Archive for ‘January, 2009’

Electoral finance: the principles I – Transparency

datePosted on 06:00, January 25th, 2009 by Anita

In the run up to the election there was massive hypocrisy in the right complaining about the Electoral Finance Act while simultaneously amping up the fuss around New Zealand First finances; complaining about the exploitation of loopholes that the EFA they so hate was supposed to close. So I thought I’d use this as a an opportunity to look at the principles that should underpin our electoral finance rule one by one.

One of the most serious issue raised by Jones, Glenn, the Velas, and the Spencer Trust (not to mention National’s Waitemata Trust, Ruahine Trust, and so on) is transparency. People voted for NZF (and National and Labour) without knowing who was paying their bills, without being able to assess what the funders might be expecting in return.

Would the same people have voted for NZ First in 2005 if they’d known it was being funded by Bob Jones and the racing lobby? Perhaps, but they didn’t in 2008 once they knew. National if they’d known about funding from the tobacco, pharmaceutical and insurance industries? Perhaps.

But perhaps they would have looked closer at the policies and made a decision about whose financial interests they were voting for.

What would NZ First do for the racing lobby? We have an answer.

What will National do for tobacco and pharmaceutical companies now they have the cabinet benches? We’ve already got a pretty clear idea about what they’re offering the insurance industry: profit from a privatised workplace accident compensation model, and the Herceptin decision is positioning for politicians making decisions on drug funding.

Perhaps knowing who’s bought influence would help us weigh up what to do with our votes, and it sure would help us keep the bastards honest! 

Principle I: Transparency – it is vital for democracy that we, the voters, know who is behind the candidates, who is paying their bills, who is pulling their strings.

Crime and punishment

datePosted on 06:00, January 24th, 2009 by Anita

Somewhere in all the tough-on-crime rhetoric we seem to have missed out the step where we talk about what prisons are actually for. Do we have prisons to keep us safe, to rehabilitate, to deter, or to punish?

In theory we have them to keep us safe, no more no less. In practice some victims of crime and some onlookers want vengeance. I believe they have no right to vengeance, they have a right to have things put as right as possible (recognising that many things cannot be put right), and they have a right to be safe; but there is no right to punish, no right to inflict pain for that selfish purpose.

So why should prisons be any different? They should serve the purpose only of protecting us and only as a last resort because simply by incarcerating someone we do huge damage to them and those around them.

If we used prisons only when absolutely necessary to to keep us safe

  1. Far fewer people would be locked up – only those that we had no other way of keeping us safe from.
  2. There would be minimal restrictions on those people – if the community will be safe if the person has a TV, they should be able to have a TV, if the community will be safe if they see their children in a friendly inviting environment with toys three afternoons a week, then they should be able to do that. The restrictions we place should be only those that are needed to keep us safe.

Yet we have many prisons full to bursting with people who would do no damage is set free, or who we could be kept safe from in other ways. The people in those prisons (and their families) suffer restrictions which are totally unnecessary.

We have a prison system based on vengeance and punishment, is that who we want to be?

[I have struggled with this post and rewritten it several times, the word “prison” bothers me. I believe that what we should have, for the handful of people who we can’t be safe from without some kind of restraint, is so unlike our current prisons that I don’t know what to call them. 

I thoroughly recommend Maia’s posts about prisons at Capitalism Bad; Tree Pretty, she says it so much better than me. All I know how to say is that we have no right to seek revenge]

What do they mean by private healthcare provision?

datePosted on 06:00, January 23rd, 2009 by Anita

In a number of threads people have brought up the idea that our existing publicly provided health system is fundamentally flawed and should be replaced by a privately provided healthcare system. Every time I read that argument I want to make a single (bold face) point:

The vast majority of our healthcare is provided by private providers.

The vast majority.

Take me for example, I see my GP (private provider), I have blood tests (private provider), scans (usually a private provider), take medication (private provider) and see a number of specialists (my main one is public but occasionally other public or private specialists). All except the specialists are private providers at least partly funded by the government.  One specialist is a public provider entirely publicly funded.

The only surgery I ever had was in a private hospital fully funded by the government.

So why, if the current health system is so broken, does anyone think that private provision is the answer?

I can see three possible reasons National and Act are arguing for “private health provision”:

  1. Transfer the last of the public money to the private sector to create private sector profits for shareholders.
  2. They don’t mean “private provision” they mean “private funding”, they actually want to cut the government spend and rely on individuals funding their own healthcare. Advantageous for the wealthy (who already have health insurance and would benefit from the tax cuts), disastrous for the poor who can’t afford private cover or care and don’t get tax cuts from the Nats.
  3. Ideological blindness.

Two are awfully cynical and the other requires a level of stupidity I don’t believe they have, any other offers?

Since last year’s election there has been a lot of talk about the tenability of the relationship between the Māori Party and National.

On the one hand National’s hard right policies will hurt many Māori voters; how much damage can the Māori Party let their electorate sustain from their parliamentary partners? What concessions can the MP gain that will outweigh the effects of National’s privatisation and their transfer of wealth from the poorest to the richest?

On the other hand the Māori Party is dominated by, to quote John Tamihere, the “relatively wealthy, educated elite” just as the National Party is the party of the Pakeha wealthy educated elite. Like peas in a pod, perhaps these two parties of the elites are made for each other. Interesting analysis on this possibility is available all over the media (e.g. The Herald) and blogs (e.g. Against the current). The analysis, good though it is, has tended to overlook the fact that while the Māori and Pakeha elites have many things in common, their cultural differences are significant too.

One of the areas often discussed as common ground between the parties is provision of social services: both want to transfer service provision (and the funding for it) from the state to “the community”. It looks like an agreement, but what do they mean by “the community”?

National’s view of community social service provision is to pay a small number of large corporates or NGOs to provide bulk social services, just like the big companies they’ve worked for in the private sector. The Māori Party, quite differently, imagine many small iwi, runanga and hapu based providers, with perhaps some provision by Urban Māori Authorities. To the Māori Party the key to community provision is local targeted care by traditional Māori structures.

This cultural gulf recurs throughout the apparent policy agreements between National and the Māori Party. Another example, National wants to privatise health care provision by offering it to large privately owned hospital providers like those Michael Woodhouse lobbied for in his years in the NZ Private Surgical Hospitals Association and the NZ Private Hospitals Association. The Māori Party wants to strengthen and develop the many Hauora built by iwi and hapu throughout the country, just like the one Hone Harawira helped set up in the Far North.

That may be the final ideological divide: the difference between a “community” consisting of corporates and their shareholders, and a “community” of iwi and hapu.

The Moment

datePosted on 13:49, January 21st, 2009 by Jafapete

Today, the United States of America showed the world—and, more importantly, itself—a glimpse of its promise. History, hope and a sense of unity filled the land. It was difficult, even on the other side of this vast country, not to feel caught up in “The Moment”.

It’s forty years since Richard Nixon and the Republicans began their campaign to divide and conquer this country, feeding off and fueling feelings of envy (the “silent majority”), suspicion and ignorance (the “southern strategy”). The divisions are a long way from healing. Not surprisingly—maybe because they know nothing else now—the G.O.P. remain wedded to the negative.

But one thing that I’ve observed talking to many Americans over the past few months is that there is a desire to come together as a nation. Perhaps that doesn’t extend too far into the more backward, rural areas, but it is palpable in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

There is a great deal of hardship and adversity here right now, much more so than most kiwis could comprehend, inured as we are to a benign, helping society. A friend who worked on the L.A. Times as a journalist has had to take on a second job to meet a “budget gap” that arose through illness. She’s seventy. The daily roll call of jobs lost is frightening.

Obama’s speech today was a masterful mix of hard-edged realism and inspiring rhetoric. (Text here) It wasn’t his most eloquent in my view, but it was effective.

Obama began by dwelling at length with the crisis with which the USA finds itself confronted, going further by alluding to “sapping of confidence across our land” and the need to “restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”

Opponents of his efforts to save the country from economic catastrophe were put on notice in no uncertain terms…

“We come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things… …What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them—that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”

The simple reliance on the market to set things right was rejected…

“Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control — and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.”

On international affairs, there is promise of a new, smarter approach, informed by an understanding that bullying is not the only, or even always the best, way to achieve the US’s goals. There’s an understanding of the interconnectedness of the various elements of the intractable “problem” that the Middle East presents, that you cannot have peace without a measure of prosperity for all.

The statement that, in the international arena the USA is “ready to lead once more” was not the only repudiation of Bush 43’s policies. Obama presaged a return to action consistent with US Constitution (and, one hopes, international conventions):

“Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”

Gone was the over-blown rhetoric about bringing US-style democracy to the rest of the world that saturated Bush 43’s speech four years ago.

Obama certainly has his work cut out for him. But with so much goodwill, so much talent, and such determination, he is the one who can meet the challenge. One thing is very clear. The United States has turned a corner. And for that we should be grateful.

Update: over at the Standard, Eddie posts on what Obama means for kiwis.

The politics of state funding to private schools

datePosted on 06:00, January 21st, 2009 by Anita

In the United States for a long time the Christian Right and the Economic Right existed in parallel trajectories. They campaigned for different things, they didn’t co-ordinate, and they didn’t overlap in membership. Then they started flirting, they each recognised the political power the other had. The issue that brought them together was public funding to religious schools; it was something they both wanted. For one it was direct funding, for the other it was tax payer subsidisation of the education of the rich. The Republicans, keen to draw in the conservative Christians hugely increased the state funding of private (religious) schools

In Australia as John Howard built his brand off his Methodist values, rolled back liberal measures and developed and used the conservative Christians, his government hugely increased the state funding of private (religious) schools.

In New Zealand, as the Brash and then Key led National Party fought against a liberal incumbent and developed its relationship with the conservative Christians both leaders promised church groups that they would increase funding to religious schools. Now they have been elected and are promising to nearly double the funding to private (religious) schools.

Section 59: How did the politics get so murky?

datePosted on 06:00, January 20th, 2009 by Anita

By early 2005 section 59′s days were clearly numbered. The campaign to remove it had been going over 25 years, the big family service provision organisations were backing the campaign, as were the big churches, MPs from both National and NZ First had put forward measures to repeal or limit, the government had been running a publicity campaign against physical discipline for a number of years with the intention of repeal once more change in behaviour had occurred, and the judiciary had been gradually limiting the scope of the existing section. 

The final vote to replace section 59 was won 113 votes to eight. A simple clean story on paper.

The reality was very different, sometime after the 9th of June 2005 the political wheels fell off; section 59 was replaced, but the cost was huge. 

I could (and will :) write a lot about the social forces, but today this is about the political forces. How and why did the politics become so ugly? I have a handful of theories, I’m sure there are other possibilities:

  1. It was a Green bill – that made it easier to paint as extremist. 
  2. Labour dithered – which made it appear that this was an area of potential weakness
  3. National  has been building links to conservative Christian churches – for example Brash spoke to a large conservative congregation (with no media present) in July 2005 about “values” and “morals” and pledged National would fight the bill.
  4. The “Nanny State” meme – it was an incredibly well developed attack theme against the Labour led government, and had been successful against similar governments overseas, and this issue fit perfectly.
  5. Cynicism – I already noted that a National MP had tried to limit s59 (Bob Simcock way back in 2001) and National voted unanimously for the bill’s third reading. But it proved such a good stick to beat Labour with, perhaps for a while their principles were traded against a chance at the cabinet benches. 
  6. Poor communications strategies by both the Greens and Labour – something went badly wrong here, there was no comms, then too much inconsistency, and little co-ordination between the Greens and Labour. [Thanks Danyl for reminding me, I’ve updated this now :]

The Israeli offensive in Gaza has rekindled debate about the role of collective responsibility in the initiation and prosecution of war. Israel is specifically accused of collectively punishing all Gazans in retaliation for Hamas missile attacks on the Israeli population, with some claiming that aspects of Israeli military operations amount to war crimes. Such may or may not be true, but the issue is more complex than that.

Hamas argues that it is justified in firing missiles into Israeli population centers because all Jews are complicit in the Zionist enterprise and all Israelis eventually complete some form of military service. From that perspective better to kill a Jew in the crib than on the battlefield. Sunni extremists in Iraq target Shiia worshippers at their holy sites because they hold them accountable for the apostasy of their clerical leaders. Osama bin Laden has openly stated that the US public made itself a target for attack by repeatedly electing pro-Israeli and anti-Muslim administrations. Kurds and Armenians hold all Turks responsible for the sins of the Ottomans, Kemalists and their successors. Chechnyan militants hold all Russians culpable for the depredations of the Russian military in the post-Soviet republic. Germans are still held by some to be collectively guilty for the sins of the Nazis. The Japanese are accused on not feeling guilty enough for the depredations of Hirohito and company. The list of collective finger-pointing, responsibility, guilt, targeting and punishment is long.

The issue is complicated by the fact that, by the criteria of collective responsibility, open and honest elections increase the culpability of the electorate in the sins of their political representatives. That was Osama’s point about the US. Whatever one may think about the US electorate’s complicity in Bush 43′s follies, by that logic the Palestinians are collectively culpable for having voted in favour of a Hamas-majority parliament in 2006. Put another way, citizens of non-elected authoritarian regimes cannot be held accountable for the behaviour of those regimes unless there is some other mechanism to attribute direct support for the authoritarian project. An example would be Argentines during the Falklands/Malvinas war, which was initiated by a brutal military dictatorship feared by its own people. Conversely, the citizens of all democratic regimes are complicit in the behavior of their governments because it was their majority vote that brought those governments into power. The minority of those who voted against these democratically-elected incumbents may take issue with that (and indeed have), but the logic is inscrutable on the point: mass elections make the masses collectively responsible for the conduct of their elected leaders. Read the rest of this entry »

Representational democracy is fundamentally flawed

datePosted on 16:35, January 19th, 2009 by Anita

Representational democracy in New Zealand necessarily fails entirely to live up to its name. With a hundred and twenty people representing four million or so, this should be obvious. It is a system that forces each voter to make a choice using only at most a few of their views. Which party, or which individual, represents the person who wants to ban genetically modified organisms and privatise the health system? 

Even if the party you vote for is elected, they will hold different views from you and they will vote in ways you would not wish them to. In short they are not representing you.

This not only makes the choice a futile one, but also impoverishes any sort of debate or conversation, because the debates are led by politicians who work within blocks, and are covered by a media which is unable to tease out the individual issues.

This futility, and the requirement to give your vote to a package of policies, means we end up giving far too much power to politicians, and keeping far too little for ourselves. Indeed giving this power to politicians is a mistake. We give people whose motivation is largely to gain power the ability to say they are representing us although they have no desire to listen to our individual opinions, and there is no framework to force them to. Three yearly elections do not allow us to hold politicians to account on individual issues, or even individual actions. 

The problem is not the frequency of our elections or the parties we are able to vote for, it is that the system itself does not allow for all of an individuals views to be represented. Every single one of us is effectively silenced on the majority of our views, and forced to listen politicians claiming to speak on our behalf.

Is the Christian Right a necessary sea anchor?

datePosted on 06:00, January 19th, 2009 by Anita

In the early 1970s a group named the Family Rights Association wrote

All families are suffering at present, infidelity and divorce are very common. Marriages are breaking down at a record rate. When love dies hatred emerges and the children are exposed to suffering and neglect. Parents often see their children’s lives being ruined by drugs, alcoholism and promiscuity, swept along by an overwhelming flood of pornography and evil. Pressure groups claim that marriage is outmoded. De facto relationships are accepted by society and are treated generously by the Government. Normal sexuality is almost submerged by demands for recognition of homosexuality and other perversions. Illegitimacy and venereal disease have reached epidemic proportions. Social anarchy threatens.

Much of that could have been written by Family First in 2009, or many other groups in the intervening 35 years.

Despite this constant thread of social conservatism and fearful reaction to social change, NZ has made enormous socially progressive change since the early 1970s. We have criminalised rape within marriage, decriminalised anal sex, provided access to abortion, passed the Human Rights Act, allowed no fault divorce, decriminalised prostitution, provided sex education in schools, enabled legal recognition of same-sex relationships, banned corporal punishment in schools, and passed domestic violence protection laws (to name just a few).

Perhaps the role of the Christian Right is a necessary one; it does not prevent change but it slows it and makes sure there’s enough discussion that the more conservative members of our society don’t get left behind and alienated from a society that moves too quickly and doesn’t take the time to persuade them and bring them along.

While I campaign for more liberal and progressive progress, I’m not sure I would be willing to pay the price of a divided antagonistic society. Perhaps I should thank the Christian Right for slowing us down enough that we can move together as a community.

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