Monday, November 28, 2016

Cuba vs USA, what Castro really achieved

Castro's death has revealed the power of US propaganda. Here are some embarrassing facts when comparing the United States with Cuba in key areas:


Life expectancy
Cuba: 79.16
USA: 78.88

Maternal mortality rate
Cuba: 39 deaths for every 100,000 live births
USA: 580 deaths for every 100,000 live births

Health system, physician density
Cuba: 6.72 physicians per 1,000 population
USA: 2.45 physicians per 1,000 population

Obesity levels
Cuba: 21.5%
USA: 33.9%


Cuba: 1.5% below poverty line
USA: 14.8 % below poverty line


Government debt
Cuba: 17.0% of debt to GDP
USA: 104.1% of debt to GDP


Literacy rate, 15-14 year olds
Cuba: 100%
USA: 99% (this has been questioned when some sources claim 86% is more accurate)

Education expenditure
Cuba: 12.8% of GDP
USA: 5.2% of GDP


Incarceration rate
Cuba: 510 prisoners per 100,000 population
USA: 693 prisoners per 100,000 population


Countries occupied or bombed since 1980
Cuba: Nil
USA: 14 (these are just the Muslim nations, there may be more)

To have achieved such high living standards while suffering severe financial constraints because of the US trade embargo (and including several assassination attempts) deserves some recognition. Castro was a dictator, but a largely benevolent one. Nelson Mandela admired Castro and credited him with doing more to end apartheid in South Africa than anything the US did. Cuba has also shamed the US for the level of aid it has provided for struggling neighbours like Haiti. I'm sure few realise that not only did Cuba lead the world with its medical aid but the Cuban National Ballet is internationally regarded.

To compare Castro with the likes of Stalin, Hitler or Bin Laden displays a high level of ignorance and blind acceptance of propaganda. For the New Zealand media to support the attacks on Trudeau for recognising Castro's real achievements is embarrassing. Castro was no saint but as a leader he probably achieved more that should be celebrated than many.

Treating news as entertainment has dangerous consequences...

The commercialisation of our news media and the ease with which unethical and egocentric politicians can cynically manipulate public opinion is now reaching extreme proportions. 

In the UK the political interests of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson were advanced successfully because their bombastic personas and simplistic messaging were picked up so widely in media. It is a sad fact that news outlets with the largest readership maintain their dominance through sensationalism and gossip, rather than educated and informed journalism. This works well for those who have few scruples and are comfortable operating in that environment.

The circulation of printed newspapers have plummeted in the UK over the past six years and the dominant newspapers include the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. I used to read the Independent and the Guardian when I lived in the UK over twenty years ago and I was shocked to note that the Independent's circulation is now not much more than the population of Invercargill and the Guardian's has been halved since 2010 (now only 160,000). The Daily Mail dominates the online news space, with a monthly audience of 29 million, with little reporting of substance. Throughout the Brexit campaign it gave enthusiastic coverage of Johnson and UKIP's Farage with limited journalistic scrutiny.

In the US, against all predictions, Donald Trump won through a relatively modest campaign budget and the huge media exposure of his outrageous statements. Fox News is probably the US equivalent of the Daily Mail and its prominent news host, Sean Hannity, publicly endorsed Trump months before the election. The right wing conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, is an influential voice for many working class white Americans and he was also strong in his support of Donald Trump. Jones' radio show is syndicated across 130 stations and claims to have 80 million video views a month. Facts and balanced reporting are not usually associated with Hannity or Jones and yet their opinions had a huge influence on voters. 

Neoliberal, conservative governments have increasingly served the interests of multinationals and the banking and finance industries over the majority of citizens. To ensure their political success they have had to appeal to the very people who have been exploited through their policies. The working classes in developed countries have not fared well in a free market environment. Global competition has resulted in limiting wage increases, destroyed unions and reducing working conditions. Conservative governments can only be elected if they can shift attention from the real consequences of their policies, including increasing corporate welfare at the expense of spending on the welfare of ordinary citizens. The US Federal Reserve ended up spending $7.7 trillion to bail out financial institutions that had failed because of corrupt practices and greed. Fossil fuel companies continue to enjoy annual subsidies of around 6.5% of global GDP  (even New Zealand gifts $46 million to the oil and gas industry), despite the fact oil companies dominate the top twenty of the worlds richest.  

Restricting public access to information, denigrating academic and scientific opinion and encouraging the development of personality based election campaigns has served conservative politicians well until a recently. While the working and middle classes have watched wealth distribution shift to an upward flow to a wealthy few, their growing frustration has seen the rise of two distinct politcal ideologies. In the US this saw the grassroots development of the Tea Party, supported by the less educated working class. The younger generation of the middle class supported the Occupy movement. While both movements lack leadership and sustainable organisation they represented a growing dissatisfaction with the political establishment.

The growth and freedom of commercial media was once used effectively by the conservative establishment to disperse its spin, however, the increasing sensationalism of news and erosion of journalistic ethics has seen more colourful politicians capture the limelight. To the less educated Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson provide simple messages that resonate and support their prejudices. Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders encapsulated the idealism of the Occupy supporters with their principled stands and authenticity. Unfortunately the news media with the widest reach in both the US and UK have always attacked the left (note how Corbyn's Castro comments were framed) and so now we see Trump as the President Elect and Boris Johnson as Britain's Foreign Minister. 

In New Zealand our National Government has been supported by talk back radio and through commercialising public TV. John Campbell got shunted into the underfunded public radio and Mike Hosking's right-wing rants are promoted through prime time television. Apart from Winston Peters most of our populist and most bombastic politicians ate found in the Government caucus. Key, Brownlee, Collins and Parata will be celebrating the latest polls

Now that news is being treated as entertainment, and populist personalities dominate politics, we must prepare for a future that will resemble a disaster movie. Nothing sells news better than disasters and we can depend on Boris, Donald and John to deliver. Human suffering and climate change will make great stories.  

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Prison numbers Government's fault

This Government refuses to take responsibility for our prison population approaching 10,000 and its failures have necessitated a proposed $1 billion expenditure on increasing capacity.

The Prime Minister is claiming that crime numbers are dropping and it is an increase in the severity of crime (especially domestic violence) and tougher sentencing that is causing the problem. John Key blames recreational drugs as a major factor in crime and child poverty, this is clearly disingenuous on his part and deliberate spin to shift responsibility away from his Government. We now have levels of incarceration that place us just below Mexico and make us the 7th worst in the OECD.

The last eight years under a National led Government has seen many lost opportunities and the underfunding of systems and services that could have easily broken the cycles of crime and reduced prison numbers:
When the Government is crowing about a $1.8 budget surplus and is willing to spend $1 billion on new prison beds, I do question their economic credibility and vision. It costs around $100,000 per annum to incarcerate each prisoner and spending a small fraction of that to keep them out of prison must be cost effective. Most prisoners are not a danger to society and many of those who need to be contained to protect others may not have ended up that way with timely interventions. 

Our focus on punishment rather than rehabilitation for offenders who have mental health and addiction issues means the causes of their criminal activities aren't being addressed. When we release prisoners back into the community with limited treatment and support we are not making communities safer. 

I do not believe that New Zealand has a higher percentage of criminals than most other countries and in many ways our systems are needlessly creating criminals and increasing risks to our communities. There are enough examples overseas to show that different models are effective in reducing prison numbers and ensuring that reoffending is less likely to occur. The Netherlands is closing prisons and serious crime is dropping there, the fact that the opposite is happening here is because of poor management not bad luck. 

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Real Cost of Bill's Surplus

The Government revealed a $1.8 billion surplus and hinted at possible tax cuts. The surplus is the product of increased income and limiting spending. Bill English explained how the surplus will "increase options" for the Government but the reality is that it has mostly been achieved by restricting options for too many and delaying important expenditure. Rather than saving money in a useful way the arbitrary limits on spending in crucial areas will result in increasing future costs and unnecessary suffering, the examples are numerous:
So Bill has delivered a budget surplus and future tax cuts are being held like a shining carrot in front of voters ahead of the 2017 elections. Any tax cuts will be paid for through reduced services and the increased suffering. According to Judith Collins the poor are to blame for their circumstances and the rich deserve their privileges (her candid thoughts reveal her government's lack of empathy for our struggling communities). 

Friday, October 7, 2016

Marama's Gaza Protest Justified

Marama Davidson's participation in the Women's Boat to Gaza should be celebrated with some pride in New Zealand. Marama joined twelve other women (including Nobel Laureate Mairead Maguire) in a peaceful action of solidarity to support the besieged people of Gaza.

Without protests such as this the plight of the Palestinian people in Gaza and the illegal activity of the Israeli Government can easily be ignored. The 2014 attacks on Gaza destroyed 100,000 Palestinians homes, killed over 2,000 (495 children) and left 900 survivors with permanent disabilities. An attempt by Turkey in 2010 to bring humanitarian support for those in Gaza resulted in an attack by Israeli forces that killed nine Turkish citizens.

Past New Zealand Prime Minister, Geoffrey Palmer, led a UN investigation into the Israeli blockade that found that it had resulted in "collective punishment" and was in "flagrant contravention of international human rights and humanitarian law".

Marama's participation in the Freedom Flotilla was a principled decision and a brave one considering the past reactions of the Israeli forces. Given that the blockade has now been in force for almost ten years it is clear that international diplomacy has failed and peaceful protest action is necessary to highlight the realities of the ongoing suffering.

When Marama was captured while still in international waters, and detained by Israeli authorities, I would have expected recognition from our Government for her bravery and immediate condemnation for her detention. The response has been the opposite. The Prime Minister described Marama's detention as "a less-than-perfect look" and Judith Collins described the protest as "a stunt" and suggested that Marama is paid to do a job in New Zealand. Their responses ignored the fact that a vote was put to the House in support of the Women's Boat to Gaza by Catherine Delahunty and it was passed with a clear majority.

This reaction from a Government that has welcomed tax avoiding foreign trusts, blatant money laundering and bribing a Saudi businessman is predictable. Human rights have never been high on John Key's agenda as Prime Minister and his answers to Metiria Turei's questions revealed that he had no intention of making a stand on the biggest human rights issues confronting the world today. New Zealand gained a lot of international respect in the past for human rights advocacy, but no longer. This Government barely pays lip service to human rights treaties we have signed and this is becoming noticeable internationally as we seek trade deals with morally corrupt regimes, do little to meet our climate change targets and ignore growing child poverty.

Thank you, Marama, for your bravery and making me even more proud to be a member of the Green Party.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Incomes and housing major issues for Invercargill

The Southland Regional Development Strategy (SoRDS) is a well intentioned initiative supported by the Gore District Council, the Southland District Council and the Invercargill City Council. While the final strategy is still to be publicly released some key issues have been identified and some solutions suggested. The region's population is a relatively static and aging one, therefore a goal of increasing our population by 10,000 people by 2025 has already been proposed as a major goal.

I have some serious concerns about the logistical issues and economic realities of this goal. I asked Tom Campbell (SoRDS Chair) a question regarding our current housing supply and quality during a recent presentation and he informed the meeting that the provision of the necessary infrastructure was not part of their brief. I also have expressed my concern about the people that SoRDS are hoping to attract, it appears that the key magnets will be the Southern Institute of Technology's educational opportunities and jobs created by the tourist industry and an expansion of aquaculture. While these industries will create greater economic activity, fish factory workers, service workers and students don't generally have deep wallets.

Invercargill has housing problems not that dissimilar from Auckland, relative to our population. We have around 400 homeless at any given time and a shortage of supply. No new state houses have been built in Invercargill since the early 90s and the quality of rental housing is poor. I am part of a community housing steering group that has gained funding from the Invercargill City Council to pay a researcher to properly quantify our current housing needs, which already appear extensive.

If we are going to bring in 10,000 more people here we need to have appropriate housing and we probably should address the current needs first before we add more pressure to the rental market. If most of those arriving will be earning minimal wages, few will be buying or building their own homes. We don't want to end up with similar housing problems to Queenstown and need to plan ahead.

Local retailers in the Invercargill inner city are struggling to survive and there are a growing number of empty spaces. While creating more attractions like a new public art gallery may help, few have identified our low wage economy as a contributing factor. Half of those of working age in Invercargill earn less than $27,400 and and only 23.5% earn more than $50,000. Despite the Southland region earning around 12% of New Zealand's export income with just 3% of the population, our median income is less than the national median.

Over the last decade or so we have lost many state and private sector jobs that supported higher incomes. DoC has had major staffing cuts, the IRD has a reduced presence and banks are closing branches and reducing staff. The dairy boom did not support higher wages for farm workers and the exploitation of international students and migrant workers has been an issue here as it has elsewhere. Invercargill got its first Decile 1 school after the last census because of the decline in family incomes.

Invercargill needs good jobs and good housing and it will need leadership from local and central governments to achieve it, paying living wages may be a first step...

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Invercargill has a housing crisis too!

Last month I helped organise a housing forum in Invercargill as a member of the Invercargill Social Housing Action committee. My role was to try and organise representatives of the government agencies, that had responsibilities for social housing, to attend and to obtain the latest data on social housing in the city. This turned out to be a difficult task as there are no publicly available telephone numbers for the local managers (both of whom are based in Dunedin).

I tried ringing Housing New Zealand's 0800 number and after a couple of attempts (waiting 5-10 minutes and being told all lines were busy through high demand) I realised that instant service is not a feature of the 'corporation'. I resorted to trying a back door method by ringing a number that was well promoted on the site for the public to use if they suspected state housing fraud (or dob in a tenant). I got an instant response, but this service had been contracted out and had no direct link to HNZ.

An email link did get a helpful reply from the HNZ area manager, Kate Milton, who described services the corporation provided and shared details regarding local housing stock. She was initially enthusiastic about driving from Dunedin to attend our meeting, but later decided against it. Milton explained that HNZ had largely become a property manager and the responsibility of managing waiting lists and determining housing needs and income related rents was the role of the Ministry for Social Development. My emails to the MSD area manager remain unanswered.

There is some MSD data on housing waiting lists available online, the most recent last month being March, and it showed that 14 individuals or families were on the priority waiting lists (June data is now available and the number is now 13).

HNZ currently manages 373 properties in Invercargill (363 HNZ properties and 10 Community Group Houses). The Government's attempt to sell up to 350 of the state houses has appeared to have failed with no buyers at this point. 7 Invercargill state houses (including 1 CGH) are currently up for private sale. Interestingly in 1992 the Southland region had around 800 state houses, according to a past employee.

Based on the Government's own data one could conclude that there is not a great need for social housing in Invercargill. A waiting list of 13 seems relatively minimal and the number of state houses in the region appears to have dropped by 50%, presumably because of decreasing demand.

Our housing forum drew a different picture based on locally generated data and the presentations of those at the frontline of housing support in the city.

We managed to bring together a number of organisations and individuals with an interest in social housing, including: State housing tenants, the Salvation Army, Breathing Space Trust, Habitat for Humanity, Family Works, Grey Power, Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu, Citizens Advice Bureau, National Council of Women, South Alive, Public Health South, Southland Warm Homes Trust, Southland Beneficiaries and Community Rights Centre, Awarua Synergy, Invercargill City Council and representatives from the Green, Labour and National Parties. The Invercargill Women's Refuge and Budget Advisory Service could not attend but sent messages of support.

A full morning of presentations and discussions produced a worrying picture of housing need in Invercargill:
  • In the 2006 census there were 330 severely housing deprived people in Southland and the Salvation Army estimate at least 400 are in that situation currently
  • No new state houses have been built in Invercargill since 1992 and the average age of state houses across the country is around 45 years. Many of Invercargill's state houses appear to be be in need of maintenance and the schedules used 20-30 years ago for ensuring ongoing maintenance appears to have been abandoned. Bill English has admitted that there is $1.5 billion worth of deferred work needed to be done across the country. 
  • While some state house tenants were happy with the quality of their home others shared stories of damp conditions, poor maintenance, and workman arriving unannounced and without identification.
  • Those who got into a state house felt privileged, despite the condition of many houses, as the process to get into one was protracted (for some demeaning) and often taking several months. Many are not successful. There was some anxiety expressed around the future of their state houses and their security of tenure. 
  • State housing tenants' rents increased with income and consequently the financial benefits of increased work were often minimal. 
  • The Breathing Space Trust had 101 emergency housing inquiries in the year to date and had provided 201 bed nights for those in desperate need. The Trust struggled with providing 24 hour staffing and appropriately separating different genders and vulnerable families. 
  • There was a severe shortage of accommodation for single people with mental health issues (the DHB is cutting funding for supported housing in the region), chronic health conditions and former prisoners.
  • Local social housing providers voiced concerns that they didn't have the expertise or financial support to deal with clients with complex needs and this was one of the reasons they didn't want to engage with the government's attempt to privatise the state housing.
  • There are few rental properties available for families for less than $200 per week. Many families in Invercargill are struggling on low incomes that make meeting the costs of rent and heating the poorly insulated homes difficult. According to the the 2013 census 46.6% of those of working age in Invercargill earned less than $20,000 (only 14% earned more than $50,000). While housing may be cheaper in Invercargill than further north our incomes are lower and heating costs are greater. 
  • Private landlords and Real Estate Agents generally avoid those with poor credit histories, bad references (no matter how historic) and prior dealings with the tenancy tribunal. An agent for a local real estate company said they turned away a lot of people and had no idea where they would eventually find a house because they would not fit HNZ criteria.
  • There is a shortage of good quality rental properties for students shifting to Invercargill to study. 
  • The Invercargill City Council also owned social housing and had 215 units (34 studio and 180 1 BR units). These were rented out to those over 65 years on low incomes at $85-$106 a week. The Council's housing had a 95% occupancy rate with a waiting list of 32. The social housing currently operated in a cost neutral manner but many will need substantial and costly upgrading that will draw on ratepayer funds. Whether the ICC should own and manage social housing is a debatable issue for some ratepayers.  
  • Although there is no data on the numbers of substandard housing in Invercargill, a drive around many streets in the south of the city will reveal many 70-100 year old houses that are occupied but clearly in need of repair. There are some new lower cost homes being built. A local community nurse told me that substandard housing was a major contributing factor for poor health in children.
Those who attended the forum felt it would be very worthwhile to continue to meet to share knowledge and support each other in our work. ICC Councillors Neil Boniface and Becs Amundsen thought that the Council should take a leadership role in facilitating future meetings and I supported this. 

The Southland Regional Development Strategy supports the growth of Invercargill's population through welcoming migrants and promoting our tertiary education opportunities. To attract and retain people in our city we will need to increase the quantity and quality of our housing, this will mean doing what we can at a local level to support the housing deprived. Lifting incomes of low waged earners will help many and that means local businesses paying their employees livable wages and providing greater job security. It will also mean putting pressure on the Government to lift their level of support for social housing and those who are unlikely to find a good home in the private market. It is clear that too many are falling between the gaps.

Invercargill has a housing crisis too.