Military spending, nuclear disarmament

What could we do if…….

…we did not spend so so much on the military.

About twelve years ago a Minister was hosting a dinner for ambassadors from South and Central America. It was after Brazil had decided that it would not proceed with the development of nuclear weapons. When asked why, several countries noted that with the growth of democracies, the people had been listened to, and previous money spent on weapons was redirected to housing, education, health and infrastructure.

If only that message was acted upon around the world.

Last year global military spending exceeded $1.7 trillion(US dollars)…that’s more than $4.6 billion a day, more than a dozen times what the world spent on official development assistance.

But it’s not just military spending versus aid, but think of the serious problems facing us: replacement of hydrocarbon fuels and the cost of transition; child poverty and the costs to remove this; an ageing population with the rising healthcare costs and availability of clean water for all.

What could we do if we did not spend this horrendous amount of money on the military industry? I am not sure of the percentage that is wages, but I think I feel sure in asserting that it will be the cost of the weaponry and the delivery mechanisms that will make up the highest part of that bill.

Working for peace is not just some pipe dream. Peace is positive. It is about life and enhancing the opportunities for every human. It is not an impossibility. It is economic good sense.

Disparaging peace activists with the term “peacenik” is the same as disparaging those who struggle to maintain eco systems as “tree huggers”. It is a standard technique of those who do not want change to disparage the activist, to patronise them, even to create a bogey that is feared.

I am proud to be a peace activist. I am proud to be a New Zealand citizen, who had the privilege of being one of the few Ministers for Disarmament in the world.

But I am very much aware that rather than leading the struggle for world disarmament New Zealand rather rests on its laurels and does not work as strongly as it could in all the forums available to pursue this goal. And in the interests of trade negotiations we have fallen for the emphasis on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons rather than pursuing relentlessly disarmament of all weapons of mass destruction.

Non-proliferation is the emphasis taken by USA and others holding nuclear weapons. So the media focuses on Iran, as it enriched uranium, but ignored Israel, which is said to have already nuclear weapons and the capacity to deliver them.

Under the  Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty there is a balance. Those that had weapons must disarm. And in return, those without such weapons would not work to get them. But all would have access to nuclear energy.

The problem is that those who promised to disarm did not write a timetable into this, nor did they establish a system to verify what weapons are destroyed and what new ones may be replacing those that are old. Yes there has been some disarmament, but it has been clothed in secrecy. In 1987 there were reportedly about 62,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Today, according to Kristensen and Norris (2013), that number is believed to be about 20,000.

BUT, there are robust, well-funded plans to modernise existing nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. And no-one seems to know exactly how many nuclear weapons really exist in the world. Some countries report essentially nothing about their weapons capabilities, in terms of numbers of weapons, delivery vehicles, and amounts of fissile material.We have some bilateral treaties that set limits on deployments of strategic nuclear weapons of the Russian Federation and the United States, but no requirements for verified destruction, and no treaties addressing the possession, production or foreign deployment of non-strategic nuclear weapons.

Strategic nuclear weapons are those that are essentially long range, i.e. can be used to destroy cities across  continents: i.e. New York from somewhere in Russia, or Moscow from the Rocky Mountains. Non strategic (or tactical) nuclear weapons have a shorter range and lower yield. They can be delivered by planes, submarines. Their targets are weapons factories, stockpiles, raw material, transportation systems, power systems. But the destruction of such targets by nuclear weapons does not lessen the horrific humanitarian effects of the the use of such weapons on the environment, human and ecology  around those facilities. Just think of the effect of the tsunami on Fukushima and consequent effect on the area around this. Non-strategic weapons have been reduced, but they have also been modernised.

In the 201o Nuclear Posture Review, the Obama administration indicated that the US Air Force would retain the capability to deliver both nuclear and conventional weapons as it replaced ageing F-16 aircraft with the new F-35 Joint Striker Fighter and that  a “full scope” life extension programme for the B61 bomb, the weapon that is currently deployed in at least six European states, “to ensure its functionality wit the F-35”.

So we are faced with no effective disarmament of nuclear weapons…and this is what we need to focus on, to persuade our fellow citizens that disarmament is still a real issue, whose solution could well free up money to address our other pressing issues.

As New Zealanders we value our stand, but we should take our beliefs out there to the world with conviction and strength. We developed a way of growing community support at town and community level for the non nuclear message. It is a style that meets with a positive reaction from many other activists. The town of Portsmouth in England has voted not to be the replacement port for the nuclear fleet if an independent Scotland asks the fleet to shift from its current Scottish base.

So as we remember those who died in the World Wars and the conflicts that have followed, let us also remember the power and opportunity that comes from peace. What could we spend $1.7 trillion on next year? That’s not just a nice idea: that is an incentive.


climate change, climate change refugees, Uncategorized

So…climate change! Where do we begin?

Last night I went to a meeting in Dunedin where people gathered to discuss whether we should be agreeing to the exploration of our waters for oil and gas.

We did focus a little on the risks from exploration and later from the actual wells.

But something troubled me.

We seemed to be missing the basic question. Why are we actually looking for more hydrocarbons?

Why is not our focus on replacement of these hydrocarbons. Let’s manage this replacement as quickly as possible.

The only Green MP in England, Caroline Lucas has made a similar comment, but hers is on fracking.

“For Lucas, the big problem with fracking has nothing to do with the risk that it will cause earthquakes, contaminate the water table or pollute the soil. In fact, she thinks it possible that stringent regulations could minimise those risks. “It’s not that fracking itself is necessarily worse than ordinary gas extraction. It’s the fact that we’re just about to put into place a whole new infrastructure for a whole new fossil-fuel industry, at exactly the time when we need to be reducing our emissions.” The problem, in other words, is climate change”

In New Zealand, our households and industry are mostly powered by renewable energy, although we should be growing that percentage much much faster.

But it is our transport that is fuelled by oil and gas. Where is the research on alternative fuels? Why are we not harnessing the methane produced by hour livestock? What about the use of algae?

I want a clear statement from political parties on the way forward to reduce our dependence on oil and gas and the timeline in which we are going to do this.


Further to Charter Schools…..

…….and why they distract and take from the many to support a few.

I have rarely ever met a teacher who does not want to change and improve either what is happening in their classroom, or school, or system.

And yet as TV3 presented its saga on Charter Schools last night, it made it look as though the system was deliberately not responding to the needs of certain students and that the only way through was to set up a free school and offer something different.

As I tried to show in my last blog, it is possible to do that within the system. The old way of an existing school sponsoring an experiment,  meant it could happen without endangering students in existing schools. But even then extra resources were needed. And that would need strong justification in today’s tight budgeting.

The best way is to support an existing school to change to meet the needs of its students. Or for a group of schools to combine resources to promote some specialised curriculum or environment for the students. A simple example is how schools combine to staff an outdoor education centre to provide what would be too costly for one school to do alone.

With fewer resources and a narrower curriculum, dominated by National Standards, this provision for the whole range of students is even less likely to happen.

That is what is enraging teachers. They get condemned for not meeting needs and yet see money siphoned away from their schools to support charter schools.

Kia kaha, PPTA! You are working hard for the many, for a better way of providing for all the different needs of our students.


Charter schools, Free Schools

A True Story of a 1960’s “Charter” School in NZ

Way back in the 1970’s I was a young teacher, living in an urban commune in Christchurch! The commune was, and still is, Chippenham!

We were often visited by young secondary students interested in all that we were doing. One of them was  Rod Donald.

As a young teacher I was perturbed by what we were providing in terms of a learning experience. Together a small group of us designed a school. We read and listened to Paulo Freire. We explored Summerhill. But the one that caught our interest was Parkway in Philadelphia. It was a “School Without Walls”, using the community as a classroom.

We then approached the then Department of Education. We had to persuade an existing school to “give birth ” to us. We met with Ian Leggat at a wonderfully alternative meal in the commune. Ian was the Principal of Hagley High. He was persuaded. And then we focussed on Phil Amos, the then Labour Minister of Education. He came and stayed the night at the commune…ministerial car and all! He agreed and in 1975, Four Avenues Alternative High School was born.

It lasted at least ten years and then changed into a alternate school for students in trouble and lasted as that for another ten years. I learnt much in that whole process. The school was great for some students. There were successes and failures in terms of meeting the varied needs of the students. But this is not the blog to explore that in.

I am not sure whether it had the unfair funding that PPTA has so eloquently explained in terms of comparative per pupil finding for current charter schools,but it was seen by existing principals as an experiment, which they were prepared to support.

I returned to mainstream teaching and did some rethinking. What we had done, I thought, was provide a safety valve, which somehow delayed the necessary changes to take place mainstream. And it honoured its original ideas only as long as the commitment of the original team.

It all came back to me, when as a local government officer I was instructed to attend a public meeting on proposed free schools ( UK charter schools) in Northamptonshire. Here I saw models of different communities trying to promote their philosophies, be it drama as the means of learning or a Hindi school. They wanted funding from the state and freedom from the state!

Towards the end of the evening I talked with the young Tory advisers from Gove’s office and asked them what they would do to maintain the schools once the enthusiasm of the founders had died away, and new leaders could not be found. They admitted that they had given this no thought!

Neither has the current National Government in New Zealand given this any thought. Nor have they made it an even playing field. We are in a competitive education system. Parents will choose smaller classes…so might teachers.Chris Hipkins has shown that the per pupil formula is weighted extravagantly in favour of the charter schools, so that  charter school teachers can be paid more.

And then there is this awful contradiction. well another one! We are still closing schools because they are too small. Yet we exacerbate this problem in both NZ and UK, by allowing free schools to open willy-nilly without thinking about the effect on neighbouring schools.

Choice has become a mantra. And great if we all have choice. We can have that by having a flexible, dynamic, well-funded inclusive education system paid for from our taxes. anything else must be paid for from the pockets of the promoters.

Charter schools are just wasting taxpayers money. There are far better ways of experimenting and testing out new ideas and solutions. This is uncontrolled and will likely live only as long as the wonderfully energised promoters are involved.


Thank you, Mister Robinson!

This week in New Zealand we have farewelled a servant of public broadcasting . Geoff Robinson presented the Morning Report news programme for forty years and today he stood down and headed into the new shores of retirement.

Many listeners have sent messages of thanks to Geoff for his service to the public, always being there during really hard times such as the Christchurch earthquake. He really was an anchor for the public. But it was far more than his long service that listeners appreciated. They loved his calmness and his ability to get answers without being belligerent.

For me, Geoff represented the face/voice of public broadcasting in New Zealand. He was there to serve the listening public. He was a public servant and served our country and its democracy with pride.

Thank you so much, Geoff. As politicians we used to pray outside the studio doors that we would get you, and not your partner…but I learnt that with your quiet manner you often got closer to the real argument or issue. You were not ever impressed with pretension. Nor did you treat us as royalty: we were and are human beings.

Public broadcasting is about keeping the community informed; about serving the community and meeting its diverse needs. It is not about making a profit for shareholders, or obeying the leader of the country, or pleasing certain sections of the audience at the expense of others.

For those of you reading this from England, I am tempted into that old cliche, that you may not realise how lucky you are with the BBC. While New Zealanders do still have a public broadcasting radio service, it does not have a public broadcasting television service. TVNZ is still owned by the government. It is , however a state-owned enterprise and is expected to return a profit. So it advertises around its programmes, and with that, the notion of service to the public takes back seat to winning an audience for specific advertisers and their products.

This sorry state of affairs began with the freezing of the television licence fee. And that immediately led to cuts and to looking at other ways to fund the service. The licence fee was finally abolished by the National Government in 1999.

So, to UK readers, does this sound familiar? the Tory backbenchers are always attacking BBC and urging that the Licence fee be abolished. And I think it has already been frozen which has seen the inevitable cuts to BBC programmes/stations.

Back in NZ,funding was allocated to a body, known as NZ On Air instead of directly to TVNZ. This body was to use the funds to ensure that  New Zealand programmes were made. And although that is so very important, as was the agreement to play 25% NZ music on all radio stations, it is not the only focus of what public broadcasting is.

The exception was Radio New Zealand which did receive money directly to provide not just for programmes but for the running of two nation-wide stations.

Apart from Radio New Zealand,  we the public of New Zealand are not served well by our publicly owned media. They do not provide objective analysis. The television is celebrity driven. There is no equivalent of Newsnight or the Channel 4 news.

So please do not ever be persuaded to look for funding for public broadcasting that is dependent on a government to provide or advertisers to pay for.

And to future Ministers of Broadcasting in NZ….I know that media has changed ( here am I writing a blog)…but maybe someone will get the urge to rebuild a real public service television channel…just one..and keep on funding Radio New Zealand.