Gordon Campbell on the government’s bad week, and General Petraeus

A week is a long time but, thankfully for governments, the flow of news tends to get broken down into discrete items which can then be prioritized, contested or diverted via the usual process of political management. Given that these bite size chunks of political content are also then interspersed with diversions of other sorts – the Prince of Wales is here! Who’s that other Other Woman out to snare General ‘Peaches’ Petraeus? – it’s a wonder that the public get the chance to form any impression at all whether the country is moving in the right direction. The 24 hour news cycle all but atomises the public’s ability to formulate any coherent view about anything.

To try and counter that trend, here’s a tally of ten of the main political stories from the past week. Inevitably, it’s a selective list. To mitigate the bias, I’ve chosen headlines only from major news outlets.

1. Tourism is in bad shape. New Zealand is losing ground as a tourism destination.

Total guest nights at short-term commercial accommodation fell 3.6 per cent to 2.11 million in September, compared to the same month a year earlier, and were down 1.4 per cent from August, according to Statistics New Zealand.

That was led by a 28 per cent plunge in international visitor nights to 709,000 from the same month a year ago, when New Zealand accommodation was bolstered by the Rugby World Cup. International visitor nights were down 4.7 per cent to a seasonally adjusted 956,000 from August.

The trend for international guest nights has been generally falling since a high point in September 2011,” Statistics NZ said in its report.

Sure, this decline has occurred from the artificial heights of the Rugby World Cup but the extent of the decline – the numbers of short term visitors are also off by 19% from September a year ago – is pretty disturbing. Keep these figures in mind when the rosy projections of a Hobbit based tourism bonanza are bandied about. The LOTR tourism boost was in the context of a boom economy, locally and globally. The tourism context for The Hobbit will be vastly different, and New Zealand will be lucky to make up even a portion of its recent lost ground. And that’s because:

New Zealand tourism has been struggling to cope with a resiliently high currency and increasing costs of long-haul travel, which have tarnished the appeal of a holiday in the South Pacific.

2. The gender pay gap is widening. The gender gap is the biggest it has been in ten years, according to new data from Statistics New Zealand.

The quarterly employment survey shows the gender gap has increased in the year to September by 1.3 per cent, from 12.85 per cent to 14.18 per cent :

The Pay Equity Challenge Coalition said it was the biggest gap it had seen in a decade. “It’s a huge jump,” said spokeswoman Angela McLeod….A higher proportion of women in part-time work had not helped. “Unemployment has risen and probably an increase in part-time jobs. “Female-dominated workplaces have been traditionally lower-paid, like carers and cleaners. In these lower-paid roles women are paid barely above minimum.”

3. People are not planning for their retirement. Three quarters of New Zealanders are not even thinking about how much they will need in retirement, according to an ANZ survey. Moreover :

A third of the 825 people were not currently saving towards their retirement – depite only five per cent planning to live solely on NZ Super.

(The ANZ survey doesn’t seem to have measured the ability of people to save for the future.)

4. Buying and selling houses won’t increase the nation’s wealth. In this op ed, economics teacher Peter Lyons argues that “ rampant housing inflation has created a very ugly generational divide.”

Young people wishing to buy a first home are forced to take on a massive debt which reduces their ability to save and invest in productive enterprises such as new businesses. Parents may fund their offspring into a first home but this still represents a loss of funds that could have been used to grow our economy.

Overall, Lyons claims, the country gains nothing from the exercise:

Individuals can get rich by buying and selling houses but a nation cannot. In such a situation a housing market resembles a giant game of pass the parcel hosted by a very profitable banking sector. In our case most of the profits head overseas. There is no net gain to our country, just more debt and higher house prices. In most cases they are the same houses they were 20 years ago.

5. Government teacher pay system fails again. Three months since it came on stream, the Novopay teacher pay system added a security breach to its chronic problems in paying teachers and relievers.

Marshall Laing Primary School in Auckland was briefly able to access the confidential details of another school, which follows months of pay issues for teachers and support staff.

Associate Education Minister Craig Foss told Radio New Zealand today the security breach was a one-off because of human error in entering an incorrect school code.

6. Unemployment hits a 13 year high. Unemployment in this country has just reached levels not seen here since the end of the 20th century:

Unemployment has now hit its worst rate since early 1999, 13 years ago.
Statistics New Zealand figures out this morning showed unemployment raced up to 7.3 per cent in the September quarter, from 6.8 per cent in the June quarter, mainly hitting Maori and teenagers. In contrast, figures out today across the Tasman show Australian unemployment stable at 5.4 per cent.

7. Fran O’Sullivan Calls For an Economic Summit. The Herald’s star right wing columnist has noted the dire unemployment figures and is hopping mad about the government’s response.

Instead of galvanising Key into action – through orchestrating a real Jobs Summit and incentivising employers to take on more workers – the Prime Minister waffled. Labour youth affairs spokeswoman Megan Woods was more compelling when she said New Zealand was facing a youth job crisis with one in four young people unemployed. “There are no jobs for them. There are 85,000 young people not in education, training or work in this country. That has increased by 18,000 since National took office.” For Key to simply shrug his shoulders on this score doesn’t cut it…faith is no excuse for a failure to act. It’s time, surely, for Key to call an economic summit to address the issues New Zealand faces.

Of course, some unkind souls would say that O’Sullivan’s definition of “action” looks uncannily like a recipe for yet more waffle. An Economic Summit surely, would be just another talk shop, like the Jobs Summit before it. And as for “incentivising employers to take on more workers” wasn’t the 90 day trial supposed to do that – and especially for young workers?

8. More industrial action on the cards at Ports of Auckland. The inability to reach agreement in contract negotiations between port authorities and maritime unions raises the prospect of further industrial action and court action:

9. Government leadership lacking over future of Bluff aluminium smelter and electricity reforms. Invercargill mayor Tim Shadbolt has urged the government to intervene in the negotiations between state energy company Meridian and the owners of the Bluff aluminium smelter:

[Shadbolt] outlined the importance of the smelter to Southland, saying the electricity negotiations between Meridian Energy and Rio Tinto highlighted that, without some proactive leadership from Government, New Zealand’s ability to host value-added industries and to add value to its primary sector was coming to an end.

“Without such leadership New Zealand is destined to become a primary sector, low-value, price-taking, commodity-trading nation”. Reforms of the electricity sector had not delivered the promised benefits to consumers, but had instead delivered increasing profits to Government at the expense of consumers, [Shadbolt’s] letter says. Those profits were a further tax on the productive sectors of the economy but the Government needed to provide an environment conducive to business investment and opportunity, the letter says.

“However, the actions of the electricity state-owned enterprises run counter to this wider objective.”

10. New Zealand bails out of Kyoto, amends ETS. New Zealand has decided not to sign up to the next stage of the Kyoto process on climate change. Australia has however, signalled its support.

Prime Minister John Key has defended the decision to not sign the second round of the Kyoto Protocol, saying New Zealand “never wanted to be a world leader in climate change”.New Zealand is breaking from Australia and another 36 countries to go with an alternate climate change initiative that involves the major emitters seen as crucial to any new global deal: the US and China.

At the same time, the legislation that further weakens an already threadbare Emissions Trading Scheme was also passed by Parliament.

So… that was the week that was. Yes, this dismal list is selective, but six out of ten of these items were published within the last 48 hours. Cumulatively, they portray a country in crisis, one lacking in economic nous and competent political leadership. Yet ironically…the guy whose job is currently on the line is the person who is leading the Opposition, and not the guy who is leading the country.

General Peaches and the Double Standard

The saga of General David Petraeus and his affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell – and the fact the meltdown of Petraeus career seems to have been triggered by Broadwell’s jealousy of a possible rival – would make a terrific Mills & Boon story. It has moments of utter weirdness too, such as this anonymous letter to the New York Times Ethicist problem pages in July, written by someone who sounds remarkably like Broadwell’s husband. It’s the second item on this page.

At this point, the significance is the double standard involved. No better example of this can be found than in this Defence Business Insider story, and in the exchange between the writer and an anonymous top Pentagon insider who allegedly knows both Petraeus and Broadwell pretty well:

Business Insider: Seems to be plenty of rumors there was more to this announcement, and the timing, than we’ll ever know. Benghazi, the election etc:

Pentagon Guy: I seriously doubt it had anything more to it than what we’ve heard. Let’s face it, everyone is human, and we all make mistakes. You’re a 60 year-old man and an attractive woman almost half your age makes herself available to you — that would be a test for anyone. The timing of the rumors of the administration throwing him under the bus after the election is suspect, but in the end I believe she got her claws — so to speak — in him. He had enough honor to know that a cover-up is much worse than a public admission. As a result, I think he can recover and continue to be a player on the national stage, but she’s toast. Her reputation is unrecoverable, in my opinion.

Amazing. A good man undone by the arts of seduction, and by the wiles of Woman. Superman and Kryptonite all over again. Thank goodness he will still have a career, and she will be ‘toast’ unquote.