Tuesday, 25 March 2014


By Michael Bott

John Fenton was a geeky kid, with sticky out ears, rubbery lips, and blond hair that projected from his misshapen head like the bristles of a toothbrush. He was tall and lanky and made my life hell when I was 9 at school. What I didn't know was that he was an orphan and lived down the road at a foster house run by Mrs Black.

John found out that I was adopted, "Hey Bott ya bastard!" This taunt rang across the playground. Stung by this label - "what the hell was a bastard?" I responded with a feigned disinterest, "Aw shut up Fenton." The bell rang, back to class.

I was sitting in my class, when there was a knock at the door. A student who was acting as a runner had spoken to the teacher. Mr Milne looked at me. "Michael, Mr Scott wants to see you." I got up and didn't know why.

Mr Scott was the deputy principal, he lived at home with his mother, who was in her 80s. He drove the same car an old immaculately maintained Singer Vogue, and always wore a suit with a hand knitted vest. Once a week we held school assembly outdoors. All of us children would form lines, boys on one side, girls on the other and we would march into the asphalted central ground and line up in rows for inspection, in the middle of the baking heat of summer or the frosts of winter. Mr Scott would then address the school. "School attention!" We crack to alert, arms at our sides, backs straight and eyes ahead. "At ease!" That meant we stood with our arms behind our backs, legs apart, facing straight ahead. Teachers looked down the rows. I remember one occasion on a baking summer morning, when my mate Kevin couldn't cope with the heat, he fainted after half an hour in the sun. We broke rank to pick him up. "Leave him be! Attention!" Barked Mr Scott. So we left Kevin to bleed on the padder tennis court as Mr Scott continued to address the school. Messages over, national anthem sung, we were ordered to attention and turned as one, as we marched  back to our class rooms to an old recording of Colonel Bogey as it blared out over the school's loudspeakers.

I was sent by the school secretary to Mr Scott's classroom Room 5, packed full of standard 4 students - the biggest kids in the school. I knocked on the door and walked in. Mr Scott looked up from his desk and said, "Yes, what?" "I'm Michael, you wanted to see me?"

Mr Scott said "Yes, step out into the corridor." As he said this, he pulled open his desk drawer and grabbed a strip of thick brown leather. "Oh no, the strap!" As I turned to walk outside I saw the entire class look at me and smile "Dead man walking. What had I done?"

Mr Scott followed me out to the corridor, he glared down at me, "Well why did, you do it?" "Do what Sir? What do you mean?" I asked. I looked at Mr Scott, he glared down at me, as I looked into his face, I discovered that one of his blue eyes, was lifeless - he had a glass eye! 

Years later he told me, that in the Second World War, he and his best friend were resting in a shallow dugout. A Japanese grenade was thrown, his friend rolled onto the grenade taking the blast and losing his life. A piece of shrapnel took Mr Scott's eye. Damaged he came home, carrying the scars of a shattered youth he became a teacher and visited in turn his scars upon us.

This one eyed giant was now glaring down at me, demanding to know what I said and why? I had no idea what he was talking about and was scared, humiliated and began to cry. I asked for my mother,"Don't give me that mummy treatment!"  I wanted to talk to someone, to get some advice. What had I done? "Hold your hand out." I held my hand out. "Whack, whack, whack!" "Hold your other hand out, "whack, whack, whack". Mr Scott lifted the leather strap to his shoulder and bought it down on my open nine year old hands, for a crime, the facts of which I had no idea. 

After punishment I was told that I was getting the strap for swearing in the playground. "But I only said shut up, after I was called a bastard." "Well you should have told me that when I asked", was Mr Scott's reply. What could I say? I was scared and had no idea, what he was even talking about. The pain was nothing, what stung was the injustice of it and the reality that I was powerless to do a thing about it.

A couple of months's later I had forgotten about the shame of being strapped and our standard 3 class were having a choir lesson with Mrs Treecher in the school hall. We were singing Inchworm. "Inchworm, inchworm, measuring the marigolds.... " Two students away from me was John, he was mouthing the words, but no sound was coming out. "Silence!" Mrs Treecher demanded. "You, Snow" she pointed a finger at John, "come here!" "You weren't singing, were you?" "No miss" he grinned an embarrassed grin.

"Right, you think it's funny? Get on the stage and lie on your stomach!" For the rest of the choir lesson we were made to sing Inchworm again and again and again as John Fenton, orphan was made to grovel worm like from one side of the stage to the other as we stood and watched the spectacle of a child belittled because he annoyed a teacher. At first I delighted in the payback, but after two minutes I had had enough.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Te Pataka Ohanga the Tip of The Ice Berg - Just Wait For Partnership Schools

The public and numerous commentators have been rightly concerned about the lack of controls and insights into the use of public money granted to the Te Kohanga Reo National Trust, once they then paid part of that money to a privately owned subsidiary company Te Pataka Ohanga. Reports contained allegations about credit card spending on personal items and a $50,000 koha paid to Te Pataka Ohanga.
The Minister Hekia Parata undertook an inquiry and paid more public funds to Ernst and Young to undertake a review of the Te Kohanga Reo National Trust. That review found no fault and she was delighted. However Ernst and Young were not tasked with looking at Te Pataka because it was a private company. As Ms Parata says:
"I have no power over them. They are a private company that works for an organisation that has a contract with my department that reports to me."
"Only they can tell us what's going on in their commercial arm and they do need to front the public on that," 
"I have no power over them. They are a private company that works for an organisation that has a contract with my department that reports to me."
[Hekia Parata Minister of Education responding to calls as to why she had no control over allegations of misspending by the Te Kohanga Reo National Trust's wholly owned subsidiary company Te Pataka Ohanga (http://tvnz.co.nz/national-news/trust-s-subsidiary-needs-front-up-parata-5871352 23 March 2014).]
The trouble with this is, is that the lack of open and transparent insight into private organisations tasked with handling public money has become the norm under this Government's charter schools policy. As the New Zealand Herald reported on 14 February 2013
"Associate Education Minister John Banks has defended a proposed law change that would exempt charter schools from scrutiny under the Official Information Act, saying they will be more accountable than other schools.
Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem told a select committee yesterday the provision in the Education Amendment Act 2012 was unconstitutional and could be "catastrophic".
Today Mr Banks said there were 5000 early childhood facilities that were not subject to the Official Information Act and he didn't believe the public-private partnership charter schools should be subject to the acts.
"The Government respects the views of the Office of the Ombudsman. However, it would be inappropriate to extend the jurisdiction of one of the Ombudsman to partnership schools.
"They are not crown entities, they will be private organisations - they are similar to the 5000 licensed early childhood education care centres, independent schools, private training establishments and industry training organisation who are not subject to the Official Information and Ombudsman Act.
Mr Banks said the ultimate safeguard for ensuring charter schools were accountable was that the Secretary for Education could request any information from any charter school and that information would be subject to the Official Information Act."
The trouble with this is that how will the Secretary for Education know what to ask for, without open and transparent accounting and auditing? Further, how will the Secretary know that he or she has been provided with the complete answer, rather than some carefully manufactured and scripted response? The public reach in terms of  the Official Information Act will therefore be limited those items of information asked for from partnership schools by the Secretary of Education and provided to him or her by the partnership school. That is a weak protection, and amounts to mere lip service.
So there you have it. The Minister is currently cringing because of the alleged private spending of Te Pataka Ohanga. Yet she has presided over establishing a regime where the same thing can happen again and again with charter or "partnership schools" 100% taxpayer funded but with des minimus accountability to taxpayers via Parliament or the Official Information Act. There's an old saying, "when the cat's away, the mice will play." Without full transparency and proper accountability the public can have no confidence that public money is being spent wisely or properly. I find myself increasingly agreeing with my friend and Auckland barrister Jeremy Bioletti who succinctly put his finger on the problem when he recently remarked, "[p]enny finally dropped. We are letting ourselves be ruled by a bunch of bozos!" Watch this space.

Friday, 14 March 2014

"Sid-i-ney, I'm Stuck"

Michael Bott

My great aunt and uncle Beryl and Sid were a couple of Ohiro Road identities. Beryl met her Sidney at the end of the Second World War and they remained in love until the day they died.

In some ways they really were opposites. Sid was short in stature and was so skinny that he could divest himself of his jacket with a shrug of his shoulders, while Beryl towered above him and had an impressive girth that was held in with mysterious stays, fixed so tight that her mid drift felt like a 44 -gallon drum. Sid always wore the same thing, winter or summer, wool trousers, a white shirt and an old brown cardigan. Beryl, always wore one of a number of floral dresses, with her feet encased in comfortable soft slippers.

Beryl alongside her enormous girth, was also possessed of “nana arms” or “bingo wings”, those lovely large arms, with floppy folds of skin that loosely hung from her upper arms. Yet those arms were capable of beating a sponge, cream, or egg whites with a speed and strength, seemingly without effort in a way that would rival the most high spec electrical appliance.

Beryl stood a shade under 6 feet and Sid lovingly described her as being “a couple of axe-handles wide across the beam.” As a child I had no idea, what that meant, but I remember the loving glint in his eye, when he said it. They were both quietly spoken, smoked Rothmans cigarettes and lived in the same small weatherboard house built by Beryl’s father and Sid in the 1950s.

Both Beryl and Sid had faces lined with age but these furrows and crags were exacerbated by a lifetime of smoking. Gradually over time the smoking had rendered their skin the same colour as the wallpaper. Indeed in some light, were it not for the floral colours of Beryl’s dress or the grey of her shoulder length hair, she would have blended chameleon-like into the background!

I recall the walls of the entire house were papered with Anaglypta wallpaper, painted cream, but several decades of continuous smoking had rendered them brown with the surface slightly sticky to the touch.

There was a hallway that ran the length of the house and if the front and back doors were open you could see from the footpath to the garden that meandered upwards at the back. In summer there were plastic strips that hung from the back, where the small kitchen was located. In the summer if the back door were left open the breeze would catch the strips creating a soft, hypnotic swishing sound.

The kitchen. like most kitchens of its vintage was designed by a man who did not cook, for the woman who predominately did.  Because of that it was completely impractical. The kitchen was tiny in proportions, there was a stainless steel sink, a few handmade wooden cupboards and a formica benchtop.  In the corner was a small four-seater formica topped dining table with chrome legs, where they ate their meals. I can remember the smell of the house even now. In summer if you approached the house from the back you would be first greeted by the delicate smell of sweat peas, then as you got to the back door the heavy thick spicy scent of the old roses that grew in the grey soil adjacent to the back door. When inside the scent changed again, the air contained a curious comforting amalgam of old apples and stale smoke.

One time when I called over I saw Beryl and Sid laughing. They didn’t just laugh like normal people, Beryl’s whole body convulsed and as she shook, her face went a brilliant red, when Sid laughed, he wheezed and his lungs rattled almost like a pair of maracas. What was the joke? “Oh Michael, you should have been here last night” Beryl heaved. “What happened?”

Sid explained that Beryl was having her evening bath. She always had an evening bath after dinner, and would fill the bath with steaming hot water to have a soak. Anyway she had filled the bath, disgorged her body from its stays and slowly eased herself into the steaming water, when somehow Beryl dislodged the plug with her toe. The water had drained before she could get out of the bath. As the water drained, Beryl’s skin had suctioned to the sides of the bath, creating a vacuum. She was trapped!

“Sid-i-ney, Sid-i-ney, I'm stuck!” Beryl called for the aid of her husband. In vain Sid tried to pull his wife from the cast iron shell in which she was now trapped. Sid had as much chance of releasing his wife as an ant did of pulling a Christmas cracker. In their panic, Sid felt he had no option and called the fire brigade. A fire engine and crew were dispatched, with sirens blaring, to their house. Neighbours from down the street, went to their front doors, looking for the smoke, of which there was none.

What to do? Several fire-fighters squeezed into the bathroom, to examine the scene and to plan a rescue. After several minutes a plan was hatched.

Beryl was covered with several towels to protect what little dignity remained and one of the officers got a grease gun and carefully shot squirts of grease between Beryl’s body and the walls of her prison. Once this was done the bath was carefully refilled with water. Slowly a long pole was wedged beneath Beryl and the bath to create a lever. After several minutes of effort, Beryl said, “she popped free like a cork from a bottle.”

Sid, recounted that after the incident when he made a pot of tea for the rescuers, one of the officers was mulling over the events of the night as he looked down into his mug and quietly exclaimed to no-one, “Geez, I’ve been called out several times to free bloody cats from trees, but this is the first time I’ve had to free a woman from a bath.”