Tuesday, 30 April 2013

welcoming the afghani refugees

after a sad post yesterday, i thought i'd write about something a little more positive today.  there has been a lot of coverage in the news lately about the refugees who have recently arrived from afghanistan.  they worked as interpreters for the nz defence force, and 80 families have been brought to live here.

the thing that has struck me most about this is the favourable media coverage.  all the stories i've seen have a very personal touch, with stories and pictures of some of the families.  i can't find the clip (because i can't remember which channel it's on) where a husband & wife were interviewed on their reaction to nz - well, the wife didn't actually speak because she didn't feel confident about her english.  but we get to hear directly from these people, to hear their words and so to relate to them as people.

i guess the reason why this struck me is that it's different to the usual narratives we hear about refugees and asylum seekers in the media. much of the coverage is around politicians seeking to gain attention, and particularly of late, around changes made by this government around asylum seekers laws.  not to mention mr key's little stunt while julia gillard was here recently, offering to take more refugees from australia, but at the expense of others who would have been part of our 750 quota.

as part of the political rhetoric, we get to hear of refugees and asylum seekers as queue jumpers, or we have the drummed up fear of invasion (by boat, no less) and all manner of ills to be caused by an inflood of refugees.  we then have the radio talkback crowd & their internet equivalent who show nothing more than contempt for people who have come through some incredibly harrowing experiences, very often fearing for their lives.  there is a whole heap of resentment, even it seems, for the very food that goes into their mouths.

so in that context, this has been a refreshing change, and i wonder what impression it has been creating in the minds of those who resent the fact that we have to take any refugees at all.  i hope there is some positive impact, some change in the cultural mood, and a high level of acceptance across the board for refugees and asylum seekers who come to this country.

at this point i do want to acknowledge that whole sector of our society who welcome and support refugees.  there are many, many volunteers who give their time up to help refugees resettle and who act as mentors & support people.  their work is invaluable, their generosity truly humbling.  i wish we could hear and see more about these people in our media, but i guess they aren't considered particularly newsworthy.

a final point: i'm pretty sure the positive coverage has very much to do with the nz defence force & their PR team.  it has all the hallmarks of the NZDF PR machine, and the particular people chosen to speak on behalf of the group seems to have a pre-planned thing.  it's good to see the machinery of the state being used to support this very vulnerable group of people.  it would be nice if that machinery and the politicians who are responsible for running it could provide similar support & positive PR for all the others who come to our country seeking refuge.

Monday, 29 April 2013

remembering the dead

i've had a bit of blogging break because i ran out of energy.  too many things happening at once, and i needed some time to myself, which i got a bit of this weekend.

there are many things i want to write about, but the most pressing today is the death of parekura horomia.  it is so unexpected, and he's a politician i have huge respect for.  i'd only talked to him a couple of times and seen him around at conferences and the like.  but my most enduring memory of him is at the labour party conference just after the passing of the foreshore & seabed legislation.

i was one of the first to stand up, in what turned out to be the longest standing ovation i've seen at a labour party conference.  it was a time for labour people to acknowledge what a difficult time it had been for our maori MPs, and mr horomia had managed to come through the whole messy process while keeping his dignity & mana intact.  this is a bill i wish a labour government had never put up, but given that it happened, i believe mr horomia & other maori MPs of the time did us proud. as we stood to acknowledge all of that, his eyes filled with tears, and you could see not only the appreciation he felt but also the humility that is the hallmark of a truly great person.

mr horomia will be sorely missed, both in maoridom & across all communities in this country.  he was the kind of leader we need a lot more of.  my condolences to his whanau.

yesterday was workers' memorial day, a day for us to remember all those people who died in the workplace.  the focus in new zealand this year was on forestry workers:  "since 2008, 23 workers have died and almost 900 have been seriously injured."  it's an appalling situation, made worse because this industry prefers to treat it's workers as contractors, thereby not allowing them to form unions and to push collectively for health & safety regulations.

at the asset sale protest in hamilton on saturday, we took the time to remember these workers and others.  i particularly felt for the bangladeshi workers who had been forced by their bosses to go back to work in a building that had cracks in the walls and was known to be unsafe.  this awful tragedy highlights so clearly the power imbalance between workers and their employers.  without regulation and without workers pushing for their rights, health & safety goes by the wayside.  employers will complain about "bureaucracy" and "red tape" and make all regulation sound like an evil thing.  it is truly hard to comprehend that there are employers who care so little about the lives and the safety of their workers, and who see health & safety regulation as a burden rather than a necessary requirement to protect their employees.

just 2 days before workers memorial day, the government announced a bill that would weaken further what little power workers have.  this bill further attacks the ability to bargain collectively, to have industry bargaining via multi-employer contracts.  in fact it's so petty that it removes the right for workers to have tea breaks.  helen kelly gives a good summary of the provisions of the bill here.

we need to fight back against this, in every way we can.  it's time we begin to acknowledge the value of human labour, to pay fair wages and ensure fair working conditions.  there is no doubt that a fairer society is not only a healthier society but also a wealthier one.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

hamilton youth council

if you are connected to me via twitter or facebook, you'll know that i was at a hamilton youth council event this evening. they described it as a "launch", but it wasn't until after talking to a few people there that i realised that the launch was of their new website.

still, it was great to see a room full of wonderful young people, engaged and active, ready to contribute. and as i've written so often before, i hate the way our society writes off young people and is critical of them for little more than that they do things differently.  i hate the narratives that come through, especially letters to the editor.  they are hardly likely to make our young people feel that they are a valued part of our society.

i hope they felt valued tonight.  the event was well attended, and the adults who spoke certainly let them know how important they were to the city.  but the bulk of the speaking was done by the young people, who were articulate & intelligent, and very enthusiastic about the work programme they have ahead of them.

it's no surprise that naomi kumar was one of the youth councillors.  and it was wonderful to see the diversity on the council - check out the photos here.  but there is an explanation for it.  the selection process, as explained to me by khan edmonds, was like a job interview.  the young people sent in their CVs & had to go through an interview process.  which indicates a selection panel.

what they did not have to go through was an election with voting from the general public.  had that been the case, and in our current society, it's unlikely that some of these people would have got through.  possibly they would have been hesitant to put their names forward knowing that they would have been judged much more harshly than others.  and it's also likely that their considerable talents would not have been recognised by the voting population.

one of the aims of the youth council is to raise awareness and increase their profile in the community by engaging with community groups.  i really applaud this move, as it is one way to start pushing against those ingrained prejudices.  so that hopefully when & if they are ready to stand for public office, the public will be ready to accept them for who they are and to see them as kiwis.

in the meantime, i wish them all well & congratulate them on putting on a successful event.  i'm expecting great things from these young people.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

the power of one

a hamilton icon will be gone after this saturday.  the frankton market has been going since 1986, and has been a place where the community comes together.  i've spent several mornings there myself, campaigning for political causes.  the thing with this market is that it has been a place where the poorer people go, as well as many people of colour.  it's a good place to engage with people who are often alienated from the political process.

the markets have clashed with a large hamiltonian business called forlongs - a family-owned retail business that owns quite a bit of space in the main frankton shopping area, including 2 big buildings and associated carparks.  the family is one of established wealth, and has the funds to use the environment court to shut down the markets, due to a lack of resource consents being held by the permit holder.

since the permit holder for the markets, mr vinod bhika, doesn't have money to fight the case, he has chosen instead to close the market after this saturday.  the dispute between the market & forlongs has been running for some six years.  one of the issues for forlongs is that they don't open on sunday, for religious reasons, so saturday is their main day for weekend trading.  therefore, they concerned about are the lack of parking for their regular customers because of the market, and theft.

they suggested that the market be shifted to sunday.  but the same religious reasons that apply to forlongs are likely to apply to many who either run stalls or go to the markets.  and so, after years of dispute, forlongs has taken this legal step to shut the market down.  they aren't supported by other businesses in the area, who appreciate the extra foot-traffic.  it's not only the small businesses but also the stall holders, many of whom are likely to depend on the income from the market, who will suffer.

given the depth of feeling about this locally, it's likely that forlongs will also suffer.  the "save frankton markets" facebook page is now up to 2400 likes.  many people are talking of boycotting forlongs.

i personally find it reprehensible that one big business in the area has the power to drastically affect the incomes of so many others, others who are likely to depend heavily on what they can earn once a week at the market.

this shows clearly how the structures and institutions of our country favour those who already have wealth & power, while a whole community struggles to fight back.  the consistently negative publicity hasn't yet affected the decision of forlongs to pursue this case.  let's hope that continued pressure leads to a better result.  you can sign a petition here to support the market.

Monday, 22 April 2013

NZpower and the flight of capital

i've just posted at the hand mirror about some terrible advertising by masterchef australia.

there are a lot of other topics i'd like to write about tonight, but i'm going to have to get some rest.  just quickly, regarding the mighty river power share sales & the NZpower policy announced by the labour & green parties in response: it's hardly surprising to see threats from JB Were today that there would be significantly less investment in the local share market by them.

it's one of the constants in the struggle for social justice that any measures which seek to reduce income inequality are met by the "flight of capital" threat.  ie if a society doesn't quietly consent to the elite increasing their wealth even further at the expense of the poorest or even the average person, then that elite immediately threaten to destroy the economy by taking their wealth elsewhere.

it's really time for countries to stand up to that threat.  it would be even better if many countries across the world could do that as a collective action, but the neoliberal ideology permeates across nations as much as it does within them, so that collective action for the good of the majority is somehow seen as an evil thing.

but i have no doubt that nz could withstand this particular threat - after malaysia managed to do it, and some south american countries have also survived pretty well.  no, there's a threat bigger than the "flight of capital" one, and it's our free trade agreements.  particularly the trans-pacific partnership deal, but possibly others as well, which might hamper our ability to regulate our own economy for the benefit of our people.  the free-trade agreements tend to undermine our ability to do that, and favour corporate interests to detriment of the people's right to self-determination and the ability to run their economies as they choose.

i really hope that our government doesn't sign us up to something so restrictive, merely as a vengeful act in retaliation to this policy announcement by labour & the greens.  if they do so, it will harm our country for generations.

this is also a good read on the subject, as is this and this.

Friday, 19 April 2013

on accountability and safety in the workplace

as i'm sitting here pretty watching events developing in boston via twitter, i'm also thinking it's sad that news about the pike river coal has been overshadowed by events overseas.  the company has been found "liable on all nine charges under the Health and Safety in Employment Act, in relation to the deaths. Each charge can incur a maximum penalty of $250,000."

 while it's great that the company has been held accountable, the verdict will effectively lead to little punishment.  as pike river is already in receivership, the impact on the people actually responsible for poor decisions will be negligible.  and even if the company is fined to the maximum, if it doesn't have funds, then there is hardly any point.

it's the directors and management who need to be face greater accountability - they need to be held personally responsible for the decisions they have made.  peter whittal's trial is yet to come, but he isn't the only person who is responsible here.  there are the people he is responsible to, the people who carried out his orders.  and there are those that invested in this company, expecting to make gains at the expense of workers' safety.

it's appalling that company law can be used to protect directors, management & also investors from the consequences of their decisions.  i'm beginning to see shades of union carbide, and the complete lack of accountability in that case is similar to what it happening here.  and until we have greater consequences, both criminal and civil, the pressure to cut costs & increase profits by reducing health & safety requirements will have the greatest influence on work conditions.

workers memorial day is coming up - to be commemorated in auckland on 28 april.  i expect it won't get a lot of media coverage, it never does.  we don't seem to want to take the time to remember those who have died in the workplace, deaths that could have been prevented by adequate investment in workplace safety.

yet we still have people who complain about our apparently "politically correct" society, where health and safety measures are seen as "unnecessary red tape" and "bureaucracy gone mad".  this narrative runs unchecked, as a means to justify underspending on policies, procedures & equipment that will keep workers safe.  it's not good enough any more.  workers deserve to be safe in their workplaces, and if that means taking up more time and money to ensure they get home at night, then it's a very worthwhile investment.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

what happened to keeping it simple?

well, i had planned to write something tonight on the power reforms announced by the labour & green parties.  i'd still prefer the renationalisation option, as i mentioned a few days ago.  mr shearer said on radio nz tonight that this wasn't feasible in the short term because of the costs of buying back shares - not just in the companies about to be sold, but also others like contact energy.

but it's too late to be thinking with any clarity, and i've spend some of the evening putting together various policy proposals.  one proposal i would like to make is the abolition of the look-through company regime that was put through a couple of years ago.  it was an attempt by this government to restrict the losses that can be claimed by people who run loss-making businesses - particularly residential rental companies.

the regime was put in place to replace the loss attributing qualifying company regime, which was complicated enough but manageable.  the new regime is so much worse, and while it effectively tries to ensure that people can only claim losses on assets that they have an economic interest in, there are so many definitions and calculations that it's a total nightmare.

the joys of being an accountant are that a lot of this kind of work is unseen by our clients and very difficult to explain.  but it takes a lot of time, so the client gets a big bill for work that they don't see and can't appreciate, because it doesn't provide any tangible or concrete product.  all we've done is applied the law and made sure they've claimed only what they are allowed, but you can't wrap that up & put a ribbon around it.

but it's another way that the government is increasing costs to small businesses, while increasing the tax take (by limiting the claiming of losses).  they could have obtained a much similar result by ring-fencing losses ie not allowing losses from residential rentals to be claimed against other income. it would discourage investment in houses (because there would be much less tax advantage in borrowing to the full value of the house), especially in conjunction with a capital gains tax.  that would help reduce house prices, and divert investment to other areas of the economy.

unfortunately the sadist that is drafting tax laws at the moment doesn't like simplicity.  i'm thinking the person that thought up look-through companies must be the same person who invented the foreign investment fund regime - yet another complicated nightmare that takes hours to work through with no very tangible result at the end.  again, i applaud the intent - an attempt to encourage investment in the local economy, but the application is  unnecessarily complicated.  i'm sure they could achieve the same result by simply taxing foreign dividends 10% more than local dividends, and save people a lot of money on their accounting costs.

for a government whose political rhetoric is all about cutting the red tape, reducing bureaucracy and simplifying the system, they seem to be doing the exact opposite.  the problem is, of course, that the simple solutions are never politically palatable, so the government hides what it's doing via schemes and calculations that are so convoluted that most people don't realise what's happening.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

on seven sharp

well, today turned out to be a little different to what i expected.  i got the news of the bombings in boston at breakfast time, and was feeling sad about that.  and at the same time hearing about bombing in iraq, violence related to the upcoming elections.  there are days when the world feels like a pretty ugly place, and this was certainly one of them.

in the afternoon, i got the call from seven sharp to be on the show.  which duly happened, and you can see the clip here.  as with these things, the interview went really fast & i felt like i wasn't able to say many of the things that i had planned.  i did want to start with expressing my condolences to people who had suffered in the tragedy, but couldn't manage it because we were straight into the questions.

i also wanted to bring some balance to the context of muslims living in america.  on the one hand, there was the congressional inquiry, the move to ban shariah law in over 24 states (even though there hasn't been any great push by the muslim community to have it recognised - the laws are more of an attempt to attack muslims), various attacks on mosques and violence against individuals (see here as well).

but on the other hand, there are a whole lot of people who are supportive and working to build a more cohesive community.  there were plenty of americans who spoke out vociferously against the qur'an-burning pastor in wisconsin.  as is usually the case, the damage is done by a few, but the suffering is borne by many.

in that context, i watch events like to day with a deep sadness.  violence like this inevitably leads to more violence, in a backdrop of fear and increasing hatred.  it's so hard to break that cycle.  i didn't get time to mention the stuff happening around the globe - the invasions, occupations, drone strikes and targetted assassinations that build up to create a maelstrom where no-one feels safe.

it seems so overwhelming & that's why i try to keep my focus on the the local, the areas we can influence, the communities we live in. keep working to make positive change in the places we can, whether it's big or small.  because when a lot of people start working within their own communities, then it can lead to something bigger, something better.  an alternative to what we have seen today, and continue to see so many places around the world.

Monday, 15 April 2013


today mighty river power shares are on sale.  i can't think about this without feeling a little sick, mostly because of the inequality being created.  these are assets that were built up through contributions by taxpayers over generations.  ownership by the state means that all nz'ers get the benefits generated by these assets.  but now, 49% of the ownership is being taken away from the poorest people and put into the hands of those who are already wealthy.

the reality is that most of the shares will go to institutional investors. a large part of them will end up being owned by overseas investors, and that means wealth that could have benefited all nz'ers will be leaving the country, no longer to circulate in our economy.

i'm of the view that core infrastructure assets should be owned by the state, and i certainly don't subscribe to the view that such assets are run more efficiently by the private sector.  i've seen government departments run effectively, providing timely services.  the companies office is one that really took off about 15 years ago with a huge reduction in fees, and simplification of company administration procedures, especially through the use of the internet.  it's only in the last year or so that this government introduced another of their stealth taxes by reintroducing an annual return filing fee - a service which had been free now costs $45.

IRD used to be running pretty efficiently 5 years ago.  again, it's only in the last few years, as call centre staff have been cut, that it has become difficult to get through on the phone.  but when the department was adequately staffed, it was working well a lot of the time.  nz post was another one that actually went through a phase of dropping the price of posting letters - something that almost certainly wouldn't have happened had it been privatised.  on the other hand, we've seen the effects of the privatisation model in the telecommunications industry, which has left nz way behind many other countries both in terms of telecommunications infrastructure & costs of internet & phone calls.

there's no intrinsic reason our power companies can't be run effectively & efficiently by the state.  i'd actually prefer to see them run as government departments rather than as SOE's which are required to pay a dividend back to the state - especially when that dividend isn't reinvested back in to the infrastructure required to maintain the electricity system.  if it goes into the general fund, then part of the price of power is effectively a tax, and it's a regressive tax ie those who are earning less pay a higher percentage of their income towards that tax.

taxes should be transparent, not hidden in our power bill.  the price we pay for power should include the costs to generate it, the costs of maintaining & renewing the infrastructure, and the cost of investing in new technology (including some expenditure on research & development to develop those new technologies).  i'd also want to be sure that my power bill was enough to pay all workers in the industry a decent living wage, with safe working conditions.  and that's it.  we shouldn't be paying for anything else at all via our power bill.

now that the companies are being sold, we've finally had a statement from the labour party that they will be taking action to lower power prices once in government.  but i'd like to see more than that.  i'd like to at least see a commitment to renationalising the assets, with investors getting their money back on shares (inflation-adjusted) with no capital gain.  in an ideal world, i'd love to see the SOE model removed but i don't know if any party is talking about that yet.

yes, it's a sad day for nz.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

voluntary segregation

today was my first attempt at live tweeting, from the nzei rally in hamilton.  it was great to about supporting teachers & fighting for our education system.  the march and rally were really well attended in hamilton, and from what i saw on social media, it was the same across the country.  you can find out more about the campaign here.

in the afternoon, i was at the nesian festival at garden place.  there were food & craft stalls, & performances by groups from the samoan, tongan, kiribati, & fijan communities, while i was there.  we even had a great pasifika elvis impersonator!

but i noticed that the crowd was almost all brown faces.  it was a very similar situation with the waitangi day celebrations that used to be held at innes common by the lake in past years: great event, great attendance, but a real lack of white people.  of course there would be the usual local politicians in attendance, who came out of civic duty & probably because they are better informed about such events & many do enjoy them.

there are usually a committed group of white people who work with ethnic communities or are connected to them in other ways, and they also come to these events, generally with a great sense of enjoyment.

but other than that, there is a real segregation.  brown people go to events that are designated as being for them - such as the nesian festival & waitangi day, and white people don't.  it would be interesting to find out why - is it because the events are advertised widely enough, because they aren't seen as relevant, because they aren't perceived as welcoming?  perhaps this is a hamilton thing, and the same kind of segregation isn't seen in other cities.

whatever the reason, it saddens me.  because if we can't even share each other's cultural festivals, then how do we build that social cohesion and sense of belonging?  i don't expect that there is going to be a whole lot of learning happening at an event like this, mostly because there is no scope for discussion & debate, no presentation of different cultural perspectives & values.  it's all about food, commerce & dance, which tends to be a superficial interaction.  but it's certainly better than no interaction at all, and it's a start towards learning to appreciate diversity.

Friday, 12 April 2013

visiting a friend

what do you say to someone who's dying?  mostly you avoid the subject.  you (or to be more precise, the ill person will) talk about the past, reminisce and share memories.  we try to negotiate around the sadness, so that these last few times together can at least create a sense of peace and a reassurance of being loved.

i visited an old friend of the family yesterday, a friend of my mother's more than mine.  while i've tried to keep in touch over the years, there would be long periods of time when we wouldn't meet.  but in the last few years, as her health has deteriorated, i've tried to visit more often.  and now that i hear she may only have a couple of more months, there is that aching sadness and sense of loss, even though she isn't even gone yet.

but there's none of that when i go to see her.  she doesn't leave any room for it.  she isn't stoic, she's accepting and still manages to be positive and cheerful every time i visit.  she has an endless supply of stories, which she tells haltingly, sometimes because of lack of breath or tiredness, and sometimes because the memory fails her and she needs time to remember.  but that doesn't stop her, and she carries on relating the times in her life that she connected with people, the times they gave her joy and happiness.

i watch her and feel my own weakness.  i know that if i suffered anything near what she goes through everyday in terms of medical procedures and pain, i'd be a mess.  i can't imagine i'd face such a situation with the courage and dignity that she does.  and it is this more than anything else which makes it so much harder to let her go.  for who will inspire me the way she does?  who will show me and teach me just by her example the heights humanity can reach?  i know in my heart that there are and will be others who inspire me, but this one particular person?  no, i don't want to let her go.

of course, i don't have any choice in the matter.  she will go when her time comes, and if i'm very lucky, in between all the rushing around i'm involved in just now, i will be able to find some few hours to spend by her bedside.  i'll be able to hear more of what she wants to tell, and when she's too tired to even do that, i want to be able to sit quietly and hold her hand and to let her feel just how dear she is to me, as she is to so many other people on this planet.

in my religious tradition, the prayers of the elderly carry a lot of weight.  and as part of indian culture, it's considered a blessing to be able to live in the shade of one's elders.  so along with the love i feel for her, i also carry that respect inside me, which helps me to value her even more.

all i can do is pray that her final days will be as free of pain as possible, and that she goes in peace and rests in peace.  she deserves all that and so much more.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

change at the council

a bit of a change happened in the proceedings of hamilton city council today.  for the first time in the city's history, the opening prayer was delivered by a group that wasn't christian.

this change has been a long time coming, and has been the work of councillor daphne bell - someone for whom i have a huge amount of respect.  daphne has long been a champion of diversity, and has had strong connections with the various ethnic communities in hamilton from well before she became a councillor.  it was also as a result of her lobbying that the position of ethnic development advisor was established by the hamilton city council (a role most ably filled by philip yeung for many years).

she retires this term, as she won't be seeking re-election, and i believe that this is a fitting legacy to remind us all of the various contributions she has made & no doubt will continue to make in years to come.

as a result of daphne's work behind the scenes, hamilton city council has now developed the practice of having prayers said by members of a different religious community each time they meet.  she has liaised with the waikato interfaith council to arrange people to offer prayers, and here's a video of the prayer said this morning by the jewish community:

i'd also like to include part of the press release by the waikato interfaith council:

We would like to extend our vote of appreciation to Her Worship the Mayor Judy Hardaker, Hamilton City Councillor Daphne Bell (who has championed the issue of interfaith prayers), and all Hamilton City Council members for including both majority and minority religions in the opening of future Council meetings. This positive action sends an enthusiastic message of inclusion to all members of society and reflects the changing demographics of our city. We sincerely hope that our prayers, led by a more representative selection of faith leaders, may help guide and encourage our Mayor and City Councillors in fulfilling the obligations for which they have been elected. WIFCO believes that this is a significant milestone in local governance that embraces all members of Waikato’s multicultural and multireligious communities. We hope that other Councils throughout New Zealand undertake such initiatives.

there is, of course, one thing lacking. amongst the list of faith communities chosen to open the sessions, there is no-one from the atheist/humanist community.  it's something i think that WIFCO is open to, and i think it's important that someone from that community has the opportunity to offer a reflection in place of a prayer, something from their own moral or ethical beliefs that would inspire the council as they start their day.  i'm really hoping that happens either later this year or next year.

but this morning was at least a start, a recognition that our community here is indeed woven of many threads (as naomi mentioned in her speech yesterday), each one of which enhances our city.

i'd also like to mention briefly the person who mailed me a handwritten letter today about my blog, which was very inspiring and moving.  i want to thank you here for taking the trouble to find me out and write your thoughts, and to let you know that you really have made my day!  i hope to send you a response in kind in the coming days.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

My Dream for Aotearoa New Zealand – Naomi Kumar

during the weekend, the race unity speech competition was held in auckland.  i had the privilege of driving talking to the waikato winner, naomi kumar, last friday morning.  she's a lovely young woman who lives in my neighbourhood and goes to the same high school i went to.  so you can imagine that i was giving her a whole lot of good wishes and really hoping she would win.

and she did - go her!  below is a video and a transcript of her speech.  i hope you'll take the time to listen to it or read it, and also to pass it around.

Fifty years ago one man, a black man, stood in the heart of one of the world’s largest
democracies and told the masses gathered there that he had a dream. He dreamed of
breaking down the barriers that set a people of one land apart. He dreamed for the
heartbeats of the dispossessed, for the right to life, to liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  The kind of dreams we all as humans share.

Kia Ora all.

Historically, difference has defined us. Given us a sense of identity. Culture. Religion. Race.  We identify within the scope of these socially constructed brackets. We are designed in relation to our peers. I’m brown. You’re white. Differences are what make us individual.  They can unite, or divide us. Because it is when these very differences provide the platform for a number of institutionalised biases to play out that the issue of disadvantage arises.

Racial disharmony is not what it used to be a generation ago. To think that people of
different ethnicities could not share the same public spaces, ride the same public transport, or even learn in the same classrooms, is hard to fathom. We are very fortunate indeed to live in a society where we don’t have to face that anymore. So does this mean that race is not an issue in our times?

Certainly, it’s no longer the overt divide that segregates us or keeps us from the same
entitlements we deserve. After all, we live in a multicultural society, don’t we? Everyone has equal opportunity. But it still is the elephant in the room that we need to address. Yes, we still confront prejudice in various forms. No number of personal anecdotes I deliver can relay the experience of what it is to have to deal with xenophobia on daily basis.

It’s the everyday alienation of being on the margins. Not always directly discriminated
against, but not fully included either. It’s sitting in a class and feeling uncomfortable when one of my teachers jokingly remarks about getting us Asians off the curry and on to doing some work. And being told by my peers that I “can’t take a joke” when I raise my hand and speak out in objection. It’s looking through a magazine and that realization of knowing I’ll never be able to conform to that normative standard of Western beauty. It’s the disillusionment of wondering whether a person sees you for who you are or what you look like. But, like the change in seasons, you become accustomed to your difference.

I can’t take off my skin just as easily as I can take off my bindi. I can’t scrub away years of internalized anxieties the way I can wash off henna. But I can learn to love myself because what I have is a strong support network of whanau and community.

We cannot underestimate the work done by agencies like the Human Rights and Race
Relations commissions, in promoting harmony. We have come a long way in a span of a decade in recognizing and respecting difference. The efforts of our government have been significant.

2011 saw the refusal of a bus driver in allowing a Muslim woman to board a bus because of her veil. Reaction was swift. Widespread support was drawn from communities who immediately took a stand against the action. Our own Prime Minister spoke out and the message was strong. Discrimination is not acceptable in our society.

And that kind of support is not accidental, that was because of the work put into getting dialogue and understanding between people. Between host communities and newcomers. Between Maori and migrants. Between people of different beliefs.

We must keep on that track. We must go about fostering this ideal of inclusiveness.
It begins with education and understanding. To not fear difference, but to embrace it. To teach love and empathy to our children. To promote Kiwi role models of diverse
backgrounds. To challenge peoples’ and the mainstream media’s perceptions of culture and inform institutions on how to celebrate diversity instead of trying to ignore it. This comes with engaging people on a social and community level – and as a young person I believe that this change should start with youth. I believe in the grassroots advocacy of cultural acceptance.

The point is not to co-exist in a colour blind society. I want to live amid a diversity of sight, sound and colour. Cultures are part of each and every one of us, woven into our very identities. To not acknowledge that would be erasure. I am a Kiwi, just as much as I am Indian. And Hindu. And Christian. My life has taken me to be raised in mosques, churches, temples and monasteries; moving between continents, languages and beliefs.

And while some may think they should all in effect lead me to a dilemma of heritage, I feel I am instead strengthened by the various connections I hold now. We need to redefine acceptance. People do not fit into a cultural binary. And this is something employers, institutions and people need to be able to understand. This is the future as I envision it, a generation of global citizens, representing a future no longer restricted by geo-political boundaries, or arbitrary distinctions based on the colour of one’s skin.

In the future I envision, we are not defined by ethnicity. We are enriched by it, certainly. But it is never a measure of our value as individuals.

We are not defined by our religion, but it instils in us a faith in society. We are defined by our responsibilities to this world as persons, by our shared convictions and dreams of happiness. And how well we can work together to achieve that. That is the true nature of justice.

This dream is for my someday daughter, whatever strangely beautiful hue, or features she may possess. I came to New Zealand as an outsider. But for her it will be different. I experienced the disconnect. I carry the label of migrant. But she will belong. No matter our beginnings, we are the living, breathing tangata whenua of Aotearoa. There is but one eye of the needle through which the white thread, the black thread and the red thread traverse. But what of the brown thread? And the yellow thread? Each of us are the threads in this fabric of a collective human partnership.

Our generation shall inherit this earth and by our design we can choose to flourish.
Together. No pain. No prejudice. Like Martin Luther King fifty years ago dreamed, we have the capacity for inspiring change within others and ourselves.

So my dream? As one of my fondest Indian poets Tagore puts it ““Where the mind is
without fear and the head is held high, Into that freedom of heaven, let my country awake.”

Naomi Kumar
Hillcrest High School

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

on death and honesty

margaret thatcher is dead, and as can be expected, there is a lot of reaction to that news.  there is the normal expected reaction of the present british prime minister, praising her achievements and her qualities.  there are the tributes from other leaders around the world.  there are the expressions of grief from conservatives.

but there are also the opposite: those who say they won't mourn her, those who are prepared to review the severely negative impacts of her legacy, and those who are actually celebrating her death.

about the latter, there has been much righteous indignation, both from the left & the right.  it's considered in bad taste, nasty, disrespectful.  even criticism of her policies and her beliefs has been sidelined with a "we shouldn't speak ill of the dead".  even by those who fully understand the effects of those policies and the widespread suffering it has caused.  even by those who sympathise with the poor & dispossessed.

the celebrations and reactions of glee reminded of similar reactions in iraq at the fall of saddam hussein & in libya with the capture & death of muammar gaddafi.  those pictures went around the world and we didn't see too much criticism about such celebrations being disrespectful or nasty.  the overwhelming opinion appeared to be that people were right to celebrate the removal of a tyrant, and that it's ok to be happy about the death of someone who had caused so much harm.

there was a similar, pretty global, reaction to the death of osama bin laden.  a lot of the reaction was of a celebratory nature.

yet a similar reaction by people who directly experienced the tyranny of ms thatcher's policies is getting a completely different reaction. 

i can say that i was never supportive of celebrations of death - for example, see here and here. i felt pretty much the same when saddam hussein was hanged & no, i don't think actually celebrating margaret thatcher's death is a good idea.  and it's possible that some of those who are against the celebration of ms thatcher's death were also against the celebration of the deaths of these others i have named.  but the majority of people who have been complaining today are showing an appalling double standard - cheering the death of some but not accepting that others would cheer the death of a british leader for similar reasons.

but this notion of not speaking ill of the dead, i have a different view about that.  i think there is a public good over-ride to that rule, and particularly when someone has had such an overarching influence on a global scale.  i think people should have to live with the consequences of their legacy, that the pain they left behind should be remembered at the time of their death.  i don't think it's right that their history should be described in glowing terms in the first few days after their death, thereby making it difficult to correct later on.  especially in a world where every record is more or less permanent.

this sentiment was best expressed by the widely-shared glenn greenwald piece in the guardian:

This demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figure's death is not just misguided but dangerous. That one should not speak ill of the dead is arguably appropriate when a private person dies, but it is wildly inappropriate for the death of a controversial public figure, particularly one who wielded significant influence and political power. "Respecting the grief" of Thatcher's family members is appropriate if one is friends with them or attends a wake they organize, but the protocols are fundamentally different when it comes to public discourse about the person's life and political acts. I made this argument at length last year when Christopher Hitchens died and a speak-no-ill rule about him was instantly imposed (a rule he, more than anyone, viciously violated), and I won't repeat that argument today; those interested can read my reasoning here. 

i'd strongly recommend reading the piece with his "reasoning", where he talks about the events after ronald reagan's death and makes the powerful point:

How they are remembered is not strictly a matter of the sensitivities of their loved ones, but has substantial impact on the culture which discusses their lives. To allow significant political figures to be heralded with purely one-sided requiems — enforced by misguided (even if well-intentioned) notions of private etiquette that bar discussions of their bad acts — is not a matter of politeness; it’s deceitful and propagandistic. To exploit the sentiments of sympathy produced by death to enshrine a political figure as Great and Noble is to sanction, or at best minimize, their sins. Misapplying private death etiquette to public figures creates false history and glorifies the ignoble.

more than this, it's disrespectful of all the people who have suffered and continue to suffer because of the political decisions of the deceased.  to sideline that suffering is to hide it at the time when there is the greatest opportunity to highlight the consequences of the deceased's actions.  while we are ready to consider the pain of the family of the deceased, why should we not equally be willing to openly acknowledge the pain of thousands, sometimes millions of others, those who were innocent and hurt through no fault of their own, but only because they had the misfortune to be born in place and time when the deceased had power over them?

the only final point i want to make here is one that is being made across many feminist blogs around the world in regards to ms thatcher, and one that is continuously made regarding any number of women: disagreeing with her politics is ok, attacking her for being a woman is really not ok.  there is no need to call her a witch, or any other gendered insult.  to do so harms all women, not just this one woman.  after all, there is plenty to criticise about her policies, beliefs and actions.

regardless of that, i do not rejoice at her death.  i don't wish hell for her or for any other person.  i do wish that she is remembered accurately, which includes all the negative aspects as well.  RIP margaret thatcher.

Monday, 8 April 2013

going home

one of the issues that i've written about regularly here is that of belonging.  or not belonging.  or probably to be more specific, my feeling that i belong here which is not matched by other people's feelings that i don't.

it's a common problem for children of migrants and even great-grandchildren of migrants, and the ones like me who came here at a young age.  for the actual people who migrated here, i think it's not such an issue.  even though they have chosen nz as their home, they often still feel a very strong association with the place they were born & grew up.  it's likely that they have close family and friends at the place they came from; they have strong memories and childhood associations with places, smells, food, language, cultural traditions.  all the things that make up the person they are today tend to be grounded & founded in that place they grew up.

so when they travel back to their country of origin, they talk about "going home".  home is still that place where the associations are so strong, it's still that place where everything is familiar, and where they feel a strong sense of belonging.  home is the place where everything is comfortable and known and understood.  patterns of speech, metaphors, cultural markers, typical shared experiences, all make up that feeling of going back to the place where one belongs.

but for their children who were born and/or grew up here, the associations aren't quite the same.  that place that their parents call home isn't as familiar as it is to their parents.  a lot of that feeling can depend on how often the children travel to their parents' home country, and how long they stay there.  how much they are able to immerse themselves in the culture and how well they speak the language.  some of these children will strongly identify with their heritage, others won't.  but i suspect that most of them, as they become adults, won't talk of "going home" when they travel back to the place their parents were born.

for them, as for me, home is here. this is the place i grew up, and where i've lived for 41 years.  it's what i know, what i'm familiar with, and if i don't always feel comfortable here, i know i'll never feel more comfortable than this anywhere else.

so when someone who knew a little bit of my background innocently asked me how often i "go back home", the question jarred.  because i don't go back home, i'm here at my home.  hamilton is home, it's where i belong.  it's when i'm overseas that i talk of going back home, and that's when i fondly remember the rolling green hills of the waikato (well, still a little brown at the moment) and the river running not too far away from my house.  that's when i think of the familiar streets, the language i grew up with, the friends, the places that all create that sense of home.

but more than that, the question jarred because it meant that the person asking it didn't recognise that i belong here.  or at least didn't appreciate it.  and this is something i'm going to face a lot as i campaign for the local body elections: how to overcome this entrenched notion in so many people's minds that i'm not a local, that i don't belong, that i'm not one of them.  it's insidious and persistent, and is most commonly seen when people use the word "kiwi" to mean people of european heritage.  as if the rest of us can't be kiwis.  funnily enough, this terminology is used by migrants just as much as locals - they will use the word "kiwi" to means local, white people who are other than them.

it's a concept i consistently fight against.  it's something i constantly need to remind people about: that as far as i'm concerned, the word "kiwi" includes me.  it's my identity as well.  i'm a nz'er, maybe not born, but certainly bred.  and this place is home.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Yom HaShoah

it's been a weekend of back-to-back meetings and events, mostly pretty amazing.  the balloon festival on saturday night was lovely with a spectacular fireworks display.

this afternoon i attended a holocaust memorial service, organised by the waikato jewish association & the christian friends of israel.  i've attended a similar event once before, which i had found difficult in some ways.  i was hesitant to attend this ceremony, because of fears that i would be in a position of not being able to respond to things i was hearing.

and this is where the power of working on interfaith issues becomes so important.  i was able to voice my concerns to a friend from the jewish community, and on their part, the organisers took those concerns seriously and undertook to do their best to ensure their event would be an inclusive one, and safe for their guests.

they were successful in doing that - i came away from the event feeling enriched, and also being able to participate by giving my own thoughts.  i'll put down what i shared below, but for me, the most important part of this experience was the fact that we were all able to be there and to share in a way that was respectful to everyone present.  it's the sort of thing that peace-making is built from, in the sense that we can bring people with disparate views into the same space, and make them feel comfortable.

this is something we try to do locally with islam awareness week, where we are lucky to have representatives of many faiths come together to share views on the theme for the year.  but for our event, we only manage to attract people who already subscribe to interfaith values, or people who are curious.  it's hard to get people with entrenched views to take part.  and it's equally hard to be in a place where i know people have entrenched views which won't be particularly sympathetic towards me.

so i think it was quite a feat by my friends to manage to create the kind of environment they did under the circumstances they were working in.  i know it took a lot of work on their part, and all i can do is express my sincere appreciation of that work and how much it means to me.  maybe in the greater scheme of things, it doesn't make a lot of difference.  it's not going to change the world, and we didn't have dialogue about contemporary issues.  but even so, it meant a lot to me.  it was another small step on a path that leads to better things.

here is what i said (more or less):

first i'd like to thank the organisers for making this an inclusive event, and for allowing us to be part of this time of remembrance and mourning for you.  i'd like to share a few verses of the qur'an:
Say: We believe in Allah and the revelation given to us and to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes, and given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to the Prophets from their Lord; we make no difference between any of them and to Allah we have surrendered. (2:136)
Oh you who believe, stand out firmly for justice, bearers of witness for Allah's sake, even though it be against your own selves or your parents or  your kin, and whether it be against rich or poor, for Allah can best protect both.  So do not follow your personal desire, lest you be not just.  And if you distort justice or decline to do justice, then surely Allah is aware of what you do. (4:135)
O you who believe, stand out firmly for Allah as witnesses in justice, and do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just.  Be just: that is nearer to piety and fear Allah. For Allah is well acquainted with all that you do. (4:8)
i'd like to say a prayer for all those who did not receive justice, who had to suffer injustice and oppression. i'm very sorry for your loss.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

i do not need to be saved by femen

i saw this article on my twitter feed today, and i thought "yes!  this.  totally this."

if you haven't heard of the group femen yet, i'll leave you to use an internet search engine to find out more about them.  let's just say that much of what you'll find is NSFW.  it's a form of protest that uses nudity to gain attention. and that it does.

their latest protest is against "islamism", in some sort of attempt to save muslim women. it's a protest in support of tunisian protestor amina tyler, who posed topless to protest against honour killing, and has since been out of contact with femen.  but the protest slogans painted on the topless bodies of young, white women are coming across as an bigoted and imperialist attack.

there have been plenty of muslim women speaking back via social media, including the twitter hashtag #muslimahpride.  i love this one that appears in the article:

and this:
and for me, that second one comes to the heart of the matter.  i love that muslim women are speaking out and being visible instead of being spoken about and spoken for by other women who think they know best about liberation and freedom of others.  from looking at the femen protest, you'd never know that there were muslim women activists working in their countries to fight against honour killings and others crimes against women; muslim women fighting for the right to drive and to work, to achieve and be counted.

and from looking at those protests, you could never tell that some of the worst problems muslim women face are as a result of invasion, occupation, drone strikes and bombs, carried out and/or funded by the west.  no, the femen protesters are working in a paradigm wherein the west can only be liberators, muslim men can only be oppressors, and muslim women can only be helpless victims.

it's hardly surprising that muslim women are saying they don't need this kind of support.  because it really doesn't help.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

on council paying a living wage

one of the issues that has come to the fore in hamilton politics is the living wage campaign.  councillor dave macpherson came out in the medai supporting the campaign and calling for the council to move to paying a living wage to all staff.

he got a considerable amount of pushback, starting from the mayor, and continuing on with various letters to the editor.  the usual line against the policy are twofold: one that it would be too expensive & rates are high enough as it is.  the other is that all other wages would have to move up to keep the differential.

the latter point is spurious, as far as i'm concerned.  the difference in wages between the highly paid & the lower paid workers is far too great in our society.  there is no need for it to be so great.  and i subscribe to the notion that we should value human labour enough that every person is able to earn enough to live on from working a reasonable number of hours (which really shouldn't be more than 40 per week).

the fact is that the living wage campaign actually takes into account working for families payments, so that the $18.40 only becomes a living wage because government is subsidising employers.  actually, if we believe that humans beings should have a decent quality of life from the fruits of their labour, then wages need to be much higher than that.

but let's go with the $18.40.  the differential in wages represents higher levels of skills and training.  i'd agree that there should be some differential to account for the fact that some people have taken time out of the workforce to gain a higher level of competence in a particular area.  the crucial question is: how much more should they earn?  because, at a certain point, the differential is no longer about remuneration for a increased level of skills and experience, and becomes more about elitism.

i don't see why we should pay for elitism, and particularly not from our rates.  so, as far as i'm concerned, reducing the differential is a good thing - it's a way to remove unnecessary inequality from our society.

then there comes the question of affordability.  the article i linked to above puts the cost for hamilton city council at $170,000.  given the size of the budget of the city council, this is hardly a large sum.  and the benefits - not just for the individuals who will receive that higher wage but for the city - are actually going to be spread across the city.

this is because we know that people on lower wages, when they get a pay rise, will be spending that money rather than saving it - usually because it's a matter of necessity.  that money then circulates through the local economy, stimulating growth.  of course $170,000 won't stimulate too much growth, but if it encourages other employers to raise their wages, then you get a flow-on effect with more people at the bottom end of the economy having more money to spend.

but mostly, on this issue, i really find it hard to figure out how people can justify in their own minds the payment of wages at a level that leave people in poverty and distress.  if you can't work your way out of poverty, then there is no hope, no future.  it leads to hopelessness and helplessness, and from there to frustration and anger.  why would you not prefer to have a society where people are healthy and comfortably off?  it makes no sense to me.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

standing for council

so i've been pretty slack at posting here at my own blog of late, though there have been a few sporadic posts over at the hand mirror in the interim.  but i have a reason, and here it is.

i have made a decision to put my name forward for hamilton city council elections.  i'll be standing in the hamilton east ward.  it has been a big decision for me, and a scary one.  i know it's normal for women in situations like this to have doubts: will i have what it takes? can i convince people that i'm able to do the job? but mostly, can i convince them to vote for me, with my hijab and my skin colour, my so obvious difference?

well, i'll never know until i try.  what has persuaded me is the number of people who have been encouraging me to put my name forward and who do have faith in my abilities.  i'm humbled by their kindness, and very much dependent on their support.  so i'm putting my name out into the public arena, in a way that is very different to standing on the list.

hamilton city council is in a unique position this year, in that a number of existing councillors will be retiring this year.  in hamilton, it has proved very difficult to unseat existing councillors, so this year there is a window of opportunity open.  there is also the concerned citizens campaign, in which businessman ray stark has taken it upon himself to unseat as many of the existing councillors as he can, while not formally supporting or endorsing any candidate.  it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

so into this environment i throw my hat (or headscarf, as it were).  i firmly believe we need diversity on council, and i know i have a strong history of working with NGOs and community organisations, as well as political experience that will help.  i can add to that my financial skills, and a passion to build community ie to build up a sense of people who look out for each other and want to develop a society which is about making sure everyone does well.

so, some time soon i will have a website for my campaign.  and if anyone is interested in donating time, money or even moral support, it will be most gratefully received.  you can let me know by making a comment to this blog, and because it's moderated, the comment won't be published until i approve it.  just let me know if you wish your comment to be confidential.

and in the spirit of local body campaigning, here's an issue i feel strongly about: the city council is currently seeking to implement a new liquor policy, whereby they will "limit the number of new suburban liquour outlets by imposing tougher rules, and potentially dry areas."  this is something i completely agree with, particularly since there tends to be a much higher level of liquor outlets in lower socio-economic areas.  but it's also about giving local communities more of a say about what happens in their area, greater democracy if you will.

the current council are seeking to fastrack approval of the policy, in an attempt to ensure it gets passed before the election.  there is a fear that a new council might not support the policy.  i can at least say that i definitely support it now, and would support it if i was part of the new council.