Red Alert

Archive for February, 2013

Williamson goes through the motions

Posted by on February 28th, 2013

Minister Maurice Williamson’s uncoordinated and piecemeal approach to building law review will do little except create more crises in the industry, and more stress for affected home owners.

The Building Amendment Bill No 4, now before the House for the second reading, is another example of his need to be ‘seen’ doing something, rather than the introduction of the meaningful reforms urgently needed to avoid a repeat of the leaky building saga.

The Minister has repeatedly ignored submissions from consumers, building professionals and the city councils, as the building consenting authorities. Without a genuine reallocation of responsibility and accountability, as the submitters have proposed, these partial instalments introduced by this current Bill will create more problems than solutions.

Protection for consumers is further reduced under this Bill No.4. It fails to offer consumers any effective remedies when left in the lurch by the cynical collapsing of a $1 shell company, despite that fact that the building sector failure rate is higher than the rate for all businesses before 2003 and after 2008.

No effective measures were introduced to address products warranty, although it is widely accepted that the leaky building saga was primarily caused by the use of inappropriate building products or systems. It is also unclear what the implication is for competition between local and foreign product manufacturers.

As usual, many provisions are yet to be ‘prescribed’ or ‘determined’ by regulation, meaning the law will be ‘prescribed’ by officials, rather than voted in by elected representatives in an open and transparent process.

I agree to the analogy used by submitters that the building control engine will fail if all the cogs are not all aligned and working effectively. A weakness in any of the processes will impact on others and result in risks and crisis.

Building Amendment Bill (No 4) — Second Reading

Sitting date: 27 February 2013. Volume:687;Page:82.

RAYMOND HUO (Labour) : I would like to start by thanking the officials and submitters for their contributions, and in reply to the Minister for Building and Construction’s questions, I would like to name not one, not two, not three, but 47 submitters. Particularly, I would like to urge the Minister to read again the submissions from Hawkins Construction, the Home Owners and Buyers Association, the Auckland Council, the Wellington City Council, the Christchurch City Council, and Local Government New Zealand.

I should reiterate that we support some good initiatives under this bill, the Building Amendment Bill (No 4). In particular, we have no problem in supporting provisions in relation to dams. Being a member of the Local Government and Environment Committee I have learnt a lot about issues in relation to classifiable and referable dams. Indeed, if this bill focused specifically on dams, making it the “Building Amendment (Dams) Bill”, we would support it all the way through. In that regard I would like to thank submitters such as Genesis Energy, the Greater Wellington Regional Council, Meridian Energy, the New Zealand Society on Large Dams, etc., for their thorough submissions.

We did support the Building Amendment Bill (No 4) to go to the select committee. However, listening to submitters and reflecting on the bill and, more importantly, the piecemeal approach this National – ACT Government has taken has led us to the view that this bill should not proceed. Labour supports the building law review process but cannot support the piecemeal and isolated approach, and therefore the passage of this particular bill.

The bill is the second of two bills to implement the building law review policy decisions. The review found weaknesses in consumer protection and a need to better allocate responsibility and accountability among building consent authorities, building professionals, and consumers. Since the introduction of the No. 3 bill, now the Building Amendment Act 2012, we, together with a large number of submitters, have urged the Government repeatedly that “In the absence of a more genuine reallocation of accountability, for example, through mandatory home warranties, the introduction of proportionate liability, and mandatory insurance, all parties (consumers, building professionals, and building consent authorities) will continue to be financially exposed, even for defects not of their making.”

To be fair to the Minister, Maurice Williamson, he might have good reasons for ignoring those issues. One of them is that he had referred almost all important matters to the Law Commission for review, such as the liability models and issues regarding mandatory home warranties or insurance-backed surety—fair enough, and I supported and would continue to support the Minister in doing so. But the problem is that the partial instalment will cause uncertainty and create false hopes for parties in the building and construction sector. This indicates that the Government is not ready to introduce a comprehensive reform package needed to genuinely achieve its stated goal.

For the second term and in its fifth year all we got was nothing but publicity gimmicks. Let me quote something to reinforce my position: “It is important to ensure the proposals are developed as an integrated package with a number of equally important and interdependent processes … To borrow the analogy of the discussion document—the building control engine will fail if all the cogs are not aligned and working effectively. A weakness in any of the processes will impact on others and result in an inefficient regime that is unbalanced and ineffective … It is disappointed that the Bill has been put forward in relation to a relatively narrow range of matters, although it recognises that the Bill is one component of a wider reform programme that Cabinet has approved. In it’s view, it would be preferable to delay legislative amendments until a broad range of changes to the Act (identified as part of the current reform package) can be promoted and consulted in an integrated way.”

Where are the quotes from? From the Wellington City Council in its submission on the No. 3 bill. It is still valid because the Government is still taking the isolated and piecemeal approach. It is dangerous because if all these cogs are not aligned and working effectively, the building control engine will fail, and we cannot afford to have a repeat of the leaky building saga.

There are other issues I wish to touch upon at the bill’s second reading. Firstly, the purpose of this bill is to introduce enhanced and more comprehensive consumer protection measures. However, we note the frustration of some of the submitters and agree with them that the measures included under this bill provide no effective new protection for consumers. Rather, the protection the relevant parties now have is further reduced. I agree with those submitters, particularly structural engineer Mr John Scarry, that the explanatory note of this bill is misleading.

Secondly, regarding company failings, concerns were expressed about companies that are formed for the sole purpose of a single building project and then liquidated as soon as the work is completed, leaving no legal entity that can be directly held to account for defective work that is later discovered. The bill fails to offer consumers any effective remedies when left in the lurch by a $1 shell company, despite the fact that the building sector failure rate is higher than the rate for all businesses before 2003 and after 2008. Even legitimate contracting and subcontracting firms have often ceased to exist by the time defects have come to light.

Thirdly, regarding products warranty, we welcome an introduction of a responsibility provision for product manufacturers or suppliers. It is widely accepted that the leaky building saga was primarily caused by the use of inappropriate building products or systems, or incompetence in, or lack of adequate oversight of, their application. However, given the complexity of the issue, particularly where prescribed compliance with the building code is often difficult to establish, the provision in its current form fails to address the problem adequately. It is unclear what the implication is for competition between local and foreign product manufacturers.

Last but not least are drafting issues. There are drafting issues in terms of how provisions in this bill will be implemented. Many provisions in this bill are yet to be prescribed or determined by regulation. Without proper definition it is difficult to put the clauses into context, which hinders their interpretation and the implementation of the Act. It is unfortunate that in this time of a building sector crisis, New Zealanders are seeing an experienced Minister simply batting away critics rather than showing real leadership. Thank you.


Economic Development

Posted by on February 28th, 2013

David Shearer has been clear from the start that he wants a clean, green, diversified economy – to ensure New Zealand’s future prosperity.

With my appointment as Economic Development Spokeperson comes a big challenge. We need to present a credible plan to get to a prosperous diversified economy.  I’m excited about this opportunity.

Steven Joyce spent a year with the huge bureaucratic resources of MoBIE and failed to map anything but a managed decline. His ‘Business Growth Agenda’ finalised yesterday has proven little more that a year long coms plan. It’s been a year of existing policy re-heats with a few meek ideas thrown in for colour.

But Joyce is vulnerable. Because the facts are drowning out his spin.

Last year 30,000 jobs were lost.  Unemployment is pushing 7%.  1000+ Kiwis are leaving for Australia permanently every week.

No amount of spin can hide the fact that the Government has no plan for sustainable economic growth. Selling off our best revenue-generating assets is National’s big idea.  Treasury says it will set back the Government coffers by about $100m/year. Other than that, they intend things to continue as they are.

I’ve always maintained that the market makes an excellent servant and a terrible master. And this Government is failing to control the market. It is failing to deliver jobs. Right now so many hard-working New Zealanders are being treated like its slaves, forced to be grateful for any scraps that fall from the table. A full 40% of Kiwis earn less than a living wage.

Labour already has chunky policy announced that will lead to economic growth, jobs and an export-led recovery. In particular we want a pro-growth capital gains tax, Research and Develoment Tax Credits, Universal Kiwisaver, Pro-Kiwi procurement policy and tools for the Reserve Bank that will allow it to do what overseas countries are doing to assist their exporters.  These changes will give the economy a shot in the arm and create jobs.

There is more to explore.  Sector-specific incentives for growth beg consideration, as do the implications of Labour’s affordable and healthy housing announcements.  They will create jobs as will our commitment to creating more apprenticeships.  Labour wants a market that generates jobs, living wages and future prosperity for our country.

We need change, because the old solutions have been shown to fail. Right now, the market and it’s hands-off disciple Mr Joyce are not working in the interest of New Zealanders.


Simon says

Posted by on February 27th, 2013

New Labour Minister Simon Bridges had his first outing in question time (other than a patsy from his own side last week).  Mini me answered on behalf of the PM when he answered my question today :

DARIEN FENTON (Labour) to the Prime Minister : Does he stand by his statement that the living wage is “simplistic”?

Hon SIMON BRIDGES (Minister of Labour) on behalf of the Prime Minister: Yes, and for two reasons. The first is that the Family Centre’s living wage of $18.40 an hour is calculated on the basis of a two-adult, two-child family, whereas a lot of low-income earners are in different circumstances—for example, students working part-time. The second reason is that it assumes that paying much higher wages is costless, when it is not—it costs jobs. If all employers in the country paid a minimum wage of $18.40, it would cost an estimated 26,000 jobs.

Darien Fenton: When he said that providing New Zealanders with a living wage is not high on his Government’s agenda, was he saying that Kiwi workers should not expect to make a living from their work while he is Prime Minister?

Hon SIMON BRIDGES: No. Ultimately, above the minimum wage, what is paid is up for employers and their employees to negotiate.

Darien Fenton: Does he believe that the minimum wage of $13.75 an hour is enough for families to live on; if so, why do two out of the five children in poverty come from families in work?

Hon SIMON BRIDGES: What is very clear is that actually there is a range of circumstances. For people on the minimum wage with children, for example, there are a range of packages available to them from the Government. The truth of the matter is that actually our minimum wage, as a proportion of the average wage, is the highest in the developed world.

Darien Fenton: How is it fair that his Government is giving minimum wage workers a measly 25c pay rise, while at the same time it is splashing out on $23 million worth of bonuses for Solid Energy’s management?

Hon SIMON BRIDGES: What is very clear is that having a job is much better than not having one, and we are very conscious, unlike the other party, which does not seem to understand economic fundamentals, that the higher we raise the minimum wage, the more people are put out of jobs—7,000 under your policy.

Darien Fenton: Why is the Prime Minister still insisting that a $15-an-hour minimum wage will cost thousands of jobs when Treasury and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment both say there is little evidence to support this, and his own Minister of Labour said this morning that there is no science behind that argument?

Hon SIMON BRIDGES: It is uncontroversial amongst good economists that the higher the minimum wage goes, the more jobs people do not get. At $15 an hour, it is about 7,000—a town.

My verdict :

Not a bad effort for repeating government lines and economic mythologies about the minimum wage, but not a big step up from the previous Minister, Kate Wilkinson.

Shows a reliance on officials for advice and not much originality in the answers.

Provided some useful lines for the opposition in future debates around work and wages.

Your verdict :

Marks out of 10? 

 

 


The appearance of activity

Posted by on February 27th, 2013

Five weeks ago John Key appointed Paula Bennett as Associate Housing Minister, putting her alongside Nick Smith and Tariana Turia in a housing team to emphasise National’s commitment to tackling the crisis of unaffordable housing.

Problem is Ms Bennett still has no responsibilities – “to be advised” – according to the Government website. She doesn’t even have ‘general duties in the portfolio’ as others have.

She has no housing staff in her office and has been unable to answer written questions about her priorities. In fact a written question about her goals as Associate Minister of Housing was referred to Housing Minister Nick Smith’s office and then back to Bennett, and then back to Smith again.

Smith claimed in a written answer he has “formal and informal” meetings with Bennett on housing issues. It’s hard to imagine these will be much use if Bennett doesn’t know what she is doing!

National’s response to the housing affordablity crisis is all about creating the appearance of activity: a three member housing team, blaming Councils, threatening to tinker with the RMA.  Meanwhile with Kiwibuild, Labour has a robust, achievable plan that will get 100,000 Kiwi families into their own homes over the next 10 years.

 


Dear Sir Peter and Fran

Posted by on February 26th, 2013

“Thank you for your email of 4 October 2010 raising issues of actors work permits and possible amendments to the Commerce Act 1986 and the Employment Relations Act 2000 (ERA).

Having considered the possibility of amendments to the ERA or Commerce Act carefully, our view, following extensive consultation with the Crown Law Office, is that, for the reasons set out below, it would not be appropriate to recommend such amendments.

“…….In our view, the relevant legislative provisions provide sufficient clarity such that no legislative amendments are required.”

Hon Gerry Brownlee

Hon Christopher Finlayson

This was the government’s position in mid-October 2010.  But by the end of the month, they had caved into demands to change our employment legislation to exclude film and video workers from their right to challenge the status of their employment.

The government released more information on this sorry saga today after being told they had to by the Ombudsman. It makes for fascinating reading.  Put to one side the florid and over the top language about the union and the MEAA union leader, Simon Whipp that has attracted some media comment.

Read the documents and see for yourself the hand New Zealanders were dealt by a weak government, not prepared to stand up for all of us.


Dunne and dusted?

Posted by on February 26th, 2013

There is a fundamental difference between the rows and rows of casino pokie machines at SkyCity and the single machine down the local.

Pub pokies are required to return all profits and 37% of revenue to the community, by funding programmes like sports clubs and cancer research.

SkyCity’s machines, meanwhile, return only 0.8% of revenue and a pathetic 2.5% of profits. Talk about the House winning!

As John Key has attempted to squirm away from the scathing Deputy Auditor-General’s report into his trade-the-law convention centre deal, he’s taken to waffling about a “sinking lid” (or overall cap) on pokie numbers in wider Auckland. Now a sinking lid might potentially be a useful idea. But let’s be clear – it’s Council policy, not necessarily the country’s law.

The way Mr Key’s shonkey casino deal is shaping up, the big end of town’s lid will go up. Meanwhile the rent on the non-casino gaming sector will go down, and with it the Crown revenue.

That’s because the PM’s plan isn’t just for a convention palace. It’s about allowing hundreds more casino pokies which don’t distribute their revenue and profits to the community, and fewer pub pokies that do.

The Māori Party are probably opposed to the key polices of the pokie deal. John Banks will probably do anything John Key tells him to do.

So, ironically, the solution to this shambles (and revenue hole) seems to lie in the sole vote of Revenue Minister Peter Dunne.

The immediate question, then, is whether Dunne will pull the plug on the whole fetid casino convention centre deal. Or whether he won’t.

And the really key question is how many Kiwi kids will never learn to swim if the SkyCity deal goes ahead – and what will be the effect on the country’s deficit.

Rewriting history

Having been slammed for its “unfair” casino deal, National’s spinmeisters are rewriting history. Again.

Let’s set the record straight.

In 2001 Judith Collins was chair of the Casino Control Authority. Her authority used powers delegated under the Casino Control Act 1990 to approve a $37 million expansion at SkyCity’s Auckland casino – with new gaming tables and pokies and all the social misery they cause.

So Labour abolished the Authority. We chucked the 1990 law out.

Labour bought in new legislation to control the growth of gambling, prevent and minimise the harm caused by gambling, ensure the money from gambling benefited the community, and ensure the system was fair with limited opportunities for dishonesty.

Today John Key’s National government are trying to do the exact opposite. They’re set to change the law to allow more pokies for the big casino in central Auckland.

There couldn’t be a more fundamental difference.

National’s proxies who are pushing the revisionist spin in the blogosphere are being played for suckers.


Novopay Issues #1

Posted by on February 25th, 2013

Plenty has already been said about the Novopay shambles. The system was never ready for implementation, it never should’ve been signed-off, and the safeguards and contingencies that should have been in place weren’t. I’ll keep holding the government to account for their failure, but I’ll also be picking up specific issues and, where I can, working to ensure that people aren’t disadvantaged in the long-term because of Novopay.

Last week in the House I asked the Minister Responsible for Novopay, Steven Joyce, some questions about Novopay not handing over Kiwisaver contributions to savings providers. The money is being taken from employees pay packets, but it’s not showing up in their Kiwisaver accounts. In some cases I’m aware of, this has been going on for months and months. Not only are the employees concerned worried about where their money has gone, they’re also missing out on the returns that would otherwise have accrued had their money been paid over on time.

The most important comment Steven Joyce made was this one:

Chris Hipkins: Will employees who have had KiwiSaver or other superannuation contributions deducted from their salaries but not paid over to their scheme provider be compensated for lost returns that would otherwise have accrued, and if not, why not?

Hon STEVEN JOYCE: My understanding is that yes, they will be made good in those regards.

I welcome this commitment by Joyce. It means that not only will people affected get their money back, they will be compensated for any returns that would’ve accrued in the meantime. I’ll be interested to see the details of exactly how they’re going to calculate that, and will ask some more questions in that regard.

There are other specific concerns about Novopay that I hope to address in coming weeks, including people defaulting on child support payments, justice ministry payments, student loan repayments, and so on. I’ll blog more about those as the answers come through.


Moving on to the next challenge

Posted by on February 25th, 2013

I have enjoyed the Health portfolio. It is huge and arguably, it takes longer than one year to get around and establish networks. I have been doing that in the past year and I am grateful to all those who were prepared to engage intelligently and repeatedly with me. I have been pleased to stick up for diabetics in the disastrous changeover to the Care Sens blood glucose meters. It was a mistake and should be rescinded. It affects the way people manage their diabetes and directly impacts their well being, especially for Type 1 diabetics.

I have also made a running on the increase in prescription charges, changes to pharmacists’ contracts with the DHBs, and the burden of implementation of changes falling on local pharmacies. This sector is in chaos and Tony Ryall continues to pretend that there is nothing to see here. Shelves full of uncollected prescriptions would say otherwise. If people can’t afford medicines, and some clearly can’t, we are only going to see additional hospitalisations further town the track.  This isn’t rocket science – just medical science.

But now I take up a new challenge with the Environment portfolio.  And there are challenges aplenty.  We would all love our myth of being 100% pure to become fact again but we need aggressive leadership in this area if that is ever to happen. From our waterways to our air quality, and much more besides, there is much to do to restore our natural environment and to protect it for future generations.  I look forward to that challenge.

Thanks again to all you good health folk for working with me over the last year.  Keep up the good work!


Saving West Auckland’s trees (again and again and again)

Posted by on February 22nd, 2013

 

Titirangi Ratepayers and Residents Association public meeting, 21 February 2013.

Last night Te Atatū Labour MP Phil Twyford and I joined a packed public meeting hosted by the Titirangi Ratepayers and Residents Association in my New Lynn electorate.

For too many attendees this was a groundhog day event.

Because yet again Westies are being forced to stand up to a Wellington-led move to abolish tree protection rules in the Waitakere Ranges. It really is crazy. But it seems that destroying West Auckland’s natural heritage has become a National Party obsession.

Environment Minister Amy Adams’ so-called Resource Management Reform Bill is a very poorly drafted piece of law. I reckon it’s deliberate, because when you untangle the jargon it’s nothing but a recipe for a chainsaw massacre.

Well West Aucklanders have seen all this before. We love our patch, we were staunch against Wellington’s chainsaws every other time – and last night the public meeting unanimously voted that we’ll be staunch against them now.

The National Government could save themselves one heck of a headache (and avoid underestimating the West Auckland community again) by simply excluding the Waitakere Ranges Heritage Area from part 12 of Adams’ Bill.

But if National uses its numbers on behalf of the Property Council to push the chainsaw massacre through, then locals are determined this will not be the end of the story.

With the support of Auckland’s Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse, Councillor Sandra Coney, Waitakere Ranges Local Board Chair Denise Yates and member Greg Presland, the Ratepayers have agreed we will propose to Auckland Council a Local Bill to revisit this attack.

Waitakere is our place. The rainforest in the Ranges is our children’s and their children’s natural heritage.

With shared resolve, and with history on our side, Westies will certainly save our trees again.

Upper Nihotupu Reservoir in the beautiful Waitakere Ranges.

 


By The Numbers

Posted by on February 22nd, 2013

1,600,000,000 – In tax evasion v $39 mil in welfare fraud.  White collar v blue collar = double standards?

67,000,000 – Our returns halve when Mighty River Power is hocked off by the Government

180 – Dollars – the latest median weekly wage gap with Australia

24 – Hours of porkies, pokies and pork barrel politics from National

1 – Problem gambler


Equal Pay getting Further Away

Posted by on February 21st, 2013

Today the Business and Professional Women of NZ are commemorating Equal Pay Day to mark the number of days extra each year that women have to work to earn the same as men.
Sadly, Equal Pay Day this year is three days later than it was last year because the gender pay gap has grown again according to the StatisticsNZ Quarterly Employment Survey.
It shows the average hourly wage for men is $29.09, while women earn $25.25 per hour – a gap of almost 12%.
This comes on the back of the Minister for Women’s Affairs telling a select committee that the correlation between gender and low occupational status is “debatable.”
She was responding to a petition signed by 10,607 people calling on the Government to properly fund aged care services.
Her answer was that women would get better pay if they did jobs that men had traditionally done and this would fix the gender pay gap.
All very well, Minister Goodhew, but who is going to take care of you when need rest homecare if all of those hard-working women go off to be plumbers?


So much for Hekia Parata’s word…

Posted by on February 20th, 2013

Today in Parliament I questioned the Minister of Education Hekia Parata on her decision to close Branston Intermediate School in Christchurch. I singled out Branston because Parata had given them a specific commitment that they wouldn’t close before the end of 2014 and she has now reneged on that commitment. Here is an excerpt from the Hansard (video):

Chris Hipkins: Did she, or her officials, give Branston Intermediate School an assurance that any students enrolled for 2013 would be able to finish their 2 years at Branston Intermediate School before any closure?

Hon HEKIA PARATA: I did not.

Chris Hipkins: Did she write to Branston Intermediate School on 28 September stating that she had made “a proposal about the closure of Branston Intermediate School to be implemented for the end of 2014.”, and did she tell a public meeting at Branston Intermediate School that the school would definitely be open in 2014, as parents have written in to say she said; if so, why is she now changing that proposal so that students who have only just started school this year will have to change school next year?

Hon HEKIA PARATA: I did provide Branston Intermediate School with a proposal, and in the meeting with the Branston community I repeatedly said it was a proposal and that they were free to make submissions on it, as indeed they can on the proposal they now have.

Chris Hipkins: At the public meeting with Branston Intermediate School did she give them an assurance that Branston Intermediate School would still be open in 2014?

Hon HEKIA PARATA: I made it clear, repeatedly, that it was a proposal, that they had the opportunity to give a submission on that proposal, and I got their submission, and they now have a further opportunity.

At that point we then had a lengthy series of points of order about whether or not Parata’s answer actually addressed the question. Ultimately, the public will be the judge of that, but I can’t imagine she would’ve gotten away with that under Lockwood Smith.

Hekia Parata can try to hide behind the words “interim decisions” and “proposal” all she likes – but the fact is she has gone back on her word. Her word is worthless.

Is it any wonder that 71% of those polled in Canterbury want Hekia Parata sacked as Minister of Education? They don’t trust her, and don’t want her anywhere near the education of their children.


Today the house must not win

Posted by on February 20th, 2013

New Zealand is a small, remote country with an unfortunate reliance on imported capital to maintain our standard of living. A crucial insurance for the economy is New Zealanders’ hard-earned reputation for having the lowest level of government corruption in the world.

Or at least that’s something we had.

I write this post with the heaviest of hearts because I know how completely National has jeopardised the economy. I know how foreign investors will be frightened by the truth. Their reaction could see more hardworking and innocent Kiwis turfed on the unemployment scrapheap.

Ultimately, though, there is an overwhelming public interest in having on record just how low Prime Minister John Key and his factotum Steven Joyce have sunk in their bid to trade our country’s laws for a casino’s cash.

Yesterday the Deputy Auditor-General released her report into the tender process for the SkyCity convention centre. At 71 pages it is among the longest and most damning auditor’s reports I have seen. John Armstrong, writing in the New Zealand Herald, assessed the tender as “verging on banana republic kind of stuff without the bananas.” Armstrong was too polite.

Labour leader David Shearer summed the report up more completely: “Kiwis know [Key] was donkey deep in this entire process. The deal with SkyCity was his idea. He knew exactly what was going on and was pulling the strings behind the scenes.”

I have followed the convention centre tender since it first came to public light in 2010 – months after John Key had a cozy dinner with the casino company’s board and (in the PM’s own words) “discussed a possible National Convention Centre and they raised issues relating to the Gambling Act 2003”.

As time has passed I have become more and more outraged by what was transparently a stacked process seemingly designed to ensure SkyCity was the only tenderer left standing at the end.

All throughout the National Government have obfuscated, played cat-and-mouse games with the Opposition and the media, and denied multiple Official Information Act requests on the most specious of grounds.

Not only did ministers refuse to answer more than 100 of my parliamentary questions on the SkyCity deal – but they even took to using the SkyCity deal as a supposed reason to refuse answering dozens of questions which were quite unrelated to the casino!

The Commerce Select Committee (which I am a member of) even had to take the most extraordinary step of recalling Ministry of Economic Development/MoBIE officials to a second testimony session, following their failure to answer legitimate questions as part of the committee’s 2011/12 financial review.

As the years passed and the stench of the rotten tender grew overpowering, the sole explanation Key and Joyce offered for their preference for SkyCity was that taxpayers wouldn’t foot the bill for the conference centre. But that was an outright lie – $2.1 million of your dollars were diverted from the Christchurch earthquake recovery effort and other economic development programmes to support the convention centre design!

Finally, when the Deputy Auditor-General prudently announced a probe into the whole sordid affair, Steven Joyce vowed to push on in contempt of her. In my time in Parliament I have never seen anything like it.

But now the auditor has published her report. Her findings are damning and they back up what I have been saying and what my Labour colleagues have been saying since 2010. It is beyond comprehension that Steven Joyce did not resign from the ministry immediately after receiving the report.

The Deputy Auditor-General’s findings include (and I quote):

  1. We do not consider that the evaluation process was transparent or even-handed (p5).
  2. SkyCity was treated very differently from the other parties that responded [to the tender] and the evaluation process effectively moved into a different phase with one party… the steps that were taken were not consistent with good practice principles of transparency and fairness (p5).
  3. The Prime Minister/Minister of Tourism… annotated the [tender] briefing paper by hand, stating that “we should close off the SkyCity angle first” (p15).
  4. It was well known among officials that SkyCity had met with various senior Minister in the previous months. In our view, there was an obvious risk that SkyCity would have a better understanding of the Government’s thoughts than other participants (p45).
  5. There were a number of flaws with the way the evaluation process unfolded during 2010 (p50).
  6. Given the nature of the responses, it is likely that the SkyCity proposal was always going to be the most attractive (p51).

So what are the broad consequences for New Zealand?

Has the opaque and unfair SkyCity deal been scrapped? No.

Instead National has thumbed its nose at the auditor’s office and is about to restart the negotiations. They have to finalise pesky details such as how anyone will receive the television news once a hulking great pokie palace is plonked where our state broadcaster has some of its studios.

Has the Government promised not to change the law to flood central Auckland with very low-taxed pokies, while taking money out of high-taxed pub pokies which fund kids’ learn to swim programmes and quit gambling programmes?

It’s a no to that too.

As my Labour colleague Ruth Dyson succinctly put it “The convention centre will not be ‘free’. The social cost for New Zealanders and their families battling problem gambling will be significant.”

So National seem quite happy to plough along with their trade in our laws, whatever the consequences. Well Labour will fight them every step of the way. I can only hope that the government’s support partners in the Māori and United Future parties will do the right thing and join us.

Ultimately, though, this is not only about one shady deal – although one shady deal is clearly one too many.

This speaks to the whole world about what sort of country New Zealand is in our collective soul. It speaks to the truth about whether we have a clean government which stands up and stops corruption wherever its finds it. Or whether we don’t.

And it speaks to our longstanding core values of egalitarianism and equality. Labour MPs face the human casualties of the National government’s economic mismanagement in our electorate offices every week. We know the despair felt by ordinary, honest kiwis who can plainly see that John Key’s ‘brighter future’ means one law for them and sweet deals for his mates at the big end of town.

The casino deal is a total disgrace. Clearly John Key and Steven Joyce don’t care.

So, in light of the Deputy Auditor-General’s report, I am publicly calling on SkyCity to formally withdraw their current tender. That should trigger the entire process to restart from the beginning, so it can be run fairly and transparently.

I look forward to SkyCity’s quick, positive and public response.

Extra: David Shearer, Grant Robertson, David Parker and Ruth Dyson all gave excellent speeches on the convention centre deal in Parliament today. Well worth a watch!


New deployment in Aghanistan wrong decision

Posted by on February 20th, 2013

The decision by the National Government to embark on a new deployment of New Zealand Defence Force personnel to Afghanistan is wrong and unprincipled.

Last year the Prime Minister, John Key, said New Zealand troops would be out of Afghanistan by the end of April 2013.

This u-turn is not the result of New Zealand’s judgement and the values our foreign policy should be based on but rather the pressure that the government came under from another country.

National has reneged on its responsibility to make its own decisions as an independent and sovereign nation.

The consequence is that New Zealanders’ lives will continue to be put at risk without the hope of a positive outcome to the conflict there and on behalf of a government in Afghanistan that does not merit the sacrifice of Kiwi lives.

The Prime Minister’s justification that they won’t be at much risk because they are “inside the wire” doesn’t have much credibility.

Time and again allied soldiers in Afghanistan have been shot in the back by soldiers in Afghan National Army uniform who have no real loyalty to their own government.

There is no good reason why Kiwi lives should be put at risk to preserve the Afghanistan Government. Wikileaks revealed that the Afghan Vice-President was found leaving the country with a bag packed with millions of US dollars. Drug traffickers, with the concurrence of the Afghan government, supply 90 per cent of illicit opium trafficked to  Europe. Corruption is pervasive, human rights are constantly abused.

The Karzai administration after a decade has failed to win the support of its own people.

In 2001, New Zealand rightly deployed its troops to Afghanistan to suppress a terrorist organisation, Al Qaeda, based in Afghanistan which had launched international terrorist attacks against innocent people culminating in 9/11.

It did so consistent with a United Nations resolution which had overwhelming international support.

Today, Al Qaeda is a force in Pakistan rather than in Afghanistan.

The war in Afghanistan has assumed more the nature of a civil war between two opposing sides, neither of which have values consistent with ours.

No matter how long we stay there or how many further lives we sacrifice, we will not determine the final outcome of that war.

New Zealanders understand sacrifice. In two world wars we have suffered more than our fair share of Kiwi lives lost. Like other New Zealanders, my family has lost members in both those wars and in Afghanistan as well. As a country we don’t shy away from involvement in wars on the basis only that lives may be lost.

But we should not be involved in conflicts where the loss of lives cannot be justified and where the cause is known to be futile.

Pleasing another country is not cause enough to put Kiwi lives at risk. After 12 years it is past time that New Zealand brings all its troops home from Afghanistan, rather than embarking on a new deployment.


What killed Ken Callow?

Posted by on February 19th, 2013

Forestry is the most dangerous industry in New Zealand. In 2013 there have already been two deaths. Since 2008, 23 workers have died and almost 900 have been seriously injured. 

A New Zealand forestry worker is 6 times more likely to die at work than a UK forestry worker, and twice as likely as an Australian forestry worker. 


Each death is a family, community, workplace losing someone who was loved. Each injury is someone’s life being changed forever by something that happened at work. 

We need the government and the industry to step up and stop this from happening.

Read more about Ken Callow here. 


The Christchurch schools announcement

Posted by on February 18th, 2013

Today Hekia Parata announced her decisions concerning the proposed closure or merger of 31 schools in Christchurch. 12 schools will remain open as they are, while seven schools will close and 12 will merge (13 fewer schools overall).

Overall there is good and bad in today’s announcements. Nobody doubted that change was always going to be necessary, but this process has been a shambles. Instead of getting community buy-in and support, Hekia Parata has eroded all goodwill. This could’ve been really positive for Christchurch. Instead it’s yet another example of Nationals heavy-handed, we know best, approach to the Christchurch rebuild.

Today’s announcement will be welcomed by the 12 schools who will stay open. For the others, it’s worse than they might have expected because the timeframes for closure and merger originally proposed have been shortened and most will now take effect from the end of this year.

The decision to shorten the timeframe doesn’t make sense, particularly for the intermediates. Kids who started intermediate this year will face another change next year. The original proposal would’ve seen the intermediates stay open but not take in a new cohort, meaning the kids already there wouldn’t have been forced to switch schools twice in two years. There are also concerns that this new rushed timeframe won’t allow enough time for the necessarily building projects, or for schools to integrate their teaching programmes.

The data that Parata relied on when making her decisions was also clearly flawed. MOE projections showing falling rolls for some of the schools being closed or merged don’t match with reality. For example Philipstown School’s roll has actually grown this year not shrunk as the Ministry predicted.

The problem for Parata is she jumped the gun last year and put forward closure and merger proposals too soon. The government had started well, with a wide-ranging discussion about what the future of schooling in Christchurch, but then they lurched into a specific set of proposals without giving the community a chance to talk about what the actual shape of schooling might look like in the future. The population is still really fluid too, and it’s not yet clear where people will ultimately settle once things have all calmed down.

Parata could’ve started today with an apology. She didn’t. My thoughts are with the schools in Christchurch who are grappling with the decisions. They deserved to be treated with more respect than this.


Where are they?

Posted by on February 17th, 2013

Last year, Labour questioned why a company called King Facade Ltd had been given approval in principle from Immigration New Zealand to bring in 110 “Facade Installers” from China on the basis that there were no New Zealanders skilled enough to do the work. There were  questions about the granting of this approval that were not satisfactorily answered by either the Minister of Immigration or Immigration New Zealand, with only a cursory attempt to find New Zealand workers, and a exaggeration of the skills required ensuring that any Kiwis would not meet the requirements.

The parent company of King Facade Ltd is Mainzeal, and this week King Facade Ltd also went into voluntary liquidation.

The then Associate Minister of Immigration, Kate Wilkinson gave assurances that the parent company Mainzeal had a good record with Work and Income. Another big justification from the government was that King Facade would work with Mainzeal and the Industry Training Organisation to develop a Facade Installer Apprenticeship programme, so New Zealanders would be skilled to do the work in future.

Well that’s all fallen over, along with the collapse of Mainzeal, the loss of jobs and contractors out of pocket.

Who knows what’s happened to the poor Chinese Migrant workers, who were promised a three year employment contract.

My guess is they were on the next flight home, with no pay in their pockets for the work they have done.

Postscript

David Shearer and Clayton Cosgrove announced today that Labour will legislate for a fairer deal for subbies.


National Standards are the problem

Posted by on February 16th, 2013

This week’s Listener has an article (unfortunately pay-walled online) about supposed ‘grade inflation’ in primary school tests. The allegation comes as a result of changes to the marking guides for key assessment tools teachers use to measure student progress in core areas like literacy and numeracy. Principals are reporting vastly different results that they claim over-inflate the amount of progress students have made during the year.

The tools concerned, e-asTTle and STAR, are used by schools to assess writing and reading respectively. The issue at hand appears to be that the underlying assumptions used to produce test ‘results’ have changed. For example:

The old e-asTTle test looked at the piece of writing each student did during a test, and gave results purely on face value. The new one uses that piece of writing as a starting point, and extrapolates to what the student could probably do with support from his or her teacher and without the pressure of the test.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with this change. e-asTTle is only a tool, and the results it produces need to be weighed up against a number of other things including teachers observations, interviews and a child’s written work. The problem comes because e-asTTle and STAR results are often used in the reporting of National Standards progress to parents.

…some principals are worried that less-scrupulous schools – or those whose staff simply don’t understand how the tests have changed – could be using the results to artificially boost their National Standards results. That in turn could give schools a higher ranking in the public league tables.

Paul Drummond, principal of Tahunanui School and outgoing head of the New Zealand Principals’ Federation sums up the problem:

“I’d like to think there was professional integrity around this, [but] there are going to be enormous pressures to the contrary – to actually spin your data. There is so much pressure put on for schools to look good in those judgments, those scores.”

I have a lot of faith in the integrity of our teachers, and I don’t think they would deliberately inflate student results. However, if the National government go ahead with the plans they’ve got Treasury working on at the moment and introduce ‘performance’ pay for teachers, things could well be different.

If a teacher’s pay at the end of the week is going to be determined by a narrow range of student test results, there will be every incentive in the world for them to use every means available to make those results look as good as they possibly can.

The fundamental problem is that National Standards are narrowing the focus of teaching and learning too much. There are no national standards in science or art for example. Linking teacher pay to National Standards results is only going to make that problem worse.

Instead of taking such a narrow-minded approach, we need to replace National Standards with a requirement for schools to report to parents regularly and in plain language how their child is progressing against the whole curriculum. Instead of attempting to measure teacher performance by looking at a narrow range of test results, we should be focused on encouraging ongoing professional development and establishing a robust attestation process that factors in all elements of effective teaching.


Wake up and listen

Posted by on February 15th, 2013

This last week has seen the Living Wage profiled in a way rarely seen of any social movement in recent times. The NZ Herald ran a week long series, Duncan Garner came out as a strong advocate on Radio Live, other journalists picked it up with interviews and stories. Even the Prime Minister took on the language of the Living Wage even if he was trying to diss the notion and tell us all it’s not happening under his government.

Like it or not, the Living Wage movement has hit New Zealand. It’s powerful, it’s growing and will change the narrative not only around work and wages, but around community expectations about how they want and need to live.

While there’s been a lot of publicity around the “rate” of the living wage, announced by the community alliance of the Living Wage Aotearoa NZ, the two day symposium held this week in Auckland was much more than a talk about wages. It was designed to highlight the changing nature of work, the challenges to the norms of defining work and labour, the impact on our communities and the Living Wage movement as a growing community movement in response.

Guy Standing, who I blogged about some time ago, kicked off the seminar with a challenging lecture on “The Precariat – the new dangerous class”. You can find many Guy Standing lectures on Youtube and he’s really worth tuning into. Standing says the old class structures of the 20th century are vanishing (whether we like it or not) and being replaced by new ones – the largest being the growing class of the “precariat” – who have no occupational identity, who work in increasingly precarious arrangements, are expected to do a high ratio of work for labour (ie applying for multiple jobs, filling in forms, travelling to interviews and from job to job) and who, by and large reject the political agendas of the Right and the Left and other established organizations such as unions, simply because they are irrelevant to them.

Then today, Deborah Littman, from London Citizens and now the Metro Vancouver Alliance gave a compelling lecture about the movement in the UK and Canada. If you want to know about why and how, you can watch it here.  If you want to know about the business case and case studies, watch it here.

The overseas movements have grown up over many years, but their experiences and stories provide a lift for our own home grown version as it gathers strength.

New Zealand’s movement is following in their footsteps, building an alliance with unions, faith based and community organisations involved in Living Wage Aotearoa NZ. It’s a different dynamic; not party politically aligned, with no group dominating, with a lot of listening and understanding of how low pay comes at a cost to society as a whole. And then a negotiation through the process of moving to a living wage that provides families with the basic necessities of life, to live with dignity and participate as active citizens in our society.

We need to wake up and listen.


Is the Govt trading away our tech sector’s ideas?

Posted by on February 15th, 2013

Pat Pilcher has written another good piece in the NZ Herald about the looming changes to NZ’s patent laws which could have provided a serious kickstart to oru software industry, but which won’t becasue of a stupid last minute amendment by Commerce Minister Craig Foss who has been heavied by the multinational software comapnies. And our own Ministries.

He writes:

The hope held out by many was that software would be excluded from being covered by patents, however it now appears that the government is likely to change patent legislation so that software can be patented.

Even though the Commerce Select Committee and numerous industry experts have all recommended that software be excluded from patentability, amendments made to the bill after pressure was placed on the government could be sufficiently vague that software could end up being patented.

This, say the experts, would provide large lawyered-up multinationals with a means of tying smaller kiwi software developers up in court, effectively stunting our home-grown software industry.

Indications are that even though the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment (MBIE) had agreed that software should be excluded from patents and were confident that this wouldn’t impact on trade treaties, sources indicate that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (who are currently in the midst of negotiating the trans pacific partnership trade agreement) are said to now be somewhat less enthusiastic about excluding software from patents.

Read more here