Time for user pays in the New Zealand conservation estate?


I am currently doing a postgraduate paper on Natural Resource Policy extra murally at Massey University.  The below is a comment I made on whether it is time for user pays charges for entry to and use of our conservation estate, but also in towns that are tourism dependent.

How we let our small tourist towns get treated by tourists bothers me quite a bit. If you have been to Tekapo you will have seen the Church of the Good Shepherd by the lake. Tourist buses pull up there every day and tourists walk around and inside the building. Sometimes they arrive when services are being conducted and fail to show necessary etiquette. The locals are a bit antsy about it as on one hand they need tourist dollars, but on the other Tekapo is only a little town built around the lake shore and up slope a bit on the south side of State Highway 8. The numbers of tourists that come through the town during summer can cause infrastructure issues beyond the capacity of its tiny ratepayer base.

There are several locations around the South Island which could do with better management of their tourism related infrastructure and issues caused by tourism being a major industry in those locations. I would hope now with a quiet patch caused by the borders being shut that these places are thinking about how to address such matters.

Milford Sound is a good case in point. If any of you have been there, you will know it is a long drive if you stop at the view points along the way and that there is a daily – maybe, probably not at the moment – almost rush hour like period in the morning when all of the buses arrive from Te Anau with their loads of tourists and then a similar thing in the afternoon, when realizing they have to get back to Te Anau, there is a similarly large exodus. I knew a German lady who used to work on the tour boats down there a decade ago (gone back to Germany), who could attest to this, and traffic being an issue as well. Being in a World Heritage area, there are limitations on what kind of businesses can be there and how they operate. Milford Sound township is also right on the water front and next to a river with known flood issues (not surprising given it gets 6,000+ mm/yr!), which means land is at a premium.

How do you help fund the necessary facilities and maintenance as well as programmes in a place like Milford?

I think the only way to realistically do it is require all tourists to pay a one off fee in Te Anau and collect a docket that upon entry to Milford Sound, gets scanned.

But here is the problem. Should Kiwi’s pay full price or get a discount? As taxpayers they help cover costs through taxes, so maybe in their case, we should require them to present a driver licence or passport as evidence. I think it would be unfair to make them pay for something we already support with taxation.

Another student commented on what the Maori King, Te Heuheu Tukino, who gifted the land that makes up Tongariro National Park to the Crown, would think. I wonder if anyone has really thought to conduct an interview with kaumatua on behalf of any iwi, how they view tourism in terms of how it impacts on their ancestral lands, the effects on matters of kaitiakitanga and how the taonga are being treated. It would be a fascinating exercise to say the least. And as one who loves volcanoes and did a fourth year assessment on how Ngati Tuwharetoa view Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro as well as Pihanga, I wonder now whether they would be so keen on further expansion of Whakapapa skifield across their southernmost ancestor.

Tourism means a lot to New Zealanders. We love to show people around our country and for the most people love to come and be shown around. But the environmental cost of it all is getting to a point where some students on the course think in the most sensitive places like the Milford Track or the Tongariro Crossing, closing them for a whole season to allow them to recover is not only a “good idea”, but one that needs to be implemented.

And unfortunately, I am inclined to agree.

My thoughts on electricity policy in 2020


New Zealand faces numerous environmental and economic challenges going forwards into the 2020’s and beyond. One those challenges is ensuring we have an adequate energy supply without being environmentally irresponsible. This article outlines my thoughts on electricity policy in 2020.

I will start with the most obvious one. Hydroelectric power. Most New Zealanders can probably name at least one hydroelectric power station in this country. I have added a significantly longer, but not complete list below:

  • Waikato River: Aratiatia, Atiamuri, Whakamaru, Waipapa, Maraetai, Ohakuri, Arapuni and Karapiro; Tongariro Power Scheme: Rangipo and Tokaanu
  • Upper Waitaki: Tekapo A and B, Ohau A, B and C, Benmore, Aviemore and Waitaki
  • Clutha River: Clyde and Roxburgh

The contribution of hydroelectric power is substantial with the power stations listed supplying about 3,400 megawatts of electricity and the total contribution being about 60% of our total generating capacity. Whilst there are calls to dam more rivers to supply clean energy, they come at great ecological cost to the rivers and not all of them are suitable for damming even if we did want to.

One possibility is that the out put of Manapouri power station, the largest hydroelectric power station in the country would be diverted to the national grid. This poses challenges as well as opportunities. In terms of challenges, could New Zealand’s grid take another 850 megawatts of electricity and if so, what would it mean for the market – the shares of shareholders in electricity companies would significantly weaken. A flip side would be the ability of thousands of New Zealanders who struggle with electricity bills each year to be able to pay them and stay warm.

Whilst I support the development of renewable energy sources, I am not so keen on the N.I.M.B.Y’ist politics that often go with such developments. The same people who talk about the need for green energy are often ones who grumble about a wind turbine when they see mangled birds on the ground or realize that these things are not altogether quiet. Would they rather another dam was built, thus depriving us of further unspoilt river?

Unlike others, I support the exploration of Waste-to-Energy as a potential source of energy. This is not to say I encourage the continuation of the waste stream just to power a W-t-E facility, but, I believe waste material that cannot be easily recycled should be sent to a W-t-E facility. In terms of where to locate such facilities, I believe the West Coast of the South Island is a good place to start. Whilst the West Coast has numerous rivers that the energy lobby would be interested in damming, there are several good reasons why we should not:

  1. Too many rivers are dammed or have been diverted in New Zealand for electricity generation already;
  2. The West Coast is seismically volatile and a major earthquake of up to magnitude 8 is likely in the working life of any dam built – it would have to be more robustly constructed than might be worth the cost
  3. The best candidates have unique natural characteristics that would be lost along with tourism operations that have been built up along side them

But there are two types of energy that I accept have no future. One is coal fired power. Coal is a sunset industry whose only hope of survival is to power a standby power station that is used when hydro-electric storage lakes are low due to dry conditions. Huntly power station which has four coal/gas units each capable of generating 250 megawatts has started replacing them, with its owner Genesis intending to completely remove coal by 2030.

The other is nuclear power. I have described in other other articles why there is no place for nuclear power in New Zealand, and why establishing such a power station would be prohibitively expensive and resource intensive.

There are other things New Zealand could be doing, which to the best of my knowledge it is not seriously considering. The first is solar energy. There are significant challenges facing solar energy, which include that the panels require rare earth minerals that are sourced from politically unstable parts of the world. The financial return from solar projects also raises questions about the viability of such a power source. Nonetheless that has not stopped a small scheme being established in south Auckland for industrial purposes.

The second we have actually given much political consideration to, for reasons of reducing the cost to householders to stay warm. However little practical thought as to HOW we do it – even though the answers are glaringly obvious – has been given. I am talking about the massive scale insulation of every state house in New Zealand and setting requirements for new houses. Politicians on the right will decry the regulations as red tape whilst politicians on the left will decry the social costs. Yet neither seem interested in a compromise. How, when – if at all – this ever takes place is anyone’s guess.

New Zealand politics: Steady as she goes


New Zealand politics are, for the most part a serious case of “Steady as she goes”. No wild swings across the political spectrum, left to right; libertarian to authoritarian.

How have we managed to keep such a steady ship for so long, one might ask. Over the years I have come to identify three key drivers of this which I describe below.

Part of the answer is that Mixed Member Proportional governance has never promoted this by way of encouraging coalition governments instead of single party ones with an outright majority. Coalition governments require deals to be cut with other parties that mean some bold policies that may have been acceptable have to be cast aside in order to secure the co-operation of a larger party (think Labour and the Greens; Labour and New Zealand First; National and New Zealand First). In 1996 for example when New Zealand First did a deal ending nine weeks of negotiations with National, the latter had to agree to give up the privatization of state assets.

A second aspect has been the li(n)es that are told. Politicians who say that they are working for the greater good of the country are often scared to implement changes that might be recommended by an inquiry or by the Ombudsman. Very often they will take the route that appears to be the shortest and easiest to get out of having to handle hot topic issues. In doing so, the legislative might offer up a half cooked solution that will not do the intended job. The politicians of the day will then say “It is the best solution available”, when they actually mean “it was the best solution that we thought was acceptable”. And being largely uncritical of the Government, most New Zealanders will swallow the story whole without thinking twice.

A third aspect is whether political parties are who they claim to be. In New Zealand we have the centre-left Labour and the centre-right National. New Zealand First claims to sit somewhere between the two, whilst the Greens and A.C.T. define the left and right field limits. At its heart, both Labour and National are not so much parties of the centre as their 21st century iterations are two shades of neoliberal. As is New Zealand First, despite its claims to not support trade agreements in their current format, or giving state owned assets to the private sector. Probably only the Greens and A.C.T. are true to their word. A.C.T. is an unashamedly neoliberal party who think market economics are the answer.

Last but not least, New Zealanders have an attitude in society, almost casual in nature to believe that wrongs will somehow come right in good time. It is a carefree attitude that has led to a toxic combination of lax safety at work, casual attitudes to socio-economic policies announced, which is unnecessarily coming to bite many people when and how they least expect it.

Our mediocre progress on economic, social and political changes as needed can be in large part put down to the above three factors and the dash of “she’ll be right”-ness that too many people believe in.

Just how taxing is Labour’s income tax announcement?


(Sung to the Telethon tune) “Thank you very much for your kind taxation. Thank you very very very much”

The above was a National Party advert criticizing the proposed tax policy of then Prime Minister Helen Clark’s government in 2005. Dr Don Brash was leading the National Party, which had finally found its voice to the delight of National’s conservative base.  As the 2020 election campaign begins to ramp up, the political parties are starting to release their major policies after a considerable concern that the 2020 contest was not going to be about ideas.

Interestingly enough, Dr Brash’s proposed tax policy in 2005, despite being leader of the National Party was actually steeper than the announcement yesterday by Treasurer Grant Robertson. Dr Brash had proposed the following brackets (but not as steep as those of Dr Michael Cullen (bold)):

  • Up to $12,500 = 15% ; Up to $9,500 = 15%
  • $12,501-50,000 = 19% ; $9,501-38,000 = 21%
  • $50,001-100,000 = 33% ; $38,001-60,000 = 33%
  • $100,000+ = 39% ; $60,001+ = 39%

In contrast, social activist John Minto once upon a time proposed a 100% income tax on income over $250,000. In other words if you earned that much money, you did not get to see a cent of it. For obvious reasons, aside from Mr Minto not standing for Parliament, his proposals never went ahead. But it was that kind of extremism that prevents me ever supporting a bid by him to stand for public office.

I mentioned my own thoughts about income tax rates in June.

Many on the right will grumble about wealth being taken away from successful, hard working New Zealanders. Wealth and income are quite different classifications. Income is the hard money that your bank account sees, whilst wealth is ones cumulative assets – house/s, car/s, luxury items like boats, expensive jewellery and so forth. One might not have a huge day to day income, many have a share portfolio, investments in gold and so forth.

National and A.C.T. will invariably grumble, as will the Taxpayers Union. What these parties and the T.U. will never admit is that even some prominent former New Zealand politicians, such as former Prime Minister Jim Bolger believe high income New Zealanders should be paying more tax. Which is why it will be all the more interesting to see what their tax policies are and how they will fund expenditure.

Some on the left will grumble too. For entirely different reasons, namely they do not think the changes go nearly far enough. This will include the left-wing of Labour, the Green Party and social activists. They will argue that the Government is not serious about using income taxation to reduce poverty.

Others like me, however, will argue there are other ways in which poverty can be reduced. Tax is certainly useful as a lever to encourage, discourage certain behaviours and to fund programmes, but anyone who has studied poverty in depth will know there is a lot more to it than just this.

 

National and A.C.T. do not value the worker


One of the most important rules of having staff in a work place is to look after them. Aside from the legal obligations that come about as a result of signing contracts, a well cared for staff will return the care shown to them by caring about the company that they work for. A well cared for staff is less likely to be disruptive, less likely to argue among themselves and more likely to support management during times of change.

When I worked at a supermarket job in the early 2000’s, I learnt a few lessons about the work place. The first nearly three years were pretty good as I had a proactive boss, rather than a reactive boss. But around the three year mark I noticed as did the rest of the staff that management were largely invisible. It was difficult to find a duty manager to report to in the mornings; no one interested in conflict resolution among staff, preferring to – in at least one case – boil over into an open argument that dragged in customers. The state of the store declined. Staff presentation declined; no one seemed to mind rubbish being left in trolleys that had been collected.

Then something happened. We got new management. New contracts with an immediate pay rise were issued, as were new uniforms. Staff were made to understand that it was okay to come to management offices if there were concerns. Presentation standards improved. Customer service improved. The staff room was no longer racked by arguments every lunch time and those that did not want to lift their game were quickly shown the door.

National and A.C.T. fundamentally do not understand this. Nor do they appear to want to.

National M.P.’s Chris Penk and Dan Bidois have in recent months both spoken out against workers rights and the responsibilities of employers to care for their workers. More recently National leader Judith Collins and Small Business spokesperson Andrew Bayly suggested that, rest and meal breaks would go, the ban on 90 day trials would be overturned and “costs cut”.

My supermarket job did not teach me much academically, but it taught me a fair bit about workplace politics. It taught me about workers rights, grievance processes and how to resolve disputes as well as health and safety. It taught me about the perils of weakening the very work place laws that Messrs Bidois, Bayly, Penk and Ms Collins seem determined to repeal.

But there are other reasons to be profoundly alarmed by what National and A.C.T. are proposing. New Zealand workers, whilst enjoying comparatively plentiful rights when compared with the United States where there is no federal law requiring a minimum standard of worker rights – sick leave; statutory holiday pay – or working conditions, do have some major disadvantages. Unions have been largely dismantled by neoliberal reforms, meaning organized protests are more difficult; rogue employers get away too easily as we can see with abuses going on in the liquor industry. Our occupational safety and health record is not flash and too many employees operate on a “she’ll be right” basis.

Even small and medium businesses are not keen on the proposals, with one survey suggesting S.M.E. owners might vote Labour in 2020.