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The Responsibilities of Government

Written By: - Date published: 9:00 am, June 14th, 2015 - 45 comments
Categories: bill english, Economy, health, housing, housing insulation - Tags: , ,

The death of Emma-Lita Bourne is not just a personal tragedy for the family: it is an event that should make New Zealand angry with the powerful people in our society who control the purse strings. They are responsible for condemning thousands of children to life-threatening conditions. And they are doing it in our name.

The reliable public health evidence is clear: poor housing conditions cause premature mortality. Our policy makers know that; those who decide on where public money should be spent know that; and yet too many of us simply shrug, express our heartfelt sympathies, and leave it at that. Well, we should be angry and we should be insistent on speedy change.

Inevitably, there will be the dog-whistle responses of those obsessed with personal responsibility: they will complain that fiscally poor parents should not have children if they cannot house them in a warm house. But that is missing the point: the focus of anger is the manifest failure of society to meet its collective responsibility to the children who are caught in these conditions. The children have no personal responsibility for their plight.

Politicians of the last few decades have presided over a significant increase in the wealth of the nation. As a result we have a very comfortable middle class. But a nation that harps on about its vanguard role in socially progressive developments in legal frameworks and its egalitarian ethos has become very unbalanced in its distribution of this considerable wealth. Those at the poorer ends of society have in fact gone backwards. Result: children die in mouldy and uncarpeted houses owned by us. Meanwhile our current finance minister insists that Housing New Zealand makes a profit for our Treasury. Well, we should be telling our finance minister that our priority is different.

It is time to recall one of the socially progressive developments where we were leaders rather than followers. New Zealand played a major role in ensuring coverage of economic and social rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This totemic document of the United Nations, designed as the blue-print for the rebuilding of societies destroyed by eugenic ideas that some people were of lesser worth, sets out in Article 25 that all people have the right to an adequate standard of living. It’s a right with a purpose: to allow people to provide for the health and well-being of themselves and their family.

New Zealand signed up to an international treaty that turned this into a binding legal obligation in 1978, when the Muldoon government made New Zealand a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Article 11 of this guarantees not only the adequate standard of living but the continuous improvement of living conditions. We have to use the maximum of available resources for this. This has been our obligation for almost 4 decades, so anger at the breach of the rights of children like Emma-Lita is necessary.

In fact, it isn’t just a matter of economic rights. It is actually a matter of the right to life. New Zealand is also a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966, and the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 is designed to make these rights part of our domestic law. So Parliament has accepted that they are binding on the executive. The state obligation is to take steps whenever it is aware that death is risked that can be avoided.

So our officials cannot just stand by. Safeguarding the many children like Emma-Lita Bourne is not just in the nice to have basket: it’s in the need to have basket. Any avoidable and entirely preventable death is an absolute tragedy. But when it reveals a situation which we have promised will not be allowed, we should damn well be angry about it. So how should we respond? Well how about we insist on being true to our obligations and, given our proud record of being at the forefront of social progress, true to our values.

Kris Gledhill


Kris Gledhill is an academic lawyer in Auckland whose teaching includes international human rights law.


 

Mould in a State House close to the one that helped to kill Emma-Lita Bourne.  Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

Mould in a State House close to the one that helped to kill Emma-Lita Bourne.
Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

The leaky Housing New Zealand home where toddler Emma-Lita Bourne was living when she died. RORY O'SULLIVAN/FAIRFAX NZ

The leaky Housing New Zealand home where toddler Emma-Lita Bourne was living when she died.
RORY O’SULLIVAN/FAIRFAX NZ


 

lprent: All of the links and images in this post were added by me to provide drill down to background material. 

45 comments on “The Responsibilities of Government”

  1. One Anonymous Bloke 1

    Arrest those responsible and extradite them to Holland to stand trial at The Hague. Send a message to the centre-right that for human rights abusers, there is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.

    There is no alternative: until they face personal consequences they will keep on killing children.

    • lprent 1.1

      After seeing Nick Smith’s comment this week

      “People dying in winter of pneumonia and other illnesses is not new,”

      Yeah right. Killing a two year old with crap housing that he is responsible for has nothing much to do with him. Not a word about the his actions and the actions of his predecessors in trying to alleviate the issue. Or the failure of Housing NZ to maintain their stock (18 billion in assets, and less 150 million actually spent on maintenance last year!)

      I haven’t bothered to look yet, but I will bet that we will see the same pattern of all of National’s offloading of their responsibilities. The budget for fixing up the state housing was high under the Labour-led government, dropped away massively under National to allow them to get an increased dividend to pay for their taxcuts for the affluent, and is increasing massively now as they try to spruce them up as they offload.

      Their plan this time appears to be to dump social housing on to charities with insufficient resources, and trust that they will leak into the market that way.

      Thus causing the mass exodus of families into their cars and trailer parks to die because of the irresponsibility of ministers with no moral compass.

      I don’t think that we need to send Nick Smith to the Hague. I’m pretty sure we could deal with him here. I don’t care if we have to pass laws to deal with such people ignoring their direct responsibilities retroactively

    • Atiawa 1.2

      Public Interest Project?

  2. Sanctuary 2

    For seven years Bill English has sought new, ever more regressive ways to pay for his unaffordable tax cuts and get him his surplus. He has failed. Despite a once in a generation commodities boom the country has run up a massive debt, the poor have been driven even further into penury, and even more of the family silver has been flogged off and we now face dropping dairy prices and the prospect of an aggressive China seeking to impose its own variant of economic colonialism on us from a position of supine economic feebleness.

    All that, just to enrich the National party support base.

  3. ianmac 3

    Mouldy Rooms? Damp rooms breed mould. People breathing fills rooms with moisture thus mould. Solution. Ventilate. Ventilate. Ventilate by opening windows and flushing out the high humidity. This may also flush out heat – for a while. But high humidity makes heat seem cooler. If windows and doors are opened throughout the house mould cannot get a hold. Dehumidifiers are a fraud!
    (Once in Wellington a company had problems with musty damp motel units which were unused for many weeks. They put heaters in each unit. I turned the heaters off and opened the windows so air could flow through each unit. Problem solved.)

    • One Anonymous Bloke 3.1

      Victim-blaming is pretty sick: what two-year-old can open a window to ventilate their state house?

      “Difficult” tenants come with the territory. Any solution that relies on all tenants being model citizens is doomed to failure.

      • weka 3.1.1

        Sorry OAB, but that’s just victim blaming of another kind, blame the parents/adult tenants this time.

        Until HNZ houses are well insulated and come with carpets and built in heating, and until NZ wages and benefits allow people to afford to heat their homes and/or electricity prices get regulated down, there are always going to be adults who simply can’t manage in cold, damp housing irrespective of whether they are difficult or not or no matter what their skills are.

        as an aside, I’m starting to get angry about the separating out the child/children from the rest of the family. When we say the children are innocent and should at least be looked after, it buys into right wing narratives about personal responsibility.

        Someone commented on twitter yesterday that they’ve been told by politicians that politics has to focus on child poverty because not enough NZers care now about the poverty of adults. Do we really want to support that kind of political segregation?

        • One Anonymous Bloke 3.1.1.1

          I’m not blaming the victim at all: “difficult” tenants come with the territory – it’s the government’s responsibility to house them.

          • weka 3.1.1.1.1

            Yeah, you are. There’s no need to bring pejoratives into this at all.

          • cricklewood 3.1.1.1.2

            Whilst the government must and needs to house those who need it. The tenant does need to take a few basic steps keep the air in the house in a healthy condition.
            Even a well insulated and heated houses will become damp and mouldy if you dont open windows, boil pots without lids and shower without venting the bathroom. Maybe there needs to be some sort of guide issued for all state housing tenants to help them understand how to help keep the air in the house warm and dry.

            • One Anonymous Bloke 3.1.1.1.2.1

              Yes, the tenant can do these things. When they don’t, state houses are the state’s responsibility, and they still have to house the tenants.

              “Blame poor tenants” doesn’t wash: you may as well be that callous ghoul Key, saying “they made bad choices”.

            • weka 3.1.1.1.2.2

              cricklewood, it’s a moot point until the tenants involved have decent housing and enough income to afford to heat the house. Telling people who live in substandard housing and can’t afford heating to do better is just fucked. Esp people that are overworked, unwell, living in poverty etc.

        • The Fairy Godmother 3.1.1.2

          Too right Weka. Lets take back the family values meme from the right wing and talk about families living in warm dry homes having enough to eat and access to education at all levels. These should be our family values, and of course the right of workers to decent jobs.

    • weka 3.2

      I agree ianmac*, but you can’t live in a house in NZ in winter with open doors and windows if you don’t have adequate heating, especially if the house is situated somewhere cold. You just create a different set of health problems.

      *for the climates I’ve lived in. Never lived in Auckland though, which has a different humidity than further south.

      • infused 3.2.1

        Well you can. It’s winter today, we open all our windows and doors on days like this. If its a bit colder, open a window in a room, and shut that room off.

        • weka 3.2.1.1

          How long have you had emphysema/COPD/bronchitis?

          What form of heating do you have?

          How often do you use it?

          Do you have carpet?

          Where do you live?

          How much sun/shade on the property?

          What’s the micro climate of where your house is?

          What is your yearly income?

          What is the problem with your brain that you believe all people have the same circumstances as you, and that all those circumstances are under personal control all of the time for all people?

          • ianmac 3.2.1.1.1

            It is simple science. High humidity breeds mould.
            Ventilate to reduce humidity including on a cold winters day, even for a short time especially on a windy day.
            Low humidity makes heating more effective. The other discussion about children or about parent or Government responsibility doesn’t change the science.

            • weka 3.2.1.1.1.1

              If we were looking at this from a science perspective, we would include all the variables. You’re not.

              • ianmac

                Weka. Not like you? The basic fact is humid air breeds mould. The variables cannot deny that. Reduce humidity reduce mould.

                • weka

                  Yes, of course, in the abstract you are correct. But you seem to be implying that that on its own is always enough in real life. You also seem to have completely ignored the point in my original reply to you.

                  I’m suggesting multiple variables, did you miss that?

                • Draco T Bastard

                  And what humidity level are you looking to reduce to? Remember, we’re talking Auckland here that does have a rather high humidity.

                  And people who can’t afford to heat the house again after “flushing out the high humidity” are in another bind. Sure, they got rid of the humidity and the heat and now they’re looking at suffering hypothermia.

            • Charles 3.2.1.1.1.2

              Insulating an already damp house in a damp environment makes the problem of damp worse. A damp ceiling space can be caused through leaking roofs, gutters filled with leaves from trees still standing or not, the physical guttering itself damaged or leaking, poor drainage that runs under the house, unventilated crawl space under the house, improperly sealed concrete blockwork… the list is endless. Dehumidifiers will begin to work to solve the problem, but it could take a few years, because you’re not only taking moisture out of the air (and by that I mean the climate outside) but out of bedding, walls, ceiling panels, anything absorbant. The price of a resonable dehumdifier is around $400 to begin drying a room that’ll hold a king sized bed – with the door and windows closed and a small heat source. Just one room. So if you have a situation where black mould and water is running down the walls… someone neglected something for a long time (and it wasn’t the tenant); and opening the windows isn’t going to help 75%+ (the % point when mould begins) humidity when humidity outside is 80%. There is not much a tenant can do in a situation like that. “Opening windows” or “ventilating” can make the situation worse and might even be impossible – because someone has to be home all day every day to make of security.

              • weka

                Thanks for that.

                NZ has a huge variety of climates and micro climates. It’s bizarre how many people are treating all of NZ as the same.

              • Macro

                As a social worker in the late 60’s early 70’s in Porirua I used to visit many state houses. One I can recall vividly was perpetually damp. Opening doors and windows would have had little effect. The reason? It was build directly over a spring. Little work was done in many of these early subdivisions to effectively drain the ground for it to become suitable for building houses, with the downstream result that many state houses are more susceptible to damp.
                In the case of this house we were able to negotiate a move to a healthier home.

          • infused 3.2.1.1.2

            You don’t even know the circumstances. That’s the problem. Everyone is yelling, flinging shit everywhere.

            As I said yesterday, The Standard (most blogs actually) is a blog of arm chair experts.

            • One Anonymous Bloke 3.2.1.1.2.1

              The coroner knew the circumstances, and blamed the house – “unfortunately was unhealthy…”

              The fact that you claim to have read his report and are still here trying to spread denial and doubt says something about your character.

            • tricledrown 3.2.1.1.2.2

              Infused your flinging your bullying BS!
              The shifting the blame avoiding any in depth discussion .
              Your throw away lines designed purely to belittle and denigrate!

            • weka 3.2.1.1.2.3

              “You don’t even know the circumstances”

              That’s right, but why won’t you tell me yours? I know enough real life situations where what you are suggesting iws plain wrong. I’m happy to demonstrate that, but I’m guessing you are going to hide behind your ideology and deflection so that you don’t have to face up to the fact that not everyone is in your particular situation.

              “Everyone is yelling, flinging shit everywhere.”

              Please point to where I have been yelling and flinging shit on this topic. Link.

        • tricledrown 3.2.1.2

          Confused if the outside air is humid their is no wind its raining the windows are small poorly positioned in the room some houses are going to be damp no matter how much you ventilate them.
          Infused neglectful bullying.
          We are adding huge costs to our health system and reducing future incomes by shortsighted short term thinking.

          • Karen 3.2.1.2.1

            Overcrowding is also creating health problems and has been for some time.
            http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/8768249/House-overcrowding-disease-fears
            Overcrowding is widespread because of the cost of housing, but often poor people choose to all sleep in the same room to try and stay warm. The costs to the health system is huge, so not spending money ensuring everybody has warm, dry homes is actually very shortsighted economically as well as socially.

            Diseases like rheumatic fever are virtually unknown in Europe, but all too common here.

    • cricklewood 3.3

      Its a two way thing some of the housing stock is without doubt barely fit for human habitation in a supposed first world country and needs to torn down and replaced
      However I do think that skills and understanding in terms of how to keep your house dry and thus warmer (nothing worse than damp cold) are becoming lost.
      I remember my gran who lived in an oldish uninsulated place would run around every morning wiping all the condensation off the windows and as Ian mac says ventilating the house for an hour.
      She always had lids on the pots when they were boiling and the window open in the bathroom to let the steam feom the bath out.
      She also swore by her woolly singlets and hotwater bottles as gran was an old school spendthrift she pretty much refused to run a heater unless she was unwell.

      • weka 3.3.1

        where did she live?

        How do you keep a house warm if you have no way of heating it?

        • Charles 3.3.1.1

          re: How do you keep a house warm if you have no way of heating it?

          Large north facing windows, low internal humidity, marginal ventilation. Of course that’ll only last till an hour or so after the sun goes down in winter. There are other ways, but none that don’t require an architecturally designed feature that you don’t ever find in brick’n’tile pensioner flats.

          • weka 3.3.1.1.1

            Or you can shift your house to a warmer and drier climate, simple 😉

            Some places in NZ the sun goes behind a hill or another building or trees in the middle of the day. Or is behind cloud for weeks at a time. But sure, just open the windows and doors, no problem, especially if you are elderly or have a disability which means you can’t be very active. Or you are at work all day.

        • cricklewood 3.3.1.2

          She was living in Taihape and grew up in Rangiwahia which is even colder. Generally she kept herself warm rather than the house hence the woolen layers and hotwater bottles. She would usually sit with one on her lap and a blanket over the top as she got older and less mobile. She eventually had to go into a home in her 80s after breaking her hip…
          She was one tough woman, as gran put it she grew up in an era “when men were men and women chopped the firewood”

  4. Karen 4

    An MP from Cuba was on on Wallace Chapman’s show this morning. Wallace asked about how a poor country like Cuba had managed to achieve outstanding results in both education and healthcare while keeping them free to all. She replied it was an essential requirement of good government.

    If only our government agreed.

    • ianmac 4.1

      Your are right to wonder Karen. Funny how Cuba so short of a wealthy econom, blocked by the USA and yet does so well by Health and Education. Lesson in there for a consumer mad economy like ours.

    • joe90 4.2

      On a couple of occasions my dentist has had a Cuban born and trained dental assistant standing in for his regular and the difference is like day and night. The Cuban is fast, efficient and attentive, three steps ahead of the dentist and gentle, causing little or no pain, while his regular assistant, oh dear….

  5. RedLogix 5

    I may have to apologise to Fran O’Sullivan for something I said about her years ago. This makes up for it and more:

    It’s outrageous that nearly five years after the Pike River coal mine disaster the Key Government is still tarrying at implementing legislation that should have been rammed through Parliament months ago.

    Nervous Government backbenchers are said to have rebelled after pressure from small business constituents and farmers. Well, so what?

    A Royal Commission drew telling lessons from this disaster. The mine owners were rightly castigated for their shameful standards. This should be reason alone for the Prime Minister to demonstrate leadership.

    Key could just show some spine. Face down his malcontents. And get in place the reforms on which the senior business and senior union leadership in this country are united.

    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/politics/news/article.cfm?c_id=280&objectid=11464413

    Thank you Ms O’Sullivan. We will likely remain forever on opposite sides of the political game, but I’m willing to eat humble pie and give full credit for when someone has done the decent thing.

    • lprent 5.1

      That was my thought last night when I read that post in the Herald as well.

    • Draco T Bastard 5.2

      I think Fran is making the mistake of assuming that Key is one of the ones who wants to put in place the new regulations rather than being one of the ones who wants to stop them.

  6. Jones 6

    Is it possible to take the Government to court for abdicating their responsibilities?

  7. Treetop 7

    The priority of this government is to spend money renovating some of the houses in Tauranga and Invergargill which they are trying to sell for social housing. There are about 1200 state homes in Tauranga (101 people) on the waiting list and 350 state homes in Invergargill. Tauranga has become expensive to live in.

    Why are there 101 people on the waiting list in Tauranga and state homes standing empty?

    There should be no state waiting list in Tauranga.

    How many people in poverty are not making the state housing waiting list?

    The government is ignorant and somewhat careless when it comes to providing for the needs of vulnerable people over the winter months. Extra food, clothing/bedding and heating is required.

  8. Michael 8

    A fine article by a great advocate for human rights and social justice. For those who aren’t aware: Kris Gledhill co-authored a book on Economic, Social and CUltural Rights in Aotearoa New Zealand a few years ago that is packed with useful information, including evidence of ongoing failures by successive NZ governments to protect the fundamental human rights of the people who live here. Naturally, one does not expect the National Party to give a flying fuck about the rights of anyone else but themselves, but the other Party that governed since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed? The one that actually helped draft the thing? It’s name escapes me for the moment, but doubtless someone will recall it.

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