Red Alert

Archive for September, 2009

Another devastating blow to our Pacific region

Posted by on September 30th, 2009

My immediate reaction when I heard news of the Tsunami was one of complete horror. Only 3 months ago we shared in the sadness of the loss of lives brought about by the sinking of Ashika and now we are looking at a possible loss of 100 plus lives across Pago Pago, Samoa and Tonga.

After hearing the news I rang my family in Samoa and my Tongan family in NZ. Both families are fine but in Samoa they were preparing to move to higher ground after a warning that another Tsunami would soon hit (that warning has since been dispelled). My Samoan family informed me that although they were all safe, my cousin’s mums family, had lost four family members. There are numerous other friends that immediately sprang to mind given the location of their families. We share in the grief with our families and friends who have lost loved ones in this tragedy.

Just like with Ashika, I am fortunate that my families in both Samoa and Tonga, have not been affected by the Tsunami, but I know my colleagues Sua William Sio and Luamanuvao Winnie Laban, are from villages that are situated closer to the water and in areas directly hit – last I heard, they were still waiting to hear that all is well with their aiga – my prayers are also with them.

It is at times like this that we are reminded of the vulnerability of our Pacific Countries – they are paradise to many, but highly susceptible to the unpredictability of mother-nature. Our Pacific communities both in NZ in the Pacific, have now been dealt a second devastating blow for the year and will require all of the support that NZ can muster. It is not just the heartfelt expressions of support that will be required – this is going to hit the pockets of our Pacific community hard. This year remittances to our Pacific countries have dropped off due to the recession and the subsequent high underemployment rates for Pacific people in NZ. Funerals and rebuilding houses and villages will not come cheap and the pressure that will be placed on our Pacific communities here in NZ will be immense.

I am sure that our NZ Govt will take the necessary steps to provide a high level of support – we have a legacy of doing this and I’m sure that legacy will continue. This is one of those issues that truly is bipartisan – we will of course support the Government in supporting our Pacific countries during this time.

English docs the A-G will consider IV – who could I possibly be?

Posted by on September 30th, 2009

While this note is headed English power details, it goes to the request for extra cleaning, the most important question is whose name was deleted from the email?

Despite being sent on a Friday it shows no sign of coming from Dipton.

No prize for this one.

Chopper Tolley – Key Away – close his old school

Posted by on September 30th, 2009

Education Minister Anne Tolley has decided that Aorangi School in Christchurch should close.

This was John Key’s school. She has announced it while he is on holiday. Coincidence – Yeah Right

Off your butt Wilkinson

Posted by on September 30th, 2009

How is it possible that the Department of Labour mediation service hasn’t got the parties together in the Open Country Cheese dispute. Here we have an employer continuing a lockout in clear defiance of an Employment Court ruling and no sign of action from Kate Wilkinson’s Department.

If it had been a union defying a court ruling like this we would be hearing volumes from the Minister of Labour, the Prime Minister, Employers’ organisations etc.

Just because there is a recess on there is no excuse to go on a stopwork yourself Kate.

Chopper Tolley – her neck on the block?

Posted by on September 30th, 2009

Christchurch Press has good background to Tolley’s budget mess.

The Government plan involved a reversal of lower teacher-pupil ratios for new-entrant classes. The 1:15 ratio started this year would be scrapped and returned to the previous 1:18. Tolley approved the plan, which noted that 772 fulltime equivalent teaching positions would be cut on May 3.

So it is clear that Tolley signed out a paper with not only the cuts but the timing in it.

Education Minister Anne Tolley said last night that she backed out of the plan days before the May 28 Budget announcement when she realised how many jobs would be lost.

“I don’t think that I thought they were actual staff. I didn’t realise that they were actually all in place,” she said. “I still thought that we were talking about it as being in the future.”

How could that be. She knew the 1.15 came in last year. I heard her talking about it in the campaign. She promised not to reverse it. So she knew before the election they were in place, she was reminded in writing they were in place and she still signed them off.

I thought there would have been some [redundancies] but I didn’t think they were all actually on the ground and in place,” Tolley said last night.

“I take full responsibility. It was my error and it was my decision, but we never went into that with the idea of making people redundant.”

Hardly credible. Probably a loss of nerve. I just can’t find it very hard to believe that Tolley is so stupid..

She “had no option but to leave the savings in”.

That just leaves a very big question for Bill English. If the decision to take out the teachers had been reversed before the budget as Tolley claims, while it was too late for the formal documentation, it is my view that English had to correct the error by way of note or erratum – or he as well as Tolley was in breach of the Public Finance Act.

The Government would somehow have to account for the savings in next year’s Budget, she said.

The ministry was putting together a paper with options on how to make the saving. It was due “any day”.

Needs to be done before the next fiscal update.

Overall a very sad picture of a Minister prepared to sacrifice the quality of education, not good at remembering how schools are staffed and certainly not capable of reading and understanding Budget papers. She is a front bench member of this government. It just shows how thin their veneer is.

What is also sad is her subsequent lack of honesty. When questioned on the cut she made no mention of her foolishness but did say she had set up a committee to advise her on how to implement it.

New ‘Clip-Ons’ at Hutt Hospital

Posted by on September 30th, 2009

This morning I attended the official opening of the Hutt Hospital’s new ‘clip-on’ operating theatres. Funding for a major redevelopment of the Hutt Hospital’s operating theatres and Emergency Department was approved by the previous Minister of Health David Cunliffe and the temporary theatres, built in containers and bolted onto the side of the existing ED, are designed to keep things moving while the more major redevelopment progresses. The new clip-on theatres were completed on time and within budget.

As I sat through the opening formalities this morning I reflected on how far we’ve progressed in the past 18 months. In mid-2008 the Treasury were advocating for Hutt Hospital’s operating theatres to be relocated to Wellington Hospital. I recall the then Associate Minister of Finance summoning up all of his usual tact and diplomacy to stomp all over the idea.

Hutt people are rightly proud of our local health service. Back in the early 1990s the then National government tried to close Hutt Hospital completely. That prompted protests the likes of which the Hutt Valley had probably never seen before or since. Let’s hope the National Party learnt their lesson from that experience and don’t come back and try again this time around.

Lapping it up : fat cats earn more than enough for two lifetimes

Posted by on September 29th, 2009

That’s the headline on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald. The article says that “you could work every day of your life, for two lifetimes, and still earn less what Australia’s top executives are paid in one year.”

Top of the fat cat list is Allan Moss, a former Macquarie banker, earning $24.8 million, which is 417 times the average Australian wage of $59,000, followed by Wal King, the Leighton boss, who earned $16.5 million or 278 times the average Aussie wage. Former Air NZ CEO Ralph Norris is up there, earning $8.7 million, or 146 times the average wage.

The most interesting thing about the piece is that Australia’s Productivity Commission is due to report tomorrow on its inquiry into executive pay and that will be fascinating.

The G20 leaders have agreed to link financial sector salaries to performance, and the UK Labour Party has just announced Labour will outlaw automatic annual bonuses for bankers through legislation.

 Inquiry in NZ anyone?

McCully takes revenge on aid NGOs

Posted by on September 29th, 2009

Successive governments have enjoyed a good relationship with the country’s overseas aid NGOs: groups like World Vision, Oxfam, Tear Fund, Save the Children, Volunteer Service Abroad.

They have seen the aid groups as part of an NZ Inc approach: raising private donations from the public, building awareness of development issues, and often working together with the government to deliver aid in the field. As in many OECD countries this partnership between government and aid NGOs has been ramped up over the last decade, with NZAID funding the NGOs’ aid programmes to the tune of about $32 m per year.

But the partnership has just taken a hit. Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully has personally intervened to cut the funding of the NGOs’ peak body by 40%.  Last year NZAID funded the Council for International Development $900,000 to do a range of work including coordination of disaster relief efforts, capacity building and training of NGO staff, and public awareness work. That is being cut to $650,000 this year and $500,000 the next.

McCully is unlikely to admit it, and on past form he won’t leave a paper trail, but you can bet the cut is a response to the NGO community’s public criticism of his move to restructure NZAID back into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and change its mandate earlier this year. The NGOs were trenchant in their criticism and it wasn’t just the usual campaigners. Rotary, the Salvation Army and agencies like World Vision and Tear Fund who have traditionally been more circumspect in their public advocacy, made it clear to the Government they thought McCully’s plans ill-judged. Most of the NGOs backed a campaign called Don’t Corrupt Aid.

Mr McCully has never been a fan of NGOs. In his speech announcing the restructuring of NZAID he referred to

self-interested individuals from within the aid community [who think] that New Zealand’s aid budget is some kind of sacred cow that should be placed above and beyond the stewardship of the government of the day, and subject only to the attentions of so- called “development experts” who might bring their superior intellects and sensibilities to this task.

And it was hard to know if he was referring to the NGOs or NZAID when he referred to “faceless, unelected, unaccountable, aid bureaucrats”.

It is worrying Mr McCully is willing to cut funding in such a vengeful way. It is bullying from a Government that can’t take public criticism.

It is even more disturbing he is willing to to cut funding that is an investment in building the capacity of NGOs to be accountable and effective partners in the delivery of taxpayer funded overseas aid. But then this is the same Minister who ignored Treasury advice that his restructuring of NZAID would make it less accountable for the spending of taxpayer dollars.

English docs the A-G will consider III – so who runs the trust

Posted by on September 29th, 2009

And now for number three in the series. More on the cleaning issue. Claim via Bill. But I thought Bill didn’t see the bills because Bill had no interest in the trust. These documents keep giving answers but even more questions. One important question is “Why did such an experienced politician do this?”

Back Benches this week

Posted by on September 28th, 2009

Wallace and his team have Peter Dunne, Charles Chauvel and John Hayes.  Topics include becoming a republic and paid parental leave.

Filming at Backbencher pub live from 9pm Wed – but people turn up from about 7.30 to get a good spot and primed.

Watch on Freeview 7 or Sky 97 or online

Filed under: media

Bill folding?

Posted by on September 28th, 2009

So now English accepts he has lived in Wellington since the last election. That leaves questions the first set of which are :-

  1. Where did he live for the 10 – 15 years before that?
  2. Why did he try a trust lease device to attempt to collect even more than he had been?
  3. How can he repay money from a trust that he has no interest in?
  4. Was/is the trust a sham?
  5. What did he tell John Key that caused Key to back him when his position was clearly unsustainable?
  6. Given 1 -5 above will he ever have the credibility necessary to tell Kiwis to tighten their belts?

Real parliamentary debate

Posted by on September 28th, 2009

This time last year we were in the midst of the election campaign. A year later people often ask me how I’ve found my first year in the job and whether it’s been as I expected. I thought I’d do a couple of posts over the current recess on some of my impressions to date, ranging from debate in the house (this post) through to work in the electorate.

Although I have worked in and around parliament for a while I’m still a relative newcomer to the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate. I try and make an effort to speak regularly on a range of issues, including some that I have been less familiar with. As I’ve gone along I’ve become a bit more confident and now tend to scribble a few notes and speak much more off the cuff.

I have to say that I’ve found the general quality of parliamentary debate is often pretty poor. Far too many MPs read pre-prepared speeches and don’t engage with others. MPs from one party go so far as to read word for word from a laptop speeches that someone else has written for them. It’s easy to tell from the quality of delivery that they obviously didn’t have any input into writing the speech in the first place.

I’m told by some of my more seasoned colleagues that until recently MPs were prohibited from reading speeches. They could refer to notes but had to actually engage in debate. That rule was scrapped a few years back but I wonder whether it should be reinstated? Politics is a contest of ideas and our whole parliamentary system of representation centres on the debating chamber. If MPs aren’t willing to debate and argue, they shouldn’t be there in the first place.

English giving up?

Posted by on September 28th, 2009

Radio and TVNZ report that Bill English has stopped making claims for housing. What is not clear is whether the trust that he until recently had a beneficial interest in still leases a house to the crown which he lives in.

Note to self: things to do in Australia

Posted by on September 28th, 2009

I’m off to Australia this week, with partner John, to meet his two new grandsons, Chance and Chay (yes, well they are Australians) and so John can meet for just the second time his two-year old granddaughter, Mala  – (and before you ask, we’re paying).

Because I can never separate the personal from the politics, I’ve made a list of things to look into including:

  1. Why Australian cleaners are now paid $21 an hour when ours are still paid $12.55, when they’re employed by the same contractors.
  2. What Rudd has done differently to Key to end the recession earlier and with lower unemployment than NZ.
  3. Why increasing workers’ rights in Australia is not seen as reducing productivity or harmful to business when in New Zealand it’s seen as the opposite.
  4. How many firms have really gone bust because they have to pay the same minimum redundancy pay I am proposing in my Redundancy Protection Bill.
  5. What’s happening with the National Transport Commission report that said that excessive client power and poor pay and conditions for truck drivers were a major cause of the high levels of deaths and injuries on Australian roads – and whether Joyce should take note.
  6. What forms of contracting arrangements for independent contractors do they have that give them more rights and collective bargaining power.

Should be a great trip!  I’ll send photos.

Turkey and Armenia to establish historic diplomatic ties

Posted by on September 28th, 2009

I’m delighted that Turkey and Armenia will establish diplomatic ties on 10 October.

The countries share a land border in the energy-rich Caspian region, which is often referred to as the gateway between the West and the East.

Turkish-Armenian relations have been strained for a long time. Armenian Christians had fewer rights than the Muslim-majority Turks during the time of the Ottoman Empire. A crisis point was reached in 1915 when many hundreds of thousands of Armenian people died in a very short time. Armenian says a deliberate ‘genocide’ was carried out by Ottoman troops under the orders from the Imperial authorities, but the successor Turkish state adamantly denies there was an official policy of systematic extermination.

Nevertheless, Turkey did recognise Armenia when it declared its independence from the Soviet Union on 1991. Relationships deteriorated when Turkey sided with Azerbaijan during the 1993 Nagarno-Karabakh War. The Armenia-Turkey border has been closed to trade ever since.

I don’t for a moment believe that the historical grievances will be put to rest by this mutual recognition – indeed the move will still require ratification from the respective parliaments in Ankara and Yerevan.

Nonetheless this a very important step forward. Now Turkey and Armenia will have a formalised framework for resolving any points of contention. Also, with the movement of trade and people across the border personal linkages and trust should grow.

So well done to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Armenian President Serzh Sargsian on this historic agreement.

English docs the A-G will consider II – the lease device

Posted by on September 28th, 2009

The second of the documents. It includes the rental agreement which is a device to lease the Karori house from the reorganised trust to Ministerial Services. Ministerial Services appears to have paid for a rental appraisal.  Again not a knock out blow – but a picture is developing. And the real question “Why did Bill do it?” –  is still very hard to answer.

Letter from America VII- The Accidental Tourist

Posted by on September 28th, 2009

When we lived in New York a decade ago we used to have a kind of kitset itinerary for visitors depending on how long they stayed. We had the two week tour, the five day tour, and even the intensive two day tour.  The latter involved a hurtle up the Empire State, the early ferry to the Statue of Liberty, Met, Broadway show. It was fun, kinda exhausting, but a bit superficial in all honesty.

It feels like John Key has been on the diplomatic equivalent of the two day tour.  It is not that often I found myself in agreement with Fran O’Sullivan but her column in Saturday’s Herald zeros in on the celebrity approach to our international relations from Key. Fran says

When Key first became PM his boyish “aw shucks” approach to meeting the Queen, or even departing US President George W. Bush at Apec, was endearing.

But with nearly a year as PM under his belt he should now be notching up some foreign policy achievements.

This is a good point. Key’s lack of foreign policy experience was only a minor issue at the election, and his generally affable nature seemed to get him off on a good footing in international meetings. But, as we all know, that is fine for the first date, the next ones need to have a bit more going on if the relationship is to flourish. Fran continues

Instead our Prime Minister is now on the verge of being seen as a celebrity-obsessive himself, a political groupie of the first order who will not let a chance go to embellish his Rolodex by opportunistically hunting down major stars like Bill Clinton or Tony Blair to learn leadership skills from the masters.

For a former “master of the universe” who has made buckets shoving around the currencies of many of the countries whose leaders he is now pallying up to, it is all a bit cringe-making.

Fran goes on to say she has seen Key do something substantive on foreign policy, but to be honest there is scant evidence of that in his statements, despite a nicely crafted, but light on detail speech to the GA that has been phisked by my colleague Phil Twyford, here.

Fran also raises questions about why New Zealand is returning the SAS to Afghanistan as the rest of the world contemplates reducing their contribution.

New Zealanders should care that Key has committed the SAS special forces to Afghanistan at a time when other US friends and allies are on the verge of withdrawing their troops.

Other political leaders now believe the Nato-led war against the Taleban will prove just as intractable as the Soviets’ doomed foray into Afghanistan.

Key and Obama have apparently had serious talks by phone on Afghanistan. But our Prime Minister won’t tell us the real substance in the secret letters he has exchanged with the US President.

We shouldn’t have to wait until or if an SAS soldier comes home in a body bag before expecting answers to the hard questions.

Certainly many of those I spoke to in DC and elsewhere were taken aback NZ is pushing on with something that even the Obama administration is not yet confident about.

There is a lot more to being a PM than taking photos and meeting people, and I am with Fran here, the celebrity approach needs to end sometime very soon if NZ is to retain its credibility on the world stage.

Proud to be South D

Posted by on September 27th, 2009

Proud to be South D. That’s me. And it’s the tag line for the first South Dunedin’s Got Talent contest held today at the iconic Mayfair Theatre in the heart of South D. An idea spawned from a desire to create a community voice for this forgotten part of Dunedin.

As I told the audience tonight, I stood for parliament because I’m passionate about building strong communities.

You can’t build a strong community by just identifying and talking about its problems. You’ve also got to celebrate its strengths. That’s what happened today and tonight.

Hundreds of people, 30 unique, diverse acts ranging from a choir of disabled people, an Elvis impersonator (in full costume) the teeny tiny rockers, child violinists, a hip hop song written especially about South Dunedin (South D) and a trainee hairdresser, who describes herself as a karioke queen, who stole the show with her rendition of Sarah Mclachlin’s In the arm’s of an angel.

Huge support from the local business community. We did t-shirts. We had supermarket vouchers as our first, second and third prizes. People came out of the woodwork to make it happen. That’s community.

The local TV station is doing a half hour doco. And I’m going to put up a couple of video clips and pix when I get them. And we’ll do it again next year.

I don’t care if you think I’m parochial. I am. And I’m proud to be South D.

More on Nelson and the Parliamentary XV

Posted by on September 27th, 2009

John Carter MP, Ken Laban, Me having a laugh

Well what they lost in the netball yesterday they made up for in the rugby today. The Parliamentary XV took on the Buccaneers Golden Oldies and won 32-20. Because I had organised the whole weekend (my bid to host the Parliamentary netball and rugby teams was drawn from a ballot by the Speaker) I got to be a commentator in the box with John Carter and knowledgable funny man Ken Laban.

Highlight of the game for me – apart from being a commentator on the game as it went out LIVE on Sky Rugby! – was meeting that nice Todd Blackadder (see previous post on this issue) who was playing for the Buccaneers. Every now and then he reminded the Parliamentary XV that there was some talent in the Buccaneers and that they shouldn’t be taken for granted. I know I look a bit starry-eyed in this pic but I am sure my mother would have approved of him… wouldn’t have changed anything though!

Me and my new best friend

Money raised at last night’s function plus today’s match has yet to be totalled but it will be a nice little earner for the Nelson Environment Centre. They threw themselves into it and the whole weekend has been great.  They awarded prizes for the 350 competition (how to draw attention to the need for the Earth’s atmosphere to get below 350 parts of carbon dioxide per million – see for more info) to Nayland College students Jack, Sharon and Lana. They got some money from the Nelson Mayor, Kerry Marshall and the Nelson Environment Centre.

Mayor Kerry Marshall and Katy Steele from the Nelson Environment Centre present cheques to winners of competition

* The final photo here is of Mayor Kerry Marshall and Katy Steele from the Nelson Environment Centre presenting cheques to winners of competition – my interview with them went out on Sky thanks to Tony O’Brien.

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Filed under: sport

Great moments in history

Posted by on September 27th, 2009

Why New Zealand should answer President Obama’s challenge by showing some leadership and campaigning for a world free of nuclear weapons, whether they are in Iran, North Korea or the United States of America: