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

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.


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.


Inequality – Can we build a fairer New Zealand ?

The wealthiest 1% owns three times the wealth as the bottom 50%

“A nation will not survive morally or economically when so few have so much, while so many have so little.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders 

The wealthiest one per cent of our population today owns three times the wealth of the bottom 50%. A European New Zealander owns five times the wealth of a Maori and ten times the wealth of a Pacifica family.. Egalitarian New Zealand is no more. We wrote the obituary way back in the 1980s. Some of us own three or four houses, while many own none. Cost of renting a home could be as high as 40 or 50% of income. The median price of owning a house in Auckland is nine times of annual salary when below three years’ pay is considered affordable. The younger generation is locked out of homeownership, many consigned to be life long renters.

Economic History

New Zealand’s indigenous Maori people depended mainly on agriculture, fishing and hunting. First waves of settlers arrived from England around the time the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, looking for a better life than crowded, class-ridden Britain. They set up colonies in Wellington, Christchurch and many other places.

Early economic activity was mainly agriculture and gold mining.  Sheep farming started in the 1850s provided a boost to the economy, wool was in high demand for the textile mills in England. In the 1880s discovery of refrigeration started export industries for meat and dairy. Pre 1914 exports were mainly these commodities and imports consisted of manufactured goods. New Zealand became a wealthy country, however, reliant on commodity prices.

The economy grew during World War 1, disruption in Europe boosting demand for agricultural exports. However, post-world war depression was traumatic for the country. The economy started to recover in the 1930s due to stabilisation of commodity prices, devaluation of the currency and boost in exports to Britain with the signing of the Ottawa Agreement, which favoured Commonwealth countries.

New Zealand also imposed heavy import controls to contain a balance of payment crisis, and this insulated economy continued until 1984. Post World War boom in the 1950s was not favourable for New Zealand as Western European countries, and Japan began subsidising their farmers and restricting agricultural imports. Our protected economy provided full employment; however, import restrictions increased costs and reduced competitiveness.

The entry of the UK into the European Common Market was a body blow to the economy and oil price shocks further rocked New Zealand. A succession of failed policies, including a failed Think Big program led to an economic crash.

The Welfare State- The Safety Net

Steve Maharey, then Minister of Social Development and Employment made a speech in Sep 2000 about our welfare state.

The original vision of social security was to grant not only freedom from poverty but also dignity and a sense of citizenship.

The depression of the 1930s heralded the modern welfare state. Labour party which came into power in 1935 introduced a five-day, 40-hour week and a minimum wage;  pensions were increased. The Social Security Act of 1938, which followed is the cornerstone of today’s social security system. The Act introduced a range of new benefits, including provisions for sickness, unemployment, orphans and emergency coverage. This placed social security on a more systematic footing and established a framework that survives to the present day.

Targeted, as opposed to the universal provision of social assistance, has long been our dominant model of social security. It operates within a framework of benefits and pensions funded from general taxation. That is, based on the principle that social security benefits bore no relationship to the amount an individual had paid in tax or the length of time in employment.

New post-war provisions such as universal family benefit to support the education and maintenance of children in 1945 were widely welcomed but added significantly to the cost of social support. During the prosperous 1950s, 60s and early 70s, this did not present significant problems. Unemployment was almost non-existent, and the concept of state-funded benefits to those in financial need was widely accepted by both major parties.

The Royal Commission of 1969 called on the government to renew and enlarge its commitment. The family benefit was doubled, and other benefit levels slightly increased. One of the most pressing concerns addressed by the Commission was the plight of sole mothers leading to the introduction of the Domestic Purposes Benefit for single parents in 1973. Social Security spending increased further in 1977 with the introduction of the National Superannuation scheme, replacing the means-tested system.


The State Advances Corporation lent 95% of the house value at an interest rate of 3% locked for 40 years, governments of both major parties believed homeownership was necessary for a healthy society. There was adequate social housing. Rent was income-based, and a maximum of a quarter of their wages.

Reforms 1984 – Rogernomics and Mother of All Budgets

“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 Party came into power in 1984, in a crisis situation; with a political agenda of deregulation.

‘Towns full of weeping women’ an article in Stuff, April 2017 by Philip Matthews talked about the reforms. Roger Douglas, Finance Minister, chief architect of the reform program 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 ideology and trend of the time that drove the reforms rather than pragmatism. Reaganomics and Thatcherite neoliberal economics promoted heavily by a few prominent economists like Milton Friedman as the right cure.

The purpose of the 1987 State-Owned Enterprises Act was a radical transformation “To strip government trading departments of their social objectives. Turn them into profit-making businesses,” as an online history of the State Services Commission puts it. 

It was a blitzkrieg.

The government is pouring money “straight down the drain” by subsidising State Coal Mines, Douglas claimed in an interview to the Waikato Times that every mine employee cost the country $122,000 a year. 

John Patterson was one of the victims of the restructuring when the department of Lands and Survey vanished into history. He finished on March 31, 1987, and started with the Social Impact Unit on April 1. The unit’s role was to monitor the effects of restructuring on communities and individuals and to identify needs.

He would knock on doors across Southland. First stop: the mining communities of Ohai and Nightcaps. 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. 

Where were the women? The district nurse told Patterson that they were at home crying. 

Unemployment was not high nationally, but in smaller towns like Tuatapere, it was around 80 per cent. In South Auckland, it was between 40% and 50%.  Revolution was permanent. Tens of thousands were laid off.

Patterson became “the expert on unemployment” across the south. “Restructuring department after department kept going month after month and lives were shattered, for a while,” he says. “In one way or another, they started getting their lives back, and life went on. What got me, looking back on it, was the way people rallied around each other.”

Deregulation in 1984 led to a rush to invest in the stock market, what appeared to be a way to get a decent return. The stock market crash in 1987, came just six months after the initial wave of redundancies, many people invested and lost, their redundancy money, their superannuation.

Many people invested in the stock market and lost, their redundancy money, their superannuation.

While there was a cruelty in laying off so many people at once, assistance was offered. The Social Impact Unit was one example. Paterson has positive memories of the Community Employment Group created by the Department of Labour. It funded community organisations and took the kinds of risks that seem, 30 years later, to have been relatively daring.

Ruth Richardson, who became the Finance Minister of the National government which came into power in 1990, was even more ruthless.

Mother of all Budgets is still f*cking us today

Laura O’Connell Rapira wrote on Spinoff on September 2019 in an article titled “How Ruth Richardson’s Mother of all Budgets is still f*cking us today”. Ruth believed jobs would miraculously appear for people if she cut their income support. She ruthlessly slashed the unemployment, families and the sickness benefits. Benefits were reduced by 20% and stayed at those rates until 2016. Unchanged through periods of a booming economy and governments of both major parties.

It’s a strange ideology that believes in cutting support to sick people, solo parents and working-class families. It makes no sense when a government makes thousands unemployed and cuts their benefits at the same time and reduces taxes for the wealthiest 20%. Top tax rates were cut from 66% to 33%. GST of 10% introduced affected those on lower-income disproportionately and applied on almost everything, including food and medicine.

A strange ideology…. that cuts support to sick people, solo parents and working-class…. and reduces taxes for the wealthiest 20%.

The average income on welfare benefits dropped from 72% of median annual wage to 58%, in just three years of Ruth Richardson from 1990 to 1993, the damage done was lasting.

Bernard Hickey, in his article on ‘Interest’, contends that there was a clearcut worsening of wealth, health outcomes for people born after 1984, which he calls the ‘Baby Bust’ generation.

Those born in the 60s and 70s took advantage of the housing boom, starting in the 1990s. Many owned their houses, making it easy for them to purchase additional houses to rent, using the equity in their homes as collateral. They received tax rebates for any rental losses while reaping benefits from the increases in house values. House values rose further with an influx of migrants from Hongkong and opening the property market for overseas buyers. House values increased from 3 times median annual wage to 6 times nationally, 9 times in Auckland.

Baby Busters were effectively locked out of the housing market.

Economic Reforms Australia 1980s and 1990s – The Hawke Keating effect

Paul Kelly, a political journalist and author who later became the editor in chief at the prominent newspaper ‘Australian’, made an address at a journalist conference in 2000 about the Australian economic reforms of the 1980s and 90s.

The 1980s saw the globalisation of the Australian economy. The 1990s saw the contest between globalists and anti-globalists. A series of events saw an economic liberalisation and triggered a transformation of the Australian economy. Keys to our success in the 1990s is due to decision-makers retaining best policies from the 1980s and discarding the worst. A new framework to underwrite a more neo-liberal and open economy was not constructed in the 1990s.

Keys to our success ….. due to decision-makers retaining best policies from the 1980s and discarding the worst.

First, there was a pervasive sense of national stagnation and decline symbolised by the economic recession of the 1980s. Second, there was a new Labour government, which believed a new approach was essential. The Hawke-Keating government was both free from political dogma and old fashioned economic orthodoxy which undermined and destroyed previous governments.

Third, there was a set of new ideas waiting for the new government to seize upon, with broad support from government agencies such as the Treasury and the Reserve Bank, the Parliament, and Media. Freer trade, smaller government, deregulation of markets, lower tax rates within a fairer system, a more flexible labour market, low inflation, an attack on rent-seekers and a more market-oriented economy.

Fourth the government had a social contract with the trade union movement. The Accord represented a choice by the unions to give priority to economic growth rather than seek to increase wages by industrial might. Fifth, the government’s reformism would be based on gradualism and a search for consensus. The changes were negotiated more than imposed. The Hawke- Keating government shunned a “big bang” approach.

Reformism would be based on gradualism and a search for consensus…changes were negotiated more than imposed.

Sixth for the Hawke government social and economic equity was vital in the transition to economic liberalism. Equity was an essential part of the economic agenda, and aim in its own right. The tax-transfer system was highly effective in nullifying most of the income inequity arising from the market-oriented financial system. The two neighbouring countries, New Zealand and Australia’s, approach to the economic reforms differed significantly. (Inequality in Australia has grown since then with mainly conservative governments in power.)

Poverty Impacts

Child poverty in New Zealand has doubled since the 1980s. Food can be short; children go to school hungry unable to focus on learning. Schools in our decile one schools often lack in facilities, limited with access to technology, low in participation in sports and other activities due to lack of funding for gear. Houses can be cold and draughty, causing health problems.  Our poor tend to live far from urban centres, work in less secure jobs, often working part-time and pay a high cost for transport. We rank 24th out of 33 countries in the developed world for inequality.

We rank 24th out of 33 countries in the developed world for inequality.

We have a real problem with poverty and inequality in the developed world today. People in many countries feel the prevailing system has not served them well, that the mainstream parties on both sides of the spectrum, right and left, have failed them. That politicians looked after the rich and powerful, at the expense of the poor and weak.

Populous movements woo the people as the alternative who can deliver a more equitable system. Populists already lead countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Turkey, India. Populous movements are increasing their popularity in countries like France and Italy, even Germany. Many have no intention of helping the poor, more interested in looking after themselves and their cronies. They seek undemocratic means of staying in power than rely on the ballot box. They resort to classic ploys like attacking immigrants to distract the attention of the populace.

The Nordic Model

Chuck Collins posted an article on the website Institute for Policy Studies in July 2016, ‘We should take a lesson from Nordic countries’. Reviewing the book ‘Viking Economics’ by George Lakey.

The Nordic countries – Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland – typically have considerably less income and wealth inequality, thanks to both robust social safety nets and progressive taxation. They also top indexes of industrialised countries measuring the quality of life indicators such as longevity, health, work-life balance, and vacations.

Norwegians a century ago didn’t like the results of a wealth gap: the hunger and poverty, crime, elderly friends left in isolation, young people without hope of a good job. Norwegians also didn’t like the attitudes that went with inequality; an inclination toward arrogance among higher-income people and the feeling among lower-income people that they were losers defeated by the system.

The decades-long transition was brought about in several of the Nordic countries through strong popular movements of workers and social reformers that campaigned and won political power. When out of power, they pressured governments through mass protests, including nonviolent direct action when the system was unresponsive.

The Nordic model is a “universal services state” that focuses on poverty alleviation, a robust social safety net, and full employment. But, with a commitment to work as a central part of their anti-poverty strategy for those able.

The quality of life for workers is much higher, and the work-life balance is considerably healthier than in the United States. The average number of hours worked in a year is more than three hundred hours less than in the USA (and New Zealand). Social mobility is increasing in the Nordic countries and declining in the US. The Nordic model focuses on economic security, efficiency, and productivity and believes they are connected.

Their success undermines the view that the ideal capitalist economy is one where markets are unrestrained. Lakey contests the misconception that high taxes and regulation in the Nordic countries stifle business and entrepreneurship. Productivity is considerably higher, even with a shorter workweek. The rate of start-up companies in Norway and Denmark is substantially higher than in the US.  Researchers found Nordic entrepreneurs greater risk-takers because they don’t need to worry about the education debt, retirement, unemployment and medical care.

Nordic businesses compete in the global economy, but they are discouraged, through laws and social contracts, from cutting wages as part of their competitive strategy.

Nordic businesses are discouraged..from cutting wages as part of their competitive strategy.

Their understanding of who the job creators are is not limited to the entrepreneurial class and investors. Although Nordics value the vision, risk and innovation contributed by entrepreneurs, they think the workers do a large share of the egg-laying. Which is why they invest so heavily in human capital and get higher productivity than many countries. Their track record with cooperatives, state-owned and municipal-owned enterprises gives them a positive perception of other sources of egg-laying.

Residents in Nordic countries don’t complain about their higher taxes because they clearly benefit from the expenditures. “For their high taxes the Norwegians have gotten overall affluence, stability, opportunity, a high level of services that make life easier and more secure,” writes Lakey.

From renewable energy policy and valuing racial differences to restorative criminal justice and responding to radical Islam, Nordic countries have valuable lessons for the rest of the world.

In most Nordic countries, the transition from youth to adulthood follows a different path than our focus on college and high-paying jobs. First, there is a deep culture of lifelong learning, folk schools, debt-free vocational training, and support for work transitions and parents. Working-class jobs are valued and well-compensated in the Nordic countries. In contrast, Lakey observes that a “Cruelty visited upon young people in high inequality countries is to induce star-struck dreams. But refuse to fund pathways to achieving satisfying life choices, including high-wage working-class jobs.”

“Cruelty visited upon young to induce star-struck dreams..But refuse to fund them”

“Movements need organisers, communicators, advocates, funders, nurturers, researchers, trainers, musicians and artists, nonviolent warriors, and ‘foot soldiers’ as well as visionary designers,” he writes. “All those were present in the Nordic movements that challenged a thousand years of poverty and oppression, took the offensive, and built democracy.”

The Nordic model can serve as both an inspiring model and a reminder of the many ingredients required for social transformation.


Dutch historian Rutger Bregman called for ‘Taxes, taxes, taxes’ at the World Economic Forum (he was not invited again). He called for a top tax rate of 70%. The question was asked, which prosperous country has a tax rate of 70% – the answer that came back, the United States until the 1980s (New Zealand had a top tax rate of 66%). ‘End this, Winners take all economy’ said Anand Giridharadas, a reformed Mckinsey consultant in his best selling book.

The present Labour government has taken a few steps to address inequality. More state housing. Healthier, better insulated rental housing. A winter heating allowance for beneficiaries and superannuitants. Fees free for year one of tertiary education. Lifting minimum hourly wage and indexing to median salary.

Perhaps the largest problem we face today is our polarised political system. The right-leaning National Party, when it is in power, increases inequality by pandering to those on higher incomes and businesses. The left-leaning Labour Party is hesitant to undertake significant reforms, as these will be politicised by the National Party.

The largest problem we face today is our polarised political system a website run by Max Rashbrooke, who has written an excellent book ‘ Inequality – A New Zealand Crisis’ argues for action on three major fronts.

A fairer tax system

Higher taxes are essential for improving benefits for the poor and the middle class. High tax countries like Sweden, Denmark, Finland, none of them resource-rich, all have GDP per capita at least 24% higher than New Zealand. Our GDP per capita, in real terms, has been stagnant, despite repeated tax reductions for the wealthy and corporations.

Max calls for a higher top tax rate, wealth taxes, capital gains tax and a financial transaction tax. We need to close loopholes in our tax legislation and crackdown on tax evasion. IRD reported that more than half of ultra-rich, with over $50Mn in assets, declared incomes of less than $70,000 per annum. Just a 1% return would be $500,000! The wealthy invest in many asset classes and earn more than 5%, in the long run. (This is the reason that Bill Gates gives away billions of dollars a year, and still has a wealth of over $100 Bn).

Raising taxes is politically unappealing. We can also reduce taxes that impact those on a low income. Reduce GST rate or exempt essentials like food. Introduce a tax credit for those on the lowest income tax slab.

Higher wages for those on low income

A living wage. Invest in providing jobs that pay higher wages. A limit on high incomes. We can improve education in low decile areas by increasing funding and widen the free lunch program. Widen free tertiary education, perhaps starting with polytechnics. Make the apprentice support program permanent.

Raise welfare benefits

Raise welfare benefits to the same level as NZ Super. More state housing and income-related rents.We also need affordable housing for the middle class and essential workers like the nurses, teachers, police. We need Kiwibuild, not more housing for landlords.Improve health services and accessibility for those on low incomes.Many of these services require an upfront investment but generate an economic return over the long term.

Not everything requires money. Let’s stop the payday lenders with their cash trucks, charging over 500% interest, a limit of double the loan amount doesn’t go far enough. (Australia caps the maximum rate at 4% per month). Let’s reduce the pokie machines taking poor people’s money, paying out a few cents on the dollar. Let’s make our criminal justice system focus on rehabilitation, not punishment. Eliminate the Bail Bond Act, which breeds more criminals. Let’s get our social workers to show more compassion. A sugar tax, prominent signage, taking sugary products off school cafeteria, cost nothing and have been shown to have a real impact on obesity and related health issues like diabetes and heart disease. Rezoning land has no cost, except for infrastructure.

Let’s stop the payday lenders with their cash trucks, charging over 500% interest,

There is a lot to do, some of these are expensive, upset armchair experts with a distaste for welfare support. Is there an alternative? Not unless you want to risk radical change, a populous leader or worse.

Change happens slowly in politics, which is not a bad thing. Gradual changes in the right direction, building consensus, is a much better option than changing right and left. What we can’t do is stand still or follow the same policies which led to this place we are now. Keep a system that works for the rich and powerful, and not for the poor, the middle class, the younger generation, the Maori and Pacific communities.

Now is the right time to rebalance the system, lift citizens left behind by globalisation. We need politicians from left and right together working for the good of the country, rather than sniping for political gains. Reducing inequality is not only the right path for the economy, but it is also the right path morally.

It is what our national anthem calls for ‘Let our cause be just and right’.


A pair of shoes and poverty

My paternal grandfather lived in a rambling old house. Families tended to be large those days, 7 to 8 person households were typical. Our home, set in a large garden, dotted with coconut trees and plenty of space for outdoor activities like cricket and football was idyllic.

My father had a few tales that he used to tell us often. One of these was about his education, how he passed the entrance exam for secondary school at a young age. He was keen to continue his education, but jealous brothers persuaded his grandfather not to support it. He started work as a clerk in a government department. Public sector wage scales were low in those days. A tiff with grandfather left him out of any property inheritance.

Maternal great grandfather was a successful businessman, owned a string of retail shops and an extensive property portfolio. Grandfather was a lawyer and a politician, in the days that politicians were honest. They regarded their work as a service to the community, financed their political campaigns primarily out of their own money.

He was also a gambler, another expensive pastime. The main form of gambling was British horse racing. Every suburb in Colombo had a few betting shops, and we had one down our street. Mainstream newspapers carried results from previous day’s races. My grandfather gambled away a fortune. My grandmother owned the properties; however, it was not difficult to get her to sign on the dotted lines to sell them. After all, he was a lawyer. When grandma realised what was happening, only the house they were living in was left.

There we were, my mother with little money and father with a lower middle -class income in a developing country, a large family to support. He tried to study and be a professional accountant, which would have increased his salary. He talked about getting up pre-dawn, drinking coffee and soaking his feet in a cold water bath to avoid falling asleep. Marriage, children and a full- time job proved too much of an obstacle in the end.

We were living pay-check to pay-check, sufficient money to put food on the table, not much left for anything else. Most companies paid a ‘bonus’, an extra month’s pay, on special occasions like Christmas or the local New Year. That paid for any ‘extras’, like clothing and text-books for school.

Often though, the money ran out before we could buy shoes, one of the more expensive pieces of attire. The adage ‘you can tell a gentleman by his shoes’ was apt back then. Shoes became tight and scuffed, bit into my toes, scraping the skin before we could afford to replace them. Toes retreated inwards and upwards; a cycle repeated many times. My toes had become permanently deformed. We could only buy shoes with a high front end, to avoid painful toes and torn skin.

Poverty was a lack of cash. My parents spent very little on alcohol, perhaps on a special occasion or when we had visitors. There were no takeaways or restaurant dining or vacations. The only thing you could call exorbitant was the sky-high interest on payday loans, sometimes the only option to put food on the table.

My toes are still deformed.

Scars of child poverty are often lifelong. Poverty itself is often permanent, sometimes intergenerational. Effect of poverty-related issues like poor health and lack of education are often lifelong. Work opportunities are usually at the low end of the wage scale, jobs precarious and work, hard physical.

Eradicating child poverty is necessary and beneficial to society. If you want to have lower healthcare cost, a more productive workforce, a happier community, we need to spend more money upfront, early in a child’s life.

A stitch in time saves nine.


Tax Injustice

The wealthiest companies and people in the world are avoiding paying billions of dollars in taxes every year, money that could have paid for better public services, decent pay for our essential workers and help the neediest people in our society

The accountancy firm Grant Thornton worked out that the UK’s 54 billionaires paid income tax totalling just £14.7m (0.01%) on their £126bn combined fortunes. The Observer, 2007

In 2018, Amazon paid $0 in USA federal income tax on more than $11 billion in profits before taxes. It also received a $129 million tax rebate from the federal government. Apr 4, 2019- CNBC.Com

Apple has faced mounting criticism in recent years for avoiding taxes in the US and Europe. Wednesday, it offered critics 38 billion replies. More precisely, Apple said it would pay an estimated $38 billion in tax .…, but it’s also a pretty good deal for the company; they saved $50bn. Wired, Jan 18, 2018

General Electric is a multinational giant that made $27.5 billion in profits from 2008-2012 but got a total of $3.1 billion in federal tax refunds and paid an effective tax rate of negative 11.1 per cent, according to Citizens for Tax Justice

Our wealthiest companies and billionaires are siphoning off billions of dollars from the public coffers every single year. And leaving a hole in public coffers that could have paid for better schools, hospitals, decent pay packets for our teachers and nurses, better housing and welfare for our neediest citizens. They do it in plain sight, flaunting it in our faces. They make billions of dollars in profits for their shareholders while paying little or no tax. You and I, the ordinary taxpayers, make up the shortfall getting less and less in return.

Apple said it would pay an estimated $38 billion in tax .…but it’s also a pretty good deal for the company, they saved $50bn

The international tax system is broken. The losses to people and countries throughout the world are staggering. You are probably wondering if we know which companies are not paying taxes, why don’t we just knock on their doors and collect the amounts owed. It is legal to ‘avoid’ taxes; using loopholes in our tax laws. You might ask why we don’t seal the holes which are causing this leakage? Large, powerful companies use an army of lobbyists and millions of dollars in donations to politicians to keep the loopholes open, change current laws to their benefit, get tax rates reduced. Even when the IRS charges them, they often fight in court using expensive law firms to delay judgement for years. Landing taxpayers with millions of dollars in legal fees.

It’s not just the large multinationals who avoid paying taxes; it’s also the billionaires and some smaller fry.

Robbing a bank or stealing a car, spells a lengthy jail sentence. You can hardly be regarded as a respectable member of the society, live in a fancy suburb. Or play golf with the most powerful people in the country.

Tax avoiders can don a cloak of respectability – exploiting gaps in the laws they helped create – saying they abide by all the laws and pay all due taxes.

The Panama papers leak and investigations cast a light on how rich listers’ and powerful politicians use tax havens. Lux leaks showed how major corporates used Luxembourg to avoid taxes.

A Brief History of Taxation

History of taxation is as long as the history of civilisation. First records of taxes were in Egypt around 3000 BC, where a fifth of all crops was given to the Pharaohs. Taxation was also prevalent in other ancient cultures like Greece, Roman, Aztec, Mughal emperors in India.

Early forms of taxation related to sales, purchases, import duties, taxes on property and even a head tax. During Greek and Roman times property taxes were levied to provide additional funding to fight wars. Modern forms of taxation began with the growth of imperial Europe and industrialisation, when taxes on doing business, became as valuable as taxes on farming.

Then as now, taxation was often a topic of political controversy. It was the refusal of American colonists to pay tax to the British which sparked the war for independence and the slogan – “No taxation without representation’. Resentment of taxation was also a significant factor in the French Revolution.

First World War saw an escalation of taxation and taxes continued to be high after the war to fund increased public services. The New Deal in the USA in the late 1930s, the 2nd World War, the funding required for public services like health, education and the Cold War led to high levels of taxation being a permanent feature in most countries. Rise of capitalism also required taxes to be levied to transfer wealth and reduce levels of inequality.

The last major shift in taxation began in the 1980s with the advent of neoliberalism. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher supported by neoliberal economists like Milton Friedman started a shift towards smaller government and lower taxes. A belief that this would spur economic growth which had stalled following the oil price hikes in the 1970s. Spur growth, it hasn’t, economic growth between 1950 and 1970 was higher than the periods following.

We have a seen a wide divergence in tax and welfare policies since the 1980s between countries like Scandinavia, France, Germany and the Anglo-American countries – USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand. Anglo American countries have moved to cut taxes and reduce public services and welfare, along with deregulation leading to sharply increased inequality. European countries have managed to retain relatively higher levels of taxation, a good standard of public services and lower levels of equality.

 The starkest extremes are in the USA. Tax cuts have been so lopsided that the wealthiest 400 billionaires now pay a lower level of tax than everyone else including the bottom 10% of earners. The billionaires now pay less than half the rate they used to pay in 1962, while their wealth has increased a staggering 24 times at the same time.

Impacts of reduced taxation

“The missing money means schools not funded properly, hospitals not built. For Russian people it’s not funny money, it’s killing them.”
– Elena Panfilova, the Moscow head of Transparency International, on élite Russian money stashed in Europe

Since the 1980s we have been cutting taxes for the rich and corporations while cutting benefits for the poor, Robin Hood in reverse. Tax cuts sometimes by more than 50% and a plethora of loopholes have led to poor healthcare, education, food insecurity, higher mortality rates etc. Deregulation and vastly reduced influence of unions has led to very insecure jobs while at the same time reducing the safety net for those who lose jobs.

In developing countries, the effects are far worse. Governments are struggling to provide even the most basic services, people starve or even die due to lack of food and healthcare.

Helping hands

“At some point . . . such conduct passes from clever accounting and lawyering to theft from the people.”
– US Internal Revenue Service, in a case dealing with KPMG’s “phoney tax losses.”

“The agents who create and maintain this secrecy space include some of the most powerful and privileged elites with society.  It is bankers, lawyers and accountants who create and operate the corruption interface linking illicit activities to the mainstream economies.”
– John Christensen, Director, Tax Justice Network

“Offshore companies bled Guinea’s resources, facilitated by western lawyers, accountants, advisers.”
– Alpha Condé, president of Guinea, Jan 2014

The enablers- tax accountants, lawyers, bankers make large sums of money helping these companies to avoid taxes. These professionals, along with trade associations like The Institutes Chartered Accountants and CPAs lobby to influence tax regulations favourable to their clients, loopholes open. Our accountants and lawyers, use our public education systems to get their education, use the same knowledge to rob public coffers that paid for their education.

Our accountants and lawyers, use our public education systems to get their education, use the same knowledge to rob public coffers that paid for their education.

The Big 4 Accounting firms like KPMG and Deloitte are particularly pernicious in lobbying and peddling their ‘products’ to help avoid taxes. PWC wrote Luxembourg’s tax regulations to establish the tax haven.

They will tell you that tax avoidance or using loopholes in the law is legal and acceptable if not ethical. What they conveniently forget is that they influenced and lobbied to keep these holes open, in some cases reopen those that have been closed. They even push authorities to punish whistleblowers with criminal charges. In Luxembourg, it was the good guys, the whistleblowers who were charged, on a complaint by PWC. They push schemes which are likely to be considered illegal, because any penalties will be wet bus tickets, compared to the money they stand to make.

Tax Havens

Have you ever examined UK trust law? All our bankers and financial lawyers say that if you really want to hide money, go to London and set up a trust
Luxembourg politician talking to UK MP Dennis MacShane, after he had complained about bank secrecy

However hard it is for them to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, the super-rich has no difficulty entering the United Kingdom of Tax Haven.
– Michael Meacher, UK Labour MP, writing about Britain’s domicile rule, 2007.

Tax havens are countries or states or territories, who charge ultra-low tax rates, sometimes zero tax. To help corporate and wealthy individuals avoid taxes in other countries. The name tax haven may sound like a tropical island in the middle of nowhere; the reality is different. The USA now ranks as the 2nd largest tax haven in the world in terms of tax dollars avoided; over twenty states offer significant tax benefits to foreign corporations. Five of the major tax havens are British territories, including the largest tax haven in the world – Grand Cayman Islands. Two biggest financial centres of the world – Wall Street and the City of London are the hubs that act as conduits to tax havens. It doesn’t end there, many prosperous, seemingly respectable countries are also tax havens – Netherland, Luxembourg, Ireland, Switzerland, Singapore, Hongkong, Dubai.

The USA now ranks as the 2nd largest tax haven in the world

Most of these countries are supposed to be bastions of democracy, hold the interests of  ‘We the People’ supreme, it doesn’t appear to be the case. In the words of Leona Helmsley, property heiress “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes”. In the words of Warren Buffett – “I pay a lower tax rate than my secretary”.

The effect on developing countries is a significant drain of funds on people who can least afford it, live below the poverty rate of $2.50 per day.


“A Labour Chancellor will not permit tax reliefs to millionaires in offshore tax havens.” 
– Gordon Brown, Hansard,  1998

Not just a light touch, but a limited touch . . . a million fewer inspections every year
UK Chancellor Gordon Brown, 2005, as he launches his “Better Regulation Plan.”“In 1995, Congress adopted legislation intended to limit securities litigation … insulated from the suits, the accountants now willing to take more ‘gambles’.
– Joseph Stiglitz, in his book The Roaring Nineties

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher made taxes unfashionable. Tax cuts for the rich and corporations were staggering, some nearly halved overnight. Politicians are part of the problem. Many of them held a misconception, without any evidence that lower taxes boost the economy or lower taxes encourage greater compliance.

They are also highly susceptible to lobbyists who promote loopholes, especially if they come bringing gifts, hefty campaign donations. Laws are often designed to fail. They are also hypocrites – what they say during the election campaigns are quite different from what they do once in power as quotes above from Gordon Brown illustrate. What they say in private to their backers is quite different from what they say in public. Tax cuts are often followed by slashed welfare for the neediest people in society.

The Good Guys – The Tax Activists

Several activist organisations are fighting against overwhelming odds to make a dent in the tax avoidance/evasion industry. Tax Justice Network, operates out of UK with branches around the world, including in New Zealand They use their website, a monthly podcast, lobbying to create awareness and push governments, regional and global organisations like the EU, OECD.

International Committee for the Reform of International Corporate Taxation (ICRICT) is another prominent activist organisation; who include Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and another influential economist Gabriel Zucman, amongst its members. There also US-centric organisations like Citizens for Tax Justice.

Whistleblowers, journalists and news organisations are essential assets in the fight against tax theft. Several high-profile investigations which have received attention include the Panama Papers, Paradise Papers and Lux Leaks.

Global Tax Action, or is it inaction?

”It does not surprise anyone when I tell them that the most important tax haven in the world is an island. They are surprised, however, when I tell them that the name of the island is Manhattan. Moreover, the second-most-important tax haven in the world is on an island. It is a city called London in the United Kingdom.”
Marshall Langer, a leading pro-tax haven analyst, Tax Notes International, 2001

“The game plan is to be positive but hope as little as possible happens,” is how Paul Oosterhuis, a tax partner of Skadden Arps, the US law firm

There is an OECD initiative to reduce tax avoidance since June 2016. There is some progress; however, significant problems remain and significant roadblocks. The primary and possibly intractable problem is that OECD countries account for 50% of tax avoidance globally, therefore unlikely to agree on any significant reduction to their revenues. For some of them like Ireland and Luxembourg, tax haven revenues ‘stolen’ from other countries are a substantial part of government revenues.

There could be progress if major countries like the USA and UK support these initiatives. Unfortunately, they are both significant tax havens. The Trump administration has even gone to the extent of threatening retaliation against any attempt by countries who are initiating tightening of tax avoidance laws.

EU has been trying to reform international taxation in Europe for years. These initiatives have failed to produce any significant reforms or even transparency, blocked by tax haven countries within the EU.

How are taxes avoided?

Corporates and Rich Listers

The same mechanisms allow tax evasion, tax avoidance, corruption, and organised crime money to flow — it’s all the same. We have left these loopholes open because it’s beneficial to multinationals and the rich. To be able to structure their money to minimise tax, we let a hell of a lot more going on under this.
Anthea Lawson, Global Witness

A recent news item highlighted the ‘Double Irish Dutch sandwich’ used by Google to avoid tax. Tax avoidance typically involves a company that is a subsidiary of a multinational group registered in a tax haven charging for services to companies in the group operating in other countries. Income in the tax haven is taxed at a very low rate, while the company gets large tax deductions in high tax countries.

Royalty payment, Licensing Fees – while R&D for product development or brand building is done mainly in their home countries. For some inexplicable reason, corporates are allowed to register these in tax havens. These payments can be quite large as they are unique and cannot be easily compared to a market price. For companies like Google and Apple, these fees can be $billions for just one year.

High Value, High-Interest Loans between branches –Loans are given to subsidiaries in high tax countries at high-interest rates. Tax on interest income in tax havens is minimal while saving in tax bills around the world.

Round Tripping –Sending money to countries like Singapore, Hongkong as Foreign Direct Investments and getting cash back as Foreign Investments.

Complicated transactions using tax havens – An example would be the ‘Double Dutch Irish sandwich’ which uses Netherland, Ireland and Bermuda.

Using Foreign Trusts – Used primarily by rich listers, income is transferred to a Trust in a tax haven, paying little or no tax on such income. New Zealand is highlighted in the Panama papers scandal as a place used to register foreign trusts. No beneficiary information was required at the time, making it an ideal place to hide assets and income.

How the little guys do it

Trusts – A high earner using a trust to distribute profits to children, who will pay at lower tax rates is a legitimate way to reduce taxes.

An article in Spinoff, written by Michele Duff outlines some of the ways commonly used by small to medium tax cheats. Most of the tax saved by the little guys is tax evasion or breaking the law and punishable if caught.

The hidden economy or the ‘black’ economy is a significant part of small to medium tax evasion. A contractor might tell you that he can give you a lower price if you pay cash, as part of the bargaining process. A restaurant will fail to ring through cash sales and pay some wages in cash, avoiding GST, PAYE and Income Tax, a triple whammy. A construction company will pay some salaries in cash, avoiding PAYE.

Cash is king for tax cheats, including restaurants, retailers, contractors, it’s easy as pocketing it instead of putting it through the books.

They have their helpers too, from friendly accountants who identify loopholes to money launderers and suppliers in the black economy.

How to make them pay

The solutions are not technically challenging, but politically almost impossible, presently

The good news is that we can fix tax injustice, right now. There is nothing inherent in modern technology or globalisation that destroys our ability to institute a highly progressive tax system. The choice is ours– Gabriel Zucman and Emmanuel Saez

Tax Justice Network and economists Gabriel Zucman/Emmanuel Saez propose a Unitary Taxation system. Country by country reporting of revenues can be used as the basis to allocate worldwide profits to each state. Each state will collect their tax based on its Corporate Tax rates. Any uncollected tax will be paid in the home country. This ensures that taxes are paid where the economic activity takes place, rather than where tax rates are lowest. Removing the incentive for companies to book their taxes in tax havens.

Gabriel Zucman and Emmanuel Saez also propose a wealth tax, supported by a global wealth registry and adequately resourced audit function. Furthermore, sanctions against tax havens.

The oft-repeated mantra that the current tax issues due to the advent of digital and online businesses are just a red herring. We do have a problem collecting taxes from digital companies. However, we lose much more money due to the inability to collect taxes from traditional brick and mortar multinational companies. Tax havens didn’t spring up overnight; they have been there for decades.

The mantra that the inability to collect taxes is due to the tax system not keeping pace with globalisation is also a red herring. The problems are due to our politicians looking away and even colluding with the rich and powerful. To weaken our tax system, winking at those who are avoiding and evading taxes.

It is no longer seen as unpatriotic to avoid taxes, not since Reagan and Thatcher started attacking the government as the problem.

New Zealand

“That $500m could pay for 26,000 hip operations, 4,000 doctors or 7500 cops. A boatload of money” -James Shaw – Leader Green Party

“Certain industries are more susceptible to profit shifting and playing games with us. Logically that’s where we put more resources in terms of monitoring”- John Nash, IRD Manager, International Audits

A New Zealand Herald investigation in June 2017, into multinationals operating here highlighted that 20 of them paid only $1.8Mn tax on $10Bn revenue in New Zealand. Just two companies BP and Caltex paid only $4Mn tax on $5Bn of income, some of them even claimed tax refunds! Herald estimated tax lost at $490Mn.

Two companies BP and Caltex paid only $4Mn tax on $5Bn of revenue

World Bank estimated the size of our ‘hidden economy’ in New Zealand at $20bn per year, that is 10% of our GDP. If we calculate the loss in taxes at say 20%, that is $4bn every year. Which could have paid for hospitals, better wages for our public servants, a more decent life for our beneficiaries and less tax for all of us ordinary taxpayers.

Progress on tax avoidance and evasion

“The new law will address the problem of companies operating cross-border and using aggressive tax structuring to reduce the tax they pay, the first step towards a better, fairer tax system” – Stuart Nash, Revenue Minister

The Taxation (Neutralising Base Erosion and Profit Shifting) Bill passed in 2018 is a ‘first step’ on tackling multinational tax avoidance. Inland Revenue has also given guidance on maximum acceptable charges for intercompany loans and royalty charges, aimed at putting pressure on these companies. They estimate an increase in the tax take of $200Mn from these changes. We are yet to see if these changes will have the desired effect.

How they do it

No Tax Haven Involved

Company Straight A– Makes profit of $100Mn operating in Country X. Pays Tax of $30Mn at a corporate tax rate of 30%.

With Tax Haven

Company Crooked BB a subsidiary of Company B– Makes profit of $100Mn in Country X

Company Crooked BC, a subsidiary of Company B, is registered in Tax haven Bermuda, where the tax rate is 1%. BB pays tax on royalties of $50Mn at the 1% tax rate, $0.5Mn.

Company Crooked BB now makes only $50Mn after paying royalties; the tax bill is now half of what it should have paid – 30% X $50 Mn = $15Mn

Total tax for Company B who owns BB and BC is now $15.5Mn, compared to Company Straight A who paid $30Mn for the same profit.

A saving of nearly 50% or is it theft?


  • The triumph of injustice – Gabriel Zucman, Emmanuel Saez
  • The Hidden Wealth of Nations: The Scourge of Tax Havens – Gabriel Zucman, Emmanuel Saez
  • Tax Justice Network -
  • NZ Herald
  • The Guardian
  • Stuff-
  • The Spinoff -

Diabetes kills – 6 times more people than car accidents

Diabetes, along with closely linked heart disease, is responsible for the deaths of more New Zealanders each year than any other condition.

My mother died of diabetes complications. She struggled with this disease for years. She took insulin orally at first, as her condition worsened she had to go to the hospital for injections. She was hospitalised many times and finally became another casualty of diabetes. She took her medicine faithfully, lifestyle changes- probably not.

John’s story is probably typical for a diabetic and highlights challenges faced in tackling the disease. “The word is relentless because that’s how it feels. My first response to being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2009 was one of frustration and resentment. I didn’t want to be diabetic. I was frustrated that it meant changing my lifestyle, which at the time, I hadn’t prepared to do. I did nothing.

My wife and I were with my daughter up in Ripon one day in 2017, and I remember waking up Friday morning and being very, very breathless. They rushed an ambulance to me. Looking into the eyes of my wife and daughter and thinking ‘I’m not ready to die’. Self-inflicted and I’ve done this to them; a result of my non-engagement.

I vowed then if I got through it, then I would start to make some changes to the way I lived. I would take this seriously”

6% of our total population have diabetes (another 2% have diabetes without being aware of it). Incidence of diabetes has nearly doubled over the last 12 years, population increase, aging of the population and rising obesity, being the contributing factors. People of Māori, Pacific and South-Asian ethnicity, and the socioeconomically disadvantaged; bear a disproportionate burden of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

The prevalence rate for Maori/Pacific is three times that of European. The mortality rate for Maori/Pacific is even higher, nearly five times that of European/Other. Prevalence of diabetes among people aged 65 and over is 15 to 20% of the population. The aging population and rising obesity mean that the number of diabetics is likely to increase further.

The age at which we get diabetes is also getting younger. Those who get diabetes below the age of 40 have a much higher rate of developing other complications like heart disease and early mortality. Incidence of diabetes for the age group 30-39, while still low, has doubled over the last 12 years.

New Zealand has a diabetes problem, fuelled in part by high rates of obesity. It is the largest and fastest-growing health issue we face in New Zealand. Our pacific island neighbours have some of the highest incidences of diabetes in the world. While the Ministry of Health doesn’t have an estimate of the budget spent on Diabetes, NHS in the UK estimates they spend a whopping 10% of their total budget on diabetes.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a disease where your body cannot control its blood sugar levels properly due to a lack of insulin. Or your cells have become resistant to insulin. There are two types of diabetes. About 10% of people with diabetes have Diabetes1, which is more likely to be hereditary and not preventable. The vast majority have Diabetes 2, which is closely linked to obesity. There is no cure for diabetes, but it can be prevented and controlled.

What is pre-diabetic?

Pre-diabetics have a high sugar level, but below the threshold considered diabetic. 16% of the population aged 45 and younger is pre-diabetic. An estimated 40% of Maori, Pacific and Indian population aged 35-39 in Auckland are pre-diabetic.

Diabetes Prevention

For most of us, diabetes can be prevented by eating healthy and exercising. It can also be detected at the pre-diabetic stage with a simple blood test, with a good chance of preventing from progressing to full-blown diabetes.

Living with diabetes

In theory, this is an easily solvable problem, Screen and blood test everyone at high risk. Prevent or control with medication and lifestyle changes. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done, numbers are on the rise in almost every part of the world. One of the most challenging issues is changing lifelong habits of diet and sedentary lifestyle.

Diabetes Initiatives – New Zealand

‘Living well with diabetes 2015-2015’ project launched by the Ministry of Health is the main initiative to reduce diabetes. This plan targeted a 20 to 30 per cent reduction in the rate of new cases by 2020 as well as targets for reducing deaths, life expectancy and reducing complications. The broad action areas targeted by the plan are sound, and it aims to reduce diabetes using a mixture of awareness, information, screening and intervention. There is a lack of detail on which parts of the plan are complete, and the ministry has no status update (it is currently gathering this data from the DHBs). The program has not achieved ambitious goals set; however, the increase in the prevalence of diabetes appears to have slowed down.

There are broad-based initiatives which will reduce diabetes. ‘Healthy families NZ’ promotes the diet and an active lifestyle. Health star rating a voluntary code for food labelling.

Diabetes New Zealand is a non-profit aiming to provide information and support, also an advocacy group for people with diabetes and those at high risk.

International Initiatives

International Diabetes Federation has done a comprehensive analysis of over 70 trial programs carried out all over the world to come up with some of the success factors in tackling diabetes. Many of their recommendations have come from studies done in Australia,

Some of these ideas are

  • Diabetes screening- Using an online risk assessment tool.
  • Blood testing for those identified as high risk.
  • Comprehensive lifestyle intervention programs, through group counselling sessions, telephone or webchat. Currently, all states in Australia run these programs.
  • Medication where appropriate
  • Public Health initiatives- A sugar tax, promotion of healthy diets in schools and kindergartens, prominent food labelling and regulation of food/soft drink marketing.

Is there value in screening the whole population say over the age of 45?  Probably, this is not something current practised. Is it worthwhile running public awareness campaigns, similar to drink driving or dangerous driving? Possibly.


Getting people identified as diabetic, pre-diabetic or high risk to get tested and make the diet and lifestyle changes required has been challenging. Changing a lifestyle and diet, bedded in over many decades, is not easy. Psychological support is very much an essential part of treatment and long-term care.

Keeping safe- what can you do?

  • Healthy diet and exercise would be a perfect place to start.
  • If you don’t have diabetes or unsure, use ‘Are you at risk’ online monitoring tool from diabetes NZ,
  •  If you are high risk, arrange for a blood test, with your GP.
  • If you already have diabetes, nothing is important as following your GP’s advice and making those lifestyle changes stick!
  • Diabetes NZ recommends an annual diabetes check-up and has a range of resources to help you. Their Facebook page has an online community for support, and there are also several other Facebook groups.

Diabetes by Numbers

  • 6% of the total population has diabetes          
  • 2% of the total population have diabetes without being aware of it
  • 15-20% of the population aged over 65 have diabetes
  • 85% increase in diabetic patients since 2005
  • 5-10% of our health spending is on diabetes
  • Three times – the prevalence of diabetes amongst Maori, compared to non- Maori
  • Five times – the mortality rate of Maori vs Non -Maori
  • 16% of population below 45 are pre-diabetic
  • 40% prevalence of pre-diabetes among Maori, Pacific, Indian aged 35-39



Child Poverty in New Zealand -Out of sight, out of mind?

Should we accept poverty rates double that of the 1980s? A quarter of children in poverty?

Moving houses, always moving – stressful. Having to move in the middle of the night – unable to pay rent, scary. – From a young persons’ group, Paeroa

Cold – got hardly any clothes, looking for some. Wonder if there’s any money in here [clothing bin]. No money, no clothes! Desperate. – Anonymous, Paeroa

Not getting proper opportunities like going on school trips, hard to take part in things like sports and other activities. – From a young persons’ group, Dunedin

It’s a tough night’s sleep. It’s normal. It’s better than listening to my parents fighting and drinking all the time… I’m hungry, I’m cold, and I don’t want to go home. It’s no use going back to no food in the cupboards. I’m alright here! – Mere, Paeroa [wrapped in a mat and sleeping under a bridge]

Teachers were causing shame to students in front of their peers because they have no stationery, uniform etc. Schools should deal with parents and not punish the kids for not having shoes, books, etc. – From a young persons’ group, Whanganui

The quotes above from an excellent article on the subject by Dr Renee Liang, consultation paediatrician- initially published in North and South Jan 2020, conveys the reality of poverty, better than any statistics.

Poverty rates in New Zealand (after housing costs) are double that of 1982. Almost a quarter of children live in poverty (in households earning less than 50% of median income). In the words of Dr Liang – “If we had a rock star economy, we forgot to invite a lot of people to the party”.

Economic reforms in the late 1980s have been particularly harsh on the poor. We changed from a society where one could leave our doors open for the neighbours to pop in and borrow sugar, to a community where we install alarm systems to stave off burglars. Gang memberships have soared in poverty-ridden parts of the country.

“History is written by the rich, and so the poor get blamed for everything.”  — Jeffrey D. Sachs, economist

Many of us have little or no connection with the poor and attribute poverty to lack of will or effort. We judge them from our armchairs without any evidence as spongers, living on our tax dollars, spending their money on drinking and gambling. The reality of poverty is very different; budgeting services will tell you that a vast majority of those on low incomes are conscientious about their spending. Poverty is a lack of cash, a lack of opportunity, not a lack of will.

Deprivations from a very young age leave lasting scars. If you start a race fifty metres behind the rest and face more obstacles along the way, only a few fastest and fittest will catch up with the rest of the pack?

We are an affluent country in the developed world, is poverty a lack of resources or how we are using them?

Economics of poverty

As well as a terrible human cost, there is an economic cost for poverty. An investment to lift people out of poverty is one that will be paid back in full, with interest.

Higher healthcare cost from diabetes, asthma and other poverty-related diseases. Higher labour cost due to low productivity, higher spend for a prison population at an estimated $100K per person, and higher social housing cost can be reduced significantly.

There are also issues which can be solved without spending a dime, where the government refuses to act because there is a political cost. A sugar tax and restrictions on the sale of food and drinks with high sugar content to curb diabetes and obesity. Limits and restrictions on the promotion of payday loans, curbs on gambling and pokie machines.  Should we in the 21st century accept cash trucks driving around poor neighbourhoods enticing vulnerable people with easy cash and charging over 500% interest?

Reducing poverty and helping them to become more productive members of society is a saving, not a cost, money well spent. Economists estimate the cost of poverty at 3 to 4% of GDP, which in the case of New Zealand is $6 to 8bn every single year.

What causes poverty and how does it affect the poor

‘I believe that every American should have stable, dignified housing; health care; education – that the very basic needs to sustain modern life should be guaranteed in a moral society’- Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

The causes of poverty are closely related, an interwoven web feeding each other, compounding and causing lifelong, even intergenerational impacts. A lack of cash impacts on everything – food, housing, health and education. Poor houses cause health problems. Hunger and obesity adversely impact education and health. A lack of a good education means a lack of cash, later in life.


Part of any successful strategy to reduce child poverty must involve increasing the level of assistance to families on benefits. – Michael Fletcher, Senior Research Fellow, University of Victoria, Wellington

Increases in Families Package will have a significant impact and expected to lift 64,000 children out of poverty by 2021. Taxes are certainly part of the answer. Introduction of GST in the late 1980s and subsequent increases have impacted harshly on the poor; decreases in Income Tax and the abolition of wealth taxes have mainly helped the well off.


The single largest cause of poverty in New Zealand today is housing, there are 70,000 more children in poverty after housing cost (compared to before housing cost). A sell-off of public housing and rising rents due to long neglect of housing issues, especially by the National governments has led to a severe deterioration of housing affordability, for the young and the poor.  We have started increasing social housing, on the flip side, the signature affordable housing program hasn’t got off the ground, which has meant rising rents. Over 30% of our housing is too cold in the winter. Crowded houses often meant there is no quiet space for studying, no internet or a computer.

The number of social housing units built by the current labour government, mandatory insulation standards for rental housing, winter energy subsidy are all steps in the right direction. We need more social housing units, many more.


The poor children are poor in health as well, the hospitalisation rate for children in the lowest income segment is double that of the wealthiest 20%. The cost to the health system is high; just the cost of diabetes estimate is 5 to 10% of the total health budget. Impacts of poor health can be lifelong. The cold and draughty homes and high cost of heating lead to poor health, high rates of respiratory illnesses and asthma/wheezing. The new insulation standards and winter energy allowance will make a difference.

Obesity and closely related diabetes and heart diseases are the single largest cause of death in New Zealand. Child mortality rates of all New Zealanders decreased significantly in recent years due to medical advances. However, the poorest are still dying at three times the rates of the wealthiest. Our child death rate is much higher than in Australia, twice as high as Ireland and Finland.

Food Insecurity

“Poverty is a very complicated issue, but feeding a child isn’t.”  — Jeff Bridges, actor

An excerpt below from Dr Liang’s article.

In 2010, different research suggested the problem had increased. In a survey of Dunedin and Wellington families, 47% of low-income families reported they often ran out of food due to a lack of money. This group could also afford fewer vegetables per week, highlighting that many families may need to choose between quantity and quality when it comes to food.

Yes, we’re back to the issue of “poor lifestyle”. It is a sad irony of our globalised world that the cheapest items in our supermarkets are the most processed items from the furthest away. These are often high in processed fats and carbohydrates, resulting in higher cholesterol intake and increased risk for obesity. And yet, we still judge people at the checkout counter for the “choices” they make.


Education is perhaps the success story of the recent past; we have significantly narrowed the rich-poor gap.

Poverty by Ethnicity

Nearly one in four Maori children (23%) live in households with material hardship, the rates are even higher for Pacific (28%). Material hardship for Maori and Pacific is approximately two and a half times that of European. These inequities transfer in later life to unemployment, earnings, health issues and higher imprisonment rates.

International Comparison

New Zealand’s poverty rate has been improving but still below the OECD average, and worse than Australia while Nordic countries do much better.


The previous National government refused to even agree on how to measure poverty, let alone set a target. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made reduced child poverty a central plank of her economic program and set 3 and 10-year poverty reduction targets. Child poverty rate (children in households earning less than 50% of median income) has declined by 2% points for the year 2019, lifted 18,000 out of poverty. Children in material hardship, however, has gone up marginally. We begin 2020 with 151,000 children in households with material hardship and 235,000 children in poverty

Lifting children out of poverty

The two things that can make the most impacts on improving poverty in New Zealand are increasing the benefit and building more social housing. Budget 2020 promises 8,000 more houses, more money for winter heating and free school lunches, but not a great deal of extra cash, considering the massive $ 50bn in additional spending. Perhaps more could have been done. At least we are moving in the right direction. Let’s hope this government is serious in its efforts to reach the targets set for reductions in child poverty; succeeding governments will not move the needle backwards.

  • Poverty rate compared to 1982 – double
  • Number of children in poverty – 235,000 (21%)
  • Number of children in material hardship – 151,000 (13%)
  • Increase in hospitalisation for under 15s since 1991 – 56%
  • Hospitalisations for the poorest 20% of population vs the wealthiest – 2 times
  • Respiratory hospitalisations- poorest 20% vs the wealthiest – 3 times, asthma – 2 times
  • Infant deaths compared to Finland and Ireland – 2 times