Chief Statistician resigns: But is that the end of the story?


Chief Statistician of New Zealand, Liz McPherson handed in her resignation to Minister of Statistics James Shaw on . Whilst Ms McPherson’s departure is definitely a step in the right direction, can we trust Statistics New Zealand and their treasure troves of statistical data? And if the answer is no, what will it take to restore that trust?

To briefly recap Ms McPherson’s chief task as the boss of Statistics New Zealand was to make sure that the 2018 Census ran smoothly. As is now very clear, that was anything but the case. Ms McPherson is now gone, but there are huge holes in the 2018 edition and considerable uncertainty no doubt exists among the many ministries and departments whose planning for the next few years has been thrown into turmoil.

Would it be better to simply organize a full brand new census for the earliest possible date and assume that the 2018 data is not able to be properly used? Possibly, but a new Census is not a cheap, logistically easy or rapid task to be carried out in terms of organizing it, never mind Census Night.

If not, do we know how much of the data is usable? How much data is missing? What data is missing? Are there minimum data amounts that must be maintained in order for particular data sets to be of use, and if so what are they? No doubt these questions have been taxing a lot of minds in Statistics New Zealand, as well as its Minister in Charge.

Let us assume the worst. The data sets for multiple agencies simply do not permit them to carry out appropriate planning and the next few years will be based on educated guesses rather than hard data. We will assume that it affects the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Social Development among other significant users and providers of data. I cannot help but wonder what health, social, and education programmes are going to be underfunded, under resourced or simply stop working because of this ineptitude.

To be painfully honest, I have no confidence in Statistics New Zealand. Unless Mr Shaw reruns the Census I believe he should hand back his ministerial warrant for that particular portfolio. In April of this year Ms McPherson acknowledged no Iwi related data would be released. She also admitted that that data collection was insufficient for what was expected of the set. She should have handed her resignation in at the same time.

Where is National on this? Where is A.C.T.? I would have expected both parties to be busy making political hay out of this. I would have thought that A.C.T. leader David Seymour would have been left, right and centre telling us what A.C.T. would do and why this Government is not fit for the tasks ahead.

Stuff reporter Thomas Manch suggested that it might take years to restore the level of trust we need to have in Statistics New Zealand and its leadership. Given that even with the handing in of her resignation, Ms McPherson was still trying to play down the gravity of the situation, I am inclined to agree.

Years.

 

University readings resonating with life


I am currently studying towards a Postgraduate Diploma of Planning from Massey University. The Diploma which will take me two years to do part time has a core paper called Planning Theory, which I have to do. And as I work my way through the readings of the paper I have found that several of them resonate to varying degrees with life as we currently know it.

Take the paper Public participation in planning: An intellectual history by Marcus Lane (2005) which has a significant segment on Sherryl Arnstein’s 1969 paper called The Ladder of Participation as an example. Arnstein was a social worker somewhere in the United States, where she witnessed the effects of civil planning including the disconnect between planners and the communities their work impacted on. She describes an eight rung ladder which is a bit like the property ladder – the most disconnected are not even on the ladder. Of those who are, the ones on ladder rung no. 1, 2 and 3 are the most disadvantaged with those who choose to participate in the public planning process simply being manipulated by having the terms of their engagement controlled by authority. Those on rungs 4 and 5 are consulted about matters of the day, and might have input, but in reality it is but a token gesture. But the real power, which includes the ability to set down the rules of engagement, determine what subject matter shall be up for discussion and – not quite admitted to, but certainly implied – what happens to the public input after statutory consultation ends is reserved for those on rungs no. 7 and 8.

The ladder of public participation (Arnstein S., 1969)

I cannot help but wonder about how well Arnstein’s Ladder of Participation could describe New Zealand in 2019.

Lane (2005)also goes into depth about three planning models. The first, the blueprint model, which western countries have largely transited away from, but which many former Communist states are still beholden to are large scale, top down exercises. They were not as the former Soviet bloc nations found out in any respect designed for public input. This is consistent with positions 1, 2 and 3 on Arnstein’s ladder. No.’s 4 and 5 are best described by synoptic planning, where public input is tokenistic. Synoptic planning is subject to criticism – much justified – though it is still a potentially viable mode today because it allows some input, provides a means to address the issues and tries to address the problems that enter into all planning such as the trade off’s, actions taken and so forth.

Another one by Joe Painter (2006)examines the Prosaic geographies of stateness, in which he explores the mundane acts and processes of everyday life. Painter argues that the act of passing legislation in itself is not all that powerful. The power is in the actions of the agencies and individuals tasked with giving effect to it – the Police who decide whether to arrest a suspect and charge him/her; the nurse administering medication in a hospital or the doctor writing the script; the clerk who has to write the letter telling the owner of a property whose pool has no fence of their legal obligations and so on. It turns out that the mundane and the ordinary have more clout than one thinks by their collective and individual actions.

The theory of planning can at times be dry, but for one to understand how the bureaucrats we entrust with planning the use of our resources and amenities reach the decisions they do, we need to understand the nature of the profession they work in.

Social Workers: Unappreciated workers in an unappreciated discipline


It must be tough being a social worker. Certainly New Zealand First Member of Parliament Darroch Ball certainly thinks so. In the general debate in support of a Bill of Parliament to allow foster parents or kin carers to approach Kiwi Saver to open an account on behalf of a foster child in their carer, Mr Ball alluded to the work done by social workers.

I agree with Mr Ball. Being a social worker is like being on a high rope above a pool infested with sharks. All of them would have you for dinner in a flash if you fell off. Somehow a social worker has to navigate a mine field that has any number and range of devices – distrustful parents/guardians/caregivers, a community quick to judge, terrified and/or stressed out children, among others.

They always have to be right in the eyes of everyone, who quite forgetting – possibly deliberately – that they are as human as we are, will most probably make a mistake they end up regretting at some point in their career. And even when they are right, are making all the right decisions and their clients are making progress, how many have actually heard someone say “hey, look mate, I know your job is a hard one but you are doing your best – keep it up”. It would make their day in ways I don’t think anyone but the worker in question would be able to appreciate.

They are meant to be the eyes, ears and trained practitioners doing work that increasingly teachers and other professionals such as General Practitioners who come into contact with children seem to be doing. And whilst these professionals can certainly be useful – a teacher who is dealing with a child that used to be well behaved and is now disruptive would be right to want to find out what is going on in their background.

Without doubt they have strict responsibilities to uphold. And just as in any employment there are one or two rotten apples who are just there to play the system or cause as much trouble as they can. Each case is going to be different from the preceding one.

The attrition rate must be high. Under paid, under valued, under staffed, under resourced would all be things that are true about the profession of social workers.

Parliament claims to care about social workers. And maybe it does, but how many of the 120 M.P.’s that sit in the chamber have actually sat down with a social worker in a neutral setting over coffee and just talked to them about their daily routine, the rewards and challenges that they face? And how many of them have talked to Child Youth and Family managers and tried to find out from the middle man what challenges their staff are reporting?

So, say what you will about social workers but they are probably in terms of the humanities, the least appreciated, most overworked and under paid people. But they do not need to be like this. We can do better. And if we want to improve the social statistics for New Zealand children, our mokopuna, our whanau, we must help our social workers.

National Party reshuffle leaves its climate policy in neutral


Over the weekend, the weekend just gone, the National Party had their annual conference in Christchurch. It was – among other things – a chance for the rural and urban wings of the party to meet as one and see how they are (not)reconciling their differences over climate change.

Until now National Party M.P. Todd Muller (M.P. for Bay of Plenty) had been held the climate change portfolio. Mr Muller, who until today had been No. 31 on the party list, has had a promotion following the resignation of Nathan Guy (M.P. for Otaki), who is standing down at the 2020 election. As a result, but also partially out of dissatisfaction with the efforts to negotiate a deal with the Government on agricultural emissions, Mr Muller has lost the Climate Change portfolio.

The rural wing of the party, it would appear does not believe in climate change and does not want anything done on the issue. This will no doubt concern National Party leader Simon Bridges, who despite Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s tumble in the polls, is still a long way behind her. The need to keep the blue-green wing of the party on board at a time when the Government is trying to make significant inroads into the issue is critical in order to avoid National conceding seats at the 2020 election.

Scott Simpson (M.P. for Coromandel), takes his place as Climate Change spokesperson. Mr Simpson is not known to have the contacts Mr Muller did in the rural community. In 2017 he was appointed National’s spokesperson for the environment. In that capacity he has been critical of Minister for Environment Eugenie Sage, following revelations that 55 micron L.D.P.E. bags would only work 20 times or so instead of the recommended 55 times to pass the multi-use test.

Mr Simpson will need to move quickly on Climate Change whether he wants to or not. The Zero Carbon Bill, which addresses how the Government should try to reach our 2050 goal of being carbon neutral, closed for submissions on 16 July. National will need to achieve some sort of reconciliation soon between its rural and urban wings over climate change, lest New Zealand First whose membership has a significant rural component undermine their vote.

He will be further motivated by the fact that the Government, whilst on one hand is definitely forging ahead with climate policy, on the other is very definitely lacking ideas or a willingness to try anything radical. There are a number of steps that they could be taking fairly rapidly such as compulsorily recycling all aluminium, which is very energy intensive to manufacture at a smelter. There are also a number of longer term initiatives such as developing biofuel from the waste stream to power vehicles, using waste to energy plants to generate electricity and provide hot water to communities.

Can Mr Simpson be the successful bridge between the blue-greens and the rural wing of the National Party, or will he let the work started by Mr Muller slide in favour of other priorities?

 

Mid-term report card for Government


We have reached the mid way mark in the first term of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. In 18 months full of challenges, babies, feminism as one of the youngest female leaders in the world takes to the stage, Ms Ardern has certainly been kept busy. Some tough challenges not foreseen have had to be met head on, such as the mosque terrorist attack on 15 March 2019. Other issues have included the climate emergency, housing crisis, mental health, a middling economy, the need for education reform after nine years of destructive National Standards and a skyrocketing road toll. Most or all of these issues will need to see some major progress in the next 15-16 months.

EDUCATION: Bold moves are afoot by Minister of Education Chris Hipkins following the National Standards experiment and growing questions about National Certificate of Educational Achievement (N.C.E.A.) to realign the system. Tomorrow’s Schools, the blueprint for New Zealand education released in 1989 is 30 years old. Is it still current today?

Grade: C+

HEALTH: As always concern continues to bubble up around where to find all of the funding that is necessary for New Zealand to maintain a 1st world health system – if we look at how much damage alcohol and drugs cause, we see clear cases can be argued for changing legislation around both. Also concerns about making sure mental health patients are adequately cared for without compromising nursing or other staff safety

Grade: C+

HOUSING: Probably the single biggest issue for the Government and the most damaging one. Housing has so far not been the game changer that the Government had hoped for. The initial Minister of Housing, Phil Twyford has been removed the portfolio. Whilst not yet admitted, the Government is probably going to have to completely restart Kiwi Build or kill it.

Grade: E

CRIME: A deterioration of conditions in jails is leading to a generation of harden criminals who will come out with a monumental grudge against society; the failure to have police ascertain how many military grade semi-automatic and automatic weapons existed before the Christchurch mosque attacks; the explosion of synthetic cannabis and fentanyl has lead to an ongoing problem with armed hold ups – these are just a few of the problems. Progress needed before the election to stop this becoming a D.

Grade: C

SOCIAL WELFARE: The best way for this to be improved is to have the Social Welfare Act completely rewritten. Staff at Work and Income and Ministry of Social Development are struggling to provide the best solutions for their clients under a straight jacket framework that is simply not designed to do what we expect of it. But I do not think that the Minister responsible Jenny Salesa has figured this out yet. She needs to soon.

Grade: C

ENVIRONMENT: Whilst some good things around climate change and conservation have been announced by the Minister for the Environment, Eugenie Sage, there is a profoundly disturbing lack of urgency in tackling waste, fresh water quality, among others. Some of the potential solutions do not need reviews or inquiries to make them work – they are already existing and just need the Minister of one of her Associates to give the order.

Grade: B-

ECONOMY: Before Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern took office, the economy was slowing. It was and possibly still is a bit too soon to see the effects of new policies, but signals from the Reserve Bank suggest further cuts in the interest rate are coming soon. Given the moves to get oil and gas out of our economy, one might have expected funding announcements for potential green jobs to be created, but that does not appear to have materialised. Policy implementation announcements are going to be necessary before the election to stop this being given a D.

Grade: C

TRANSPORT: One of the few bright spots in a very ordinary report card mid way through this Government’s first term. The reopening of the railway line to Wairoa and the announcement of improved investment in railways across New Zealand, will provide good alternative transport for freight and help get big rigs off our most delicate roads. Also welcome is news of a proposed tax on older vehicles that have reached a certain age.

Grade: B