The Government’s failure to cope with unemployment

There was a quite telling difference of emphasis on Radio Waatea this morning. While Greens MP Sue Bradford was calling on the government to make a substantive response to the unemployment rate among Maori – nearly 45% of those on the unemployment benefit are Maori or Pacific Islanders – Maori party leader Tariana Turia was focusing on the largely symbolic politics of Maori representation on the Auckland Super Council that will come into existence in 2011.

The principle of Maori representation is an important one. Yet in practice, the impact of an outnumbered Maori minority on decisions taken by a council of wealthy plutocrats headed by the likes of John Banks, is always going to be minimal. Turia is engaging in the politics of tokenism, while her people are filling the dole queues. Right now, Bradford’s advocacy of the sort of job creation schemes likely to assist Maori is what we should be seeing from the Maori Party.

Even on its home turf, the Maori Party are proving ineffectual passengers in the government limo. Did we hear much of a peep from Dr. Pita Sharples for instance, when his new friends in the National Party axed the Enterprising Communities Grants in the Budget ? This was the scheme under which – for instance – Te Reo o Raukawa in Otaki last year sought to provide training in radio operations to local iwi. Reportedly, Sharples said no one had told him the scheme would be axed, while Finance Minister Bill English said he had been consulted. This exchange in Parliament left us none the wiser as to who was being more accurate.

Within this leadership vacuum, Bradford is advocating the building of more state houses and calling for environmental work schemes, presumably along the old PEP lines. This or something similar is an imperative, given that 60,000 more people are expected to lose their jobs during the coming year.

The government seems utterly clueless about what to do. Hitherto, its figleaf on job creation has been the policy borrowed from the Greens on home insulation. This week, it announced a joint scheme with McDonalds that will see up to 7,000 beneficiaries flipping burgers under the Golden Arches for minimal pay and no job prospects in a fast food industry that targets children in its advertising, and that contributes significantly to the country’s obesity rates, and related health costs. This scheme entails a five year long term commitment to McDonalds. As someone else pointed out on the Standard website, at least this collusion with McDonalds explains why the government was so keen to scrap food standards in schools a few months ago !

Meanwhile, the fabled cycle track – remember how this was supposed to create 3,700 jobs ? – pedals further into absurdity:

Associate Tourism Minister Jonathan Coleman today confirmed that there is no information available regarding the Prime Minister’s cycleway.
“After 20 minutes of questioning at a select committee today, Mr Coleman confirmed that so far no jobs have been created, no great rides have been selected and that no criterion for the selection of great rides is available.
“He also confirmed that no thought had been given to funding any promotion of the cycleway once it was finally established, that there was no money for any ongoing maintenance and that the Government may be required to put in further funds down the track.

Some $50 million of taxpayer funds is being wasted on this cycle way. Surprisingly, even the new leadership of the Greens has supported the idea.

Yet at the same time, the government saw fit in the Budget to axe $2.5 million in funding for children in physically disabled units in schools, thereby slashing their access to physiotherapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy. While those vulnerable kids miss out, the government also delivered in the same Budget an additional $35 million subsidy to private schools.

This attitude – of protecting the advantaged and abandoning everyone else – has carried over into the argument over power companies being allowed to install the kind of so-called ‘smart’ meters that will be able to deliver their benefits largely to the companies themselves, and not to consumers, or to the environment. Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright has called for government intervention to compel power companies here – whose profits show they are well capable of meeting the extra cost involved – to act in the interests of the community and country:

Wright said that of the 1.3 million smart meters being installed over the next four years, more than 800,000 will be “dumb”.
“Shortly after beginning this very rewarding job I heard mutterings that the smart meters being installed in New Zealand are actually `dumb meters’ … This report substantiates that concern,” she said.

This is called forward planning. It would enable consumers to make up to 31% savings on electricity use by 2016, according to an Electricity Commission report. It may also enable government to avoid long term investment in energy production.

Meters with more advanced technology could eventually manage smart appliances by using them at the best times of the day, while in-home displays showing power consumption and the electricity price could encourage lower power use.
The functions would help curb power consumption and peak use, Wright said

But what was Gerry Brownlee’s response on Morning Report this morning? He intends making such compliance only voluntary because – he indicated – he didn’t want to force the power companies to comply with standards and technology that might itself be out of date in a couple of years time. Yeah, that makes sense. Far better to let them install meters that we know are already virtually obsolete, than require them to meet standards that might have to be upgraded sometime in future.

This way, the government ensures that (a) few consumers are enabled to significantly cut power use and thus erode profits and (b) those relatively few consumers able to afford truly smart meters in future will have to pay for the installation cost themselves, rather than expect power companies to meet what are increasingly seen overseas as being commonly expected standards of performance. This is the sort of looting of a captive pool of consumers that National enabled Telecom to practice last time it was in office during the 1990s. It seems one of the few things that New Zealand business is good at : namely, extracting monopoly, or near monopoly rents from a static and captive market, with the tacit collusion of a government that is ideologically opposed to actually governing in the wider public interest.

Somewhere along the line, the Maori Party are going to be held to account for its complicity with such behaviour. Jobs and job creation are going to be one of the litmus tests, come 2011. Last year on the campaign trail, I asked Hone Harawira this question:

When you look at the desired direction of welfare policy for Maori, and you look at the desired direction of industrial relations policy for Maori – which of the two major parties offers you the better framework to work under?

Harawira : For our people, because they’re primarily in the lower socio-economic bracket ? Labour….”

Yet his justification for siding with National, regardless ? The exchange is worth re-iterating, given the Maori Party’s ready compliance with the Key government.

Harawira : I’ll ask you the question I ask everybody – name me one thing Labour has done for Maori in the last nine years. Just one.
Campbell : I think Maori have gained from the industrial relations changes –
Harawira : No no, not for everyone. For Maori. Just one.
Campbell : Well, the Closing the Gaps policy was targeted to Maori, but that got scrapped. So I’d say some of the Treaty settlements, like the ones we’re celebrating today.
Harawira : Those are four different tribes. I’m talking about for the whole of Maoridom.
Campbell : That’s a false question. Governing doesn’t happen that way….
Harawira : There’s not one thing – not one thing – that this Labour government has done for all Maori.

Perhaps Harawira might now care to apply the same high standard to the government that he currently supports. Because it is hard to spot a single policy that benefits the ‘lower socio-economic bracket’ ( in which he says most of his constituency resides) that got funded in the last Budget. Let alone any new funding that benefits ‘the whole of Maoridom.’


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