Wednesday, February 18, 2015

There Are Some Things Money Can't Buy: For Everything Else, There's Ministerial Credit Card

Question: When is a minister not responsible for expenditures using her ministerial credit card that breach Parliament's rules?

Answer: When there's a conveniently positioned employee ready to take the fall and shoulder the blame.

Now while it's entirely possible that Bennett keeps such an incredibly lax eye on the way the taxpayer-funded resources she's responsible for are used that an employee was able to draw out an illicit 1.2 grand unnoticed by any but the bean-counters ... I find this a little unlikely.

As Minister for State Services, if Bennett can't even keep abreast of her own small demesne of Ministerial Services, it speaks woefully of her competency. Given the official narrative is now coalescing around the idea that the scape-goat employee in question drew out the money to fund personal spending, the fact this person is still working in her office is quite frankly incredible - assuming that explanation is true, rather than a ministerial dodge.

I noted with some interest that when asked directly whether the withdrawal had been carried out by an errant employee to fund personal expenditure, Bennett was evasive.

"Well if it had been an appropriate ministerial spend they would not have had to repay it, so you can put two and two together" is not exactly a direct answer, and in reality clarifies virtually nothing. I also cannot help but note that Bennett has scrupulously avoided clarifying that the expenditure was either unknown to her or not tacitly approved by her in any of the coverage of this matter I've read thus far.

In a previous age, John Key championed extensive transparency with the use of ministerial credit cards, claiming that "the result of this public scrutiny will be that ministers will be even more careful with expenditure of their staff's credit cards in the future".

He even suggested that the "untidy and careless" oversight of then-Housing Minister Phil Heatly when it came to the latter's own ministerial credit card warranted the minister's stand down from his portfolio.

Funny that he's not demanding that sort of accountability now. Is this because she's the closest thing National has to a future prospect for leadership now that has Judith Collins become spilled milk?

If Bennett's ministerial credit card had been used to illicitly take more than a grand of taxpayer money while she was Minister of Social Development, I'd have pointed out that a beneficiary helping themselves to a similar amount of taxpayer coin would very likely have found themselves in court if not prison. As it is, if the people of New Zealand are to have confidence that the Minister for State Services is capable of exercising oversight over said services ... we need to see some tangible evidence that she's capable of fronting up, accepting responsibility for resources and employees under her control, and delivering accountability where appropriate.

The buck, after all, stops with the Minister. No matter who takes it out of the ATM.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Defend the National Library from National

I've got a bit of a confession to make. I Love Libraries. Not E-Readers, online repositories, over-used class book sets, or glorified literacy-encouragement tools (although all of these are useful and have their place) ... I mean *actual* bricks-and-mortar books-and-more-books storehouses of knowledge and facilitators of learning.

I grew up in libraries; still live in one today; and am resolutely of the opinion that having easy access to literally tens of thousands of tomes on just about every subject conceivable was vital for a younger Curwen's learning and personal development.

It was therefore a cause for considerable surprise, shock and dismay when I was contacted by a teacher-librarian working at a local secondary school about proposed changes to the way the National Library system works.

In years past, teachers and librarians have been able to supplement the resources directly available to them by hitting up the National Library through Curriculum Services and ordering supply-crates of often highly specialized books for classroom use. If you're outside the education system, such a facility may not sound like much; but in my own experience - and those of the educational professionals I've talked to - it's proven invaluable in ensuring our kids have access to the information they need in a format that's useful and accessible to them.

And no, despite Peter Dunne's protestations to the contrary, you can't just expect kids to make do solely by trying to track down and access information via the internet.

While I fully applaud the National Library making greater use of digital vectors to enable students and teachers to access its resources; the decision from on high that this approach should be pursued at the expense of having physical books available for dispatch to where they are needed strikes me as being less about making sure our kids get the informational support they need ... and more to do with the fact that kids reading books via the internet costs the government less than sending crates of books around the place. (The net fiscal impact of the policy as a whole is a rather theoretical saving of $392,000)

In an ideal world (which, given who's in power, this obviously isn't), the National Library would be pursuing a "both" rather than "either" approach which didn't blithely assume all students, schools and classrooms were equally able to make use of online or digital resources. Despite the government pushing "e-learning" and "digital literacy" as educational mantras with all the fervor of somebody who's willing to try *absolutely anything* other than properly paying and valuing teachers as a means to boost educational outcomes, not every child has access to a digital device in the classroom, and not every classroom has reliable ongoing access to the internet. This is particularly the case for schools in rural and lower-decile areas, who may find themselves effectively double-penalized by the relative paucity and difficulty of access to equivalently resourced alternative libraries in their home communities.

Unfortunately for whichever bureaucrat or bouffant-wearer dreamed up the policy, I'm not even sure this shift away from the provision of physical resources will actually save the government money. As the School Library Association of New Zealand thoughtfully points out, the system that's been in place for the previous aeon made economic sense because it had the high-use and high-demand books required year-round and in bulk (whether fiction or non-fiction) being bought by schools and school libraries to be used immediately and extensively by their students. The National Library, by contrast, concentrated its efforts on acquiring the specialized and supplementary materials that individual schools were likely to only require in small numbers (if at all), and far less frequently.

The new system, by contrast, will reportedly feature the National Library buying up masses of popular fiction in print copy to be shipped round the country in the name of fostering "reading engagement" (something school libraries do anyway, and with the added bonus of not having to wait for other schools to return the resources first), leaving schools to purchase the less frequently used and almost invariably rather expensive specialist texts required to fully support the NZ Curriculum.

Even setting aside the obvious issues with having the stuff that's going to be ubiquitously in-demand and over-subscribed year-round kept at a central repository and only available to a given school on a rotational basis, a moment's consideration will reveal how this new approach makes little to no sense from either a librarian's perspective or an accountant's - let alone from that of the poor, long-suffering teacher!

Given the number of obvious issues and oversights with this policy, it should surprise absolutely no one that it appears to have been developed without a single iota of consultation with either schools or school librarians. Sadly, this kind of callous disregard for the input and perspective of education professionals is part and parcel of National's approach to making decisions concerning the education sector.

The National Library - and, for that matter, the presence of books in schools - is both a treasure and a treasure-trove. Attempts to relegate either to the past in the name of a few cheap savings would be (to borrow a phrase Peter Dunne used to describe his critics on this matter) "comical if they were not so tragic."

Friday, February 6, 2015

Key's Hypocrisy in turning Waitangi Day into an even *bigger* monument to Anglo Imperialism

I must confess I was a little surprised to see the Prime Minister turn our national day into a forum for discursions about invading the Middle East. Perhaps, having made peace with Titewhai Harawira some years back, he assumes no foe is now insurmountable.

But quite apart from the questionable propriety of turning a monument to arguably one of the least-worst incidences of British imperialism into a soap-box for justifying our involvement picking up the pieces of a more recent and far more egregious example of same ... what stood out to me was this quote.

"So the very people who tell me their whole DNA is laced with human rights and standing up for people who can't protect themselves tell me to look the other way when people are being beheaded by kids, burned by kids and thrown off buildings. Well, sorry. Give me a break. New Zealand is not going to look the other way."

Which is, I suppose, a noble (if entirely inaccurate) sounding sentiment in principle - if we leave aside the legacy of international peace-keeping, nation-building, and Afghanistan-occupying efforts of the previous Labour government, for instance.

But not, regrettably, one that is borne out either by Key's recent actions as applies the Middle East (New Zealand's laudable Security Council effort at assisting and defending Palestine being a commendable exception) or his newfound choice of friends.

Let us be perfectly clear about this. The Anglo-American "family of Nations" that Key wishes us to step-(son)-toe into have a litany of egregious human rights issues to answer for themselves. Extraordinary Renditions, illegal wars, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and all the rest of it.

I'd take Key's more recent lip-service commitment to acting as the champion and defender of human rights a helluvalot more seriously if I'd seen clear and compelling evidence of him standing up for same when the violations were being committed by his golfing-partners, rather than merely cited as a cassus belli of convenience.

Oh, and just to add insult to injury ... here's a photo of New Zealand "looking the other way" when it came to *another* Middle Eastern regime that specializes in decapitation-based-theocracy...

He justified it on the basis that "Saudi Arabia has been part of the Western Alliance for a very long period of time, standing up against ISIL and Al Qaeda and others."

So that's alright, then.

My inner pedant wishes to note that the Islamic Republic of Iran has *also* taken an exceptionally strong stand against both ISIS and Al Qaeda (and have inarguably done *far* more against either than the recalcitrant House of Saud) ... yet you don't hear Key citing them in effusive terms by "[acknowledging their] contribution [to] global affairs".

To cut a long-winded rant short ... I reckon it's far better for one to loudly, proudly and authentically proclaim that one's "whole DNA is laced with" a commitment to human rights and empowering or defending the marginalized than to simply don the language of international justice and the Colour of Right as a cloak of mere rhetorical convenience while choosing to tactfully overlook other, closer to home, instances of problematic conduct.

But then, I suppose that's just ... how did Key put it? Ah yes. The "Price of the Club" that we now apparently belong to.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Reporter Gets Mad At Somebody Else Questioning Government

Pity Andrea Vance.

Over the course of the last Parliamentary term, she's seen her star chart a curious trajectory; from up-and-coming foreign-import reporter, to a perceived manipulator of the questionable judgement of older men, and on to being the unquestioned victim of an egregious breach of privacy through governmental witch-hunt.

Through it all, she's maintained an interestingly intensive scrutiny on my beloved New Zealand First.

Considering the causitive role of one Winston Peters in exposing Vance's source for some of the more *ahem* confidential elements in her GCSB coverage, you can perhaps understand (if not necessarily forgive) her for holding a bit of a grudge in our direction...

It was therefore no great surprise when I checked the bottom of a recent Sunday Star article that began with "NZ First MPs [...]" and ended with a snidely critical tone, to find Vance's name attached to it.

Now let's get one thing clear. New Zealand First MPs are *paid* to act as a trenchant and tireless critic of bone-headed governmental policies. One of our chief roles as the *leading* Opposition party is to ask questions, call to account, and generally shine a spotlight of scrutiny on *whatever* latest iniquity the government is trying to pull.

While we can all agree that things have gotten pretty average when the fourth estate decides to take a month off in order to let one occasionally Quixotic political party and a somewhat arcane author at an Indian literary festival temporarily take over its proffered role speaking truth to power at the government's expense ...

... you'd still expect at least a *little* gratitude from the Parliamentary Press Gallery's quarter - and some positive affirmation of the fact that NZF MPs have kept working at improving our Nation all through the summer, while others have been either at the beach or all at sea.

Unfortunately, no such luck from Vance. She starts off by declaring we were merely "shouting into [the] void"; then bizarrely starts criticizing Ron Mark for *doing his job properly* and tapping into righteously rancorous public sentiment against the manifestly ridiculous Zero Tolerance speeding policy pursued by the police.

Seriously. She *literally* attempts to criticize Mark for giving voice to popular public sentiment against the government; and then finds fault with attempting to hold the relevant Minister responsible to account! Both things that are, I'm pretty sure, entries number 1 and 2 on the List Of Things Opposition MPs Are Supposed To Do With Their Time.

It's almost as if the thing that's *actually* annoyed Vance here is the idea that NZF MPs are capable of taking demonstrably sensible positions that resonate with the electorate ... and acting independently and outside of her tired cliche that we all must inexorably exist within Winston's shadow.

Vance then goes on to defend the totally inadequate handling by our Navy and Foreign Affairs ministry of the recent Antarctic Toothfish poaching incident, portraying the execution of *absolutely standard* naval procedure in encountering and apprehending pirates or plunderers as "bonkers logic" and some sort of act of unjustified and perilous aggression against a "starved slave crew".

Just what, one wonders, would Vance have had our Navy do to uphold our international obligations under the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, or when encountering *other* instances of illegally flagged rogue vessels rampaging through a marine sanctuary under our watch - especially, for that matter, when the ships in question penetrate our own territorial waters.

Is she one of those people who feels, for instance, that the Japanese ought to have free range to go a-whaling in our territory..? How does she think that piracy off Somalia ought to be dealt with..? What does she make of the Australian Navy's no-nonsense approach to same? Does she even understand the point Mark was making about manifestly potentially deficient Rules of Engagement?

Matters then proceeded from the super-silly to the supercilious when Vance attempted to take Prosser to task for his remarks on the ecological impacts of 1080 poison drops.

There are legitimate positions to be taken on either side of the 1080 debate, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention the litany of previous *personal* disagreements as applies environmental policy I've had with the man on everything from climate change to fracking (thankfully, none of which appears to be reflected in Party policy) ... but on the matter of mass aerial poison-drops causing flow-on effects *well* beyond what's intended when it comes to our native birdlife populations, the man's reasoning is *rock solid*.

1080 is *designed* to be taken in by various introduced rodent and marsupial critters. It's well renowned for taking awhile to kill, and reducing the ingestor to an agonizing and drawn out termination. During this time a slow-moving and impaired prey-animal is going to be a much more obvious - and thus, edible - target for the languid and lazy talons of our famously less-febrile birds of prey. The idea that a dead rodent or possum might be feasted on by a native bird of carrion is, similarly, entirely self-evident. And you can imagine what happens once the poisoned-meat enters their system... (a narrative chain of causation I had confirmed in the course of researching this article by chatting with a conservation expert specializing in the preservation of our hawk populations)

In light of this, Vance's demand that the MP produce a "rock wren corpse" as evidence that 1080 can have undesirable impacts on native bird populations makes a turkey not out of Prosser...

In any case, the most revealing bit of Vance's "expose" isn't any of her stabs at our party's press releases.

Instead, it's the rather telling line about how "desperately bored journalists" attempt to "drown out other voices".

I believe this is what's known in psychological circles as an "exercise in projection".

Oh and, as applies her last line ... while I'm sure she's relishing the thought of going back to Winston-centric coverage, rather than paying attention to the output of a half-dozen competent NZF MPs ... No, Andrea - calling to account the journalistic output of an import such as yourself is *not* the same thing as Xenophobia :)