Embracing In-gene-uity

Imagine if, in 1855, New Zealanders had banned Number 8 wire – that ingenious invention patented by Henry Bessemer. “You could put an eye out with that!” “People will use it to fence off areas that don’t even belong to them!” What if, fearful of the solutions that Number 8 wire presented, we had banned it, intending to “keep an eye on it” and “review it again in the future”.

It would have changed the course of our history and our collective personality.

We are facing the same situation today. We need to solve some urgent problems to protect our wildlife and our people, yet our scientists are hampered by outmoded rules on genetic modification.

Unlike most other technologies, we regulate genetic modification on the basis of techniques rather than outcomes. Since the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification in 2001, it has been basically impossible for anyone to use genetic technology at all. And that may have been a fair call at the time, but a lot has changed since then. That was pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre smart-phone.

It is equivalent to banning Facebook to prevent terrorist acts, and no one is suggesting that. We are looking for ways to stop people using Facebook to support terror acts, not stopping them using it to communicate with their friends. We regulate to improve the outcomes of the technology, rather than regulating the technology itself.

Genetic technology has come a long way since 2001. Our policy would enable precise gene editing that, unlike the old techniques, adds no foreign material to the DNA. Similar to selective breeding, it targets particular traits or cells and turns them “on” or “off”. Unlike selective breeding however, we can solve problems far more quickly.

The Opportunities Party thinks scientists should be able to use gene editing if it produces the same outcomes as selective breeding. Importantly, we would not change the regulation of old-school genetic modification, where genetic material is introduced from a different organism.

Kiwis have long been famous for our ingenuity. Yet on this issue we are at serious risk of falling behind our trading partners.  

On 10 April 2019, Australia allowed gene editing that does not introduce new genetic material. This is internationally viewed as the “middle ground” between the strict regulation in Europe and the laissez-faire style of the US, Brazil, and Argentina. The Opportunities Party is proposing a very similar approach to Australia.

Bill Gates, Microsoft founder and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said of gene editing: “Used responsibly, gene editing holds the potential to save millions of lives and empower millions of people to lift themselves out of poverty. It would be a tragedy to pass up the opportunity.”

We can’t use “in-gene-uity” if our hands are tied behind our back.


Why Fees Free Uni Failed to Increase Enrolments

The Labour-led Government claimed that removing tuition fees would enable more people from poor backgrounds to go on to tertiary study.

Today, the Government admitted that enrolments haven't risen since its Fees Free policy came in. This was a completely predictable outcome. From the outset, The Opportunities Party labelled the policy middle-class welfare.

Statistics NZ figures have shown that the policy chiefly benefits the rich. This is because students from richer households are far more likely to attend tertiary education and to take longer, more expensive courses than those from poorer households.

Fees Aren’t the Biggest Barrier

A deeper look into the data reveals that the biggest barrier to people from poor backgrounds attending university is not fees, but rather the ability to gain the prerequisite qualifications. And that problem goes right back to pre-school.

Let’s take a look at the numbers: each year, around 60,000 students leave school. Let’s contrast the outcomes of those that leave school from the top two deciles to those from the bottom two.

In 2016, 13,259 students left a Decile 9 or 10 school in a richer neighbourhood. Of those, 9,197 (more than two thirds) left with University Entrance. On the other side of the tracks, 7,059 students left a Decile 1 or 2 school in a poorer neighbourhood and only 1,227 of them with University Entrance – less than 20%.

Of the 2016 school leavers, 7,211 students from Decile 9 and 10 schools went on to study degree-level courses at university in 2017. That’s slightly less than the number with University Entrance, so maybe some of them are taking a gap year. Regardless, well over half of all students from Decile 9 and 10 schools are going straight on to university. The number for Decile 1 and 2 schools was 1,103 students.

Now, University Entrance isn’t a perfect predictor of who can study afterwards. Some students go on to university without it – although you can bet their choice of courses is limited. However, it seems pretty likely that the vast majority who achieved University Entrance in 2016 went on to university in 2017. This suggests that about 90% of the students from Decile 1 and 2 did so. The number who didn’t is between 100–200.

Using this publicly available data, it is easy to see why Labour’s Fees Free policy was never likely to get lots more people from poor backgrounds to university. Most of them who achieve the grades already go. In other words, fees are far from the biggest barrier. After all, we have a pretty generous student loan scheme.

The Real Problem Starts at Pre-school

The real barrier is having the requisite grades, which Labour’s Fees Free policy does nothing about, because this problem starts right back in pre-school.

On average, children from disadvantaged backgrounds turn up to primary school 2 years behind those from richer backgrounds. Internationally speaking, our school system doesn’t throw many resources at helping them make up that difference. As a result, this 2-year performance gap persists pretty much right through our education system. Small wonder then that far fewer students from Decile 1 and 2 schools get University Entrance.

The way to fix this, according to the best research available on the Ministry of Education’s website, isn’t by making tertiary education free. It is by investing in free, full-time, high-quality early childhood education. That is where the gap between rich and poor can be reduced (not eliminated) and our disadvantaged kids can increase their chances of one day going to university.

Until this major problem in our education system is fixed, let’s not pretend that Fees Free tertiary education is anything other than middle-class welfare.

Do We Want a Country Covered in Pine Trees?

Congratulations to the Government on introducing the Zero Carbon Bill. It appears to have been hard won, so Climate Minister James Shaw will no doubt be having a few shandies tonight after getting it across the line. The fact that the National Party and New Zealand First have signed up to most of the recommendations is a real win. 

The commitment to reduce emissions in line with 1.5 degrees of warming globally is particularly encouraging. Although it's  incredibly unlikely we'll achieve that outcome, it does suggest New Zealand will be at the forefront of reducing net emissions. The key word there is net - we will come back to that. 

Even the split target for methane is not the shortfall that some claim. It is in line with science that suggests we need to reduce methane emissions but not get them to zero. That is because methane emissions are short lived, so consistent emissions eventually end up at stable levels in the atmosphere. 

No, the main problem with this Zero Carbon Bill is the potential for too many pine trees. This is where the net emissions becomes important, because New Zealand is unique in allowing our emitters to plant trees instead of reducing their carbon emissions.

You are probably thinking "Too many trees? I thought trees were good?" They are, but you can have too much of a good thing, for a few reasons. As Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton pointed out earlier this year, trees are risky, temporary, and might depress our carbon price. 

Trees are Risky

In Nelson this summer we saw the danger of too many pine trees. The fires were devastating for the community, but also for our emission targets. All the carbon in those trees is back in the atmosphere now. Trees are also increasingly susceptible to disease, invasive predators and forest collapse. We can't bank on them locking carbon up forever. 

Trees are Temporary

Trees only soak carbon up for a limited amount of time, but they need to stay there forever to keep the carbon locked up. Even if we use land for pine plantations, we have to keep replanting the forest. Therefore, for the one-off benefit of soaking up some carbon we lose an eternity of flexibility over how we use that land.

It makes complete sense to turn our erosion prone land back into native forest. But for the rest? We need eventually to get our emissions down to zero eventually, so why not do it as soon as possible? 

Tress Depress Our Carbon Price

New Zealand’s carbon price is currently $25.50 per tonne of carbon dioxide. That’ll encourage some emitters who burn fossil fuels to reduce their emissions. But if it were closer to $50/tonne (as it is in Europe, in line with estimates of the true cost of carbon) and heading toward $100/tonne, emitters would scurry to change their ways.

Of course, as a mechanism, the carbon price alone isn't enough. But it is a big part of the equation for electricity providers and businesses. 

However, our carbon price is unlikely to rise much in the immediate future. We have heaps of marginal land, which emitters can buy up and plant into forest. While that might be good in some areas (e.g. native forest on erosion-prone land), this offset will keep our carbon price artificially low. And this won’t help us achieve zero emissions. 

Commissioner Upton's solution

Simon Upton has proposed another solution that needs much closer scrutiny: that we should treat not only methane differently, but also trees. In fact, that we should deal with land use in a different way to fossil fuel emissions. 

While the details require a lot more thought, this proposal would still see costs shoot up for emitters. And it wouldn't be a free ride for agriculture either – or certainly less so than what New Zealand First has negotiated in this deal. 

At the very least, we should put a cap on using forestry as an offset as Europe has done. 

This is important stuff. We are shaping property rights that will last for generations and have a huge impact on what our country looks like in 30 or 100 years’ time. We need to get it right.

Member Update

As we transition from being fully-funded and led by one person to a member-led movement, some culture change will be required within The Opportunities Party. Little wonder then, that a few within our ranks are raising concerns about our new ways of doing things.

So in the interests of radical transparency and doing politics differently, here is some detail on their concerns. Rather than listen to secrets and whispers, members and supporters are welcome to read this and make up their own minds. If you have any questions feel free to get in touch.

Naturally I would rather spend my time critiquing Government policy or communicating our own best practice, evidence informed ideas, but here we are.

The concerns raised include the following:

  1. Leader Pay
  2. Party finances
  3. Separation of governance and operations
  4. The power and conduct of volunteers within the Party
  5. Conduct of the leadership election
  6. Board changes

I will address each of these in turn.

1. Leader Pay

Around the leadership election in December 2018 the Board discussed paying the Leader. Finances were limited at the time (as we will discuss below) but the feeling was that the Leadership position needed full time focus and there had to be a recognition of the time involved. It was felt that a salary similar to a teacher – roughly $60,000 per annum was appropriate. This was communicated to members in an email on 21 December.

While the Party was still in set up phase and becoming financially sustainable the contract for Leader was subject to finance being available. This is completely normal in politics – after all you could be out of a job at any time.

A few people have challenged why a Party Leader needs a salary at all. I can assure you this is more than a full time job, and practically speaking , it would be very difficult to find alternative employment as Leader of a political party. Without that income I would need to stand down and find a job, and the vast majority of people I have spoken to within the Party don’t want that to happen.

2. Party Finances

This brings us to the issue of party finances. As previously communicated, this will be made fully transparent when we release our Campaign Strategy. We will also set out the minimum funding needed in order to mount a serious campaign in 2020.

Nonetheless, some are concerned that we are spending beyond our means, so here is an interim update. Accounting for all accounts payable, the Party currently has over $30,000 in the bank. During April we received over $8,500 in donations from almost 300 different donors. Core monthly expenses such as IT licenses etc are around $2,600. The Leader’s salary has never been above $5,000 per month. Based on current costs, the Party is financially sustainable.

However, I think we all recognise that our current efforts will not be enough to get us into Parliament in 2020. We need to be financially prudent, but we also need to take some risks in order to boost our profile and therefore our income. Donation income is uncertain and it may make sense to spend more than we earn in some months.

As mentioned above our Campaign Strategy will set out our spending plan going forward. In the short term, to be a contender in the next election we need to get back to our election night polling of 2-3% by early 2020. We have to do everything we can to achieve that goal. If we don’t there is no point having money sitting in the bank.

3. Separation of governance and operations

I am wearing a variety of hats within the Party at the moment. I am not happy about it, but during the set up phase of TOP 2.0 it has been all hands to the pump.

In the set up phase we haven’t been able to pay someone to run the organisation day to day. Therefore I offered the Board to take on the General Manager role as well as Leader. This has been a lot of hard work behind the scenes, but totally necessary to bed down the foundations of the Party and build the volunteer team. We now have an incredible team of volunteers in place in the national team and in our regional teams around the country. I am grateful for all the mahi that those talented people put in for the Party every day. It might take a couple more months to get this team fully fleshed out and humming, but it is worth it.

As soon as income allows we intend to appoint a paid General Manager so that I can hand over day to day operations to them and focus my attention on raising the profile of the Party and getting our policy and ideas out there.

As Leader I am also on the Board, and Chair of the Board. This is a hangover of the original Constitution we have inherited. My priority is to expand the Board to 5-6 people, then either hand the position of Chair over to someone else or step off the Board entirely. Constitutional changes may need to be considered, and since I was elected as Leader I have made it clear I want a full review of our Constitution to ensure it is fit for purpose given where we are headed as a Party.

4. The power and conduct of volunteers within the Party

The Opportunities Party is now a member-led movement, almost entirely powered by volunteers. A few people have raised concerns about volunteer conduct and how much say and sway these people have within the organisation.

Firstly to conduct. We are a new organisation with a new culture. We now have a clear set of values to guide our behaviour. The first expectation is that all volunteers and members adhere to promoting evidence-based policies. We are also developing role descriptions and policies for conduct covering such issues as bullying. Bullying is not acceptable in any form, and as a Party we have to be able to sit down and work issues through professionally and constructively.

However, I see this as a member-led movement. It is as much your party as it is mine, so of course our volunteers have a say. After all, they are the ones actually doing the work. If you want to shape it, get involved and help.

5. Conduct of the leadership election

I will attempt to explain briefly the complex background. So here is the guts without naming names: The Opportunities Party was given a $50,000 donation late in 2018. The donor took exception to the leadership election and wanted it shut down. They threatened legal action if this didn’t happen. Instead of shutting the election down, the Board chose to return the donation to the donor and continue the election process.

Despite the finances of the Party, I feel this was the right decision. Members have donated far more than $50,000 since The Opportunities Party was restarted in September 2018, so I felt they deserved a say. In my view we cannot transition to a member-led movement by continuing to completely acquiesce to the wishes of large funders.

Some claim that the election was not Constitutional but this is false. The Board has the power to elect the leader, but there is nothing in the Constitution that prevents the Board from holding an election as part of that process. I made it clear from the outset I wanted to see an election for the leadership. During the process the Board publicly promised to implement the outcome of the election in their leadership selection, and they did so.

The real reason that the leadership election was called into question had nothing to do with whether it was constitutional. It was because of the people taking part in the election. Some people have an opinion on who should have been able to run in the leadership election. My view is that this was up to the members to decide through the democratic process.

A few people have also claimed the election was rigged. The Board wanted to reboot TOP in 2019 and there was a lot to be done before then. There was an election to hold, and funding to raise but given all the kerfuffle around de-registering, we also needed to reinvigorate the troops. Some sort of outreach was needed to test the temperature of our members and supporters. The Board discussed whether to hold the election or the tour first, and decided to go with the tour. I had no part in this decision.

So I went on a tour of the country for four weeks. I didn’t get paid for it and was living on my savings. I did get my travel expenses reimbursed by the Party (about $800). The trip was a “Listening Tour” designed to get a sense of where members wanted the party to head, and what we could learn from the past. It was designed to energise the membership and volunteer base and get a sense of the Party’s vision and values.

Perhaps that gave me an unfair advantage in the election that came afterwards. However, it would have been quite difficult for any leadership candidate to know where members wanted to take the Party if we hadn’t done this. Bit of a catch 22.

The Board could have given more time to the election, but that would have pushed it into March or April 2019 before we even had a result. Not great for building towards 2020.

6. Board Changes

In March the Board had an opportunity to negotiate a potential funder. One of the conditions of that negotiation taking place was that the funder appointed someone they knew on the Board. This was an unusual request but some of the Board felt it was a good chance for the Party to obtain funding. Matt Isbister was appointed to the Board in place of Paddy Plunket, which members have already been informed of.

Negotiations with this potential funder collapsed almost immediately after the appointment was made. Matt Isbister has since stood down from the Board and will be replaced at the Board meeting on Monday.

As mentioned above, the plan is to enlarge the Board to 5-6 people as soon as possible.

If you have questions about any of this - I’m always free to talk with members and volunteers. You are all part of something extraordinary in New Zealand’s history. Now is our time to focus on the future, be the clever opposition, get the important ideas out there and the Opportunities Party into Parliament.

Looking backward is good for learning, but looking forward with purpose and resolve is the road we need to take.

Let’s ride. Together.

GE-FREE NZ response to Opportunities Party Gene Editing policy is Anti-Science

Last month Australia allowed the use of gene editing in cases where no new genetic material is added. The Opportunities Party has called for New Zealand to follow Australia’s lead.

This prompted a hysterical response from GE Free NZ, who likened the Australian move to the “Wild West” of gene editing.

Opportunities Party leader Geoff Simmons has stated “GE Free NZ are scaremongers who don’t or won’t understand the science. Because they don’t understand it, they fear it. New Zealand faces a number of environmental challenges including climate change, kauri dieback and predators like rats, stoats and possums. By the time we work out so-called ‘natural solutions’ to these problems our taonga will be gone and we’ll be over-run with pests.”

“Gene editing is very different to old school genetic modification. No new genetic material is added and it has identical outcomes to selective breeding. Do GE Free NZ also oppose selective breeding?”

Innovation expert Anne French helped develop Opportunities Party policy. She says “GE Free NZ have asked for evidence for our stance. There is plenty of evidence in our detailed policy document including releases from 129 Nobel Laureates and New Zealand’s own Royal Society.”

“In contrast, GE Free NZ  have offered up one paper which states exactly the opposite of what they claim. The paper concludes that the process of cell culture (not gene editing) causes mutations - and cell culture is completely unregulated in New Zealand. Our policy requires researchers to prove that no other changes were made in the organism. GE Free NZ choose to fear-monger over engaging in intelligent discussion. ”

Geoff Simmons continues “Instead of being a ‘Wild West’ the Australian proposal is seen by international experts as a ‘middle ground’ between the laissez faire approach of the United States, Brazil and Argentina; and the strict approach of the European Union.

Simmons concludes “GE Free NZ’s lack of understanding of the science is breathtaking. In fact, their response to our policy borders on outright misdirection.”

“We hope there is greater depth of thought behind the stances of the Green Party and Labour Party on this issue, although the Greens seem to be avoiding the discussion.”

The Opportunities Party recognises the need for dialogue amongst stakeholders. We all live here and are invested in the best outcomes for our country. Burying our collective heads in the sand will not solve our serious problems.

When You Eat Your Easter Eggs - Remember Who the Chicken Is

The Labour led Government has gone into the Easter break chickening out of a Capital Gains Tax in any form. Obviously they are hoping that people will get stuck into their chocolate eggs and forget about it all over the break. 

But Kiwis won't be able to forget about the crippling cost of living, which is almost entirely a product of house prices and rents rising faster than incomes. Nor will younger generations be able to forget the fact that they will never be able to afford their own home. Nor will businesses be able to forget about our economy limping along from lack of investment because all of our money is tied up in housing speculation. 

Federated Farmers were right to call a Capital Gains Tax a mangy dog, and in the end it had to be put down. The Labour led Government excluded the family home from the outset. This meant any tax wouldn't have much impact on house prices, which was supposed to be the point. Businesses rightly squealed about their inclusion when the problem was so clearly the housing market. New Zealand First were no doubt going to make sure that farmers were exempt. So that would have left... investment property. Such a tiny proportion of our economy that it would barely have been worth the administration costs. And ultimately the poorest people in our society would have ended up bearing the brunt in higher rents. 

New Zealand desperately needs tax reform, but not the proposal from the Tax Working Group. The tax reform we need would deal with our growing inequality, housing crisis and poor productivity. To do that housing needs to be taxed in the same way we tax other assets.

The Opportunities Party's tax reform is the best practice way to achieve exactly that. But there are other ways to achieve a similar goal, such as the ideas suggested by Andrew Coleman. The Tax Working Group, largely because of its restrictive Terms of Reference, wasn't really able to consider either of these ideas. 

Capitalism can work, but only if it is a level playing field. Right now we have the opposite of a level playing field. We have a game that is rigged in the favour of a few. We have neoliberalism. 

The Government has failed to be a leader on tax and New Zealand’s housing crisis. By sheltering New Zealanders from a conversation about how we tax all assets, including the family home, they ultimately sowed the seeds of this proposal's demise.

Now watch house prices and rents return to their inevitable upward march. Watch renters - half of Kiwis - continue to get screwed because they miss out on the biggest tax break this country has; owning their own home. Watch hard working Kiwi families get squeezed even harder. Watch young people walk away from their dreams of owning their own home. And watch our businesses continue to struggle for the capital they need to grow. 

Incredibly the Prime Minister has also ruled out putting a price (some call it a tax, we call it a price) on water. The total cost of the Tax Working Group will likely come in under $2m, but with all these big ticket items off the table you have to wonder why we bothered at all. The result has been some very minor tinkering with a broken system. 

The lesson is simple. If we are going to bother getting experts involved, don't hamstring them from the outset with loopholes designed to make them politically palatable.

We need to get real with the public, and let them make an informed choice. 

Allowances for Postgraduate Students

Last week, The Opportunities Party was out with Action Station and the New Zealand Union of Students' Association to present a petition to Parliament to reinstate the postgraduate Student Allowance. It was taken away by the National Government in 2013, and during the 2017 election campaign the Labour Party promised to bring it back. 

As a party championing research and evidence in policy making, The Opportunities Party knows how important it is to have high-quality research by New Zealanders, for New Zealanders, and postgraduate students are a key part of this. 

Student Allowances are also key to keeping our education open to everyone and our educational outcomes equal and across-the-board, not just for some. This is just as important when it comes to postgraduate education as it is for all the education that comes before it. University is already dominated by people from rich families - we don't need to make that worse at post grad level. 

One of our core volunteers was there to share her story on the steps of Parliament. Here's what she had to say:


I’m here today as a young woman in research, a postgraduate student, and a passionate advocate of our environment and New Zealand’s future.

I’m also from Christchurch, where we’re learning a thing or two about mental health, wellbeing and recovering from trauma.

I returned to post graduate studies a few years ago. Today, I study sustainable economies and economic transformations.

I’m trying to work out what we need to know to be the future country that New Zealanders, and the best of the world wants, and needs, us to be.

But postgraduate study has also helped me heal.

Several years ago I was staring down the barrel of chronic health battles and the prospect of a lifetime of welfare reliance.

As specialist after specialist told me to ‘do less’ and ‘scale back’ as the only way they could see to allow me to manage my symptoms, I became acutely aware how unemployable I now was.

My mind was sharp, my skills and experience relevant, and my sick-leave requirements untenable.

In an effort to find a pathway out of welfare and benefits I decided to use what I had left - my mind. I saw postgraduate study as something I could do that would meaningfully contribute to my society, and remind me I still had something to offer.

To me, it was a pathway to a much healthier mind, and away from the beneficiary system.

It would open up a research or academic career where no matter what my body did, there could be space for me to contribute to New Zealand’s future through research, and lecturing and academic work with young New Zealanders. I need my PhD to do that.

It won’t come as a surprise to everyone her that, yes, a PhD is hard.

It turns out that what’s harder is being a domestic PhD student in New Zealand. It’s bloody lonely.

Today I have the privilege of actually being a rare species - a domestic PhD student at Lincoln University. That in itself was a hollowing notion to realise.

When did being a New Zealander looking for ways to give New Zealand a better future through academic research become such an oddity?

Why was I having to explain this as an outlier to administrative staff?

Why did academic’s eyes light up simply because I was New Zealand-born and thinking about higher research?

It turns out, the only thing harder than being a PhD student in New Zealand, is being a PhD student with a chronic illness, disability, injury or trauma.

When I spoke to the Ministry of Social Development they told me that if I returned to studying, I would be ineligible for the vast majority of support available to me as an ‘unemployed’ person with illness dispensation.

If I was able enough to study, I was able enough for mainstream employment. This seemed illogical and able-ist in the extreme.

When I talked to StudyLink, they told me that the support available to students domestically cuts out once I try to study past Honours level. I asked one such StudyLink advisor how post graduate students were expected to support themselves.

They are expected to work in addition to their studies, or have savings accumulated. This means they expect post graduate students to be superhuman and work 80 hours a week to survive, or be rich.

Bureaucratic storm clouds loomed. I was going to have to go this alone. So I called my mum.

Today I am a PhD student trying to figure out the future for New Zealand because my mum and I are privileged enough that she can support me.

With her mortgage paid off and her amazing partner Graham on board, I am now living at home in my 30’s. We talk about how them helping me is like their ‘social service’, and it’s the only thing that keeps me able to do what I’m doing.

But it’s a dark joke. What about all the other New Zealanders who families simply can’t support their children like mine does?

What would a postgraduate Student Allowance mean to me?

A student allowance would have allowed me to manage my health and wellbeing symptoms and to do a PhD of the highest possible quality, making a full contribution to New Zealand’s research needs.

Instead, I’m fairly seriously behind schedule, and I’m drawing on family resources.

I have to hope it all turns out in the end. Just don’t talk to me about living in my own home or having a family.

But I’m here today to talk about what a Student Allowance means to New Zealanders who aren’t here and aren’t able to access postgraduate study.

The current system is exclusionary. If you need time and accommodation to manage symptoms, medication side-effects, mental health, any form of chronic illness, it’s economically impossible to be a PhD student.

Your mind may be strong, like mine. But you’re shut out of using it at postgraduate level currently.

If you’re unable to manage your health needs or physical limitation and complete a PhD while also working a 40-hour week, then you’re shut out of pursuing a PhD because you can’t afford to live while doing so.

Instead, how about a system where someone recovering from PTSD can use postgraduate study to understand their own recovery, and unravel unknowns for future sufferers?

Or someone battling with cancer able to spend their time in treatment, juggling side effects and specialist appointments using that unique insight into future palliative or regenerative care?

How about someone living with autism or ADHD using their amazing creativity in blue-sky research?

Under all these situations a postgraduate student allowance gives each of these potential students a pathway to contribute to New Zealand’s emerging research, by financially unlocking the feasibility of postgraduate study.

We have options to support someone in prison complete post-graduate study. Yet without a postgraduate student allowance, we don’t have any practical support for someone who carries physical or health limitations to do the same.

Government financial welfare support for people with health care needs is explicitly removed if they choose to study.

Outside of any argument about this being fair or ethical, it’s just plain stifling for New Zealand’s future.

What kind of innovation and social progress are we missing out on by restricting our post graduate study and research to a privileged few - not based on who can think well, but to those who through luck, can afford it?

And what message are we sending to those with illnesses, injury and disability? It is the one I got - that it’s better off if you stay quietly in the welfare system rather than using postgraduate study as a pathway out?

More broadly, by asking postgraduate students to put their PhD and Masters research alongside their working week we’re telling everyone that innovation and research just isn’t a priority.

It’s something that’s a sideline for New Zealand. It’s something you do if you and your family are wealthy, a luxury. Is that what we want to build New Zealand’s future on? Is that what we want to tell our children?

Because I come from Christchurch, I come from a city that is learning a lot about trauma.

We have the humbling challenge of learning how to support people in our community with PTSD, lifelong illness, and injury from earthquakes and massacres.

Our rates of depression, anxiety and mental health disorders are high. Wellbeing can be tough to come by for some in Christchurch.

What might be possible for the people of Christchurch as they rise from these ashes and recover? What if they, too, were able to contribute to solving New Zealand's great research challenges?

What might the rest of New Zealand, and the rest of the world, have to gain by broadening who is able to be part of our research and innovation institutions? This means to those with the unique perspective of illness, jury, disability or trauma - such as those from Christchurch.

While I study, I help run The Opportunities Party because I want to see real change for future New Zealanders so they don’t need to face the same challenges I have.

As a party of evidence-based policy, The Opportunities Party is front and centre of knowing how important it is that New Zealand has the best research and innovation available by New Zealanders, for New Zealanders, to guide us in the directions we want to go.

To me, the postgraduate student allowance is about opportunity. It’s the opportunity to secure the welfare and wellbeing of those who build New Zealand’s research.

It’s opportunity for those want to use unique lived experiences to advance our knowledge and innovation bases to not rely on good fortune as their only opportunity to do so.

What opportunities could New Zealand create if we open up who is able to explore the research to make them possible?

Please, give more than just the luckiest of us the opportunity for postgraduate study, because in the end, this is New Zealand’s opportunity we are reaching for.  

New Mothers' Mental Health Crisis

The devastating lack of mental health support for vulnerable Mums and their babies has come under the spotlight this week after the Sunday programme looked at the issue in some depth.

Alarmingly, one in four new mothers will experience perinatal disorders as some stage between pregnancy and one year after giving birth, including depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and psychosis.  One in ten fathers will struggle with depression after the birth of their child.  Left untreated, these conditions can lead to suicide, which incredibly is the leading cause of death for mothers in the first year of a babies life.

This systematic problem needs addressing for the well being of mothers, their partners, their babies and our society.  Poor mental health of parents creates economic and health costs for many years as it impacts an entire family. It simply makes sense to prioritise mental health of new mothers and their partners.

Like most things in healthcare studies repeatedly show that when it comes to the mental health of new parents an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Yet time and time again we invest in expensive treatment to deal with the issue when it gets serious, rather than nipping it in the bud early.  

For decades, successive governments have been putting ambulances at the bottom of the healthcare cliff, trying to catch some of those who fall off, but barely addressing the underlying issues causing health decline in New Zealand.  We need to start preventing problems before they happen. 

The Opportunities Party realises that investment in mental health is a crucial part of prevention and evidence shows that prevention is best performed in communities in ways that suit that community, rather than through a one-size-fits-all top-down approach from District Health Boards. 

In terms of new mothers' healthcare, through our Thriving Families Solution, The Opportunities Party will support families by giving $200 per week to all families with children under three years of age.  Rather than telling families how to spend this money, this Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) would empower families to make more choices to support new mothers.  Further support will be given to our most vulnerable families under this policy.  Our Education policy prioritises the Early Years and is currently being updated with the aim of keeping families together in well supported, community based models.  

More broadly, many of our policies will have a big impact on the underlying issues that determine our physical and mental health.  We will reduce poverty through our Fair Tax Reform and Thriving Families Solution.  Our Climate Action Solution and improvements to tenant rights will also ensure people live in warm, dry homes. Our Real Deal Cannabis Reform and Real Action on Alcohol will reduce harm from both these drugs, as well as investing money in drug and alcohol rehab and improving mental health.  

The Opportunities Party is also working on a Mental Health policy in response to the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction. If you have an interest in mental health, watch this space.

Better Informed School Choice Will Not Be Enough to Close The Education Gaps Between Rich and Poor

The New Zealand Initiative Report Tomorrow’s Schools: Data and evidence is an excellent piece of research which will bust many parents' myths about which are "good" schools. However, the report concludes with some naive ideas about the way forward for our education system. Our education system fails the poorest 20% of kids, and this is unlikely to change by simply tweaking the school choice model by giving parents better information. If we are serious about reducing inequalities in our education system we either need to spend much more educating children from poor backgrounds, or ensure our schools are as mixed and diverse as our society is. 

NZ Initiative Research

The research adjusts school academic performance for the background of the students at that school. It finds that on average high decile schools don't do any better job of educating students than low decile ones. The research suggests there are better and worse performing schools, but they are found everywhere along the decile spectrum. This is what many educators have suspected for decades, but finally they have the data to prove it. The New Zealand Initiative should be congratulated for contributing this finding to the public sphere. 

This finding will shatter some myths long held by parents over what is a "good school". In the past the decile system has been used by many parents as an indicator of how good a school is. Higher decile schools have better academic results and so are seen as "good" schools. As a result everyone wants to send their kids there. But of course these schools have richer students going to them who are more likely to get better academic results before they even enter the school gates. What this research shows is that many students would, on average, do just as well if they went to their local school. There is no need for them to travel for an hour across town to the supposedly "good" school populated by rich kids. 

In fact the worst performing group of schools were those in middle deciles. Interestingly, when you add parent donations to decile funding the worst funded deciles are 5 and 8. 

Of course, this research is predicated on the idea that academic outcomes are the sign of a "good" school. There is growing evidence that this is no longer the case because the skills that are needed for the 21st Century can't be measured in typical academic tests. Nonetheless many parents are still interested in academic outcomes.

Anyway with this big caveat in mind, the research is sound. But things start to get wobbly when it comes to the policy recommendations. 

What Does This Mean for School Choice? 

The NZ Initiative then leap to the idea that this better information is all that parents need in order to make the existing model of school choice work. If you aren't familiar with the review of Tomorrow's Schools requested by the Labour led Government, then here is a brief recap: New Zealand has some of the most unequal outcomes in the world. This is mostly due to the income gap between rich and poor, but unlike other countries our education system does little to close the achievement gap. This appears to be partly due to the school choice model, which was supposed to reduce the gap between rich and poor but eventually increased it. The problem is that under school choice, all the rich families have flocked to schools in rich areas, leaving poor students in low decile "ghettos". The government funds low decile schools more to help them out, but that is outweighed by the extra resources that richer schools get from the students' parents. 

The Tomorrows Schools review suggested that we need to move away from the school choice model by having School Hubs manage and fund schools (rather than getting individual schools to compete). The NZ Initiative reckons they have a better answer. All parents need is better information, and then the school choice model will stop creating school ghettos. Once parents know their local school is actually better than it looks, they will send their children there. There are several flaws to this approach. 

Firstly academic outcomes is only one factor that determines school choice. Better information on outcomes could still result in a heavily segregated system. 

Secondly there will still be schools that win and schools that lose from this approach. We know from the research that poor families are less likely to change schools in response to information, so we will still see richer families leaving some schools and sending them to other schools. Under the school choice model the poor performing schools lose funding and will find it even tougher to do well. This is the problem with applying business ideas to our schools. What we need to do is help all schools do better.  

How Can We Reduce Inequality? The Two Big Choices

The first question we need to ask ourselves as a country is whether we are serious about equality of opportunity. Should the education system help close some of the natural gaps between the rich and poor? 

Assuming the answer is yes, we have 2 possible ways forward that we should be debating as a nation:

  1. The first is to abandon the model of school choice and make our schools look like the society they are preparing students to live in. For starters that will ensure that the resources of richer parents are better shared around. More importantly students learn from each other as well as their teachers. Other students provide role models that impact on their self belief and aspirations, which in turn impacts on their life long learning outcomes. Students have a much better chance of keeping up with their peers if those peers are in the same class. So having classrooms that are a true cross section of society means that all children have a much better chance.
  2. The only way to reduce inequality under a school choice model is to ensure that we spend much more money on children from poor and troubled backgrounds. The last National Government started to investigate such a scheme (and Labour is continuing this work) but the amount of money that is spent on a child from a disadvantaged background has to be much greater. Basically it involves doubling the amount dedicated to reducing disadvantage in our education system. Where will this money come from? Higher taxes? Or are we going to take it from richer schools? If the New Zealand Initiative and National Party are so keen to keep the school choice model then this is the issue that they need to confront. 

Neither of these options is easy, and both will have a lot of devils hidden in the detail. But that doesn't mean either should be dismissed on the basis of dogma. The "School Hub" model proposed by the Tomorrow's Schools review has been much derided, but it is simply one way to achieve the first aim of making our classrooms more representative of the society they are preparing children for. Perhaps we need to talk about whether that is actually a goal we want to see, before we work out how to achieve it. 

Our education system does pretty well overall, but the performance of our poorest kids sticks out like a sore thumb. The best performing education systems overseas tend to do one of the two options above (or both), so these ideas can be made to work. Let's have the conversation. 

Forget Agricultural Emissions: Fresh Water and Synthetics are the Real Farming Challenges

It is time to declare a truce between farmers and environmentalists over agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. They aren’t as bad as we once thought. Yes they exist, but they should be able to be mitigated without wholesale changes to farming practices. It is time to focus on the real challenges to farming: fresh water and the rise of synthetic meat and milk.

Commissioner Upton’s Report

Commissioner Upton’s report on agricultural greenhouse gases came out last week, you can read a summary of it here. It acknowledged a long held uncomfortable truth that many people have felt around the way we think about agricultural emissions. His analysis suggests that they aren’t as bad as the official data tells us.

The claim that agricultural emissions make up half of our total emissions is based on a whole bunch of assumptions. You could easily tweak those assumptions and cut the number to a quarter or even less. That sort of margin for error should be pretty uncomfortable for anyone setting policy that will affect the way we use our land for the next century. I for one don’t want to see the whole country covered in trees to offset our emissions while not actually solving the real problem: fossil fuel use.

The conclusion of Commissioner Upton’s report is that farmers should be able to mitigate agricultural emissions amongst themselves. In other words they should plant trees, but only to mitigate agricultural emissions. Farmers should plant their low productivity erosion prone land and farm the productive bits. Job done. Federated Farmers should be working out how to operationalise this proposal immediately. The prospect of mitigating one of our biggest environmental challenges and keeping the cash amongst land owners should be incredibly alluring.

Of course not everyone is so happy, and they see this as letting farmers off the hook. This proposal was met with scorn by Greenpeace who claimed that Commissioner Upton was influenced by Big Ag, which is ridiculous. It’s the sort of histrionic crap that gives greenies a bad name.

I think environmentalists need to pick their battles. When it comes to land use we’ve always known that the real challenge is fresh water.

Fresh Water is the Real Challenge

We should seize this opportunity to put agricultural emissions to bed and focus on fresh water. Incredibly, we’ve been debating for some time whether our rivers should be swimmable or simply wadeable. The talkfest continues under this current Government. Whatever regulation they bring in, it will take years to turn our water quality around.

Now the crisis is impacting on our drinking water. The discussion about groundwater on RNZ this week was bleak; thanks to agricultural intensification New Zealanders can no longer trust that their drinking water is safe.

Sure, we can treat the water to take care of E Coli, although even that will be prohibitively expensive in some small sites. An even bigger concern is the growing levels of nitrate in groundwater, especially in Canterbury. Nitrate levels are dangerously close to World Health Organisation limits in many areas. There is also emerging evidence that those limits are probably too high thanks to the link between nitrates and bowel cancer.

Luckily many farmers are now showing that they can be just as profitable by easing off the intensity of farming and returning to being grass farmers. Their milk and meat output may fall but so do their costs so profit doesn’t suffer. In many places it may be possible to improve our environment dramatically without collapsing the farming sector. This change would also prepare us for the rise of synthetic meat and milk. 

The Rise of Synthetics

As a young economist I will never forget the berating I got at the hands of preeminent economic historian Brian Easton. “Stop talking bullshit about the UK entering the EU being the start of New Zealand’s economic woes,” he said to me over a drink. “It all started 8 years before that – all because of nylon.”

Of course nylon had been around for a while but in the 60s the uses diversified, including carpets. In 1966 the price of wool dropped by a colossal 40%. Since then there have been many years where it is simply uneconomic to shear sheep, with the exception of the more lucrative merino. Successive governments tried to prop up our ailing sheep industry, almost sending the country bankrupt.

In this context the growth of synthetic meat and milk looks eerily familiar. While our politicians berate our national carrier Air New Zealand for serving the Impossible Burger, the technology marches on. Synthetics are a premium product currently for the environmentally or animal welfare conscious consumer. However the technology is rapidly improving and becoming cheaper to produce.

Sure, people will still want “real” meat and milk but that will become a premium product, with synthetics serving the mass market just as nylon does. The only way forward for our farmers is to move away from volume and focus on value. Part of that value will have to include providing “pasture fed meat and milk”. As we discussed above this will also help us live up to our clean green reputation.

This opportunity could be a win win all round and should be the focus of our agricultural sector and government regulators.