Wednesday, April 24, 2013

All we have to say on Colin Craig

Link to notice of defamation action from Chapman Tripp representing Conservative Party leader Colin Craig appears on Scoop Tuesday 23 April. Notice demands apology from satirical website for, among other things, making Mr Craig 'look ridiculous'. 

Interview on Radio New Zealand the morning of 24th April includes the following from comedy writer Dave Armstrong:
We know that it's not real. We know that even though it's in quote marks intelligent people know that the person isn't really saying that, and I find it amazing that a politician can be so stupid;   
and this from Mr Craig:
It about standards I think in terms of media and there's a quotation which clearly is something I did not say on that particular website. And the problem we've found is that while obviously it's a satirical website, not everybody can [make?] the difference between what's satire and what's true." 
Not everybody? What does that tell us about the Conservative party's membership? (As an aside, I wonder if this episode has Matthew Hooten rethinking his evident enthusiasm for the Conservatives to get 5% of the vote and partner (in a nice way) with National after the next erection election?)

Seriously, a New Zealand politician issuing defamation proceedings against the aforementioned satirical website makes a much sense as Kim Jong Un suing The Onion. In fact it's so much like the Dear Leader suing The Onion it's kinda scary. 

11.32am Wednesday 24th April: Radio New Zealand announces Conservative Party leader Colin Craig has withdrawn a threat of defamation action against The Civilian. But not before this appeared in the twitterverse (re-used without permission but can be found here).

Monday, April 22, 2013

Movin' on up in Mangere

We went for a snoop around Mangere town centre over the weekend. Come on - rainy Saturday afternoon in Auckland? What else are ya gonna do? We've been meaning to do this for a while because the good citizens of Mangere may not realise it yet but they are at the epicentre of Auckland's transformation into the world's most liveable city. Well, nearly.

Mangere falls under the umbrella of the Auckland Council's Southern Initiative. OK, so the Southern Initiative has some problems like no budget to speak of and rapidly eroding credibility, but it's a key Council strategy so some money should find its way to Mangere eventually.

Then there's the rail corridor penciled in between the airport and Onehunga. Scheduled as it is to come after the Council's three 'mega-projects', this is unlikely to be built in mine and definitely not Spider's lifetime. According to Auckland Transport's blurb SMART (the South-west Multi-modal Airport Rapid Transit) project is considering (but not doing anything about, necessarily) roading improvements, improvements to public transport, better cycling provisions (Better?? You have to have some before you can make them better), and longer term provision of a dedicated rail connection. We thought we'd go and see how Mangere was going with its existing multi-modality.

Lastly and most amusingly, the Council has big plans for Mangere to become a tourism gateway. Seriously. According to the Mangere-Otahuhu Area Draft Plan:
The Māngere Gateway Programme seeks to transform and deliver integrated and sustainable benefits to social, cultural, environmental and economic wellbeing. Working collaboratively with tangata whenua, Auckland International Airport, Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development, and key local business, the programme aims to celebrate and share the culture and heritage of the region to deliver a flagship, internationally significant, visitor destination for Auckland.
An internationally significant visitor destination? This is an area better known for its cold damp housing and high rates of meningococcal meningitis.

Evidently Mangere is going nowhere but up. Just as well, probably. Here's how a tourism person might portray Mangere. This photo is looking down the old bridge towards leafy Mangere Bridge and Mangere mountain on a sunny day. This loveliness is on the wall of the McDonalds in Mangere town centre.

According to this Mangere is a "rainbow of cultures." I hope no one tells Sua William Sio.

The multi-modality starts. Before this post launches into a full-scale moan it needs to acknowledge the work of the former Manukau City's cycling planner. Badar Drive and some of the other main roads around Mangere do have cycle lanes and the sign below guides cyclists up onto the (widened) footpath so as to avoid the roundabouts. The cycling chappie did manage to achieve something, although it seems the pedestrian planner resigned in 1988 and was never replaced.

The cycle lane goes off the main road and through the bus layby. There were people waiting for the bus but in an hour or so of snooping around the town centre not a single bus was spotted.

Many towns and town centres have European-style pedestrian plazas. Like this, for example:

Here's Mangere's version. Something seems to be missing.

Going west along Badar Drive one comes to this intersection. Note the lack of any pedestrian amenities. This is a motorway offramp.

Across the intersection and a left turn back towards the town centre. It's not very touristy. The footpath goes to a bridge over the motorway and comes out a short distance from the back of the town centre. A path from the neighbouring streets goes across a field before joining up with the main footpath. This path is just loose metal which must be a real pain for anyone pushing/driving anything with small wheels, or wearing high shoes. It also doesn't drain very well.

The footpath runs alongside the motorway so a high stout fence is a necessity. But does it have to be this ugly?

When pedestrians are given indirect routes by traffic planners they inevitably find short-cuts. There's railway fences and other barriers all over Auckland with holes cut in them so as to facilitate easier access for pedestrians and cyclists. This is no different. Here people have created a path (actually a rut) in the bank which gives them a more direct route to the top of the footpath going to the bridge. Someone has cut a hole in the fence to enable access to the footpath. This is short cut is strictly for the able-bodied.

The bridge. Note the absence of lighting. In fact there is no lighting anywhere along the path.

Down the other side and here's another short cut carved out by pedestrians who use it to get to the footpath on the other side. I know this because I asked a group of youngsters who use it. 


Finally, back to the next great Auckland tourist gateway. What do we find when we've negotiated rocky paths and scrambled up banks to get there? A bank, an opportunity to gamble, an opportunity to purchase liquor and every junk food chain operating in the country. There's lots more places to purchase liquor and gamble, plus there's two supermarkets. But mostly there's junk food. Why would tourists want to come here to eat McDonalds/KFC/etc etc? They wouldn't. Especially if they were cycling or walking.


But there's lots of palm trees. Pacific islanders like palm trees, right? Urban design by stereotype. But at least the palm trees will provide an attractive backdrop to the new genuinely multi-modal, Southern Initiated tourism gateway of Mangere. The citizens of Mangere don't know how lucky they are.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Misinformation and no information: Auckland Transport's Lost Child

We were going to let this batch of photos slide mostly because we're lazy and it's not clear we're adding anything to the quest for world peace. But we spotted a press release from Auckland Transport  congratulating itself on spending a bunch of money on roads. Oh, and a bit on public transport. Page (probably?) 55 of Auckland Transport's Half Yearly Report to 31 December 2012 (there's a question mark because, unhelpfully, the pages are not numbered) sets out AT's capital expenditure for the 6 months to 31st December 2012. Here's what it tells us:

New capital expenditure ($000) Renewal capital expenditure ($000) Total  capex Percent of capex spending
Roads  98,442 89,771 188,213 67.7
Public Transport  37,975 1,535 39,510 14.2
Parking  1,301 272 1,573 0.6
Electric Trains  45,120 45,120 16.2
Other  3,544 3,544 1.3
Total expenditure  186,382 91,578 277,960 100.0

That's right. Almost 68% of this **transformational** expenditure went on roading. We assume "Other" includes cycle lanes and the like. It is disappointing to see cycling and its fellow travellers are allocated a paltry 1.3% of the total capex, and none of it is for renewals.

And it seems AT is being selective when it comes to sharing the public transport capex love. These photos were taken at the Otahuhu transport centre, the Lost Child of Auckland's PT network, on Sunday 14th April. If you think it looks like Quito circa 1995 before the drug money flowed in, you're right. 

Don't stand under this drain. Handily, this is about where people queue for the bus.

This photo was taken at 12.26pm a week after daylight saving finished.


Time stands still: this clock has been telling transport centre users it's 4.24 for weeks. 


A week later neither of these Public Information Conveyance Units had been repaired. It's OK, though: the bus timetable at the rather grandly titled Platform 3A is out of date. Imagine the confusion if it was up to date. 

Here's a poster telling people in a low-income neighbourhood to log onto their expensive laptops to find out when their bus will arrive at their bus stop.

Of course, this will never work in practice because the main bus stop in Otahuhu doesn't have any real time display boards. Or shelters. Or any other basic amenities.
Thanks for caring, Auckland Transport.


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Gay marriage and the upcoming crimewave

During the gay marriage debate (such that it was) social scientist bigot Sensible Sentencing Trust front man Garth McVicar claimed that legalising gay marriage would result in rising crime because "same-sex marriage will be yet another erosion of basic morals and values in society which have led to an escalation of child abuse, domestic violence, and an ever-increasing prison population." 

We agree with Garth about the likelihood of greater crime but not for the reasons he gives. It is abundantly clear that because hundreds of gay couples will rush off and get married, people who haven't budgeted for it will now have to buy wedding presents. If they're strapped for cash they'll have to steal them, probably from their gay neighbours (the ones most likely to have nice stuff). So thanks for the heads up, Garth.

Possibly gay dogs Spider and Geno wish to send Louisa Wall and Kevin Hague their warmest congratulations for getting this legislation through parliament. Woof!

Hungry kids: doing their bit to subsidise elite education

It's no secret the National party dislikes handouts to the poor, no matter how needy. But it seems handouts to the wealthy are another matter. Radio New Zealand has done a bit of snooping around and found private schools will get increased state funding in the budget. These are the country's most expensive elite schools. The sort of school a Prime Minister might send his little boy to, for example.

Spider and I walk through a neighbourhood lots of Kings College kids drive through to go to school. These little darlings drive mostly European marques worth more than the average household incomes of the neighbourhoods they drive through. One suspects that even at this young age they've been indoctrinated to believe that they deserve no less. One also presumes that they have parents who, while generally prepared to impose tough love on the poor, are happy to suck up millions on behalf of their own offspring. Here's the amounts received by the top 8 schools for the last three financial years, helpfully totaled both ways so you can see exactly how much taxpayers are subsidising the education of the children of the already wealthy.

In a time of austerity - you know, cuts to women's refuge, legal aid and community law, and a raft of other social services - we still managed to find $42 million dollars to prop up private schools. This is truly a case of them that have shall receive.

Meanwhile back in the land occupied by parents who send their kids to public schools, Mana's Feed the Kids Bill is coming up for its first reading in early June (at this stage). National has said it will oppose the Bill because, well...who knows why they choose to be so mean-spirited? But there's always that ever-receding fiscal surplus to provide a ready excuse.

In its report on food in schools CPAG estimated a total cost of about $25-30 million per year to provide breakfast to decile one and two primary and intermediate schools, assuming a take-up rate of about 20%, give or take. Mana's costings come out at about $100 million per year but their Bill provides for breakfast and lunch in decile 1-3 primary, intermediate and high schools so would be considerably more expensive. But clearly there's wiggle room. Mana's Bill is being supported by almost every organisation in the education sector because principals and teachers are fed up with kids coming to school hungry. So the question needs to be asked: why can New Zealand afford to chuck $17 million at the country's wealthiest schools in the last year, but not afford to provide breakfast to the country's neediest children?

Yesterday Mana, with support from a bunch of community organisations, ran a Big Breakfast for about 2,500 kids at the Otara Leisure Centre. It was AMAZING. The kids had a great time munching on their WeetBix and milk and being entertained by various Famous People. Here's a couple of photos to give flavour of the event. And please, if you think we can afford to provide breakfasts to kids in low-decile schools as well as subsidise their richer peers, then write to your favourite National MP and ask them to support the Bill.
South Auckland's finest packing out the Otara Leisure Centre

Breakfast? Choice!!
Lunches packed and ready to go. Bon appetit!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Did the Iron Lady really lift people out of poverty?

In a week of politics not short of opportunites for satire (Weapons of mass destruction?? Really??), up pops Gerry Brownlee on last night's TV3's news (at about 24 minutes) to tell us Margaret Thatcher was "under-rated for lifting people out of poverty". According to His Gerryness Mrs T will be "remembered as someone who was very strong in the certainty of her views [and was] somewhat under-rated for the way in which her views lifted so many people out of poverty." He was then reported as saying her influence extended to New Zealand; her fingerprints were all over the Rogernomic reforms of the 1980s.

This wee item tweaked our interest because the overwhelming evidence is that the neo-liberal economic policies espoused by Thatcher and her fellow travellers were not notable for lifting people out of poverty, although they did increase the income gap between the rich and everybody else. But rather than just believe us, let's look at what the government's data says.

On p82 of Perry's report is a graph (Graph 1) of New Zealand's Gini coefficient going back to 1982, two years before the Rogergnomes started their rampage.
Graph 1
The Gini coefficient is a broad measure of income inequality. There are others but the Gini is the most commonly used. The graph shows that up until the mid-late 1980s New Zealand had an income distribution similar to that of countries such as Sweden and Denmark. After the 1987 sharemarket crash, followed by the truly Thatcherite Mother of All Budgets in 1991 New Zealand's income inequality increased, and its income distribution became much more like that of countries such as the UK and US. The gentle downwards drift evident after the early 2000s was largely due to better economic growth during this time, and the impact of 2004's Working for Families, which put a bunch of money into the pockets of low-income working families.

And what about "lifting people out of poverty"? Not much evidence for that sorry, Gerry. There are a number of ways to measure 'poverty' in rich countries, and different demographic groups have different poverty rates - in other words, hardship is not dispersed evenly among the population. Graph 2 below (Perry p94) shows the proportion of the population living below 60% of the median income after housing costs (note: the before housing costs (BHC) annotation in the graph is incorrect).
Graph 2

The different lines are for different base years - it's difficult to hold years constant over a long period of time because so many other things change. The important thing to note is that the shape of the line is the same no matter what base year is used. So although the number of people living in poverty (by this measure) declined in the 2000s, we see that even now we still have a higher proportion of people living in poverty than was the case prior to 1984. I'm going to put my neck out here and suggest that 2009 low point will transpire to be an inflection point and if National continues its economic mismanagement then in a couple of years we will start to see those poverty rates rising again. Why do I think this? Because one clear indicator of poverty is children's hospital admission rates for infectious diseases, and these are rising again.

Which brings us to child poverty, the issue that just won't go away. Children have fared much worse in New Zealand and elsewhere under Thatcherite economics.

Graph 3
 Graph 3 (Perry p109) shows child poverty rates. This shows the same general trend as Graph 2, but the rise in child poverty during the early 1990s is far more pronounced. Plus we can also see that despite various governments' lip service to alleviating child poverty, children as a group are still worse off than they were in the 1980s.

Perhaps this is why Mrs Thatcher is under-rated for lifting people out of poverty. Because she didn't. What people got was deeper and more persistent poverty for those at the bottom, and a sense of smug entitlement among those at the top.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The rise of the paternal state

We're all familiar with the horror of the Nanny state: that beast that sets out to tell you how much water your shower head can dispense, what type of lightbulbs you can buy and dictates how much sugar you -  a free citizen! - can consume in one go. Yet underlying these Nanny state measures is a belief in the greater good; water or energy conservation, or a desire to improve the public's health.

Torys hate the Nanny state. Painting themselves as defenders of individual liberty and 'choice', a concept difficult to argue with, and they argue anything that circumscribes 'choice' should be stopped in its tracks. But what happens when you want to circumscribe people's choice and assault their legally enshrined human rights, not for the greater good but because, well, for some less obvious reason. Ladies and gentleman, please welcome National's paternalistic neo-con state.

Like the loathed Nanny state, the paternal state also likes to boss people around. In National's case this is in large part being achieved though changes to social security legislation. The latest changes to the Social Security Act were passed into law on Tuesday night. According to the commentary to the Bill (the Act itself is not available yet) the legislation aims to "extend work test and work preparation obligations, and to introduce social obligations." The current 7 categories of benefit will be replaced by 3: Jobseeker Support; sole parent benefit for sole parents whose youngest child is 14 or under; and a supported living allowance for the blind, maimed and those caring for the sick or infirm. Most beneficiaries will move onto Jobseeker Support, including those currently receiving a Sickness benefit. The legislation contains a raft of changes that patently fail to support the disabled, unemployed or those raising children on their own, but which are more focused on people's behaviour. The areas covered by the legislation include drug testing for beneficiaries and compulsory pre-school attendance for the children of sole parent beneficiaries. The government has so far failed to produce any evidence that the behaviour of beneficiaries is significantly different from that of others in the population, or that the changes will improve outcomes for beneficiaries and their children. Indeed, the emphasis on punitive sanctions in the Bill suggests National is rather less concerned with improving outcomes for this group of citizens.

The Bill moves sole parents from sole parent support to Jobseeker Support when their youngest child is over 14. This effectively treats those parents as single unemployed people with no caring responsibilities (in reality a benefit cut of $89 per week). The Bill also imposes work obligations and 'pre-benefit activities'. These are hoops through which the newly unemployed/sick/single must jump before they even get to sign up for a benefit. In practice they usually involve going to classes in order to learn how to write a CV and covering letter. The Bill also has provisions allowing the "chief executive to require a recipient of a supported living payment to attend an interview to determine their capacity to comply with work preparation activities." But for most disabled people, unwillingness to work is not the issue. In its submission to the Select Committee, CCS Disability Action stated: "[the bill] will not add one single more job for a disabled people… it does nothing about attitudes of employers and workers. It does nothing about the ability to make adjustments in the workplace. Nothing about access to education or work experience. If the bill wishes to provide opportunities for people with disabilities to move into the workforce, it doesn’t contribute.” Indeed, a work obligation works much better when (1) there are jobs to go to, and (2) people do not face discrimination in the labour market.

The Bill's 'social obligations' are concerned mostly with education or medical check-ups for children. This suggests that sole parent beneficiaries are incapable of caring for their children without the firm paternal hand of the state nudging them. There is no evidence for this. The best publicised so-called social obligation is that requiring the children of sole parent beneficiaries attend a "recognised ECE programme". However it is unlikely the ECE sector has the capacity to deal with the increase in demand that will inevitably arise, especially as the low-income neighbourhoods where most sole parent beneficiaries live are poorly served by ECE facilities. The Labour Minority Report (p.13) notes: "The Child Poverty Action Group informed the committee that their analysis found a large gap between the number of children in low-income areas in particular, and early childhood education places. If the Government truly wishes to address the barriers to education in a child’s critical years, the focus should be on availability, cost, and transport." Quite.

Other social obligations include requiring WellChild/Tamariki Ora checks be up to date, and ensuring children attend school. The school attendance obligation is peculiar, not least because there is evidence that one of the main contributors to children skipping school or dropping out is transience and homelessness. However, there have been no attempts by the government to address chronic and severe housing shortages in places such as Auckland and Christchurch. Failure to comply with these social obligations will result in sanctions including parents losing up to 50% of their benefit.

Included in the worktest obligation is a new provision for drug testing beneficiaries. Curiously, the National-led majority on the Select Committee amended the definition of "drug test” in section 88A of the Act "to make it explicit that the purpose of a drug test is to detect the presence of controlled drugs rather than to determine whether the person tested is impaired." Why? If the aim of the Bill is to get people into work then the issue surely is whether or not they are impaired and a danger to others in the workplace. The emphasis on controlled drugs is a red herring. And it nicely deflects from the not insignificant risk posed by workers who have been drinking (and from National's liquor industry donors). Will this make the workplace safer or stop beneficiaries from ingesting controlled substances? Probably not, and in the absence of follow-up studies it is unlikely we will ever know. This is little more than the state waving a big stick at the vulnerable. And of course, failing a drug test incurs sanctions. Exemptions are available for addicts but there is little available by way of rehabilitation services, and it sidesteps the issue of alcohol addiction.

The Bill also provides for benefit cuts to beneficiaries with outstanding arrest warrants. Clearly, this is more about behaviour modification of the perceived underclass than any real attempt to deal with problems such as addiction, unemployment or transience. Amusingly, the Select Committee report feigns a concern for "natural justice" in the operation of these provisions.

In effect, the government attempting to deal with issues in the health, education, criminal justice and early childhood eduction sectors through the welfare system. This fundamentally changes the purpose and nature of welfare: it is no longer a rights-based safety net universally available for those who need temporary or perhaps permanent assistance; rather it becomes a highly conditional payment that can be readily withdrawn if recipients do not meet an arbitrary standard of behaviour set from above. This is very dangerous ground and it is a shame New Zealanders have been prepared to give up their social security so readily.

Similarly, the provisions requiring beneficiaries to deal with 'preferred suppliers' suggest part of the bigger picture of the welfare reforms is to privatise what is a core state service, that is the care and protection of the vulnerable. Anyone familiar with the shambles arising from such moves in the UK should be hearing very loud alarm bells. It also means beneficiaries have no security of provider which can make it very difficult to build relationships. We understand the disability sector is also concerned about these provisions. 

One aspect of the Bill that has received little attention, but gives away that this is really about a new form of social control, is that the provisions pertaining to worktests, pre-benefit tests and the like not only apply to beneficiaries, but also to their partners. These provisions - essentially a form of collective guilt - have no social policy justification and appear to serve the sole purpose of capturing as many people as possible in the welfare reform net. One particularly noxious provision is that the partners of those receiving a supported living allowance on ground of caring for a patient are captured by the social obligations if they are caring for a child or not. What on earth for? What is this supposed to achieve? It seems that whatever the intent, this nonsense will add more stress to already financially and socially stressed households. This is social engineering, although it's not clear what exactly is being engineered except a mindless compliance with petty rules and regulations.

The 'partners too' provisions also seem odd in light of who actually gets a benefit: the proposed Jobseeker Allowance is for a single unemployed person or former Sickness beneficiaries; a sole parent by definition doesn't have a partner; it is impossible to see how two sets of obligations on married couples receiving a benefit will improve outcomes for anyone; and for those receiving assisted living payments, imposing worktest obligations on partners who are probably needed at home is just bloody-minded. It's possible the counter argument is that if partners are working the family has more income but this is not certain, and the government hasn't produced any figures to support this or any other argument in favour of this policy.

At 199 pages the Bill is long, dense and poorly drafted, and only the main points have been covered here. Somehow the National majority on the Select Committee managed to take a dog of a Bill and make it worse. But the real point is this: National has done a great job of convincing talkback listeners that anyone on welfare (and their partners) is taking drugs, defrauding the system and letting their kids run wild, and the only appropriate response is to single out this group with the petty and vindictive legislation. History shows that when we let governments get away with this with one group, they quickly start to pick off others as well. As the economy loses ever more jobs, or creates only part-time insecure jobs, more New Zealanders will find themselves at the mercy of this reconfigured welfare system. Working people will find the rights and choices they took for granted will suddenly be circumscribed. The punitive paternalistic state will have arrived.

Martin Doyle: "I half to confess that I did not make up this revolting meanness: it's just life
in modern NZ, it seems."

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Horsing around with hospital food

News today that the Minister In Charge Of Dismantling The Health System, Tony Ryall, has confirmed that plans are afoot to close hospital kitchens and centralise food preparation operations. This has been proposed by Health Benefits Limited, an organisation set up by the government to, um, reduce duplication and administration costs. The move will supposedly save $175 million over 15 years - about $11.5 million per year. Chump change in a health bill totalling billions per year. So why bother?

One, this is a Minister and government firmly wedded to the idea that there is no such thing as a public service that can't be done better by the private sector. And accordingly, the service is to be contracted out. Two, any chump change counts as the government scrabbles around like a student looking for bus fare under the bed as it tries to get the books back into the black by 2015. It does seem like they're prepared to sacrifice quite a lot to achieve this, and one wonders if they really will destroy the economy in order to save it.

But back to the hospital meals: savings will come from cutting staff in the main, and signing a 15 year corporate welfare chit with a private provider to make the meals in Christchurch or Auckland. They will then be packaged and chilled like airline meals and transported to their destinations whereupon one hopes they will be reheated for grateful hospital patients. The company pencilled in to do this is a UK outfit called Compass Group. Compass' preferred method of cutting costs is adulterating food, and they were recently caught out in the horsemeat scandal in Europe.

Hospital meals are often personalised, and centralisation would mean that special orders would be sent to the preparer, then need to be sent to the correct destination, and then make it to the right patient. Much of the information exchange required would be done by computer.
Hospital meals: the best reason to stay healthy
So let's get this straight: orders sent by email over a privacy averse New Zealand government computer system; prepared and packaged by minimum wage workers who may or may not give a toss; freighted by truck drivers on speed; the whole shebang run by a company with the ethics of Geno on a football field; and all to save about $11 million per year.

What could go wrong?

Monday, April 8, 2013

Key in China

From a very excited Herald:
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing, China.