Sunday, April 16, 2006

Matt McCarten: French lessons for protesting students

Wasn't the victory for workers in France magnificent this week? Millions of workers and students took to the streets over the past month to staunchly oppose their Government's attempt to introduce new employment laws. This law was to allow employers to sack any young worker in their first two years for any reason whatsoever.

The French working class and the youth took to the streets day after day. Rolling general strikes were called by the central trade union federations. The cities were paralysed. After several weeks of huffing and puffing, the senior French politicians capitulated. The Government surrendered on every point. It was a complete and humiliating backdown.

New Zealanders should take note from this - of how attacks against working people can be defeated. Dr Wayne Mapp, the National Party's Political Correctness Terminator, has a bill currently before Parliament that is similar to what the French Government tried to impose. Mapp is proposing that New Zealand employers can legally sack new workers in their first three months without giving a reason or having to justify their actions. National and Act supported this pro-slavery legislation to go to select committee as you would expect. But disappointingly, so did NZ First, United Future and three of the four Maori MPs.

I chatted with a French visiting trade unionist this week about the success of workers in France. I asked him why he thought the French could mobilise people on to the streets and we couldn't. He smiled, leaned over and whispered: "the trouble with Kiwis is that they are too polite. They accept whatever their politicians decide."

Thankfully, there is a breath of fresh air. The successful fight by young workers employed in fast-food restaurants in Auckland for a better deal gives me hope. The Unite union's campaign against low wages and youth rates has dovetailed nicely with the Greens' Sue Bradford's bill against youth rates.

The most inspiring thing has been the secondary school students who have now come into the frontline of this campaign. Off their own back, 1000 Auckland students left school a couple of weeks ago and marched in protest at their discriminatory wages. Not surprisingly, much of the media commentary was on the shock and horror of unruly youngsters marching and entirely missed the point of the march. Anyone who was present can attest to the well-behaved participants. I've heard a number of radio jocks, while admitting they weren't even there, refer to it as a near riot. Worryingly some people actually rely on these airheads for their news.

The usual reactionaries filled up the newspaper letters columns, demanding to know why these kids were walking off from school to protest. These whingers will be pleased to know that many of the students who attended this student demonstration were punished by their schools - some quite severely. It was pathetic seeing school principals wringing their hands in the media claiming how disappointed they were that students were leaving their classrooms to protest against discriminatory wages. The students who stood up and attended their march learned more from that one action than anything they would have studied that day.

The teachers at one inner-city school, to their shame, formed a line along their school perimeter to prevent students leaving. Those students who broke through the cordon were punished on their return. Ironically this was a school where the students supported these same teachers when they were on strike for better wages a couple of years ago. I'm sure no teacher at that time was disciplined for leaving school to attend marches in support of their pay claim. Isn't this a valuable lesson for their students? Maybe it is a lesson for the principals and teachers too. They have since told the students they would support their cause if they promise not to do it in school time.

The students have taken them at their word and have organised a second march against youth wages on May 1, after school finishes.

Buses are being arranged to take students to Aotea Square. The student organisers are requesting teachers and parents come too.

This next generation is showing real spine. The challange for other workers and the rest of New Zealand is, do we expect them to fight on their own or do we support them? Like the French showed the world, when students and workers take to the streets together to send a message to politicians, they win.

On May Day we'll see if the youth are on their own or if the rest of New Zealand is going to support them.

Deborah Coddington: Struggling to hold it together

Is Helen Clark losing her grip? After stubbornly insisting all dogs must be microchipped, she turns around and dumps on Plunket. Elections have been lost on animals and babies - remember cats in dairies? And Bill Birch's penny-pinching over Plunketline in 1995 marked the beginning of the end for National.

This week's Herald-Digipoll put Clark miles ahead in the preferred PM stakes but that doesn't mean she's the great leader of the Labour Party. Six months from forming a Government, when tax is no longer the big issue, Labour should rocket away from National. Instead, they're only 1.2 points ahead.

Once Miss Always-In-Control, with her caucus behaving like a dream class of nerdy-swot seventh-formers, Clark is now struggling to hold together a tired, fractious and unfocused bunch. It's end of term time. The brain-boxes and hard workers are bone weary from carrying their mates who don't care if they return next semester.

What possessed Clark to play around with Michael Cullen's future? While the Finance Minister put his best spin on her "don't know if he'll be delivering any more budgets" remark, his face must have been puce with fury. Cullen's got a short wick at the best of times. Trifle with him at your peril - he's "light fuse and stand well clear".

But he's also, by his own admission, a shy man. Private people hate someone else very publicly voicing the opinion that their career prospects are anybody's guess.

I shudder to imagine the punishment Clark would have meted out to Cullen if he'd questioned Clark's stickability. Into the headmistress' office for six of the best, by hokey - not a pretty sight.

It's not like Clark to make careless statements in front of the media. So did she do it to wind him up?

Foolish if that is so. She'd be stuffed if Cullen spat the dummy and retreated to the back bench, as did another very capable minister, Paul Swain. Not that Swain had a hissy fit - he gave up the position to spend more time with his new baby.

Swain and Cullen were similarly impossible to rattle at question time. When Clark's away and Cullen answers oral questions on her behalf, the Opposition's shoulders collectively sag. To date, John Key is the only one who's taken on Cullen without looking stupid.

But Clark's will-he-won't-he over Cullen wasn't an isolated gaffe. She jumped the gun announcing David Parker could be quickly reinstated to Cabinet if the Companies Office found no need to press charges.

This was a red rag to Aberdeen Angus Bill English, who received a tip from a very good source, he said, that the Companies Office had provided an opinion for the Prime Minister's Department.

After a bit of stuffing around, the PM confirmed the Ministry for Economic Development had emailed the PM's department on the day Parker was sacked.

She denied, however, that advice was either requested from or given by the Companies Office. English must now await the outcome of an Official Information Act request but it all looks very messy. Clark shifted her position and the media caught an odour, not of scandal but at very least of impropriety.

And the damage is done.

Regardless of what English produces, if Parker's cleared, it will look suspicious and if he's prosecuted, he's a gone-burger.

Plus we have Chris Carter in damage control with the Housing Corporation. Ross Robertson doesn't know if he reported a tinnie house to police or not. Dover Samuels bags his own Conservation Minister. Steve Maharey's precious NZQA has blown its budget by $8 million. David Benson-Pope met with Gerry Brownlee to reminisce about the good old days when kids could be walloped, and Pete Hodgson is copping nappy valley's fallout over the Plunket debacle.

And Trevor Mallard faces a bleak winter. He's inherited Parker's energy portfolio and who wants to be Minister of Power Blackouts and Oldies Having Cold Showers?

Labour's cocksure arrogance is suddenly looking lame and meanwhile, the National caucus is limbering up.

Once cowed by Labour's bovver boys (and Annette King), the National front bench is steadily displaying the grunt needed to show voters it's capable of running the country.

If Murray McCully can wipe the self-satisfied smirks off the faces of some of National's new MPs, the centre-right could be cooking with gas right up to election 2008.

And what's left for Labour now its election promises have been scattered to voters?

Not only does Clark have to keep the punters happy, her own bruised ministers need a bit of TLC.

It must go against every cell of Cullen's abstemious body to give students free loans. So was Clark having a joke at his expense by giving him tertiary education?

Whatever - Cullen's not laughing. And Clark's face was especially grim the day she woke up to the Herald-Digipoll and saw what an ungrateful bunch the middle classes are.

After flushing $2 billion through the suburbs so families with iPods can text each other for dinner, the Government managed nothing better than a photo-finish with National.

Kerre Woodham: Councillors should get off bumper junket or be voted off

Most of the time travelling for business isn't much fun. Flying for 36 hours, then having to hit the ground running to do as much as you can to justify the trip to resentful colleagues and family members back home really isn't much fun.

Unless you're the chief executive of a major company or government department, the hotels aren't that flash and you don't have time to shop or play as you would on a holiday. People who think flying around the world for a living is glamorous have clearly never done it.

However, there are exceptions to every rule and the two Auckland city councillors who are heading off on the mother of all junkets are that exception. Their itinerary reads like a Big Wednesday prize - fly business class to San Fran, then it's off to London, Paris, Barcelona, Prague and other beautiful cities on a 27-day jaunt around the world.

And they won't be locked away in conference centres being bombarded with presentations by terminally dull experts. My word no. According to the itinerary, they'll be fannying around galleries, art exhibitions and sports events hoping to "gain an understanding of significant issues in arts, culture and recreation, and gain insights into planning, funding and developing these areas".

What utter bollocks! Why on earth are they going to Spain to see how an America's Cup race is hosted? We did that six years ago - remember? Besides, we're trying to build an identity that is uniquely New Zealand and Auckland - why would we be looking offshore to try to develop our arts and cultural community?

These Auckland City councillors look like passengers on the great ratepayer-funded gravy train - a train that I thought had been decommissioned in the 80s. They need to get off it, or else they'll be voted off it.

Mind you, it's a hell of a way of encouraging people to stand for local body elections. Why not put your name forward? The rewards are clearly worth it.

Kerre Woodham: Kooky cat owners not helping cause

Ray Spring doesn't seem to like cats much. They're ecological vandals, according to Ray, decimating New Zealand's native bird population and shredding native trees with their vicious claws.

They're also dirty little things, Ray reckons. They get into good, honest pet-free neighbours' gardens and poop everywhere turning a garden of Eden into a toxic wasteland.

Ray concedes that doing away with cats altogether is probably a bit radical - so instead he's suggested that cats be restricted to one per household and that all cats be microchipped so that rogue cats can be identified and their owners can be made accountable for their actions.

Ray doesn't have much time for middle-aged single women either - he says they're the main culprits when it comes to cat lovers. Lonely because their man has deserted them and the children have left home, these women fill the emotional void in their lives by pouring their love and affection into their cats. Ray didn't say these sorts of women should be done away with but the implication seemed to be that these pathetic creatures should buck up their ideas.

Initially Ray didn't get a lot of support when he was interviewed on the radio but gradually as time went on, callers to talkback seemed to swing round in favour of cat control. Not everybody was as radical as the organic gardener who suggested that if people want to keep cats they should put netting round their entire backyard. Like a huge aviary. This man also thought that the desire to keep a pet of any sort showed emotional weakness and said if middle-aged ladies were keeping cats for company it was because their families were failing them.

Another suggested we adopt the Canadian solution which was to keep cats locked indoors at all times. Cats in some states are only allowed out on leads - rather like dogs. Cats found roaming at any time of the day or night are destroyed. That may sound a little draconian for New Zealand but imagine the possibilities for accessorising your cat if it were decreed that it must be kept on leads. Fur Urban Pet Accessories in Kingsland would have to open all over the country! New mines would have to be discovered to keep pace with the demand for bejewelled collars and diamante leashes.

But back to Ray. I thought his remarks about women were one-dimensional stereotyping at best; bordering on misogyny at worst. But as more and more middle-aged single women phoned me with stories of their pussies I began to wonder. Lovely women, don't get me wrong, but just a little - obsessive.

Jody told me she had made a swing for her little boy. A canvas one with two holes for his hind legs and a smaller one for his wee tail. She sewed bells on to the front of it, so he could bat them with his paws and make a tinkling sound.

She hangs the swing between the kitchen and the lounge so he can see her while she's preparing dinner. Apparently he loves it. If he hasn't had his swing for the day, he'll nudge it to let her know he's ready for playtime. Really. This is what she told me.

Admittedly, Jody was at the more colourful end of the callers but most of them were adamant that their little pussies wouldn't touch a fantail/tui/woodpigeon - they either knew better or were too well fed to be bothered chasing food on the fly. They might have inadvertently helped Ray's case when they leaped to the defence of their little furry friends.

I don't know whether the damage domesticated cats do is sufficiently serious to warrant draconian legislation that would see cats locked up at night but I do know that the comfort and happiness many people derive from their pets means the cats deserve a fair hearing.