Teachers strike as much about conditions as pay

As New Zealand braces for another wave of teacher strikes, we are getting mixed messages about what is driving the strikes. Some are saying it is wages. Others are saying it is working conditions. The Ministers of Education and Children are saying they have done their best.

Teachers have to be a range of things that they were never trained to do and should not be attempting to do. Among these roles are being de facto parents, part time social workers, and nurses. In other words being made to do – by circumstance – things that they simply should not.

So, I find it a bit disingenuous that the Minister of Education Chris Hipkins and the Minister for Children Tracey Martin can somehow believe that the teachers are simply striking to get as much money as they can.

A teacher, whilst reasonably expected to discipline children when they are naughty or refuse to follow instructions, should not expect to have to put up with the range of behaviours that they are being subject to. These include physical assault, things being thrown at them, inappropriate behaviour such as groping. All of this is not only totally improper has anyone considered the disruption and upset that it must cause students to be witness to this?

When I was at intermediate in 1993 we had a relief teacher one time. She was covering for two days and on the first day, a student was being particularly disruptive. His desk had already been separated and pushed up against a wall by the regular teacher because of his behaviour. On this particular day he was not having a bar of the relief teacher. At some point he had been asked to get on with his work and stubbornly refused. When the teacher came around to tell him off, he leaped out of his chair and pushed her up against the wall. The class captain ran next door to get a teacher to assist. It took about three staff to restrain him and the class had to be sent outside whilst he was calmed down. Then after a meeting with the Principal which saw him suspended on the spot he came back in grabbed his books, dumped them on the floor and slammed the desk lid so hard it broke its hinge.

Things have moved on since 1993. But I think the ability of teachers to sort out unruly students has not improved. There will always be a disruptive core of students in any school who might come from homes where there is no parental guidance. None of the teachers I had reacted excessively to the behaviour of the students in their classes.

But more recently they have also had to be parents of sorts. Some have said that they have children in their classes still wetting themselves; children who have not learnt basic table manners. Some have had to go so far as to take children into their own homes, which creates ethical issues about the limitations of a teachers responsibility and where the State, parents or other body must take charge.

Teachers are also concerned about the lack of help they are getting on children with special needs. Whilst assistance has been provided, concerns linger over the quality of the training, how many hours the teacher aides will be able to do. Special needs students range greatly in terms of needs and dependency. Some are quite high functioning whilst others will have behavioural and language impairments and some will be non verbal.

When one considers these issues individually and collectively, should we really be surprise that teachers are going on strike. The expectations on them have become unrealistic and the resourcing has not kept up. Now we are paying the price.

Lessons from Europe and Singapore: Alcohol consumption

I was in Belgium on my recently completed trip I was fortunate enough to try some of their superb craft beer. Belgium has a well established reputation for craft beer – indeed on a canal boat trip I did with my parents in Brugge, the guide/driver pointed out a place which he said has over 1400 craft beers in it. We initially thought he was joking, but I will let you make you minds up after you look at the photo below (it was considerably longer than this):

The author and the beer wall (part of it) in Brugge, Belgium. (R. GLENNIE)

This and other experiences with alcohol culture in Belgium and other countries around Europe got me thinking about how and why New Zealanders behave in the way they do with alcohol. Is there any way to make New Zealanders drink more responsibly without taking away the pleasure of a beer or wine? Is there a way of having a good time without filling up Accident and Emergency Departments in our hospitals or waking up the following day wishing one had never had that extra round (vomited all over the floor, smashed something, started a fight or other totally improper conduct)?

Belgian craft beer is not weak in alcohol. One might think it does not taste so, but very often I was drinking beers with 8.0-10.0% alcohol. They would be served in 330ml or 500ml glasses. At no point in the trip did I have more than two rounds at a given location and all were accompanied by food or food was consumed prior to alcohol consumption.

I noticed some key differences about the conduct of Europeans around it. I did not not note any seriously drunken behaviour. There were to be sure some loud conversations going on, but a few of the places I had beers at did have acoustic set ups that made things seem louder than they probably were. But I never saw any fights, uncivilized behaviour or police officers arresting anyone.

In many places people would come in, perhaps by bike or on foot, they would order a round and have it. Many would go after just one round. A few would stick around for more. Food was readily available. These establishments would even on Friday generally be shut by 2200-2300, though they were open right through the day.

I did some research. In Belgium 0.05 milligrams of alcohol per millilitre of blood is the limit. Bus drivers and truck drivers, fee paying passenger services – taxi’s, limousines with chauffeurs – have to abide by a 0.2 milligram limit. Compare that with the limits in New Zealand: 0.05 milligrams per 100ml of blood/250 micrograms per litre of breath.

Alcohol limits across the European Union vary considerably. From 0.08 milligrams of alcohol per litre of blood in the United Kingdom, to zero in the Czech Republic and Slovenia (zero generally being interpreted as below detection levels). So do the attendant rules around driver types – some countries set professional drivers (which I take to mean truck, emergency services, etc)low limits such as 0.02 and others make it an offence to drive with any alcohol on board.

Of the wider alcohol problem in New Zealand, I thought about that too. Supermarkets are currently able to sell alcohol. In Europe I saw wine and beer being available in places like service stations, which were more like small scale supermarkets or suprettes. I think that is too liberal and that alcohol should be restricted to alcohol stores, which rigorously enforce the 18+ law. That will take away some of the marketing in front of youths. It will not solve all of the problems with drunkenness, but that was likely to require a societal shift in attitudes anyway.


Why the lack of confidence in New Zealand economy?

Stuff reporter Tracy Watkins wrote in The Press that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has five major problems upon her return to work. One of those problems is dealing with an apparent elephant in the room called business confidence.

Apparently it is at a ten year low. Supposedly the economy is somehow at risk, which I find a bit rich, given that this Government has:

  • Not even been in office a year and has not had time to undo the social consequences of the previous Government
  • Is addressing socio-economic concerns that have seen more and more New Zealanders at risk of falling through the cracks caused by unsustainable increases in the costs of living

Contrary to what National and A.C.T. would have one believe, many of the problems assailing the New Zealand economy at the moment are actually not of the Governments making. As a relatively minor, albeit respected player in the global economy, New Zealand’s ability to influence the likes of larger nations such as the United States, Russia, China and so forth is limited.

New Zealand did not ask for the trade wars that have been starting up, or which threaten to start up. It did not ask to be a victim of large nations slapping tariffs on each others products – the decisions by United States President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping were always going to have a negative flow on effect.

New Zealand did not ask for the high level of political tension in the Middle East that has seen frequent threats of war being bandied about between the United States, Israel and Iran. The very high petrol prices at the moment are a reflection of the fact that fiery rhetoric is starting to be matched, ominously, by military movements in form of U.S. and Iranian military assets being moved into the Gulf region.

Nor have we asked for the winding back of necessary checks put in place after the 2007-09 Global Financial Crisis to make sure that the banking system cannot destroy itself. The Dodd-Frank Act of the United States has been challenged by Republicans trying to assure their place in the 2018 midterm results. The Act was passed by President Barak Obama to end the notion of “too big to fail” which had seen large banks such as Lehman collapse, and ensure fiscal stability and accountability. With concerns mounting that the banking sector may be on the edge of another failure there is little sense in removing these checks and balances.

As for New Zealand economic symptoms, significant reinvestment in health, education, the social welfare system as well as transport and other sectors can only be a good thing. After years of relentlessly chipping away at these sectors, gaps are showing in mental health, housing, affordability of every day necessities. Such investment will help to keep many people who are at the lower end of the wealth spectrum in a position where they do not become destitute, and pay for itself in the longer term by enabling them to find work.

The significant investment in railways and public transport will help to reduce congestion on major routes, but also take more freight off roads and enable it to be moved in bulk. Some roads in New Zealand, such as the State Highway 1 coastal section south of Kaikoura are simply not meant to take the large trucks that are driven along a twisty, narrow route that have tunnels with low ceilings.

Nor should there be concerns about changes to labour legislation to ensure that the exploitation of workers cannot go unchallenged. As a nation that prides itself on giving everyone a fair go, that means giving workers fair working conditions. Common sense, really.

Nurses strike averted, but long way to go

On Thursday night whilst catching up with friends at a bar, I was talking to a nurse about the impending strike action that she and her colleagues were to engage in next week. She told me that the strike had not been an easy decision to make, but that the Union members had made very clear that current conditions of their work were not tolerable.

The strike had been set down for 05 July 2018. Starting at 0700 hours hospitals, medical centres and other medical practices would be subject to a 24 hour strike action, during which time widespread cancellations of surgery and the normal duties expected of nurses would have occurred.

I am pleased that an improved offer has been been made to the Nurses Union. The offer means that the N.U. has now withdrawn the notice of intention to strike for 05 July 2018, so that the terms of the new offer may be considered and the Union vote on whether or not to accept them.

However there is a long way to go. Quite aside from the fact that there were two dates marked for potential strike action, the N.U. will not be wanting to settle for anything less than a quite substantial improvement in pay and conditions. Nine years of under funding and wrongly prioritised spending has left New Zealand nurses in a precarious position. I have described in a previous article what conditions the nurses around New Zealand work in.

But it is important to note the ethical considerations that need to be made as well. Not being able to work in a safe environment and be appropriately renumerated for their efforts undermines them as professionals working in the most humane and life giving profession there is.

It also sends the wrong and messages about the value of a critical component of the medical workforce. It needs to be in a position where it could be realistically expected to do the job expected, and that means establishing as far as realistically appropriate physical and contractual working conditions. Because at the end of the day a fatigued, distracted, or disaffected nurse poses a risk to his/her colleagues, patients and other people by not being in the right state to do their job.

The nurse at the bar will be encouraged by the new offer and the opportunity to delay very serious strike action that would have caused massive disruption across New Zealand. If we are lucky, this will be sufficient for the N.U. to cancel the strikes altogether and make 05 July 2018 a normal working day.

District Health Boards shake up coming

In 2000, not long after Prime Minister Helen Clark’s Labour Government had commenced, it was announced that the National Health Funding Authority would be disestablished. In its place would be a set of District Health Boards across New Zealand who would be allocated money from the budge and be saddled with the responsibility for prioritizing its use and distributing the money accordingly. 18 years later, another Labour Government is reviewing it.

I am personally not very surprised a review is coming. District Health Boards have never really struck me as the most efficient method of dispensing funding, however good the idea of a democratically elected board to oversee the prioritization might be (and is). A significant portion of the money is locked up in administrative costs.

Yes, there is no doubt that governing something as big as a national health system is a huge task and the system of governance is something that must be robust. For that there is equally no doubt that the systems needed will be comprehensive and that there will be many tasks that are not obvious to the public eye that need performing.

But do we really need 20 district health boards? New Zealand geographically is generally recognized as being Northland, Auckland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Taranaki, Manawatu, Gisborne, Hawkes Bay, Wairarapa, Wellington, Nelson, Marlborough, Canterbury, West Coast, Otago, Southland, West Coast.

The unfortunate saga of Nigel Murray of the Waikato District Health Board was a rare but notable example of a District Health Board chief going rogue with huge personal misuse of money that he had no personal right to. However this is not the cause of the problems that go on in the District Health Boards. More likely the problems stem from the appalling lack of public interest in elected D.H.B.’s – is it possible that they realise there are possibly more effective ways of governing the health system in New Zealand than half baked boards behaving like a television that is trying to function with only half the necessary power available, that is smoking and smouldering its way into some sort of oblivion? Because to be coldly honest, people simply do not have much interest in how the D.H.B.’s work and nor do they terribly care about who gets elected to the Boards because one way or the other something will stuff up.

Back in 1999, following the failure of the Crown Health Enterprises, which established a series of entities meant to act like businesses and make a profit, the National led Government of Prime Minister Jenny Shipley was casting around for alternative means. Their solution was a centrally funded Health Funding Authority which would allocate money based on population size from Wellington. Unfortunately for National the solution was never realized as the party was swept from office by the Labour Government of Ms Clark.

I have written in other articles about the savings that I think could have been made from not having the D.H.B.’s. There has been much written about the poor prioritizing of spending in some D.H.B.’s such as the Canterbury District Health Board, where in the post earthquake environment there were increasing demands for additional mental health services. Whatever model the Government comes up with needs to be able to address the long term growth in demand for services.