Tuesday, 29 May 2012

tony blair at the leveson inquiry

i felt really sad about the 3 triplets killed in qatar, in a disaster that was poorly managed, to say the least.  i can't imagine what it must be like for the parents and extended family.  losing one child is terrible, but losing 3 at once - 3 who had to struggle when they were born - well, i don't have words.  i'm glad that the tv news coverage has managed to keep away from the family and their grief. it's been pretty non-intrusive & i hope it stays that way.

in other news, i was watching tony blair answering questions at the leveson inquiry last night.  the only positive thing that could be said about him is that he was very smooth, to the point of being slippery.  i guess he had a fine line to tread - trying to not incriminate himself, while railing against the inordinate power of the media and the fact that the current government should do something about it.

in effect, all of his explanations simply give david cameron an out.  everything that is true for blair is true for cameron.  he claims that he never changed a policy position for mr murdoch, which is possibly true.  it's likely that he didn't form a position on certain matters until he knew what would be palatable.  or more likely, he could figure out for himself easily enough what the palatable policies would have been, and took those positions early on.

he talked about "managing the press", which is a euphemism if ever i saw one.  but he looks pretty secure in his position that corruption can't be proven.  he was clear in pointing out the current relationship between press leadership and politicians as problematic, but not really too forthcoming as to solutions.  the most concrete thing i heard was strengthening their version of the press council.

to be fair, it's difficult to figure out how to improve the situation.  how to produce a media sector that holds politicians to account, scrutinises and where necessary critcises their spin, presents the various arguments around policy initiatives.  but also a sector that doesn't give so much power to the individuals that head media organisations that they can begin to dictate policy or positions, or that they can start playing favourites in return for concessions.

controls on media ownership seem to be a pretty reasonable way to go - breaking monopolies that are generally unhealthy in any industry but particularly so for the media.  public funding without strings attached would be helpful too, but how to ensure those strings are cut?  we've had the instance here of mr key's electorate chair being on the board of nz on air, and behaving badly in that role.  we have the national-led government appointing cronies to the board of radio nz.  more transparency in securing these appointments would have been really helpful.

if you haven't read it yet, this piece in the herald by bryan gould is worth a look:

Does any of this matter to us, in New Zealand? Yes, it does

The power that Murdoch has, whether real or perceived, means one man, with extreme views that would be rejected by all but a tiny minority, is able to shape the international political debate behind the scenes, and dictate terms to elected governments, whatever the views of the voters themselves....

The real threat of Rupert Murdoch, in other words, is not just to the decent standards we should expect from our media. It is to the very substance of our democracy. 

i happened to be watching during the bit when the protestor invaded the room & starting yelling about mr blair being a war criminal.  the minute he started, everyone including mr blair, knew the protestor would be leading the news on the inquiry across all media.  the conspiracy theorist in me thinks mr blair must have organised this protest, as a way to deflect attention. but i have to say that his comment was spot on about how, if there were a thousand people in a room & 1 started making a lot of noise, then the other 999 may as well not have been present.  the media would pay attention only to that 1 person, and this was at the heart of the problem.

with so many hours taken up by this hearing, and many more hours yet to go, we can only hope that there will be some serious reform that comes out of it.  unfortunately it's hard to be hopeful.  any change is in the hands of politicians who need the support of media.  regardless of the level of public outrage, i can't see the current lot of politicians standing up and taking them on.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

RIP michael robyns

i went to a funeral today.  funerals are a difficult affair, regardless of how well you know the person who died.  not only do you struggle with your own grief, but it always difficult to watch close family members and friends deal with their loss.

the person whose funeral i attended today was owen richard michael robyns, known to us as micheal robyns.  i knew him from our involvement in the labour party, and michael was active in the taupo electorate for over 40 years.  i'd meet him several times a year, at regional meetings.  i've never known michael to miss a regional meeting or event.

he was a lovely person, polite but very witty; sharply intelligent and a stickler for detail and due process.  he brought so much to our meetings - a critical analysis, good will, an ability to get things done.  he was one of those people who worked in the background - he never sought political power or position. he was happy to work tirelessly for a cause, without anything in return, simply because he believed in social justice and a caring government that looks after the best interests of its people.

as i sat in the funeral, i thought about how sad it was that i knew so little about this man outside of his involvement in the labour party.  i can say that i knew about his character, but i can't say that i knew about his life.  this is for several reasons.  mostly because i go to so many meetings, and with the range of commitments and responsibilities i have, i tend to go in, get through the business and get out as soon as i can.  i don't often have the luxury to stop and chat.

and even when i do, i'm just not the sort of person who asks personal questions.  perhaps because i tend to be a private person myself, i tend to respect other people's privacy.  maybe to a fault.  i never asked michael if he had children, and how many.  i never knew what he did as a profession.  i wasn't aware of his ethnicity or the fact that he wasn't born in nz.  these are things i only learn about people when they volunteer that information - i certainly don't tend to ask because i class these things as none of my business.

so today i realised that i only new one dimension of him and his life.  today i heard from his four children and his wife, as well as from his grandchildren and friends.  i learnt about his work as a teacher of english at tokoroa high school, and the way he had inspired so many of his students.  i learnt that he was born in wales, and was very proud of his welsh heritage.  it was if i only knew him as a flat sheet of paper, and all this information rounded him out into a 3-dimensional figure.

i wish i'd taken the time to get to know that figure when he was alive.  but we just don't have the time to get to know everyone we meet in that way.  i really, really wish i'd let him know how much i'd respected him and the contribution he made; how much he and people like him have inspired me, particularly in the way that he never needed credit or adulation for all the work that he did.  he didn't need it, but today he got it in spades.  and i can only hope he knew how much he was valued when he was alive.  i should have played a part in ensuring that happened, but i didn't.  that was my mistake.

michael was 80 years old when he died unexpectedly.  a life full of quiet achievements; a life full of love, caring and connections.  rest in peace michael.  you will be sorely missed.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

family friendly policy? i don't think so.

so the government has some policy changes for immigration, all designed to make it harder for migrants who don't have a bucket-load of money.  because in their world, the only way to measure the worth of people, and to measure their contribution to society, is through money.

it doesn't matter that extended family provide support and stability for all members within it.  it doesn't matter that an older generation contribute with their experience, the strength of their cultural heritage, and the large amounts of love and joy they bring with them. these things can't be easily quantified and measured, and so they are ignored.  but if we took the time to quantify and measure them, we'd no doubt find that grandchildren and even their parents were better off in the long term by being in regular and close contact with each other.  not always, and not in every case, but in a whole lot of cases.

and it's not like people with money don't bring their own brand of problems to the country.  kim dotcom, anyone?  i'm sure there are plenty more examples of people who bring money but don't contribute quite so much as we think they do.  it all depends on how exactly we measure the contribution.

the discourse around migrants in this country is so focused on what they take that we forget about what they give.  our country would be a whole lot worse off without migrants, and most of us know it.  with the record numbers of people leaving the country, if we didn't have the numbers to replace them, the economy would be going into a downward spiral, we wouldn't have the people to pay taxes that support the system.

but more than that, migrants are often working in some of the lowest paid jobs, with the worst conditions. they are particularly vulnerable, because without the permanent residence stamp on their visas, they are under the constant threat of being sent out of the country.  this serves as a huge silencing mechanism and reduces access to justice.

if there was adequate research on the topic, i'm sure we'd also find that migrants get paid less for doing the same work that nz citizens do (in much the same way that women get paid less to do the same work that men do).  it's one of the reasons that unions often have concerns about migrant workers - the danger that they will push down wages and conditions for the rest of the population.  in effect it's exploitation.  we are exploiting migrant workers, gaining the benefit of their labour while not having to pay a decent wage for it.  which means that in many cases, we are the ones who take and they are the ones who give.

given that most migrants in lower paying jobs are people of colour from asia and the pacific, i can't help but think that these latest policy changes are another way to keep nz white.  without the family category, the only way people will be able to migrate is if they have a job offer.  and our employers are notorious for discrimination - CVs of people with non-european sounding names are routinely thrown away.  their qualifications and previous work experience aren't recognised.  difficult accents from european countries are acceptable, but difficult accents from other parts of the world are not.

this is a classic example of institutional racism, dressed up in an economic argument that is equally invalid.

Monday, 21 May 2012

thinking beyond yourself

well, i didn't get much of a break this weekend either. this was because i was busy shifting offices at work. the lease at our previous place wasn't renewed, so we were forced to shift. well, i've been walking into the same office for almost 12 years now, which shows just how much of a stay-put kind of person i am. and now i'm in a new space that is smaller, and that doesn't have a view of some beautiful old oak trees.  i know it will only take a few days to readjust to the new environment. at least everything is shiny and new. but i'm certainly not liking the unisex toilets. it's just too weird.

one of the other things i did in the weekend is spend an hour at the labour party stand at the women's expo. we were talking to women about extended paid parental leave, and there was a whole lot of support for that, both from women and men. there were quite a few men attending, and not always tagging along with the women.

there were those who are philosophically opposed to it - they don't believe breastfeeding is better, they don't think parents need more time to bond with their babies, and they don't think taxpayers should be paying. i can respect those positions, even though i totally disagree with them. i'm one of those who think it takes a village to raise a child, that we are all responsible for building a strong community and we all have to pitch in, and that a new baby is stressful - especially for those that don't have extended family or a good network of friends to support them.

the people i couldn't understand though, are those who said "oh it doesn't apply to me, i'm not going to have any more children". that really annoyed me. it's exactly the kind of thinking that the individualistic nature of our society seems to foster. just because a thing doesn't apply to you personally doesn't mean you shouldn't bother to think about it, or to think about how life can be imroved for others. it's related to the "i coped just fine" mentality, which fails to take into account the fact that other people might not cope as well, that society has probably changed a bit from the time when you had to cope.

what happened to the notion of supporting something because it will make life easier for other people, even if you personally get no benefit from it? is that such an alien concept now? it makes me sad to think so, because it speaks to an increasing lack of empathy and compassion. things that the world is in pretty short supply of at the moment. then there was the woman who wouldn't support it because she was an employer. even though it would mean no further cost to her - the payments come from the government. and if you have to hire a replacement for 3 months, it's really not going to cost any more to keep the replacement on for 6 months. still, the good thing was that most people do support the bill, and are angry that the government is going to veto it.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

the strategy aint working

so i had another weekend that wasn't too much of a break.  it involved driving down to palmerston north, where i got to stay with the wonderful deborah & her family.  i can confirm that her daughters are indeed as clever & sweet as they appear to be from reading her blog.  it was a lovely evening & a restful night, which i was definitely in need of.

there's so much nasty stuff coming out from the government of late, it's hard to know where to start.  i wonder if their strategy was to distract us from the whole john banks saga by overwhelming us with anger and despair.  there's:
... the scrapping of post-graduate student allowances will have an impact on those studying medicine, dentistry and veterinary medicine, besides the arts and commerce students singled out by Joyce

Given the country's GP shortage, that seemed an inexplicable move. According to Green Party MP Holly Walker, the change will be sending an overall signal that only the wealthy can expect to afford to pursue any form of post- graduate studies in future

The Government has said it will be using the upcoming Budget to shift funding to favour degrees in science, technology, engineering and maths, and the Tertiary Education Commission has also called on tertiary institutions to increase the number of graduates in those fields.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence of a need for more graduates in those fields - let alone of jobs being available, once graduates have completed their studies.
The removal of the duty to conclude collective bargaining will be seen as the ‘Port of Auckland clause’ because the Government knows that the port wanted to abandon collective bargaining and instead contract out.

“And removing the 30 day protection for new workers when they start a job in a workplace with a collective agreement is heartless,” she said. “It is making vulnerable workers even more vulnerable.”

“The deductions from workers’ pay for partial strike action is another attack on the rights of workers. It is designed to force workers either into a full strike or to abandon any action. It is punitive and one-sided when the major industrial relations problems we face are extensive lockouts.”

and see also this post at the standard re work-to-rule.
  • the proposed increase in prescription charges, which are really going to hit the poor and elderly hard.  typically, they've set this up to divide one group of society against another, with the money earmarked for cancer victims. 

about the only bit of good news lately is the court case that has gone in favour of caregivers, with the court deciding that family members caring for a disabled person shouldn't be discriminated against.  of course, the ministry of health is still considering whether they will appeal this decision, and the minister of health is busy scaremongering.

it appears one of his tactics has been to claim that caregivers will give up any paid employment they currently undertake, if they get paid to be full-time carers.  that doesn't make any sense, because if those family members are in paid employment, then someone else is already being paid to look after the disabled family member.  the cost to the government won't change.

it's appalling that this group has had to fight so long and through so many stages to get this victory.  with no certainty that the fight is over.  this is one area where the last labour government failed - i can't imagine why they didn't just accept the human rights tribunal decision and budget for payouts.  compared with many other policies, it isn't a huge cost.  i heard an estimate of around $35 million.  it's something that society should be happy to pay for, supporting families who are doing a difficult job.

there's some useful background information on the whole issue here.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

out waving signs again

today i attended the launch of the referendum on asset sales in hamilton.  it was outside the mighty river power building on peachgrove rd.  despite the weather, there was a good turnout - and the rain was kind enough to stop for the hour i was out there. there was plenty of support from passing cars as well.  i'm thinking it won't be too difficult to collect 350,000 signatures.

also, via blue milk, i thought this video was well worth sharing:

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

more on money and politics

yesterday i wrote a post at the hand mirror about kim dotcom, and the effects of a lack of transparency on the stability of our political system.

today, i want to continue talking about money and politics.  this was the front page story in the waikato times today:

A Hamilton businessman is bankrolling a campaign to bring down the city council.

Ray Stark, executive chairman and sole shareholder of interactive messaging company Talkingtech, which has operations in London, New York, Los Angeles and around the world, has confirmed he is "Concerned Citizen".

as with mr banks, i wouldn't be sad to see the last of many of these city councillors.  i think they made appalling decisions regarding the v8, and i wrote a few posts around november last year about their lack of due diligence and the allegedly criminal behaviour of michael redman.

what makes matters worse is that these self-same councillors, who basically abdicated their responsibilities, then made the decision not to pursue a court case against mr redman.  i don't know how that is even allowed: that very interested parties can have the power to make a decision like this.  they claimed it was because of the cost, but the imminent danger of their own actions coming into the public arena in a way that would be extremely detrimental to themselves must surely have played a part in that decision?  it's a huge conflict of interest, and a decision they should not have been allowed to make.  only two councillors were against the decision not to proceed with a case, one of those being martin gallagher.

so yes, i think they've done an extremely poor job.  they've made decisions that have put the city into significant debt for very little or no gain.  they've spent on capital projects and now want to cut important services to pay for that, regardless of the fact that people in the city did not support said projects.

but even so, i find it deeply concerning that a citizen who obviously has money to spare, is able to influence the election of city councillors in this way.  we are not talking about free speech here.  we are talking about paid speech - paid advertising - which the majority of citizens in this city simply can not afford.  most of us couldn't possibly go around putting up billboards across the city, and it appears that mr stark is planning to do this in other cities as well.

while it looks like he is on the side of the people against a hugely unpopular council, there is the underlying question of which councillors he will be supporting.  if they are councillors that support big businesses at the expense of the rest of the people in this city, then that is just wrong.  but even if that's not the case, he shouldn't have the ability to influence the outcomes of elections in this way.

if he restricted his campaign to his website (although these too can cost quite a bit of money, depending on how technical they are), and to social media, or to drumming up a group of volunteers who waved signs at street corners, then i would probably support that campaign.  i might even volunteer to wave the signs.  but paid advertising is another matter altogether, and i don't think it's right that one individual with a lot of money should be able to have this kind of influence.

if he believes in his cause, let him build a popular movement, engage in debate, and try to win hearts and minds with the power of his argument.  as i've noted above, there are quite a few good ones he can use.

Monday, 7 May 2012

reflections on the french elections

so.  nicolas sarkozy.

if i were in france, i'd be down a the the place de la bastille, cheering with all the others.  probably not so much for the victory of mr hollande, but for the fact that mr sarkozy is no longer in a position to peddle the hate that he has continuously done during his term in office.

about mr hollande i have yet to form an opinion.  i doubt, like mr obama, that he will be awarded a nobel peace prize simply for the act of winning an election.  although he should be getting some kind of award for the act of ousting sarkozy.  but whether or not this is a real victory for the people will depend entirely on his ability to make meaningful change.

the danger is that he is bound by policies entrenched by mr sarkozy.  or that the financial institutions and big businesses have too much of a hold on the french economy for anything revolutionary to happen.  that he will oppose austerity measures is good to hear, but how will it work in practice?  i haven't been following him closely, i don't know the details of his policies or whether he published a balanced budget before the election to show how he was going to make it all work.

but we live in hope.  the people of iceland had the courage to face down the international banking system and they won.  but they are a very small country, and the stakes weren't so high for the international banking people.  france is another matter altogether, and the flow-on effects for the whole european economy make it an even more important fight for the financial system to win.  until now there have been mass protests in spain, in greece and elsewhere across europe.  there were riots in britain, as well as the occupy movement.  none yet have managed to make any meaningful change.

the elections in greece, from what i've read, haven't given any clear results.  so mr hollande is it.  he is the great hope for all of europe.  and if he succeeds in making meaningful change, in disestablishing the establishment, then the impact will be felt around the world.

meaningful change isn't only needed in the economic sphere.  i also wonder whether mr hollande will have the courage to reverse some of the nastier laws brought in by mr sarkozy.  will french school girls be allowed to cover their hair in public?  will we continue to see scenes like this:

i think that if he chooses to overturn these laws, it will show that he really does have a new and better vision for france - one that will benefit all the citizens of that country.  it will be a signal of his courage and commitment to making france a better country.

but even if he fails to do that, i have a strong sense of hope that the nastiness that regularly came out of sarkozy's mouth will not be heard from the new president.  and even that is a positive thing.  who knows, i may even feel the urge to visit france again.

having studied french language & culture all through high school and up to second-year university, having won several alliance francaise prizes for my french speaking ability, having visited france in 1998, and having a decades-long dream of spending a couple of months in paris, it really hurt me to see the restrictions placed on muslim women.  how could i, a woman who wears a headscarf when she leaves her home, feel in any way comfortable in a country where young women weren't free to do the same?

here's hoping for change.


as i mentioned some time back, i decided i wanted to read more fiction from writers who were western and/or non-european.  so i have been doing that, though i haven't always managed to find books that i've really enjoyed.

going through my bookshelves, i found a couple of books that i hadn't read for years, though when i started the first one, i suspect that i never read it all.  i could only remember the first chapter, and i'm sure if i had read the whole thing, i would have remembered it.  it's called "the judgement day archives", and written by russian author igor yefimov (though he was writing as andrei moscovit when it was published).  once i'd finished reading that, i immediately started a book called "country of the heart" by american writer kay nolte smith, and i don't think i'd read that one before either.

these were both cancelled library books, though i have no recollection of when i might have purchased them.  but it was entirely coincidental (in that i hadn't known this was the case when i chose to read them) that both books dealt with russian defection to the west.  i tend not to read jacket covers or the back cover of a book before i start on it.  this is because they usually don't describe the story well, or they ruin the element of surprise which many plots depend upon.  i likely to know nothing about the story when i start reading it.

so, i read two books with basically the same theme and published very close in time to each other.  the first was published in 1982 (though not translated into english until 1988), and the second was published in 1984.  so both were written when the cold war was on, when we westerners were supposed to hate russia and communism, because their ideology was evil and the regime repressive.

i well remember my later teenage years, and the angst we had over the nuclear stockpile, especially in the context of the cold war.  i never really did believe that russians were evil, though i wasn't a fan of their politics.  but then i wasn't a fan of american politics either, and i felt that both systems were failing people in different ways.  these were the days before the neo-liberal ideology had gained access to political power, so capitalism wasn't (or at least didn't seem to be) quite as harsh as it is now.  income inequality, especially in nz, was certainly a lot less pronouced.

what i find interesting is the difference in a russian person writing a russian story, as opposed to an american writing a russian story.  the latter book, which i'll call CH, never actually takes us to russia - the furthest we get from america is to finland.  the other book, which i'll call JDA, starts in russia, but also includes france, italy and of course, america.

while both books have plenty of political stuff in them - either through thought or dialogue - the second just feels so totally inauthentic that it drove me crazy.  as i wrote this post, i find that ms smith was friends with ayn rand, and was influenced by her philosophy.  which explains a whole lot.  the arguments presented by her were so facile, and infuriating really.  i guess hindsight is colouring my judgement, but i strongly suspect that i would have felt the same had i read this novel when i was 18.  i sat there reading the dialogues and thinking "there is no way people would say that".  the whole book is filled with the opposition of "individualism" versus the "kollectiv" - and yes, she really does use that term, a lot.

mr yefimov's novel is just as much against the soviet political system, and yet it's so much more intelligently written.  the experiences of his characters bring out more issues than the actual dialogues they face.  both books deal with political repression and the inability to speak freely, to publish freely.  i guess it helps that mr yemifov is himself a defector, so he is able to write more authentically about these issues.

on the other hand, mr yefimov's central character is a woman, and i don't know that he can quite capture womanhood and the way women characters would behave, think and act.  his is definitely the more powerful story, and he writes from the point of view of quite a number of different characters in the book, all of them male points of view, except for this one, central character.

it made me wonder whether or not writers should attempt to write about a culture or experience that they haven't directly lived in or through.  i guess there are examples of works that are researched well, and the author is able to bring an authentic voice to the story, even when it's essentially about a foreign culture.  but i expect it would be really hard to do, especially to do it well.

all books have a variety of characters, and a single person can't have experienced the lives of each of them.  but i think the central character and the setting of the novel do need to be something that the author has some lived experience around.  otherwise the book doesn't work.  this is where authors of fantasy fiction have an advantage - they create the setting and so it is something only they can know about.  and there is no "authentic" way for a character in that setting to behave.

i've also managed to finally finish reading "under the tuscan sun", which i started some time last year.  it's just not the book for me.  i think i didn't enjoy it because i was waiting for something to happen - something dramatic, a climax if you will.  but it never really did, and the book was more about experiencing another culture, in a much quieter way.  it doesn't help that i'm not too interested in cooking, and so the descriptions of food, the plump ripe pears and the 5 types of plums, really didn't move me too much.  i skipped over most of the recipes, and there are a lot of them.  since food was one of the key themes of the book, that really meant i wasn't getting as much out of it as i could.

also, because i live in a community that has such a variety of cultures which i'm continuously learning about, the whole notion of a reasonably wealthy woman of european heritage learning about a culture that is part of europe didn't move me too much either.  i may have been more enthusiastic if she had written about a place that was totally different from what she knew, but then in her mind it was.  just not so much for me.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

resting up

i haven't been posting here because i've been posting over at the hand mirror, and here is a roundup of the latest posts:  one on barriers to seeking justice for survivors of sexual abuse and violence, another on a trip i made to a resthome in auckland, one basically linking to other people's excellent writing, one remembering workers who have died because of inadequate health & safety measures at work, one on the reactions to a controversial piece by mona elhatawny, and finally, one on my negative reaction to a piece of advertising that appears to be extremely popular around the world.

i've been on anti-biotics for over a week now, trying to cure various infections that seem to have built up and which i can't seem to overcome.  i don't know that the medicine is working too well, which is a little depressing.  when anti-biotics are a failure, i hate to think what the next step is supposed to be.  but i'm spending this weekend trying to just rest and not do too much.  especially when i've got two very busy weekends coming up.  but more about that later.

i was directed to this moving talk by nobel laureate leymah gbowee from liberia, and it's really worth listening to:

the most important thing she said was at the end: that it doesn't take much to help these young girls to make their dreams a reality, and to improve their lives.  it just takes peoplel in their country and their community to care.  and as she says, there are girls in america & certainly in nz, who have dreams but lack opportunity.  sometimes all they really need are role-models, and as she says, the space to talk about their dreams.

there's this piece, probably only interesting to bruce springsteen fans, about 5 leadership tips somebody got from attending one of his concerts.  i thought it was cute.

and finally, talleys show once again why they're probably the worst employers in nz:

The Labour Department said on Monday that Talley's had a "long-running disregard for health and safety", with six incidents in the past 18 months of workers amputating fingers while using bandsaws to cut up carcasses.

Yesterday, Silver Fern Farms, which operates 22 plants, and the Alliance Group with nine plants, reported that each had recorded three workers cutting off fingers during the same period. 

i seriously don't know why this family has been allowed to control so much of nz's agricultural sector.  surely, like the crafars, there should be a mechanism by which to say they are simply unfit to be employers.