Power to the tenants: re-claiming the rental market

By Ellipsister (Co-Ed.)

The housing crisis does not stop at home ownership. It is about rents. It is about landlords. And it is about tenants.

Like many in my generation, I am a serial renter. In fact, we (my whānau) currently pay rent in two places because I commute between Auckland and Wellington. Although, I only pay rent for a room in Wellington, and not an entire house. That I am in a position to commute is a privilege that very few others can afford. I get that. However, despite my privilege, my experience and the similar experiences of others is not irrelevant simply because of the wider reaching social impacts of the housing crisis on low-income families and earners. We need to get on the same page. The reality is that it is situations like mine – those of middle income that contribute to homelessness and not in the way you might think.

 The spectrum

Talk of the housing spectrum from homelessness to home ownership is common in policy circles. But it is flawed. The spectrum is not linear and treating it as such perpetuates the problem. A major assumption from policymakers and political parties alike is that if we just build more houses (supply) and make finance more readily available to prospective buyers then bingo! Everyone will have a home. We just have to look to the US sub-prime lending that led to the 2008 GFC to see the horrible consequences of that kind of an initiative. We need to understand that the housing crisis is as much about rules and the distribution of power, as it is about supply and finance.

 The middle

In the past, the housing cycle saw people move into their own homes, or upgrade their rentals as their incomes increased creating financial security. The housing crisis that began in Auckland and its cancerous spread to other regions has created a short circuit in that cycle. For my generation, only those people whose parents can help can continue on that cycle. The rest of us languish in dilapidating properties, unable to save for our own homes due to the excessive rental prices we pay, unable to upgrade to suitable rentals because we are priced out of the next rung on the ladder, and often unwilling to move because value for money properties no longer exist. This means that we – the middle-income earners – have captured the affordable rental and created a rental scarcity for low-income earners. We are the group who in practical terms not only prevent low-income whānau accessing affordable rental homes, but exacerbate the growing levels of homelessness.

I know it’s not right to talk about middle income earners moving into nice homes so that low income families can access their left over rundown rentals. I’m not proposing that we only find solutions for middle income earners. I am highlighting that part of the problem lies in the rental space and the short-circuiting of a cycle that has operated to minimise homelessness. Ignoring the hamstringing of middle-income earners prolongs the problem of homelessness, inaccessibility to suitable rentals, and the unequal share of power held by landlords.

 The key issues for renters

Some general themes that consistently arise for renters include:

  • Move in costs: These upfront costs usually involve –
  • 2 weeks rent (up to 4 weeks max) as bond;
  • 2 weeks rent in advance; and
  • 1 weeks rent plus GST as a letting fee.

For a middle-income family, the rent will often be around $500-700 per week. This amount of rent signifies these families could conceivably service a mortgage of their own. But even on good income, people don’t generally have over $3,000 just sitting around that makes it possible for them to move and given the rental costs, are not in any position to ‘save’ the 20 percent deposit needed to make them eligible for a mortgage.

For the record, I’m not interested in anecdotal policy qualifications of ‘I saved X while doing A, B and C, so everyone else is just lazy and stupid’. I mean it’s great that the system worked for those of you who think like that. You clearly had the privilege of some particularly favourable conditions. But by your own admission, it’s not working for the majority of other people. Evidenced by your view that people who don’t experience the world as you do are, um stupid and lazy.

  • Affordability:  Price is the key determinant for whether a renter will tenant a rental property. We know that rental prices vary for homes of similar size and quality and we understand that major price discrepancies are often associated with location. But this isn’t always the case, and despite some reports claiming rents are not increasing we renters are seeing spikes in prices on properties without any maintenance or upgrade. The reality is that a 3-bedroom hardy plank shit box with no upgrade since it was built in the 1970’s will now sting the renter over $500, a price that only a few years ago would get you a new build or renovated rental.
  • Quality:  Renters want and need a property that is warm, dry, safe and functional (i.e. no outstanding major repairs). What is on offer is often uninsulated (or depleted insulation), damp homes in need of some fundamental repairs (e.g. wiring, light fittings, plumbing, joinery) and upgraded furnishings such as carpets, curtains, wallpaper or paint.

 

  • Tenancy agreements: Tenancy agreements are an annoying but necessary part of being a tenant. They protect both the tenant and landlord. However, it is the landlord who will ultimately determine if the lease is for fixed or periodic tenancy. Being bound to a property for a fixed term and liable for rent if you find a more suitable property before your lease expires means that people cannot move unless they can afford to service two rental properties. Fixed term arrangements are intended to provide certainty, but they don’t they minimise the choices a renter can make.

 

Power to the tenants

rental policy

Requiring the letting fee to be payable by the Landlord not the tenant

One means of giving power back to tenants would be to amend the Residential Tenancies Act 1986 to require landlords to pay the letting fee not the tenant. See the Tenancy Tribunal website.

The work done by the letting agent, is for the benefit of the landlord. It is grossly unfair. A tenant should not have to pay a fee that deals with administrating a property that they do not own, for work that was undertaken prior to them obtaining quiet enjoyment of the property.  Landlords should not be allowed to pass on administrative costs to tenants. If they don’t want to advertise the property themselves, then that is their choice, not the tenants choice.

Implementing a rent cap and a star rating for rental properties

Like others, I have been thinking about the viability of rent cap, and the idea of a star rating for rental properties was brought to my attention in the weekend. Restricting the price and developing a robust rental property criterion gives rights back to tenants who spend a large proportion of their incomes paying rent, or in many cases, someone’s mortgage.

We know that rent is just too high and even those on good incomes are finding rentals increasingly unaffordable. While Christchurch is reported to be experiencing a reduction in rent prices, with some landlords offering a week’s free rent, Auckland and other parts of the country are ridiculously expensive and there are no signs of cooling off.

A rent cap could provide the right lever to keep people in homes that are affordable, and combined with a star rating could incentivise landlords to maintain and repair rental properties thereby improving the quality of homes in the rental market. It could be either a temporary or a permanent measure. It could include provisions for market or inflation adjustment.

I’m not going to speculate here about what the rent cap should be. However, the process might involve a price band where rental values are based on the star rating they receive from an independent property assessor.

The star rating could align with the housing Warrant of Fitness (WOF) standards. For example, a home that fully complied would receive a 5 star rating and be able to charge rent at the top end of the band. A property that only complied with part of the WOF standards and received a 1 star rating would only be able to charge at the lower end of the band. This would also give tenants an ability to negotiate the rent required to tenant the property.

I note that price bands should vary depending on location, and that should be a factor in establishing the price bands.

A groundrent for despicable landlords

A property that did not meet any WOF standards, could be deemed uninhabitable. If the landlord refused to meet those standards and left the property vacant, then the government could apply a groundrent to cover the social cost of taking a property out of the market. Doing so could help bring about stability, by ensuring vacant properties were not used to create an artificial scarcity that drives up house prices.  The intention would be to disincentivise landlords from simply land banking and encourage them to either repair the property to WOF standard, or sell it.

We need a real world solution for a real world problem not an ideological driven rant that narrows the field of investigation and subdues innovation.

Advertisements

Preserving the mana of the tino rangatiratanga flag

By Ellipsister

tino-rangatiratanga-flag

Throughout the flag debate, I saw many Pākehā calling for the Tino Rangatiratanga flag to be an option as the national flag. Some said it was a beautiful design – which it is, but that is not a good reason to appropriate it as a national symbol without proper consideration of what this flag symbolises for Māori: resistance and resilience of tangata whenua in our struggle for, you guessed it “tino rangatiratanga. Others claimed that tino rangatiratanga represented them more than the Union Jack. And actually, that sat incredibly uncomfortably with me. I mean, Yes! please do raise our tino flag in solidarity. But your misplaced affection in appropriating our struggle and claiming it represents you is offensive and invalidating. Your lands and resources  were not forcibly taken, your culture and rights were not systematically oppressed, and you do not therefore experience the intergenerational trauma of colonisation.

For me, until tino rangatiratanga is actually achieved by Māori and formally recognised by the State, then I would never put my support behind the tino flag becoming New Zealand’s national flag. The reason should be obvious. However, to avoid any confusion – we cannot have tino rangatiratanga as a symbol of our nationhood if it is not a Māori reality. It is simply a way of feeding into the myth of partnership – the idea that Māori and the Crown have an equal share of power to make decisions that affect the peoples who are of this land – tangata whenua, and those who have settled on it – tau iwi.

I feel that if the tino flag is offered up as a national flag prematurely then it will diminish the mana of the flag and all its symbolism and deprive it of its meaning. On the other hand, if there were a policy for dual recognition of the tino flag as having equal status with the national flag, then this would perhaps enhance the mana of this flag and its symbolism as the forward-looking next step in addressing the issue of Māori sovereignty.

For the record, I didn’t vote in the flag referendum. I was ambivalent – I wasn’t prepared to vote for the dag we were offered, or the symbol of colonisation. That’s just my view. I appreciate others look at the Union Jack differently. But I felt that we should have been having a discussion about dual flags instead. I wrote about my views early on in the debate, asserting my preference for dual flags and my reasons for it. You can read that post here.

I am not offering up any new perspective either. Māori groups have been calling for dual flags and ascribing equal status to the tino rangatiratanga flag since achieving recognition as the national Māori flag in 2009 following a nationwide consultation process. I am simply attempting to advance this kaupapa alongside those who have long been championing this change and in support of those who have also been calling for this since the flag referendum began.

It’s important to note here that some Māori do not recognise the tino flag as the national Māori flag. Instead preferring the United Tribes flag (the first official flag of New Zealand) or their own independent hapū/iwi flag. So we need to discuss as independent hapū/iwi and urban roopu whether we can unite ‘under the korowai of kōtahitanga’ (as Hon. Te Ururoa Flavell calls it) to take our struggle to the next level and place Māori sovereignty at the forefront of this country’s political discourse. Additionally, whether we can agree to do this under this symbol of tino rangatiratanga.

As a sidenote, I am mindful of how our values as Māori are shared and also distinct, adaptable and variable. How we prioritise which values will direct our dialogues are deeply personal. We form them, and they are shaped through what we bring to the discussion as individuals and through our place in our different collectives. In my observation, many of our disagreements fuse around our competing tikanga priorities and the resulting tensions expose what appear to be disagreements about what these values mean, or how we interpret them in a contemporary context.

I imagine it was no easy feat for those who negotiated and lobbied to get the tino flag recognised by the government as an important step in acknowledging the partnership that was intended as forming out of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and credit must be given to those who led that effort. However, the time is ripe for a more ambitious attempt to achieve equal status of our flag, moving from symbolic to constitutional recognition and preserving the mana of this flag as we ramp up our drive for mana motuhake and forge our path to reassert tino rangatiratanga.

 

 

 

 

Reforming Our Whenua

By Ellipsister, Co-Editor

Are the changes to Te Ture Whenua Māori a land grab of seismic proportions, as declared by some commentators? Or a reform that will enable Māori landowners to use their whenua, according to their needs and aspirations, as suggested by the review committee? 

First of all, let’s be clear – discussions on Māori land reform must have Māori at the centre. Conversations cloaked in partisanship or that centre Pākehā voices overlook the Māori context and often fuse our diverse perspectives into one.

In July 2015, I wrote about Te Ture Whenua Māori reforms during the nationwide consultation phase: Part 1: Te Ture Whenua Māori Reforms & Part 2: Te Ture Whenua Māori Reforms. However, since then a number of significant changes have been made to the exposure draft. In brief, those changes include:

  • Option for existing Māori trusts and incorporations to continue as the same entity they are now (i.e. do not need to go through cost of establishing a rangatōpu).
  • Removal of the managing kaiwhakarite provision;
  • Revision of the purpose and principles sections to better reflect the preamble of the existing Act;
  • Option for Whānau to obtain succession to land instead of having to form a whānau trust on intestate succession; and
  • Greater discretion accorded to the Māori Land Court when considering applications to remove the status of Māori freehold land (i.e. transfer from Māori to general).

We won’t know precisely what all the changes are until the Bill is introduced to the House around March 2016. What we can surmise is that the Review Committee has taken into account the concerns of submitters.

One of the arguments I see a lot is that the reforms will enable Māori landowners to transfer their land into general title more easily to sell off. Frankly, if that is how Māori landowners wish to deal with their land, that is their choice – whether we like it or not. However, given only about 4.75% of all the land in this country is dedicated Māori land, the presumption of an impending mass sell-off following the reforms reads more like partisan hyperbole than informed opinion.

Why?

Firstly, the Māori Land Court will retain oversight to ensure any sale or transfer is done in the spirit of Te Tiriti in order to protect and retain Māori land.

Secondly, in my experience, whānau who are considering selling, are often looking at selling their shares to those within the collective or to those with a whakapapa connection to the land block. Often the arguments insist that no Māori should ever sell their land. That is over-simplistic and is as much a constraint on our rangatiratanga over our land as the arguments they are opposing. Additionally, it ignores the reasons whānau may wish to sell their shares in land, for example, to obtain the capital necessary for home ownership. Getting finance to build on Māori land also requires a license to occupy so sometimes it might be in the interest of a whānau to sell their shares in their Māori land, and use the proceeds to build on general land, or to build on another piece of Māori land where they do have a license to occupy.

Thirdly, there is a preferred recipient tender included in the reforms. This means that there is a first right of refusal to Māori with a relevant connection to the land.

And lastly, contrary to what many are suggesting, the thresholds for sale or transfer have not been reduced – they are exactly the same as the thresholds in the existing act, and include the right of landowners to increase that threshold if they wish to do so.

A bugbear of mine is when commentators are vague and use language like:

The reality however is that the land will simply be opened up to those wishing to exploit the new lax regulations…All these changes will do is make it easier to sell that Maori land, not grow it

Here, the commentator avoids centering Māori as the affected party, pushing an agenda that does not serve Māori interests in land, but rather asserts his own interest in his own ideology. In the process, painting the landowners he speaks of wanting to protect as the greedy grubby little neo-liberals that he rejects. Remember, it is Māori land, meaning only Māori can decide how they will use it. If selling is their preferred option, then that is ultimately the decision of the Māori landowner subject to the prescribed process.

Another criticism made centres around the lack of funding available to assist Māori to develop our land. This is misinformed as there are a number of funding streams available to help Māori landowners collectively and individually including Māori homeowners on general land, to address their needs. For a detailed breakdown see the Māori Housing Network Investment Strategy and KiwiBank’s Kāinga Whenua loans scheme.

In Vote Māori 2015 the Government announced:

  • a total of over $7 million to improve housing outcomes for Māori by providing practical assistance to whānau and Māori housing projects
  • a total of $7 million for Māori Housing development
  • a total of over $3 million to assist Māori land owners improve the productivity of their land

The Minister of Māori Development explained that this means there is $8.8 million per annum for Māori housing in addition to the existing funding of around $7.5 million per annum, bringing the total amount to $16.2 million per annum in 2018-19. He also announced a new fund of $12.8 million over 4 years to help Māori landowners improve the utilisation of their land and a further $3.2 million per annum to support targeted initiatives in areas where land is significantly underutilised.

I am not suggesting that these measures are a full solution to meeting Māori housing and land use needs and aspirations. Nor am I suggesting that the reforms are immune from criticism. I just think they provide an avenue for Māori to achieve rangatiratanga over our land. Our identities as Māori are linked to our whenua, and as current or prospective Māori landowners it is our voices and our perspectives that matter in these reforms. The proposed Māori land reforms are practical measures not ideological ones. There are multiple issues to consider and many whānau in many different situations so it is vitally important that we are properly informed about what is proposed and what those changes will mean for us and for our land.

GRINCHING ON CHRISTMAS

By Ellipsister, Co-Editor.

When negative life events occur around Christmas, does that make them somehow more worthy of our sympathy or is this just reinforcing Christian privilege?

You may well think that I’m just grinching. Maybe there’s a little bit of that. So I appreciate that for some of you reading this – whether you’re an absolute fanatic or a passive observer of Christmas – that my opinions here might elicit an eyeroll or two. Possibly some huffing and puffing on the internet.

Last night I posted this tweet:

For those unfamiliar with the story, it concerns two wāhine that were sacked from their jobs at Talley’s a few days before Christmas, apparently for carrying out their Union delegate duties.

As reported by Māori TV’s online news team, the NZ Meat Workers Union claimed that:

The delegates were dismissed because they went to work to calm union members upset about unfair treatment and tempers were getting short

One of the women dismissed explained that she was told by AFFCO that:

[her] visit to the Rangiuru branch breached Health and Safety policies

I don’t know the full facts of this case but I absolutely support the karanga to stand up for the rights of all workers. The Union alleged that the reasons for their dismissals were spurious. My gripe arises when we are invited by the Union to emote on the fact that their dismissals occurred three days before Christmas.

We know that employers have contractual obligations to follow through on disciplinary procedures, and that instant dismissals are reserved for the most serious breaches of an employment contract. That threshold, in my experience is very high and in all my working life, the only sacking I’ve seen followed a long procedure – where the person was put on leave, following allegations of fraud and then later sacked. Presumably, the evidence stacked up. I’ve also known many people who had seriously questionable work practices and ethics yet the only disciplinary action taken was a verbal and sometimes a written warning.

Although the full facts are not available we do know that NZ Meatworker’s are constantly battling for fairer treatment in their workplaces. And this is certainly not the first time AFFCO Talley’s has been in the spotlight for questionable treatment of their workers. I’m not in a position to say whether or not these workers rights have been breached. I do appreciate that low morale in the workplace can sometimes spill into the whānau home – in forms such as depression, substance abuse, lashing out and/or feelings of whakamomori, and given that these workers were upset and tempers were reportedly short, the delegates appeared to have been doing exactly the job their colleagues had elected them to do.

This post isn’t so much about this particular case, and it is most definitely not a criticism of the women who have been dismissed in what appears to be an incredibly unfair process.

It is the narrative that implies somehow it is less acceptable to be fired three days before Christmas, than at any other time during the year that I am grappling with. Equally important, the implied message that employers who conduct themselves in this way at Christmas, are somehow worse than those who conduct themselves that way at any other time of the year. I mean, isn’t it undesirable employer conduct no matter when it happens? And if Unions are about the rights of all workers, why then should Christmas play a role in when it is and isn’t acceptable to be dismissed from employment?

Losing your job at anytime undoubtedly places a heavy burden on both individuals and whānau. And yes, I get that Christmas is built around certain expectations. I’m not immune to the messages drummed into us that Christmas is ‘the season for giving’. I’m aware that losing your job and not being able to meet those giving expectations during this time presents certain challenges. But I’m uncomfortable with the argument that because of the expectations of Christmas, that more consideration should be given to workers who practice giving at Christmas, while the same narrative is not advanced during the significant events of other religions or cultures.  I remain unconvinced that people fired around Christmas are in a worse position, than those who are sacked at any other time during the year.

Lets reflect for a moment. Imagine if there were a law that prohibited businesses from dismissing people within a specified timeframe relative to Christmas, because of the religiously pushed, socially constructed and centrally planned and propagated season of giving?

This would absolutely reinforce the already existing Christian privilege that exists in all Western countries, including New Zealand. To explain, we are required to take certain paid days off over what we commonly call the Christmas period and over Easter. Our social spaces are littered with imagery of Christmas, baby Jesus, and old jolly white men.

And consider small businesses in this scenario, who are dealing with an employee who is in serious breach of their employment contract, but not being allowed to dismiss the person because its Christmas! We’d edge closer and closer to an impenetrable Statism.

Being under financial strain hurts no matter what time of the year it is. Dealing with the stigma and finding work after being dismissed is as hard for those during the year as it is for people who experience this at Christmas. Just because many of us are inclined to emote around Christmas because the messages of it being a time for giving and family are so embedded in our society, we need to remain steadfast that the situation hurts individuals and families equally whenever it happens. So yes, maybe I am grinching a bit but please be clear that I’m definitely not criticising the women dismissed by Talley’s. I’m incredibly dubious of the implied messages sent by the spokesperson for the Meatworkers Union, that in my opinion:

  1. Trivialised the lived experiences of those people who were fired for ‘spurious reasons’ at other times during the year – perhaps around times that were religiously or culturally significant to them; and that
  2. Reinforces the already existing Christian privilege thereby signalling that workers of a particular religious denomination should have a certain set of rights that workers of other religions or cultures do not.

I don’t know, it just doesn’t seem particularly union-y to me, or maybe it does.

“Go back to where you came from.”

When I was 9 years old, I went to a friend’s house to play Age of Empires. Some of his extended family happened to be there at the time, and his step-father asked me “where are you from?” Truthfully, I answered “Birkenhead”, the suburb where I lived. His response was “Don’t you be cheeky, where are you actually from?” Confused, I answered “Here?” Suddenly, he held me in a headlock and shouted “you bloody well know what I mean, where are you from?” The sounds of laughter from the rest of the room rang in my ears. I managed to mumble something like “my parents are from Taiwan.” He let go and said “that wasn’t that hard, was it?”

When I was 13 years old, I was a patrol leader at my local scout troop. One of the other scouts was sitting on an empty wooden box and swinging his legs against the sides, creating a lot of noise. I asked him to stop because the constant banging was making me uncomfortable and a little bit anxious. He said “you can’t tell me what to do, this is my country.” I had to go sit somewhere else.

When I was 15 years old, I was sitting in math class at the desk closest to the door. It was open, and a breeze was blowing in. While the class was working on some exercises, I asked the teacher if I could close the door because I was getting a bit cold. He said “If you think it’s too cold maybe you should go back to Asia.” I replied with “I was born here” and shut the door. When I later told a friend that racism was well and alive within our school she told me to “stop being ridiculous”.

I am relatively lucky because I live in comparatively multicultural Auckland, study and work in an environment where immigrants outnumber non-immigrants, and nowadays am largely safe and isolated from these sorts of interactions. Ron Mark’s comments during the first reading of the Shop Trading Hours Amendment Bill brought all the memories rushing back. He told Melissa Lee “if you do not like New Zealand, go back to Korea.” I sat in a laboratory quietly seething, unable to do any work. I don’t like these memories. I don’t like sharing these memories either, but maybe this can demonstrate to some people why the statement to go back to where you came from is offensive. I cannot bear to imagine what life must be like for migrants living in less ethnically tolerant areas of the country.

We cannot simply write this off as more of the same from New Zealand First. This is a party that has been polling between 5 and 9 percent. That’s a sizeable chunk of the electorate that believes in this party. 67% of respondents on a RadioLIVE poll said that Ron Mark’s comments were not racist. Every time any of our elected representatives engage in this kind of rhetoric, it signals to the population that this behaviour is okay. To be clear, that time Maggie Barry told Russel Norman to go back to Australia was just as wrong. But let me also say that just because one side was racist, that doesn’t give the other side free license to say whatever they want. An eye for an eye only makes the world go blind.

For Ron Mark’s NZ First colleagues to back him up only further reiterates that this behaviour is apparently okay. Winston Peters said that any claims of racism were “poppycock”. Barbara Stewart said that the comment was not racist and was “taken out of context” (when his comments were very much in the context of a racist speech targeting public holidays in Korea and India and implying that these other countries have too many public holidays; in fact his entire speech was laced with derision and offence). Pita Paraone said “it was said in the heat of the moment as part of the theatre of Parliament.” None of these statements are anywhere near satisfactory for a parliament that seeks to represent an increasingly multicultural nation. The closest we got was Tracey Martin saying “it’s not a statement I would have made.”

I can appreciate that Ron Mark didn’t like being told that New Zealand should “grow up”. That’s possibly a fair point to make (just because other people do it overseas doesn’t necessarily mean we should do it here), but the way he addressed that point was completely wrong. Never mind that the claims made by Ron Mark about public holidays in Korea and India and shops being closed were factually wrong anyway. As Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi said, “Your knowledge is totally zero … on any religious day in India, on a holiday, shops open.” It’s the fact that his approach makes migrants feel unwelcome, that their opinions are not valid, that they should just “shut up and conform” that is deeply problematic.

Ron Mark makes it clear that Lee and Bakshi are not real New Zealanders when he says in his speech “while we know certain people are toeing the National Party line like a little bunch of whipped puppies, back in their world they would never, ever dare stand up and say this.” His use of “back in their world” effectively says that the fact that Lee and Bakshi have been in New Zealand for 27 and 14 years respectively is worth nothing. “Go back to where you came from” is a phrase that has always been loaded with xenophobia, and I really don’t see a context where it could be used to mean anything other than “you’re not welcome because you’re not from here.”

It doesn’t matter to me that Ron Mark was directing his statement at migrants and I was born here. The common racist usually doesn’t take the time to establish my place of birth. His comments to “go back where you came from” were of the same vein as statements directed at me throughout my childhood that made me feel as if I did not belong. The intolerance and xenophobia is an ugly side of New Zealand that degrades the experience of living in this country for many. I’m sick and tired of hearing it from our MPs. They should simply be better.

In my opinion Dame Susan Devoy has been doing a great job in her role as the Race Relations Commissioner in giving some marginalised groups a high-profile voice. Earlier today she said “Kiwis born overseas have a right to a say over the country they call home, where they work, vote, pay taxes and contribute: overseas born Kiwis are not second class citizens who have fewer rights than other New Zealanders… We’re at a crossroads when it comes to race relations, we either get on with each other, and lead the world in race relations: or we take pleasure in prejudice and leave our children with a race relations crisis to deal with, it’s up to us.”

When the current generation of parliamentarians put their prejudice on display as Ron Mark did on Tuesday, it makes me feel like I shouldn’t participate because my voice is not valid. Personally, I would actually quite like the shops to be open over Easter. It would be a lot more convenient, and if someone wants to stay closed for religious reasons they can stay closed. I guess if I don’t like it the way it is now, then I should go back home… to Auckland. I’m grateful to the various people, both in and outside of the House, who have criticised the comments and refused to let it slide. It helps me to feel a bit of hope that one day this type of racism and xenophobia can be eliminated. It strengthens my resolve to stay here and try to make New Zealand a better place.

There was a small ray of humour arising from all of this for me. When the clip of Ron Mark came on the news, my Irish flatmate who moved to New Zealand recently was shocked. “Oh my god. Is that the Prime Minister?” Thankfully, thankfully not.

The Paralysis of the Security Council in Syria

In this last week, New Zealand took two opportunities, one by Murray McCully at the Security Council and one by John Key at the General Assembly, to deplore the United Nations Security Council for failing to act in Syria. Between Bashar Al-Assad and ISIS/L, the Situation in Syria has become just as bad as, if not worse than, Rwanda in 1994. Last year, the deputy Secretary-General told the UN that a “failure of political will” led to the “cascade of human tragedy” that left between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Tutsi Rwandans slaughtered and a further two million Rwandans displaced seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. In Syria, more than 300,000 civilians have been killed (of which more than a quarter have been women and children) since 2011, leading to the current refugee crisis of over four million (registered) refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries, and a further six million domestically displaced within Syria.

It’s hard to really comprehend the numbers and the sheer scale of the problem; night after night, the news recites the statistics and we become numb to the reality that a group of people the size of the population of New Zealand is currently trying to find a new home. When it comes to determining why this has happened, the knowledge that this could all have been avoided is crushing. Since the first protests held in March 2011 in the context of the Arab Spring, and the violent response from the government, there have been many opportunities for action. Yet every time real action has been proposed, it has been shut down.

Four Security Council resolutions on Syria have been explicitly vetoed, with many more experiencing the “soft veto” – draft resolutions that never even make it to the debating chamber because permanent members have indicated that they will unconditionally veto. Every time this happens, war crimes and crimes against humanity are implicitly permitted to continue by the global community.

In 2005 the United Nations unanimously adopted the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, which argues that sovereignty is not an absolute right, and that aspects of sovereignty are forfeited when states fail to protect (or themselves cause) mass atrocity crimes and severe human rights violations. The kicker was that UN Security Council would be the only body that could authorise military intervention. It did so in Darfur (2006), Libya (2011-2012), Cote D’Ivoire (2011), Yemen (2011), Mali (2012-2013), and Sudan/South Sudan (2011-2013). Yet it remains paralysed in the case of Syria, only managing to agree to stop the Syrian government from using chemical weapons against its own people. The Security Council had and still has a Responsibility to Protect, and it has failed to uphold that responsibility thus far.

Many, many proposals for Security Council reform have been proposed over the decades, driven by frustration over the blocking nature of the veto. The situation has only worsened over time, with reports that the permanent members now meet and discuss resolutions in private, essentially pre-determining the outcome of Security Council sessions and locking out the ten rotating elected members. To be frank, the Security Council is currently imbalanced and does not accurately reflect the true power structures of the world we live in today. A structure that allows for entrenched, self-validating authority and privilege will only cause the divide to widen over time.

What looks like the most promising reform proposal at this stage is to prevent the use of veto in cases of mass atrocities or genocide, which would align with the R2P doctrine and the arguments surrounding the “responsibility not to veto”. The proposal is only a small step towards rebalancing the Security Council, but it is supported by both France and the United Kingdom (which only makes it marginally more likely to happen).

However, this is only a band-aid solution. The Security Council’s inaction in Syria is only a symptom of the widening divide and eternal struggle between the West (US, UK, and France) and the East (Russia and China). In 2013 and 2014, a third of the General Assembly called for Security Council and veto reform in their General Debate speeches. More substantial changes will be required in order to clear the blockage that restricts the flow of political will through the Security Council.

Personally, I would support increased utilisation of UNGA Resolution 377A (“Uniting for Peace), which has unfortunately mostly become an idealised plot device for writers (I’m looking at you, House of Cards). In response to inaction by the Security Council to respond to the Korean War in 1950, a precedent was established that allows a special majority (2/3rds) of the General Assembly to override vetos in the Security Council and have “final responsibility” for restoring international peace and security. Of course, a lot of international relations and politics still limit the ultimate utility of this mechanism, but removing the bottleneck of the Security Council may be what is necessary to salvage the efficacy of the United Nations.

As the Prime Minister said: “We cannot afford to let the council go from an institution with failings to a failed institution.” Business as usual does not cut it. Without reform the Security Council will only descend into irrelevancy (and drag the entire United Nations down with it) until someone believes that they have the mandate to try something different. The uncertainty of that is unsettling, but more importantly in the meantime, the deaths continue.

More manaaki needed for our refugee whānau

By Ellipsister (Co-Editor)

On Friday 4 September 2015, the National Party confirmed it would deny leave (this coming week)  for both the Labour Party and Green Party to table emergency legislation in the House that would allow for an emergency intake of, and an increase in the annual quota of refugees accepted into NZ (respectively). Many opposition supporters and media have criticised this decision by the government demanding immediate action to proactively respond to this humanitarian crisis.

One of the concerns of the National Party will be that a win by the opposition would make the government look ineffective and not in control and this is a perception they’ll certainly want to avoid. There is also the fact that the government can respond to the situation without introducing any legislation into the house, and without conceding a win to the opposition, since the refugee programme is primarily a Cabinet decision and under the current cabinet agreement, the government can already accept 50 individuals as part of their emergency intake programme. I’m unsure, however, whether this would be similar to Helen Clark’s decision to accept an emergency intake of 150 refugees on the Tampa in 2001, where those individuals formed part of the existing 750 annual quota. Regardless, given the slow response by the government, it is difficult to believe that any measures that may be taken will be the result of genuine concern, but rather because of both public and international pressure to take action.

On the basis that there is increasing public interest in raising the annual refugee quota, there is a high probability that the planned 2016 review will simply be brought forward to quell the disquiet. Of note, in 1987 the refugee quota was set at 800 individuals and in 1997 was reduced under a National led government to 750 where it has remained since. There is here then, an opportunity for National to remedy their contemptible 1997 decision to reduce our refugee intake. As others have pointed out also, with NZ holding a seat on the UN Security Council, there are likely expectations from the international community that we take a lead (with the other UNSC member states) in the response to this crisis. The fact that all three confidence and supply (C & S) parties support an increase in the annual refugee intake as well as emergency provisions, is perhaps another aspect that will likely influence whatever action National may take this week.

What I remain mindful of, is how we manaaki refugees on arrival in NZ. At the moment, the primary provider for receiving refugees accepted by NZ is the Red Cross who run a ‘six-week orientation programme at the Department of Immigration’s Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre’ before resettling refugees in five communities around New Zealand – a decision that is made by the government.

As the Red Cross explain:

Resettlement is a life-changing experience as refugees are often resettled to a country where the society, language and culture are completely different from their own and much is new to them. It is both challenging and rewarding for these individuals.

There are good reasons for the six week orientation programme that deals predominantly with practical matters such as setting up bank accounts and understanding the local laws, but also physical and mental health checks to determine the care needed (if any). However, often when people talk of resettling refugees it is sadly in assimilatory terms where the things that matter are how well refugees can speak English, and their willingness to walk the Pākehā world.

It is for this reason that I consider Māori could actively participate in resettlement initiatives to help heal the wairua of our refugee whānau, and to awhi their connection to our whenua so that they can rebuild their lives here supported by our enduring customs. Through the principles of whakawhanaungatanga (establishing relationships) and manaakitanga (care, generosity and hospitality) and whakapapa we could ensure that retaining a connection to their whenua and whānau abroad, while rebuilding their lives in this country is an important part of the resettlement process. This could potentially be achieved through multilateral partnerships between hapū, iwi and hapori Māori, the government, (relevant) embassies and local organisations that provide services to and for refugees to deliver resettlement initiatives.

We cannot forget that refugees arrive here through reasons beyond their control and as such are forced to live in a new land and within a culture alien to their own.  As tangata whenua we have an obligation to ensure that people arriving in this country – especially those who were forcibly disconnected from their whenua through the trauma of armed conflict and/or persecution are received with the care, generosity and aroha, that our tikanga demands and are supported to achieve their aspirations.