There is no surplus

Radio NZ reports:

Tax cuts could soon be on the way with the Government opening up its books today revealing Crown accounts are tracking along nicely.

“We’ve always said, if economic and fiscal conditions allow, we will begin to reduce income taxes,” Finance Minister Bill English said.

In Year Eight of this National government, the idea of a budget surplus is a joke (and not just because it’s been completely engineered by the catastrophic Auckland housing bubble). They’ve promised it for nearly a decade. They’ve fiddled the books to make the numbers come out OK. They even declared a surplus in the middle of the financial year – that’s how desperate Bill English has been to pretend that everything’s going along just fine in New Zealand.

The truth is, there is no surplus.

When Housing New Zealand says it simply cannot build the houses we need for families who are living on the street and in their cars, how can we have a surplus?

When District Health Boards insist that they cannot afford to deliver safer rosters for junior doctors, or new equipment, or decent pay rises for support staff, how can we have a surplus?

When public schools, built on the promise of free education for every Kiwi kid, have to demand “voluntary donations” from parents in order to keep operating, how can we have a surplus?

When sick people have to run public campaigns ask for donations to fund the medicine they need, because Pharmac has to prioritise which life-saving treatments it subsidises, how can we have a surplus?

When the people who clean the ministerial toilets in the Beehive aren’t paid a living wage, how can we have a surplus?

If you aren’t providing the services you are contracted to do – in this case, maintaining the public services and promoting the welfare of New Zealanders – and declaring a profit, you’re not running a successful business. You’re running a Ponzi scheme.

This surplus isn’t a success for our government. It is a sign of their failure. It shows they do not understand what their job is: to look after the people of this country. To govern us – not bean-count. It shows they do not understand what success looks like, because success should never be measured on a spreadsheet while children are dying of preventable diseases in mold-ridden houses.

There is no surplus – not if you care about people more than money.

A change underway in local government?

Things feel pretty bleak on the left these days. It seems like the forces of short-sighted self-centered capitalism reign supreme, that darned mainstream media isn’t asking the questions we want them to (and only the questions we want them to), and those blasted voters just aren’t getting the message.

Besides, it’s a local government election year, and literally no one cares about local body politics. Right?

scrubs wrong

Wrong, apparently. The Spinoff, which is basically my main source of news and great TV reviews these days, didn’t just manage to raise $10,000 to do some honest-to-god active campaigning journalism focused on Auckland’s unitary plan, council elections and housing crisis. They raised it in 17 hours. As of typing up this post they’re sitting at over $23,000.

Turns out “the people” do know good media when they see it, and are willing to stump up the cash. I mean, who wouldn’t pay for regular video content of Shamubeel Eaqub calling bullshit on things?

It makes me feel hopeful. Not just that we’ll get solid, in-depth reporting on the future of Auckland for the next few months, but that this can set a tremendous precedent for political engagement and how our media operate – instead of having to rely on clickbait and churn to get those ad impressions up.

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There’s also a change happening in the capital, with the National Party all-but-outright endorsing a mayoral candidate in the Wellington race. National have always had proxy candidates in the capital – Nicola Young, even Nick Leggett if those much-denied only-Whaleoil-seems-to-have-heard-them rumours about his fundraising are true. In Auckland, the Citizens & Ratepayers group or whatever they’re called these days was always deep blue (and Labour and the Greens have taken the same approach in the big city with united brands like City Vision and Future West.) And it’s perfectly understandable for Bill English to say nice things about Jo Coughlan, given they’re in-laws.

But then you look at what English did say – not just “Jo’s a mate and I think she’d be a great mayor”, but quite baldly, “wouldn’t it be nice if you had the right kind of mayor, and then I could give you aaaaaaaaall this money”. You look at the fact that National have unsubtly asked their members for money for her campaign. You see John Key, a man painfully precise about how his image is used (even if we on the left think he makes terrible choices in that regard) posing for a friendly snap with Coughlan at the flash opening of the new David Jones department store:

This isn’t the usual “if you know Wellington politics you know who the Tories are and who the lefties are, even though everyone calls themselves an Independent” variety of partisanship. Though the field is more crowded by the day, and no cups of tea have been publicly consumed, the hopes of the Right to get a friendly mayor into Wellington are clearly pinned on Team Jo.

It may not be the smartest move. Wellington is a pretty solid Labour/Greens town. But it obviously irks the Parliamentary right to have the city council in their own back yard doing silly things like holding onto assets and not building ALL THE ROADS. They have to unite around someone if they’re going to defeat the incumbent mayor (Wade-Brown) and a well-resourced Labour ticket (Lester) on the preferences. So “go, Jo” it is.

What is going on NOW with the local-government Right?

Richard Harman has the goods on the latest outbreak of weirdness from the local-government right – and this time it’s Wellington’s turn.

Finance Minister Bill English has made a rare intervention in Wellington local body politics backing his sister in law for Mayor.

It’s a definite shift from this email to National Party supporters earlier this month. I pity the poor comms person who had to calculate the precise width of the line between “the National Party doesn’t get involved in local politics” and “give Jo Coughlan all your money”.

It’s not going to please Nicola Young, who has an equally fine Tory pedigree. But the real victim could be Nick Leggett:

He is also said to have the support of some property developers, in particular, Chris Parkin, a hotel developer and former Councillor.

This has given him a big campaign funding chest which has seen him direct mail Wellington ratepayers and erect large billboards round the city.

But POLITIK understands there is now pressure on the Chamber [of Commerce] to move its support to Ms Coughlan, particularly now that Mr English has publicly endorsed her.

Chris Parkin, who is “in particular” supporting Leggett, is (or at least was in 2010) an ACT party supporter who believes “the market delivers better than any other system”. The Wellington Chamber of Commerce once threatened legal action over a Council decision to pay security staff a living wage. Because (to quote Wellington City Council’s own chief executive) there’s no “tangible benefit” in ensuring the people who you trust to watch and protect your staff, buildings and public events are happy, well-fed and able to provide for their kids.

That’s a set who may well see more profit backing a fresh-faced candidate anointed by a Cabinet Minister rather than a city-hopping Labourite.

On the other hand, Leggett’s name is already up in lights (or at least on buildings) and Young has good name recognition from the last election (if not her actions since). Neither is likely to say “oh well, Jo’s turn this time”.

Besides, this isn’t Auckland, where the right are hopelessly splitting their vote and only strengthening Phil Goff’s appearance of being divinely anointed the future Mayor. In Wellington, anyone could be in with a chance depending on how the preferences fall.

The danger is being the first to drop out in the run-off – and with three well-funded rightwing candidates against two fairly-united leftwing candidates in a city dominated by Labour MPs and Green party votes, the numbers are against them from the start.

It’s easy to crow that the right don’t have their act together, but the real problem is this: the right isn’t a hivemind. It’s just that they’ve given every appearance of it in recent years, largely due to John Key’s control of the political narrative and the National Party’s envelopment of every free vote at the blue end of the spectrum.

At a local government level, the 2010 Auckland mayoral election was a simple case of Brown vs. Banks. 2013 was Brown vs. Palino. There were other candidates, certainly other right-wing candidates, but they were immaterial. In Wellington, Kerry Prendergast dominated the first three elections held under the instant runoff system, before losing to Wade-Brown in 2013.

It’s perfectly natural that multiple rightwing candidates would run for mayor of a big city, and each will attract different supporters and present different policies. It just runs counter to our whole experience of the past decade. It feels weird. Far less so when two candidates run from the left: we’re quite used to Labour and the Greens having to coexist.

It only looks worse if three months out from election day the right’s candidates are scrapping over big-name endorsements and poaching each other’s funders.

One lesson people often take from National’s electoral success is that voters are far more interested in stability and competence than in ideology or policy. It’s not the only factor, but it’s an important one – one reflected in the successful delivery of the Labour/Greens MoU and the subsequent poll bump both parties received. It’s even more important at the local level where people are far less engaged in the detail.

And right now, neither stability nor confidence is shining through for the Wellington blues.

Our kids are still getting sick in unhealthy homes

Andrew Little put the hard word on John Key over housing in Question Time yesterday:

Prime Minister John Key implied that mould problems in some Housing New Zealand homes could be caused by tenants not ventilating them enough, something his widowed mother was vigilant about in their Christchurch state house.

He also rejected claims by Labour that the Government was making “a profit” from Housing New Zealand because it took a dividend.

This is one of those issues where John Key’s argument only makes sense if you haven’t seen what his government has done to SOE after SOE: put immense pressure on to deliver increased dividends – on the basis that they should “run like businesses” and not waste “taxpayers’ money” on fripperies like reinvestment and value-add.

The chairman of Solid Energy cited this pressure for dividends as a reason for his company’s financial issues.

And what’s been the anthem of this government since 2008? Surplus, surplus, surplus, even if it means making really bad short-term money decisions which will cost our country hugely in the future.

Meanwhile, we’ve found out that apparently Housing New Zealand doesn’t even do pre-emptive repairs and maintenance on vacant houses before offering them to new tenants.

A woman whose son’s severe health problems are being partly attributed to the mould in her state house says she has been offered a different house – but that’s mouldy too.

Health professionals said the mould in Te Ao Marama Wensor’s Glen Innes home was a contributing factor to her seven-year old’s faulty heart valve and holes in his lungs.

In a statement, Housing New Zealand said the recently offered house would have undergone a full maintenance and repair check, as would happen to all properties before a new tenant moved in, to make sure it was suitable.

Because there are some poor families for whom black mould actually conveys health benefits!

But I’m sure that inspection would have happened in a timely and thorough fashion. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been delayed, put off, rescheduled, or ultimately found to be too expensive. I’m sure that on some planet it makes perfect sense not to immediately check properties as soon as the previous tenants have moved out.

And I’m sure that getting people off the waiting list into any home available ASAP is not at all motivated by the only metric that matters: Nick Smith’s numbers.

juking the stats

Given how this government runs things, I have a really dispiriting suspicion that someone at HNZ figured out it was a lot cheaper to wait for tenants (who are hardly in a position of power and who definitely don’t want to be stuck back on that waiting list) to complain before fixing things.

And the result of that is that our kids are getting sick and even dying.

But hey, if Bill from Dipton gets the books into the black, everything must be going ok!

Heartless government

A few stories of recent weeks which show exactly what kind of government we have.

Last August, Emma-Lita Bourne died of pneumonia because the state house her family lived in was cold and damp. Soesa Tovo died after being admitted to hospital with heart and lung problems and pnuemonia. His house was so cold and damp they had to wipe down the ceiling every morning.

The response from Minister of Housing Nick Smith?

“People dying in winter of pneumonia and other illnesses is not new.”

Because people who expect state houses to not be so cold they kill people are clearly confused about the concept of mortality.

Marnia Heke and her children are living in their car because they can’t find stable accommodation. She doesn’t want to go to a motel for a night because it’ll get the kids’ hopes up.

The response from WINZ?

“We have told her that the Ministry would help her to cover the financial cost of temporary accommodation. We wouldn’t be paying for all of the accommodation as it would be reasonable to expect her to contribute.”

Because when a woman and her three kids are sleeping in their car what’s really important is making sure we spend the absolute minimum amount required to put a roof over their heads.

Peter Talley is given a knighthood for “services to business”. His business involves locking out workers, paying women less because they’re women, and trying to force workers to sign individual employment agreements which deny them the right to hold workplace meetings, criticise Peter Talley and his mates publicly, or deny their boss access to their entire medical history.

The response from the Deputy Prime Minister?

“It’s a big complicated business and I’m sure there’s been things go wrong over time, but I think the contribution he has made over the years has been beneficial.”

Because systematically, repeatedly exploiting your workers is just a boo-boo.

This is heartless government. A government that literally does not care about people. Not about providing warm safe housing (it might cost too much). Not about making sure they can come home every day after work (it might cost too much). Not about protecting workers’ right to freedom of speech and forming unions (it would definitely cost too much).

New Zealand is surely a better country than this.