Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Monday, September 29, 2014

Coming back...High Expectations...

The wee local Church we attend. 
We have been back home in Dunedin for two and half weeks after four months and eleven days away from home. It is nice to be home again, but an interesting experience coming back.  
This afternoon I was a retired man. I constructed raised garden edges outside our sleepouts. 

My Saturday wedding. The bride is a paramedic I have known for about 15 years.

It does not feel like I have retired. I am kept very busy most days. We live about 20 minutes drive out of the centre of the city. We have an acre of ground, which is badly over grown. I have dreams for making our place very productive and a lot tidier than it has been, after all - I am retired now. I have four hours a week (in two, two hour slots - which often extend to three hours) as Fire Service chaplain. I have one hour a week as Workplace Support Chaplain to a brewery. For these two I get paid. I am also voluntary Dunedin Area Chaplain to St John Ambulance which generally takes up at least 3 hours a week. I am chairman of the Dunedin Night Shelter Trust. We are trying to raise $650,000 to purchase our buildings and just keeping the shelter running takes a lot of work. Before I returned from my holiday I had determined to make sure I stayed at home all day on Mondays, Wednesdays and on Thursday afternoons. So far I have been a failure. Last week I had three nights out, and meetings, chaplaincies or other work in town on every day of the week. I conducted a wedding on Saturday. (Possibly my last one) On Tuesday last week as I was driving home I counted up that I had "worked" nine hours that day. (and still had phone calls and emails to do that night) I was paid for just two hours of that work. I will get to saying "no" to some meetings, and try to arrange others on days that fit my schedule. I read the local community paper which had a two page spread about an agency which provides activities for retired people - games, crafts and classes on various topics. I don't think I need their services... boredom, at the moment, is not one of my problems.
High expectations.. how come?
I went to my fire service chaplaincy and various important people said, "It is good to see you back. You have been missed. We need you around here!" I was stunned by the welcome. I asked myself, "What do I do?" I don't have a heap of people flocking to receive counselling?  On Saturday evening at the wedding reception, a woman from my Ambulance chaplaincy came away from the table where her workmates were gathered and talked with me, catching up on various things. Then she said, "Everyone is so pleased to see you back." Again, I ask, why?  I think in Chaplaincy work there is a deep value just in "presence". I don't do a heap of in-depth "counselling", just catch up, chat and listen. Some how that must be of value. It is nice to be valued. We attend the little local Presbyterian Church which has visiting clergy every Sunday. I came out of the service on our second Sunday back and shook hands with the minister for the day, who I had not met before. He shook my hand and said, "You're Mr Brown aren't you? You're the one who does a lot of good?" "Not for the last four months." I replied, then said, "Oh I just do a bit." Then I thought "What a heck of a reputation, but what high expectations!" I just muddle along - really! Another man gave a generous donation to the Night Shelter. "We give to the Night Shelter because you are involved. You have a great track record." Really? I have been fishing to see if we should get somebody else as chair of the Night Shelter Trust, with me carrying on just as a trustee. The job has got big and involves a lot of things outside my area of expertise and most often outside my comfort zone. But everybody I have talked to rebuffs me saying that I am "the right man for the job." All these expressions of appreciation or confidence are fine, but to a certain extent I feel a weight of high expectations. I am an average guy, muddling along. I am essentially shy. I am not particularly gifted. I often procrastinate because I am fearful of mucking things up. These high expectations baffle me and even cause me loss of sleep at nights. "When will they all discover how weak and useless I am?" I wonder. When will my bluff be called? 

I have since seen this which seemed relevant. :-)

Friday, September 26, 2014

Mad media pressure... Labour Party please dream again.

Readers will be pleased to know that the NZ elections are over and my political diatribes will cease. I am deeply disappointed with the result, the Labour party were soundly defeated by their worst defeat since 1922... although that is unfair because we have a different system now.  I semi expected a defeat of the left (the polls predicted it - though not the size of the defeat) but I was surprised at the impact it had on me. Depression hit for a few days. Three more political things I want to say.
A million Non-voters
Apparently something like one million eligible people did not vote on the day. That is one million out of 3,140,417 eligible voters. Virtually a third of New Zealanders were not motivated enough to vote! That is pathetic! Having wandered around parts of the UK enjoying the history lessons, I know that the right to vote, our democracy, was not something easily won. People gave their lives, argued and faced all sorts of opposition over the centuries to enable us to vote. What is wrong that we don't vote? Is it understandable cynicism about the whole process and system? Didn't the Parties engender enough interest? Is life too easy? Are the issues not understood? Are we too individualistic to feel any responsibility to the whole?  It is a sad reflection on our understanding of citizenship. 
Please dream again Labour party...
The Labour party needs to look again at its reason for existing. In my career as a minister I have often been frustrated by Churches who feel they have a right to exist, even though they have no real purpose. Organisations can just drift on without knowing who they are. Labour needs to regroup and think about who they want to be and what they want to offer to New Zealand. It is not just a matter of trying to think of how to survive, but asking what right do we have in surviving? What purpose is there for our existence? I think the National Party has more purpose about it, though I disagree with its purpose and direction. I share a quote - "Thomas Jefferson once hoped aloud that America would have a revolution every twenty years. Jefferson wasn't advocating overthrow of the government. He envisioned no battles, no new flags, or any prisoners of war. Jefferson wanted a redefining of America for every new generation. No church (or organisation) is healthy without a defined ... dream. Congregations (organisations) either redefine their basic purpose every generation or they die. The road to health is to dream again." ("To Dream Again" Robert Dale) Please Labour Party, take the next month or so, or even longer, to dream again. Otherwise you deserve to die.
Media pressure..
I have become increasingly annoyed with the media. They blatantly put their slant on things. They put words into peoples' mouths - somebody hesitates in an answer, because (duh) they are thinking carefully, and the media reads all sorts of things into that hesitation. They also put pressure to make things happen.  I am annoyed that the media are forcing the Labour party into a hasty leadership battle. Back off! The Party needs to do solid thinking, and then choose a leader to suit their purpose. Let them think! Leave them alone. The media has too much power amongst us! Treat them with caution and a good deal of cynicism. Do not let them set the agenda! (Mind you, I was disappointed that David Cunliffe, the party leader seemed to want to pressure the Party into a quick leadership battle. I suppose in an attempt to save his skin... that, in my view, showed bad leadership.) 

I promise my next post will not be political! 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Ever Vigilant

The story of the rise of the Third Reich... "Lest we forget"

Four years ago I visited a very informative display in Berlin. It was a new installation and showed the rise of the Third Reich in Germany prior to and during World War II. It has been set up specifically to help people to know and remember so that the same sort of thing would not be repeated. As I travelled through the timeline of the rise of the Third Reich and the terrible things that happened, I noticed that it all began with small limitations and changes to the freedoms of the German people. The Unions were impacted and workers' rights slowly taken away - bit by bit. Teachers and academics were little bit by little bit told what they could and could not teach. Media were controlled, again in increments. There was a gradual increase in name calling, until certain people like Jews, gay people, and people with mental health difficulties were ostracized. All this was done in little increments until the tragedy of war and the atrocities that were committed just happened without too much resistance from the bulk of the German people.  It is a reminder to be ever vigilant about our democracy, our freedoms and who we allow to have power in our communities.
The Nicky Hagar revelations and subsequent questions about GCSB (Government Communications Security Bureau) have raised the intensity of my concern about the Key National Government. I am not a fan of Kim Dotcom. (I was angry when it was revealed he was allowed residency, just because he was rich. At the time I was busy trying to get residency for a lovely responsible and contributing young mother.) But some of the issues raised by recent revelations add to my already growing concern about Mr Key and his colleagues. There have been slow but sure limitations on the rights of workers. The creative thinking teachers seem to be clashing with the education policies of the Government, and are called names. Social work agencies who raise questions are sometimes also subjected to being labelled with their credibility questioned and ridiculed.   In response to questions and differences there have been regular bouts of name calling, which seems to be increasing. Somebody as rational and as balanced as Russel Norman is saying National seem to have control of the Media. I know a man who was a successful property developer and well known financial whiz kid who has changed sides completely and is sure of nasty financial scheming within Government circles. Then I came across the story of a another property developer, who was an ardent National supporter who has now changed his mind, because of an event which happened to him last election time. He is Russell Malcolm and this is the shortest version of his story.  If this is in any way true, it is scary indeed.  Even in his strong denial of mass surveillance, Mr Key is not giving straight answers and the evidence he gives is a red herring and does not relate to the program being talked about.  The GCSB bill that was pushed through parliament with undue haste gives considerable and potentially unchecked power to that body. (Russel Norman has a better solution making a distinction between internet protection and surveillance. ) 

All I am saying is I have growing concerns about John Key's hunger for power, about his style and the methods he uses. There is a increasing list of evidence suggesting questionable activity. We must be ever vigilant or history can be repeated. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Lets get political II

Dirty Politics is an issue.
Nicky Hagar wrote the book "Dirty Politics" in which he exposed some of the nasty wheeling and dealing that has gone on in the political scene. I have read the two chapters of the book which you can find on line, and followed the various debates about the goings on related to the National Party. There is, to my mind, some pretty shady dealing. Now I am sure other parties may have imbibed in similar antics. Recently the call has been that in this election, "Let's talk about the issues, and not this sideshow!" Politicians have said it. The media (which I trust less and less) have inferred it, asking politicians if all this Nicky Hagar stuff has prevented them from talking about "the issues". Let me say, this is an issue. The book has exposed some dirty politics! The book shows the political system using underhand methods for manipulating the press, the public and the parties. There are lies, half truths and dirty scheming slants put on things. THE ISSUE is that I do not think the leaders of a country should be doing those sorts of things or condone, use or be implicated in those sorts of methods to retain power! They are unprincipled. They are deceitful and it is an issue if our political leaders are that way inclined. We need to vote in people with integrity, honesty and with principles! We need to express our disgust, our distress and our opposition to such wheeling and dealing. It is an issue! It smells of a deep rottenness in the halls of power of our country, and somehow it ought to be cleaned out!
Who to vote for????
I am still debating with myself about who to vote for. I know who I will not be voting for. I will not be voting for the National party. I see our prime minister and his colleagues as an evil destructive force in our country.  He is a very cunning operator who does his best to pass on any conflict to his underlings and is always there for the good photo opportunities. He plays the media very well, but I do not trust him. These Nicky Hagar revelations do not surprise me and I am sure they are the tip of the iceberg of the sort of wheeling and dealing that goes on. I see John Key (and his government) as a party supported in power by lobby groups and rich capitalist people who want to have "the system" operating to their advantage. Under his leadership little bit by little bit, workers' rights have been eroded to the advantage of profiteering employers. There is much more casual work now which gives the employer an advantage, with no security and poorer conditions for the employee.  The rich are in a favoured position tax wise. The tax rate for high income earners is one of the lowest in the OECD nations. The OECD average is 42% - in NZ it is 33%. There is no capital gains tax, no tax on capital transactions, no tax on deceased estates and no tax on gifts. We are almost alone in OECD countries with this situation. All these things favour the high income earners, while GST (Good and Services Tax) proportionately hits low income earners harder. Another example of disparity is the comparison between "tax evasion" and "Benefit fraud".  Tax evasion costs the country many times more dollars than benefit fraud. It is quite rampant. The noises from government would have you think otherwise. You are much more likely to be prosecuted for benefit fraud than for tax evasion. You are much more likely to have your debt to society forgiven if you are involved in tax evasion. Somehow that's "OK" but benefit fraud is seen as criminal. This favours the rich. This government is making cuts in the health and education areas and the people on the bottom are suffering the consequence. Funding for emergency departments, mental health and other areas of health mean that people in our communities suffer. For example Police, Psych services and mental health teams unload people into the night shelter who really should not be there.  - we have a frequent user of the Night Shelter who soils and/or wets the bed and refuses to shower. Shouldn't he be in care? There are not the services available to him so he is left on the streets. Mr Key brandishes positive figures around, but ironically many of those are the result of rebuilding after the tragic earthquake in Christchurch. The National Party pays lip service to environmental issues. While it makes nice noises, in economic development areas, it's regard for the environment seems lacking and short sighted.  I do not like Mr Key's arrogance. If teachers disagree with his changes, he and his ministers discount their opinion and wipe them off as being "political" without tackling the genuine issues they may have. I do not like some of his colleagues, they are abrasive, disrespectful and arrogant. I have seen Judith Collins, Gerry Brownlee and Bill English be completely down putting, nasty and disrespectful in interactions about those who may disagree. I just think their style is divisive, unhelpful and is a way of avoiding rational discussion of the issues. I do not think Mr Key can be trusted. How many times has he conveniently "forgotten" some incident. "Can't recall" are typical words you use when you know you are lying through your teeth! I am so suspicious of the man that I hate seeing his face on billboards and can understand the anger of some people wanting to deface them. (I dislike political billboards anyway, they are a blot on the landscape!)  I see Mr Key as a greedy man being supported by people motivated by greed.  At best they may still be adherents of the "Trickle down" theory i.e. "If the rich get richer the poor's circumstances will eventually improve." Since Old Testament times this has been shown to be false. There needs to be structures within society to allow for fairer distribution of resources.   Such structures have been increasingly discarded within our New Zealand community. We are becoming much more of a dog eat dog society. 
Who will I vote for then? I am unsure of Mr David Cunliffe, leader of the opposition. I actually respected the man he replaced, David Shearer who I saw as a man of intellect, compassion and discernment. I know and like some Labour politicians - David Clark and Phil Twyford seem to have people's welfare at the heart of their motivation for their involvement. But I also have enormous respect for the Green Party leaders, Russel Norman and Metiria Turei. I admire Russel Norman's intellect, rational approach and his compassion for people and the environment. He deserves greater exposure.  
The Issues..
For me the important issues are...

  1. The increasing gap between the rich and the poor. The increased gap causes all sorts of bad side effects for our society.
  2. Unemployment - the lack of jobs. I think there needs to be more thought given to adding value to our exports. For example, we export tons of logs and woodchips overseas. Why cant we explore making paper, milling the timber or somehow working with it to add value, so that we create jobs. Our industries seem to be getting fewer and fewer.
  3. Giving dignity and hope - I think with technology and economic forces, we have a society where it is highly unlikely that a sizable proportion of people will ever get a job. There is no place for them in the scheme of things. Thought needs to be given into how we can make them feel more a useful part of the community. How do we include them and give them a meaningful part to play in our society? We pay dearly for them hanging around the streets, in terms of crime, health and general community cohesion.  
  4. The impact of burning fossil fuels, and of other activities on global warming and the destruction of our environment cannot be denied. (98% of scientists agree that humankind's impact on global warming is enormous) We need a party in power who will have the insight and courage to take these long term issues seriously.
  5. Fairer access to health and education resources. More and more we see resources in these areas, available to the rich but not so easily accessed by the poor. If we are to interrupt the poverty cycle we need to make it easier for people to take steps toward a better lifestyle.
  6. Affordable housing. Home ownership is becoming much more difficult for people in NZ. I still believe that for health, happiness and a sense of security home ownership is much better than renting. Surveys by Habitat for Humanity showed much improved situations for families moving into home ownership. I know "middle NZ" couples struggling to get into home ownership. Whatever can be done to assist people to take this step would be beneficial for the whole community. 
If you are a New Zealander - good luck with your voting. 

P.S. A man who has been a minister, academic, author and deep thinker just shared this on facebook.... It expresses my gut feelings...

"I've been around too long. I knew in my gut Nixon was lying. I understood that Muldoon was manipulating NZ for his own purposes in 1981. I watched Bush and then Obama use 9/11 to wage terror on the world. And I know John Key is donkey deep in corruption. I think I need more meds, so that I could just not care any more, like the rest of my country's people."

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Let's get political.

A fuzzy photo of my wife catching up with our Waiheke Island grandchildren. What kind of NZ will we leave them?
Jesus - political disturber.
I have been reading scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan about Jesus and his passions. I realise more than I have ever before that Jesus was a political person. He had a vision of the Kingdom Of God – NOT “heaven” but life in the here and now which expresses God’s justice, compassion and a “fair sharing of resources” for everyone.  Looking back on my ministries, I think that while I sought to emphasis the need for servant hood and compassion, I did not emphasise enough the political activism of Jesus (or the Old Testament prophets). His parables, his actions and his teachings all bristled with political agitation against the domination system of his day – the Romans and the Jewish elite collaborators.  They, the top ten percent, had a system that ripped off the peasant class of people.  Jesus was crucified because his teachings and actions criticised the status quo, disturbed their system and questioned the way they used their religion to prop it all up.  While he advocated non-violent resistance, he none-the-less was a political agitator and was killed as a political agitator. With an election looming I am becoming more agitated myself. As well as regretting the fact that I have not been as politically active as I ought to have been, I am convinced the present government and politicians in all parties need to hear some of the “Kingdom” values and could do with a good shake up.  The lack of integrity is astounding.  Long term thinking about directions, consequences and values is non-existent.
“Left” and “Right” options…
We voters are faced with choosing between the various parties. In NZ we have Mixed Member Proportional representation, which means that while we have two main “left and right” parties, there are other more minor parties who get a proportion of seats in parliament according to their “Party Vote”.  What do we mean by “left” and “right”?  I pass on the way Marcus Borg described the two alternatives and their basic ideology in his most recent book “Convictions”.  
Political Ideology of Individualism – “ the belief that how our lives turn out is largely the result of our efforts as individuals. Individualism emphasises what used to be called ‘the self-made man.’  If our lives turned out well, it is because we have worked hard and deserve to keep what we have made. It favours ‘the gifted’ – whether gifted by a genetic inheritance of good health and intelligence, family values that emphasise education and hard work, the economic class into which we are born, inherited wealth, and so forth.  It has a cruel corollary: if our lives have not turned out well, it is largely our own fault because we failed to make use of our opportunities.”  - (The “Right wing” political stance.)
The common Good – “The alternative – or necessary complement – to the ideology of individualism is a politics that takes seriously ‘the common good.’
It is grounded in a number of realisations. None of us is self-made, however disciplined and responsible we may have been. We benefited from what previous generations did for ‘the common good,’ including universal education, civil rights, gender equality, government-created infrastructure, and so forth. Moreover, the common good should concern all of us, not only for moral but also for pragmatic self-interest reasons. Countries that take seriously the well-being of all are safer and healthier: they experience less crime and mental illness, lower infant mortality, longer life expectancy, less desperation, and so forth.” –(“Left wing” stance)
Of course this is not a dispassionate description. There are people on the right who believe passionately that their view is for the “Common good.”  Traditionally in NZ the National Party would be the “right” and the Labour party on the “left”. I would have to say that the current Labour party tends to be more to the centre with the “Greens” expressing more left wing principles. The parties these days do not seem to be so clearly defined.  Both the left and right do the pragmatic things to retain power and in attempting to attain power, and are not so clearly “ideology” directed. They will do whatever they think will be popular.
Where do I stand?
My father came from a family of railway workers, was a tradesman and in his own understanding of the Christian values, was left wing and an ardent Labour supporter.  In conversation he would outline his reasons and stance in a very rational way. He had experienced the Depression and its hardships and was proud of New Zealand’s “cradle to the grave” Social Security system, the free education we had then and the health care we used to have. It was all part of a great egalitarian vision.  I loved him and still appreciate the values he lived by.  As a teenager when I went working with him, I often looked through his lunchtime reading books that he stashed in his van glove box.  They were often books related to political movements, philosophies and identities.  He told me once that he would have loved to have studied at university, but during the depression his family needed another wage earner, even if it was just a plumbing apprentice’s wages.  As a boy growing up, I used to spend a lot of holiday time on a farm with my Uncle George and Aunty Bessie, and loved the farm life.  At lunchtimes they tuned into the National Radio Program news and news comment. We children had to sit quietly while they did so.  To my horror it became evident that they were ardent National Party supporters, as many farmers are.  Aunty Bessie could be quite caustic in her retorts about Labour politicians, and Uncle George would grumble about Labour’s politics.  This was disturbing for me, because, to my parents, these politicians were heroes. How could two couples who were friends, (while we called them Uncle and Aunty they were not related but close friends of my parents) have such different political leanings?  I grew up to be a Labour Party voter, and have always voted for the local Labour candidate, though lately I shared my “Party vote” with the Greens as they have become a much more credible force for good.  I must admit that sometimes I sympathise with right wing theory. I have often thought that some of the poor I have dealt with, could do with a good kick up the backside and made to suffer the consequences of stupid life choices. Life is not as black and white as political theorists seem to assume. But overall I realise we are in the journey of life together and must express that connection in our economic and civil systems.  Individualism is a false understanding of the human predicament.
Recently we have had exposed the sort of “dirty politics” politicians have been involved in to retain power. I suspect the things exposed are just the tip of the iceberg and also that no party is particularly clean.  It is a sad bad picture of the quality of our leadership. Today I read in the paper of one of our rich men owning a leisure yacht worth $80 million dollars. Added to that there are the ongoing running costs, which he must finance.  As chairman of the Night Shelter Trust in Dunedin, we are trying to raise $650,000 to purchase buildings and we are always chasing desperately for funding to run the shelter. Rich people have often challenged me saying, “It is a lot of money to ask for?”  It is chicken feed for the wealthy at the top! The owner of the yacht would hardly notice it is missing.  If I was in government I would feel it necessary to provide the buildings for local night shelters, though let local community groups run them.  Recently a homeless man, once employed as a miner in Australia, now unemployed back in New Zealand, in anger and frustration shot three employees of the local benefit office, killing two of them.  There is no justification for what he has done. It is very sad, but it is a measure of the frustration and anger many at the bottom of the heap in New Zealand feel.  The shot workers may have paid dearly for the beneficiary bashing pronouncements, legislation and attitudes within our present government!  On a bus ride to Hadrian’s Wall the bus driver talked with pride about Scotland.  “Our people can go to the Doctor for free. We think the health of families is important. We do not want anyone to not be able to access needed health care.  - Our children know that whatever the economic circumstance of their parents, they can get a university education for free. We think it is important for the future of our nation.”  I envied him. We used to be able to be proud of New Zealand systems, but this is no longer true. I encounter an underbelly of poverty and of families,  - many with motivation, education and skills - struggling to get ahead. Let’s get political; let’s take the state of our politics seriously.  Anyway, this is just the start of my political “thinking out loud”.