Key’s ‘Free Thinkers’ on Security Risk reveals his Distrust in Academics.

This morning a “group of free thinkers” were announced that will be advising the PM on security threats to New Zealand. The group will be reporting to the ODESC group within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Unfortunately, the PM hasn’t included any university-based experts on global security.

Some of the appointments make sense. You would expect Ian Fletcher, head of the Government Communications Security Bureau, to be on the list. Likewise, Sir Peter Gluckman, PM’s chief science adviser and Lt Gen Rhys Jones, former Chief of Defence Force. There’s also a lawyer, Richard Forgan, consulting partner at PWC.

Then it gets a more problematic.  The remainder of appointments are people with high level business acumen and management expertise:

Therese Walsh – chief executive of the 2015 Cricket World Cup, Karen Poutasi – chief executive of NZQA, Keith Turner – chairman of Fisher and Paykel, Hugh Cowan – Earthquake Commission executive, Helen Anderson – director of Dairy NZ, Niwa and Branz, Murray Sherwin – chairman of the Productivity Commission.

Now sure, global security risks threaten business and pose an economic risk. If three of the appointments were held by business people with strong strategic thinking, fair enough.

But where are the academic experts who spend their whole working lives researching global security?  Global security is incredibly complex because of the range of players (individuals,groups, governments, corporations); new and evolving technologies; the potential impact of threats (economic, but also to human life, to the environment, to our food security); and the potential impact of any counter-measures (i.e. escalation).

At the very least, it should include thinkers like Associate Professor Dr. David Capie, from the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University, whose research area is conflict and security in the Asia-Pacific region.

The irony for me is that ‘free thinking’ is precisely the role the university is meant to have in society, to act as social conscience because of their ability to be removed from government or business interests. At the same time as Key’s government is following a marketplace agenda with our tertiary institutions that is decimating education, this advisory group shows the need for ‘free thinkers’.

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Red Post-Election Blues.

There was a kind of depressed lull after the Sept 20 election, none of us on the left had much to say. I was overtaken with post-election blues; a kind of energy-sapping disappointment, frustration and despair. One of my friends posted a fb note saying that he was still processing, so could we please not talk to him about the election. I got together with a group of friends that week to provide mutual solace, and ended up kissing an environmental activist who walked me to my bus-stop. So clearly, there are always silver linings.

But overall I’ve felt that there is more to say –

We are facing an emerging picture of the impact a third National term will have. John Key has come out backing the so-called ‘child poverty’ advice of the Ministry of Social Development, even though MSD officials disregarded the main recommendations of the report. Ignoring research-based findings in favour of right-wing discourse smacks of arrogance, but clearly Key’s government feel they have a clear mandate from the election to keep rolling out quasi austerity policies.

I’ve felt disappointed by the election summations of the left. Chris Trotter gnashed his teeth about the gender quota issue in the Labour party, complaining that less than 1/5 New Zealand men gave their Party Vote to Labour. It’s interesting that even amongst the left, scapegoating marginalised groups – like women – who are more exploited for their labour is an acceptable practice. The failure of New Zealand men to vote Left speaks to the uneven distribution of  emotional labour and nurturing in our culture (i.e. that women are more often responsible for children and elderly) not the failure of feminism. It means New Zealand men largely voted in their own self-interest, rather than voting for the good of dependents. It also reflects New Zealand men’s greater earning power.

Labour is facing a four-way Leadership race between Nanaia Mahuta, David Parker, Andrew Little and Grant Robertson. I’ve felt really irritated by social media calls for people to vote on merit rather than ‘special interests’ or ‘political correctness’. It’s just really embarrassing that left-wing commentators have such a poor understanding of how structural inequalities work. Even if you are a die-hard old-school Marxist who puts the exploitation of the worker at the centre of your analysis, you should know that capitalism effects different groups of people differently, i.e. some workers are more exploited and exploitable than others. Because of the impact of structural racism (in education and the justice system for example) Maori and Pasifika peoples are more vulnerable to exploitation as low-paid workers. Even without that level of analysis, Maori and Pasifika voters did turn out for Labour, and deserve party accountability. That’s not even going near the politics of indigeneity, and what I would want to say about colonisation and Te Tiriti. So pull your heads in.

So is there a better way to theorise National’s landslide win? What stands out to me is the level of saturation of neoliberal discourse after the previous two National terms, and in a global context of ongoing austerity measures. Chomksy’s recent comments about the business classes in America fighting a ‘class war’ to challenge opposition, and discussion of the decimation of the union movement, have made reflect me on the impact on growing income inequality in New Zealand.

What if the failure of Labour to secure voters was less about political claims-making along a mutable political spectrum, and more about the division of haves and have-nots without the buffering “middle-class” we’ve generally seen?  Marx argued that we act in our own self-interest. The interests of the wealthy elite is far removed from the social and economic needs of New Zealand’s working class; perhaps why Cunliffe’s gesture towards raising the minimum wage didn’t make a dent in political consciousness.

What does it mean if New Zealand’s political process has come to represent the interests of the business classes?  We are already in a global environment where corporations have more power than individual governments. The only solutions I can think of lie with mobilising globally across different disenfranchised groups (like the global poor), and directly challenging corporations instead of simply channelling our efforts through government.

I’m really interested in hearing other people’s views on how we can create meaningful social change. Do we need to get radical?

Pasifika, Political, and Proud: Three Reasons Pasifika People Should Vote Out Key

So Three News had a story today June 10th on “Pacific voters” turning out for John Key in Mangere. They included a quote by National candidate Misa-Fia Turner, saying that Gay Marriage is one of the main reasons for Pasifika voters turning from Labour to National. Misa-Fia Turner says

“that’s important to us because that’s really against our moral values”.

For a start, the same-sex marriage bill has already passed in April last year. It was a conscience vote, meaning MPs could vote as they saw fit, not along party lines. It passed by 77 votes to 44, which included 27 National MPs voting for it. John Key voted for it. Misa-Fia Turner was really misrepresenting her own party.

Secondly, when National candidate Misa-Fia Turner says gay marriage is “against our moral values”, I wonder how she has managed to miss out on so much Pasifika gay and fa’afafine awesomeness, like this incredible art and cultural project.

I am a Pasifika voter. I am queer/ bisexual. I am accepted by my family and community. My past partners have been accepted by my family. Get over it. It’s certainly not a voting issue.

Pasifika peoples are pretty diverse, and of course you can’t really presume we have the same values and beliefs. But there are some issues that are significant to Pasifika peoples. Here are my top three reasons for Pasifika people to vote out National by voting Labour or left of Labour (Greens party, Mana and Internet party) based on actual issues facing Pasifika communities, and the things we collectively value.

1) We love our kids. Pasifika people know that we are all responsible for the next generation. We think in terms of our communities. Pasifika peoples in New Zealand are a youthful population, meaning that we have a lot of young people. Under the National government, child poverty has increased. We’ve seen how the children of beneficiaries have been made to suffer through Paula Bennett’s approach to welfare. We’ve seen how many young families are not meeting the cost of living even when there is a full-time earner, because wages are too low and the cost of living is too high.

Labour has policies aimed at increasing employment and minimum wage. Both the Greens and Mana/ the Internet party go even further towards stopping child poverty, by having policy aimed at better supporting beneficiary families. The current government is making things worse. It’s a no brainer.

2) We care about the health and well-being of our communities. Our communities are facing a lot of chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. After adjusting for inflation, the National government is spending less on health across 2015. In real terms, that means cutting services and probably increasing waiting times.

Both Labour and the Greens have health policy aimed at improving health by spending more. The Greens have policy specifically aimed at improving the health of populations with low health status, like Pasifika peoples. Mana is focusing on tobacco restrictions, and would introduce free after-hours medical care for children under 16 years and for senior citizens.

3) We care about the Pacific, the Pacific ocean, and its peoples. Where we come from is so important to us. We are connected to vanua. We are connected to the sea around us. The islands of Kiribati are facing potentially becoming uninhabitable in the next 30-60 years because of the impact of climate change, which is already causing salt water contamination of fresh water and crop soil. People having been talking about being ‘climate voters’ which is bipartisan, but from my perspective the only party significantly engaged with climate change is the Greens.

 

No, Paula: Nits are a Symptom, but Poverty is the Cause.

Paula Bennett has announced the Government will provide nearly $1 million funding through the Ministry of Social Development to KidsCan to manage head lice in low decile schools, see Scoop.

Paula Bennett goes as far as admitting that the cost of nit treatments is prohibitive for poor families:

“Although nits are found in all schools, children from low-decile schools, and particularly their parents, could use help in dealing with nits. Treatment can typically cost $30. Combine that with several heads in the household and the problem becomes extremely expensive. This initiative will allow for whole families to be treated if necessary. It can be a struggle for some families to keep on top of infestations. We hear of children having their heads shaved and severe scalp infections where unsuitable treatments are used”.

My problem with the Government working through KidsCam to treat kids for nits at school (including hairdresser style chairs) is that it is the worst type of “ambulance at the end of the cliff” program typical of poorly conceptualised development programmes.

Nits are a symptom Paula, but poverty is the problem. Only treating the nits does nothing to change the living conditions of the child overall. Kids will be just as hungry and cold and poorly educated, without nits. They will be as vulnerable to the next illness that comes along, that their parent or parents will also not be able to afford to treat.

Changing poverty in New Zealand is a different matter.  You could increase the minimum wage to a living wage so that families can provide the essential costs of living. You could increase the base rate of the unemployment benefit, so that children in beneficiary families are not punished for their parents lack of employment. While you were at it, you could implement changes in the culture of Work and Income New Zealand, so that beneficiaries are not bullied and shamed during the application process. You could create jobs.

It’s hard to say if the programme the Government has announced will even work, here are some problems with it:

  • Nit infestation is about needing treatment, but it is also about overcrowded living conditions where lice can easily be passed from head to head. I think kids are likely to keep getting them back from other family members, who will still not be able to afford to treat them.
  • National loves to pretend it keeps out of people’s lives, but I can’t think of a more “nannying” intervention than treating people’s children for head lice!  What it really means is that they are unable to address the impact of income inequality, but children from lower deciles are able to be subjected to more policing than other children. How are the kids going to feel about having people who aren’t their parents come in and treat them for head lice? How will parents feel about it? How is the potential bullying that might occur towards children who are treated for head lice going to be managed? Will it feel like another instance of micro-agression or minority stress for Pacific kids who are already subject to ongoing micro-agressions?
  • Do you even understand how Pacific communities are going to feel about having people come in and washing their kids hair?
  • Money spent on hairdressing chairs, basins, and either paying or subsidising the travel costs of the hair washers (it’s not clear how the program works) could be spent directly on families in need, who could then treat nits in their own home.
  • It could put more pressure on teachers, and take kids away from learning while they are being checked, washed, dried and nit-combed at school.

Stop Blaming Poor Folk for the Effects of Neoliberalism

Eva Bradley wrote an opinion piece yesterday after some protestors challenged the Prime Minister in Napier, entitled ”Poor’ should Stop playing Blame Game’.

Frankly, I’m too bored and frustrated by vacuous media commentary to want to put any work into eloquently crafting a more analytical response – so excuse my brevity and bad mood.

Bradley mobilises rhetoric about poor people and poverty that is connected to some broader social and political discourses. She tells us ‘the (reputed) poor were having a whinge’. “Having a whinge” – while obviously part of Kiwi slang – is a feminised act. Whinging is usually associated with women (the “whinging wife” or “his girlfriend was having a whinge”), and when it is used in relation to men it is often done to mildly discredit their masculinity as well as their concern (i.e. saying “He’s having a whinge” is comparable to saying “he’s being a wuss”). The phrase “having whinge” is a means of trivialising the concern of the “whinger”. It’s a way of delegitimising their claims.

Why would it be so important for Bradley to delegitimise the claims of some people protesting about poverty in Aotearoa? Why would their chant, “Stop the War on the Poor?” get under her skin? I know some of my friends outside of Aotearoa would be incredibly bemused by the idea of local media in the Hawkes Bay standing up for the Prime Minister. They would expect that media would take the role of critical inquirer in the very least, and at times expect that media might be provocative or deliberately antagonistic towards political leaders. It is about an expectation that our democracy should be robust. Politicians are doing a job, and part of that job is dealing with both media and the public. And yet, mainstream New Zealand often treats John Key as if he is a mix between a celebrity and an affable uncle, whose congeniality makes up for his forgetfulness and contradictory statements.

Bradley’s claim that ‘the “poor” should take a reality check” speaks to the way mainstream New Zealanders often harbour a sense that Aotearoa is ‘a lucky country’ or that we are fairly egalitarian. Our national imaginary is informed by the Pakeha colonial experience of “escaping” from poverty and the class system in Britain. As significant as this was as an affective experience for Pakeha people’s great-grand-parent or grand-parent generation, it doesn’t fit with social reality in Aotearoa. Neoliberal policy reforms in the ’80s and ’90s meant the stripping back of the welfare state that Aotearoa had previously known.

Susan St John’s (2013) research article on income-related child poverty in New Zealand shows that 270,000 New Zealand children live in poverty, some experiencing serious deprivation over extended periods of time (see Child Poverty Action Group).

Bradley drags out the usual tired, truisms about how the poor could avoid poverty; ‘attitude’, ‘hard-work and commitment’, ‘responsibility’ and ‘tough love’. She claims ‘I was free to rise or fall according to my own efforts and decisions’. All of these ideas are examples of neoliberal discourse, that premise the individual and thus seek quasi-psychological solutions for poverty at the level of individual action. The problem with neoliberal discourse is that it obscures the relationships between people and communities; institutions; and social and economic structures. The reality is that within a global system of neoliberal capitalism, New Zealand’s economy is linked to global market forces, flows of capital and financialisation.

People have a right to be angry about the level of poverty in New Zealand. They have a right to hold political leaders to account for their policy decisions. While poverty is complex, there are also tangible steps that governments can take to reduce poverty. So before you vote, how about asking the following of each political party:

  • What would you do to reduce child poverty?
  • What actions will your party take to ensure that children in poor families have the same access to education and health care as other children?
  • Benefit rates are currently too low relative to high housing and food costs in New Zealand, meaning that children in families on benefits are at risk of nutritional lacks and poor health. Will your party consider raising the benefit base rates to account for raised costs of living?
  • Working poor families are also impoverished in New Zealand because of the low minimum wage, and relatively high household costs. Will your party raise the minimum wage?
  • What actions would your party take to create jobs in New Zealand?

 

What Tampons Taught Us about Poverty and Gatekeepers, or My Questions for Paula Bennett

Last week I blogged about how my friend was told by her WINZ case-worker she couldn’t buy tampons with her hardship grant. What followed was a social media sandstorm, due in part to the twitter hashtag # unnecessary tampons. The post received 32,977 views, and over 90 comments. Public interest was further fueled by Paula Bennett tweeting to clarify that there was no ban on women’s sanitary items, and responding to journalists that you can’t believe everything you read on social media. That’s very true Paula, you have to be discerning.

The emerging picture seemed to indicate that case managers may not always correctly advise beneficiaries, who are left in fairly vulnerable positions.  Several comments and facebook messages alerted me to similar experiences of beneficiaries being treated with disrespect or disdain. This ill-treatment occurs alongside continuously not being given enough assistance and struggling for basic necessities. As Jan Logie’s blogpost pointed out,  misinformation from WINZ staff about policy occurs in a context of punitive policy changes and an organisational culture that is stigmatising.

Auckland Action Against Poverty is a direct action and education organisation that
both advocates for beneficiaries and protests against the neoliberal agenda on jobs, welfare and poverty.

Sarah Thompson, a spokesperson from Auckland Action Against Poverty, explained that
they are seeing an ever emerging gatekeeper culture in Work and Income, where people
are often told “no” as a first response from W&I staff. “At least 9 out of the 10 people that
our advocates work with have been incorrectly or unfairly denied assistance – from being misinformed, as in your friends case, about using a special needs grant for tampons to being denied a benefit altogether when W&I incorrectly assume someone is living in the nature of marriage, to not applying discretion in the case where a mother needs additional assistance for food”. These conditions make it near impossible for people to receive the assistance they are entitled to.

The most damning indictment on the relationship between sanitary items and unacceptable level of poverty in New Zealand for me last week was from the Child Poverty Action Group who facebooked that child well-being organisation KidsCan are supplying pads to intermediate and high school girls as they or their families can’t afford them. CPAG quoted Jules from KidsCan:

“We have many sad stories of girls getting bladder infections as they are reusing soiled sanitary items or toilet paper. This is a major issue in some of our schools which most people be would not be aware of. We recently had 1000 packs of pads donated to us for this purpose.”

Paula Bennett tweeting about tampons was a curious event. If you are media savvy you
know that politics often about send the right message to the right audience. It’s obviously a tricky one for Paula, because on one hand she wants to appeal to voters. Paula is walking a fine line though. As the Minister for Social Development, Paula Bennett has a more direct obligation to beneficiaries to ensure that New Zealand’s welfare system has integrity.

So Paula Bennett, a week on from tampongate, here are the questions I really have to ask:

  • What were the communications costs (branding, design and publications) associated with essentially “rebranding” seven benefit categories as three categories? Are the changes primarily cosmetic? Are the changes meant to assist beneficiaries or assuage voters?
  • What are you doing to actively prevent misinformation and bullying that could occur in WINZ offices as an effect of the “gatekeeping” organisational culture?
  • How does the basic benefit rate relate to average food and housing costs? How are beneficiaries expected to meet the shortfall between the benefit rate and their weekly costs?
  • With this in mind, what do you think is an acceptable level of hardship? What every day items should beneficiaries be prepared to go without?

 Auckland Action Against Poverty are going to be holding an impact action outside Work and Income in New Lynn from the 10th – 12th September, from 9am to 4.30pm each day. Beneficiaries are able to meet with advocates to assist them in getting their full entitlements. For more information, see www.aaap.org.nz or email contact@aaap.org.nz

No Paula Bennett, Tampons and Pads are Not “Luxury Items”: WINZ and Institutionalised Sexism

A close female friend who is a “job seeker” went to WINZ because she had absolutely no money for food. After the usual evidence-providing procedures, her case officer provided her with a supermarket card. But when he gave it to her he carefully explained that the supermarket card was for “necessity items only”, and she could not use it for various “luxury items” including tampons and pads.

Is her case officer just a lone example of a stressed and harried WINZ employee? A lone ranger of necessity-zealousness who doesn’t understand that most women of reproductive age do in fact menstruate on a monthly basis?

Unfortunately not.  Another female friend had a humiliating experience. She tried to use a WINZ supermarket card at the check-out at her local supermarket, and the card didn’t work. The cashier called WINZ to find out why the card wouldn’t work, and found out it was because she had tampons amongst the items she was purchasing. She had to return them.

The mind boggles. What does Paula Bennett want us to use instead of tampons and pads? Are tampons really the equivalent of wine and cigarettes? Does she think menstruating is something that women do for fun? Does she have any suggestions on how we could cut down on menstruation?

Supermarket cards are only given out when the beneficiary is in serious financial hardship. Nevertheless, the exclusion of tampons and pads from the list of “necessity items” that beneficiaries can buy when in financial hardship is a fairly extreme example of institutionalised sexism.

Institutionalised sexism is when an institution makes decisions that produces unequal effects on men and women’s lives. The decision-making does not need to be a deliberate attempt to undermine women. It may occur through the institution not sufficiently considering the different needs of women, or the gendered consequences of decision-making.

In this instance, the gendered consequences of WINZ defining tampons and pads as “luxury items” are fairly obvious. It means women facing financial hardship are put in a more vulnerable position then men. We cannot “choose” not to menstruate.

Paula Bennett, this is a new low. Not being able to buy tampons is frankly pretty third-world for New Zealand.

UPDATE:

Just to update this story, Paula Bennett has taken to twitter confirming that tampons can be bought with payment cards, so this is not a decision that has been made at a policy level:

http://www.newstalkzb.co.nz/auckland/news/nbpol/2006223257-paula-bennett-takes-to-twitter-over-tampon-ire

However, it shows to me – what many of you have astutely pointed out in the comments – that there is a level of confusion about what constitutes “necessities” and even “food items” with front-line WINZ staff ( and possibly also supermarket staff). Even if the WINZ staffer was incorrect in telling my friend that she couldn’t buy pads or tampons, this error is an effect of policy changes that make it harder for beneficiaries to receive their entitlements. For me, this interpretative error is still a consequence of institutionalised sexism, because it has unequal effects for the women who experience it. Multiple vulnerabilities come into play here, my friend is a young woman. It may be a case of WINZ staff being heavy-handed in their one-to-one interactions. Either way, the policy and information on the website needs to be made clearer.