Book Reviews

Review – Tyranny of Merit by Prof Michael Sandal

What kind of world would you want if you didn’t know whether you will be born to a rich or poor family?

This is a question few of us ask today, especially if you are a wealthy or a high earner, from the right side of the tracks.

The latest book by Harvard Professor of Philosophy Michael Sandal is a timely warning that a well-meant focus on meritocracy has gone wrong. Inequality has deepened, opening wide rifts in society. People in despair, failed by traditional politicians from both right and left, have flown to the extremes. Dark clouds of dictators and demagogues are threatening democracy.

People in despair, failed by traditional politicians from both right and left, have flown to the extremes.

Adverse impacts of meritocracy have been exacerbated by other trends over the past 40 years. Globalisation and automation have reduced the number of higher-paying manufacturing jobs traditionally filled by blue-collar workers. The power of multinationals and high-earners has increased due to well-funded lobby groups and laws allowing unlimited spending on political contributions in the USA. The financialisation of the economy has seen obscene income and wealth flowing to a few traders in financial products that add little or no value to the economy. Reducing levels of taxation for high earners, investment incomes and capital gains have increased income and wealth gaps.  Lower tax revenues and demonising the poor have reduced social benefits and services like health and education. The reduced power of unions has slowed growth or decreased the real wages of workers.

Meritocracy, Globalisation, Automation, Financialisation, Tax changes, Reduction of welfare benefits, Lobby Groups have widened rifts in our society.

The current wave of meritocracy started with Reagan and Thatcher. They believed that markets will deliver both economic growth and the fruits of the economy to all willing to work. Those who failed did so due to lack of effort and deserved to be poor. The problem deepened with Clinton and Blair, who tried to soften the impact on low-income earners rather than challenge the premise of a market-driven meritocracy. Both Liberal and conservative politicians have focused on meritocracy and education as the primary vehicle for advancement to achieve a good life in society

The economic and social policies adopted by Anglo-American democracies veered sharply away from those of Scandinavia and mainland Europe to an economy and country of winners and losers.

Achieving pure meritocracy, equality of opportunity is a fallacy. A wealthy family has many advantages; their children start miles ahead in the race of life. Better schools, private tutors, more parent support and access to resources far greater than a child from a low-income family. However, those reaching the top in our economy strongly believe that they did so due to hard work and merit, thus deserve outsize rewards. While those espousing meritocracy envisioned a society with higher social mobility and lower inequality, the actual results have been directly the opposite. More students come from families in the top 1% at Princeton and Yale than the bottom 60%. Two-thirds of admissions for Ivy league universities have come from families with earnings in the top 20%.

Pure meritocracy is a fallacy, children born in a wealthy family start the race of life miles ahead of the rest.

Parents of both rich and poor tell their kids that they will reach their goals if they work hard. The reality is different with sluggish economies, struggling families, poorly funded schools and the high college cost. Income mobility is low, leaving many stuck in these jobs, which are poorly paid and insecure. Profit maximisation rarely takes into account the social cost of laid-off labour.

The relentless focus on merit has impacted those on high incomes as well. Anxiety, depression and alcoholism have taken a toll.

While politicians from both right and left wings have repeatedly spoken about education as the primary vehicle for advancement, opportunities for a better education have decreased for those on lower incomes. Lower tax revenues reduced funding, lowered the quality of education, and made it more expensive by levying higher fees.

Whilst retraining has been promoted as the way forward for those displaced due to globalisation and offshoring, funding provided for this has been minimal. Economies of rural areas and small towns have been decimated. Deaths of despair have soared, along with social ills like drugs and alcoholism.

The rapid escalation of rewards flowing to winners of our society has sharply increased inequality between the elites and those on the bottom rungs, diminished the middle class. Manufacturing jobs that paid a reasonable wage have been replaced with low paid service and retail work. Earnings of blue-collar workers have declined or stayed stagnant while those for top ranks have surged ahead.

Low-income earners are looked down upon as losers by the elites and, at times, by themselves. The dignity of work and respect for them diminished. The value placed on middle-class jobs like teachers, nurses and police have reduced along with their salaries. College degrees are increasingly tied to income and prestige.

Higher wages and tax advantages are hardening into wealth passed onto the next generation. Establishing a hereditary aristocracy.

We need to reverse the trends of the past four decades, raise taxes, provide better essential services and pay better wages for those at the bottom. The lessons of history are clear; we ignore them at our peril.

Personal Essay

The Gambler

Annabelle sat on the front patio, oblivious to the pleasant surroundings, the blue skies and the magnificent looking garden; she was brooding and angry. The past few months’ events left her mind in turmoil; she smashed the teacup against the floor, took a few deep breaths to clear her mind. She made her decision. Picked up the pieces from the teacup and went inside the house.

Annabelle finished her packing, wrote a note, stepped out, took one last look at the house, lingering over memories. She got into the car, sighed, shed a tear and drove out.

They lived in a stately six-bedroom villa with a white pebbled driveway. The steel grilled gate at the entrance and granite walls said privacy rather than welcome. The front door, ornate, carved by a Maori artist and the stained glass windows looked as good as they did a hundred years ago. The solid teak floor needed polishing. The sofa seat was torn, the tear hidden by a cushion laid on top. The drapes were faded.

Their house, her house, overlooked the harbour and sat on a hilltop by the sea. This was her ancestral home. Flowering plants lined the driveway, and carpet flowers filled the ground below. Red and white roses, chrysanthemums, camellias, she chose plants carefully every spring. The lawn bordered by shrubs and set off with a sculpture and a pond with water lilies in the middle. Annabelle had spent many happy years here, though the last few years had taken a toll, a toll on her and the house.

Auckland- the City of Sails. New Zealand was a country of sailors and boats, yachts. Black Magic had won America’s Cup again; Peter Burling and Blair Tuke were hailed as heroes. The murky business about alleged misspent funding was settled, although perhaps not to everyone’s satisfaction. The government and the city council spent $200 million for the campaign, even though the city was deep in debt and cutting staff. An indulgence to support people already rich, some opined.

Hundreds of boats from small speedboats to yachts dotted the marina, anchored on the turquoise blue water. A sight that always delighted Annabelle, even though she saw it every day. The people were getting ready for a day on the water, like ants walking on the pier, a hive of buzzing activity. The harbour bridge glistened on the horizon; tens of thousands crossed every day to work in the city.

Annabelle was always dressed elegantly and well-groomed, something ingrained in her. She had aged gracefully. She would usually sit on the verandah after breakfast, with a pot of tea, the soft invigorating breeze setting her up for the day.

Annabelle did charity work, enjoyed working with her circle of friends, camaraderie, chit-chat, and drinking coffee. She loved making a difference for many who needed a helping hand, putting smiles on peoples’ faces and especially the children. Even in a relatively prosperous country, some people were suffering, those left behind. Children were going hungry, lacking proper clothing and textbooks, missing doctor appointments.  The massive economic changes in the eighties were not kind to those at the bottom of the ladder. The welfare benefits provided by the state were woefully inadequate. Even the many centre-left governments had done little to help those in poverty. Annabelle wondered why taxes were cut for the wealthy when there were so many who needed help. She also worried about the millennials, a whole generation left behind by rising property prices and rents. The generation gap had become a generation gulf for them.

Annabelle met Zorro at an event to support the needy. He was confident, good looking, charming. A lawyer with the gift of the gab, he had built up a successful practice and connections in the city. Zorro enjoyed working with people from all walks of life. With a penchant for high risk and high profile cases, he loved the attention these cases attracted, the thrill of winning. He aspired to get into politics, lawyers dominated the parliament.

They enjoyed many idyllic years. Moving with elite circles in the city and vacationing in glamorous destinations, getting pampered in luxury hotels. The two of them liked active vacations -hiking, rock climbing, riding bikes and motorbikes. They enjoyed the casinos, poker and blackjack. Annabelle enforced a strict budget on gaming. She wanted to play for enjoyment, not the thrill of winning.

Zorro combed his greying hair carefully; he cultivated the patrician look. Choose a smart casual suit and searched his collection of ties. He was trying to select a lucky one, something he found exasperating; lady luck had been a fickle friend lately. He had come close to winning many times recently and had a strong feeling a big win was coming. Zorro checked his purse to make sure the cash was there. He waited for his ride. His car was an old model and in need of a lick of paint. “Goodbye, Annabelle”, he called out. “Goodbye, Zorro”, she replied.

He was meeting up with James and Mike. They liked to grab a drink before the races, talk about the horses running today. The Hunters bar was packed, as usual; on big race days, many of their friends were there. The plush leather chairs, the faux English pub look, and free bar snacks invited punters to linger. He ordered a double gin and tonic, a stiff drink to settle his nerves. They checked the racing broadsheets, the latest odds and expert predictions, scribbled notes, which hopefully were legible enough to read.

Boxing Day, Alexandra Park– It was a glorious summer day in the southern hemisphere. Azure blue sky with a touch of white clouds. The grass on the track was dark green; water restrictions didn’t appear to affect the immaculate lawn, lovingly cared for by the groundsmen. Today’s races were a prestigious social event among the smart set in the city- business people, lawyers and accountants. Ladies showed off their latest fashions, colourful clothes, topped off with fancy hats of their own creation, especially for this event. The hot summer weather encouraged racy attire and bare flesh.  Horse racing was still a glamorous pastime, even if the popularity was dipping, among the younger people.

For some, today was work or a day to mix business and pleasure. Many companies had Corporate boxes. For a few hours, your customers were captive, hopefully in a good mood, lubricated by beer and champagne, and receptive to a soft sale. Entertaining was helpful to build relationships and goodwill. The horse owners loved the prestige and windfalls they would make if their horses won. Owning a horse was a way of flaunting your wealth. Then there were the rich -old money, new money, the aspiring and the pretenders. There was money to be made, friendships formed, and relationships deepened. There was also money to be lost.

The New Zealand government supported horse racing, perhaps the only country with a Minister for Racing and a government handout of $70Mn a year. The Deputy Prime Minister was a passionate horse racing fan, and he loved the campaign donations from the horse owners. Races were broadcast live on a cable TV channel; the betting company was a major sponsor.

The jockeys were primed for a good day of racing. Each had his pre-race routine; many listened to their favourite music. A few said their prayers. Many wore their lucky socks or cap.

Today should be an exciting racing day, with a million dollars on the final race and many times that riding on betting. Commentaries on the news channels were building up the occasion, and punters were hyped up. Sacramento and First Dance were the favourites, with Short Story and Money for Nothing the dark horses. The horses coming out of the paddock looked magnificent, immaculately groomed. They strutted around.

The bars dotted around the ground, and the betting booths did brisk business. Drinks and flutter were an essential part of the race day experience. People were queueing up, ready to part with cash for food, beverage and a chance to win.

Zorro and his friends popped into the bookies first. They had already their picks; they were serious about their racing and betting. An inordinate amount of homework went into selecting horses and the jockeys. They read their notes and the latest news, looked at the horses, how they walked for any clues. Many had placed some bets already, in advance, online. Outside, people without much money placed bets on horses, desperate for a win, to brighten up their lives, even if momentarily. Others played pokies, gambling for the poor.

Zorro and his mates hit the bars; he paid for the first round of drinks and food. Zorro always paid for food; he was generous. They found their places on the grandstand. Races started, and the punters cheered for their horses. The winners whooped with joy. Losers and there were many, unhappy or philosophical or hopeful. Mostly hopeful, although they knew that the house always won while you had to be pretty good or pretty lucky. They knew that winnings were only a fraction of takings; perhaps they were paying for the rushes of adrenalin, the mood swings. Alcohol flowed, the bars were busy, and the bartenders happy. The winners drank to celebrate; happy, even if the drinks and the tips were a bit more than their winnings. The losers, well, they needed a drink or two or three.

Racing was always exciting, win or lose; everyone had a good time. Well, almost everybody. The racing ended, but many continued partying, hitting pubs and bars around.

Zorro got home. He didn’t need to count his cash; his purse was empty. Annabelle was not at home; Zorro picked up the note.

 Zorro knew he had to stop gambling; he was in trouble. Deep in debt, two houses, houses inherited by Annabelle, heavily mortgaged to fund the habit. Her father had built up a property portfolio, a successful businessman who had worked hard for his money and made many sacrifices. All that wealth was frittered away. Zorro was good with excuses and lies, to borrow money – business deals, investments, and expanding his practice. His partners at the law firm were concerned; there were many discussions about client complaints. His standards were slipping, he knew, although he vociferously denied.

Zorro knew he needed help, reach out to a psychologist or a helpline or Gamblers Anonymous. The one small step that may help him turn his life around and alleviate the pain of his loved ones.

He picked up the phone—rang his dealer for a fix of cocaine.

If you have a problem with gambling or have a family member or friend who has a problem gambling issue, please call for free 24-hour support,  0800 654 655 or text 8006.

Criminal Justice

Waikeria Prison Riot, Civil Riot case against the prisons

The seventeen prisoners involved in the case have filed a civil rights case against the CEO of Corrections Dept and the Attorney General for breaches of their civil rights and violation of minimum rules for treatment of prisoners

16 Waikeria Prison rioters file civil rights cases against Corrections CEO, Attorney-General | Newshub

Criminal Justice

How Norway turns criminals into good neighbours

Criminal Justice

Why Scandinavian Prisons Are Superior

Criminal Justice

New Zealand’s broken prison system – Will the flames of Waikeria spark a change?

“It is more than 30 years since two landmark reports- proposed transformative changes to Criminal Justice in       New Zealand.       In the decades since, there have been many reports and reviews;  none have led decision-makers to undertake fundamental change”– The Safe and Effective Justice Group(S&EJ), appointed by the Cabinet of Ministers – New Zealand

The Siege

Tuesday 29th December 2020, most New Zealanders were on holiday. COVID free and enjoying the festive season, we flocked to overcrowded beaches and holiday spots.

A group of inmates in a high-security prison in the remote town of Waikeria felt anything but festive. The 109-year-old jail, to be demolished in 2022 and neglected, was to them in an intolerable condition. Amid rising violence, a tinder keg, waiting to explode.

Prison staff received a call from media that a riot might erupt, found nothing untoward, went back to their lunch; soon after, a few fires lit up the exercise yard. The prisoners climbed on the roof and set the rooftop ablaze with burning mattresses. Flames lit up the night sky, an inferno seen from miles away. Seventeen prisoners barricaded themselves and raided the weapons room.

Sirens screaming, firefighters, ambulances and police rushed in; followed by the Prisons’ riot management team and the Police Armed Offenders Squad. The armed offender squad stormed the prison lobbing tear gas grenades and firing rubber bullets. The defences held.

The inmates had leftover food in the kitchen and ‘brown’ drinking water. Set themselves up for a siege, “as long as necessary to be heard,” and issued a manifesto of demands calling the conditions in prison “appalling”.

The CEO of Corrections (Prisons), Jeremy Lightfoot, denied the poor conditions “no complaints received”. The Minister for Corrections, Kelvin Davis, refused to get involved until the incident was over, “an operational matter”. Opposition Party MPs were denied access to the prison. Maori Party MP Rawira Waititi called out the government “let an inhuman environment fester and breaches of basic human rights to occur”.

The prisoners’ families called for the media to be permitted into the prison to counter what they called a false narrative. “They are being treated like animals, only want fair treatment and clean drinking water. They got brown water and stale bread on Christmas day”.

“They got brown water and stale bread on Christmas day”.

The siege dragged on. The prison management adopted an aggressive and much criticised ‘starvation’ strategy of withholding food and water. There were no hostages involved to warrant a softer approach. Passions ran high on both sides of the debate in mainstream and social media.

MP Rawiri Waititi stepped in to negotiate. Let into the prison finally, “after being blocked everywhere I go” and saying, “if the situation turns to custard, it will be entirely the government’s responsibility”.

After a tense six-day standoff, the prisoners surrendered and walked out with MP Waititi. The high-security prison was destroyed and, for some, the reputation of Corrections. Was this a wanton act of destruction by a group of violent men? A cry for help by people at their wit’s end? Or even a noble act of sacrifice to call attention to a severe problem with our prisons.

Was this a wanton act of destruction by a group of violent men? A cry for help? Or even a noble act of sacrifice to call attention to a severe problem with our prisons.

The Maori

The treaty of Waitangi in 1840 promised Maori control over their land and equal status as the European settlers. However, just five years later, the settlers appetite for land led to the Land Wars. When the fighting ended, the Maori had lost 90% of their land. By 1896, an estimated 75% of their population were lost, to war, western diseases and alcohol. Relegated to a subsistence existence, the Maori started migrating to urban areas.  They arrived without land, capital and little education. The work they found were low paid, dirty and arduous.

When the war ended, the Maori had lost 90% of their land. By 1896, an estimated 75% of the population was lost to war, western diseases and alcohol.

Only 3% of the prison population was Maori at the turn of the 20th Century when the urban migration started. It reached 21% in 1945. Urbanisation accelerated after the 2nd World War, as did incarceration rates. From 1955 numbers of Māori in prison increased dramatically, reaching over 50% of the prison population consistently from 1980, while only 15% of the population.

Celia Lashley’s book ‘Journey to Prison’ outlines the complexities of why high numbers of Maori end in prison. Poverty, mental health, family violence, crime-prone environments, family influence, drug prevalence, and gangs. The challenges faced getting out of the prison system. Critics argue that the justice system is stacked against Māori at all stages. They are more likely to be arrested, charged, convicted and imprisoned.

Māori in prison are over 50% of the prison population consistently from 1980, while only 15% of the population.

The Poor

 “Most prisoners come from neighbourhoods and regions with the lowest deprivation indexes and the highest negative statistics in social policy areas. 50 per cent of people convicted of offences in 2013 lived in the 20 per cent most deprived areas of New Zealand.” – S&EJ

New Zealand’s economy was liberalised in the 1980s. The changes were radical and ideology-driven. Taxes on the wealthy were reduced substantially while welfare benefits were slashed. Housing costs and poverty rates soared.

Dr Elizabeth Stanley, Director of the Institute of Criminology at Victoria University, was critical of the government. “Our best research tells us that crime, including family violence and youth crime, is linked to poverty and inequalities. Many options are already on the table—social assistance reforms, reconfigurations of child support, increased social housing, liveable wages. There is no poverty of ideas. Instead, the political challenge seems to lie in ‘poverty of responsibility…the poverty of caring’. We encourage the government to step up and take responsibility.”

50 per cent of people convicted of offences in 2013 lived in the 20 per cent most deprived areas of New Zealand

Our benefits are among the lowest in the developed world. While the Labour government has increased the minimum wage, their attitude towards beneficiaries is far from kind; working and non-working are treated very differently. Some poverty measures improved in 2020, presumably due to the increase in minimum wages helping the working poor.

The Mentally Ill and the Addicted

Weknow that the mental health system is broken, as is the justice system.If the health issues, and then mental health issues, had been dealt with, they (prisoners) might not have ended up where they are.” –S&EJ

“62% of prisoners have been diagnosed with mental health or substance abuse disorder within the last 12 months, of those diagnosed only 46% have received treatment” –Chester Borrows, Chair of S&EJ

At Waikeria, around 75% of prisoners reported inadequate support for mental and emotional issues. Over 85% said no help receive with their drug and alcohol problems. Anecdotal evidence suggests over half of the crimes are committed under the influence of drink and drugs.

Over 85% said no help received with their drug and alcohol problems.


At Auckland Prison, the Ombudsman found that prisoners spent less than an hour per day on rehabilitation programs; maximum security prisoners got only three minutes per day. Prisoners received approximately half-hour per day of education, with this figure dropping even further for the high security. The people who need help most get the least.

We spent only 3 minutes per day rehabilitating maximum security prisoners.

Recidivism – out of prison and heading back to crime

If you are sentenced to prison once, you are forever a convicted criminal; your name never comes off the Convicted Criminals database. The Clean Slate Act only applies to lighter crimes. Many employers do pre-employment checks for criminal conviction. 60% of prisoners are convicted again within two years, a statistic that has only gone up in the past two decades. Many five-year plans have come and gone without making any impact.

Paying for their crimes

We pay our prisoners princely sums of between 20 and 60 cents an hour. They are expected to pay for basics like tea and coffee, even toothpaste, toothbrushes and shaving kits, phone calls to families at commercial prices.

The Politics

Politics and sensationalism around a few violent crimes,  ‘prison populism’, rather than evidence, have driven our laws and prison policies over the past three decades. Dr Wayne Goodall, the Principal Strategic Analyst for Corrections, outlines in his report how law changes reacting to specific incidents have increased the prison population.

The sentenced prison population increased 360%, from 2,000 in 1985 to 9195 in 2017 (before dropping to 7,383 in 2020).

The Inspection

The Chief Ombudsman’s team inspected the Waikeria prison in 2019 and reported. The cells in the high-security wing were ill-ventilated and uncomfortably hot. Cells were rundown and had significant amounts of graffiti. Designed for a single prisoner, they were double-bunked and cramped, inmates unable to sit upright on the bottom bed due to proximity to the top bed. The toilets had no lids. All meals except lunch were delivered to the cells. They ate their meals on the bunk beds near uncovered toilets, unsanitary and inappropriate. The bedding was in poor condition: stained, lumpy and torn pillows, torn mattress covers.

They ate their meals on the bunk beds near uncovered toilets, unsanitary and inappropriate.

Prisoners segregated due to behaviour issues were locked up 22 hours a day, with no time to address these issues. Prisoners had nothing to do all day—conditions deplorable and no improvement since the previous inspection in 2016.

High levels of gangs and violence – a third of prisoners reported being assaulted in prison; most didn’t report fearing consequences.

Dinner was delivered as early as 4pm—some meals were of poor quality. No access to hot water; they made their hot drinks and noodles from hot water in showers. Drinking water was discoloured and cloudy.

No access to hot water; they made their hot drinks and noodles from hot water in showers. Drinking water was discoloured and cloudy.

The gym was poorly ventilated, equipment old and rusty, toilet blocked and dirty, showers were broken. The exercise yards were shabby, with green mould and graffiti.

Libraries facilities are limited, mainly stocked with books discarded by the public libraries. Prisoners in the high-security wing could not request books from the library; what reading material available was unsuitable. They had no access to educational opportunities.

“The High-Security wing is not fit for purpose”.


BBC’s Emma Jane Kirby wrote about her visit to Norway’s maximum-security Halden Prison. “Can you feel the stretch?” she gently asks a heavily tattooed man as she settles his ruffled T-shirt and smoothes his back with her hand. It could be a yoga class at any health retreat anywhere in the world. “It calms them,” says prison governor Are Hoidal approvingly. “We don’t want anger and violence in this place. We want calm and peaceful inmates.”

Set in beautiful blueberry woods, peppered with majestic silver birch and pine trees. Accommodation blocks and chalet-style buildings of Halden Prison look like a trendy university campus rather than a jail. Each cell has a bed, a small fridge, a bookshelf, a TV, a desk and chair, plus a private bathroom including a shower, a toilet and a sink. There is also a music studio –”Criminal Records”, a garden, a holy room, gym, training room, library, computer room, family visiting house and more. A school offers an opportunity to get a proper education.

A prison officer on a silver micro-scooter greets us cheerily as he wheels past. Two prisoners jogging dutifully, keep pace. Hoidal laughs. “It’s called dynamic security!” he grins. “Guards and prisoners are together all the time. They eat, play volleyball, do leisure activities together, and that allows us to really interact with prisoners, to talk to them and motivate them.”

In Scandinavian countries, the focus is on rehabilitation from day one. Finding employment and adjusting to life in the community are the most critical elements for successful reintegration. The prison conditions are kept as normal as possible. The prisoners wake up by 7 am, can stay up late. Relationships with staff and other prisoners enhance normalcy.

Perhaps the most crucial factor for keeping people out of prison is employment. Prisoners choose from a range of jobs available in prison. They are paid regular wages (In New Zealand, prison pay rates are between 20 and 60 cents per hour!) and encouraged to develop skills. Academic opportunities are also provided as most prisoners have a low education level.

In Norway, the prisoners are paid regular wages; in New Zealand, pay rates are between 20 and 60 cents per hour

Norway’s prison changes are a recent phenomenon following radical reforms in the 1990s, which dramatically reduced reoffending from around 60% to 20% today.

Anglo-American countries have followed a punitive approach to prisons; the USA has the highest prison population globally. New Zealand has the 5th highest prison population rate among the OECD countries, at 199 per 100,000.

Most European countries have opted for a humane, rehabilitation-based approach; have the lowest incarceration and reconviction rates. Germany has a prison population of 77 per 100,000, Sweden 61, Norway – 60. New Zealand imprisons more than three times as Sweden and Norway.

60% of New Zealand prisoners are reconvicted within two years (for Maori New Zealanders, 68%). In Norway, it is 20%, Sweden 34%, Germany 40%.

The Safe and Effective Justice Group(S&EJ) issued their final report in December 2019, calling for radical changes, “gradual replacement of most prisons with community-based habilitation centres”. It warned that significant upfront investment is required. The Corrections Department’s Financial forecasts have no extra funding allocated.

“New Zealanders have delivered us a clear message: we cannot wait another 30 years.   We cannot afford another generation of hurt. To create the conditions for sustainable change.”-The Safe and Effective Justice Group

Is this message falling on deaf ears, water off a duck’s back? Is Hokai Rangi just another 5-year plan? Will the riot at Waikeria change anything?

The Corrections (Prisons) Department choose not to comment for this article. They did provide a majority of information requested under the Official Information Act.

Whilst the prison system detailed here refers to New Zealand, a similar punitive system also applies to other Anglo-American countries, probably the USA prison and criminal justice systems are far worse than the others.


Jobs Guarantee Scheme

Call for a post-pandemic jobs guarantee scheme

New Zealand’s unemployment was less than 1% for 30 years from 1946 to 1976. Now the government, the Reserve Bank and traditional economists settle for 4% unemployment, as ‘full employment’.

This version of ‘full employment’ means 8% youth unemployment and 16% Maori / Pacific youth unemployment. Problems such as family poverty (including children missing meals), mental health, suicide, poor health and reduced self-esteem which accompany the lack of a job are barely acknowledged or debated there as to whether they are too high a price to pay.

Martin Taylor of progressive economic thinktank Digital Strategies who has been working on a jobs guarantee argues this could cost as little as NZ $1.6Bn, approximately 0.5% of GDP. And, this is more than outweighed by the benefits such as dignity of work, improved mental and physical health, improved social and environmental outcomes, boost infrastructure and care work.

Full article by Catriona MacLennan published on Radio New Zealand website, 29th April 2020.


Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) – Eliminating Unemployment

A plain-English guide to what it is and why it’s interesting

“There’s nothing to prevent the federal government creating as much money as it wants” -Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of Fed Reserve, USA

Stephanie Kelton, Professor of Public Policy and Economics at Stonybrook University argues that there is no harm in printing money, there will be no inflation as long as there is unused economic capacity or unemployed labour. Government spending can be used to boost the economy and eliminate unemployment. Inflation can be controlled either by reducing government spending or withdrawing money by increasing taxes.

Explains that highly publicized instances of hyper inflation in pre war Germany and Zimbabwe were due to lack of resources to boost economies, rather than printing money.

While traditional economists still haven’t accepted MMT, what many governments are doing since GFC is printing money.

Government spending can be used to boost the economy and eliminate unemployment.

Full article by Jim Edwards and Theron Mohamed in Business Insider ,


What’s behind New Zealand’s high suicide rate? It’s also the economics

Deaths of despair – Our youth are paying a high price for poverty and unemployment

Trigger Warning -This article contains material regarding suicide and mental health, that you may find disturbing.

“Every Life Matters… there is one goal at the core.

No suicides.

One death by suicide is too many. Every Life Matters”

David Clarke, Health Minister, introducing  Suicide Prevention Strategy NZ 2019-2029- Every Life Matters

Coming home, seeing your son or daughter has taken their own life. There is nothing that can prepare you for the shock. The grief, the guilt, life will never be the same. Darkness, depression. Strained relationships.

He was out of school for the best part of two years, despondent at not finding work, a stream of rejections, unsuccessful interviews. Money was tight since his father lost permanent employment. Work has been insecure since. The welfare benefits left little money on the table, if any, after paying rising rent and other essential expenses. It’s been tough.

New Zealand’s youth suicide rate is the highest in the developed world.

New Zealand’s economy started declining in the late 1960s when wool prices dropped. Then Great Britain, by far our largest trading partner, entered the European Common Market in 1973. EC agricultural subsidies meant access to lower-priced beef, lamb and dairy from Europe. This was followed by the OPEC oil price hike. Think Big policies by the Muldoon government failed to arrest the economic decline. 

Enter Rogernomics.

“For people who don’t want the government in their lives … this [Rogernomics] has been a bonanza. For people who are disabled, limited, resourceless, uneducated, it has been a tragedy.” –David Lange, New Zealand Prime Minister (1984–89), 1996

The Labour government came into power mid-1984, amid a deep economic crisis.  Roger Douglas, Finance Minister and chief architect of the economic reforms argued “Speed was enormously important to the change, are government departments necessary? Are they doing the job? Can they be trimmed? Be ruthless with the answers.” It was a blitzkrieg—shock therapy. Ideology driving change, whereas, in Australia, a far more measured and consultative approach was taken by the Hawke-Keating government.

Layoffs were massive in government departments and state-owned corporations – the postal service, telecommunications, state-owned banks, coal mines. Privatisations, the country’s family silver sold in depths of a recession at rock bottom prices, often to foreign corporations. Farmers went bankrupt, losing farms in their families for generations.

John Patterson of the Social Impact Unit visited those affected in Ohai. State Coal Mines had turned into Coal Corp overnight. “They started by closing two mines and sacking the men who worked there.” The last union meeting was finishing, and the miners were signing on to the unemployment benefit. All the men were there, but where were the women? The district nurse told Patterson that they were at home crying. 

All the men were there, but where were the women? The district nurse told Patterson that they were at home crying. 

Many who lost jobs invested their redundancy money and superannuation in the stock market; lost it in the market crash of 1987.

Unemployment was between 40 and 50% in South Auckland, many rural towns fared even worse, 80% in some areas. The young could find no jobs. Poverty rates soared.

Suicides followed.

Teen suicides doubled over the next five years. Youth suicides rose by 80%.

Ruth Richardson, the Finance Minister of the National government that followed slashed unemployment and other welfare benefits, in her infamous ‘Mother of all budgets’. The irrational belief was if the unemployed were desperate, jobs would miraculously appear.

The Employment Contracts legislation of 1991 weakened the bargaining power of unions. A cynical proclamation that a jobseeker can negotiate on equal terms with an employer. Or that terminations would be fair without union protection.

It made no sense that we made it easier to terminate staff while slashing unemployment benefits at the same time. Reducing taxes for the wealthy while at the same time cutting funding for essential services for those most vulnerable. A government for the people became one for just some of the people.

It made no sense that we made it easier to terminate staff while slashing unemployment benefits at the same time.

Globalisation over the following decades saw higher-paid, stable manufacturing jobs move overseas, replaced by more insecure lower paid jobs in the service sector.

The pre-Rogernomics youth suicide rate was lower than the current OECD average. The teenage suicide rate for teenagers increased by 100% during the period 1986 to 1990 compared to the previous five year period, 67% for the age-group 20-24 and 40% for 25-29-year-olds.

Teen suicide rate kept climbing, except in the decade 2001 to 2010. The teen male suicide rate is now 82% higher than the pre-Rogernomics period, for teen females, it is a staggering 6 times higher, a rise of 620%. The youth suicide rate is still 60% higher than the pre-1985 rate. It’s unclear why the female teen and youth suicides have risen steeply than male.

Racial differences are stark. Teen suicide rates for Maori are over 3 times the rate of European and Pacifica island more than 2 times. The teen suicide rate for Maori females is nearly 5 times that of non-Maori.

The teen suicide rate for Maori females is nearly 5 times that of non-Maori.

Statistics for attempted suicides for Maori are similar to European, while suicide rates are much higher for Maori and Pacifica. The health system and society are less successful in protecting Maori, Pacifica even once the peril is evident.

International comparisons are even starker. Our male youth are dying at five times the rate in Australia, the females two times.

Our male youth are dying at five times the rate of Australians.

“My theory is – we don’t really go that far into other people, even when we think we do. We hardly ever go in and bring them out. We just stand at the jaws of the cave, and strike a match, quickly as if anybody’s there.”
― Martin Amis, A Suicide Note

The youth suicide rate in the most deprived areas is nearly four times that of the most affluent.

The unemployed are dying at over twelve times the rate of the rest of the working-age population.

The unemployed are dying at over 12 times the rate of the working-age population.

Our unemployment benefits at 34% of previous income are one of the lowest in the OECD, 38th out of 41 countries, just half of the OECD average. It is easy to imagine the shock of an overnight income drop of 66%, on top of losing one’s livelihood, especially for people with little savings and low disposable income. It’s easy to imagine the stresses in coping with this much drop in one’s income.

Our unemployment benefits at 34% of previous income are one of the lowest in the OECD, just half of the OECD average.

The Labour party promised transformational change coming into power in 2017. They have stopped mentioning the word ‘transformation’. The problem of low core benefits remains unresolved. Welfare is a political issue. Beneficiaries are victims of politics, the ‘dole bludger’ label has meant increasing benefit levels is unpopular.

“You have Scandinavian ambitions in terms of quality of life and public services, but a US attitude to tax.” – Laura Clarke, British High Commissioner to New Zealand, 2020

Changes to our tax system since 1985 and low productivity increases have meant a massive transfer of wealth to those on high incomes. The size of the pie hasn’t increased, just the share for the wealthy. We are one of the very few countries in the world with no capital gains tax and tax income from the first dollar earned. High housing costs have further diminished disposable income of the poor.

We have successfully reduced suicide rates – for those over 55 years. To a level even lower than the pre-Rogernomics era, 36% to 65% lower. Pre-1985 youth suicide rates were much lower than adult rates, just over half of those 45+ years. Now the situation is reversed, youth rate is approximately 60% higher, and it’s worse for the teens. The baby boomers have benefited most by the wealth transfer post-Rogernomics and the property boom.

We have successfully reduced suicide rates – for those over 55 years, now 36% to 65% lower than even pre-Rogernomics era.

Each life lost to suicide has a combined loss of contribution to society, the economy and the individual’s family of $3.4 Million as per the Auditor General. The cost for last year’s 685 lives was approximately $2.2 Billion or 1% of our GDP. This doesn’t include the cost of attempted suicides.

New Zealand doesn’t track suicide statistics by cause. We have no idea if it is depression or drugs, whether it’s sexual abuse or lack of social support. Or a combination of factors which carries a much greater risk. Nor does it track numbers of suicides with prior attempts. Our Chief Coroner releases provisional figures annually.  However, final numbers and detailed statistics by the Ministry of Health follow three years later, of little use to evaluate the success of any prevention strategy.

A dedicated Suicide Prevention Commissioner was appointed in 2019, and an Office for Suicide Prevention established. A new Suicide Prevention Strategy for the period 2019-2029, “Every Life Matters” followed. The government has allocated significant funding for mental health and resources, signalled that reducing suicides is a high priority. While the new plan mentions stable employment and access to secure housing as two of the protective factors for suicide, it doesn’t mention any action to improve these areas.  

The suicide prevention strategy for Australia touches on training for frontline employees in non-health areas such as social services, income support, employment and the courts’ system. It also emphasises the need to create awareness and training for employees on the other side of the fence, especially those working in employment support settings for referrals and improving employability.

Most suicide prevention strategies are driven by the Health sector, and focus on healthcare, not the broader economic issues that impact suicides.

Most suicide prevention strategies focus on healthcare, not the broader economic issues that impact suicides.

Are we throwing money someway down the cliff? Ignoring a vital part of the picture? Why does a Zero Suicide strategy only target a 20% reduction by 2030? Will this government be bold enough to address our benefits system? Is transformational change a mirage?

Will our young and the poor keep paying with their lives for an economic system that fails them?

Note – Suicide Prevention office and the Ministry of Health was contacted for this article, and no response received.

Where to get help: Lifeline: 0800 543 354 Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those concerned about family or friends. Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) Samaritans: 0800 726 666 Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email

Climate Change

Climate Change – New Zealand

Mitigating climate change and adapting to a warmer world

 “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.”

– Native American Proverb

New Zealand is the 5th highest emitter, per capita among the OECD countries, due to our reliance on primary industry exports.  Not where we want to be with our clean, green reputation. Methane and Nitrous Oxide, which are farm-based, comprises 55% of our Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions.

The long shadows of climate change are already here. Australian bushfires last year covered an area as large as Great Britain. The images of the blazes dominated our TV screens, vivid pictures of dying koalas and flaming bush. The fires burned for months, beyond human fire fighting capabilities, we just had to let them burn out. The fire season in 2019 started in the middle of the winter in the southern hemisphere. In California, bushfires are an annual occurrence. Still, the fires of 2020 are the largest ever, sparked by lightning strikes on a tinder-dry bush. Cities of Chennai in India and Johannesburg literally ran out of water.

The arctic ice shelf is melting faster than ever, many fear the decline is irreversible. Antarctic ice is melting. Not exactly good news for rest of us that Siberia is enjoying longer crop seasons and their ships can ply ice-free waters for longer.

In New Zealand last year was the hottest on record. The drought that hit Northland was one of the worst. Water restrictions for a city as wet as Auckland seem surreal.

Climate Risks

Our temperate climate means we will be less affected than countries like Australia or the Pacific islands.  The severity of impact depends very much on the strength of global efforts and ours. Modelling can only give us an indication or a range of outcomes for what the future holds.

We already have frequent droughts, especially in Northland, Hawkes Bay and Canterbury, these are likely to spread and become more severe. Lower rainfall will affect freshwater sources and impact on irrigation for our farms, threaten exports and food security. Forestry is another area where effects of higher temperature are uncertain, as it is with wines. While some vineyards can move to colder regions, wines are sensitive to the soil, humidity, etc., may not find ideal conditions elsewhere. We could benefit from the addition of crop varieties which thrive in warmer climates and higher production from the likes of wheat.

Our primarily hydro based electricity generation will reduce in the North Island. However, South Island is likely to benefit with more melting of snow and ice. Ski seasons will be shorter, impact our winter tourism, although we might see a displacement from Australian ski fields.

More frequent and extensive bushfires will threaten residential areas. Coastal erosion, flooding and sea level rises threaten coastal housing, roads, rail lines, the attractiveness of beaches.

Biosecurity risks will increase with uncertain effects due to the interlinked nature of the ecosystems. The cooling cost will be higher in summer, heating cost lower in winter.

There will be a disproportionate impact on Maori/ Pacific due to over-representation in primary industries and fewer resources to mitigate the effects of climate change. The elderly will experience more heat-related health issues.

Insurance costs will increase, and we might have to fund a govt scheme as we have for earthquake insurance. We will need financing for climate adaptation and mitigation costs.

Indirect effects of Climate Change have the potential to affect us on many fronts. Meat-less movement could lower beef and lamb consumption in key markets with some relief from growth in fast-developing economies like China and potentially higher prices. Tourism could be affected by the likes of  ‘No-fly’ movement and especially from long- haul destinations.

We could see climate refugees from the low-lying Pacific island nations and costs to lend a hand with their climate adaptation efforts.

Threats for New Zealand were detailed in the IPCC report of 2014 on regional risks and the National Climate Risk Assessment released by the Ministry for Environment in August 2020.

Climate Action – Reducing emissions

There are three broad pillars of climate action necessary to decrease carbon emissions and limit the temperature rise.

  1. decarbonising the electricity system and reducing farm based emissions
  2. fuel switching
  3. energy efficiency

Methane and Nitrous Oxide Emissions

The most important and the most challenging issue for New Zealand is reducing farm-based emissions. Methane, which is mainly emitted by our cows, lamb and nitrous oxide, is primarily emitted by nitrogen-based fertiliser. The methane is emitted by insects which reside in cattle and lamb, not by the animals themselves. (Release of Methane is by cows burping not farting!).

The answer lies in better farming practices and technology. The government is funding research into a scientific solution, primarily targeted at feed additives. The solutions can lie in oils and fats, natural supplements like seaweed and tannin or synthetic chemicals.


Electricity generation from wind and solar now costs less than fossil fuel energy. Costs are likely to decrease further as we scale up the use of renewables, and technology keeps improving. We already generate 80% of our electricity from renewables due to our traditional hydropower base.

Stability of renewable power is still an issue. Solar generation stops at dusk and wind could stop blowing anytime (although this is less likely with offshore wind turbines). The government is investigating pumped hydro to stabilise the supply of electricity. We may require fossil fuel power as a backup.

 The target date for 100% renewable electricity is now 2030.

Fuel Switching


Fuel switching is still at an early stage worldwide; a majority of cars manufactured are still petrol-powered, and we have a vast inventory of these cars. NZ government announced a rebate scheme to encourage changeover to Electric Vehicles (on hold at present), in Norway 31% of vehicles are already EVs. Most of our industries also are powered by fossil fuels and will take some time to replace, due to the long lifespans of plant and machinery.

Energy Efficiency

We have been working on this for a while now, direct cost savings being a great incentive. Energy-efficient cars, buildings, equipment, all have boosted energy efficiency and will continue to improve. Our Energy Conservation Authority (EECA) provides funding to industry for energy efficiency improvements.

Adapting to Climate Change

Research on how our agro-industries can cope better will need to be ramped up. Reducing methane output will be critical. Adapt wines/grapes to a warmer climate. Change crop seasons. Trialling new varieties which might thrive in a more temperate climate. Some farms and forestry can relocate to colder southern areas. Research likely changes in fisheries and quotas.

Water conservation efforts will be needed as well as recycling greywater and rainwater harvesting. Strengthening vulnerable coastal areas with shrubs and rock walls etc. to reduce flood damage.

Relocating seaside homes and infrastructure which we can’t protect, also residences at high risk from bushfires. Bush fire protection measures like back burning during winter will need more attention and fire protection efforts strengthened with more helicopters, workforce etc. Bolstering early warning systems and evacuation plans to cope with increasing and more severe extreme weather events.

We will need heat pumps etc. to cool residences in warmer areas and better insulation, especially for the elderly. Assist those on low incomes, from effects like higher food prices. Review protection for those working outdoor in warmer areas- agriculture, forestry, construction in the summertime. Review government and other institutional structures required for Climate Adaptation. Review finance/insurance to support Climate Change Adaptation

Our pacific island neighbours will need support and funding to implement effective Climate Adaptation strategies. We will need to counter the ‘No-fly’ movement and promote tourism from growth markets, short-haul, and local markets.

The National Climate Adaptation report by the Ministry of Environment is due by 2022.

Climate Action– Slow and steady or just slow?

We have set the base for action. The Zero Carbon Act was passed in November 2019 with bipartisan support. Key targets are to achieve Net Zero emissions except for methane by 2050. Reduce methane emissions by between 24 to 47% by 2050. Setting interim 5 yearly emissions budgets. An Interim Climate Commission set up in 2018 has been formalised upon finalisation of the Zero Carbon Act. The commission has issued reports on agriculture and changeover of electricity generation to renewables.

However, action has so far been slow and baby steps, it’s always harder where the rubber meets the road. The current government banned offshore oil exploration, but not onshore. ACC is planning to reduce high carbon investments –but only to 50% of the current value and only by 2030. Government has abandoned the target to make just the public service fleet electric or hybrid by 2025 been. Action has been much slower and softer than the rhetoric, the urgency required by the words ‘climate emergency’ would suggest.

However, action has been slow and baby steps. The current government banned offshore oil exploration, but not onshore. ACC is planning to reduce high carbon investments –but only to 50% of the current value and only by 2030. Government has abandoned the target to make just the public service fleet electric or hybrid by 2025 been. Action has been much slower and softer than the rhetoric, the urgency required by the words ‘climate emergency’ would suggest.

We need to accelerate the pace of change, move faster if we are to avoid emergencies, disasters and the need for rushed, expensive ambulances at the bottom of cliff solutions.

Climate Change – Possible benefits for New Zealand

Renewables – Almost all the electricity required by New Zealand, including for electric-powered vehicles, will be generated in New Zealand. Saving most of the $10Bn we currently spend every year on importing fossil fuels.
New crops – We might be able to grow food crops that currently grow in warmer climates, increase the production of food crops like wheat.
Extended growing seasons – In colder areas
Ski resorts and tourism – We could see more visitors from Australia, as their ski resorts become less attractive.
Tourism – Tourists who usually go to Australia at hotter times of the year, changing over to New Zealand or increasing time spent here.

How can you help?

Activism!  – Slow Climate Action is mainly due to politics and the fossil fuel lobby groups. Help to keep up pressure on politicians and unfriendly climate businesses. What you can do personally helps, but what the government or companies can do, matters a lot more. Protesting or supporting protests is one of the best things we can do.
Clothing and shopping – Shop smart, buy less and use longer. Consider buying pre-loved clothing. Buy environment-friendly and durable where possible.
Food – Eat less beef and lamb, more fish, vegetables/fruit, and chicken. Meatless Mondays or Vegan Wednesdays, it’s good for your health as well. Buy local produce. Waste less by planning your food purchases.
Trees – Plant trees, get involved in community reforestation, coastal protection programs.
Holidays -Take more local or short-haul holidays.
Home – Use power-saving ideas at home. LED bulbs, air-drying clothes, using energy-efficient equipment, shorter showers, running full laundry loads etc. every little bit helps.
Prepare for likely local impacts like flooding and coastal erosion.
The 3 Rs – Reuse, Recycle, Repair.
Transport -Make your next car an EV. Use more public transportation.
Waste – Waste less and use composting. Composting can reduce your food waste by as much as 75% and save on your fertiliser cost.
Work – Encourage and support your employer’s efforts on climate action.