Monday, March 29, 2010

Sustainable mining? LMAO!

I can't help wondering whether the Government and the mining industry are using the same PR company, after hearing their chorus about the need to 'balance the ledger'. To be fair, perhaps Gerry Brownlee is just borrowing the industry's lines, as he did its inflated accounts of how much money is to be made digging up our national parks.

It wouldn't be surprising though. National has now admitted that it “may” have told the mining industry that it was interested in opening up mining in NZ a good two years before the 2008 election, and almost four years before it told the rest of us. Having read in Nicky Hager's well documented book 'The Hollow Men' about the cynical manipulation of the public by the National Party (including 'faulty memory' about its collusion with the Exclusive Brethren) in the run up to the 2005 election, you'd have to forgive me for seeing a pattern here. In particular because while Don Brash fell on his sword, other characters implicated in the book, including John Key and Steven Joyce, remain in place.

For all his relaxed approach to the facts, though, I haven't yet heard Mr Brownlee try to repeat the assertion made by Doug Gordon, the head of the Mining Industries Association, that mining is a sustainable industry. I had to laugh really. Mining is the epitome of unsustainable. Regardless of how sensitively you do it, mining consists of digging up non-renewable resources. It doesn't take a PhD in maths to realise that this means it has a limited future.

That is not to say that mining could not be part of a sustainability plan, if we ever elected a Government with the wit to develop one. Unfortunately both National and Labour's grasp of the concept of sustainability seem to be as shallow as Mr Gordon's. They all seem to think that sustainability is no more than a marketing brand.

There are two main approaches to sustainability – what are called 'weak' and 'strong' sustainability. A weak sustainability approach recognises the existence of different kinds of capital – manufactured, social, natural etc - and says that to be sustainable the totality of capital needs to be preserved. Under this perspective logging old growth forests will sustainable if we invest the scarcity rent into other forms of capital development, such as knowledge. Rod Oram makes an interesting case for a variation of this approach in relation to the current mining debate.

An ecological approach says that you cannot substitute natural capital with other kinds of capital. The total sum of natural capital must be maintained seperately. In addition some specific ecosystems are so important that they must be preserved. Herman Daly operationalised this by saying that to be sustainable we need to ensure that:

1/ We do not harvest renewable resources at a faster rate than they can regenerate
2/ We do not pollute beyond the capacity of the receiving ecosystem to assimilate the pollution
3/ We do not use non-renewable resources faster than we develop renewable alternatives

Self evident, I would have thought. Yet the thinking that is driving the government, including in the current debate around mining, fails to address these issues at all. It seems to come down to a desperate search for money to flush through the system. Yes, we do need to balance our national accounts, but to dig up our mineral wealth and use it to fund our current profligate lifestyles is both stupid and immoral. It is akin to inheriting a beautiful house and dismantling parts of it to flog off the timber to pay for dining out and fast cars.

When it comes to the need to balance the ledger, the most critical account to balance is the environmental one. We are living way beyond our means. The discussion around mining might not be so depressing if it was part of a plan to generate capital to move this country towards sustainability. It could have been part of a comprehensive rethink that included the recent tax review, the massive infrastructural investments in transport, the RMA changes, local government changes... these now wasted opportunities might all have been elements of a strategic plan to prepare New Zealand for the carbon constrained, low energy future facing the world this century. Instead it looks like the government intends us to dig up some of the most beautiful places in the world, consume the proceeds and flush the end product down the loo.

(from my TV3 blog)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Activism and democracy

When Pita Sharples questioned whether 'one person, one vote' is the most important democratic principle he was challenging one of the sacred cows of modern western society: that procedural 'fairness' produces the fairest results. It's no surprise that he was met with indignation.

For indigenous people who are a minority in their own land it is a relevant question to ask. How can they have any real power in a system that embodies, and is dominated by, the settler majority? It is no coincidence that in places like colonial New Zealand votes were originally reserved for land owning men. This disenfranchised Maori, who tended to own lands in common, and women. It was only after Maori had become a minority in their own country that private ownership of land was removed as a voting prerequisite and the 'democratic mandate' became a trump card.

What we have in this country, representative majoritarianism, is only one form of democracy and not necessarily the best. Every three years we elect a bunch of people to represent the interests of the Queen (when taking my seat in Parliament I tried to swear allegiance “to the people of New Zealand and Te Tiriti o Waitangi” but I was not permitted to do so). Governments claim a mandate for anything that was in their election manifestos, regardless that their voters don't necessarily support or even know about all their policies. They often claim a mandate for things they never mentioned before the election and getting a majority of votes in the House is their only constraint. They are, in effect, an elected dictatorship.

Which is one of the reasons I support an enforceable constitution that embodies Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the New Zealand Bill of Rights. In addition, I think it is time we started to talk in this country about a Bill of Environmental Rights. It is now clear that the Government, beholden as it is to big business interests, is incapable of dealing with the ecological crisis that we face.

The publication of the most recent results from the Clean Streams Accord show that dairy farmers' compliance with their effluent discharge consents is declining. Serious noncompliance is growing. That is without even talking about the massive unregulated effects on our rivers of increased cow urine on fields.

Fonterra has threatened, once again, to come down hard on non-complying farmers but the action has yet to match the rhetoric. They are putting in $1 million into a pilot monitoring campaign in the Waikato. This is small cheese compared to their $16 billion in revenue last year, or the $542 million of pretax profit they made. The Government has made disapproving noises about the Accord results but the Government has yet to do anything substantial to address the killing of our waterways. No surprises there.

As in the past New Zealanders may have to turn to direct action if they wish to protect ecological integrity. The Government's suggestion that it may open up conservation land to mining has brought that sharply home. Most New Zealanders, it would seem, do not support the environmental vandalism this is sure to entail, despite all the soothing words about 'surgical mining'. If the Government is foolish enough to push ahead with its plans, it may find opposition takes an extra-legal as well as legal form. It may prove to be a costly excersie for any company that decides to get involved.

Which makes the recent acquittal of the Waihopai Three all the more cheering. Their defence of 'claim of right' may not succeed for someone prosecuted for disabling a digger to protect a native forest, but the case proved something more important than that, IMO. It showed that 12 ordinary New Zealanders, unlike some media commentators, could decide a case based on more than the appearance of the defendants' beards. And that given all the facts 12 ordinary New Zealanders could decide that damaging Defence Department property was less of a crime than what that property is doing to the people in Iraq and elsewhere. For that I salute Adrian Leason, Peter Murnane, Sam Land and the jury that acquitted them.

(from my TV3 website blog 22 March 2010)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Brian Tamaki

Why is everyone so down on Brian Tamaki? Ok, so he has EFT-POS machines in his churches. He tithes church members ten percent of their income and lives the high life on the backs of the poor. He demands unquestioning obedience. In the context of Christianity, none of that seems unusual. The role of shepherds, after all, is to deliver sheep to slaughter.

This is not to condone ecclesiastical greed, but I watched a live interview with him on Close Up recently and found it hard to understand why he was there. Mr Tamaki was as slick as ever, and quickly took control of the show. Richard Lewis looked as if he had been brought in to heavy the host if the questions got difficult, which unfortunately they never did. Mike Hoskins had the appearance and energy of Hugh Grant after a long night with Devine Brown.

He was on the show to discuss the walk-out of the pastor and most of the congregation in an Australian branch office of the church. It seemed a good excuse to question the self-appointed bishop about Destiny Church more broadly, but after watching it I decided that Mr Tamaki must have offered the interview to Close Up to avoid a more searching cross-examination elsewhere.

Still, we heard some interesting things. Destiny has EFT-POS in the church foyer because it is convenient for the congregation. Many churches do it. No one carries cash anymore. The congregation, he said, asked for the machines to be installed. I'm sure that is the truth, yet listening to the interview I couldn't help thinking about the money changers in the temple in Jerusalem. They were providing a needed service, changing the profane coins of the empire for the shekels that would be acceptable for offerings in the temple of the Lord. Money changers were a convenience for worshippers. None of that prevented Yesus from overturning their tables, driving them out with whips and cursing them for turning the Father's house into a den of thieves.

Tithing is an even more ancient practise than banking services in church. Paraphrasing the prophet Malachi, Mr Tamaki even accused Hoskins of robbing God by not paying tithes. This is a characteristically out-of-context reading of the Bible, as is tithing itself. The tribe of Levi received tithes, and passed on ten percent to the priests, because they could not own land in ancient Israel. The tithe was ten percent of everyone elses increase – produce, food stuffs. It was not intended to be used to buy flash mansions. In addition, people at that time did not already pay more than a third of their income in tax, some of which is used for similar purposes to the tithe.

As for the issue of swearing blind obediance, we need look no further than Rome for a comparison.

I've found the best way to understand the Bible is to read it cover to cover. Like the other reactionary churches, the teachings of Destiny seem to be based on a highly selective reading of it.
They make much of things, like homosexuality, that are rarely (and some argue never) mentioned in the Bible while seeming to ignore its major preoccupations, such as paying workers fairly, not being greedy, doing justice for the poor and not charging interest on money. As Yesus said, woe to them who strain at a gnat and swallow a camel, hooves and all.

None of this explains why Destiny Church is under attack for things common to so many churches. In fact it might be argued that the only reason the established churches don't still tithe is because they have already gathered vast wealth, invested it in land and share portfolios and do well enough out of the usury thereof, thank you very much. To my mind the reason is because Mr Tamaki doesn't just want your money, he wants your country as well. He has been remarkably frank about his lust for political power. He is said to have claimed to be the returned King David and to be building an army. He may find that is one blasphemy too far.

(from my Waikato Times column 19 March 2010)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Why copy Australia?

One of the great mysteries of New Zealand politics is why our Governments always strive to be more like Australia. If the rest of us wanted to live in Australia, we'd move there.

To be fair they only mean economically speaking. Growth rates, wages rates, that sort of thing. The abstract measurements that sound impressive, but tell us nothing about what is important. Despite economists' attempts to reduce every value to a dollar amount, GDP - the sum of monetary transactions - cannot describe our psychological, social, cultural or ecological well-being. Neither do growth rates tell us about the levels of police corruption, intransigent judicial racism or mindless jingoism in a country.

We know that economic growth stopped adding to human happiness from about the 1960's, in the West, which makes the political obsession with it hard to fathom. But more importantly economic growth now seems to be making us less well off, overall. It's like spending the pension savings on fags and booze – the faster we do it, the worse off we are. So I wasn't trying to be clever when pointing out some of Australia's less savoury characteristics. Increasing New Zealand's economic growth will inevitably lead to a lower standard of living, in my opinion. Some of us will have more money and more stuff, but all of us will lose something of greater value.

Where would economic growth come from? The Government has floated the idea of digging up areas of high value conservation estate in order to flog off the minerals underneath. Right now, in Happy Valley on the West Coast, a rare ecosystem that is home to a number of rare or endangered species, is being pillaged to dig up coal to sell off-shore. Burning it will increase greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, leaving an ecological debt to our descendants, while the coal is expected to last around a decade. Ten years on, the coal will be gone, the money will be gone and we will have lost something far more precious, forever. The Government proposes more of that.

We can increase dairy output. This goes hand in hand with the killing of our streams and rivers, from taking more water for irrigation and increased run-off, even with best practise farming methods. It drives the consolidation of land ownership and the corporatisation of farming, with young farmers less and less able to afford to buy their own farm. Rural communities are being altered forever by the resulting transient workforce and lower population density.

Corporatisation and environmental destruction are not inevitable processes. They are the outcome of political decisions. What New Zealand, and the world, needs is not more growth, but a move to a steady state economy. There is already enough for everyone, but we are finding it hard to shake the idea that “bigger is always better”. Working out how to live within our ecological means is a much more worthy goal than copying our cousins over the ditch.

(from my TV3 website column

Monday, March 1, 2010

What is Simon Power up to?

I know this sounds like I'm trying to undermine him, but I have to confess to liking Justice Minister Simon Power. We entered Parliament together and I found him to be a bright, energetic and basically decent chap. Some of his recent decisions, however, bear out my opinion on the brain haemorraging effects of too many years in Parliament

The first is the decision to close Te Hurihanga here in Hamilton. Most people, even the Garth McVicar's of the world, agree that the real answer to reducing crime is early and intensive intervention. Putting serious resources into steering young offenders off the path to a criminal career makes sense in every way. It costs less than locking them in prison for years later on. It costs less than the economic damage their crimes will cause. Most importantly, it prevents innocent people from becoming their victims. It is, as they say, a no-brainer.

Te Hurihanga is a pilot residential facility for young troublemakers. The idea began with a youth court judge, Carolyn Henwood, who was concerned about the lack of facilities for serious young offenders. It is based on extensive research from around the world about what kinds of things do, and don't, work. It was supported by the late Maori Queen, Te Atairangikaahu, and incorporates a strong bicultural ethos. It has some important business support. It's reoffending rate so far (although it is early days) is zero. It has rightly been described as world leading.

So why would you close it down? I know the heat is on government ministers to find ways to cut budgets, but this seems like the epitomy of false economy. Actually the Minister may get a surprise when he finds out what he is actually going to save from the closure. He has been saying publicly that it costs around $630,000 per graduate. He worked that out by adding up all the capital and operating costs to date (including construction) and dividing it by the 8 graduates so far. I'm not an accountant, but even I can see the numbers are dodgy.

What will happen to the 10 or so young people currently coming through the programme? What will happen to the expertise built up over the development of the pilot? How much will it cost to develop a new programme on the same site under the 'Fresh Start' brand? No one can say because, judging by the poor officials that had to front up to the staff and public at Te Hurihanga, they don't know what it will be replaced with.

I was feeling a bit sorry for old Simon after all this. I figured that he has not been getting enough sleep and is beginning to make erratic decisions. My diagnosis was confirmed shortly after by his paranoid response to the Law Commission review of drug policy. I was a bit sniffy about it myself, because it was supposed to be a first principles review and turned out to be no more than a little fiddle.

I had thought the Commission would look at different approaches to controlling drugs, evaluate the evidence and then make recommendations. I even fantasised that they might be courageous enough to say that licensing people to grow and sell cannabis is the best way to control it, according to the evidence. Make it R18, don't allow any advertising and cut the tie between cannabis and hard drugs by bringing it into the open.

I'm joking of course. I didn't really think they would have the guts to propose something so eminently sensible, but I did expect a proper evaluation of the options. Instead they presented a report that began with an article of faith - that commercial sales should remain prohibited. They offered a tiny sop: instant fines instead of convicting people like me for personal cannabis use; allow sick people to use it for medicine. Paah – that's a political negotiating position, not the conclusion from a systematic review of the evidence.

In any case,when he saw the summary Simon's knee jerked so hard that he booted himself in the face. That's what political ambition does for you though – impairs thinking and hypersensitises the reflexes. But I have a cure. I recommend that he lights up a fatty and chills out.

(from my Waikato Times column 26 Feb)