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.

Water safety message still not getting through to New Zealanders


 


Earlier this week two tourists were rescued from the Huka Falls. They had been swept into a narrow channel only a few tens of metres wide through which hurtles the Waikato River. Just metres from a 15 metre plunge into a seething pool, they were rescued by astonished police, wanting to know what they were – or more likely were not – thinking.

New Zealand has some alarmingly high drowning statistics for a country surrounded by water. And some of the drowning have happened in places where people should not be in the first place, such as irrigation and power station intakes, spill ways, diversion and water races. These places where hidden obstructions, strong under currents, sudden rises and falls in water levels depending on demand may exist are generally well marked.

So, this idea that more signage and other warnings are needed is needed is silly. It is people trying to deflect the fact that they do not know water safety that we should address. This has been shown clearly by instances around water control structures in both the North and South Islands. Two examples at Aratiatia Dam particularly stand out. The dam, whose spill way consists of an over flow channel and a control gate block that opens twice daily for about 30 minutes discharges into a steep rocky channel that creates spectacular rapids. Warning signage, sirens and lights warn people 5 minutes, 2 minutes and immediately prior to the gates opening. But despite all of this, multiple people have died or have had to be rescued for being in the channel.

It is also true that New Zealand has too many drownings at beaches. Many have been where people have got themselves into situations beyond their skill, but also where some have ignored warnings from lifeguards to stay out the sea at beaches that gave been closed. Others have been caught in rips and have tried to swim against the current, thus tiring themselves unnecessarily.

And finally, there are our rivers, particularly in the instance of Canterbury and West Coast Rivers, where avoidable, but also tragic drownings have happened. Some have been cases of not understanding that the heavy rain in the mountains will cause alpine rivers to flood within a matter of hours. On multiple occasions sudden water level changes have caught people out. In one instance a near new rental car hired by foreign tourists was swept away by a rapidly rising Rakaia River. The hirers had ignored warnings from locals that a flood was coming and were shocked when the dry river bed turned into a filthy raging torrent. In another, locals drove onto the Waimakariri River bed and were caught when the river flooded in response to a day of heavy rain.

But perhaps the most tragic was the case of some young men from Afghanistan who had no concept of water safety. They had gone to the Waimakariri River just north of Christchurch on a hot January day to cool off, and seeing some locals in the river, thought they could wade in. Before long one was in trouble having suddenly realised the channel was deeper than him.

New Zealand can do better than this, and we must. We need to reintroduce compulsory swim week, which was something that happened at my primary school in the second or third week of each year. But we also need to talk about water environments that do not involve beaches. When that happens, maybe the death toll will improve.

 

National Party ignoring causes of gangs existence


According to National leader Simon Bridges we have a gang problem that he is vowing to crack down hard on. Fuelled by the recent violence in Tauranga where police have been fired at by people not stopping for a check point; by a double shooting; by shooting events witnessed by children, Mr Bridges has vowed to take action against gangs following these events. But as we shall see, the National party have a major flaw in their approach.

“Get tough on crime” is a common policy plank for conservative parties. It is applauded by the members and supporters of those parties because of the belief that it sends a signal to criminal elements, organized and individuals alike, that society will not tolerate gang behaviour. And we certainly should not. Gangs are intimidating with their presence. Their lifestyle is one of violence, crime, drugs and other legally and/or socially improper activities. To join a gang one has to do certain things – the patches earned by individual members are not simply awarded to anyone who wants to join.

But at this point I believe that I and a lot of other New Zealanders diverge from the path that National wants to take us down. And the reason for that is as simple as it is fundamental:

National are ignoring the causes of the gangs existence in the first place.

Why do gangs exist? This is a simple question, and a fundamentally important one, but the answer is not so simple. Many of the people in gangs come from broken homes. They never had role models in their lives, and education was not a priority. Love was non-existent. The phrase “learn right from wrong” was unheard of. At an early age they might have been involved with drugs and the illicit side activities that go with this.

But the broken homes that these people came from are not exclusively broken in the sense of nobody cares/bad parents. Some of them come from families where the parents are at work for long periods of time, left school early either because of costs or lack of support. Simple things like ensuring children get breakfast in the morning and have lunch to eat at school goes a surprisingly long way towards reducing disruption and making them want to stay in the education system.

Teenagers who make up a number of younger recruits are a vulnerable bunch when it comes to peer pressure. A teen might have mates who have connections and be wanting that teen to join them. At an early age they might already be getting exposed to weed, pornography, alcohol and other illegal or adult material.

I want to be clear that this is absolutely not attempting to say we should go kindly on gangs. It is not. I am saying that in order to understand why gangs are doing what they are doing, we must first understand the why. Why do gangs exist in New Zealand? Until that gets answered and addressed, you can forget about adequately tackling the gangs, their activities and dissuading those who might be tempted to join, from doing so.

 

Planning challenges in the 2020’s


Over the course of my Planning Theory paper in the second half of 2019, I had 12 core readings (one a week) and on average two additional readings. Some were dry, Northern hemisphere papers¬† written in the context of post World War 2 Europe. One or two – in the words of another student – “just about broke my brain”. And there were others that were rather dark, such as that by Kamete (2012), which talks about how planning law was used to aid Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe’s Operation Murabatsvina, which cleared out large slum areas of Harare in 2005.

And then there were a couple that resonated with me. One came from Australia and the other one was from Harvard University. The Australian one (Lane, 2005), examined an idea I have committed to memory because it is where I think some councils are failing badly. Sherry Arnstein (1969), who was an American social worker noticed how out of tune authorities seemed to be on social matters. Arnstein developed the “Ladder of Participation”, concerning how councils involve the public in planning matters, which I want to explore a bit.

Lane drew upon Arnstein’s idea and explored it further. Lane suggested that planning fell into three schools – blueprint; synoptic and pluralist. The blueprint type which most western countries abandoned from about the late 1960’s, was basically about developing new settlement forms with question or interference. This triggered some interesting discussions among the students on the course. One said that her parents live in Poland and have no concept of civil planning. They have only ever known “blueprint” type and synoptic and pluralist planning ideas that western countries have gravitated towards were completely foreign to them.

The Harvard paper by Beckert (2016) looks at “Fictional expectations and the crisis of contemporary capitalism”. Beckert argues that capitalism is about expecting to be bettered by a competitor and therefore trying to continuously come with new ideas, products or services. What one is trying to develop has to be of greater value than what was invested so that a return can be made on it. But Beckert noted a potential crisis of confidence caused by the growing disparities that undermine the motivation to participate, which might hinder long term market development.

In a planning context one might suggest that planning is in part about attempting to provide a framework for a future that we do not yet know about – and which might not happen. The 1991 Resource Management Act was born out of concerns about the Brundtland conference about the future of the planet. Climate change had not become the massive issue it is now, but there was enough confidence about the unsustainable trajectory of economic development to say we have a major problem.

Another paper that struck me as possibly being useful was one by Joe Painter (2006) called “Prosaic Geographies of Stateness”. A striking paper this one because it sought to understand the impact of the everyday bureaucrat – whether a planner, an enforcement officer or gathering/collating data – and their actions. It drew on literature from Britain, but I am going to put this in a New Zealand context.

We have the Resource Management Act. The planner, that some of you refer to as bureaucrats has a testing job. Juggling the obligations of the Act is not as easy as it looks, and friends who have processed resource consents have told me it is a never ending conveyor belt. Speed it up then, some of you say. Okay, but are you prepared to see more ratepayer dollars spent on staff you call bureaucrats? No, stuff it some of you will say. The planner in the middle then finds themselves struggling to meet R.M.A. imposed deadlines. In carrying out the mundane actions Painter describes, we see how the ordinary job of the planner and the mundane decisions they make actually wield power in our lives. A planner finding a developer wants to build inside a set riparian margin can send the developer away to reset their boundary, or the developer may ask for a plan change. If the applicant does not supply sufficient info the planner can exercise S.92 which requests more information under the R.M.A.

Before anyone grumbles about processing times, I understand 90-95% get issued. But it might pay to check the quality of the decision. This is one reason why we get so many inane council decisions that seem to be half cooked. Another is because city/district/regional councils hire people who have a narrow planning background. As a result New skills are not being brought to the fore. But also a staff that do not have time for due diligence, are going to be the first to make a mistake.

As the new decade starts, it is worthwhile asking yourself and ourselves collectively, what is expected of a council planner, and based on what I have discussed, the sort of theoretical influences they should be drawing upon.

References:

  • Beckert J., “Fictional expectations and the crisis of contemporary capitalism”, 2016
  • Kamete A., “Interrogating planning’s power in an African city: Time for a reorientation?”, 2012
  • Lane M., “Public participation in planning: An intellectual history”, 2005
  • Menzies M., “A partial history of futures thinking in New Zealand”, 2018
  • Painter J., “Prosaic geographies of Stateness”, 2006

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.