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Rachel Smalley, you are so wrong

Posted by on June 14th, 2014

Newstalk ZB presenter Rachel Smalley has accused me of politicising a murder by raising some policy issues in the wake of the murder this week of Henderson dairy owner Arun Kumar.

I called for a stronger police presence with a community constable based in the Henderson town centre, more Council staffing  so they can actually enforce the by-law on begging and anti-social behaviour, and a concerted effort by Council and others to turn around the economic decline of the town centre.

Hardly radical views. In fact the three things I called for are all supported by the chair of the Henderson-Massey Local Board, the head of the local retailers association, and the Waitakere Indian Association which takes a strong interest in the safety of local dairy owners. Coincidence? No. I talked the issues through with all of them, and talked with the shopkeepers in the vicinity of the Kumars’ dairy, before making my comments.

Mayor Len Brown and west Auckland based Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse have also been calling for more police presence in Henderson.

You see Rachel, my constituents don’t get to comment on Morning Report about what they think should be done after an event like this.  But that is why they employ me. It’s my job to do that.

And I certainly won’t be silenced by knee-jerk responses like yours. I expect it from right wing hacks like Whale Oil and David Farrar.  As partisans for the Government it is not in their interests to see Opposition MPs raising questions about matters of public concern,  but I thought you were a credible journalist who would have seen the importance of that.

You write that a greater police presence would not have prevented Mr Kumar’s murder. Of course getting a community cop in Henderson won’t turn back the clock on the messed up parenting and social damage that saw a 12 and a 13 year old making trouble with a knife in a dairy at 7am on a school day, but to deny the relevance of police presence to these kinds of crimes is just shallow and uninformed.

If you had taken the time to find out a few facts you’d know that youth crime and anti-social behaviour have been a consistent problem in the Henderson Town Centre, including begging, intimidation and vandalism. Read the Western Leader, they’ll tell you.  The two boys accused of the crime were well known to the Kumars and other shopkeepers, and part of a group that hangs out in the centre.  The retailers have been asking for a greater police presence – specifically a community constable located in the town centre – specifically to deal with this issue.

The political Right loves to try and close down debate by drawing the cloak of sanctimony over any controversy.  Three years after the Canterbury earthquakes Gerry Brownlee was accusing MPs who raised questions about the mismanagement of the rebuild of playing politics with a natural disaster. In the months that followed the Pike River disaster, journalists and politicians who raised questions about the culpability of the company were accused of politicising the 29 deaths. It was three years before the full extent of the company’s negligence was exposed to light.

It is never wrong for an elected official to raise issues of public concern.

So Rachel, how about you have me on your show on Monday morning and we can discuss this?

Those evil town planners

Posted by on January 31st, 2014

Those town planners, they sure are evil. A little while back the Finance Minister was saying 20 town planners were a threat to macro-economic stability.  Now he says they are causing inequality.

This week at the Finance and Expenditure Committee, he was trying to fend off David Parker’s assertion that a falling home ownership rate was causing a widening wealth gap between those who own and those who rent.

I actually think that in the housing market the biggest generator of inequality are planning rules what deliberately drive out low and middle income housing and deliberately drive up the prices of housing so we can have nice looking apartment blocks in the so-called ‘liveable city’, not those messy low and middle income people. It is very unfair and it is locking a whole lot of people out of the housing market or pushing them into part of the market to make access to work and education difficult and we need to change that

This is a great example of diverting and distracting when you are in a tight spot. While it is true that planning rules do need to be reformed to encourage more and better urban development, Bill English’s demonisation of town planners is hilariously misplaced for the following reasons:

1.  Home ownership rates are falling, down to 65% according to the census, and 61% in Auckland.  Rampant house price inflation, and now the LVR lendng limits have shut a generation of first home buyers out of the market. Increasingly there are two classes: those who own property and make windfall capital gains, and those who pay rent and slip further behind.

2. The Member for Dipton seems to be saying the “liveable” or compact city stops affordable housing being built in order to provide apartment blocks for the well-off. This is confused to say the least.  If his answer is to deregulate urban planning so low income people can buy cheap houses an hour’s drive from where the jobs are then he is seriously mistaken about the economics of sprawl. It adds huge travelling costs to residents,  and huge infrastructure costs to the ratepayer and taxpayer. In fact, good quality medium density housing near train stations and town centres offers the best options for affordable housing.

3.  Auckland is a property speculator’s paradise. Yet Bill English refuses to consider a Capital Gains Tax that would take the steam out of those speculative pressures, or restrictions on offshore speculators who outbid Kiwi first home buyers.

4. Not only does National’s fixation on deregulating planning ignore the costs of rampant property speculation, it fails to tackle chronic low productivity in the construction industry, lack of competition in the market for building materials, and the fact that the new Auckland Unitary Plan will bring ample greenfields land into the market.

5. The big driver of inequality is the failure of National to rein in out of control house prices. They’ve been in Government for five years and it wasnt until the fourth year they started to do something, and that pretty much just amounted to tinkering with planning rules.

My 5 point Waitemata Plan

Posted by on January 28th, 2014

Four days, bobbing around in the water, buffeted by the wind and the swell,  gave me time to think about what the harbour means to me. As a kid while our car crossed the harbour bridge I looked down at what seemed a massive stretch of water. Later I came to love taking the Devonport ferry to drink at the Masonic or wander round North Head enjoying what surely must be one of the city’s best views. And now living in Te Atatu I take my kayak out and catch snapper in the upper reaches.

I decided it is more than just a place to swim and fish and sail and paddle and motor around. More than a port or a collection of shipping routes. The harbour with all its beauty and changing moods is as much a part of our mental geography as the buildings and streets and volcanoes. It is part of who we are as Aucklanders.

So why this desire to clean it up, and repair the damage and pollution inflicted by decades of development and neglect?  If the harbour is part of who we are, then surely we want to pass it on to our grandchildren in good shape: not silted up, contaminated, lifeless and unsafe for swimming.  But I keep coming back to Len Brown’s liveable city which has become the measuring stick.

What could be more liveable than going down to Devonport wharf and catching whitebait as our grandparents’ generation did? Or swimming at city beaches and knowing you won’t pick up a gastro bug even after heavy rains? Or an 8 year old catching koura in the Le Roys stream at Little Shoal Bay? Or the kids of Massey being able to swim in the Manutewhau stream without picking up ear infections? Or Ngati Whatua being able to pick a feed of pipis at Okahu Bay as did generations before?

So what to do about it? Here’s my 5 point plan for the Waitemata, cobbled together while paddling:

1. Auckland Council should roll out the world-acclaimed Project Twin Streams, developed by the old Waitakere City Council, to mobilise the community to clean up streams, restore native habitat, and reduce harmful run-off.

2. Local and central government should increase funding to community environment programmes like Sustainable Coastlines and the Kaipatiki Project, engaging the community in habitat restoration, raising public awareness and changing behaviours.

3. Auckland Council should do an audit of storm and wastewater infrastructure and plan the investments needed so the system can cope with a million extra people in the next 30-40 years without breaking down and polluting the harbour. Start by fixing all the sewerage leaks entering waterways around the harbour.

4. Shipping companies using the Port of Auckland should strictly adhere to the new 14 km/h speed limit to reduce the Bryde’s whales being killed by ship strike. If the companies don’t play ball, the speed limit should be regulated.

5. The parties in the Hauraki Gulf Forum should agree to 10% of the gulf to be made Marine Reserves, then to be legislated by the government. This will allow marine life to regenerate, and ecosystems to be restored.

The week finished with a morning out on the Gulf with Explore the whale watching people. The boat was full of high school students finishing up a week long summer camp on marine science, and some of the scientists and advocates from the Hauraki Gulf Forum.  It was a blissful few hours out on the water, sharing it with the Gulf’s advocates of today and tomorrow.

Thanks for following my trail around the Watemata. I’m grateful to all the good people we met along the way, my various paddling buddies, Mels for logistics and support, and of course Ferg’s.

Photos: Olivia Baber, Auckland Council

Turning back time at Okahu Bay

Posted by on January 26th, 2014

One of the stand-out moments of my kayak trip around the Waitemata was our stop in Okahu Bay to meet up with Ngati Whatua.  Their ambitious plans to clean up the Bay and restore it to health evoke the spirit of so many of the projects we visited.

Back in 1912 the City Council built an outfall that pumped raw sewerage onto Ngati Whatua’s shellfish beds at Okahu Bay. A 2.5m-high concrete pipe ran the length of the foreshore leading to the outfall, blocking the papakainga which at that time could only be reached by boat. The pipeline also blocked the stream and turned the village into a swamp.

It wasn’t the only such crime. In 1952 authorities forcibly removed the hapu from their homes at Okahu Bay. The marae and houses were burnt to the ground in order to get rid of an “eyesore” before the Queen’s visit. These events and more are well written up in the Waitangi Tribunal’s reports on Ngati Whatua’s successful settlement claim.

Today Ngati Whatua of Orakei are in post-settlement mode. They are landlords, investors and developers, charting a new pathway for the hapu. But the Bay, such a central and important part of Ngati Whatua’s sense of place, is degraded and lifeless.  The mussel beds are long gone. Pipis and cockles, plentiful a few decades back, are almost non-existent. Water quality is poor.

Enter Richelle Kahui-McConnell who manages the Okahu catchment ecological restoration plan. Richelle began researching the bay while studying for a bachelor of resource management at Unitec in 2007.

“For years Ngati Whatua had been saying the bay has been under pressure. It was losing its mauri (life force) and that it was making people sick.”

Richelle began an annual survey of shellfish, now carried out by students from the local school, and has established an internship programme with Auckland University’s engineering school to test water quality. Results showed high levels of sedimentation, with zinc and copper contamination.

The hapu have big plans. They want to restore the Bay’s catchment, “daylighting” streams that are now buried in concrete pipes and culverts, re-establishing wetlands and planting natives.  It is the only way to properly filter the stormwater before it enters the sea, and will re-establish habitat for native fish and other species.

They are working with the manager of the nearby marina with the aim of reducing pollution from anti-fouling used on boat hulls.

The hope is that by cleaning up the water quality and reducing the sediment, the pipis and cockles will come back.  They even want to re-seed the mussel beds.

Water you can swim in with confidence. Abundant shellfish that are safe to eat. It’s restoring Ngati Whatua’s taonga tarnished by 170 years of colonisation and urbanisation. But I think it is a vision all Aucklanders can share.

Donna Tamaariki of Ngati Whatua, PT, and Richelle Kahui-McConnell at Okahu Bay.

Kayakers 0: Weather 1

Posted by on January 23rd, 2014

We finished the trip today at the Manutewhau stream in Massey, with Marnie Prickett of Auckland Council’s freshwater testing programme Waicare. The Manutewhau rises near Westgate and enters the harbour near the mouth of Henderson Creek. It is a little known gem. A beautiful patch of remnant bush, and a terraced stream with pools much loved by local kids for swimming. The only trouble is the stream is polluted by sewerage leaks. Marnie got to know the stream when alerted by a local school principal concerned that the kids were picking up infections from swimming in the stream.  Now she takes groups of students there to do water quality testing as a way of raising their environmental awareness.

The Manutewhau is like so many other parts of the Waitemata. It should be treated as a precious remnant of the pre-urban ecosystem but it is wearing decades of pollution and neglect. And now, with large scale residential developments in its catchment, it faces further degradation unless there is adequate investment in sewerage and stormwater infrastructure.

Earlier in the day we visited the Kaipatiki Project in Birkenhead. It began 15 years ago as a volunteer effort to clean up and restore the Kaipatiki stream. Since then with the help of thousands of volunteers they have restored 70 ha of native bush on the Shore. They have their own native plant nursery and grow 20,000 plants a year. Their work has evolved and now they do a lot of public education work, over the last 12 months working with schools, kindergartens, and adult learners, teaching around 4,000 people about waste minimisation, composting and worm-farming and sustainability. It is real grassroots environmentalism. Very inspiring.

We also got a briefing from Drew Lohrer of NIWA about their work on invasive species, the ongoing battle to keep out harmful species that come here on the hulls and in the bilge water of foreign ships. As our major international port Auckland gets more than its fair share of unwelcome visitors, like the Japanese paddle crab. Many of these invasive species can tolerate highly polluted conditions and therefore out compete our native species in the degraded environment of the harbour, particularly where sedimentation is a major issue.. We then met with Marcus Hermann of Auckland Council’s Safeswim water quality testing programme. They are the people who put the signs up when a beach has been found to be unsafe for swimming. Check out the latest results here.

The visits were great. But the paddling today was tough. With my mates Chris Cooper and Michael Baker, we paddled for two hours from Little Shoal Bay in strong head winds and a choppy sea.  We beached at Island Bay, Beach Haven and travelled the rest of the day in my big red waka on wheels. Live to fight another day. Tomorrow, we are out on the Gulf watching whales and dolphins with a bunch of high school students doing a summer camp on marine science and some of the movers and shakers of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Forum.

I want to thank Ian Ferguson of Ferg’s Kayaks in Okahu Bay again for supporting this project. Ian and his staff were great to deal with, and the gear was excellent.

More photos here.

Day Three

Posted by on January 22nd, 2014

I’m knackered. Five hours’ paddling, mostly against a headwind and at times bumpy water. My hands, arms and upper body are all feeling it.

But what a stunning day in the water: from the Tamaki Estuary, along the eastern bays past Karaka Bay, St Heliers, Kohimarama and Mission Bay to Okahu Bay, across the channel to Devonport, then past the naval base and Stanley Point, around the Bayswater Marina, and across Shoal Bay to Tuff Crater just east of the Onewa interchange on State Highway One. A visit there with the Forest and Bird Group who have been restoring Tuff Crater (more on that below), then down the Harbour Bridge, under the bridge, and finish the day at Little Shoal Bay.

A spectacular day. In a kayak you are so low in the water, so exposed to the elements, and out in the middle of the harbour you see the city from a different perspective. Views you don’t normally see.

Today I paddled with Tony Dunlop who I got to know when he stood for Labour back in 2005. He is on the board of Forest & Bird, and active in Coal Action. We got to talk politics and the environment, when we weren’t focused on battling the wind and the swell.

Three great visits today. The first was at the Tamaki Estuary, with Moana Tamaariki of Ngati Whatua, Colin Percy from Friends of Tahuna Torea reserve, and Jim Sinclair of the Tamaki Estuary Protection Society.  Colin was one of a group who fought a Council proposal to turn the  spit and wetland into a rubbish dump back in the early 1970s. For the last 40 years they have weeded, planted natives, laid tracks, and turned what was once a neglected wasteland into a thriving ecosystem. We walked through a pohutukawa grove with 20 m high trees. Colin and his friends planted it 40 years ago. The group are part of a Tamaki Estuary Forum which brings together a collection of community groups and Auckland Council local boards who are working to clean up the estuary, improve its current dodgy water quality and restore native habitat.

The second was at Tuff Crater in Northcote. We pulled up the kayaks next to the motorway that leads to the Harbour Bridge, and crossed on the footbridge. Tuff Crater is a an old volcanic crater, filled mostly with mangroves. I guarantee 90% of motorists on the motorway don’t even know it exists. We met Anne Denny of the local Forest and Bird group who have spent 14 years weeding and are well on the way to planting the entire crater walls with natives. They have built a path that is popular with locals. Amazing that this most unprepossessing of places – a mangrove swamp next to an eight lane motorway – has been reclaimed by this local group and transformed into something special. On the other side of the motorway lives a colony of threatened dotterels.

We finished up at Little Shoal Bay where Northcote College science teacher Dr Kit Hustler has devoted several years to monitoring native fish stocks in the stream that runs through Le Roy’s Bush which runs from the Birkenhead shops down to the harbour. The lower reaches of the stream have been gummed up with sedimentation. They are fetid and swampy with the unmistakeable smell of sewerage in the air.  Kit however has identified seven species of native fish in the river. It is extraordinary that in such a degraded environment the fish somehow survive.  The stream is a classic of our urban environment – a waterway wrecked by sedimentation caused by urban development, contaminants from run off, and leaking sewerage systems. Its flow into the city has been blocked by reclamation. Kit brings his students here to study the fish and their habitat, and works with local volunteers to clean up the bush and the stream and encourage the community to take care of it.

Whitebait, the juveniles of these native fish, turn up in the creek from time to time. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the waterway was cleaned up and restored so locals could catch a feed of whitebait at the rivermouth?

Three visits. Each of them local conservation heroes, not waiting for anyone to do it for them or give them permission. Getting on and making a difference.

More pics on facebook.  Thanks again to Ferg’s Kayaks for supporting this project. And Mels for doing logistics so capably.

First day’s paddling

Posted by on January 20th, 2014

Day one of my four day kayak journey around the Waitemata harbour and I am struck by how much life we encounter in just a few hours paddling: oystercatchers watching as we head off from Te Atatu Peninsula, a flock of Caspian terns take off and fly overhead, a fernbird calls at close range in the Te Atatu Orangihina wetland, a shag watches us as we paddle towards it and dives as we approach, a large group of black swans on Meola Reef take off like B52s, a baby flounder swims past (Rob thinks it fell out of the sky, out of the beak of a careless bird? I worry he might be hallucinating), and nesting black back gulls curse us overhead as we skirt along the Westhaven breakwater.

After only a day it feels like my senses have been immersed in the harbour. The endless shades of grey and green, the taste of salt water, surrounded by the tide below and the rain above, and the muscle ache of paddling into the wind.

Today’s paddling buddy was Rob Mouldey, fellow Te Atatu resident who works in Auckland Council’s biosecurity team. He and I fought a tactical battle with the weather, driving the stretch between Te Atatu’s Harbourview wetland and Pt Chevalier’s Meola Reef. It just didn’t seem like a good call to spend three hours paddling across the bay into a headwind. Luckily the Pt Chev-Herne Bay stretch was sheltered and calmer. But as we paddled under the Bridge towards that beer at North Wharf it got pretty choppy.

We met representatives of two tribes who will feature prominently in the next few days: conservation volunteers, and scientists.  The first was Jeremy Painting who is doing a great job looking after the amazing Orangihina-Harbourview wetland on Te Atatu Peninsula’s eastern flank. It is home to the fernbird, and the banded rail. Which is quite something: the fernbird is considered at risk, the banded rail is uncommon and here they are in the middle of the city. Jeremy, with the help of the local Forest & Bird group has been trapping the rats and stoats that prey on the birds. Feral cats are a problem, as are locals who let their dogs off the leash. The volunteers have also been planting, converting kikuyu grass back to native scrub.

Jeremy seems to know the fernbirds almost by name. When one called quite close to his he whipped out his smartphone and played the call of the bird’s neighbour! Apparently it usually brings him in. There are four breeding pairs in the reserve and each has their own territory, which strangely enough overlaps with the old farm paddocks that used to be there.

Across the bay at Meola Reef we met Carolyn Lundquist, a marine ecologist for NIWA who is studying the regeneration of seagrass. The seagrass declined rapidly over the last 50 years of the twentieth century but now interestingly it is making a comeback. Digital analysis of aerial photographs suggests it might be doubling in area annually. It is all the more counter-intuitive because the water coming out of Meola Creek is not that great. The beach here is permanently designated not fit for swimming. One theory is the sediment that poured into the Waitemata as a result of deforestation and urban development killed off the seagrass. Maybe it’s regeneration means the sedimentation is reducing?

These two,  Jeremy and Carolyn, represent the two key ingredients of change if we are to restore the harbour and the gulf to health.  Community support for conservation and treating the Hauraki Gulf as a real national park. And the science needed so we can understand the complex ecology of the gulf and develop good policy. More on that as the journey continues.

Thanks to Ferg’s Kayaks for supporting this project. And Mels for support and logistics.

More pics here.

Paddling the Waitemata

Posted by on January 19th, 2014

Tomorrow morning, weather permitting, I’m pushing the boat out. I’m heading off on a 50 km four day kayak journey around the Waitemata Harbour.

It is part-homage to this amazing stretch of water we live next to. It is a thing of beauty, an extraordinary playground where we swim, fish, sail, and paddle right in the heart of this country’s biggest city.

The trip is also an investigation into the declining ecological health of the harbour.

The Waitemata, and the wider Hauraki Gulf, are facing big challenges from urban development. Fish stocks in general have not recovered from decades of plunder. Shellfish populations are under threat. Toxic metals from run-off are contaminating estuaries. Invasive species are on the increase. And too many of our beaches are unsafe to swim after heavy rain because of sewerage and storm water overflow.

Bigger challenges loom. With Auckland expected to grow by another million people in the next few decades there will be more and more residential development on coastal land. As well as that, the city’s creaking sewerage and storm water system will find it hard to cope with planned urban intensification without major investment. The risk is more pollution in our harbour.

I’ve been inspired by the work of the Hauraki Gulf Forum – a group of scientists, local government, iwi, and conservation advocates – who publish the State of our Gulf report. It is sobering reading but they make a powerful case backed by science that we should take action to stop the environmental degradation and repair the damage.

Each day this week I am going to be meeting marine scientists and visiting local conservation projects. I want to learn more about what is happening to the ecology of the harbour, and what we can do to clean it up and restore it to health for future generations.

Tomorrow at 9.30am I am going to head off from Te Atatu Peninsula, in my electorate. In the course of the week, and in the company of friends paddling with me, we will head east via Pollen Island and Meola Reef, around the western bays to the city, skirting the downtown wharves and on to Okahu Bay. We will follow the eastern bays all the way out to the Tamaki Estuary, and then back across the channel to Devonport. Then we run west along the North Shore, under the Harbour Bridge, around Kauri Point, up Kaipatiki Creek for a side trip, and then out to Hobsonville in the North West before cutting back to home in Te Atatu. As long as the threatened cyclone doesn’t get in the way, it should be epic.

I can’t wait.

(I will post updates on facebook and twitter, and blog here each night.)

Big thanks to Ferg’s Kayaks for supporting this project.

A good day for the left

Posted by on October 13th, 2013

What to make of the local government election results?  On the face of it you’d have to say that with centre left mayors in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin the vibe is good for the left heading into 2014.

Dave Cull and Celia Wade-Brown fended off challengers in Dunedin and Wellington. Lianne Dalziel romped in without a serious opponent in Christchurch. Life is about to get more interesting for Gerry Brownlee who now has to contend with a more sophisticated political operator in the mayor’s chair. Lianne will be a formidable counter-balance to National’s strange mixture of top-down and hands-off approach to the rebuild.

In Auckland Len Brown has a thumping mandate. Turn out is down but as Mike Williams argues in the Herald on Sunday, that is largely because Len never had a serious challenger on the Right. Mr Palino garnered 50,000 100,000 votes, scooping up the conservative votes on the North Shore and the Eastern Suburbs who were never going to vote for Len after their rates went up under the rating unification scheme legislated by National.  But the Auckland Right never got behind him in a serious way.

They put their resources into a couple of strategic Council contests, namely Denise Krum v Richard Northey in the Maungakiekie ward, and Linda Cooper v Christine Rose in Waitakere, hoping to tip the balance of power on Council. However the National Party picking up both those seats is neatly offset by Labour’s Ross Clow winning the Whau ward from Noeline Raffils, and left leaning John Watson joining his ticket-mate Wayne Walker in Albany. The balance of power on Council is unlikely to change much at all as a result.

The big story in Auckland is Len Brown’s long term mortgage on the Town Hall. The fact that the Right couldn’t find a credible challenger says it all. Len’s been the alternative government for the last three years on litmus test issues like transport and housing. He even rolled Gerry Brownlee and Steven Joyce on the City Rail Link.  If he can get the City Rail Link tunnelling underway before the next election (possible with a Labour win in 2014) then you’ll have to crowbar him out of the Town Hall.

And more good news for the left in Auckland: Labour and progressive allies scored some notable successes in the local boards. Out west where I am, Labour tickets won a majority in the Whau,  got three elected in Henderson-Massey, and the Labour-Green-Independent Future West won a clean sweep in Waitakere Ranges.  City Vision maintained its majorities in Waitemata and Eden-Albert. Labour wrested Otara-Papatoetoe from the centre right. Kaipatiki on the Shore shifted in a more progressive direction, and the progressive Roskill Community Voice team won a majority on the Puketepapa board.

The government of social problems

Posted by on October 3rd, 2013

In a recent debate in the House on the Government’s Vulnerable Children Bill, which Labour supports, National Party members including Judith Collins made a great show of saying that poverty was no excuse for child abuse. Now no one in the House was saying that poverty was an excuse for child abuse, but I thought it was interesting that such a big issue was made of this. What the Justice Minister was railing against was the suggestion from Labour members that there is a strong association between poverty and many social problems.

It is this unwillingness to accept the links between poverty and inequality on the one hand, and the vast array of social problems on the other, that is a real obstacle to social progress in New Zealand today.

I believe the case is pretty clear. If we look at the data it shows that so many of the social problems that preoccupy us today are linked to poverty. Public health researchers talk about the “social determinants of health”. Ill health, reduced life expectancy, cardio-vascular risk, diabetes, obesity are all experienced disproportionately by the poorest members of our society.

Visit any district court and you’ll see that both the perpetrators and the victims of crime are drawn mostly from the most disadvantaged members of our society. This is not to say that the residents of the leafy suburbs don’t commit crimes, but the statistics are clear.

The authors of The Spirit Level, argued that countries with a big gap between rich and poor have higher crime rates, more mental illness, lower life expectancy, lower levels of trust.  You name it, almost every one of the social problems we read about in the paper every day, are worse the more unequal your society is. They argued that the more a society is divided into haves and have-nots the less it is inclined collectively to look after everyone and make sure no one is left behind. Also that inequality – between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless – creates a psychological stress that takes its toll on us and that lies at the heart of much violence, and risk-taking behaviour.

Is it any wonder then that as we have become a much more unequal society over the last 30 years, we have also excelled, a kind of gold medallist among nations when it comes to violence against children, rates of mental illness, obesity, teenage pregnancy?

It is worth reflecting on a bit of history. Through the middle years of the 20th century, from the Great Depression to the 1970s, politics and government was shaped by the mission to eliminate the poverty and insecurity that were seen as a breeding ground for all the social ills. The job of government was to create economic security and opportunity.  Government policy here and around the western world focused on full employment, and home ownership, and reducing inequalities through progressive taxation, and strong public education and health systems.

Over the last 30 years we have dismantled much of that architecture. As a result we have become a very unequal society. Half our schools have kids so hungry they cannot learn properly. Diseases of poverty, wiped out by welfare states last century, have returned.

The job of government today seems to be grappling with a long list of social problems: violent crime, alcoholism, smoking, obesity, diabetes, youth suicide, an epidemic of depression, teen pregnancy. We have come full circle. It is like we have un-learned the lessons of the twentieth century. We now have levels of inequality on a par with those of the 1920s and 1930s. Is it any wonder that the social ills have followed?

I am not suggesting the 1950s was some kind of golden age. Nor that every social problem can be reduced to an economic cause. Nor heaven forbid that poverty is any kind of excuse for violent or anti-social behaviour.  But we must recognise that poverty and inequality create an environment that is bad for us as human beings. They bring out the worst in us, they makes us unhealthy, fearful, angry and much less able to overcome the stresses and tensions that fuel violence.

If we don’t recognise that, then we will never be able to really build the foundations for a happier, more prosperous and healthier society.

Social policy will continue to become as it has done under Minister Paula Bennett ever more punitive, with an army of social workers and police and public servants case managing the lives of thousands of citizens branded as dysfunctional.

This is why I believe politics in 2013 must re-focus on economic security and providing the opportunity for people to get ahead and live good decent lives. We must have smart thoughtful social policy aiming at giving people a hand up, helping people through the difficult times in life.

But above all government should return to what was its traditional Kiwi job description: building a society where every child has the best start in life no matter what side of town they live on, or what their parents do for a living. Delivering well-paid secure jobs. Affordable and healthy housing. Good schools. And a commitment to both lifting people out of poverty, and reducing the gap between rich and poor.

These are the things the Government can and should do. We’ve done it before in this country and we can do it again.

Sam Lotu-Iiga – $130k is affordable

Posted by on September 12th, 2013

On TV3’s The Vote, National MP Sam Lotu-Iiga tried to tell New Zealanders that a $130,000 deposit isn’t out of reach for the average first home buyer. What do you think?


Filed under: housing

The tunnel of love

Posted by on June 27th, 2013

Love today’s Emmerson in the Herald.

The Government’s U-turn on the City Rail Link is quite something. It is completely at odd with everything they’ve said on the matter over the last three years.

But as today’s Horizon poll shows, they will need a lot more than a U-turn on the CRL to repair what looks like a pretty sick relationship with Auckland.

Only 18 per cent of Aucklanders rate the government as trustworthy.

While nearly half of the Aucklanders surveyed  rated the Government’s performance on the Central Rail Link as poor in the fortnight before it announced yesterday’s U-turn, even more – 65 per cent – gave its performance on affordable housing the thumbs down. It’s lack of action on traffic congestion rankled with 60 per cent.

The survey results indicate there is clearly something rotten in the Government’s relationship with Auckland. I guess it’s not surprising. Ministers like Gerry Brownlee, Nick Smith and Steven Joyce want to run Auckland from their offices in the Beehive, despite setting up the super city so Aucklanders could speak with one voice.


The Grass and the Elephants

Posted by on June 12th, 2013

Tuifa’asisina Mea’ole Keil gave a submission to the select committee on the Government’s Housing Accords and Special Housing Areas Bill. Mea’ole is the Labour Party’s Pacific Vice President and serves cleaners and caretakers in his day job with the Service and Food Workers Union. Have a listen. I thought what he had to say was a powerful plea on behalf of New Zealand’s forgotten people, and a reminder how important affordable housing, public transport, and a living wage are for them.

Anyway it is not even her real birthday

Posted by on June 2nd, 2013

Can someone remind me again why we are celebrating the Queen’s Birthday this weekend?

I like a good long weekend as much as the next person. But it seems slightly odd (in fact a bit North Korean) that the country has a holiday to celebrate the birthday of the head of state. And very odd that our head of state lives on the other side of the world, and only visits here very occasionally.

Sometimes I realise with a bit of a start that the British Queen is “our” queen, as if waking from a dream that New Zealand was a modern, democratic state with a New Zealander as head of state. It is a shock to realise that hasn’t happened yet.

Parliament will soon be debating the Royal Succession Bill which will end discrimination against female royals but will still mean a New Zealander can never be head of state of New Zealand. It also leaves in place the rule that no Catholic can ever be Monarch. Now if the Brits want to maintain this feudal institution good luck to them, but really, is this what we want for New Zealand in the 21st century?

We’ve had a succession of pretty good Governors General during my adult lifetime. Why we don’t just change the law and make the office of Governor General our new head of state is beyond me.

It wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference to the Maori relationship with the State. The British Crown has never taken any role in negotiations with iwi since 1840. It has always delegated that job to the New Zealand state.  Appointing a New Zealander as head of state wouldn’t necessitate any other constitutional overhaul.  We could even still belong to the Commonwealth if we wanted to.

Conventional wisdom has it that people feel very affectionate about Queen Elizabeth and would not contemplate any change while she is still on the throne. Charles and Camilla as our reigning monarchs, that is maybe a different matter. I say we start debating the idea of a New Zealander as head of state now, so that when Queen Elizabeth’s long reign comes to an end we’ll have a plan and a process worked out.

Anyway, it is not even her real birthday.

National’s war on Auckland

Posted by on May 28th, 2013


Building a better Auckland

Posted by on May 26th, 2013

Speech to Labour Party Auckland-Northland regional conference, Henderson

You’ve seen the image of Michael Joseph Savage carrying the furniture into the first state house at 12 Fife Lane, Miramar in 1937. It’s a big moment. Bob Semple, Walter Nash and John A Lee are all there. The Ministers have their sleeves rolled up. People are smiling. It’s an exciting moment.

The massive programme of state house building was one of the greatest achievements of the First Labour Government. They did it because they knew sub-standard housing lay at the root of so many social problems: illness, and the vulnerability of the poorest people to extortionate rents.

They did it because they were willing to use the power of the state to tackle problems that for decades the political establishment said were intractable, that such things must be left to the market to sort out, that in any case where would the money come from?

It is time once again to roll up our sleeves.

The quality of our housing, the shape of our cities, the lack of public transport, the cost of buying a house…these issues have once again become red hot issues. Labour’s willingness to pick up a hammer and actually build houses; our readiness to build the City Rail Link; these issues will have an impact on next year’s general election.

Third world diseases, associated with overcrowding and sub-standard housing, have come back to haunt New Zealand as poverty and inequality have risen. 900,000 homes have inadequate insulation. We know these diseases affect the children of the poor. The research shows there are too many kids dying unnecessary deaths from diseases like asthma, rheumatic fever, meningococcal disease. We know that most children growing up in poverty live in private rentals. That is a fact.

Which is why our Healthy Homes Guarantee will make it compulsory for rental homes to be properly insulated and have an efficient source of heating. We will amend the Residential Tenancies Act. End of story. National announced they will consider the development of a warrant of fitness they will trial in Housing NZ homes.  They are going to trial this policy in the very houses – Housing NZ homes – that don’t need it. Houses that have all been retrofitted and insulated. But they won’t do a damn thing for the tenants of private rentals where hundreds of thousands of the poorest Kiwi families live in uninsulated damp and cold houses.


National’s war on Auckland: a report from the front

Posted by on May 17th, 2013

I woke today to hear Auckland deputy mayor Penny Hulse declare on Morning Report the housing accord between the Government and Auckland was in danger, and Auckland Council would not ratify the accord until certain matters had been sorted out.

Crikey, it didn’t take long for the centrepiece of the National Government’s Budget to start unravelling.

Was it poor political management? Did Ministers English and Smith really think Auckland Council would not be annoyed by the Goverment sneaking into the Bill extra powers to override the Council in direct contradiction of its agreement announced only a week earlier in a grip and grin session at Hobsonville involving Key, Smith and Brown?

Or was it all about getting a few hairy chested headlines the day after the Budget with the Government getting tough on housing affordability? And tough on Auckland Council as a useful proxy? Bill English told his post-Budget breakfast he wasn’t going to let 20 planners  in the Auckland Council planning department wreck the economy!

In any case, the Government has just bought itself a couple of months of uncertainty and controversy over its flagship housing policy. Auckland Council, with Len Brown’s inexhaustible supply of good will, has shown itself to be remarkably patient and wily when it comes to dealing with the long list of mostly South Island ministers sent to deal with it: Gerry Brownlee, Amy Adams, Nick Smith, and now Bill English. (Except Bill English is from Karori.)

This is a high stakes tactic for the Government. If they provoke Auckland Council enough the Council could walk away from the Accord. The Government would then have to choose between backing off and losing face, or using its new powers to override Auckland Council and impose its own planning rules.

I suspect that would not go down well with Aucklanders who tend to view central government Wellington as a foreign country which should as much as possible be kept at bay.  Imposing martial law on Auckland Council’s urban planning would be unpopular to say the least.

National are already offside with Aucklanders on transport (the most recent Herald poll had support for the City Rail Link at 63%). Gerry Brownlee’s impersonation of a human roadblock has left the city distinctly unamused. Even National’s traditional allies like the Employers and Manufacturers Association, and the Chamber of Commerce, have deserted it on this issue.

Over-riding Auckland Council’s planning laws would be up there with the suspension of Environment Canterbury and Gerry Brownlee’s post-quake wartime powers in the great pantheon of this National Government’s power hungry dealings with local councils.

National clearly thinks local government is a convenient punching bag. And I have no doubt councils around the country are watching this latest stoush with alarm. The housing accords bill sets up a legal framework that allows these powers to be used anywhere in the country.

It will be really interesting to watch how this slow motion punch up plays out. The super city reforms created something new and different. The Auckland Council, representing one-third of the country’s population and bigger than Fonterra and Telecom combined, is not like a council. It is more like an Australian state government.

And with mayoral and council elections in October, a stoush with the National Government may be just what Len Brown needs to guarantee re-election. (Maurice Williamson by the way has gone very quiet on his mayoral plans. I suspect there is an inverse relation between the amount of time the Government spends fighting Auckland Council and Maurice’s poll numbers.)

Given the constitutional supremacy of Parliament, the National Government could bludgeon Auckland Council into  submission if it wanted to. But is that an outcome, with all the likely consequences, National really wants, given that in relatively short time it is going to need the votes of  Aucklanders?

Labour voted for the Bill at first reading for two reasons: the housing affordability crisis demands a response and while it is inadequate, it is at least something.  The accord cherry picks from the draft Unitary Plan. Opening up greenfields land and fast tracking consenting gives no guarantee that any affordable housing will be built.

We also felt that if the Government and Auckland Council spent six weeks hammering out an agreement on this issue then it at least deserved scrutiny at select committee.  If Auckland Council decide not to ratify the accord that is going to make select committee hearings very interesting.

I think I might put up an amendment to the Bill giving Auckland Council the power to override the National Government if it can’t get what it wants and introduce a Capital Gains Tax in Auckland. Excluding the family home of course.

Shane Jones on NZ Power and Labour’s purpose

Posted by on May 9th, 2013


Nicky Hager: Uncomfortable truths, NZ foreign policy in the ‘war on terror’

Posted by on May 4th, 2013

Author and investigative journalist Nicky Hager delivered this year’s Capt Jack Lyon Memorial Lecture. He draws on his book Other People’s Wars, telling the story of New Zealand’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan over the decade of the ‘war on terror’.  As I say in my introduction, I think it is a cautionary tale for any future Labour-led government with a progressive, independent foreign policy. I am proud of the determination shown by Helen Clark and the Fifth Labour Government to keep New Zealand out of the invasion of Iraq. Nicky marshals some persuasive evidence that the military and intelligence establishment saw the ‘war on terror’ as an opportunity to work their way back into close operational engagement with our former ANZUS allies and worked assiduously to make this happen, in a way that at times undermined the Government’s foreign policy position.

Here’s Nicky Hager delivering the fifth Capt Jack Lyon Memorial Lecture.

On behalf of the North Shore committee of the Labour Party thanks to Nicky for adding to the Jack Lyon tradition; and thanks also to all the volunteers who made this year’s event a success: Frances; Michelle, Heather and the kitchen team; Syd for the PA, Kane for recording the speech; as well as Mark, and Danielle at Paradigm for the programme.

So they gave me a tin hat, and they gave me a gun, and they sent me away to the war

Posted by on April 24th, 2013

Every ANZAC Day I have the Pogues singing And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda in my ears.  It’s a melancholic rambling ballad about the young men who left Australia to fight in Gallipoli, written by Eric Bogle but immortalised  by the great Shane MacGowan and the Pogues. It is a classic yarn in the anti-war tradition. When I get up tomorrow morning and pin my poppy on, and head off to the dawn ceremony at Waikumete I’ll be humming along. At the Te Atatu ceremony, and then Henderson service later in the morning, and then back to the local RSA for lunch and a beer, it will be my soundtrack.

ANZAC Day has become such an important fixture. A day when we remember those who gave their lives for their country, and reflect on war and peace, and how both have shaped the country we are today.

The version below is from the Pogues’ 2012 Australian tour. Wish they’d come to New Zealand! Stay with it through the shaky camera at the beginning, it is worth it.

Have a good ANZAC Day everyone.