Thursday, June 28, 2012

Beyond doubtful reason

For specious reasoning it would be hard to beat this New Zealand Herald editorial on partial asset sales earlier this week. In particular, my jaw dropped when I read that 'the reason economists in the Treasury urge privatization of the power companies is that better investment decisions can be expected of private shareholders. People who put their own money into something take more care of it. The public will receive the benefit of private investors' monitoring of the power companies.' Um...what? Where to begin exposing the gaping holes in this reasoning? Did the people who put their own money into Hanover/Bridgecorp/Nathans/Lombard (you name it) take more care of their money? I don't think so. And in exactly what fashion do private investors monitor the companies they invest in? Only the big corporates have any influence; individual private investors can 'monitor' all they like but the company they've invested in will go its own sweet way regardless. The Herald then goes on to further justify the sales by saying: 'Public ownership is probably necessary for a natural monopoly such as the national grid. But the generating of electricity and its sale to consumers were put on a competitive footing in the 1990s.' Which makes it all right? Well, sure, if you say so. But many would say electricity generation is one of the most natural monopolies you can get, and two wrongs (partial privatization in the 90s and partial sales now) don't make a right. In any case, by its own admission the Herald says Mighty River Power, Meridian, Genesis and Solid Energy 'will provide the stockmarket with much-needed gilt,' which rather suggests they've been doing perfectly fine under public ownership. At this point in the editorial I was hoping to get my jaw off the floor, but then came the kicker. 'If most shares are soon owned overseas,' trills the Herald, 'so be it. We live on international trade and investment. Resources are owned by those who can generate their best value. That is how a successful economy works.' So be it? Resources are owned by those who can generate their best value? Look, go ahead and sell off the whole country while you're at it. You'll have to change your masthead name, though: 'New Zealand' clearly has no place in it.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Slow and behold

Sure, Los Angeles is dense with traffic, gridded with freeways and long, long boulevards on which cars are king and lane-changing is a full-time occupation. But in quieter suburban streets a different ethic seems to prevail. Our jaws dropped the first time a driver slowed to allow us to cross the street in front of him, even though no pedestrian crossing was in sight. Before long we were experiencing many examples of driver courtesy to pedestrians—unlike New Zealand, where you daren't step off the pavement without making sure the road is clear a long way on either side, and drivers automatically assume the right of way, often quite aggressively. In LA, away from main roads, drivers frequently if not invariably slow and/or stop for walkers. They drive more slowly too. I wondered if this was just a phenomenon confined to Venice Beach, where we have been staying, but have just read this in Ian McEwan's novel Solar: 'The country [the United States] had lived en masse with the automobile longer than any other. People had wearied of the car as a racing device or penis or missile substitute. They stopped at suburban crossroads and politely negotiated with glances who should go first. They even obeyed the fifteeen-mile-an-hour limit around schools.' Who knew? Inexplicably, Hollywood action movies have given no hint of this automotive amiability.

Friday, June 15, 2012


So where does the government now find the other $114 million in 'savings' it wants to make in the education system? Be afraid, be very afraid. Anything is possible (anything, that is, so long as it drives a wedge, as Giovanni Tiso memorably says, 'between the aspirations of the middle class and the realities faced by the working class'). Here in Los Angeles, where I am at the moment, the LA Times has just led with the news that, rather than sharply increase class sizes or eliminate adult education programs—both, apparently, politically unacceptable—the city's education authorities are reducing the teaching time. It looks as though up to five 'instructional days' will be cut from the 2012-13 school year; that would bring to 18 the number of school days cut over the past four years. It's a way of paying teachers less, of course: five fewer days of teaching could be equivalent to as much as a 5% salary cut, according to the Times. But the main teacher union apparently feels it has no choice but to accept it: the alternative would be mass layoffs. The mind baulks at the thought of 18 days being lopped off the New Zealand school year, but you have been warned. When the bean-counters fix their gaze on public education, they don't see students or teachers, they don't actually see people: they see beans. And guess what else in LA? At the same time as all the above, the Times reports, the education authorities are 'under pressure to boost test scores, and use them as part of teacher evaluations.' I might just as well be back home.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Lost in transmission

Keeping up online with New Zealand news while travelling overseas is a frustrating business. Despite all the advantages of modern technology, enabling information to whizz round the globe in microseconds, sometimes even the best of systems can malfunction. Take, for example, the Government's backdown over class sizes. Having followed the unfolding story keenly from the United States and Canada I've been impressed by the media's comprehensive coverage of the saga. Some gremlins must have crept in, however, because certain words seem to be missing from all the stories. Just at the point in each story where you would automatically expect to find 'Ms Parata apologized for making a humungous mistake'—there's nothing! The stories glide seamlessly from 'Ms Parata said the policy was a trade-off parents were not prepared to accept' to 'We are firmly focused on raising student achievement.' Clearly a fulsome apology was made (knowing the standards of ministerial responsibility to which the government adheres, I have no doubt about that), but, as I say, sometimes when data is being transmitted online, irritating errors can occur. Just the other day I sent an email with an umlaut in it; I subsequently saw from my correspondent's reply that the umlaut had not appeared in the version he received. I'm sure something of that sort happened with the reports of the class-size backdown too. My browser probably failed to recognize 'humungous' or the words 'sorry' and 'Parata' in close conjunction. Just to prove that lightning does strike twice, the same reports kept referring to a 'trade-off' between the $174 million the government intended to save by changing the teacher/student ratio and the $60 million it wanted to invest in improving teacher quality. On reading these reports I tied myself in knots trying to work out how $60 million spent could remotely be called a trade-off for $174 million saved. Finally, of course, I realized the computer gremlins had struck again, and I was tormenting myself needlessly. When I get back to New Zealand I'm sure I will find that it all makes perfect sense—as indeed will the whole idea of trying to increase class sizes. After all, why else would the government do it?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

And another thing

And another thing about Canada. While having coffee with a Montreal journalist, in the course of general conversation he referred to his husband. It was a natural and easy reference—no explanation required—exactly as it should be when someone refers to their spouse. So natural that it felt like a splash of fresh cold water, and I thought at the same time of New Zealand politicians' contorted writhings over the question of 'same-sex marriage.' Canada got over all that a long time ago and the sky, as far as I could tell in Quebec, has not fallen in; nor have centuries of moral tradition crumbled into decay. I'm reminded of Marilyn Waring's powerful inaugural professorial lecture at AUT in 2006 (not online, as far as I know, but I'm happy to email a copy to anyone who asks) when she compared Canada's bold enlightened approach to this issue with New Zealand's timorous tiptoeing. It all happened simultaneously around 2003-04, when Canada (under a conservative prime minister, Jean Chretien) was happily signing up to same-sex marriage legislation while New Zealand (under a supposedly centre-left prime minister, Helen Clark) was settling for a dismal compromise called 'civil unions.' In her lecture, Waring quoted from the Canadian Supreme Court judgment that cleared the way for the historic legislation. Let these words echo down the years: 'The "frozen concepts" reasoning [regarding marriage] runs contrary to one of the most fundamental principles of Canadian constitutional interpretation: that our Constitution is a living tree which, by way of progressive interpretation, accommodates and addresses the realities of modern life.' So where's that 'living tree' in clean green modern New Zealand?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Both ways now

To spend a week in Montreal, as I just have, is to be exposed to the stimulus of a great city where two major languages are in common and equal use. Everybody, it seems, speaks both French and English. French is more conspicuous—it's the language of the Quebec provincial parliament and most media—but all public signs are in both languages, and most people we met seemed to have no trouble switching between the two. After a few days, it's impossible for an English-speaker not to start picking up a bit of French and enjoying the way that any new language opens up your mind or at least lifts it out of its usual monolingual rut. You see the world differently through another tongue, as it were; that tongue becomes a third eye. But quite apart from one's personal linguistic potential, the best thing about public bilingualism is that it honours, celebrates and gives equal value to both languages. Imagine, then, what a terrific shot in the arm it would be for New Zealand if Maori had equal status with English. Imagine if it had to be taught in all schools at all levels, no argument. Imagine if articulacy in both languages became a de facto requirement of electability for politicians. Not just in Quebec but in Canadian politics as a whole it's becoming more and more necessary, if you want to win public office, to be bilingual. It remains deeply dismaying that for all the progress that has been made on Treaty issues over the past 25 years, virtually no Pakeha MPs can speak Maori. So I completely agree with Jeffrey Paparoa Holman when he urges all New Zealanders to learn te reo, as he has, and I'd go further in urging political parties to push for total bilingualism. It would be a huge step, if not the deciding step, towards genuine equality for Maori. 'If te reo Maori is to survive,' Holman says, 'then what happens in Maori has to matter as much as what happens in English.' I would say, equally, if what happens in Maori is to survive, then te reo must matter as much as English. An impossible dream, you say? Not so; nor does it require a revolution. Fifty years ago public life in Quebec was dominated by the English language. Everything began to change with the election in 1976 of the Parti QuebeƧois, which passed legislation promoting the primacy of French. It was all done democratically, and today, as I say, French is officially No 1: but English is just as valid and relevant, and Montreal anyway thrives on not being a monoculture. In all essential respects New Zealand, alas, still is one. That can change.