Red Alert

Archive for June, 2009

Talk to the Chair

Posted by on June 30th, 2009

I was on leave this afternoon at a very good forum held by NZ Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Scientists so only just watched question time.

I was very amused to see Kate Wilkinson dodge questions on pay equity by attacking my colleague Sue Moroney for not subbing in and replacing me at select committee for estimates last week given that I asked “NOT A SINGLE QUESTION!!!!!!”

Well Minister – my reasons for not asking a question were as follows:

  1. Trevor was taking you to pieces with his questioning and certainly didn’t need me butting in, and
  2. Your Chair David Bennett restricted the amount of time available to opposition members (Labour and Greens combined) to question you and so I left what small amount of time we were given to Trevor and Darien, our spokespeople.

But I’m glad you agree that it would’ve been good if I could’ve asked you the many questions I have about your priorities for NZ workers, because frankly I’m more than a little worried.

Maybe you could have a chat to your colleague David Bennett about allocating the time more fairly in the future?

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The Right to Rally

Posted by on June 30th, 2009

When I was working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade I found myself as the campaign manager for the local body election campaign of my friend who was the Labour candidate.  It was one of those things.  You go to a meeting (always a big mistake) and walk out with a job to do.  I recognised it was something that might see my name out and about, so I went to see my boss.  He was a staunch National supporter, I think a member.  He listened to my case, and said that it was fine, and despite our differences he said would always defend my right to participate in the political process.

Public servants are ever conscious of their role to serve the government of the day, and of the restrictions placed on them by the Code of Conduct.  That is what makes the Department of Labour decision to effectively tell its staff that they could not participate in the rally at Parliament today on Pay Equity very disturbing.  There may well be questions about the involvement of some senior staff or perhaps those directly connected with the work, but the wider staff of the Department of Labour should in my opinion have had the right to go to the rally if they chose to.

In recent election campaigns  I have noticed that public servants seemed to be getting inconsistent and inaccurate advice about how involved they can be in campaigns, including whether they could have hoardings on fences, deliver pamphlets or even be seen with a candidate.  

I believe that the rights of public servants to participate in the political process as private citizens need to be protected, and if necessary clarified.  Of course their should be guidance as to how to ensure they can continue to serve the government of the day and avoid compromising their ability to provide quality advice and support, but the interpretation of that guidance should respect the professionalism of public servants and give them their hard won democratic rights.


You can run but you can’t hide

Posted by on June 30th, 2009

This month at the International Labour Organisation Conference, the National government took credit for the work of the Pay and Employment Equity Unit without disclosing that Minister Wilkinson had closed the Pay and Employment Equity Unit down and the government had scrapped its on-going pay investigations.

New Zealand participated in the formal discussion on Gender Equality at the Heart of Decent Work, where our government was at pains to emphasise that gender equality and non-discrimination must be at the core of the ILO’s work, including when implementing the Decent Work Agenda.

However, New Zealand’s worker representative, Helen Kelly, CTU President was upfront in her address to the Plenary discussion on the report of the Director General of the ILO, where she outed the National Government’s ditching of the Pay and Employment Equity Unit and Pay investigations saying:

We are bemused to see that in its position paper on its approach to this conference, the NZ government uses the work done in this previous programme to try to highlight its credentials on this topic, without once mentioning that is has now cancelled the work.”

Some people may think that it doesn’t matter, but it does. It’s all about our reputation in the world as a country that deals fairly with its people. Having attended the ILO conference on more than one occasion, I can confirm that being exposed like this does nothing for New Zealand’s reputation in the world.

And if that doesn’t matter, just ask the women who rallied outside parliament today.


Has Pay Equity Been Completed?

Posted by on June 30th, 2009

Minister of Labour Kate Wilkinson seems to think so. That’s why she closed down the pay and employment equity unit.
Problem is the 24,000 school support staff who had their pay equity investigation axed in March don’t think the work of the unit is complete.
Neither do social workers, nor the staff at 15 polytechnics, the Wananga, Hort Research or the Teachers’ Council as they are all part-way through pay equity reviews that were being supported by the unit and the contestible fund also scrapped by the Nats.
Today was the last day of exitence for the highly-regarded unit and people protested its demise at rallies in Wellington, Hamilton and Auckland.
Pay equity reviews are at all the above-named organisations are all in jeopardy now.
So what do you think? Has pay equity been done? Are we there yet?


From the Opposition – Here to Help

Posted by on June 29th, 2009

The NZEI and Principals’ Federation have agreed to meet with me tomorrow on Education Standards.  Anne Tolley has got herself into a corner and needs to understand that if she wants to change the law to prevent league tables for primary schools it isn’t that hard. I will check  the proposal for a minor amendment to the OIA with education leaders in the morning.  The link to the substantive debate is here.


Climb down on super city second tier?

Posted by on June 29th, 2009

Just maybe, the Government is preparing for a climb down on the Auckland super city’s second tier. It has been probably the most vexed aspect of the Government’s super city model. And much as I would like to see Messers Key, Hide and Carter die in the ditch over such an unpopular and misconceived policy, it is good for Auckland if they are about to throw this particular doozie overboard.

To recap: the Government rejected the Royal Commission’s recommendation of six local councils with the power to deal with local issues.  Instead they proposed 20-30 local boards with very limited local powers, and the job of community engagement. These have been widely derided as toothless talkshops (by me and many many others). In fact I struggle to recall anyone who has publicly defended the Government’s second tier other than Rodney Hide. Almost everybody else has weighed in against them, most notably two of the Commissioners Justice Peter Salmon and David Shand, but also Lawrence Yule of Local Government NZ, the three horsemen (Mayors Len Brown, Bob Harvey, Andrew Williams), both the Fairfax and APN community newspaper chains, and an array of campaigners and community groups, plus Labour and the Greens.

Local Govenment Minister Rodney Hide wasn’t quite running up the white flag when I pressed him on this last week at question time, but Judith Collins saying the local boards had better be more than ‘tea and scone clubs’ was a hint that support for his second tier was leaking away.  Hell, John Key was backing away the week before.

The climb down is now well underway with John Carter (the kinder, gentler face of reform) telling Radio NZ he’d ‘learned a huge amount’ through Auckland community meetings and discussions on the issue and ‘it’s helped focus my mind on the things that matter for people.  And where I started some six or eight weeks ago, I’ve shifted personally, myself, a lot.’  And then telling the Eastern Courier how important it is to get the lower tier right, how people  were telling him they wanted fewer boards than the 20-30 being proposed, and how they needed to be given their own budgets.

That is heartening. I have no doubt the select committee is going to hear plenty of submissions on this issue so the Government will have no shortage of advice on how to get this aspect of the super city right. For the record, Labour wants to see empowered and resourced local councils with the ability to deal with the important local issues  – to keep the local in local government:

1. fewer local councils than the 20-30 proposed in the bill

2. governance and policy making responsibility over local services and assets

3. control over their own budgets

4. powers and responsibilities mandated in law (not delegated at the discretion of the Auckland Council)

It remains a mystery why the Government got it so horribly wrong in the first place, thinking they could ram through these changes without the public really noticing, under the cloak of blaming the region’s Mayors who, ironically, have been doing a pretty good job of keeping local government local. As the Commission argued, if you are going to centralise the big regional functions in the super city, then you must balance that with an empowered second tier of local governance that has the mandate and the capability to do the local stuff well.


Labour to hold copyright forum in Auckland

Posted by on June 28th, 2009

It’s taken a while to get it organised, but Labour will hold another copyright forum, this time in Auckland, on 8 July. And anyone’s welcome who has an interest in the copyright issue and who will make a positive contribution.

Labour organised a forum in late March in Wellington and invited representatives from the rights holders, ISPs, internet users and other associated interested persons. That meeting was attended by about 30 people, including six Labour MPs (myself, Grant Robertson, Lianne Dalziel, Trevor Mallard, David Cunliffe and Maryan Street). Out of that meeting came a series of themes and issues that needed further discussion. Because of the number of people who wanted to attend but couldn’t (because they either lived in Auckland or just couldn’t make it) I said we’d have another discussion soon.

The forum will be held at:
Freeman’s Bay Community Hall
Function Room
52 Hepburn St, Freeman’s Bay
6pm-8pm
Wednesday 8 July

If you can make it that would be great. Please feel free to pass this invite on. Please RSVP to clare.curran@parliament.govt.nz

The objective is to canvas the wider issues around copyright, including discussion of what’s been ocurring overseas, in France, the UK and Sweden. Lessons to be learnt and ideas for how to develop a wide-ranging copyright policy that embraces the digital age, protecting rights holders, not disadvantaging ISPs going about their business, promoting access to information and building public interest around why copyright is important.

Labour hopes to make a positive ongoing contribution to discussions about copyright. It’s one of the major issues in the crossover between the arts and the communications and IT industries. We need to get it right and we need to take a wider view than the National Government appears to be doing right now.


Redundancy Blues

Posted by on June 28th, 2009

With more than 1000 workers a week joining the dole queue I’m worried about the large number who are being laid off without notice or redundancy compensation. New Zealand laws have no entitlements to workers for notice or compensation in the event of redundancy, unless there is specific provision in an employment agreement.

Some employers go so far as to specifically prohibit redundancy payments in employment agreements. The thousands of commercial cleaners throughout the country earning just $12.55 an hour are a case in point.

Last week I asked the Minister of Labour, Kate Wilkinson, what she planned to do about the Public Advisory Report on Redundancy and Restructuring which was reported back under the last government, and recommends minimum notice and redundancy compensation. After months of saying it was “on her desk for consideration”, the Minister finally admitted that she has no intention of pursuing the recommendations, saying that, “It is not my priority to impose costs on businesses…”

We all know there’s a recession, but it can’t always be an excuse for doing nothing. It’s not good enough that all the cost of lay offs should be borne by workers and their families.

I have drafted a members’ bill on this topic based on the advisory group’s report and Labour’s manifesto promise. This is a conversation New Zealand needs to have.

Most OECD countries have at least minimum notice and many have redundancy compensation. Australia has minimum redundancy payments as one of the core provisions in awards that can’t be contracted out of. National is fond of quoting OECD countries when they want to compare growth, productivity and wages. I can live with that as long as the balance sheet on both sides – workers and employers – is equitably compared.

I’m completely open to considering how redundancy payments should be made and who by, taking into account small business pressures. Labour is having a look at Australia’s General Employee Entitlements and Redundancy Scheme (GEERS), which provides a basic payment scheme for employees’ unpaid entitlements, such as redundancy pay, in situations of insolvency, where there are insufficient funds or assets available, and no other source of funds are available to pay these entitlements.

You might have some other ideas.


Nats don’t walk the walk

Posted by on June 28th, 2009

The new National government aren’t exactly walking the walk when it comes to belt tightening. In the first three months of this year, National Ministers spent $739,000 on travel, more than double the $336,000 Labour ministers spent in the same period in 2008. This follows news that they have also doubled the number of ministerial staffers earning over $100,000 a year and approved hiring of consultants on rates of up to $2000 a day. Not exactly leading by example are they?

While I’m on the topic of Beehive staff and consultants, Colin James has written a very thoughtful piece on the political neutrality of public servants. He makes a lot of good points, including that the time for clarifying whether ministerial advisors are public servants or not has well and truly come. As a former ministerial advisor myself, I never regarded myself as a public servant, my accountability was directly to the minister I worked for. It’s a grey area that definitely needs clarifying.

James also has concerns about the arrangements for the hiring of purchase advisors and the recent decision to place a minister-appointed ‘minder’ within the Department of Labour to look after the Immigration Service. The way both of these decisions have been made, in my view, contradicts the spirit, if not the letter, of the State Sector Act and the Public Finance Act. I’m disappointed the State Services Commissioner hasn’t seen fit to object.

[Correction: Treasury have apologised for getting the figures wrong on travel, so the first part of this post is incorrect. The stuff about Beehive staff and consultants is still accurate, so the general message is still valid. CH]


Westminster Delegation – Day 5

Posted by on June 28th, 2009

The final day of activities was, to be fair, somewhat more sedate than the previous four days. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t equally informative and useful.

We got out of London for the first time to spend the day in with Conservative MP John Howell in his electorate of Henley, described by both the local paper and the MP himself as one or the more ‘opulant’ parts of the UK.

After a breifing from one of John’s staff members on the demographics and issues of the electorate, we headed into the town of Henley-on-Thames (of rowing fame) to visit thier rowing museum and meet with local business people.

From there we went on to visit a 600-acre pig and crop farm. Following a tour of the farm we had afternoon tea with a group of local farmers. Topics of interest were the EU, subsidies, complience issues….

Final boarding call, I’ll finish this in NZ.


Dunne Washington?

Posted by on June 28th, 2009

Wellington cafe gossip suggests that the Nats are so afraid of Charles Chauvel winning the next three way contest for Ohariu-Belmont that they have decided to offer the Washington post to Peter Dunne. From their perspective pretty logical.


Pulling up the Ladder Behind Her

Posted by on June 27th, 2009

In the General Debate last week I told the story of a man who had succeeded against the odds after being made redundant as a train driver in the mid 80s. Despite having left school on the day he turned 15, he enrolled at University, first for a Liberal Studies Certificate and then for a law degree. It was not easy; he was educationally disadvantaged. His marriage had broken up and he was caring for his 2 children on the DPB. But he had 2 things going for him – preferential entry to do a degree course (he was one of 10 quota students – chosen because they did not have the formal qualifications to get into law school but who, if qualified, would be able to contribute back to their community in some way) and second – he had the Training Incentive Allowance. This man now has his own law firm, his sons are doing really well, he is serving on a variety of community boards as a volunteer and he is married again – to me. This is my husband’s story.  The essence of this story has been recounted many times over from the polytechs and universities from one end of the country to the other.  In most cases though the Training Incentive Allowance has supported women on the DPB, just like our own Minister of Social Development & Employment.  And I say good on her for taking advantage of a programme designed to help people like her and my husband. 

My question is why has she presided over a change in policy that limits the TIA support to Level 3 Certificates and below?  What about Level 4 and above?  Degrees like the ones she and my husband have are Level 7.  Why would she pull up the ladder behind her, so no-one else can achieve her level of success?  The irony is that a person on the DPB can use the TIA to help them get a certificate as a residential care assistant in the rest home (where they pay little more than minimum wage), but can’t use it to become a fully qualified nurse and essentially pay the cost of the DPB in the first year in fulltime work!  There will be more on this, because not only does this inexplicable decision destroy the plans of  people who are doing the pre-entry course for nursing this year, but it also doesn’t make sense for a country that is crying out for nurses.  Interested in feedback – and keen to hear more stories from people who have had their plans stymied.


Written Questions

Posted by on June 27th, 2009

Trevor Mallard to the Minister for State Owned Enterprises

“Did CCMAU invite Mark Weldon to address SOE Board members and did Mark Weldon advise them to prepare strategic plans that allowed for privatisation or partial privatisation in 2 – 5 years?”

“Has he made clear to SOE Board chairs that the speech by Mark Weldon made to them last Thursday is inconsistent with government policy with regard asset sales, if so when, and if not why not?”


Westminster Delegation Day 4

Posted by on June 26th, 2009

A very hot day in London especially when walking to our briefing on Climate Change.  We met with the Dept of Energy and Climate Change for a briefing on UK Climate Change Policy and how the UK was delivering on energy and climate change objectives.  The fact that there is a Dept focussed on Climate Change and Energy indicates the seriousness placed on these issues. Furthermore it seems there is commitment across the political parties to the ambitious plans in place. Key issues – the plan will involve increasing use of nuclear power as well as renewable energy sources like wind. The UK has no real problem with methane gas (unlike NZ) but carbon dioxide.

I followed up on the Olympic project I mentioned yesterday when I met with the leadership of the Trade Union Congress. Unions are committed to success of the Olympics both at the construction and delivery phases with a Memorandum of Understanding signed between all parties. I also heard about the significant lift in apprencticeships as part of the Government’s economic stimulus package.  Again a stark contrast to the lack of ambition in this area at home.

Over lunch I spoke to the Head of Education at Parliament who deals with some of the youth outreach work in Parliament.  They have recently increased funding into the area of school visits to Parliament so that a 75% travel subsidy is provided to schools throughout the UK and as a consequence the visits to Parliament are now no longer dominated by schools from London or the South East but are representative of the spread across the UK. They are working on further improvements to the outreach programme as part of building understanding of the political system and the role of Parliament. I intend to find out more about the Civics education in schools.

We met with the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee to discuss the UK rural economy and the UK farming industry.   This provided an opportunity for us to discuss in detail issues like food miles and other risks to NZ exports.  We of course pointed out that over 99% of NZ products are shipped to the UK. 

Another briefing of real value was around Internet Governance and E-crime and the role of politicians in dealing with a problem that doesn’t have national borders.


Proper standards for smart meters

Posted by on June 26th, 2009

I’m all for smart meters but that’s what they have to be – smart, not just a convenience for the power companies. A true smart meter will benefit consumers, retailers and the environment. Climate change is a reality and true smart meters can help to reduce our carbon footprint by reducing the number of power stations that need to be built. Smart meters need to be paired over time with ‘smart appliances’ that can be programmed to switch on and off at times that low power prices are available. This will allow New Zealanders to plan their energy use and save on power bills.

Last year we published New Zealand Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy which included setting the standard for smart meters. Will Gerry Brownlee have the smarts to see the revolution this will bring to power consumption? If we judge by the lost opportunities he has already missed in his energy portfolio, I don’t hold out much hope.


Westminster Delegation – Day 3 Part 1

Posted by on June 25th, 2009

Again a full day including a meeting with a member of the House of Lords who should be on the stage!

A second meeting with officials in the Consumer Affairs area prior to the commencement of official proceedings was very helpful.  A White Paper covering a whole range of issues will be released in the next week.  There is a high level of understanding that in tough economic times consumer protection becomes even more important.  Possible changes include establishment of a Consumer Advocate role and the possibility of taking class actions on consumer issues. There are a range of avenues for consumers to seek assistance, possbily too fragmented. Consumer rights are often enforced at the Local Government level – not the way I think we would want to go.  Despite this there seems to be more concrete support for consumer rights.

A visit to the Olympic coordinating office was interesting and the useful learning for me was around how deliberately the legacy aspects of the Olympics are being pursued. A specific example is the deliberate use of such a large, substantially publicly funded project in upskilling local workers particularly from the 5 surrounding Boroughs which are among the most deprived in London.   We should do such things with publicly funded projects in NZ – how about the Rugby World Cup!  Sadly of course the skills areas is one of the most ignored by our Government with no new initiatives in this area in the recent Budget depite the benefits for individuals, communities and our economy.

There is unsuprisingly some emphasis on reform and modernisation of the political process here. One particular area is how to encourage  greater engagement of people in the political process . One idea that was mentioned yesterday which I am interested to hear more about is citizens initiated debates.  Also our briefing papers show some clear work in the area of young people and politics. So today I will seek to find out more for tomorrows report.


Draft mall survey form

Posted by on June 25th, 2009


Can the Minister tell us how many people will be eligible for the new working holiday scheme?

Posted by on June 25th, 2009

This morning at Transport and Industrial Relations select commitee we had the estimates hearings on Vote Immigration, Labour, and Employment. Three Ministers in three hours (minus time for the briefings from audit), so not a lot of time for the opposition to get into the detail of Budget 09, but certainly not unusual.

As a chair of a select committee in the last Parliament an hour for most votes was pretty standard, although for large or more contentious votes we often had longer.

So no complaints there. But what was very different was that Chair David Bennett informed us that he would be running a 50/50 split of time between opposition members (Labour AND the Greens), and National members.

This is not the convention. When I chaired a committee the bulk of time went to the opposition, and yesterday at the Education and Science select committee on Vote RS&T Chair Alan Peachey gave opposition members the bulk of time because of his belief also that it’s a time for the opposition to hold Ministers to account.

The convention is based on the obvious premise that if government MPs are really concerned about an issue, they are able to ask their Ministers about it at caucus. Opposition members, and the general public, can not.

Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if the government MPs had asked decent questions, but we sat through a series of inane questions about minor issues, the answers to which could be easily found on departmental websites.

Granted the performances by the three Ministers (Coleman, Wilkinson and Bennett) were far from stellar, but I didn’t think they needed that level of blatant protection from the Chair.


Pigs may yet fly free

Posted by on June 25th, 2009

Many of us were horrified at the recent footage of pigs in sow crates shown on TVNZ. A day or two later, MAF visited the farm in question. The Levin farmer declared he’d been given the all clear. Not necessarily so, it seems from this morning’s Primary Production select committee. MAF officials said they will in the next few days issue their decision on that issue. Meantime, Agriculture Minister David Carter said he is hoping that NAWAC (national animal welfare  committee) will by year’s end issue a review of welfare codes. I put to him that it may not be helpful for MAF’s chief vet Dr Peter O’Hara to continue to chair NAWAC after he’d appeared on TVNZ saying there was no evidence of the Levin farm’s pigs being in distress. Mr Carter didn’t seem to see any issue here…


I Can’t Remember – Wilkinson

Posted by on June 25th, 2009

Less than a fortnight after her return from the ILO in Geneva Kate Wilkinson told a select committee this morning that she could not remember if she had met with the ILO Secretary General.

After advice from officials it was confirmed that she hadn’t. Causes one to wonder what she went there for.