Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Why Labour will lose this election, why they deserve to, and why the rest of us are screwed

Recent polls show support for Labour plummeting, with recently installed leader David Cunliffe appearing not to have captured the public’s heart, mind or anything else. An interesting graphic doing the rounds shows Labour’s former support isn’t being picked up by National or even the Greens. This group are now merely undecided.

This should be no surprise anyone who talks politics at BBQs, the bus stop or over the watercooler. Almost no one wants to see this National administration get back in: the asset sales; the sleaze around Orivida, the apparent sale of access to cabinet ministers and crony appointments; the mining and drilling of national parks; the fact that our rock star economy has relegated most of us to the status of lowly roadies; the list goes on. But ask who they want instead and, unless you’re talking to a Green, the response is invariably a shrug of resignation. We don’t want National but we’re not keen on the alternative, either.

Why is this? Leader David Cunliffe hasn’t helped his own or Labour’s cause. It’s hard to tell if his advice is crappy or he is incapable of saying what he really thinks. I know people who speak very highly of Mr Cunliffe, and I have heard him speak passionately and convincingly about things that matter to many New Zealanders. But none of this comes out in his public utterances. And that’s before we get to the memory lapses and lack of spine on what should be easy issues.

But the bigger problem (and this might be part of Mr Cunliffe’s problem, too) is Labour’s failure to articulate an alternative vision for New Zealand’s economy and society. No trucks in the fast lane and compulsory KiwiSaver have not only failed to ignite our imaginations, but at least one of these will entrench and deepen the inequalities that Labour claims to be concerned about. I have no connection to the Labour party but my guess is that some policies and the party’s internal cohesion are being undermined by those on the right of the party, while at the same time Labour is dependent on donations from business interests keen not to have New Zealand’s ‘economic fundamentals’ tampered with. In fact, compulsory KiwiSaver is a big juicy bone to those very interests.  

Some simple, clear statements of principle might go a long way to helping in this regard. How about no mining and drilling on conservation land; no signing up to the Trans-Pacific Partnership because it will override the wishes of this and future parliaments; a public commitment to building affordable housing in the areas it’s needed; a halt to benefit sanctions until the vindictive culture operating at Work and Income is addressed; a moratorium on charter schools until their efficacy has been thoroughly assessed; free health care, including family planning services, for under-18s. None of this is huge but it sets out clear points of difference and suggests there is more to being a New Zealander than supporting an economy for the already well-off.  

Stolen from http://neetflux.tumblr.com/post/89596714537
Sadly, none of this is likely to happen. This almost wouldn’t matter except for the one other thing that keeps coming up during those watercooler conversations, and that is that if the current crony capitalists get back in they will take it as a mandate to finish stealing the country for their mates. Commentators often say that one of the reasons it’s hard to pin anything on this National government is that they’re not ideological. This is not correct. They are not ideological in the sense of their neoliberal 1990s predecessors, but they do have an ideology, and that is a neoconservative commitment to securing and entrenching privilege. In this case, the privilege is primarily that of overseas capital. Sure, local businesses get thrown a bone, usually in the form of labour market reforms that reduce conditions for workers, but the real work is being done to benefit of the big end of town.

A re-elected National government, supported on its right flank by the ACT and Maori parties, will mean that in three years there will be nothing left in New Zealand to drill, mine, chop down, pave over, or sell. And most of us will be too busy working our low-paid precarious jobs to care. That is, those of us who still have jobs. The top 10% will do fine, and on paper our rock star economy will look great. But they said that about Argentina, too, before its economy went down the gurgler. 

And that is why Labour’s dithering, its inability to count, and its offering more of the same, with a few tweaks around the edges, matters. Because the prospect of Simon Bridges as the Minister of Something That Matters is really, really scary.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Well-behaved boys

For those of you who have been asking about the puppy, here he is with Spider. He's not really a puppy any more.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Liquor store protest

The proposed - and recently approved - new liquor store in Wickman Way, opposite Southern Cross Campus in Mangere, is certainly receiving its fair share of unwelcome publicity. The spin (the nearest other off-licence is 1 kilomtre away!; we won't open between 3 and 4 in the afternoon!) has not placated locals who appear to have finally gotten fed up with their suburb being a site for parasites on poverty from the gambling and liquor industries.

Here's a couple of snaps from today's protest outside Southern Cross Campus and opposite the site of the new off-licence.

Jasmine and her upcoming activists:

Yoof. And Hone. Great to see our young people taking an active part in opposing this.

Team ROCC and friends. Rock stars, one and all.

Go te whanau kakariki!


Domestic violence and access to alcohol: who is making the link?

After months of delays, dramas, and resignations by high-profile members, the Glenn inquiry into child abuse and domestic violence released its first report (The People’s Report) yesterday. Reading through the report, a number of issues stand out, but one that particularly resonates is the link between alcohol, child abuse and domestic violence.

In South Auckland almost everyone lives within 500 metres of a liquor outlet. There are parts of the South where it is difficult to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, but for most of us alcohol is only a short walk away. If you talk to local police they will tell you that: Mangere/Otahuhu  is one of the busiest police districts in the country; that much of their work is domestic violence callouts; and that alcohol is nearly always a factor. Similarly, data from Child Youth and Family show higher than average rates of child abuse in South Auckland. There are variations within the South, but the pattern is broadly consistent.

In other words, the suburbs with the greatest deprivation, the greatest concentration of pokie machines, and a seemingly endless turnover of liquor outlets have the highest rates of child abuse and domestic violence. Is anyone surprised? Probably not. But the more important question is what is to be done?

Research is clear that the key issue for social hazards such as gambling addiction and alcohol abuse is access. The more easily accessible, the more people will gamble and drink, especially if they are on low incomes. Before we get into the blame game, it should be noted that household spending data show beneficiaries spend the least of any group except the elderly on alcohol and cigarettes. 

Limiting damage from alcohol necessarily means restricting access. This is not nanny state interference: it is regulation of a specific product known to be addictive, and to have social consequences, for the greater public good. No one is saying you can’t drink, you just might have to walk a bit further to get your tipple.

Proof that drinking makes you charismatic
Given the already high density of liquor outlets in Mangere (106 liquor outlets in Mangere/Otahuhu) and the link between easy access to alcohol and violence towards women and children, it is extremely disappointing that the Auckland District Licencing Committee saw fit to grant the application by Thirsty Liquor for yet another liquor outlet in Mangere; one opposite a school, in fact. There was plenty of opposition to the application, and the mere fact it is opposite Southern Cross Campus should have set alarm bells ringing. Does the Licencing Committee not know we already have a problem with youth drinking? And it’s not just youth. Our child abuse and domestic violence figures show we have a problem with grown-ups drinking, too.

South Auckland doesn’t just need a two year moratorium on new alcohol outlets: it needs a sinking lid policy like that which has been applied to pokie machines. Achieving this will be a hard task for communities, their local boards and the Council. Like their gambling brothers in addiction, the alcohol industry is well-financed, aggressive and has marketing savvy (as proved by its ability to sell truckloads of RTDs). In the meantime, for the residents of Mangere who value the safety of their own and their neighbours’ tamariki and wahine, I have two words: consumer boycott. There’s only one way to run these social parasites out of town, and that’s to not give them your money.

NB. If you think this needs to be changed, please sign Duncan Garner's petition here

Declaration of interest: The writer is overly partial to a glass or three of red wine.

A perplexing muddle of policies

The Minister of Social Development, Paula Bennett, has just announced  plans to help parents move off a benefit into study. The announcement is somewhat perplexing: there seems to be little understanding of how the current system works, but is the first sign of a possible rethink of the Minister’s “relentless focus on work”.

The announcement outlines an investment of $18-$24 million over four years to enable an estimated 3,000 sole parents to move into full-time study. The money is going toward:
  • aligning the accommodation support available through the student support system with that available through the benefit system for parents. This could result in increased payments of “up to $165 per week”;
  • changes to allow sole parent students' child support arrangements to continue while they temporarily claim a benefit;
  • abolishing the stand down period for student parents who need a benefit over summer.
This all sounds great, and the official press release gushes that “it makes sense to invest in education for sole parents”. Indeed it does. But is this just a case of back to the future?

This same government, and this same Minister, cut a perfectly functional tertiary study assistance package back in 2009 when they gutted the Training Incentive Allowance (TIA). Technically the allowance is still available, although only for courses below level four of the National Qualifications Framework. Data from the Ministry of Social Development shows the number of Domestic Purposes beneficiaries receiving the TIA slumped from 9,898 in 2009 to 3,181 in 2011 (the last year for which data is available). It is worth $106.02 per week (or as a lump sum of $4,240.80 per annum).

The TIA was replaced with the far less generous Sole Parent Study Assistance (SPSA) in February 2011. This is worth a maximum of $500 per year and is in fact a loan (albeit interest-free). A total of 986 people received this assistance in 2011/12.
These numbers suggest that assisting a further 3,000 sole parents into study won’t even fill the need that existed 5 years ago.

It is also likely the package is not as generous as it initially seems. While it might be possible to get an increase of up to $165 per week in Accommodation Supplement (AS), the maximum AS available is in ‘Area 1’ areas. For a parent with one child (a two-person family) the maximum Area 1 rate is $160, less than the $165 possible increase. For a three-person family the maximum rate is $225. Area 1 includes the wealthy suburbs of Auckland’s North Shore and the Auckland isthmus. Data from Statistics New Zealand shows the majority of sole parents live in less salubrious areas. It would be useful to know how many sole parents the Minister anticipates would receive the additional $165 per week in additional AS when it is likely that most would receive far less.

More interesting is the provision for Child Support (CS) payments to continue while the studying parent receives a benefit. The press release suggests this policy is aimed at parents currently receiving a benefit. But if a parent is on a benefit, they do not receive any CS paid by the non-custodial parent because it is used to offset the cost of the benefit. Only if the CS received exceeds the amount of the benefit ($300) does the excess get paid to the caregiver. There are very few such cases.

So when the Minister says the CS payments will continue, what does this mean? That parents on benefits will need to come off benefits if they want to take advantage of this package? If so, they may go onto a Student Allowance. In this case they can receive their CS but it is counted as income for the purposes of their student allowance. Otherwise parents will need to take out a student loan. At $175.96 per week this is not designed to support a parent with and child/ren, even with CS added on.

It can only mean parents leave the benefit system and join the 2,400 parents “currently accessing mainstream student support”. Except now any CS they receive will be passed through to them in the event they need to go back onto a benefit over term breaks. It is unclear if this will count as income and result in a possible reduction of the benefit. It would be helpful to know how many parents the government anticipates this new support will apply to, and the average amount it is expected this will benefit student parents. 

The most useful provision is for benefit stand down periods to be abolished over breaks when parents need to go back onto a benefit. Stand down periods can cause great hardship, especially for parents trying to house and feed children. The ability to go straight onto a benefit when the tertiary term ceases will be very helpful. One hopes that Ms Bennett sends a memo to her staff to this effect. The legislation requires that work is the primary focus for beneficiaries and there have been reports that parents who are studying are being harassed by Work and Income into undertaking “job-seeking activities”. 

If this is an effort to put a kinder, gentler face on welfare reform, there is some way to go yet. If the government was sincere about enabling parents to study and move off a benefit they would restore the Training Incentive Allowance and recognise tertiary study as a valid activity for sole parents (and other beneficiaries). Spread over 4 years, $24 million is very little money, and the wide margin in the estimated cost suggests the government has little idea how much this will assist sole parents. And it raises bigger questions for the administration of social support, especially around the pass through of CS to beneficiary parents.

Nonetheless, this is the first relaxation of the Minister’s “relentless focus on work”. Perhaps she’s realised what has been evident to others for some time: that unemployment rates for women remain high; that most of the work available for unskilled mothers is low-paid and precarious; and that crap jobs with long hours do not lift children out of poverty. There are currently about 76,000 sole parent beneficiaries. Assisting 3,000 into study is too little, too late.  

Back. By popular demand

No, really. I'm as surprised as you. Welcome back Mum and my three other faithful readers. It wasn't meant to be a 6 month break but, you know, stuff happens. Or in my case, not much stuff happens. Anyway, here's some posts I prepared earlier.

And a recent photo of Spider since I know that's what you're really interested in.