Winston, Meteria and the Missing Story

In these two examples the media has served their societal function with aplomb – hide the real story, the one that would make us awake and angry at the right things, and work overtime to promote a different one – one that focuses on personal culpability and character assassination. 

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With the revelation that Winston Peters was overpaid superannuation we have another ‘scandal’ for the media to completely distort. Predictably, they have done a very fine job.

What is the function of the the mainstream media in society? It is to follow the dictates of the Establishment – indeed it is really just one of the more powerful and influential arms of the Establishment. Crucially, it’s job is to shield the systemic inequalities from our criticism, to re-direct our frustrations to shadows, and to inoculate our protest.

Over the last few months we have two excellent examples of it doing just that.

Meteria Turei lied about her circumstances to get the benefit. Instead of the story being why one would need to do that, it became how dare one do that. It did not lose it’s moral aspect, it simply changed the target. Instead of helping us reflect on the deficiencies of a society that would push someone into such a situation, we were directed to reflect on the deficiencies of Meteria herself. This was a very deliberate, constructed narrative, with the express intention of both discrediting Meteria and distracting us from where our anger really belongs.

If you were caught up in the finger-wagging against Meteria don’t feel too bad. These are institutions that spend a great deal of money and energy to create opinion and false outrage. They should not be underestimated.

Turning to Winston, well, they’ve done it again. The story here is not that Winston was overpaid, nor is it that someone must have breached his privacy. They are just part of the event. The most important story is actually the fact that he didn’t even know he was being overpaid.

Because what does that tell us? It tells us that relatively wealthy people, such as himself, are receiving a universal benefit in superannuation, that is paid for by you and me, which they don’t need, and indeed sometimes, don’t even notice.  

The story is that in a nation of escalating income and wealth inequality, of worsening poverty and a housing crisis out of control, we are for some reason content to shell out the same amount of money to every person over the age of 65, whether they’re a millionaire couple in the city, or an isolated grandfather barely staying above the poverty line.

Why are we content to do this? Because our Establishment politicians are too gutless to tackle the problem, and because our media keep us from seeing the problem even when we have real-world examples of its terrible logic.

In these two examples the media has served their societal function with aplomb – hide the real story, the one that would make us awake and angry at the right things, and work overtime to promote a different one – one that focuses on personal culpability and character assassination.

Like the magician’s assistant, the media’s job is to draw our eyes to the flashy distraction. We then miss the way that the trick is really done.

 

theredgreenpen

Criminal Justice and Maori – The Worm at the Core of our Nation

It is a bittersweet irony that the European system of justice, which appears to be failing on all reasonable indices, will have to turn back to the principles of a justice system that it considered primitive and sought to supplant. Restorative Justice is tikanga Maori through and through, but its principles will benefit us all.

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The staggering ethnic disparity in our criminal justice system speaks to generations of disadvantage in a range of factors, including socioeconomic status, drug and alcohol abuse, inter-generational trauma, cultural dispossession and ethnic bias.

The simple fact is we have a criminal justice system that that is sick with institutional racism. This is not just my conclusion, or the conclusion of Maori advocacy groups – this is the conclusion of the Department of Corrections itself.

Shocking Statistics

New Zealand has the 2nd largest prison population relative to its size in the western world, second only to the United States. It is 84% higher than the advanced economy average.

While Maori make up just 15% of the general population, Maori men account for 50% of the male prison population and Maori women account for 57% of the female prison population.

For young Maori the statistics are even worse – of all prisoners under the age of 20, Maori account for 65%. When it comes to re-offending things don’t get any better – there is an 80% likelihood of a Maori prisoner being reconvicted, compared to 67% for non-Maori.

Overall, 40% of Maori men over the age of 15 have done prison time or a community sentence.

These statistics are truly shocking, but what is worse is that they are not particularly new. In many ways they are very well known, in fact so common they have become normalised as part of our natural social environment.  This must change.

The Problem

Key to understanding this is acknowledging the fact that although Maori are over-represented in this area for a variety of reasons, they are most certainly over-represented due to the very fact that they are Maori. Socioeconomic status, past offences, gender, drug and alcohol use all play their contributory roles. But if we forget that ethnicity itself is a risk factor, then we lose the wood for the trees.

Don’t just take my word for it. In 2008 the Department of Corrections compiled a report entitled “Over-Representation of Maori in the Criminal Justice System”. In it they referred to the idea of “Bias and Amplification”:

“It is generally understood that each stage of the criminal justice system, from apprehension through to sentencing, contains a significant degree of built-in discretion with respect to decision-making.”

These stages would include the judgment of officers “on the beat”, the decision after apprehension of whether to arrest a person, the decision whether to proceed to prosecution, the decision of the court to then convict or not convict, and once convicted the decision of the judge regarding appropriate sentencing options.

This process continues on even after sentencing. Parole Boards make decisions with respect to those imprisoned, for instance if part of the sentence can be served as Home Detention or whether an early release may be granted. Probation Officers supervising community-based sentences and orders also exercise discretion in notifying breaches of conditions or whether recall-to-prison proceedings should be initiated. The report states that

“The explanation inherent to justice system “amplification” is that systemic factors exist at one or more of these step in the process, which serve to increase the likelihood that, relative to non-Maori, Maori will progress further into the justice system and be dealt with more severely…the result of such influences would be that Maori “accumulate” in the system in disproportionate numbers.”

The report thus defines the method by which any perceived bias could occur. It is not dissimilar to the “Swiss-cheese” model of risk known to most medical professionals, which postulates that a succession of small errors is much more common in the production of adverse events than any single large one.

When it comes to apprehension an important point raised was the extent to which the detained person cooperates with the Police officer. Perceptions of bias among Maori and Pacific Islanders were very common and studies have demonstrated Maori hold relatively negative attitudes towards police. The report admits that:

“It is conceivable that this negativity may motivate hostile and uncooperative responses when in direct contact with the Police…such behaviour could in turn increase the likelihood that the Police take the matter further.”

There is also evidence that in individuals with a history of family violence, police sanctions “more often result in criminal acts of defiance than deterrence.”

Turning to prosecution, the data clearly illustrates that Maori are moderately more likely than Europeans to be prosecuted, and are prosecuted in higher numbers than the number of apprehensions might suggest. The report lists one of the most important factors involved in this as a history of previous offending.

With regards to sentencing, the report admits that “on the scale of severity, fines are typically regarded as at the less severe end.” A review of all persons sentenced between 1996-2004 revealed Maori typically received a fine less frequently than did Europeans or other sections of the total population. The report states that:

“It seems likely…that ability to pay, an obvious consideration of whether a fine is imposed, reduces the probability that Maori would receive monetary penalties, given the well-documented disparities in annual income between Maori and non-Maori.”

So Maori, owing to pre-existing economic disadvantage, are barred from receiving what is widely considered punishment that is at the “less severe end.”

A similar trend is apparent in the most severe penalty, namely imprisonment.

“Maori were more likely to receive a prison sentence. Between 11% and 13% of convicted Maori receives sentences of imprisonment, as opposed to 7-9% of Europeans, a statistically significant degree.”

In its summary report makes explicit reference to non-ethnic factors contributing to the above disparities:

“Much of this apparent ethnic difference is able to be shown to be related to other factors which validly apply, equally, to all ethnicities – factors such as previous offending history.”

But it then continues:

“However…a number of studies have shown evidence of some greater likelihood, associated only with ethnicity, for Maori offenders to:

  • have police contact
  • be charged
  • lack legal representation
  • not be granted bail
  • plead guilty
  • be convicted
  • be sentenced to non-monetary penalties
  • be denied release to Home Detention

Finally it makes a rather categorical admission:

“There appears to be sufficient evidence to conclude that ethnicity, in and of itself, plays some small but tangible role at key decision making points, in ways that are not intended by the justice system.”

Remember that this is a government commissioned report, conducted by the Department of Corrections which concludes that racial bias does in fact exist within the criminal justice system. Also remember that this was in 2008.

For those stubborn individuals in our society and political realm that continue to deny that ethnicity plays a role in disadvantage, that statement, my friends, is what they call a coup de grace. There is no debate on this issue anymore – there is only disingenuous political sentiment and ignorance.

History

If we establish that being Maori, in and of itself, is important then we need to think about why that is. It is easy to consider it from the perspective of unconscious (or conscious) bias on behalf of those involved in the system, for example police officers or judges. While this may be true, what is likely to lead to more fruitful ideas is recognising what justice actually means for Maori, and how traditional Maori concepts around justice are ignored in the current system.

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Unfortunately the focus of law, policy, media and research involved with criminal justice focuses too much on factors such as poverty, alcohol, lack of education, solo parenting, employment or physical and mental health, while ignoring Maori ethnic and cultural identity directly. It then ignores what is a crucial factor – the intergenerational effect of the trauma of surviving colonisation.

There is abundant evidence from Maori scholars such as Mason Durie and Moana Jackson that engagement with a secure and healthy Maori identity is central to addressing the vicious cycle of poverty and harm. A healthy identity is one where people may access their language, cultural norms and practises. It is also one where these are validated and endorsed by society at large.

So what are some of the concepts of justice in Maori society?

Tikanga Maori and the Justice System

The structural framework of Maori society is based upon whakapapa, or genealogical connection. Personal identification starts with membership of larger groupings, such as the whanau, hapu, or iwi, and individuality is secondary to the collective.

The key dynamic of tikanga is to maintain equilibrium between parts of the human and non-human world. This is achieved by utu, meaning balance or reciprocity. Social and legal factors are controlled through the complementary principles of tapu and noa.

Tapu means a person, place or thing is ‘off-limits’ unless certain protocols are followed. Notably, there is an inherent tapu attached to all human beings. Noa means that a person, place or thing is ‘safe’ to use or access. Essentially, tapu and noa designate what is lawful and what is not. To break the tapu of a person or resource is an offence, or hara.

Another important concept is mana, or a person’s reputation, charisma or influence. Mana may derive from many factors, such as mana atua (birthright), mana tangata (gained via deeds or actions) and mana whenua (in accordance with the geographical location of the tribe, i.e. citizenship).

The basic principle of offending in Maori society is the breach of tapu through commission of hara, which affects mana and requires utu. The aim of dispute resolution was therefore to restore balance, and the mana of the parties involved.

Owing to the collective nature of society, an insult by one member of a hapu against a member of a different hapu was viewed as an offence of the first hapu against the second. This kind of collective responsibility could be more functional than individual culpability as recompense may be more possible when it is shared amongst many rather than applied to a single person. There were consequences for the individual also, mainly whakama or shame. The fact that the whole hapu could be injured by an individual’s actions would work as a powerful deterrent.

The essential difference between the Maori system of justice and that of European society is that, owing to a worldview predicated on harmony and balance, reparation is of far more importance than punishment. Maori society also made it imperative that the victim be included in this process in order to ensure a stable and enduring outcome. The emphasis on the future also prioritises reintegration of the offender into society and the healing of the victim.

Moana Jackson sums up the system very well:

“The rights of individuals, or the hurts they may suffer when their rights were abused, were indivisible from the welfare of the whanau, the hapu, the iwi. Each had reciprocal obligations found in shared genealogy, and a set of behavioural precedents established by common tipuna. They were based too on the specific belief that all people had an inherent tapu that must not be abused, and on the general perception that society could only function if all things, physical and spiritual, were held in balance.”

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Colonisation

The common law system introduced by European settlers imposed many concepts alien to Maori ideas of justice – including the notion of an atomised individual (as opposed to collective), a materialistic focus, the exclusion of the victim from the process and the lack of focus on reparation. It is also sadly ironic that Maori had no concept for that European penalty known as imprisonment.

All of this explicitly breached the principles of Article Two of the Treaty of Waitangi – namely tino rangatiratanga, or Maori sovereignty over Maori affairs.

Maori psychiatrist and scholar Mason Durie identifies loss of access to Te Ao Maori, through loss of land, language and tikanga, as the historical events that define modern Maori identity. The material, physical and psychological damage perpetuated on Maori by ‘assimilationist’ policies, including the loss of land and resources, and the trauma of surviving violence and illness that decimated entire generations, should not be underestimated.

The resulting disadvantage Maori found themselves in also helps to entrench the institutional racism via under-representation of Maori as legislators, judges, lawyers and jurors. There is a clear sense among many Maori that the legal system is not shaped in any way by Maori, which directly contributes to Maori distrust of this system.

For example, historically Maori were not allowed to sit on juries for trials of non-Maori defendants until 1962. To this day there remains concerns about Maori representation on juries – the current law provides that potential jurors must be over 18 years of age, registered on the electoral roll, live within 30km of the court and have no disqualifying convictions. Many Maori do not meet these criteria – owing to a predominance in rural areas and previous convictions, or transportation/childcare barriers.

Another problem is the ability of “peremptory challenges” to allow the Crown and defence to dismiss jurors without cause. Evidence has shown that prosecutors often view Maori as anti-police an anti-Crown, while being empathetic to defendants. The research showed that Crown counsel were twice as likely to challenge Maori as non-Maori in High Court, and three times as likely in District Court.

So much for being judged by a “jury of one’s peers.”

Maori Women

It is an interesting fact that prior to European contact, Maori women had a legal standing in their society that was superior to Pakeha women’s standing in theirs. They had their own separate legal rights and could own and dispense property. They retained their own name and family connections upon marriage, which could also be dissolved without prejudice to her reputation or consequence to her assets.

Simply put, the colonial system and the imposition of European law reduced the status of Maori woman and was a disaster for them.

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Much commentary has been made upon the change from the extended whanau to the nuclear family unit, where Maori women lost much support from this network and became isolated in individual households with full responsibility. In Maori society there was no clear distinction between a public and private sphere, which arguably lessened the likelihood of domestic abuse, which appeared largely absent in Maori society and if present was visible and dealt with in a very straightforward way.

Today young Maori women are more likely to be the victims of violent crime than any other group in New Zealand and the most likely to be repeat victims of violence. Much of the violence perpetrated against Maori women is at the hands of Maori men.

Policy for the Drivers of Crime

The Opportunities Party policy on Criminal Justice is part of a combination of policies that seek to address the drivers of economic inequality, a variable that is consistently identified as being directly correlated to the incidence of crime.

These policies include Tax Reform, Thriving Families Unconditional Basic Income, Real Deal Cannabis and Real Action on Alcohol policies, Education policy, Rental policy and the Unconditional Basic Income for 18-23 year olds.

Taken together, they seek to address the various factors associated with crime, with the evidence suggesting they would result in lower crime and lower criminal justice costs. TOP identifies that despite this problem being obvious for decades, Establishment Parties such as Labour and National have failed to fix it.

Underlying this is the ‘worm at the core’ of these kinds of parties – the need to appease the “vociferous segment of the public who demand simplistic retribution”. Those who just want to “lock ‘em up”. It is another example of Establishment parties betraying the evidence in pursuit of votes.

Tikanga Maori Policy

The Opportunities Party’s policies to address the socioeconomic drivers is all well and good, but this entire piece has been about the fact that being Maori, in and of itself, is associated with poorer outcomes in the criminal justice system. So what are they doing to address that?

Fortunately, as a cornerstone of their policy they champion an increase in funding and support for the Restorative Justice system. As we’ve seen, the traditional Maori concept of justice placed much more emphasis upon reparation and victim support than punishment. It is therefore a policy that is in accordance with tikanga Maori.

It’s also a policy that works – reoffending rates for those who participated in restorative justice were 15% lower after a year than comparable offenders who did not participate.

They also note that the traditional arena of European justice is the providence of judges, public servants and other experts and is often viewed as very “elite.” They describe how Restorative Justice “can be thought of as a state-provided space where citizens meet each other, in this case, offenders and victims, to heal their relationship” and that “this can be done in line with tikanga Maori if that is what the participants choose.”

People often speak of the wisdom of indigenous peoples, sometimes correctly and sometimes not. But it is interesting that the European system of justice, which appears to be failing on all reasonable indices, will have to turn back to the principles of a justice system that it considered primitive and sought to supplant. Restorative Justice is tikanga Maori through and through, but its application would benefit all members of New Zealand society equally.

The Opportunities Party also propose raising the age of the Youth Court from 17 to 20. They cite evidence that since 2011 the Youth Court has overseen a 48% reduction in youth offending. Maori are, on average, younger than non-Maori in population terms, and would benefit from such a change.

Liberals and The Death of Policy

For all those who consider themselves in favour of Maori rights and correcting Maori disadvantage, there seems to be a conspicuous absence of outrage at the disgrace that is our criminal justice system.

This is both a personal failure, and a predictable outcome of allegiance to Establishment Parties, both Labour and National, who are evidently aware of this untenable state of affairs, and more evidently unperturbed by it.

I grow weary of seeing my liberal friends continuing to throw support behind a party, namely Labour, who have shown no willingness to really address this problem. I understand that everyone has the right to vote for whom they wish, on whatever grounds they wish, and I understand that very often people vote for a personality or in response to a feeling. This is all part of politics.

But if we are happy to ignore sound policy to rectify this extremely concerning issue, then we should be honest with others and ourselves that fixing Maori disadvantage, and therefore institutional racism, is just not a high priority for us. And personally I think that makes a mockery of our professed liberal values – because what could be more repugnantly illiberal than a racially biased state that disproportionately incarcerates its ethnic population?

Lastly I think ignoring this is an abdication of one’s duty as a New Zealand citizen. Our founding document is a beautiful and unique one that stipulates a shared duty-of-care between Maori and non-Maori. We are failing to honour it, to our severe detriment.

Maori over-representation in crime statistics and incarceration is an issue that sits at the crossroads between income inequality and racial prejudice. To address it properly we need bold policies that will right both of these terrible wrongs. The Opportunities Party’s policies are the best chance we’ve ever had of doing that.

So y’know, let’s actually do this.

 

theredgreenpen 

 

‘Over-Representation of Maori in the Criminal Justice system – Department of Corrections, May 2008

This piece is also heavily indebted to  – Chapter 12 – Maori and the criminal justice system in New Zealand, Criminal Justice in New Zealand, Tolmie and Brookbanks, 2007

Despise Mike Hosking? Then let’s fix the failed enterprise that created him.

TVNZ is the Doctor Frankenstein of New Zealand public enterprises – divided, erratic, troubled, and prone to creating monsters. If you’d like to see the back of people like Hosking the solution is pretty simple – change the system that created him.

 

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There seems to be a bit of a crescendo recently in the degree of Hosking Hate. I’ve written about his ilk before (check out ‘The Unhooded Wolves’) and made a few general comments on what could motivate someone like him to have such a callous disregard for the plight of those less fortunate.

Our outrage at Hosking is all very well and good, but what we’re neglecting, and what I neglected in that piece, is a criticism of the institutional structures and incentives that create, sustain and promote his brand of vile nonsense. Without addressing this structure the problem will be just like the mythical Hydra – chop off one head, and another two pop up in its place.

Why have we forgotten the fact that TVNZ is a state-owned enterprise funded by taxpayers like you and me? With the reduction in print and TV revenues from advertising, TVNZ now find themselves in a volatile and highly competitive market. Over time the model has then shifted from the one we expect of a public enterprise – to serve the public – to one more consistent with big business.

That change has created a monster. A company that is beholden to the public to provide it with honest, informative content, but that must endear itself to flashy, populist practices as the current business media climate demands, will eventually find that it cannot do both at the same time. This is exactly TVNZ’s dilemna.

And what do we end up with as a result? We end up with journalism taking a back-seat to this relatively new wave of celebrity-style, TV personality “brands.” We end up with poorer, more biased content. We end up with overpaid creators-of-opinion-and-outrage, instead of journalists. Basically, we end up with people like Mike Hosking.

Say what you like about Hosking, but love him or loathe him the simple fact is that we the taxpayers are paying his salary, and the reason we pay for it is because we decided as a society that our news media should be held accountable and reflect our population. Except now that it patently doesn’t. So when Hosking delivers his divisive, incendiary and often outright racist commentary, just remember that we are paying him handsomely to do so. Feels wrong doesn’t it? That’s because it is.

If you’d like to see the back of people like Hosking the solution is pretty simple – change the system that created him. The Opportunities Party has a plan for this – sell TVNZ now, before it’s value declines further, and use the proceeds to create a Public Journalism Fund as part of NZ on Air. Media outlets can then compete for this funding, and will only be granted it if they pledge to do what they are supposed to – provide a service that delivers clear, unbiased news and information with the goal of helping create a more informed and educated population.

Our tax dollars are meant to pay for this kind of journalism – not for Hosking to continue to spew his intolerance all over prime-time television, then drive home in his white Lamborghini, lovingly subsidised by you and I.

To be clear, this proposal by The Opportunities Party is not part of a broad programme of selling off state assets – such as that conducted by the National Party. That was ideologically driven – part of a belief in reducing the influence of government in business. It was also illogical (although not for National) given the assets they sold were performing very well.

TVNZ is not performing very well. It is the Doctor Frankenstein of New Zealand public enterprises – divided, erratic, troubled, and prone to creating monsters. In fact it is helping to erode the quality of public discourse in this country. When we are less informed we are more susceptible to charlatans and liars and to voting for parties or policies that aren’t in our self-interest or the interests of our nation. Democracy then suffers. The restoration of a functional democracy is outlined clearly in The Opportunities Party’s policy number four, ‘Democracy Reset’ – I encourage you to check it out.

So next time you find yourself protesting Hosking’s unacceptable behaviour (which is likely very soon if not right this very moment) remember that there is a party with a policy that would not only help to end his terrible reign, but prevent any additional Hydra heads from popping up in the publicly-funded realm long after he is gone.

We could vote for TOP and a policy that sends a message to Hosking and TVNZ that their days are numbered. Or we could just continue to whine about him and somehow expect things to change. If we really despise him as much as we say we do, the choice is clear.

theredgreenpen

 

 

For the Truly Progressive, Labour is the ‘Wasted Vote’

Young and enthused Labour voters, who I remain optimistic are motivated by naturally progressive values, are being led astray by a party that co-opts the imagery and language of Progressivism, while following the Establishment playbook every time. If anyone’s vote is to be considered ‘wasted’, then sadly, it is theirs.

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I’ve been accused of being too negative towards the Labour Party instead of focusing my attention on National. I am unrepentant. I disagree with a great deal of National’s policies and definitely with its ideology. Notwithstanding some seismic change, they will never get my vote, and on this I think I speak for most young people with progressive values.

That’s not to say there aren’t undercover progressives in the National electorate who are as equally frustrated with our non-evidence based, incrementalist Establishment. The Opportunities Party is a broad church with only a few conditions of entry – give a damn about people and their right to meet their potential, especially the historically and currently oppressed, and believe in the facts.

But for me there is a bigger problem for progressives than the National party. One that is much closer to home. It is the uncritical tendency to equate the Labour Party with the ideas and values of the Progressive movement. This ends up making the support for Labour by young people with those values a sad mistake.

I don’t believe in ‘tactical’ voting. If you do, then you’re probably unlikely to agree with me. You will say a vote for Labour is a vote for a change of government. I would say that a vote for Labour is still a vote for the Establishment. An Establishment that has had 30 years to address soaring inequality, a broken Criminal Justice system, draconian drug policy, and Maori disadvantage and have failed miserably.

I am sure that a vast amount of people who support Labour have a strong sense of fairness and equality. I am sure that many want to see bold and radical changes to finally address the big issues of our time, such as inequality and climate change. And I am sure that their hearts are in the right place. That is why it is extra frustrating that their vote is not.

Tax Me If You Can

So what does the average young, liberal, perhaps progressive voter think about tax? I’d be willing to guess that they’d like to see a fairer regime – in accordance with the need to reduce inequality. Does that sound like you? Well if you’re a Labour supporter, you’ll be disappointed to know that it doesn’t sound like them.

Labour’s decision today to make no changes at all to the tax regime is emblematic of their unwillingness to make any significant reforms to address inequality. Bernie Sanders would have had a field day.

Closing the Gap released a press release today detailing their “disappointment at Labour’s approach to tax.” The release cites several authoritative sources, such as Associate Professor Lisa Mariott, School of Accounting and Commercial Law at Victoria University of Wellington:

“Our top tax rate currently sits at 33 per cent compared to UK and Australia where the rate is 45 per cent. Raising the top tax rate would mean more resources to reinvest in social services – so all New Zealanders can prosper.”

She continues on to say how it is high time for New Zealand to consider a wealth tax.

“In relation to taxing wealth, NZ is quite unique in not having any form of wealth tax.”

She then mentions the fact that just 1 per cent of the population holds 20 percent of the wealth, while the bottom 50 percent hold less than 1 per cent, and that:

 “By taxing wealth we can create a more equitable New Zealand.”

Later in the release Paula Feehan, Advocacy and Campaigns Director at Oxfam, details how New Zealand ranks very low globally in terms of the progressiveness of its tax policy – 30th out of 35 OECD countries.

“The index demonstrates that Governments have considerable powers to reduce the gap between rich and poor, and that only by addressing this gap can we end extreme poverty.” 

So Labour has the ability to do it, just not the will.

If a relatively damning release from a major organisation dedicated to reducing inequality and poverty isn’t enough to rattle one’s belief in Labour’s liberal credentials, perhaps adding a praiseworthy release from the New Zealand Taxpayers Union might help bring the edifice shuddering down.

“The Taxpayers’ Union welcomes Labour leader Jacinda Ardern’s ruling out of any increases in the top personal tax rate…With the possibility of a new capital gains tax, water taxes, and regional fuel taxes, we call on Ms Ardern, and Labour’s Finance Spokesperson Grant Robertson, to commit to reducing existing taxes to compensate for any new taxes that are introduced.”

It’s a sad day for the Labour Party when the quasi-libertarian organisation founded by National Party sycophant and general right-wing vitriol-spiller David Farrar approves of your tax policy. Its even sadder when those campaigning to end poverty deride it.

Of course Jacinda told us the other day that Labour hasn’t “ruled out” a Capital Gains Tax, whatever that means. But why the hesitancy? A Capital Gains Tax shouldn’t even be a controversial issue. In fact there’s evidence to show it doesn’t go far enough. Unfortunately for us all John Key and the National Party’s PR machinery did an excellent job of scaring the public into thinking it was the worst thing in the world.

What’s even more unfortunate is they seem to have also scared the Labour Party – and there is some accepted feeling that the Labour Party should know better. They don’t. We like to believe, or at least we hope, that a politician’s task is to listen to the advice of the civil service and implement that advice as policy for the betterment of the nation. The sad truth is that both major political parties very often don’t do this, for a good reason.

Modern political parties have become mirrors of electorate opinion. Instead of telling us the truth and the ways to fix it, no matter how hard they may be to accept, they have moved to a terriblly reflexive stance.  In effect focus groups can end up literally dictating policy. Think about it – “people are scared of crime!” (despite crime going down), “Let’s get tough on crime!” “People are scared of a Capital Gains Tax!” (despite the evidence for it), “No Capital Gains Tax!”. It goes on and on.

Sure, this kind of thing wins votes, and it’s exactly the strategy New Labour employed in the UK to spectacular success. But it is a terrible hollowing out of democracy.  It ensures we never get above the swamp of our prejudices and our private and collective fears.

It also ensures that major political parties rarely make significant, bold policy decisions. They’re just too high risk. So it becomes easier to recycle platitudes and trust in other factors, such as personality and a sense of optimism, rather than policy.

For example, you’d think that Labour’s Enviromental Policy would match the strong and visionary rhetoric Jacinda used at the Party’s launch. Unfortunately it doesn’t. In fact, at least according to their own website, they don’t even have an Environmental Policy.

The Wasted Vote

Jacinda’s arrival on the political scene may in the end be enough for Labour to win this election. But it isn’t a victory that Labour supporters should feel much pride in. Particularly if they are under the illusion that their vote for the Labour Party is a vote for any real chance of reducing inequality, fixing the housing crisis, addressing Maori disadvantage or tackling the obscene levels of extreme poverty.

Supporting The Opportunities Party often means you’re accused of ‘wasting your vote.’ Supporters of the Greens often also contend with this. But I am voting in accordance with my values, and for the evidence-based solutions that could lead to a society that embodies those values.

Young and enthused Labour voters, who I remain optimistic are motivated by naturally progressive values, are being led astray by a party that co-opts the imagery and language of Progressivism, while following the Establishment playbook every time. If anyone’s vote is to be considered ‘wasted’, sadly, it is theirs.

My hope is that I’m completely wrong – that once in power Labour will cast off the shackles of the election and proceed with real gusto, implementing policies distilled from the consensus of multiple non-political institutions, for example a Drug and Alcohol Policy actually supported by the NZ Drug Foundation. I hope, but I plan otherwise.

But The Opportunities Party has these kinds of policies, right now. Policies based on the academic consensus as to what will actually work. The most radical, progressive and well-researched set of policies that has ever been offered to the New Zealand public.

Now all we have to do is vote for them.

 

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Establishment Parties have failed us on inequality. It’s time for something new.

The truth is very plain to see – over 30 years we have become a more unfair nation, and our health and happiness has suffered. We have the highest rates of youth suicide in the developed world. The National and Labour parties, both sides, have presided over this decline and seem incapable of arresting it.

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New Zealand housing crisis forces hundreds to live in tents and garages – The Guardian, May 2016

 

I’ve written before of an experience I had visiting a very sick girl in South Auckland. She was born with a crippling genetic disorder into a home wrecked by poverty. I can see her in my mind very clearly, working hard just to take a breath, her face drawn and tired. I can see her hooked up to the machine, propped up on a single mattress in the corner of a cold state house bedroom, while the rest of the family (seven if I recall rightly) shared elsewhere to give her peace. I met her mother. Amongst the anguish and concern on her face flittered guilt and shame. I could tell very quickly she was doing the best she could, under appalling conditions. The entire experience left me drained and saddened. It also made me angry.

Economic inequality in New Zealand is out of control. There is no excuse for ignoring it. Since the 1980s the gap between the rich and poor in this country has grown faster than in any other developed nation on the planet. After deducting the cost of housing, the average disposable income for someone in the bottom 10% of our nation is lower than it was in the 1980s. And although the middle class’ share of income has also declined, the surge in income to the rich is shown to be off the backs of our nation’s poorest people.

Wealth, defined as our income plus our accumulated assets, is even more unevenly distributed – the top 1% of adults own three times as much of New Zealand’s wealth as the entire lower 50% put together. The simple fact is that in a world of increasing productivity and connectivity, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. That all of this is happening in New Zealand (previously a lauded model of egalitarianism in action) at such an astonishing rate should make us all ashamed.

But many of us aren’t. We seem to just blithely accept this state of affairs, or worse to outright ignore it. And when we are given the opportunity to change it, we seem to lack the gumption. The truth is very plain to see – over 30 years we have become a more unfair nation, and our health and happiness has suffered. We have the highest rates of youth suicide in the developed world. And the National and Labour parties, both sides, have presided over this state of affairs and done little to arrest it. Why is that?

National is the party of the property-owning class, and the gross disparities in accumulated wealth resulting from our property market is a major driver of that inequality. National also toyed with ‘trickle down’ economics in its devastating 1990 budget and still embraces debunked Neoliberal ideology that continues to drive down wages and perpetuate this inequality. They routinely ignore the evidence for certain problems, such as being “tough on crime”, in favour of pieced together policies that speak to people’s emotions rather than their intellects. They are draconian with respect to our prisons and our schools, and they still flirt with socially conservative positions that have no place in our modern, diverse nation.

Labour has been more helpful in genuinely trying to help those at the bottom, but their efforts are either too little too late, or based on old-fashioned thinking – they are window-dressing. The truth is both of these parties have let the New Zealand people down. By and large this has nothing to do with malice – it’s just what happens when winning votes becomes more important than fixing problems.

For example, both parties refuse to address the big problem of superannuation out of fear of losing the older vote. So we continue to give away the same amount of money to every single senior citizen, from those in cold homes struggling to pay the power bill, to the millionaires right at the top. Meanwhile, those at the bottom – people sleeping in their cars, people leaving their prescriptions unfilled, people working two jobs and still not earning enough to survive – all of those people who desperately need extra support are made to go without. Is that really fair?

I’ve been accused of having a go at Labour, when I ‘should’ support them, as they are more closely aligned to my beliefs than National – which is most definitely true. I also ‘should’ support them because it is the ‘tactical’ thing to do. I acknowledge this is just a matter of opinion, and many will disagree with me, but I don’t believe in tactical voting. I don’t believe in being told who I should vote for, and I don’t believe anyone has a right to my vote. I believe politicians have a duty to earn my vote.

The best way I can see to guarantee that bold change never happens, is to scare us into thinking that a vote for it is a “wasted vote.” I don’t believe in wasted votes. The only way to one day achieve the plan or vision for society that resonates with you is to vote for it.

This year I’m going to vote for the party with a policy plan that I believe will best help that very sick girl. National and Labour have had 30 years to make sure we protect her from such destitution and they have failed. I want a government that says that those with so much can afford to help those with so little.

We need to understand that our major parties often choose policies not based on their evidential merit, but on the likelihood that certain groups and special interests will like them. This has to change. I strongly believe people are good and empathetic when we are honest with them and speak to their hearts.

Most of all, I want to unburden that girl’s mother of her terrible guilt and shame – because that guilt and shame does not belong to her, it belongs to all of us. We have a collective responsibility to care for one another and we are failing to do so. We can’t keep trusting to the National/Labour duopoly to fix this for us. It is time for something different.

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Kelvin Davis, Maori Seats, and Labour’s failed promises

The roots of Maori disadvantage go deep and are woven into the flawed premises of some of our most important institutions. Only a party committed to radical revision of these institutions can bring about the change we need – Labour is not that party.

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Today Gareth Morgan and The Opportunities Party revealed their number one ‘bottom line’ – no deals with any party who is committed to abolishing the Maori seats. This is an and honest and decent stance for a number of reasons.

TOP is demonstrating an understanding that the Maori seats were established to ensure Maoridom had fair representation until such a time as it is no longer required. The Maori seats are a means of affirmative action to protect Maori society until that day.

Furthermore, they raise the very valid point that it seems incongruous for parties such as Labour and the Greens to stand candidates in Maori seats, despite the fact that on occasion party policy may conflict with the interests of Maori in that particular electorate.

This could lead to a bit of a conundrum for the Labour or Green representative in these seats. What are they to do? They can tow the party line, or they can remember where they’ve parked their behind – a Maori seat provided to them by Maori voters who put them there to best represent their needs. They can rationalise it however they want (and they do) but to the clear-eyed observer that’s called a conflict of interest, and we should generally try to avoid those in politics.

This is precisely the concern Hone Harawira raised in the media with his call for ‘Mana-Maori Motuhake’ – the idea that having Maori representatives in Pakeha parties does not necessarily ensure Maori-friendly policies are enacted, as Pakeha policy has an historical tendency to come first.

This all came to a head in February when Labour accused the Maori Party of acting purely in the interests of ‘elite Maori’ due to its coalition with National. This sparked harsh rebukes from across the political spectrum, but in particular from the Maori Party and Mana. It also came on the heels of the Labour decision to remove its candidates sitting in Maori electorates from the List. It was a one-two punch from Labour to denigrate the Maori Party and attempt to shore up its position in the those seats. This was trumpeted as “courageous” and as showing how confident Labour are of winning Maori seats. It is anything but.

What Labour did was what politicians have done for a long time to the severe detriment of Maori – they have put party politics first. This was a clear attempt to drive a wedge between Maori in order to win votes, and in this case, Maori seats. Seats that  should really only be contested by members of parties with a Maori focus, to avoid a potential conflict of interest in the future.

Labour’s “courageous” decision not to include those sitting in Maori seats is actually a pretty sly, tacit acknowledgement that what it is doing is not really fair or right. Again, as with most Establishment parties, there is a disappointing absence of principle in their motivations and actions.

Kelvin as Winston’s Padawan

Kelvin Davis, the new Deputy Leader of the “Let’s Do This” brigade (do what exactly?), topped off this whole episode with some unfortunate comments about his beliefs and intentions that should concern voters. He accused the Maori Party of playing “the race card” when they were told by Andrew Little the best way to advocate for Maori. He claimed that:

“as soon as they are challenged by a Pakeha, they drop the race card…they aren’t exempt from criticism just because they are Maori.”

Marama Fox, Maori Party Co-leader, responded to Kelvin’s comments, stressing that:

“we have a common enemy, and it is not each other. Our enemy is homelessness, it’s poverty of mind, hand and wairua, it is to address the burden of disparity.”

The Mana and Maori Party soon after announced an agreement to work together this election, Harawira stating that they are:

“taking up the call to bring the Maori seats back into Maori hands.”

Kelvin’s response?

“what he is saying is that he can’t make a difference in a Pakeha party, but I can and I have.”

I’ll leave it to the reader to decide who sounds more invested in Maori progress, and who in their own career.

Also, let’s remember how the Maori Party was formed – after Tariana Turia resigned in protest at the Foreshore and Seabed Legislation and helped organise a 10,000 strong Hikoi. In her own words:

“Maori should never forget it was the Labour Party that lost the last piece of Maori customary land.”

Or as AUT Professor Paul Moon, Treaty expert puts it:

“Maori have invested a lot in Labour…with little gains in 15 years.”

Of course, the media has been breathless about Kelvin’s ability to “galvanise Maori voters”. Along with Jacinda, he is in many ways a core part of Labour’s focus on personality over policy. But we shouldn’t forget his antipathy towards accommodation with the Greens, nor his connections and ongoing respect for Winston Peters – who helped him oust Hone Harawira from the Te Tai Tokerau seat. If Winston is Kelvin’s political mentor, we should all be worried.

Kelvin has also made some pretty snarky accusations regarding Hone’s deal with the Internet Party in the last election, which in effect lost Hone the Northland seat. This arrangement was evidently political poison, for many unfortunate reasons – but that doesn’t mean it was the wrong thing to do. It depends on what your goal is. Kelvin was more than happy to deride the union, and the discussion around mass-surveillance it created, for political gain.

He derides that “saga” still. Remember that ‘saga’? The one where we found out the extent of John Key’s lies and our government’s subservience to illegal mass surveillance. That ‘saga’ where one of the most respected journalists in the world, Glenn Greenwald, visited to warn us in person of the covert impingement on our rights. That ‘saga’ where one of the real heroes of American disobedience – Edward Snowden – beamed in to double down on Glenn’s insights. Kelvin betrays a pretty disturbing capacity that is unfortunately routine for career politicians like him – shoot the messenger, and put getting power over fighting for what’s right.

There’s your Deputy Leader of the Labour Party everyone. And it goes to show why Labour’s pretence to best represent Maori and being the party of real progressive change is superficial.  I just hope that people can shield their eyes from Jacinda’s holy light long enough to spot Kelvin in the background.

So if you’re a young voter who thinks they care about Maori and are considering voting for Labour, you’re either ignorant or not as concerned as you say you are. There are better options. But you know…forget all that…Let’s Do This!

Policy and a Party that Respects the Maori Seats

TOP is a political party after all, and needs votes to put policy into action. That is why it has called for Maori to consider giving it the party vote. By not contesting Maori seats and raising the concerns about traditional parties sitting in them, TOP hopes to see those seats go to parties with a predominantly Maori focus and for that vital representation to continue. But TOP also believes that its policies, based on the evidence, have the best potential to change Maori lives for the better.

My message to Maori is then this – if on the Maori roll, then vote for a candidate from a Maori party and don’t reward candidates from Labour and the Greens who shouldn’t be contesting those seats anyway. Then give your party vote to TOP – choose the party who has done its homework and has the honesty, expertise and will to make structural changes in this country.

The roots of Maori disadvantage go deep and are woven into the flawed premises of some of our most important institutions. Only a radical revision of these institutions can bring about the change we need – and only TOP has the guts to be so radical.

In the next piece I want to turn to perhaps the most disastrous of these institutions – our Criminal Justice system.

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Left or Right: What’s best for Maori? Neither.

The Opportunities Party is a vehicle for evidence-based policy which could be life-changing for Maori, who have been poorly served by an arbitrary and disingenuous political divide.

 

MuldoonMaori

 

With the election just five weeks away I’d like to try and lay out the very real choice facing Maori.

Personality-driven politics undermines democracy – as a tool to try and gain power, it must come to an end. There is simply too much risk in putting faith in a person – people change, people lie, and people are imperfect. We must put our trust and our support behind specific policies that are based in reality and have an eye to the future.

There is no supreme ideology here, no Left vs. Right. It’s a practice that requires only two things; the ubiquitous human capacity for empathy and understanding, and a respect for the truth. Its political mantra is a very prosaic, but often forgotten one: we are all in this together.

Over the next few posts I want to examine the way that Maori have been poorly served by this arbitrary political divide. I want to examine some of the structures that predate Colonialism and the effects of their loss. I want to highlight how, if not being silently ignored, Maori are used as a lightning rod for New Zealand’s worst demagogues. I want to discuss how Maori over-representation in the indices of crime, health and social deprivation is a stain upon this country.  And I want to talk about how when specific and effective policy becomes secondary to political grandstanding, there is little chance of this stain is ever washing away.

Most of all, I would like to nail my colours to the mast. I’m a Maori man – my hapu is Ngati Mahuta and my iwi is Tainui. I take pride that my hapu produced someone like Tawhiao, the second Maori King and a spiritual leader to his people. My Nana was raised as Ngapuhi and spoke only Te Reo until she was six years old. My Mum was born in a state house in Otara, the eldest of eight children, where money was scarce but love more plentiful. As a kid I remember us having enough to be happy and healthy, but not a great deal after that. My eldest brother was the first in our extended family to attend University and was also honoured as the Top Maori Scholar for Bursary that year.

The tikanga-Maori in my life flowed from the warmth and love of my Nana. She was a big lady with a big heart and us grandkids adored her – that big state house in Mangere was our happy place. I remember my cousins and I cramped into the lounge where Nana slept, Inspector Morse seemingly on repeat, Nana quietly playing solitaire on her bedside table, the room all suffused with the orange glow from the streetlights, bathing the Tretchikoff Blue Lady, the faded Constable, and her collection of creepy dolls and cluttered Kiwiana trinkets. I remember the faint smell of dusty blankets and rising scones.

Nana would write how she loved to have her mokopuna so close, referring to that lounge as like “a little marae.” With her passing, my Mum seeks to maintain that link, working for the Auckland City Council as a financial advisor for the South Auckland region – an area with communities, strengths and problems that she knows like the back of her hand. I can’t honestly say that I’ve engaged with my heritage as much as I could have, that would be untrue. But I can say that it is one of the things, among only a few others, that I feel and hope defines me.

So as a Maori man speaking to all other Maori, and to those who wish to see progress for this vibrant people, I want most of all to say this: the political party in this country putting forward the best policy programme to improve the lives of tangata whenua, while still respecting kaupapa-Maori, is The Opportunities Party.

I want to make it clear that I understand that kaupapa-Maori means leadership by Maori, for Maori. I see TOP mainly as a vehicle for evidence-based policy, which if enacted, will have an enormous impact on those areas in which Maori are over-represented. TOP is also committed to the Treaty of Waitangi and is calling for it to be formally enshrined forever, in a written constitution, and finally acknowledged as the unique and beautiful, shared duty-of-care that it is. These actions together would then hopefully lead to a more equitable relationship and a model of shared, mutually respectful governance. The Opportunities Party is not able to provide the exact same kind of representation that the Maori Party or Mana can, for obvious reasons. But what separates TOP from other traditionally ‘liberal’ parties is that they acknowledge this fact, and take a principled stance on it – they are not standing candidates in Maori seats. This will be discussed elsewhere.

For now, I’d like to look at  four specific policies and how, for Maori, they are potentially life-changing. These are:

  • Democracy Reset
  • Criminal Justice Reform
  • Cannabis and Alcohol Reform
  • Tenancy Act Reform

So stay tuned!

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