Tuesday, 30 August 2011


In the middle of the 19th century, people began referring to the press as a fourth estate, referencing the fact that most parliaments had an area set aside specifically for the press, and recognising that the press was a distinct group within civil society. Some credit the origin of the term to Edmund Burke, who is said to have referenced the fourth estate when discussing the French Revolution, and Thomas Carlyle, a 19th century thinker.

Thomas Carlyle writing about the first estate in 1841 pointed out that the press had a powerful role in parliamentary procedure, shaping the will of the people and influencing the outcome of votes among the government, as well. Carlyle also argued that the press was an important part of a democratic society, saying that writing gives people “a tongue which others will listen to.”

The guarantee of freedom of expression and information is recognized as a basic human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN in 1948, the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
The positive relationship between the growth of the free press and the process of democratisation is thought to be reciprocal. The core claim is that, in the first stage, the initial transition from autocracy opens up the state control of the media to private ownership, diffuses access, and reduces official censorship and government control of information. Once media liberalisation has commenced, in the second stage democratic consolidation is strengthened where journalists in independent newspapers, radio and television stations facilitate greater transparency and accountability in governance, by serving in their watch-dog roles to deter corruption and malfeasance, as well as providing a civic forum for multiple voices in public debate, and highlighting problems to inform the policy agenda.

Through this process, numerous observers have emphasized that a free press is valuable for democracy, for good governance, and for human development. This perspective is exemplified by Amartya Sen’s famous argument that in independent and democratic countries, the free press encourages government responsiveness to public concerns, by highlighting cases of famine and natural disasters. “...in the terrible history of famines in the world, no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press.”

The independent media, Sen suggests, enhances the voice of poor people and generates more informed choices about economic needs and priorities echoed these sentiments when he was the president of the World Bank: “A free press is not a luxury. A free press is at the absolute core of equitable development, because if you cannot enfranchise poor people, if they do not have a right to expression, if there is no searchlight on corruption and inequitable practices, you cannot build the public consensus needed to bring about change.”

The Fourth Estate brought us news, presented opinions and often played the role of the peoples guardian, when it found abuse of power in one of the three branches of government. While not always completely objective, journalists are human, we expected truth, and at the very least we demanded a dearth of ideological paddling of particular political creeds.

As with business consolidations driven by economies of scale and profit so too with the Fourth Estate. 

The past twenty years have seen enormous consolidations occur at alarming rates throughout the corporate landscape. These machines are profitable cogs for their masters. Journalistic freedom, budget constraints have meant that little research now occurs within the fourth estate as journalists prefer their news "ready made."

Former British politician and commentator Bryan Gould has been thinking about this recently in relation to our Fourth Estate's seeming perpetual homage at the feet of John Key:

There are times when it seems that nothing can happen, either internationally or domestically, so far as our media are concerned, unless the Prime Minister is on hand to comment on it or otherwise certify by his presence that it is indeed news. He seems to serve the roles, variously, of national leader, moral guide, social commentator, sports journalist, pub drinking companion, comedian - and even politician. There is scarcely a television news bulletin which does not feature his appearance at some point in one or other of these roles.

There are dangers for democracy opines Mr Gould:

The consequences for our political system are more extensive than may be thought. It is not just members of the government who suffer from being denied a voice in the media. In a properly functioning democracy, politicians from all sides need to feel that they have a well-tried and reliable way of getting heard.

If that access is available only occasionally, both sides of the transaction get used to doing without it. Expectations are lowered. Understandings of what might be newsworthy are adversely affected by both media and politicians. Those who find that they are not regarded as worth listening to give up trying.

My own experience in the year or two before a general election in Britain was that I would be involved almost daily in a press conference - not just commenting on the news but trying to set the agenda and make the news as well. Both media and politicians got used to this. The result was a rich and varied diet of political news and views that helped to promote a healthy political climate.

With three months to go before our own election, I look in vain for that kind of debate. The deficiency is likely to get worse during the World Cup. It is not good enough to say that opposition politicians are not heard because they have nothing to say. How do we know?

No one can blame John Key for using his charm and likeability to the best advantage. The concern is whether the media have become so used to it that they are now constrained by it as well.

No one needs persuading of John Key’s value to his party and government, and it is inevitable and right that he should play a major part. But a strong and effective government needs more than a single foundation stone. The Prime Minister’s dominance, paradoxically, weakens his government and – by constraining the scope of the political debate - diminishes our democracy as well.

Labour leader Phil Goff has complained about policy debate not getting any sensible traction in the media at the moment. He is right. With our current journalists it appears that it is simply not their job to delve, probe or question, ploughing for truth, while well armed with information. It may be some time before we recover from the lack of analysis into the ideological games that are currently being played National Party politicians manipulating the levers of influence. Not one member of the Key Administration has been purposefully brought to task by anyone in the mainstream media. We have not benefitted from any vigorous investigative reporting on the creation of the financial train wreck created by unfettered free market greed and exacerbated by a Government who thinks the cure for this free market malaise is a further dose of the free market with a privitisation agenda. Where are our 21st Century versions of Brian Edwards, Ian Fraser or the crusading Pat Booth? The few who attempt such efforts are independent, and considered marginal. Their labours bear little fruit. If the mainstream media doesn’t pick up the story, its likelihood of gaining traction is minimal at best.

We need to clamor for a refurbishing of the fourth pillar so necessary in the sustenance of a healthy democracy. Currently any view opposite to that of the Government is not getting fair analysis from our mainstream media. Worse still the policies being pursued by the Government are receiving little analysis at all. It appears that far from an objective reporting of news, our media is actually partisan in shaping it and the risk is that our democracy will be the worse for it.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Flagship Wairarapa School In the Red for the First Time

Labour’s Wairarapa candidate Michael Bott is on a war-path after learning about the miserable funding for education in the Wairarapa.

Today after meeting the Principal of Greytown’s Kuranui College Bott was disturbed to learn that for the first time the school is running at a deficit for the financial year.

“I’m disturbed to hear yet another case of one of our major schools finding it financially difficult to function as a modern and well resourced school. Last month I visited Masterton’s flagship last chance school, Ohorere School which is facing closure due to funding cuts.”

Bott was disturbed to find that funding for alternative education, that is specialist education for vulnerable children with adjustment and learning difficulties was fixed by the Ministry at just $11,000-00 per child annually.

“That figure includes tax, so in reality that amount is substantially less (around $9,565-00). You couldn’t afford a fulltime specialist on that rate” Bott said. “Tragically if these kids don’t get help now they will wind up being graduates in our Polytech of Crime – prison.”

Bott says education is absolutely key to ensuring our kids and region have a good future.

“As a criminal lawyer I see too often the failures of our school system. Education is key to preventing this and our kids especially our most vulnerable are being let down by the systemic underfunding of education”.

I have been impressed with the resolve of our local schools to provide innovative outcomes for our regions students.

“As a local MP I intend to work tirelessly to push for our schools to be given the proper funding to do this job. Children are far too important to rely upon the current smell of an oily rag and number-8 wire approach favoured by the current Government,” Bott said.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Last chance education going under

John Key is about to close Masterton’s Ohorere Student Education and Transition Programme – a programme that takes at-risk students and (with a great deal of success), returns them to mainstream education.
Far from closing Ohorere, we need more of them. It is far wiser to spend $150,000 on a class of young kids in years 5 to 8 than spend 10 times that amount locking them away as adults.
Recently I had the privilege of visiting the programme, which is based in the old trout hatchery in Pownall St, Masterton. It is run under the umbrella of Masterton Primary School largely thanks to the efforts of Chris Webb and the work of Masterton Primary School principal Sue Walters.
Ohorere works with year 5 to year 8 children and their families for two school terms, with the aim of returning these children to mainstream education. If this school did not exist, these children would face being expelled from school and permanently excluded from mainstream education.
I was very impressed at the efforts of the staff and their stories of success, as these dedicated professionals helped give young kids hope and a sense of achievement.
Chris told me about ‘‘Pedro’’ a big boy (not his real name) who had just finished his time at Ohorere and had been living under a bridge in Auckland from six years of age. He was placed with whanau in the Wairarapa and was finding it difficult to adjust back into school. After two terms at Ohorere he was back in a mainstream class and doing well.
Ohorere aims to provide a ‘‘wrap-around service’’, with staff providing links to community and government agency help. What’s more the staff not only become mentors for students, they become friends. Chris commented about how he often goes to watch Pedro’s rugby games even though he has left Ohorere and gone back into the mainstream.
I think staff deserve to feel proud of what they do. This valuable educational tool is currently running on just $150,000 annually. In short, like a number of families in the Wairarapa, it gets by on the smell of an oily rag. As Sue observes, the school really needs an operating grant of $200,000 annually.
Before the last election John Key recognised the importance of Ohorere when, during a flying visit to Masterton, he dropped by and filmed a promotional video there. He spoke about the importance of the school and he told the students how ‘‘he was really proud of them’’. Now, however, as Prime Minister, the photos and smiles have served their purpose and he now presides over an administration that is engaged in cutting funding for Ohorere that will actually see it close.
I think Ohorere is a valuable tool in turning young lives around that not only benefits the students but also society as a whole. For the past 10 years I have worked as a lawyer, predominantly practicing in criminal law. In the course of my job I have had a front row seat for seeing how extraordinarily efficient our criminal justice system and our society is at perpetuating fresh criminals.
To be blunt, prison, as a cure for offending, mostly does not work. There is a considerable risk that a prison sentence might actually make the factors associated with reoffending worse. By aggravating the factors associated with reoffending, prison sentences can prove counter-productive as a contribution to crime reduction and public safety.
This does not mean that I do not believe in prison, far from it. Society does need protection from dangerous people, but before we bang someone away it makes sense to see if we can put steps in place to ensure that individuals don’t offend in the first place.
A common feature among a large number of the criminals I have dealt with is a lack of prosocial peers and limited education, combined with poor literacy and numeracy. This failure at the start sets the course for adulthood.
This is why I can see the immediate value in schools such as Ohorere. The June 2011 ERO report stated that ‘‘it is evident that five out of six of Ohorere’s students improved their learning and behaviour during their [time] in the unit. Moreover the progress these students have made has continued since they re-entered mainstream education’’.
The Wairarapa can feel justly proud of the efforts of Ohorere. As Sue says, Ohorere is the last chance for these kids and it actually works. If this school closes these young people are going to be lost.

Published in the Wairarapa News 24 August 2011

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Capital Gains Tax - Time to Have the Guts To Prepare For Tomorrow

The feedback I’ve had from my article on Labour’s proposed capital gains tax confirms wide support for the tax. Naturally, those who currently benefit from not paying tax on capital gains aren’t keen on the idea. But let’s look again at why a capital gains tax makes sense for everyone.
Firstly, it corrects a major loophole in our tax regime. As a matter of economic reality it makes no sense that people who make money through a capital gain pay no tax, but those who make money from wages or a business do. We must close this gap not just for ourselves, but for future generations. Consideration of the burden being placed on future workers to help fund the retirement needs of our elderly in the decades to come doesn’t seem to be on the Government’s agenda. This is appallingly shortsighted given the aging population we all know is coming.
Concerns about how we are going to provide care for our elders was brought home to me during a visit to Carter Court retirement home last week. I was impressed as the Chris the manager and Board members showed me possible plans for expansion of this important community facility designed to meet our need as our population ages. It is a real worry that our population is aging at a rate that we are not preparing for in terms of residential care beds, tax base to cope with the increased demand for national superannuation and the need for expanding health facilities.
It is imperative that we close the obvious gap in the tax base from a lack of capital gains tax, otherwise we will continue to rely too heavily on wage earners and hikes in GST to fund the huge investment needed in care facilities, let alone superannuation payments.
The recent release of the Ministry of Social Development’s report on trends in household incomes was referred to by the Prime Minister because the report showed the gap between “rich” and poor” appears to have narrowed in the last couple of years. The graph in the report showing a decline in inequality was based on annual statistics produced before the rise in GST and lowering of top tax rates so doesn’t show the true picture.
However the report does highlight the issues I have raised about the need to act now to plan for the rising cost of caring for our elderly. The report states that NZ Super payments have been flat in real terms since the mid 1990’s. As a percentage of the median household income, NZ Super has fallen from 67% in 1994 to 51% in 2010. Also 40% of people over 65 are totally reliant on NZ Super and the next 20% are 80% reliant. So affordability of NZ Super in the decades to come is vital.
The Retirement Commission’s policy review published in December 2010 called on the Government to consider the long-term affordability of NZ Super. From 2020 baby boomers will start to go onto the NZ Super roll, and Commissioner Diana Crossan is concerned that changes need to be made so that the scheme remains affordable. I suspect most of us would argue that at least looking at these issues is sensible. Why is the Government refusing to budge?
PM John Key said he’d resign before agreeing to increase the retirement age – this seems a random sort of promise to make when he finds it palatable to sell off assets all New Zealand tax payers have paid for to solve a Government debt problem that doesn’t really exist (recall from past articles I have written that NZ’s government debt is relatively low, peaking at 30% of GDP post Christchurch earthquakes compared to the likes of Italy at 120% and the US at 100%).
Could it be that the affordability of NZ Super is a problem we don’t really have to face for another 9 years, so making a promise about it was more about needing to make a promise about something at the time, with little risk of it coming back to bite in the next few years? I wonder…
Diana Crossan warns “decisions will need to be announced and legislated well in advance. If there is no commitment within the next 10 years, the total cost of NZ Super will continue to trend upwards and more severe changes might need to be taken later, putting the long term future of NZS itself at risk”.

Leadership popularity contests aside, you have to admit Labour’s policies show more guts and determination to secure NZ’s future prosperity than anything “Smile & Wave” has come up with.

References: Robin Oliver, Good Returns website 18 September 2000
Ministry of Social Development report “Household incomes in New Zealand: Trends in indicators of inequality and hardship 1982 to 2010