Addressing child poverty is a long term task


For me a nation is defined by how well it treats its most vulnerable sectors of society: the elderly, the very young, the sick and those whose circumstances are the result of complex circumstances – often a mix of bad choices earlier in life and a lack of help since. It is defined by whether those people are able to live a life of dignity; are afforded same or similar chances as others; that those whose conditions are terminal are comfortable.

Children are at the very early stage of the spectrum. They have their whole lives ahead of them and how they are able to live those lives and how they are raised will go a long way towards determining what sort of person they turn into later on. They are yet to learn how the world (does not)work.

Their parents might both hold down full time minimum wage jobs and spend most of the money they get after tax just paying the rent, never mind transport, food, and other costs. They might come from a family that has only ever known poverty and was not able to grow out of it, thus being thrust into a vicious cycle that only a sea change in social welfare can address. If the family has fallen into crime, with drugs and criminal activities happening around the children, before they even go to school, they will have seen stuff no one should see.

It has taken two decades for child poverty to get where it is today. The thought that it might somehow be addressed in a single Parliamentary term is ludicrous. As the latest figures out appear to show, the number of children considered to be in poverty is stagnant. It is neither increasing or decreasing and the number of children now thought to be suffering material hardship has increased by around 4,100.

Child poverty is measured in three ways:

  • The first measure, children living in homes with income less than 50 per cent of the median (currently $1016 a week) before housing costs, counted 16.5 per cent or 183,500 children in 2018.
  • A second measure, 50 per cent of the median income¬†after housing costs

It is perhaps the third measure that resonates the most. Children in material hardship are those in homes lacking the:

  • Ability to see a doctor
  • Ability to pay power bills
  • Basic material needs – such as shoes to wear to school

Treasury estimates poverty will be reduced by 10-12% as a result of the government’s efforts. In other words 88-90% of those in poverty will still be in poverty when current measures expire. I understand solid policy takes time to formulate and implement, but this is hardly the whole sale reduction we need to have happen.

I don’t expect that New Zealand will ever quite eliminate poverty, but if we as a nation are not aiming to cut – maybe over 15-20 years – the number of children in poverty by 50% or more then our politicians are not being pushed hard enough. We are not getting “bang for buck” from them as elected Members of Parliament and we need to say so.

Climate change lessons not for New Zealand students


A friend came to visit a few years ago and we went for a drive to the Waimakariri River, which was running high after heavy rain a few days earlier. When we got to the river, I thought we would go for a nature walk through a reserve on the banks of the river. I started talking to him about my interest in the river and the natural processes in it. My mate looked at me completely blank, and I asked him why. He had never done geography and by his own admission was completely ignorant of the river as a natural system.

Tonight, reading The Press whilst eating dinner, I was reminded about that conversation when I read about a climate change teaching resource for students. And I wondered how many actually understand physical geography, or have even heard of it. I then thought a bit more about the issue and came to the conclusion, that rather than teaching students about climate change, they should first know a bit about geography.

Geography is much more than just maps, which has come as a surprise to several of my non-geography minded mates. Maps are just the favoured way of displaying data temporally and spatially. It is spread across a broad range of sub topics – physical geography, human geography, political geography, to name just a few. In the case of physical geography, it can then be further divided into hydrology, climatology and geomorphology to look at physical processes affecting our water, climate and land. You can see in the Venn diagram below the interactions of processes in geography.

Source: Kansas State University

Once a student has done a bit of geography and gotten to know a bit about the planet they live on, about the human, natural, social and economic interactions that go on, they can tackle climate change. Certainly it is a subject that should not be ignored. But I am honestly not convinced that at high school level, that this should be taught. And certainly not with the doomsday tint that the subject seems to have taken on. Climate change might be one of the more potent ways in which a planet under huge and unsustainable stress from human resource consumption is showing that pain, but it is not the only symptom and nor should we treat it like that. Resource consumption in general has pushed the world into the Anthropocene, the geologic epoch whose record will show the full extent of the ecological assault taking place.

I expect that this will get some push back, particularly from students who might think people like me are part of the problem. So be it. To deal with this, one must view it as a whole, which students are not being currently encouraged to do. And which, over the course of 8 separate sessions, in class cannot be done sufficiently in depth.

Challenges facing New Zealand in the 2020’s


As we enter the 2020’s with bush fire smoke descending on New Zealand from our Australian neighbours and the world watches U.S.-Iranian relations deteriorate further (more on that tomorrow), it is important to note our own considerable challenges. They cover a broad smorgasbord of issues that without significant action in the near future, have the potential to cause significant grief in years and decades to come. I briefly look at what I consider to be the major challenges here:

CONSTITUTION: Whilst our current framework gives New Zealand flexibility that an entrenched constitution such as that of the United States does not, the latter has some features that we should consider adding. The framework which consists of seven significant Acts of Parliament includes the Bill of Rights Act 1990, the Human Rights Act 1986 and the Constitution Act

There have been challenges in Parliament in recent years to the framework that need to be addressed before one renders it useless. They include incidents where Parliament has voted to remove a Commissioner without doing due diligence; legislation passed that directly undermines the legal right in the Human Rights Act 1986 to peaceful assembly . Such steps are not only highly improper, they pass into grey areas of New Zealand law and potentially set a dangerous precedent.

ECONOMY: Since 2016 the economy of New Zealand has been stuttering along, partially caused by global uncertainty as the situation in the Middle East continues to deteriorate; uncertainty over Britain and Brexit and the U.S.-Chinese trade war. But we cannot blame it all on international concerns.

Long standing concerns about the lack of diversity in the economy and a lack of emphasis in terms of investment in science research and technology still exist. New Zealand will not become one of the higher wage earning nations in the west until they are.

EDUCATION: Whilst this Government is on the right track having another look at Tomorrow’s Schools, I am concerned that the students are missing some very basic teaching in the rush to embrace digital technology. Many students struggle to show mathematical working on paper; construct basic sentences and that not enough is being done to embrace books. Whether the Minister will address this remains to be seen.

The tertiary education sector also faces a number of challenges. They include the sector reforms announced by Chris Hipkins, who has embarked on what I consider to be an overly radical reform whereby all of the institutions are merged into a mega institute. The push back is understandable, though some of the smaller institutes that are vulnerable to failure should be closed before they implode.

ENVIRONMENT: Since Labour came to office there has been a welcome escalation in the war on waste. To the Government’s credit it has banned plastic bags, announced a phase out of fossil fuels and acknowledged that water quality is a major issue. This is one somewhat brighter area despite the many and considerable challenges facing the natural environment.

But the Government must step up the tempo. The review of the Resource Management Act, whilst a good idea is in danger of just adding to the confused 800 page beast it already is. It needs to announce how it is going to tackle the phase out of fossil fuels in conjunction with economic and social leaders, and the war on waste is really only just beginning.

FOREIGN POLICY: New Zealand foreign policy is largely correct in my book, with four significant exceptions. Two are super powers competing for our attention and support. The third is the willingness to continue to put New Zealand first by taking a third way as opposed to a Chinese way or an American way.

It is the fourth that should concern us the most as we need to do more to help our Pasifika neighbours. The Samoan medical emergency caused by measles has shown it does not have the ability to cope with this all on its own. They also need to be reassured that New Zealand takes their environmental concerns seriously and will push them at the United Nations.

POVERTY: This is really a combination of social, background, medical and education factors working (or not working) together. Neither National or Labour have really tried to acknowledge this. Nor have they tried to address the neoliberal economic model that favours a small select group of people and ignores the rest. Trickle down economics is a myth perpetuated to make people believe that market economics work for all. They do not and poverty is a significant consequence of it.

 

Get private companies out of University accommodation


A few weeks ago, a student was found dead at the University of Canterbury. The discovery of the 19 year old who was estimated to have been dead for 8 weeks. It has kicked off a storm about whether profit-making companies should be in the business of managing tertiary accommodation.

Many students in halls are young people away from homes for the first time in their lives. Many will be nervous, and have no friends. They will not be in familiar environments and will be feeling stressed at having to fend for themselves all the while getting their studies underway.

In a country with an on-going mental health emergency, it seems that one of Christchurch’s biggest employers, the University of Canterbury has failed to heed the message: looking after student mental health is essential. It seems that Campus Living Villages has failed in its primary duty of care to the people that inhabit the villages it is responsible for looking after. And its Chief Executive has not helped things by saying:
“IF something needs to change…”.

No “IF’s”, “BUT’s” or “MAYBE’s” mate. Your company mucked up. Your company can fix up.

Then it can leave the tertiary accommodation sector.

I see no place for private companies in tertiary accommodation. If there need to be, they should be New Zealand companies operating to New Zealand law. A foreign company operating under a minimalist management model where the ratio of Residential Assistants was kept to a bare minimum – 54 students for every R.A. More importantly the two R.A.’s were only working part time, which further reduces the amount of contact time they had with their charges.

It is the culture that should be truly alarming. A human being dead for weeks would have been entering a horrible state of decomposition by that point – how could someone not have noticed the smell or perhaps other biological indicators such as ants or flies or maggots(!)? Why did no one from his courses contact the halls to see where their student had gone or to see if he was even still going to University – eight weeks is a full term plus mid-semester holidays and maybe a week longer?

And to the poor parents who thought their boy was going to be safe at the University that presumably he had chosen to study at and begin what for me was the most exciting chapter of my academic life, how do you explain what happened? CAN you explain what happened? I am not sure one honestly could.

Simply conducting investigations is merely the beginning of a much bigger process if University of Canterbury wants to recover the portion of its reputation that is now decomposing. It needs to boot out the Australian company. Its New Zealand replacement needs to have very clear terms of engagement set down including minimum full time staffing levels, a 24/7 help line, a supervisory panel making sure that all parties are compliant with their responsibilities.

How lucky I am that I live in the same town as where I went to University. I only had to cycle in or catch the bus. I knew from the outset numerous people there from Burnside High School and made more friends fairly quickly in Geography and Geology. The staff there were great and if I or another student was struggling they would pull us up to make sure we were okay.

Not everyone has that fortune. For some life at University can be very lonely. It does not need to be like this.

And if we want to stop another death, nor should it be.

National and Labour wrong about debt limits


When I was growing up I was taught – as was everybody else I know – that if you borrow money, you repay it. A rule that I abide by as best as I can to this day.

Spend within ones limits, unless you borrow money that you acknowledge is not yours and has to be repaid, was another rule that I was taught. For me, borrowing is something I would personally only do in an emergency and only if I could repay in full as soon as the problem has passed.

I will admit now, I did one economics paper at University only because it was suggested that I do one. To this day I do not know why because I knew when I enrolled in it I was not going to pass. I knew I was not interested in it in the least. I was correct on both accounts. I failed, made a conscious decision not to retake it and never looked back. So one might argue that I therefore know nothing about economics and am probably not the best person to judge the apparent bipartisanship in Parliament when it comes to raising debt limits. It might also be argued that running a country’s finances is a lot more complex than a private bank account.

As a student at the University of Canterbury I would sit in the main cafeteria watching the student debt clock that the University of Canterbury Students Association installed before I started, going up by tens of thousands of dollars an hour, hundreds of thousands of dollars a day and millions each week. I did challenge them on occasion as to the accuracy of the clock and was told rather patronizingly that it was. I asked myself and others whose fault it was that student debt was out of control and how it was going to be recovered. We could not completely agree – some thought it was entirely the Government for removing or undermining social assistance such as the postgraduate allowance, and the emergency unemployment benefit. Others thought it was the tertiary institutions, while still more thought it was students spending up large. Whatever the case it currently sits at $15 billion.

Politicians no longer seem interested in addressing how this debt will be repaid. The most recent figures point to 731,000 people having a debt averaging $21,000 to be repaid. Maybe it is a beast that they have put in the “too hard” basket. But that unwillingness to tackle this makes me wonder why I should trust them with handling the debt that would ensue.

I believe in saving borrowing for a rainy day period or for after a natural disaster where you will have unforeseen expenditures that will not be immediately obvious. After the Christchurch earthquakes, suddenly finding N.Z.$35 billion was not something New Zealand could do in a rush so in that instance we had no choice but to borrow. But how are we paying it back? ARE we paying it back? I hope so, because the more we pay back now, the better position we will be in financially for when the next disaster – be it an Alpine Fault earthquake, the Waimakariri River breaks out or one of the volcanoes in the North Island erupts – hits.

National and Labour’s bipartisanship on letting New Zealand’s government debt level increase is therefore something that I find alarming. It also brings me back to my favourite mantra of “growing the pie, instead of slicing and dicing the pie”, which I have described in recent articles.

If we do decide to increase our debt levels, which National’s Finance spokesperson Dr Paul Goldsmith is quite open to doing, we need to know what instruments we are going to use to raise the money. Raising taxes appears to be a no-no on both sides of the house for a change, with possibly only the Green Party interested in doing so. My own position on taxation can be found in other articles.