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Archive for ‘April, 2010’

Cannabis bust news coverage bingo

datePosted on 17:57, April 27th, 2010 by Lew

Here’s a fun game. Watch tonight’s TV news (either channel) and count the following tropes.

Update: I did this — both channels, since they were conveniently on at separate times, and was pleasantly surprised by reasonably sober tone of coverage. Comments in italics.

  • Gratuitous display of cannabis leaf or other marijuana iconography
    Four times on One and thrice on 3. Mostly in the display of the “Switched On Gardener” signage.
  • Gratuitous display of drug porn (huge quantities of plants, or egregiously sticky buds, etc.)
    5 times each. TV3 used this as their studio backdrop, otherwise it was the same stock footage throughout, obviously supplied by the police. A distinct lack of additional file footage and High Times-style images of the sort which are usually stock-in-trade for this sort of coverage.
  • Police casually destroying huge quantities of same
    None! Only some police confiscating computers, other equipment in the TV3 footage.
  • Tenuous linkages of marijuana with other drugs, violence or terrorism
    None! Some passing mentions and image of other drugs, firearms and references to organised crime, but nothing tenuous or unjustified.
  • File footage of a shadowy person smoking a joint — None!
  • If it’s clear despite anonymisation that the person is brown-skinned
    None of these either.
  • Footage of people being arrested or detained
    No images of people being arrested. One shot of an unidentified (white) person walking down the street as the voiceover informed us that those arrested were appearing in court.
  • Footage of supposedly ill-gotten gains: flash cars, etc.
    Twice each, references to property being seized under proceeds of crime legislation. Nothing major.
  • Smug, serious middle-aged white people expressing deep concern.
    The only examples of this in both cases were press conference shots of the senior police officer.
  • Triumphal statements that this has broken the back of the cannabis industry, with no supporting evidence
    Again, just what the police told us. Reporters stuck generally to the facts.
  • Reporter looking smug and saying words to the effect of “we can’t reveal which garden centre at the moment …” with the clear implication that it’ll all become clear pretty soon, and anyone who’s anyone already knows
    Well, although National Radio didn’t report (and the police refused to say on-air) which gardening shop chain it was, it was no secret, so none of this.
  • Breathless revelations that people who aren’t beneficiaries or gang members are involved in cannabis production and consumption
    Mentioned twice on One and once (but more extensively) on 3 — the fact that “managers and directors” of the company were among those arrested. But in general, not a big deal made of this fact.
  • Implication that schoolchildren might have been in danger
    Not mentioned or implied at all.
  • No mention of the fact that alcohol causes orders of magnitude more harm by almost every indicator
    Not mentioned or implied either, but on both channels, the booze story took precedence, occupied considerably more screen time, and was covered in much more depth.

So, all in all, nothing much to separate the coverage on One and 3 news. Both items were characterised by a heavy (almost total) reliance on official source material and footage — although both did a field cross, TVNZ’s was the usual pointless live cross, while TV3’s reporter didn’t even make the screen, with the field shots showing police hauling stuff out of a building. Both used similar (probably supplied) footage and images as background, and emphasised the length of the investigation, the number of people involved, and the impact the bust would have on the cannabis industry. Neither report was journalist-centric, with both reporters essentially relaying facts with a minimum of editorialisation. Both reports showed a distinct lack of sensationalised narrative, imagery or suggestion, lacking the usual devices employed to propagandise and pad out this sort of topic matter.

So: well done One and 3 News :)

L

As advertised

datePosted on 17:30, April 27th, 2010 by Lew

Late last year, when the ACC ructions were underway, the professionals working in the sector warned that people would die as a consequence of the reforms mandated by the new Clinical Pathway on the assessment and treatment of sexual abuse victims.

Since then, and on the basis of the pathway, ACC has taken to declining claims despite publicly claiming consistently throughout the past six months and as recently as today that there was no cost-cutting imperative. This has resulted in a drop of more than 90% in the number of claims approved year-on-year. Explain that, if you can. Nick Smith couldn’t, though he tried to do so during Question Time. It has also caused a chilling effect in which people are simply not applying, since they’d have to undergo the trauma of the exhaustive documentation and excessive review required by the pathway only to have their claims declined.

It’s impossible to separate these reforms from the overarching government plan to privatise — partially or wholly — ACC, and when viewed in this light it becomes clear what’s going on: this is how insurers make their profits. And, just lilke it said on the box, people are dying. It’s a good thing there’s going to be a review, but what’s better is that the sector is organising their own review in parallel. Should make for an interesting compare-and-contrast. I am aware that certain senior National party MPs are aghast at the conduct of ACC, so there may begin to emerge some pressure from within the party for change, as well as from outside. We’ll see.

L

Current events

datePosted on 13:53, April 27th, 2010 by Lew

I was reluctant to post while I had the chance on ANZAC day, since there was such a good debate going on, and now I’ve (temporarily) run out of time again. So just a few quick observations.

  • Phil Goff’s one-two punch on the top tax rate and Auckland governance is solid, and both are good orthodox Labour positions for him to take. But it’s more of the same: lacking verve and failing to get cut-through as a consequence. I mean to post on the positioning of the taxation pledge at some stage, but in case I don’t get to: this is a good opportunity for Goff to demonstrate compromise as well as differentiate himself, by coupling a reimplementation of the top rate with an increase of the threshold.
  • Even without Sunday’s tragic helicopter crash, Goff’s timing was poor in making these two announcements before ANZAC Day. I guess you take the opportunities you can get, but delaying things by a week would have been more useful in my view.
  • As an aside, my mum knew the three late airmen vaguely through Search and Rescue, and confirms the universal sentiment that they were of the very best sort. I’m pleasantly surprised that the crash hasn’t turned into a witchhunt about why we’re still using Vietnam-era hardware; as true as the sentiment might be, we can all do without people thundering “if we’re going to have a military, we owe it to our troops to have it decently-outfitted” under circumstances such as these. Such is the power of ANZAC day, I suppose.
  • On a related point, the discipline with which the military, government, police and media have adopted the Air Force’s framing terminology in this event is remarkable. All four groups are talking about “the Air Force family” and exploiting the metaphor for all it’s worth. Those words are used almost every time one of these people stands in front of a microphone, and in addition the three deceased are “brothers”; Mark Sainsbury reported live last night from the family’s “lounge”, the squad room at Ohakea air base; all four have referred to the Iroquois as being like “your grandfather’s axe” — the reference being that, although it’s very old, when the handle is worn it gets replaced, and when the head is worn it gets replaced, so while it’s his axe in spirit, it actually contains no parts of the original tool and is as good as new in function. On the one hand, this is compelling symbolic stuff: nobody who deviates from this framing can really be said to be showing the proper sort of respect and deference; on the other hand, it’s a bit creepy for everyone to be falling into lockstep behind Defence HQ communications. There are ways of saying these things without using the exact same words, and the constant repetition spooks me. Maybe I’m just sensitive. [Edit: There was a clean sweep for “Air Force family” or something similar in speeches supporting the Prime Minister’s parliamentary motion of condolence. No shock there, I suppose.]
  • On a somewhat lighter note, Councillor Tony Jack has picked the wrong district council to put a motion banning macrons in council materials. This is the Kāpiti Coast District Council, who moved to put the macrons into Paekākāriki and Ōtaki only a month ago. Jack’s motion was voted down, at which point he predictably declared that PC had gone mad. Bless. Of course, the Stuff article doesn’t contain the macrons, so I guess he wins as far as that goes.
  • Tim Watkin at Pundit continues to write excellent sense and ask smart questions about race relations in Aotearoa New Zealand. I think the emphasis in Tim’s piece is just right — there is a legitimate claim to indigeneity for non-Māori, but it’s not so obvious as Trevor Mallard’s “I was born in Wainuiomata”, and there’s a lot to work out before such definitions can be settled upoin comfortably. I’m all for having this discussion. I particularly like the ornithological allegory drawn by commenter “william blake” — we are all Pūkeko!
  • Also on a lighter note, a (very) atheist friend whose six year-old daughter has chosen to go to Bible study classes recently asked him if, because Jesus had risen from the dead, that meant he was a zombie. It apparently took every ounce of his parental commitment to letting his girl make up her own mind to explain the origins of zombie stories, how myths come about, etc. rather than just saying, yes, Jesus is a zombie. Good on him — not sure I would have had the fortitude.
  • Speaking of things biblical, and of belonging, Joanna Newsom has a new album out, and here’s the first single — about tilling one’s own bit of the Garden of Eden:

Ok, so not so brief after all. Discuss. I’ll dive back in as I can. You can treat this as an open thread as well: post what you want to talk about.

L

They have to want it as much as you do.*

datePosted on 06:51, April 27th, 2010 by Pablo

I spoke with an old Pentagon friend today (a person with whom I shared strategic planning duties in a specific area of concern, and who went on to far greater things than me), relating to him my early observations about Greece in crisis. I mentioned that the Greeks, who have a public sector that dwarfs the private sector, in which the public sector average wage is far above that of the private sector, have a huge sense of collective entitlement and natural rights. For example, university students (as public entitles) are currently demonstrating daily against proposed cuts in their free lunch and bus pass benefits, but not at the university. Instead, they disrupt downtown traffic. Tomorrow the seafarers, bus drivers and railway workers go on a 12 hour strike to protest wage freezes or labour market infringement  (the train and bus workers are public servants facing wage freezes and the seafarers are striking to protest non-EU ships being allowed berthing rights in Greek ports. Their combined walkout will paralyze the transportation network for 8 hours ). 

But media coverage of the issues is somewhat odd. Rather than look inward, the popular press is full of anti-German rants because the Germans will determine the conditions of the Greek debt bailout (which only delays the inevitable default), and the conditions imposed by the Germans (as majority holders of Greek debt) are considered to be the reasons why Greek workers will not get their entitled, perfunctory raises.  All the while  life goes on–the cafes and supermarkets are full, people crowd the trains, there are few demonstrations outside downtown. People do not appear to connect the impending default to their lifestyle.

Usually wages are tied to productivity, which means that if the public service is well paid it is also efficient (such as in Singapore). But in Greece it is not. From what I have observed and what my Greek interlocutors have told me, nothing gets done or it is waste of time to demand action. For example, on Saturday an illegal gypsy market spung up on the street outside our apartment building. It closed the street to vehicular traffic and vendors camped out on the apartment footsteps. The neighbours shut the front entrance doorway, which is usually propped open, out of fear of robbery. I asked my landlord if that was commonplace and she said that yes, although illegal the gyspy market had run for years because neighbours had zero success in complaining and bribes may have been paid for the authorities to look the other way (which indeed they did–I saw not a single cop during the entire afternoon the market was running).  In other words, Greek public service is as much a hindrance as a help to civil society, hence the proliferation of grey and black market activity. The curious thing is that this situation is tolerated by both of the dominant Greek parties, respectively left and right centre as they may be, because public sector employment and benefits is a common source of patronage and clientilism. Neither one wants to upset that apple cart (even if the latter is foreign debt-bought and effectively owned). 

Mind you, not that all Greek public services stink. When compared to the Auckland raillway system, for example, the Athenian Metro is stellar. There are few delays on the six inter city lines, complete integration with buses and suburban rail lines, and close integration with ferry and airport schedules. The only visible problem, from my non-expert viewpoint, is that there appears to be way too many people (or too little, depending on the station) doing nothing in pursuit of this goal. Then again, I tried the Henderson-Auckland (before and after Britomart) route for years, before and after it was privatised,  and the public-controlled Athens Metro system has it beat by a country mile.

Not that the Greek private sector is a beacon of innovation and entrepeneurship. To the contrary, it is mostly low skilled small holdings with no growth or technological ambition (think butchers, cosmetic vendors and locksmiths), and the political-economic elite (they are the same, crossing familial ties in many instances) in this rigid two party system have no interest in promoting the sort of capitalist ambition that would erode their joint lock on power. Cuba is similar in this regard, because in both cases oligarchic control supplants popular innovation as the motor of progress and majority consent is bought with public sector employment (not that I am drawing a direct line between the two regimes as a whole).

Which is to say, Greek economic backwardness is cultural, contrived and perpetuated by the Greek status quo. The elite see no need to change because deficit spending is a double edged sword, as many US banks found out to their dismay. Deficit-laden countries intimately locked into the European financial system such as Greece will not be allowed to collapse  becuase if they do the financial run is on given that Spain, Portugal and Ireland are all in the same predicament–too much debt, too little ability to pay within IMF/ECB guidlelines.  Hence, Greece may default, but it will not be allowed to financially collapse if for no other reasons than that the repercussions would be catastrophic on the European banking system itself.

Which is where my fomer Pentagon friend comes in. I noted to him that the problem with EU expansion is that the leading EU economies, France and Germany, viewed EU monetary expansion into Southern and Eastern Europe as a development project in which the lagging peripheral economies would be modernised by virtue of their connection with the European core (first via labour-intensive investment, then by value added industrial growth). The Euro giants emulated the US when it engaged Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s under the rubric of modernisation theory: just expose the backward masses to a little capitalist entrepenurialism and all will eventually be right.

Err…wrong.  As my friend noted, the locals have to want the change as much as we/you (external agents) do. And that is a cultural issue more than anything else. 

Developmentalist views such as that of the EU and US ignore the cultural component of investment climates. National preferences are different, cultural mores vary, and collective notions of rights and entitlements are not transferable across borders. The Germans and French may have thought that lending money to Greece to fund the Olympics would promote its modernisation, but like the Yanks in Latin America, they failed to understand that Greek culture–what it means to be Greek–supercedes any IMF/European Central Bank prescriptions. Hosting the Olympics was temporary; to be Greek is forever, and that is not reducible to a current deficit repayment schedule. To the contrary. It is reducible to notions of rights and entitlements crafted over milleniua and mytholoigised as such. That bottom line is not within an IMF  or European Central Bank purview.

Which is why my friend Ray’s point is well taken: an external actor can only help as much as the locals want to help themselves. There is no point in offering assistance and prescriptions if the locals do not see the need to change. Absent a local consensus on the need for change (which can be influenced by externally driven media manipulation but which ultimately has to resonate in the hearts  of the citiznery) better then  for external actors to cut bait than to engage in futile hope that the local conditions will change.

In fact, the opposite may be true: the less a country is propped up by external actors and the more it is forced to look inside itself for solutions, then the more it may eventually address the root causes of its backwardness, decline or stagnation (New Zealand could well be a case in point). In any event, only after internal failure is acknowledged that external assistance will make a difference in Greece or elsewhere, and that difference is not material but attitudinal.

 According to my buddy, that fact is as true for Greece as it is for Somalia, Irag and Afghanistan, and in the latter instances, the stakes are arguably much greater. I disagree with his summary assessment as it applies to Afghanistan (as I believe that there is more at stake than local self-realisation), but cannot help but recognise the truth in his words. At the end of the day in this age, no matter the degree of previous exploitation and subserviance, the root problem of backwardness lies within. Or to put it in my friend’s terms, “if the locals do not want to do it, it aint gonna happen.”

There is truth in that view and no amount of good intentioned external help will resolve the fundamental issue.

*Update: For a jaded by humorous view of Greek politics check this out.

Something About the Symbolism of Poppies.

datePosted on 03:46, April 22nd, 2010 by Pablo

Peace Movement Aotearoa is running a white poppy campaign as a fund raiser for its activities. It is doing so one day before the RSA red poppy appeal. Some think the timing is unfortunate in the extreme. Others denounce PMA as “parasites.” I beg to differ.

There are obvious freedom of opinion and speech issues involved, all of which must be resolved in favour of the PMA no matter how misguided they may be or how they may be piggy-backing on the veneration of the sacrifice at Gallipoli. But that is exactly why the white poppy campaign should be respected.

The red poppy campaign is a recognition of sacrifice that, although in service of a foreign master and resulting in (tactical) defeat, was a prime example of the measure of the Kiwi spirit. It is to be honoured, which is why I, as a foreigner, have attended ANZAC day celebrations. But I also respect the white poppy campaign.

That is because there is the offically unrecognised aspect to ANZAC celebrations, which is the futility and subserviance of the heroic sacrifice by so many of New Zealand’s best (and not so best) men  of the day. To be honest, many died in vain. In the larger scheme of things Gallipoli was not strategically decisive. That war was not fought in defense of democracy and freedom.

Therein lies the justification for the white poppy campaign. Along with the red poppy recognition of sacrifice, it is entirely fair to recognise the futility of NZ involvement in some wars and to campaign against any such future involvement. I tend to believe that WW1, WW2 and Korea were just wars (look at North Korea now if you think that was an unjustifed conflict), and NZ involvement in the liberation of Timor Leste is commendable, but the point of the white poppy campaign is to underscore the fact that NZ, as a sovereign and independent nation, can now pick and choose its fights when it does not involve defense of the homeland. Although they may not realise that NZ has to pay its international security dues in order to receive international protection against foreign invasion (however improbable that scenario may be), the PMA crowd are perfectly correct in choosing to parallel their campaign of reflection alongside the recognition of ANZAC sacrifice. Put another way–how many Kiwis have died in a war of NZ’s choosing? It may be true that sometimes “you gotta do what you gotta do,” but when it comes to war, sometimes you have to recognise that you do not have a dog in the fight.

Of course this hurts the ANZAC veterans (or their descendents) who choose not to acknowledge that freedom of expression, governance and worship  is not what Gallipoli (or Vietnam) was about–it was about great power quarrels fought in areas of the global periphery with military-strategic importance.  Thus,  if the mythological claims of defense of freedom are to be honoured, then the white poppy campaign should be welcomed along with its red poppy counterparts. After all, it is difference of opinion that makes the defense of freedom so fundamental to the democratic ethos. Although it may not have been at play at Gallipoli, it sure is when it comes to respecting the rights of the white poppy campaigners.

I therefore honour the ANZACs for their (often unthinking) sacrifice. And I respect the PMA for their thinking opposition to war, however much I believe sometimes war is necessary ( if nothing but on lesser evil grounds).

As for the maori component of this sacrifice and current opposition,  I defer to Lew.

>>Written from Greece, where democracy is clearly showing strains but in which the right to voice is sacrosanct.<<

UNDRIP redux

datePosted on 15:37, April 21st, 2010 by Lew

I’ve written an awful lot on the topic of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on The Standard today. But my argument is essentially unchanged from what I wrote on 8 May 2009.

You can read it here.

L

Field studying democratic crisis.

datePosted on 15:58, April 19th, 2010 by Pablo

I am off to Greece this evening for a one month research and pleasure trip. My partner is working on book that compares family, immigration and higher education policy in three peripheral European democracies, and Greece is one of her case studies. I am tagging along because of our shared interest in studying democracies in crisis. People have asked why we would travel and live in Greece at a time of financial meltdowns, government paralysis, riots and strikes. Our answer is because that is precisely the case. Let me explain.

Most Western political science focuses on stable polities. Scholars prefer stability because, among other things, it provides more complete data sets and long-term institutional analysis.  After all, it is easier to study what is than what is not, and to theorise about what is certain rather than what is uncertain. The study of politics in NZ is one case in point–most of the research conducted in NZ politics departments focuses on voting behavior, party and coalition politics, the structure of parliament, policy formation, leadership issues, public management and other topics amenable to both qualitative and quantitative dissection (I am referring here to NZ domestic politics and not to foreign policy and international relations, which tend to be more fluid by nature).

In the last 30 years a sub-field of “transitology” has developed that studies political societies in transition. The sub-field was pioneered by Latin American and Iberian scholars studying the collapse of democracy and rise of authoritarianism, which was followed in the 1980s by path-breaking works on the collapse of authoritarian regimes and the transition to democracy during the so-called “Third Wave” of democratisation that swept the globe in the decade ending in 1995. I was a student of these pioneers, as was my partner (one generation removed). In my case the interest was also personal, as my upbringing in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s occurred during a period of rampant political turmoil, including coups, attempted revolutions and virtual civil war in a host of countries.

For people like us the interest is in the politics of change. This involves the fluid dynamics of crisis, which often is chaotic and un-institutionalised, always uncertain, hard to chronicle and which can lead to what is known by neo-Gramscians as the “organic” crisis of the state. Periods of stability, in which politics is regimented, diachronic and orchestrated, tells relatively little about the real fabric or fiber of society. But a society under stress, in which that fabric is loaded by economic, social and political crises, is an excellent candidate for study of what ultimately holds a societal order together. It could be institutions, it could be culture, it could be religion, it could be nationalism, it could be football or some combination thereof, but it is during times of crisis that the fibric stitching of a society is most evident (said plainly: its basic ethno-cultural composition and socio-economic and political organisation). In some societies the crisis leads to regime collapse, in others to government collapse (which is not the same as a regime collapse), and in some cases it leads to regime reform or reconstitution. In many cases, a change of government does not suffice to overcome the crisis (this is less true for mature democracies as it is for new ones, but the crisis of mature democracy is absolutely manifest in places such as Greece).

Like people themselves, how a society responds to crisis is the true measure of its character. Whatever the outcome, all the fissures and seams of the political order are exposed during the moment of crisis. No quantitative data set can fully capture that picture (and in crisis ridden countries data sets are incomplete or unavailable), which is why qualitative field research at the moment of crisis is necessary. The latter is not a matter of sitting in an office on a university-to-university exchange courtesy of a government scholarship, and/or talking to other academics and “important” commentators, but instead involves hitting the streets to get a feel for the public mood, reading, listening to and watching the daily news, then digging through ministerial and interest group archives, interviewing policy makers, sectorial leaders, other interested parties and even casual conversations with taxi drivers, waiters and landlords to get both a structured and unstructured “feel” for how the crisis was caused, is managed, and how it will be resolved (all of which involve linguistic and cultural skills not generally taught in NZ universities).  Although much of what is recorded cannot be used in a book, it gives the observer a better appreciation of contextual depth when addressing the transitional subject.

Which brings us back to Greece. Greece has what could be described as a vigorous civil society burdened by a clientalistic, corporatist and nepotistic political system. Greeks are quick to defend their perceived rights, often by violent means. This approach is not confined to the political fringe but to middle class groups, students, farmers, shopkeepers, unionists and party activists. For example, a few months back university students took their Rector (akin to a Vice Chancellor) hostage, beat him and forced his resignation because of an increase in student fees. Housewives and shopkeepers have joined in violent protest against rising commodity prices than involved molotov versus tear gas clashes with the police. The use of trash can bombs is a common occurence (especially outside of banks), and the occasional political murder has been known to happen.

In the case of demonstrations in Athens, protestors make an obligatory stop at the US embassy to throw rocks, paint and the occasional firebomb just to make the point that the Yanks suck (much the way the Auckland and Wellington rent-a-mobs target the US consulate and embassy during protests against Israel, globalisation, imperialism, climate change, indigenous exploitation and a host of other real and imagined sins that they hold the US responsible for). The point is that Greeks are extremely politically conscious and very staunch when it comes to defending their self-proclaimed rights (the contrast with NZ society could not be starker, because when it comes to politics–and the 100 person rent-a-mobs nothwithstanding–most Kiwis could not be bothered to get off the couch).

Which is why this is the perfect time to go. Greek society is reeling under the weight of a looming credit default that the EU is still attempting to prevent via a financial rescue package crafted by Germany. Government paralysis is such that it can just stand by and hope for the rescue. Greeks are hitting the streets protesting over any number of greviances, one of which is that they are not in control of their collective destiny. Yet, life goes on.

Besides being a traveling companion to my partner, I shall be making my first observations about how the security forces respond to the crisis. I am particularly interested in how the Greek military reacts to the chaos in civil society, and whether it will take a role in internal security after years of working hard to separate internal from external security functions. Given the ever present animosity towards Turkey, issues of foreign-derived terrorism and demographic change tied to EU expansion, it will be interesting to see how the Greek strategic perspective is configured in light of  the internal and external context of crisis in which it is situated.

I shall attempt to write posts once we are settled. In the meantime Lew will hold down the fort until such a time as I get back on line or Anita returns from her hiatus.

PS–the pleasure part involves some weekend island-hopping. Santorini and Samos are on the itinerary.

Hīnaki

datePosted on 10:30, April 16th, 2010 by Lew

HīnakiI agree with Kelvin Davis’ criticism of the eagerness of certain Māori groups to be involved in owning and operating the new private prison, and I think it’s a strong and principled argument.

My clear preference is for no private prisons. But if there are going to be private prisons (and it looks like a certainty), then all else being equal, wouldn’t it be better if they were (part-)run by Māori, with a kaupapa Māori focus (on rehabilitation, restorative justice, etc)? As I remarked, and as Eddie C sketched in slightly more detail in comments to my last post on the topic, the incentives are screwy for private prisons and rehabilitation, it’s hard to measure and hard to manage and as a consequence rehabilitation is even less effective than usual. But I can’t help but think that attaching a cultural incentive — the knowledge that one’s whanaunga are actually or potentially involved — might change that picture and take a few of the harsh edges off the “business of punishment” model employed by mainstram private corrections agencies.

L

Niwa Knobs.

datePosted on 21:13, April 15th, 2010 by Pablo

 

***THIS POST HAS BEEN UPDATED ON APRIL 17 TO ACCOUNT FOR NEW INFORMATION RECEIVED***

Niwa has announced that a contract to upgrade the research vessel RV Tangaroa has been let to a Singaporean company rather than a NZ-based consortium. The EPMU and Labour Party have criticised the move, citing the fact that local jobs were at stake and a chance to up-skill NZ workers was lost. And of course, the flow-on effects of employing NZ workers is obvious, because they will spend their  wages a bit on beer but more on nappies, mortgages, rent and DIY projects. All that is true and reason enough to oppose the Niwa deal, but there is much more to the story. That is because the bottom line boils down to what I shall call a dirty money savings. Here is how it works.

The Niwa chief knob, John Morgan, refused to state what the bids were, but other sources have noted that at $9 million the NZ contractor bid was more than double the $4 million Singaporean bid. Sounds like he got his maths right. Mr. Morgan then went on to say that the Singaporean contractor had a lot of experience and 3000 staff  dedicated to the task as well as many resources to do the upgrade, which he claimed was a complex operation that involved cutting holes in the hull of the ship in order to install a dynamic positioning system (DPS) that holds the ship steady and precise over an undersea target in variable conditions (how he thinks that 3000 people will work on that one job is another question,  as is the complexity of cutting holes in a boat, but I am just quoting from the NZPA article on the decision).

He defended the decision as a cost-savings bonus for the NZ taxpayer, and the Minister for Research, Science and Technology the vainglorious “Dr” Wayne Mapp (Ph.D.s in Law are not usually addressed as Dr.) pontificated that although he was not involved in the decision he supported it because the NZ consortium was not dependent on that contract (presumably that resource-rich Singaporean outfit was) and, quote, “after all we have an FTA with Singapore.” File that one under “another Mapp moronity.”

Here is why the deal is dirty. Unskilled and semi-skilled Singaporean shipyard workers (e.g. stevedores, drivers, loaders, builders and roustabouts)  are paid between SG$10-15 dollars per day. Non-engineer skilled workers (divers, torchmen, pipefitters) may earn double or triple that. They are mostly foreign workers on temporary visas (mainly from Bangladesh, mainland China and India) who cannot bring their families with them and who are housed in containers and squalid dormitories with occupancies of 20-50 men per room and one toilet amongst them (women are not allowed on the docks). They are not allowed to independently organise or collectively bargain. They work 12 hour days and suffer extremely high rates of industrial accidents–over 50 workers died in 2009 from injuries received on the job, and dozens if not hundreds more were crippled by accidents. In the vast majority of cases, seriously injured foreign workers who are unable to return to work are left dependent for months on private charity until their claims for compensation are resolved or are deported once they leave hospital (and often repatriated in any event).

Mr. Morgan is reported as saying that the Singaporean bid, at $30/hour (it is not clear if he is speaking of US, NZ or Singaporean dollars), was half the NZ $60/hour labour costs. But whatever the currency, $30/hour would only apply to supervisory and managerial staff who would not be doing the physical labour involved in installing the DPS system (which would be done by the foreign workers mentioned above). That means that his claims of labour costs savings on which the decision partially rested is either a willful misprepresentation of  the true Singaporean figures or, worse yet, a sign that Niwa did not undertake due dilligence in ascertaining the veracity of the $30/hour figure. In other words, if the latter is true then Niwa got fleeced by the Singaporean contractor, who then pocketed the difference between its real labour costs and the $30/hour figure. If the former is true, the Mr. Morgan needs to be held to account for his miserepresentation.

There is a bigger picture to consider. Singapore is an authoritarian state in which political  party competition and elections are rigged, freedom of speech is restricted and foreign workers are  not covered by the same labour laws as Singaporean citizens. Instruments for foreign worker redress, compensation and mediation are virtually non-existent. The Singaporean lifestyle, so admired by John Key and other acolytes of the Singaporean regime, is based on the gross exploitation of these foreign workers who, after all, build the buildings Singaporeans live and work in, provide the food, transport and maid services they are accustomed to, construct their highways and polish their cars, and staff the hundreds of foreign MNCs the use the country as an operational hub. Foreign workers comprise a quarter of Singapore’s nearly 5 million population, so the economic debt owed to them is great.

That is why the decision is about dirty money savings. Forget the job-related issues in NZ. Niwa’s decision is based on its knowingly countenancing the human rights abuse of a vulnerable group of people in a foreign country. It violates ILO standards, it violates NZ labour law, and it violates nominal notions of decency in doing so. Mrs. Morgan and Mapp may argue that Niwa is saving the NZ taxpayer money, and that it is not responsible for the behavior of foreign contractors, but in doing business with the Singaporean firm it could well wind up with blood on its hands. Put succinctly: the money Niwa saves on the deal comes directly from the sweat and blood of these foreign workers.

None of this would matter if NZ was an authoritarian state unconcerned about human rights and fair labour standards. The problem is, NZ spends a lot of time in international fora banging on about exactly such things. However, this appears to be more a case of  “do as I say, not as I do” because NZ in recent years has seen fit to cozy up to regimes like those of  Singapore, China and a host of Middle Eastern autocracies, in which the very concepts of universal rights and fair labour standards are not only disputed, but rejected out of hand on “cultural difference” grounds. Well, that may be the case because as Lew so nicely put it a while back, “NZ foreign policy is trade,”  but NZ does not have to contribute to the perpetuation of exploitation in foreign cultural contexts, especially if its reputation depends on its rhetorical championing of human rights. That is a matter of choice, and the choice in this instance is clear.

There is such a thing a trading fairly and doing business in an ethical way in which the bottom line is not just about money, but about human decency as well.  A restrained rate of profit or reduced savings on cost are often a better guarantee of long term investment than short term profit maximisation or miserliness,  and an interest in foreign worker conditions can contribute to the betterment of international business practices. But the choice here has been to save costs rather than stand on principle and improve by example. For a country that prides itself on its international status based upon fairness principles, decisions like this one give the lie to the cheap talk in international confabs.

All of which is to say–shame on both of you, Misters Mapp and Morgan. But then again, we would not expect otherwise.

Generation near load

datePosted on 15:53, April 14th, 2010 by Lew

Good practice is to build new power generation near load. And prison town syndrome is pretty well-known. So what South Auckland really needs is New Zealand’s first public-private-partnership prison, right?

L

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