Gordon Campbell on the Transport Ministry scandal, quad bikes and Frankie Cosmos

Perception matters. If whistle blowers don’t feel protected if and when they relay their concerns to senior staff – let alone if they later feel impelled to go public to the media – then the formal protections on paper are worthless. The fact that three Transport Ministry workers were made redundant only two months after communicating their concerns about now convicted fraudster Joanne Harrison – in a restructure in which Harrison was allowed to play a role – should alarm anyone interested in the existence of an honest, transparent public service in this country. The Transport Ministry situation will have a chilling effect on whistle blowers generally.

There will always be a risk in bringing the wrong-doing by one’s superiors to the attention of senior management. That’s why the formal protection system for whistle blowers was created. Given the imbalance of power in the workplace, whistle blowers will always be in danger of retribution for not being team players, or for raising issues that cast the failures of their bosses in a bad light – even when those concerns are still being handled in-house, and (supposedly) in a confidential fashion. It gets far riskier if the internal process fails, and the media have to be brought in.

The problem with the Transport Ministry situation is that making the whistle blowers redundant so soon afterwards looks like revenge, even if the events were somewhat unconnected. (It’s hard to believe they were totally unrelated.) The perception will endure. In this case, the chain of dubious practice began with the failure of senior management to detect Harrison’s repeated fraudulent actions. Then, when red flags were raised, the response appears to have been culpably slow.

Rather than being set aside until the concerns being raised were investigated, Harrison was also allowed to participate in a restructure that saw at least some of her accusers lose their jobs. To repeat: this can’t help but foster the perception that she helped to punish the staff that had shouldered the risk of trying to expose her criminal activities. To compound the basket of concerns: Martin Matthews, the-then CEO at the Transport Ministry who was taken in by Harrison is now the country’s Auditor-General. Hardly re-assuring, given that he has a track record of (a) being taken in by fraudsters, and (b) of handling that debacle in a less than stellar fashion.

Matthews claimed to RNZ this morning that Harrison didn’t take part in the decision to sack the staff involved, and nor could he recall those staff contacting him directly. That isn’t good enough – given a chain of events where the whistle blowers were shown the door before senior management finally acted on the valid concerns about Harrison that were being raised internally. And which had gone undetected for years, by themselves.

Death Rides a Quad Bike

Between 2011 and early this year, 115 of the 296 workplace fatalities in this country occurred down on the farm.

The next most dangerous sector (construction) accounted for only 32 deaths over the same period. In 2012, a Worksafe survey of the safety behaviours of quad bike accident victims had included this observation:

Quad bikes are involved in approximately 28 percent of all work-related farm deaths, and 850 people are injured every year on New Zealand farms while riding quad bikes. In 2010, it was reported that quad bike accidents cost $10 million in ACC claims that year, and there were 3,000 active claims for quad bike injuries at the time.

Since then, the situation has only got worse. Last year, 14 of the 18 deaths in agriculture involved quad bikes, a record number. Once again, farmers seem to be a law unto themselves. Despite the dire statistics, the government has refused to require readily available and affordable safety measures – rollbars, compulsory helmets, and age of use restrictions – and has underfunded the necessary education.

The former director of Lincoln University’s Telford campus, Charley Lamb, said the deaths were occurring as a result of crush injuries, which research showed roll bars would prevent. “Very few bikes have roll over protection, which of course they should do. Whether people want to debate that and argue that, they can. But they used to do the same about safety frames on tractors and they did the same about seatbelts in cars. There’s no doubt that roll over protection on quads will stop crush injuries and stop deaths. It won’t stop injuries.”

He said the government’s refusal to require roll bars, coupled with a reduction in the agricultural training budget and a failure to classify agriculture as a high-risk industry, have created a “perfect storm”. Underfunding of agricultural training and education has been an ongoing issue. “I think at a macro scale if the Minister of Finance wants to balance the budget or show a surplus for election year then he has to get his expenditure from somewhere and agriculture tends to always be, if you excuse the pun, the bottom of the food chain.”

This week, the Australasian College of Surgeons has called for quad bikes to be outlawed for kids under 16 years of age. Fat chance. Bill English and his government seems blasé about the death and injury toll, the social costs, and the ACC payouts involved.

Mr English on Tuesday said the farming and recreational use communities now have a better understanding of the danger posed by quad bikes and were taking action. “As I get around I see people, particularly in the farming community, wearing helmets in a way they didn’t before. The design of the bikes are improving. I think it’s headed in the right direction,” he said. “It’s good to see the farming community coming to grips with it in a way that in the past they might have been a bit cavalier about it.”

In fact, last year’s record quad bike death toll says the exact opposite. If quad bikes were an inhalable drug, the death and injury toll would be being painted as a national crisis. Yet since quad bike regulation would involve cracking down on farmers, only light -handed regulation is felt to be politically desirable.

Rape crisis and abortion services

March 8 was International Women’s Day, and a fine media opportunity occasion it proved to be for Women’s Minister Paula Bennett. Meanwhile, an insensitive policy on the disclosure of private information by the government that Bennett co-leads has put the funding of Rape Crisis at risk.

Rape Crisis spokesperson Andrea Black said victims were telling the service they would no longer come to it for support if they knew their private information was being handed over to the government.

Ms Black told Nine to Noon her organisation was concerned the new policy would compromise people who already struggled to seek help, and so it would not accept ministry contracts if clients’ private details were required in return……Ms Black said she felt insulted by the ministry’s reasoning for asking for the information in exchange for funding.

“We’ve been told it’s about a good service in terms of, ‘We’re buying a service from you and we want to know that we’re getting results. We already as a sector put hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars into our accountability reporting in terms of the outcomes and the surveys and measurements we are making are different.”

This demand carries echoes of what Donald Trump has been demanding of Planned Parenthood in the US. Trump is making the continued funding of Planned Parenthood dependent on it no longer using its funds to provide abortion services. Not surprisingly, Planned Parenthood has also rejected this threat/offer.

Across the border in Canada, First Lady Sophie Trudeau used International Women’s Day to urge women to value… the men in their lives who support gender equality!

Good grief. This tone deaf effort was out of step with what her husband was doing. Canadian PM Justin Trudeau used the occasion to mount a strong and politically risky defence of abortion services:

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vigorously defended women’s access to abortion services, saying on International Women’s Day Wednesday that they have a right to “choose their path, their future.” “When we take a stand against abortion … we are taking away the power of women to choose their path, their future, when, how, (and) with whom to start a family,” he said at an event to announce spending of 650 million Canadian dollars over three years for women’s health initiatives overseas.

“We can only build a better world, a stronger world with more opportunity for everyone … if women are empowered,” Trudeau commented. “For far too many women and girls, unsafe abortions and a lack of choices in reproductive health means that they either are at risk of death or else simply cannot contribute and cannot achieve their potential through education, through involvement in their community, through a broad range of opportunities.”

The Canadian funding will go to “comprehensive sexuality education, strengthening reproductive health services, and investing in family planning and contraceptives,” according to a government statement. The programs aided by the announcement also “will help prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence, including child early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation and cutting and support the right to choose safe and legal abortion, as well as access to post-abortion care.”

Oh, and the Canadian government also issued a report on International Women’s Day lamenting the failure to achieve gender parity in wages, and access to jobs. The difference “is largely a function of wage inequality between women and men in the same occupations,” Statistics Canada reported. Since becoming PM in late 2015, Trudeau has pressed for gender equality, and ensured his Cabinet contains equal numbers of male and female ministers. In New Zealand, 8 out of 21 Cabinet ministers (38%) are women.

Frankie Cosmos, and Jay Som

New York singer songwriter Frankie Cosmos (she’s Greta Kline, daughter of actor Kevin Kline) is performing in Wellington tonight, at Moon Bar in Newtown. While “ Young” is the most accessible example of her work, “Sinister” namechecks her much loved New York predecessor Arthur Russell. On some days, Saint Arthur isn’t enough to get her by, while at other times, she feels she just can’t live up to him. Which is exactly how most of us feel about our musical heroes, much of the time. You should try to make it to Moon Bar tonight:

Out in Oakland California, Melina Duterte – who performs as the musician known as Jay Som – has also been releasing a range of great dream pop tracks in the past few months…this one is pretty, to the point of being somewhat creepy :

“I Billion Dogs” on the other hand, is a great rolling fuzzball of a song that’s vaguely about the fact that yes, there may well be about one billion dogs out there in the world :

Finally, I like the video for this track, which makes fine use of a gondola for some endearingly awkward dance moves: