political timeframe of three years but it has paid off.

The other lesson is that sustained improvement needs buy-in from the community, and collaboration across different sectors. Successive governments have talked for years about collaboration, joined-up government and all manner of other trendy nonsense, but genuinely collaborative efforts are rare. Here, the different players in the health sector realised they had a problem and acted at all levels: community, front line health providers, PHOs, District Health Boards, and the Ministry of Health.    

But the really good news is that this shows with some effort, not a whole lot more money and a political commitment to improving public health services, New Zealand's health equity gaps can be reduced or eliminated. 

Well done IMAC and everyone else involved. A well-deserved bouquet.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Garden mojo

After three years of not having the capacity to do much of any sort of gardening I'm pleased to announce to a waiting world that I have regained some gardening mojo. Here's some spinach, baby lettuce and a ginormous crop of snow peas (yum!!) The tomatoes are starting to flower, the potatoes look awesome and there's radishes on the way. Yay!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A living wage in Auckland

Auckland mayor Len Brown has finally piped up for his core voters in South Auckland and said he is proposing that Council staff are paid a 'living wage'. According to the Council's draft budget, the estimated cost of this is about $3.75 million, phased in over three years. The Mayor of Having a Buck Each Way has explained that he was supportive of moves to pay people a decent wage "provided it doesn't impact on ratepayers." This qualifier wasn't enough to stop the usual suspects working themselves into a lather at the prospect of the low-paid receiving more take-home pay.

The Chamber of Commerce's Michael Barnett stated: “What the Mayor is saying is that he will fix inefficiencies that should have been addressed long ago and use the savings to increase the pay of a favoured few – its [sic] populist politics...” Observe how those on the lowest wages are described as "the favoured few" without so much as a blush. The word populist is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people." Yet used here it becomes a term to belittle anything that challenges the prevailing pro-business, economic ideology promoted by organisations such as the Chamber of Commerce.

Singing a different version of the same song was the Employers and Manufacturers Association's Kim Campbell who blustered on Radio New Zealand that the Council needed to find "substantial efficiencies and reduce staff numbers" if it was even going to contemplate paying some workers more money. It is another odd use of language that a noun meaning something has the quality or property of being efficient is now, apparently, an actual thing you can find under the desk just by looking hard enough.
In reality, this is just the politics of hoping people don't look hard at the numbers and start questioning which pork-barrel projects lobbyists such as the Chamber of Commerce and the EMA support. The draft budget estimates the living wage proposal will costs $3.75 million over three years. But a quick look over the page shows the Council spending $461 million for the City Rail Link, and $184 million on AMETI (both over three years). Both of these projects are supported by the Chamber of Commerce and the EMA. The EMA and Chamber of Commerce have also welcomed government promises to help fund the East-West link. If this project goes ahead ratepayers will stump up half of the estimated $1 billion (yes, you read that correctly) cost. So while these Guardians of the Public Purse are shedding crocodile tears because ratepayers will pay $4 million to low-paid staff, they have no qualms about spending many, many millions more of ratepayers cash on a project for which there is as yet no business case or any assessment of economic, social or environmental impacts (prove me wrong, Auckland Transport, and put them on your website).

The living wage is not a perfect solution to low income (for example, it doesn't address the meagre incomes of the underemployed or unemployed) but it is an understandable response to working poverty and our growing income gap. The Mayor's move is more symbolic than meaningful, and the response from Auckland's real big spenders is equally lacking in substance.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

War memorials

Hidden away in a presentation given by Auckland Transport to the select few privileged enough to be informed about the proposed East-West link from Mangere to Highbrook, is a list of heritage sites that are in the new motorway's firing line. Otahuhu is an old suburb: it was once the southern edge of Auckland and the redoubt protected the areas northwards from marauding Maori. The large homesteads of settler farms in Mangere are still dotted along Massey Road. The old homestead on the corner of Piki Thompson Way and Great South Road could serve as a metaphor for Auckland's development. It was the surgery of former Prime Minister David Lange's father, now it houses a payday lender, and seems likely to soon make the ultimate sacrifice to a motorway. This is progress?

Across the road is the historic Otahuhu war memorial, which is also listed in the heritage areas threatened by the proposed new motorway. How historic is the memorial? Quite historic, as it turns out. Here's some dingy Sunday afternoon snaps.

The big phallic thing is a memorial to the Maori wars, while the headstone is a memorial to one Colonel Nixon who died in 1864. Poor old Mr Nixon has been shifted once already to make way for a motorway, now it's a distinct possibility he may have to be moved again. Obviously Auckland has learned nothing in the intervening 45 years.

There's also a larger memorial in honour of those who were killed in the First World War.

A later memorial plate commemorates those who died in, among other places, Malaya and Borneo. Why the hell did New Zealanders die in Malaya and Borneo? I still have no idea. Something about empires and Communists.

 And lastly, another metaphor for Auckland's lack of social and economic progress, especially for its working class. This is not only a memorial to the railway workers who died in the First and Second World Wars, but is a poignant memorial to the railway workshops themselves. The workshops existed in an era of full employment, where New Zealanders really did enjoy an egalitarian education system and could do clever stuff with their hands. Now it seems the only things we make are coffee and large, pointless infrastructure projects. Sorry, Auckland Transport, but this small slice of South Auckland is worth another fight of its own.


Sunday afternoon in the backyard, having a tummy rub. What's better than that?

Auckland Transport: transforming customers' expectations

Auckland Transport are well aware of the fact that the clocks up at the Otahuhu Transport Centre (a main public transport interchange) were variously wrong or broken (we blogged about it some time ago).  The clock that was wrong has been corrected, but the other has met a stranger fate.

In a remarkable display of initiative, Auckland Transport has dealt with the problem not by fixing the broken clock but by challenging customer expectations of a major transport hub, and simply removed the clock. People with reduced expectations tend to be less disappointed with the cruddy public services.

We think Auckland Transport lacks imagination:

Ironic public health joke of the day

In a neighbourhood already saturated with saturated fat outlets, Otahuhu is now getting a Carls Jnr: you know, the people who do meal deals with enough calories to keep a grown man going all day. Amusingly, the blurb on the Argyle Estates website talks about a retail development 'transforming the heart of Otahuhu'. They're probably right, but not in the way they intend. 

Carls Jnr is particular about where they choose their outlets - apart from low-income suburbs, that is. The sites need to large enough to put up a dine-in as well as a drive through, preferably with access to a main road.

The drive-through aspect is important. Overweight people get embarrassed waddling in public to collect their burgers so prefer to purchase from the privacy of their cars. But whether because someone at Argyle Estates has a sense of humour or because there's a council regulation requiring it, there's also 4 (4!!) bicycle racks outside so as to encourage people to come to Carls Jnr by bike and work off some of those toxic calories they're about to shove into their gobs.  This was snapped through the fence during construction.

 People in low-income communities often moan that their areas are targeted by junk food outlets, and indeed they are. But there is a reason for this, and we are (sadly, it must be said) in little doubt that Carls Jnr will make a killing in its new location. There is a solution at hand, of course, and that is, if you're tired of being targeted by the junk food death merchants, boycott their crappy food. Make you own hamburgers, oven-bake some fresh potatoes and grill your own chicken. Too hard? See you at the dialysis clinic.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Reading with Roo

It can be a depressing world much of the time, and we sometimes forget that Good Stuff happens. Not earth-shattering good stuff, but quiet, working-away-at-the-coal-face stuff that makes a difference to people's lives. Without further ado, I present Reading with Roo.

Roo is a 4 year old retired greyhound whose Mum works at the Otara library. Roo goes to work and local kids come in and read to him. The children get to sit with a dog that's not their cousin's nasty pitbull, and they get to practice their reading. Roo, being a docile greyhound who's only good for about 100 metres a day, just sits and soaks up the attention and pats. The children can then see their photos on their home or school computer.

This is Roo:

And here's Roo's business card:

Awesome, Otara library. May Roo and the children have many happy hours reading together.

Junior - not sleeping

Junior's Auntie Emma thinks he sleeps all the time. That's not quite true, although he is a laid back sort of dude. And just to prove it, here's Junior with Mr Tennis Ball, or what's left of him. Adios, Mr T.

Evidence - just in case

One of our beautiful Sicilian Buttercups was nabbed yesterday by a dog that lives somewhere a block over. It came back this morning looking for another chook and while I was walking it off the property (yay for doggie treats!) its owners turned up. This is the 2nd chook I've lost so I was - um, how you say? - a bit of a jerk. I thought the Angry Young Man driving the wannabe gangsta car was going to thump me. Anyway, the dog has been picked up by animal control before and the owners were going to be in deep doo-doo because the dog entered our property to get the chook (Dear Other Jerk - it's irrelevant that the chickens are not in a coop). But what happens if the dog is confiscated? It goes to one of the region's animal shelters and is most likely put down. It's not dangerous, and it was looked after so that all seems a bit pointless. I just want it kept in its own yard and not killing our chickens. So we didn't make a formal complaint on the understanding that no more chickens would go missing. But if they do, here's the evidence that the dog entered the property. Feathers (this Sicilian girl put up a fight) in the front yard.

This photo is taken in exactly the same spot facing the same way and shows our mad, beautiful boy Winkle flicking his tale at something that's displeasing him up the street.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Kindergarten cops: who's monitoring beneficiary kids' early childhood education?

In its latest round of welfare reforms, the government introduced a range of so-called social obligations sole parent beneficiaries need to comply with in order to continue to receive their benefit. Failure to comply with social obligations results in a financial sanction. One of the more controversial aspects of the reforms was the obligation that effectively lowered the age of compulsory education for children of beneficiary parents by requiring them to attend an approved early childhood education (ECE) programme from the age of 3 years. The legislation has some flexibility (beneficiaries must take "all reasonable steps") but the three regular readers of this blog will know that counts for little under this administration.

Approved early childhood education
But like so much of what has passed as radical reform under National's Social Development Minister, there now appear to some questions abut whether this is as reformist as it appears, and how it will work in practice. A recent press release from Child Poverty Action Group reflecting on the changes to ECE argued that "early childhood educators are now accountable for the compliance of parents in meeting compulsory attendance requirements" and that this "undermines the relationships which should be of high trust. Such high trust relationships are at the heart of the EC curriculum Te Whariki, and of other ministry documents such as Ka Hikitia, the Maori education strategy."

Let's deal with the trust issue first. It would surely be easier to get compliance for the new obligations if beneficiary parents felt they could trust their ECE providers. Ratting off parents is not a great way to foster trust (and how do providers rat off people who aren't enrolled?). If parents felt they could trust their providers, there probably wouldn't be a need to coerce people to use ECE through social security legislation.

More important is how the government intends to monitor whether beneficiary parents are sending their children to an approved ECE programme. Either they ask the beneficiary and trust them, or check up on them. What are the compliance costs of that for both WINZ and ECE centres, many of which are quite small. In addition, many beneficiary (and non-beneficiary) parents move regularly and this makes both compliance and monitoring difficult. Or WINZ could check ECE rolls off against WINZ data. This is feasible, especially with a government that is a world leader in data sharing on a scale that would not be tolerated in most democracies.

However, the mystery of how parents are to be monitored deepened with this response from Peter Reynolds, chief executive officer of the Early Childhood Council. According to this "both the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Social Development have repeatedly stated there are no arrangements in place to exchange information and no immediate plans to do so." But wait, there's more! "...were this sort of activity [information sharing] to be entertained by government, it would no doubt encounter an early childhood education sector unwilling to provide information that could be used for that purpose."

So how are beneficiary parents being monitored to ensure their children are attending ECE as required? And how many parents are being sanctioned for non-attendance, and on what basis? Instead of blustering and blathering about children's wellbeing, why doesn't the Minister work with her education sector counterpart and ensure there are affordable, quality, culturally appropriate (yes, culture does matter) ECE services in low-income areas. To be fair, the government has spent on ECE in South Auckland, just not in areas where it's most needed (take a bow, Takanini). A quality ECE programme in Takanini and its sister suburbs would be much more helpful than cutting benefits for something many parents have little control over.

Doorknocking 1

We have received credible information that the Minister for Pies Transport, Gerry Brownlee, is pushing very hard for the option of the Auckland Plan's proposed East-West link that wipes out substantial parts of Mangere and Otahuhu. One can only suppose that Gerry - a man in a safe Tory seat in Christchurch - isn't that bothered about turfing (mostly) low-income Labour voters out of their homes. So, since the fightback has to start somewhere, another local resident and I went collecting signatures in the 'hood for a petition to stop the bulldozers before they arrive.

Collecting signatures door-to-door (or doing anything door-to-door for that matter) is always revealing, even in a neighbourhood you know reasonably well. Every single resident in the path of Gerry's Great Folly will be disadvantaged as they attempt to find alternative accommodation in a ballistic housing market such as that presently being enjoyed in Auckland. But some will be more disadvantaged than others including: the 95 year old who has been in her modest house for 45 years; her neighbour who told me 'we don't need a motorway, we need jobs' (good luck with that under this National government); the (Type A) diabetic who lives with her brother and their elderly father in their modest but very tidy house with its lovely garden; and the elderly couple who have been in their house for 50 years. The wife has polio, is on oxygen and needs 24-hour care provided by her devoted husband. Where on earth are these people going to go?

And that's just in one street. There are similar tales in every single street sitting underneath the black line on the map. We'll post some of them as we go and maybe some photos. In the meantime, if you think this is unjust and inequitable please download a copy of the petition and send filled petitions to Roger Fowler, Mangere East Community Learning Centre, 372 Massey Road, Mangere 2024 by 15 November 2013

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Garden, late spring 2013

Not much Awesomeness has been going on in my life recently because, for the first time in a few years, I've had the time and energy to do some gardening. I'm not one of the world's great gardeners, having far too messy a mind to order plants into the generally accepted levels of tidiness. Fortunately, a bit of watering and some compost covers most lapses. But it's late spring, the roses are rosing and the veges are vege-ing, and so we bring you "still life with flowers". (I bet no one's ever done that before.) The cast includes on of those dippy philodendron things that looks quite flash on our manky porch; a damask rose that was grown from a cutting many years ago; another rose from Bell roses, sacrificed to the  extension to the North-West motorway (a common Auckland tale); and flowers from the renga-renga lillies. I love renga-renga lillies because they're really tough. And the chooks like the young seed pods - they seem to be a sort of cavier for chickens. Sadly, as you will observe, my florist skills are not great. OK, they're non-existent.

In spring/early summer the bonsai collection also needs to be weeded, pruned, repotted etc etc. Like the garden, the bonsais are somewhat inexpertly done but the plants seem to do well enough, and the biggest threat in the last few years has been drought. Exhibit B is a pohutukawa rescued as a seedling from the wall on the Great South Road side of Mt Richmond. It's being trained over a rock and today the plastic container was trimmed down and about half an inch of dirt scraped off the top to expose more of the roots and rock. It also got a brutal haircut.  Pohutukawas are also incredibly tough, and the plant will survive this major surgery. The photo makes it appear the bonsai grower has a clue (if you don't look too hard). We don't but we thought it was worth showing off anyway.

Monday, October 28, 2013

RIP Edna Krabappel (and Lou Reed)

News yesterday that one of our favourite Simpsons characters has died, specifically Edna Krabappel (or, more precisely, the voice of Mrs K, Marcia Wallace). Edna's search for love is an enduring theme in the Simpsons, as was her trademark, cynical Ha! 

Here's a few of her best lines (well, we think so).

From 'Special Edna' (Ep7, Season 14):
Oh, Lord, it's only Wednesday.
I hope one of those little hoods puts a tack on my chair just so I can feel something.

From 'The PTA Disbands' (Ep21, Season 6):
Mrs. Krabappel: Seymour, you have to think of the children's future.
Seymour: Oh, Edna. We all know that these children HAVE no future.  

From 'Bart the Lover' (Ep16, Season 3):
Elizabeth Hoover: I fail to see the educational value of this assembly.
Mrs. Krabappel: Ah, it will be one of their few pleasant memories when they're pumping gas for a living.

And here's a montage of the Ha! moments:

We'll miss you, Mrs K.

This morning came the news that rock 'n' roll animal Lou Reed has died. What to say except that I still have a copy of Berlin in my vinyl collection given to me by a flatmate who went on the become Quite Famous. For me, Berlin remains his masterpiece, and here's a tune from it:

And for the FM listeners among you, here's Sweet Jane with guitarist Steve Hunter:

Friday, October 25, 2013

Baby Blair

We're a bit late getting to this, but a report in Wednesday's Herald about the mother of an 8 week old baby having her benefit halved for failing her work-test obligations raised our eyebrows. This seems an extraordinarily heavy handed response from a government claiming to be concerned for vulnerable children: it's hard to imagine anyone more vulnerable than an 8 week-old child whose Mum can't find accommodation in a tough housing market. 

Let's get the parent blaming thing out of the way first, because we're all experts on bringing up other people's children, right? Ms Griffin - the mother in question - doesn't appear to have led a life on the straight and narrow. Fine, but that doesn't mean she's not a suitable parent, nor does it justify reducing resources available to the household in order to force behavioural changes, in this case finding a full-time job. Let's think about what that would mean for the child. I confess I don't know a bunch about babies but I know that if they do not form attachments as infants it literally stunts the growth of their brains and impairs their emotional development. Reason enough to support a mother in her role as a parent, one would have thought.

Working Mums providing cheap labour at the canning factory
But what raised our eyebrows is the legal basis for WINZ cutting this woman's benefit. The legislation passed in 2012 requires a parent who gives birth while on a benefit (and it appears this woman was on a benefit at the time) to be available for work when the newborn turns 1. Not 8 weeks. Do you see the difference? It's possible that the overly bureaucratic requirements of WINZ mean that Ms Griffin did need to produce a birth certificate to prove baby Blair was hers and that she hadn't borrowed him for a few hours, but not accepting the hospital discharge forms is simply negligent. The Minister of Social Development is ever at pains to point out the legislation has some flexibility, but here we have yet another example of her department being inflexible and dimwitted, and possibly behaving in a manner contrary to the legislation. If a parent is not obliged to work part or full time then there is no reason to cancel their benefit for not meeting their non-existent work obligations.

And this also begs the question of how the so-called investment approach to beneficiaries actually works. Here is a mum who needs housing assistance, who is transport-challenged and has a very young child, and her benefit has been cut? How is that an investment in improving this woman's life or that of her baby? It's not. Another F for Paula's department. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Some sort of protection

We've refrained from commenting on the Great Auckland Mayoral Sex Scandal, mostly because it's been quite amusing watching nearly everyone involved dig themselves deeper into holes of their own making (as we all do from time to time). But the Mayor's load of self-serving twaddle to the effect that there needs to be "some ability for elected representatives to - for better or for worse - maintain their private lives while they're carrying out their public duties" is begging for a response.

Mr Mayor: You, Bill Clinton, Silvio Berlusconi and Anthony Weiner should all know that there is already protection in place should you choose to make use of it:

Yes, it's your zip fly. It's the best protection money can buy.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Pit Bull Awareness Month

We're already halfway through it, but October is Pit Bull Awareness month. This post is really just a bit of a grab bag of meandering thoughts about dogs. Just because we like them.

There's not many real live, actual pitbulls in New Zealand. Most of what gets passed off as a pitbull are various terrier/boxer/bullmastiff mixes. Our new boy Junior would probably get described as a pitbull by the New Zealand Herald but since he was found in a carpark as a puppy, he probably isn't. In New Zealand one way we have dealt with the moral panics around dog bites is through breed-specific legislation: it is illegal to import an American Pit Bull Terrier, Dogo Argentino, Brazilian Fila, or Japanese Tosa. It's nonsense, of course. There's no such thing as a dangerous breed, there's just dickheads on the other end of the leash. We know this because what constitutes a 'dangerous breed' changes over time. My grandmother would never own a German Shepherd. Her last dog was a corgi, and a nastier, bitier little dog I have never met.

In his book The Genius of Dogs Brian Hare suggests what matters for doggie relationships with people and other dogs is being friendly. And it's true - dogs pick up your cues in their responses to people, and often it is aggressive people who own aggressive dogs and fearful people who own fearful dogs. (Naturally, our dogs are good-looking and charming.) Read those dog-bite stories the Herald loves and you'll often find that the dog in question was tied up for long periods of time and didn't get out much to socialise. Often when these dogs do finally escape the yard they are a menace to people and other dogs.

The problem with the dog stories that seem designed to whip up a frenzy is that it signals that it's OK to mistreat dogs because they're a danger to decent people. So we then get stories of dogs being mistreated and abused because some dipshit thinks that's OK. It's not, and the chances are someone who abuses a dog is also mistreating their spouses/children or bullying their peers. The absolute worst sort of abuse is dogfighting and the abuse it engenders. The economics of dogfighting means it's not going to go away in a hurry but that doesn't mean it's not appalling.

Our abuse of man's best friend also runs to puppy mills. A German Shepherd was recently handed over to the Southern Animal Shelter for being "too old". It transpires the dog, a 4 year old bitch, was also very underweight and had been used to breed by a puppy mill in South Auckland. When she was literally worn out they handed her over. (I'm happy to report she found a new home with some people who adore her.) Please - if you want a puppy, adopt.

But back to the pitbulls: here's a lengthy article outlining the Crimes Against Pitbulls by mainstream media outlets (some of this will be familiar to Herald readers). The article notes pitbulls used to have a reputation for being good with kids. And they an be good with other animals, as demonstrated by Pitbull Sharkey, one of our favourite internet dogs. And then there's rescued former fighting pitbull, Bulletproof Sam. Sam rocks and is a wonderful ambassador for maligned pitbulls everywhere. And then there's this (it's also on the Paw Justice FB page). Because every abused pitbull - or other dog - deserves a second chance. 

It can be saddening and enraging seeing what people do to animals, but wishing physical harm on them is not helpful. Two wrongs don't make a right. Education and fair reporting are far more effective. The point is to stop this shit, not escalate the war. In the meantime, enjoy what remains of Pitbull Awareness Month.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Co-ordinated and collaborative action goes THBBPTT

Our favourite government minister, Social Development's Paula Bennett, has been shameless about mining New Zealand's abused children for political capital since the release of the Green Paper on Vulnerable Children back in 2010. It's possible the Minister really does believe her own hype about wanting every New Zealand child to 'thrive, belong, achieve'. But as numerous submitters to the Green Paper pointed out, the GP was  really concerned about shuffling resources among already stretched social services whereas the key risk factor for childhood neglect and abuse is poverty and financial stress on households. Poverty is especially associated with child neglect, which can be every bit as damaging as physical abuse.

Risk factors for child abuse also include overcrowded housing (living with non-family adults), frequent shifting (lack of connections in the community can lead to bullying by other children), patchy access to healthcare (sickness that leads to time off school), poor nutrition and neighbourhood factors such as access to alcohol. The ensuing two-volume White Paper and Children's Action Plan ignored all of these but for a few passing mentions: the scale of these problems in some children's lives was not acknowledged, and no measures were set out to tackle them.

Fast forward to 2013 and the much-awaited Vulnerable Children Bill (VCB) pops up in our inbox. It's a bit of a damp squib but that's a tale for another day. One of the issues this Bill and in fact almost all the public discussion on vulnerable children to date has ignored is the role of violence in children's lives. There is a very strong link between domestic violence and violence towards children, whereas the new Bill is largely focused on stranger danger outside the home.

Throughout the GP/WP/VCB process there has been a great deal of emphasis in making agencies work together: as the explanatory note to the VCB puts it, "shared responsibility, and co-ordinated and collaborative action across the government..." That's great. New Zealand boasts a string of reports going back to the Dark Ages about different agencies failing to pick up hideous cases of child abuse even though the information was there.

But wait! It would appear this new co-ordination and collaboration doesn't apply to the government itself. About the same time the Bill was released Tariana Turia announced the establishment of a new Expert Advisory Group on Family Violence. This group appears to run parallel to the Ministry of Social Development's Taskforce for Action on Violence Within Families . The Taskforce itself includes the heads of a number of state agencies (like the cross-departmental agency proposed in the Vulnerable Children Bill but far broader and more representative).  According to a press release the EAG:
"is being formed to provide independent strategic advice to assist Government to determine key priority actions to address family violence in New Zealand.
A whole-of-government approach to family violence is vital and means we need to identify where there may be duplication of services or gaps in addressing family violence and ensure there are linkages with other strategic priorities."
More "whole of government" rhetoric from a Minister who has been talking about it since 2002. But a closer look suggests the key strategic priority is to shuffle money around existing services ("duplication", "gaps").

And it gets worse: on this long-standing and important issue, the new EAG has been tasked to report back by the end of 2013. As part of this they are conducting a survey of community agencies through the Family Violence Clearing House (see here). The post asking for feedback to the survey was submitted at 5.30pm on the 9th October. The survey closes at 5pm on the 11th of October (although it has just been reported that the deadline has been extended to Wednesday the 16th). Notably, the survey does not request feedback from the end users of services. The report linked here also confirms the focus on costs: "Mrs Turia said she asked the advisory group to report by the end of the year on how the money going into family violence could be better spent." On other words, like the Green Paper before it, it's really about shuffling inadequate funding between the needy and the even more needy while using the language of strategy and priority as a foil. 

So agencies have a week to respond to a survey (and then only under pressure), and a report on spending priorities for a problem New Zealand has been struggling with for years is due in mere weeks. This while the government is taking submissions on a Bill that completely ignores the role of violence in making children vulnerable to abuse. Is this our best response to children facing violence in the home? 

Collaborative action goes THBBPTT
Spider and I have a better idea: why not give the so-called EAG some time to go out and talk to people both providing and using family violence services, and establish what link, if any, exists between family violence and child abuse (that is, link these two strategic priorities)? Put the cynical Vulnerable Children Bill off to one side while this is being done then incorporate the findings of the EAG, at least one of whom is a genuine expert, into the Bill. That way the EAG, the Bill and the government's stated commitment to co-operation and collaboration between departments (and between the government and the community) might have some credibility. Or is protecting children from violence in the home merely an 'aspirational' goal subject to the ongoing politics of austerity?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Sunday, October 6, 2013


Sometimes the best way to fix the hole left in your little family by the death of a dog is to get another one. Especially when the surviving dog doesn't seem to quite know what to do with himself. So after a trip to the SPCA in Mangere and a meet and greet to see if the two dogs would get along, we now have Junior (don't know if that will stick but it's something in the meantime). He was advertised as a staffy/mastiff mix but when you get a 6 week old puppy turn up, how does anyone know? We don't care because we think he's gorgeous and Spider thinks he's OK, too. (The photos aren't very good because it's hard to take a good photo of a puppy that never stops moving.)

Here, let me bite your leg.

Mmm, something stinky on the lawn.

Yep, that tongue is about a foot long. Fortunately puppy found the waterbowl eventually.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Geno 2002-2013

Today we had to put down our beautiful old dog, Geno. He had been slowing down for some time due to his arthritis, and in the last couple of weeks he had a great deal of trouble moving, and had gone off his food. Even this morning's chicken barely tempted him.

Geno was, as a friend put it, one of the dog world's nice guys. He joined our little family in 2002 after we found him wandering the street one stormy night on the way back from getting takeaways. He followed us home, quickly became best mates with Fausto, our other dog, and stayed. Here they are a couple of years later. At this stage, Geno still had all his tail. 

We estimated Geno to be about 6 months old when we got him. He had nicks and cuts on his face and neck and we suspected he had been involved in fights. In fact, like so many so many dogs mistakenly identified as pitbulls, he was a lover not a fighter and we often referred to him as our pitbull school dropout.

Which isn't to say he didn't enjoy a scrap when the opportunity presented itself. One morning he spied another dog walking up the street, bolted out of the house through the cat door (I still have no idea how he managed this) and decided to start a fight with said dog. This resulted in us having to hastily pull on our dressing gowns and race up the road to get him while all the neighbours came out to see what the commotion was about. Another time he slipped his lead at some shops and had a crack at a German Shepherd. I was upset and mortified, more so when a woman with bad teeth and grimy track suit pants said 'Lady, can't you control your dog?' No dear, evidently not. But he was good with people, good with kids and over the years he got less scrappy with other dogs.

Like other lab-mixes, Geno was greedy. His all-time favourite food was duck heads from the Hong Kong BBQ up the main shopping centre. The Asian chap who owned the shop at the time thought it highly entertaining to chuck the dogs a duck head each and watch them get snarfed in seconds. Duck bones are not soft like battery cage-chicken bones but Geno still managed to munch them, including the bill, like popcorn. Many years later, he was still trying to head down the main street of Otahuhu to see if someone would throw him a duck head.

In 2011 Fausto died and shortly afterwards we got Spider. Geno was a great mentor for Spider and they too quickly became best mates. The last two years of his life, getting out and about with Spider, going new places and meeting other dogs were the best of his life. Nevertheless, he was slowing down and he suffered in the cold.

Eventually he slowed down so much he barely had any forward momentum on his walks. He always loved his walks (he seemed to have superior mind control that induced us to take him for walks) and this last week when we have gone out without him, he has just looked sad. A greedy dog that loves his walks, off his food and with arthritis too painful to walk more than a couple of hundred metres? This is no quality of life for your best friend. 

Geno, our beautiful gentle boy, you will be much missed, and not just by us. You are a well-loved Otahuhu icon and others will miss you, too. To paraphrase John Rutter, may the Dog God bless you and keep you. Somewhere warm, with no firecrackers and as many duckheads as you can eat.  
The Last Duckhead
Geno, 29 September 2013