Victoria University deserves congratulations for organising a forum on inequality and social problems last week.
The forum set out to explore the main thesis of the 2009 book The Spirit Level by English academics Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett which shows that countries with greater income inequality suffer much higher levels of social problems such as mental illness, obesity, violent crime, teenage pregnancy, imprisonment rates etc.
I’ve mentioned the book a couple of times before in this blog and I’ve read various attempts to discredit it and the responses of the authors to those criticisms.
In each and every case I’ve come across the criticism from free-market capitalists falls apart – the evidence is so compelling and the defence of the thesis so robust that the central tenet of the book is undeniable.
At the Victoria University forum academics and Treasury officials were invited to respond to the thesis using the New Zealand experience.
We shouldn't be surprised to see a serious outbreak of bacterial disease afflicting kiwifruit orchards and worrying the hell out of farmers in the Bay of Plenty and further afield.
At least three orchards 10km apart are confirmed as having the PSA bacterium (Pseudomonas syringae pv. actinidiae) with unconfirmed infection at a further 42 orchards across the Bay of Plenty.
It is a serious threat to the $1.4 billion industry because although the disease is not carried by the fruit, so entry to markets is not disturbed, it has reduced yields in other countries by more than 50 per cent as the bacteria attack stems and twigs of the kiwifruit vine.
At the heart of the problem is the way modern farming produces food through extensive monocultures - producing one particular food from identical plants across a wide area of land. It typically produces higher yields but at a high cost to the environment.
Diseases spread faster because the plants are close to identical. Typically plants these days are produced from tissue culture and are as close to identical as the scientists can make them. However, if a pest attacks one plant successfully it will be able to attack every plant successfully and so problems spread quickly with sometimes devastating effect. This is what we are seeing in the Bay of Plenty.
The government's 2025 Taskforce issued its second report late last week and - surprise, surprise - the Don Brash-led group of neo-liberals have come up with a familiar litany of failed policies which created the very problems they are trying to solve.
The taskforce was set up after the last election as a sop to ACT in their coalition agreement with National. Rodney Hide insisted on recycling the tired old has-been of far right economics, Don Brash, to deliver a predictable recipe for economic progress.
The Taskforce's job is to come up with ways New Zealand can catch up with Australia - we are 42 per cent behind and are heading for 50 per cent - and Brash says we can do it by growing at 2 per cent more than Australia for the next decade or so.
With some minor variations on the theme, Brash recommends: selling or part-privatising our remaining state assets; tax cuts; reduced government spending; shifting people from welfare to work; more private healthcare and education; more public-private partnerships; abolish or reduce the minimum wage; reduce restrictions on foreign investment, including the sale of productive land, and increase the age of eligibility for superannuation from 65 to 67.
There are a few commonsense proposals such as the drive to reduce welfare dependency. So why didn't Brash call for abolishing the dole and having the government provide quality jobs through significant investment in our social and economic development? Instead he wants to use those on low-incomes as the buffer for the free market. They are the ones who suffered through the depressions of the 1880s, 1930s and 2000s and every economic crisis in between.
Surely only the blindest New Zealanders would not be appalled at the outcome of government negotiations on the Hobbit movies.
Not only has John Key increased taxpayer handouts from $60 million to $93 million for this wealthiest of corporates but it is passing a special law to allow producer Sir Peter Jackson to employ all movie workers as contractors, whether or not the current law would regard them as employees.
It's a critical law change. I was involved in a case at the Employment Court a couple of years back when I was representing a worker with the claim he was an employee rather than a contractor. He'd been employed as a contractor to work as a teleprompter at a television station and worked alongside another person doing the same job but who had been employed earlier as an employee.
Both were paid $14 an hour for this rostered work but that's where the similarity ended. The contractor was far worse off. He was not covered by the provisions of the Employment Relations Act so was not entitled to sick pay, holiday pay, paid breaks or the employee protections under the Employment Relations Act. He was powerless when his hours were chopped and changed and he lost the right to be treated with dignity and respect by his employer. The television company liked the arrangement because they got a "flexible" worker on the cheap.
We won that case at the Employment Court but it was a lon, arduous path that got us there. A similar path was trodden by James Bryson, a model-maker for the Lord of the Rings movies who successfully applied to be regarded as an employee. That was all too much for Peter Jackson so the government is now removing that right to apply to the courts for workers in the movie industry at the behest of a powerful corporation and its local semi-hysterical agent. What a disgrace.
What a shabby performance.
I've previously only seen him as an actor in his 1980s splatter movie Bad Taste. He was fabulous as a psychopathic alien in that great Kiwi classic film. (If you haven't seen it yet make sure you do.)
But it's been all downhill these past few weeks as Peter Jackson has variously played the parts of union-basher, paternalistic employer and self-absorbed celebrity.
It started with New Zealand actors wanting to negotiate some basic conditions of employment through their union Actors Equity. Like many famous employers before him, Jackson not only refused to negotiate but refused to even meet to discuss the issues. He thinks he's above any of that nonsense. He claims he treats his employees and contractors well and that was that. So the union called on actors to refuse to sign up to the film till the issues were resolved - an entirely reasonable position.
Jackson reacted with an incendiary media release attacking the unions and painting himself and the New Zealand industry as innocent victims of union thugs. It was all a pile of hyped rubbish but it did the job for him. News reporting was initially reasonable but quickly deteriorated as the media sided with Jackson against the unions. When it comes to union-bashing, New Zealand does it particularly well, especially with a wealthy celebrity calling the shots.
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