Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Only Thing Green About ACT Is Envy - David Seymour's "Green" Doesn't Fly

At his Party Convention yesterday - newly rehoused from the phone-box customarily used in previous years - David Seymour took aim at the Greens.

There's nothing especially new about this ... except for the angle of the attack.

For you see, in Seymour's world, being part of a Yellow party that's frequently overlain by Blue, makes one apparently a rather deep shade of green. That was certainly how I felt reading some of his speech.

The substance of Seymour's claim to be "more Green than the Green Party" appears to be based around the fact he spent $550 less in air-fares than the average Green MP in the last quarter of 2015.

That's um ... not a lot of air-travel, to be frank. Particularly if the fares in question are business-class.

There's also a reasonably obvious reason why a Green MP might rack up more in air-fares than the Member for Epsom.

Epsom, with its twenty square kilometer geographic footprint, is New Zealand's smallest electorate. You can quite literally walk from one side of it to the other in under two hours. To get back in at the next Election, all David Seymour has to do is continue to keep a majority of the fifty thousand or so voters in his own back yard happy. There may be some air-travel involved in his portfolio responsibilities, or as part of flagging efforts at attempting to get ACT electorate branches in other centers off the ground ... but fundamentally, his constituency is strongly geographically concentrated. And that means that his connection and outreach efforts - as well as his speeches and thinking - are pedestrian.

The Greens, by contrast, are quite different. They don't really "do" electorate-outreach in the traditional sense. In fact, I'm given to understand that the way they ran things during their last Party term, was by pouring their Parliamentary Services resourcing into 'campaign offices' rather than the shadow-electorate outreach more common for Opposition parties. Even to the point of reportedly suggesting that people with local issues approach local MPs from other parties instead for help.

Instead, they have a nation-wide constituency covering an area more than ten thousand times larger.

It ought not take more than a moment's consideration to realize why Green MPs might use at least slightly more air travel than ACT's lone gunman.

They have to. It's just simply part and parcel of how they run as a party with a country-spanning support-base that they must connect with. (Interestingly, my own New Zealand First MPs averaged just a hair under $6,000 apiece over the same period. I'd be tempted to put that down to the fact they all seem to drive everywhere - covering occasionally quite incredible distances in so doing)

So by that rubric alone, it's fairly difficult to countenance - let alone take seriously - ACT's claim to being more green than the Green Party.

But it gets worse. (A common refrain with ACT, to be sure)

Other elements in Seymour's quixotic drive to be seen as "environmentally friendly" include the complete privatization of LandCorp, and using the funds thus raised to dole out grants to private operators to run wildlife charities.

The alleged logic here was that it made sense for the Crown to get rid of an "asset that is environmentally damaging". But this doesn't make sense. Privatizing LandCorp's farm holdings doesn't suddenly and magically make them no longer farms. Instead, it puts these farms in private (and most likely foreign) hands. Who's to say that intensification - leading to a consequent increase in pollution - is less likely to take place under private rather than state ownership.

All in all, I fail utterly to see how selling off and parceling off NZ's state-owned farm assets is supposed to represent the more environmentally friendly option. Indeed, the likely outcome will be exactly the opposite.

Further, when it comes to the proposed usages for the funds raised ... what ACT's proposing is quite literally corporate welfare on an epically massive scale.

Their idea is to take a revenue-generating asset, sell it, then hand the proceeds on to private operators in order to fund what will assumedly be ring-fenced privately owned and jealously guarded if not outright for-profit wildlife sanctuaries.

Because when have commercial conservation efforts ever gone awry... 

It's also rather telling that ACT is branding this explicitly as the 'charter school' model coming to the conservation estate.

Of course, what it tells us, exactly, is that ACT has very little ability to learn from previous mistakes, and that the whole thing is likely to be an utter shambles - with the taxpayer forced to pick up the ultimate bill.

About the only nice thing I can say about this is that it quite clearly and eloquently illustrates the core component of neoliberal economic thought: that it's not about creating new wealth so much as it is taking public wealth and handing it directly over to their mates in the private sector.

If ACT were genuinely interested in embracing the principles of conservation and environmental stewardship, this would be something to be welcomed with open arms.

Unfortunately, that is not what they're doing here. For them, a veneer of environmentalism is merely a cover for vigorously renewed petty point-scoring and internecine party partisan politics. Meanwhile, the closest they get to an interest in conservation is their desperate quest to protect that most endangered of species - the unreconstructed hard-neoliberal voter.

This weekend's political barbs and policy announcements have resolutely revealed that the only thing "Green" about the ACT Party is the state of envy Seymour evidently has for the real Greens' ability to convert their own - authentic - environmental principles into a genuine future existence as a party with a thriving nation-wide constituency.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Will Greens Support NZ First On Asset Buy-Back Scheme?

Something that's happening with increasing frequency of late, is other parties adopting New Zealand First policy as their own. National did it with their zero healthcare fees for pre-teens policy. Labour did much the same (albeit in a watered down format) with their landmark fees-free tertiary education policy earlier this year.

But far and away the most common ... "collaborative synergist" for NZ First policy appears to be none other than the Green Party. We've already seen them lift directly from our manifesto this term with their Kiwisaver reform package, and I've been pleased to note numerous instances of co-operation between the two parties ever since we got back into Parliament on issues like TPPA opposition and the Manufacturing Inquiry.

But what's caught my attention this week is this: less than 72 hours after a poll-result which once again showed The Greens trading votes with New Zealand First ... the Green Party are signalling they're open to adopting NZ First's flagship Asset Renationalization policy.

As you may recall, Asset Renationalization - i.e. the buy-back of those power companies part-privatized by the National-led government - was one of New Zealand First's non-negotiable bottom lines at the last Election.

At the time, the Green Party were a bit lukewarm about the idea. Their position then was that they'd have to wait til after the Election to consider the numbers, and find out if asset renationalization was a viable proposition.

Well, as the numbers contained in their press release from yesterday make abundantly clear, allowing these assets to remain in private and foreign ownership makes little fiscal sense.

We've already forgone nearly a billion dollars in dividends since these assets were part-privatized two and a half years ago in 2013. Should they remain anything other than fully state owned, this number will only continue to grow.

Once the figure hits $4.7 billion dollars - the amount of revenue raised by the sale - we shall effectively be in a far worse position than we were before selling them. This is because we will have given up an income stream in exchange for a quick cash influx (that was used at least in part to pay for tax cuts), for - by that sad and sorry point - absolutely zero overall fiscal benefit.

New Zealand First could see that this was going to be the inevitable situation far in advance. That's why we unveiled an asset buy-back policy scheme very early into the last Parliamentary Term (in fact, I think from memory it was in mid-2012). We're glad that the Green Party's started to catch up with our thinking some three and a half years later. But we have to wonder what took them so long - presumably playing around with their "NZ Power" joint-concept with Labour.

I look forward to the Green Party's signaled energy policy announcements later this year. In an ideal world, they'll take the long - indeed, sustainable - view and join us on  the Side of Right by announcing their intent to #Renationalize these pilfered power companies.

Because anything else ... wouldn't be putting New Zealand first.

Monday, February 22, 2016

What Does It Mean That Polls Have New Zealand First Growing At Expense Of Greens?

Over the weekend, the new Colmar-Brunton poll came out. It codified one truth, and revealed others:

Firstly, that New Zealand First is once again on the rise. This should not come as any serious surprise to politics-watchers, as the Party's solid performance both in the House and elsewhere continues to be transmogrified into sterling poll-results.

But perhaps more interesting is the fact that New Zealand First's bump in the polls appears to have come at the square expense of The Greens.

This serves to illustrate something that I have long maintained: however uncomfortable a truth it might represent for some members of both parties and their supporters.

That New Zealand First and The Green Party have considerably overlapping support-bases - both in terms of policy and philosophy, as well as the potential allegiances of their likely and actual voters.

The Green Party have long acknowledged this. In 2011, for instance, they made an appeal to NZF supporters for us to vote Green instead, on grounds that a vote for New Zealand First while we were out of Parliament represented a "wasted vote".

And while their rhetorical conclusion might have been manifestly fallacious ... the fundamental reasoning which underlay it - that a considerable number of NZ First supporters and Greens supporters have sufficiently interchangeable views and values to be occasionally induced to vote for one another's parties - remains sound.

This is, obviously, borne out in Sunday's Colmar Brunton. But it's not like it's an isolated blip. There's been a number of other polls - both Roy Morgan and Colmar Brunton - which have served to demonstrate this trend.

So what does this mean?

Well, it suggests that the received wisdom amongst some in NZ First - and elsewhere - that our 'natural' constituency of support is 'soft-right' or 'soft-National', is in error. Our rises are not coming at National's expense any more than Labour's. Instead, the new people we are attracting more appear to be emanating in our direction from the Green Party and other progressive sources.

Given the strong role of ex-Labour 'protest' and 'strategic' voters in securing our re-entry into Parliament in 2011, this ought to come as no surprise.

It may not be especially 'politically convenient' for a number of people to countenance, but that's who we apparently are. A Party of predominantly angry, anti-neoliberal and often curmudgeonly supporters who might indeed have had a Past amidst the Right's orbit - but whose future appears to have far more to do with the left and centre.

It is no secret that changing the government in 2017 requires New Zealand First (and other parties) hewing into National's support. But growing our support as a Party doesn't mean we have to go right-wing to make this happen.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Better Public Service Targets Require Independent Auditing - NZ First Private Members' Bill Series Part Two

Yesterday morning, we woke up to news that government agencies are quite literally "inventing numbers" in order to make themselves seem competent and measure up to the government's public service performance targets.

This might seem pretty heinous - and it is - but consider the culture they're operating in. They answer, after all, to a Government which thought it was perfectly fine and a-OK to make up out of thin air any range of numbers from the projected economic benefits of the TPPA (there's no data to support a $2.7 billion dollar figure), through to the supposed revenue from selling off our power companies.

It is fair, right and proper that we be given information which allows us to assess how well particular government agencies and programs are performing. Equally, it is also unjust and iniquitous that the present Government's bean-counter approach to politics has created a situation wherein public servants feel they *have* to lie, cheat and obfuscate in order to maintain their sources of much-needed integral funding.

I've personally seen this in the education sector, where a number of providers I've worked for have seemingly deliberately massaged measures of assessment and achievement in pursuit of better pass-rates - and the consequent rewards which follow.

The issues identified by the Salvation Army in their State of the Nation report, however, are far broader.

This isn't just 'cheating' at already established and externally recognized rubrics of accountability.

This is the creation of entirely new metrics with the deliberate and specific object of *avoiding* accountability. It's also the presentation of data in singularly unhelpful ways so as to prevent the casual observer (or even, apparently, the seeming-expert) from being able to keep reliable tabs on the performance-returns of public money.

It is exceptionally worrying that some of our most vulnerable - children under the aegis of CYFs foremost among them - appear to be the ones most directly affected by this number-crunching chicanery.

This is not a new issue, either.

Ever on the ball, NZ First's Social Development spokesperson, Darroch Ball put a private member's bill in the ballot mid-way through last year that would have addressed this situation, by ensuring independent scrutiny of public service targets. It also would have specifically addressed the CYFs issue through subjecting targets in this area to Children's Commissioner oversight.

This would ensure accountability by placing the responsibility for verifying and validating performance in the hands of people dedicated to ensuring accurate and apt outcomes. Not self-interested parties with a vested motivation to make themselves look good. It's simply common sense.

We cannot allow the worrying trend of government agencies being given free-reign to self-assess and self-pass to continue.

As we can see from the CYFs situation, it's not simply an issue of taxpayer dollars and cents. It's a pressing and urgent case of quality-of-life, quality-of-service, and even potentially risks to life itself.

I salute both Darroch Ball and the Salvation Army for putting this ongoing travesty under the spotlight.

Let us hope that Ball's bill is adopted, and this flagrant abuse of process put to an end.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Labour's Three Free Years Of Tertiary Education - A Critical Appraisal

There's no denying the palpable enthusiasm around Labour's recently announced free three years' of tertiary education policy. While there are some issues with the policy (including its glacial pace of rollout that won't fully deliver for another decade, its non-accessibility to people looking to retrain, and the lack of full funding for skilled and needed degrees like medicine) ... it's overall a pretty decent start.

But what's got me slightly annoyed at present is the number of pro-Labour people I've sighted on social media claiming this is some sort of ground-breaking never-before-seen-in-New-Zealand-Political-History moment.

It isn't.

We used to have free tertiary education in this country - and not just for three years, either.

What happened to it? Well, a certain fellow who's drawing a bit of opprobium at the moment called Phil Goff who was Labour's Tertiary Education Minister at the time ... went and started charging fees for higher learning.

One wonders whether Goff will be allowed to cross the floor and vote against Labour's planned free tertiary initiative (should he still be in Parliament by the time it's rolled out) on the basis of his own previous record on this issue, as well.

Anyway. Progressively-inclined parties never really gave up the fight to fix what Labour had done. I'm pretty sure The Alliance made noises about this sort of reformism as part of its snap-back against Rogernomics in the 1990s, while in more recent times both New Zealand First and the Green Party have advocated solidly for a return to the zero-fees model.

NZ First's embracing of the abolition of tertiary education fees holds a particular point of pride in my memory, as it was one of my first 'back-room' political skirmishes to get something passed.

However, there are two key areas where I definitely think Labour's missed the mark.

The first issue is how little Labour appears to be ready to do to help those present-day (and former) students who're even now groaning under the weight of serious student-loan debt. It's great that Labour has joined NZ First and The Greens in wanting to do something about the ruinous burden of tertiary fees which cause students to go into debt in the first place ... but this does nothing for the more than seven hundred thousand New Zealanders who have a student loan presently, nor the $15 billion in debt which they currently owe.

New Zealand First, by contrast, *does* have policy in this area. It's called Dollar-for-Dollar, and it helps those students and graduates who were unfortunate enough to be born in the quarter century wherein NZ decided inexplicably to abandon free tertiary education. How does it work? It's a debt write-off scheme. For every dollar you put in in repayments, the state matches that dollar with one of its own. This incentivizes quick repayment, gets rid of a large chunk of "bad debt", and does something for those present and previous borrowers who're often neglected in the mad scramble-a-rush to do things for as-yet the unenrolled (or perhaps even born) masses.

If Labour is serious about helping Kiwis who've been disadvantaged by its previous imposition of fees for tertiary education, it needs to consider implementing something similar.

The second area where there's a clear gap in Labour's tertiary policy concerns the notion of a Universal Student Allowance. Living costs can represent a serious barrier and impediment to pursuing tertiary education for thousands of potential and present students; with thousands more going into debt, forgoing food, or otherwise detrimentally altering their lives in order to make ends meet while studying. While there is a student allowance available at present for some students, the way accession is set up at the moment it's all too easy for many to fall through the cracks of the eligibility criterion.

Rolling out a universal student allowance would help to support students while they study, in ways that simply reducing the amount they have to borrow to fund their course fees simply wouldn't. We already feel quite comfortable, as a nation, paying the unemployed to survive (and look for work) - why not do the same for students who are seeking to better themselves and their future earning potential.

Now once again, this is an area where Labour's shortfall is not shared by other parties. New Zealand First has advocated for a Universal Student Allowance consistently right the way since our founding in 1993. The Green Party has also been pretty solid on it. Labour, to its credit, did flirt with the idea when attempting to secure a fourth term in 2008, but the policy appears to have fallen from favour since then, and was not part of its 2014 (or subsequent) platform.

In sum, then, Labour's announcement of three years' free tertiary education by 2025 isn't quite the unprecedented 'game-changer' some are making it out to be. It's a good first move, certainly. And while, on its own, it obviously loses out by comparison to other parties' actual free tertiary education policies, for the next generation it nonetheless represents a considerable improvement.

But if we're serious about fixing the way we do tertiary education in this country and restoring the standards of equity, accessibility and affordability which we once enjoyed, then more needs to be done.

I look forward to upcoming policy announcements from Labour which serve to rectify this situation, and certainly hope they take appropriate heed and inspiration from the already-extant policy of their potential coalition partners in New Zealand First and The Greens.

Because we can't afford to let another generation go through the same thing and come out owning fifteen billion.