Parliament Won’t Save Us

In 2014, 22.1% of people didn’t vote (http://www.stats.govt.nz/browse_for_stats/snapshots-of-nz/nz-social-indicators/Home/Trust%20and%20participation%20in%20government/voter-turnout.aspx). This election, I’m going to join their ranks.

I see a system failing, people being consciously made homeless by mohair-suited politicians, and laws being broken by everybody, the most petty crimes being rewarded by the harshest punishments.

The typical response I receive to telling people I won’t vote goes something along these lines: “no vote is the same as a vote for National”. This reaction comes from the idea that the staunch blue under-belly of New Zealand will always turn out to vote, so the only way to combat it is to hold your nose and vote Labour, Greens or Mana.

Surely, the other side of the coin is also true, “don’t vote, it only encourages them!” This is the path I follow, the path of burning down the old to allow the new to flourish. We must clear the weeds from the garden before we can once again plant our kūmara.

The first weed that must be cleared is the illusion that our current system is working. We’ve known for years of our housing shortfall, and our politicians continue to commit to inaction. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=11799625

Our political and economic systems are clearly failing to provide one of the most basic of human needs. We are not living in a social structure which provides for people.

The second weed to be cleared is the illusion that this system can be fixed. While this is usually a long and drawn out argument, there are a couple of easy examples which can be looked at. The easiest is the “new deal” which is the name for all the labour and social welfare changes which were made at the end of the great depression in the 1930s. These have all but been removed, as the drive to gather more profit has outstripped the ability of workers to maintain decent working conditions. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Deal

The third weed to be cleared is the idea that capitalism is the natural state of things. Capitalism is the system under which workers sell their labour. A few hundred years ago, we had a feudal society in which workers were bonded to the land, and were forced to give a certain amount of what the produced to the lord of the land. Under feudalism, the lord took a portion of your produce, rather than paying you for your time.

Given that we haven’t always had capitalism, it’s incorrect to assume that we always will have it. We can imagine other systems, and we can make them work.

It’s hopeless trying to save our current system. Years ago people were struggling to get by on minimum wage, and today we still struggle. Years ago Māori were disproportionately incarcerated, and are still today. Years ago the bosses got away with not paying their fair share, and today they still do.

There’s only one way forward, break down what has been built, and start again with better ideals.

Why think inside the box, and vote for a non-solution? Instead, let’s come together and work to build our own solution, one which doesn’t care for the empty promises of politicians. Let’s shape the world into what we want, rather than what our landlords and bosses want.

Fuck voting, it’s time to make something new.

Unemployment Is Not The Fault Of The Unemployed

I had a discussion recently in which the person I was speaking with suggested that unemployment is the fault of the unemployed. While this may be true in certain individual cases, this post argues it is not the general rule.

 

To set the scene for this argument, I need to define a few things. First is the concept of full employment. Full employment is a term used in macroeconomics which means the maximum number of people who can work are in work. It’s generally somewhere near 0% unemployment, but is never 0%, as there are always people between jobs, unable to work due to their circumstances, or who are wealthy enough to not need to work. In New Zealand, I suggest an accurate level for this is maybe around 1% unemployment. I draw this figure from Treasury records which put unemployment at a bit below 1% in the 1970s when New Zealand had arguably more jobs than people.

Second, the process I’ll use in my argument. Since I am arguing against the position that unemployment is the fault of the unemployed, I will draw some conclusions which should be seen if this is the case. These conclusions will then be checked against the data.

We can assume that an individual’s desire to work remains constant across years. We can also assume that any variation across a lifetime averages out across individuals. So given our assumption that unemployment is the fault of the unemployed, we should see a relatively flat line in the unemployment rate:

Source: Statistics NZ (http://www.stats.govt.nz/browse_for_stats/snapshots-of-nz/nz-social-indicators/Home/Labour%20market/unemployment.aspx) – Table created by Jeremy Roundill

We don’t see the flat line we expected, so there must be some other factors more greatly affecting the unemployment rate than workers’ desire to work.

The obvious counter-argument to this is that it’s a generational shift, where people from different generations have different work-ethics. If this is true, the variation should come primarily from the retirement of previous generations, and the emergence of newer generations into the working population. The result we should see is a fairly flat line for each generation, perhaps decreasing as fewer members of each generation are able to work.

 

Source: Statistics NZ (http://www.stats.govt.nz/browse_for_stats/snapshots-of-nz/nz-social-indicators/Home/Labour%20market/unemployment.aspx) – Weighted averages calculated and table created by Jeremy Roundill

Instead of seeing the flat lines we expected, we see lines which quite closely follow the same trend. In fact, any large change in unemployment seems to show up across all generations in the graph.

An interesting aside: from the data, it appears that younger generations have a much harder time in finding employment, even when comparing those who were 15-19 in 1986 to those who were 35-39 in 1986. However, it’s worth noting the data is slightly skewed in the older two generations for the last 5 or so years in the table.

Conclusions:

It appears that unemployment is not a result of generational differences, and it’s not a result of the desire of a certain group to not work. The question which surely follows is what causes unemployment?

The general answer is relatively straightforward: government policy. In the 1970s, governments across the world began to adopt neoliberal policies, destroying workers’ rights and thrusting our economies into a global market. The result of this is we now have a workforce beholden to a global class of bosses. The financial wheelings and dealings of these business elites have a far greater effect on our markets and employment rates than they did before.

Source: Treasury (http://www.treasury.govt.nz/publications/research-policy/wp/2014/14-01/04.htm/twp14-01-02.gif)

Global economic trends hugely influence our unemployment rates. The crises of the 1970s, including the oil shocks of 1973 and 1978 pale in comparison to the huge jumps in unemployment as a result of the recession in the early 1990s and the great recession of 2008.

The New Zealand economy of the 1970s shows what a full employment economy looks like. While the oil shocks of that decade certainly affected the unemployment rate, the overall trend was one of recovery and certainty. Our economy in recent decades paints a far different picture. Unemployment is never stable, and the job market is hugely affected by global crises.

Since we have shown that the actual desire of the unemployed to work is not borne out by the employment rate, we can safely say that our economy is one which does not provide jobs for everybody. It’s a conscious choice we’ve made, to shift our economy to one vulnerable to the ravages of the global economy.

The Official Information Act Doesn’t Work

Over the past few months, I’ve made several Official Information Act requests. Official information is our information, it is data held by government; an institution which is, in principle, beholden to us. However, the standard practice of government departments almost completely disregards the law. It is standard to have requests declined on spurious grounds, to have requests ignored, or to have responses delayed past the maximum limit set in law.

A good case is my first request, asking the Ministry of Social Develpoment for all performance indicators for roles at Work and Income. Under the OIA, a decision must be made on a request within 20 working days following the day of receipt. The initial response I received was days late, and did not meet the standard of being a decision on my request, so I complained to the Ombudsman, our government watchdog.

I am informed your request was received by the Ministry on 1 July 2016. By my calculation, a decision should have been made and communicated to you by 29 July 2016 at the latest.However, no decision was made on your request by that date. While the Ministry did write to you on 1 August 2016, I have found that response did not amount to a ‘decision’ for the purposes of the OIA. A decision must be clear as to whether an information request is to be granted, in full or in part, and, if not, provide reasons why the agency cannot or will not release information, having regard to the public interest. Accordingly, MSD’s failure to make and communicate a decision continued until a substantive response was provided to you on 19 August 2016.

The Ombudsman is not mandated to do ensure compliance with the law, they can only issue statements to government officials requesting that they comply with the law. As such my complaint was upheld, but the Ombudsman was unable to do anything more than inform the Minister that her ministry was not complying with the law.

In these circumstances, although I have found that the Ministry’s actions were in breach of the requirements set out under the OIA, I do not consider it necessary to make a formal recommendation in this case. However in writing to the Chief Executive of the Ministry today, I have reminded him that I regard timeliness, and compliance with OIA, as a fundamental obligation. The Chief Ombudsman is commencing an ongoing programme of proactive investigations into agencies’ OIA compliance and practices, and drawing public attention to cases where there is demonstrable non-compliance. Although it is inevitable that the work that the Ministry is doing at present to improve its processes will take some time to reach its full effect, it must be progressed as a priority.

This sort of response is adequate for a once-off issue; if the government departments were not explicitly violating the OIA on a regular basis. However, these violations are commonplace. A cursory look over my other requests reveals almost every single request has some sort of unlawful behaviour on the part of the government:

I sent an OIA request to Gurpreet Arora following his contribution to Radio New Zealand in which he said Indian students “could be getting involved in crime as well, committing crime, getting involved in activities, prostitution” as a result of debts incurred studying in New Zealand. He has yet to respond at all, despite being far past the legislated deadline.

I also requested from New Zealand Police a set of data requesting the locations of Police checkpoints. This was responded to late, and the response did not address the request I had made.

A watchdog with no teeth works only when those being watched are afraid of its bark. Government departments have long since realised the Ombudsman does not wield the power to really ensure the law is followed, and they’d prefer to break the law than provide potentially embarrassing information.

Open Government Partnership Action Plan: Weak Commitments

I participated in an Open Government Partnership (OGP) workshop held by engage2 earlier this year. The purpose was to “consult” with civic society in order to “co-create” our next National Action Plan. Today that Action Plan has been released.

A key point I made during the workshop was that we needed to give the Ombudsman teeth. Currently, if a government department decides not to comply with our Official Information Act (OIA), which is to say they decide to act unlawfully, the only consequence is a slap on the wrist from the Ombudsman, if that.

I complained to the Ombudsman that the Ministry of Social Development had not met the timeframe for response defined in the OIA, and received this in response:

In these circumstances, although I have found that the Ministry’s actions were in breach of the requirements set out under the OIA, I do not consider it necessary to make a formal recommendation in this case. However in writing to the Chief Executive of the Ministry today, I have reminded him that I regard timeliness, and compliance with OIA, as a fundamental obligation. The Chief Ombudsman is commencing an ongoing programme of proactive investigations into agencies’ OIA compliance and practices, and drawing public attention to cases where there is demonstrable non-compliance. Although it is inevitable that the work that the Ministry is doing at present to improve its processes will take some time to reach its full effect, it must be progressed as a priority.

The Ombudsman has no power to make government departments follow the legislation they are mandated to enforce. It is this lack of consequences which enables these departments to act unlawfully, the only way to ensure the OIA is followed is to enforce it.

Instead, the State Services Commission (SSC) has come back with a weak commitment to increase the OIA performance of government departments. Let’s be very clear here, the SSC is committing to only reducing the amount government departments break the law, they are not planning to actually enforce the law at all.

This is a positive thing for media outlets and people who are only vaguely interested in one topic or another. However when government departments deny OIA requests of people like Ti Lamusse, from No Pride In Prisons, they prevent advocacy organisations from acting as the watchdogs they are supposed to be.

Overall, the commitments are far too weak. We need stronger commitments from the government to ensure our existing official information law is complied with.

Spencer Family Mansion

On the weekend, the New Zealand Herald ran a story about a mansion which is to be built in Stanley Point on the North Shore. The Devonport section is so big it covers 16 separate street addresses. With the current housing crisis in Auckland, it’s shocking that such a large property so close to the city is to be home to a single family. Or at least it would be shocking if this family didn’t have such a long and outrageous history.

The mansion is being built for Martin (Berridge) Spencer, on land the Spencers have owned for a while now. Berridge is the 4th generation inheritant of the Spencer family fortune, generated in 1890 when his great-grandfather Albert Spencer built the Caxton Printing Office in Auckland.

The Caxton Printing Office was founded with a Mr. Probert, who was bought out of his share in the business by Spencer five years later. It was eventually inherited by Albert Spencer’s son, Berridge Spencer Sr., who expanded the business following World War I, eventually establishing a monopoly on a wide array of paper-based household products. This was inherited in 1981 by his son, John Spencer (Berridge Jr.’s father), who sold it off 7 years later to Carter Holt Harvey for a tidy $300M. John Spencer’s wealth was estimated during the mid ’80s at around $675M, making him New Zealand’s richest man at the time.

Land owned by John Spencer on Waiheke island contains the Stony Batter Historic Reserve, a Category 1 Historic Place with a series of gun emplacements from World War II. Apparently annoyed with the public’s interest in our shared history, he launched a legal battle and eventually dumped a load of dirt to block a public road in an attempt to keep the rest of us out. After almost two decades of protest and legal battles with a $1.5M cost to Auckland ratepayers, the legal battle made it to the Privy Council, where Spencer lost.

Apparently unhappy with only costing the communities around him money, John Spencer along with his son Berridge, decided to try their hand at tax evasion. For 14 years they were, together, majority shareholders in TrustNet, a company specialising in setting up maze-like company structures to facilitate tax evasion. They both placed money in companies set up to hide their true locations and owners, ostensibly to evade tax themselves.

Having cost Aucklanders millions, and skimped on their own contribution to society by way of tax evasion, The Data Centre, owned and directed by Berridge Spencer installed a motion-activated sprinkler outside their premises. This has been at the entrance to The Data Centre, next door to the Starbucks on Queen St for over a year now, and is still visible and working. The sprinklers are an absolute disgrace, from a family who refuses to fund the social services we rely on to ensure people aren’t forced to sleep in Queen St doorways to begin with.

New Zealand hasn’t got as long a tradition of landed gentry as countries like Britain, but the Spencers certainly act with the impunity of English lords. The Spencers refuse to pay their fair share, and have no qualms about pissing on those who suffer as a result. That they’ve decided to build a mansion on a section, the likes of which the rest of us could never even dream, is just another slap in the face from our horrible, burgeoning upper class.

The Baddies of Agriculture: Employers or Employees?

A couple of days ago, John Key launched an attack on employees, labeling kiwi workers as lazy drug abusers. Key suggested immigrants were needed for seasonal work, as they are more reliable and harder working than local workers. While there are obvious arguments to be made here challenging the validity of his statements, this article instead aims to provide some context around industry practice.

Our agricultural sector is big, harvest seasons typically cause huge influxes of workers to those regions of the country. It’s not unreasonable to expect upwards pressure on the wages of seasonal work, workers are in high demand, but short supply. It’s surprising, then, to see the first results of a Google search for “fruit picking jobs” to result in a list of companies offering minimum wage for fruit pickers.

Jobs in agriculture are even worse. New Zealand Farm Source, a major farm labour recruitment website, advertises jobs with dubious conditions. A cursory search of the site reveals one promising a measly $40,000 per annum, while demanding an average of 56 hours a week, putting the pay rate at about $14 an hour, far lower than the minimum wage. Helen Kelly, former president of the Council of Trade Unions, has been tracking jobs on NZ Farm Source, and regularly finds jobs requiring dangerously long working hours, offering low pay (often below minimum wage) and necessitating illegal employment contracts.

Employment contracts are never provided to large tracts of agricultural workers. One in five workers are employed, illegally, without a contract. Agricultural employers are far less likely to comply with employment law when hiring workers.

In saying New Zealand workers are lazy and drug dependent, John Key is providing thinly masked defence of an exploitative and abusive industry. Kiwis expect to be treated better, and they demand their employers act lawfully. Immigrant workers face the threat of deportation if they ever challenge their employers, and uncertainty about whether their visas, which are linked to their employers, will remain valid if they complain.

Abusive employers should expect stroppy employees. We should be celebrating the kiwis who take their less-than-minimum-wage paycheck and stand on a shovel all day. Key’s statement is clearly untrue, but provides the reader with a good course of action for combatting bad employment practice; get high and stay home.

Housing in Auckland: Profiting from Suffering

I started studying at Waikato in 2010 and stayed in the halls in my first year, paying $225 per week which included a room, power and food. I moved into my first flat in 2011, rent was $100 per week and we lived right across the road from university. The cheapest flat I had there was $75/week rent. In Auckland, $100 per week rent is a pipe dream, even living an hour commute out of town. The rents are close to double of those in Hamilton, and the living conditions are far worse.

Living in Auckland is a compromise between health and affordability. We pay a huge amount of our weekly income just making sure we have a roof over our heads. And even when we do find a house, it’s likely to be an unhealthy place to live. Black mould is commonplace, rental properties are barely maintained. In Auckland, it’s not unusual for a house to cost anywhere between $20,000 and $50,000 a year in rent, which is a lot to pay for minimal maintenance.

Auckland’s rental market is largely different to other rental markets around Aotearoa. Our rents are hugely disproportionate to what we get in return. This is because the market has failed to produce the number of homes we require. As such, there are far more renters than available houses in Auckland. The shortage of housing means we operate in a sellers’ market, where landlords have more strength in bargaining. The only limits to how much they can charge us for rent are how much money we have.

Landlords have no motivation to make sure we’re living in safe houses. Their rental properties are no more than investments to them, they purchase these properties to profit from the capital gains accrued each year. Our landlords are motivated only to bleed us dry. We are disempowered as renters; we can’t complain when our landlords breach tenancy law with unexpected visits, when they ask us for 6 weeks rent as bond, or when they illegally hike up the rent. If we do, we’re likely to end up with a bad reference or evicted from the house. The power dynamic is far skewed to the benefit of landlords. A clear example is that they can terminate a fixed term tenancy with 90 days notice, however the tenant has to effectively go bankrupt and prove they are unable to pay rent in order to terminate the same tenancy.

To top all of this off, those rental properties earn our landlords more than the average family in capital gains each year. For those who can afford it, investment property is a real cash cow. Capital gains in Auckland are so huge that there is a significant sector of the property investment market which purchases houses and leaves them empty. So called “land banking” contributes to the housing shortfall in Auckland, which further drives up rent prices.

For years tenants have pushed for comprehensive capital gains taxes and warrants of fitness for housing, but are shot down by the property owning lobby every time. Our death rates increase drastically in Winter, at least partly because of our sub-standard housing. Landlords have a vested interest in convincing us that taxing them and forcing them to make sure their rentals are warm and healthy are bad ideas. Both of these things reduce the profit they make. Investment properties have that name because their purpose is to generate profit.

Landlords make us sick by not insulating houses. They take more out of our food budget every time they hike up the rent. They charge us exorbitant prices for the human right of shelter. We are over-charged and under-housed, and we are shot down every time we try to solve this problem. The reason for this is that the problem is not due to today’s landlords, but rather because it is systemic. It’s in the best interest of landlords to ignore the social problems caused by their practices.

We neglect heating every Winter, with rent taking priority over power bills. We suffer a much higher rate of sickness in Autumn and Winter due to cold, damp and mouldy houses. We eat cheap, unhealthy food so we can afford exorbitant rents. Even as rent increases year after year, even as living conditions deteriorate and we’re forced to crowd as many people in a house as we can to afford rent we keep paying.

We pay our rent with our health.

This doesn’t have to be the case. We can change the system.

Student Housing Action Group (SHAG) is a group of students who are fed up with the current housing situation in Auckland. SHAG realises the housing situation is failing to provide healthy, secure, and affordable housing, and they fight for systemic change.

Originally published under the title Health: Our New Currency in Debate | Issue 12

The Beneficiary Experience

For the past six months or so, I’ve been volunteering as a beneficiary advocate with Auckland Action Against Poverty. As a white man from a fairly well-off family, the most I’ve had to deal with the Ministry of Social Development in my life has been with StudyLink who are a nightmare at the best of times. Beneficiary advocacy has really opened my eyes to the ways in which beneficiaries are treated by our social welfare system.

At AAAP, I deal with people who have been screwed over by Work and Income on a daily basis. They are told “no” and, almost without exception, it isn’t properly explained why. Case workers and managers alike routinely act unlawfully, they’ll happily sanction benefits without explaining the reason why in writing, then turn around and require you to produce endless bank statements for a measly food grant. This is despite the Social Security Act requiring written explanation of sanctions 5 days before they’re applied (s113(2) for the wonks), and the obvious response to a request of a bank statement “what if they’ve just taken their money out?”

Receptionists at Work and Income are trained to turn people away, I’ve seen a heavily pregnant woman declined a food grant at reception on the last weekday before a 4 day weekend, and the worst thing was it wasn’t even surprising. Receptionists are trained with a million different lines to drive people away; “we don’t do walk-ins between 12 and 2”, “we can’t book an appointment to sort out your eviction notice, it’s not immediate”, “I can book you in if you want, but it’ll be a long wait and you probably won’t get that food grant.”

And if you thought you were over the hill when you finally made it past the receptionist, through the 3 hour wait and into an appointment with a case manager for the food grant you so desperately need, you’re sorely mistaken. Case managers are not what you expect, they aren’t social workers constrained bureaucracy orchestrated by a nasty government, but gatekeepers standing between you and the social welfare system that is supposed to be helping you. They’ll tell you “no, you’ve run out of food grant entitlement”, despite knowing full well that all that means is you have to check with a manager for the next food grant. They’ll try and tell you that you can feed your family of 6 for a week on $120. They’ll tell you they can only give you a $60 food grant, because that’s how much the Otago Food Cost Survey says you can live on, but they won’t reduce your debt offsets, even though they leave you with $40 a week for food and are the reason you’re coming in for a food grant anyway.

I used to wonder why Work and Income offices were open plan, rather than having private rooms for what are often private conversations. It’s a stark contrast to other public services like doctors’ clinics. I understand why now, Work and Income are not there to help you, they are only there to make it look like they’re helping.30

Our Fourth Estate on the TPPA

It’s the new year, and parliamentary politics has yet to heat up again. There’s only one big event on the horizon, the signing of the TPPA here in Aotearoa. Despite the lack of activity, and the abundance of information produced on the TPPA, our media is failing to produce any sort of cognisant reporting on the issue. Case and point is John Roughan’s Saturday article in the Herald. He shows a complete lack of understanding of the criticisms leveled against the agreement, and succeeds only in throwing random facts around with empty rhetoric.

Roughan’s piece seems to be mainly suggesting dissenters are incorrect to continue their dissent, as the released text of the TPPA isn’t as bad as we feared it could be

[The signing of the TPPA] is bound to attract the mother of all protests, which will finally discredit those who have been marching in the streets, for the text has been out for two months and it has become clear it is not the sell-out to the US they were led to expect.

While it is a relief that we are trading less than all of our sovereignty for an expected 0.9% increase in GDP over the next 15 years, or around 0.06% per annum, it’s no reason to stop criticising the agreement. We are still signing an agreement which expands global corporate hegemony, potentially costing us billions of dollars.

Roughan goes on to suggest the text is completely benign, because he hasn’t seen Professor Jane Kelsey point out a smoking gun

[Law] professor Jane Kelsey has been studying trade position papers for years and I’ve been waiting for her to find something explosive in the fine print

This is the level of journalism we can expect from the New Zealand Herald these days, gotchas and smoking gun politics. He follows this up with a misunderstanding of claims that New Zealand’s signing of the TPPA is undemocratic

I don’t know what kind of government protesters have in mind when they call the TPP’s dispute provisions a threat to “democracy”

Despite the fact we have never had a chance to vote on the TPPA, and the government is planning to sign it without a referendum or any sort of public consultation, even though polls show only 34% support the agreement. There’s a word for governments who change their countries without consulting the people, and it’s not “democratic”.

Roughan finishes off with a classic piece of personality politics rubbish, suggesting John Key is doing a good job because of how well he schmoozes with other world leaders.

Key, elected in the same week as Obama, established an important personal rapport. At times when the talks failed to reach predicted agreement and Key was asked whether he still thought the TPP would succeed, he’d say, “I think so. Obama wants to do it.”

Our media is failing in their duty of providing accurate information to the citizenry, and checks on government. Instead, we have a paper which reads like a fan club newsletter, obsessed with the people in charge and offering only the shallowest of analysis. The sooner the trite that is the New Zealand Herald moves into obscurity, the better.

Back Of The Envelope TPPA Calculation

MFAT’s generous prediction for the GDP increase we could see as a result of being partner to the TPPA is $2.7 billion (real 2007 NZ dollars) 0.9% over the course of 15 years. Here’s what that means in more tangible terms

Some maths to work out the annual increase in GDP we can expect, if the increase is spread evenly:

100% + 0.9% = (100%+x)^15
100.9% = (100%+x)^15
100.06% = 100%+x
x = 0.06%

That $2.7 NZD really doesn’t stack up to much when you put it in these terms, it won’t be noticeable at all when you consider our GDP growth currently.