2016… best year so far?

2016 has been a terrible year for the world in so many ways. Conversely/ironically/coincidentally it has been possibly the best year of my adult life. I thought I better do a quick mihi to the year and acknowledge those who have helped make it great for me.

It’s been exciting to delve headlong into the world of biotech and business – global pharmaceuticals no less – while at the same time doing a quantum leap in my thinking and action on community-led development, participatory economics and sustainable deurbanisation.

The best part has to be working from home with lots of time for whānau and on the whenua.

I’m on a steep learning curve, discovering the beneficial properties of kānuka, fungi and kina – wishing I’d done a bio-chemistry degree instead of design – and learning all about Intellectual Property protection, Joint Venture negotiations and the difference between tripertenes, monoterpenes, flavonoids and flavanones.

I hope these entrepreneuring endeavours exploring the efficacy of extracts elicit lots of new opportunities for our community and regenerative horticulture/aquaculture – regardless, it is really enjoyable and I’m grateful to many people for the experience.

So thanks 2016, I feel sad and mad about Trump, Syria and inequality – but I’ll make the most of this, the best time of my life, and look forward to 2017.

Reflections on Tuol Sleng (S-21)

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Miria outside ‘Building B’

I’m sure millions of important words have been written about Tuol Sleng, the notorious prison of the Khmer Rouge that is now a museum commemorating the horrors that took place there and across Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. I think it’s important for me to record some of my reflections, if only for my own sake, but others may care to add their own comments.

The night before we visited Tuol Sleng, our family shared a meal with a couple from New Zealand who live and work in the slums of Phnom Penh. Craig and Nay both grew up in Auckland but Nay was born in Cambodia during the civil war, her father was killed after the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 and Nay’s mother fled with her children first to a refugee camp on the border with Thailand and eventually they were supported by a Presbyterian church in Manurewa to come to New Zealand.

I remember my mother being involved with our Methodist church in Tauranga that was supporting refugees fleeing conflict in South East Asia in the late 70s and it was impressive to meet someone like Nay who has chosen to leave the comforts of life in New Zealand to come back with her own children to live and work with poor children in Cambodia.

I asked Craig if there had been a national or local reconciliation process to help heal the country – it seems not much has happened in that space. School textbooks only recently started including any reference to the conflict of the 1970s and it seems most of the younger generation born after the conflict has little knowledge about what happened in the communities of their parents and grandparents during that time.

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Miria looking over the climbing frame converted to gallows and dunking pots to ‘Building A’.

We took our 11 year old daughter to Tuol Sleng, I wanted her to know a bit about what happened, even if she didn’t really understand why it happened. Growing up in New Zealand, most children are thankfully protected from the worst excesses of human violence – of course we benefit in many ways from the violence done against the poor in places like Cambodia, but it’s not something we are exposed to other than through television news, documentaries, books and works of fiction (of course Jean Baudrillard would say its all fiction for us).

Her grandparents were a bit reticent about us taking Miria to a place where such horrific acts were committed and commemorated by stark photographs and displays of torture tools and testimonies. I told myself that Miria is mature enough to visit such places – after all, the sites are often not as immediately confronting, but we have plenty of places of mass execution and brutality around Aotearoa that children are encouraged to visit and learn from. It was a calculated risk but I think it was the right decision to take her.

One of the real tragedies of Tuol Sleng is its original purpose as a high school built in the 1950s – seeing how classrooms and children’s play equipment were perversely converted into places of imprisonment and tools of torture must break the heart of most visitors. The heaviness of the place overtook me before I even entered a building – the place has been left largely as the Vietnamese soldiers found it in January 1979 and first thing you see are the fourteen graves of the final victims found bolted to torture racks inside Building A.

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In ‘Building B’ haunting photos taken by the captors of thousands of victims stare back at visitors from display boards. I felt obligated to look each one of them in the eye as we passed through room after room – many looked like they were in their early teens, children were also brought to S-21 but most were not photographed in the formal portraits imposed on older victims. Some faces were battered and bruised, many looked petrified while others were expressionless – either they didn’t know what was going to happen to them, or seem to have a resignation and calm about their fate that must have come from a place most of us will not know.

Paintings by an inmate of the torture and killing techniques line the walls of classrooms and present a graphic depiction of how the senseless violence was inflicted on people who usually had no idea what the crime was they were accused of. Inmates at prisons similar to Tuol Sleng all over the country were tortured until they confessed whatever the Khmer Rouge wanted them to say, which inevitably led to a conclusion of guilt as an enemy of the revolution and execution at one of the many ‘killing fields’ that became mass graves across Cambodia.

Miria asked the inevitable questions about the motivations of the Khmer Rouge, the failure of their version of radical Communism and establishment of Capitalism and inequality since the demise of the regime from 1979. She didn’t seem traumatised by the experience and was certainly engaged by the gravity of the place, the unforgettable images of victims and particularly by the written narratives of both survivors and those who perished.

The perennial question of how could otherwise ‘good’ people do such terrible things to others has been asked and answered for many similar contexts.

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It is important that these memorials to 20th Century genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda and Europe exist. Such memorials to atrocities often provide important opportunities for the families of victims to get information on what happened to their loved ones – the Khmer Rouge left all the documentation on their victims. The faces of many Khmer Rouge leaders have been scratched out on the displays but the families and decedents of victims come from across the country and around the world to S-21 as part of their healing.

Most of the visitors to Tuol Sleng are foreign tourists and the $2 entry fee for foreigners seems a wasted opportunity to raise desperately needed funds to develop the facilities as the custodians have a stated goal of returning the former high school to a proper place of learning that can develop more educative resources about what happened there and during the 1970s in Cambodia. I think most foreigners would pay at least $50 for the opportunity to visit Tuol Sleng.

The ethics of genocide tourism are interesting, I’m sure plenty has been written about this popular practice that could be considered a privileged kind of voyeurism that revictimises the Cambodian men, women and children who suffered under the Khmer Rouge. On the other side of the argument, the descendants of survivors and victims want more people to know what happened in the hope that there will be some justice for those who have suffered and an perhaps opportunity for reconciliation when the truth however painful is acknowledged rather than ignored.

There were a range of other personal experiences and reflections for each of us – that won’t be shared in this format – needless to say the visit will inform our lifelong learning about the problems and power of evil, ideology, propaganda, ignorance, apathy, memory and forgetting.

Census surprises

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The Census results provide a useful set of information for anyone who cares about the future of our region.

With one in three locals now aged under 20 and half the population under 40, we need to ensure the voices of young citizens are heard clearly and that we provide decent support to help them grow as contributing members of our community. I would also be keen to hear from the three local teenagers who said they earn over $100,000 per year!

Ethnic and cultural identity figures are very interesting. The proportion of the population identifying as Māori remains about the same at 49 percent (likely to be a bit higher in reality). Many of us Pākehā seem to have some ambivalence and lack of confidence about our cultural identity. The number of local ‘European’ residents has jumped sharply, while those claiming ‘New Zealander’ as their ethnicity has dropped by over 3,000. Pacific peoples have increased by about 15 percent and other ethnic groups, including Asian, have all increased more modestly. While we may be one of least ethnically diverse regions, few others have Asian and African political leaders!

Though we do have 804 people – including the three teenagers – earning over $100,000, we have comparatively low income levels and the lowest home ownership rates in the country. We have also had a significant increase in the proportion of the population that hold a university degree. A population with higher levels of education should result in positive changes over time to income levels, home ownership and many other benefits. The key ingredient in that equation is a good match between education and employment opportunities. There is some good work being done in this space and a closer relationship between schools, employers and training providers will be critical.

With the lowest access to the internet at home, there is a great case for more public access options to information and communication technologies. The proposed neighbourhood computer hubs and better online options at schools, marae and the public library service all need significant support and investment to bridge the digital divide and enable new technology-based industries and employment opportunities to evolve quickly.

The Gisborne/Tairāwhiti region has the highest proportion of Māori language speakers in the country, with one in six of us being able to converse in Te Reo. I agree with the Chief Statistician who has called our region ‘the home of Te Reo’ – an asset we can use not only in tourism but also as a selling point for the tens of thousands of people – Māori and non-Māori – who want their children to grow up bi-lingual and in an environment where Māori traditions and values are maintained and appreciated.

All in all, I’d say the numbers suggest we are a pretty fascinating mix of awesomeness with plenty of room for improvement, but also much to be proud of.

My Priorities

These are the things I think are important and would strive to promote if I was elected to Council next year…

  1. A region that values the rich traditions and diversity of all its residents.
  2. A region of safe communities based on caring relationships between families.
  3. A region that fosters innovation, enterprise, the creative sectors and scientific discovery.
  4. A region that nurtures well-educated young people and leaves no one behind.
  5. A region that is a magnet for young families and values the contributions of older people.
  6. A region that will leave the natural environment better than we found it.
  7. A region that is committed to ensuring housing, energy and healthy food are affordable and that supports families to manage their finances wisely.
  8. A region that understands the importance of increasing the economic productivity and sustainability of agriculture, horticulture and forestry.
  9. A region that promotes the use of cycling and walking for most people making short journeys.
  10. A region that is well connected with the rest of the planet through low-cost, high-speed, internet access.
  11. A Council that encourages public participation in decision-making.
  12. A Council that is able to keep any rates increases at (or below) the rate of inflation while still providing quality services and infrastructure.

Council Draft 10 Year Plan Submissions

Here are some of the submissions I helped prepare on the Council’s Draft 10 Year Plan – opportunities to speak to the submissions come up in early June:

Do you care about the future of Gisborne?

I have been talking to lots of people lately about what kind of place we want Gisborne to be.

This is the kind of Gisborne that I want to live in :

–  GISBORNE as a model for the country and the world, demonstrating how people from different cultures can live together, accept each other and celebrate our ability to achieve great things as a united community

–  GISBORNE attracting world class scientists, artists, athletes and entrepreneurs who together create new knowledge, new understanding and new products for the benefit of people here and across the globe

–  GISBORNE developing carefully to ensure housing is affordable for both our elders and young families, where rates make up no more than 50% of Council income and debt is no longer a burden

–  GISBORNE as the most sustainable city in the world – producing safe high quality food, generating our own power and zero waste

–  GISBORNE people knowing our neighbours, feeling safe and taking pride in the quality of our relationships

If elected to Council I will work hard for the benefit of every person living in this region – regardless of race, gender, religion or socio-economic status.

In many ways I represent the future of this country. Within me I hold on to the best of my European and Maori heritage.

As a father, husband and self-employed businessman,  I know the importance of taking responsibility for myself and my family and for making a positive contribution to the community. I believe I have been a positive role model to other young people in our region.

Council needs to include a diverse range of people who understand the different communities that live and work in our district. I appreciate what is important to people with young families, so I have ideas about what is needed to get talented people to move back here.

People have said that I personify the potential of our region. I believe that every one of us have a crucial role to play – working together is the only way to realise the full potential of this great place we call home.

If you want people on Gisborne District Council who base their decisions on sound principles and good information, who can work well with a diverse range   of people and who are committed to a united community, then please help me make a real difference.

Why I am standing for Council

I am absolutely committed to working with others to build a community where everyone can reach their full potential and no one is left out.

Over the past ten years in Gisborne I have led projects and organisations that have strengthened relationships between individuals, families, neighbours, organisations and communities.

Local government must provide real leadership by working together, with the full involvement of the community, to tackle the complex problems our region faces. When people have meaningful participation in decisions that affect their lives, they also have ownership of the outcomes.

I support the development of a common vision for the region that ensures it is safe, affordable and healthy for young and old to live in this unique place we call home.

In 2001 I joined with a group of neighbours to establish KaPai Kaiti. This residents association is a bunch of volunteers who want to make their community an even better place to live and are willing to do whatever it takes to realise their goals. Through my involvement with this group I have seen the positive change that is possible when a community is involved in leading its own development.

From 2002-2005 I worked with Lytton High School to establish Te Whare Whai Hua, the school for teenage parents and an Early Childhood Education Centre for their children. The young mothers who have been through Te Whare Whai Hua inspire me with their commitment to personal development and the wellbeing of their children. Most of these students have gone on to further training, university education and/or employment – all have become better caretakers of the next generation.

Through these two simple but powerful examples of local solutions to local problems we have experienced the power of community-led sustainable growth and transformation. We have also seen how Council can actively block community attempts to move ahead. 

Gisborne District Council needs inspired leadership that is connected to ALL sectors of the community. I hope to be part of making this goal our reality.