Hard News by Russell Brown

Shore thing

So the foreshore proposal looks set to go from "people's title managed by the Crown" to "people's title vested in the Crown" - does it make much of a difference? Fundamentally, no. In the court of public opinion, quite possibly.

NoRightTurn, who has been consistently perceptive on this issue, agrees (he also points to an excellent post from Anti-Podean Journal, which looks at how the government might have handled the issue differently in the first place - by letting it go to court).

Even Tariana Turia has admitted that the new formulation, which she doesn't like any more than the old one, will actually "give my people more certainty". The government will be hoping that the wider public feels the same way. Hardly anybody grasped the public domain proposal, but New Zealanders do feel, and always have felt, comfortable about Crown ownership.

Turia's vote was already lost, but I suspect Labour will, if at all possible, want to maintain the buy-in of its other Maori MPs. New Zealand First's offer of support for the Crown-ownership proposal means it doesn't necessarily need their votes, but I think the value of that is less in the votes than in making Labour look less awfully lonely. Winston, of course, has his own interest in hauling back the Brash phenomenon.

What must stay in any new proposal - assuming the government doesn't want to create an endless grievance - is some concept of customary title existing alongside Crown ownership in those limited places where continuous customary use can be shown. And then the government will have to sell the veto power in the concept to the public, properly. Might I suggest banning Michael Cullen from using phrases like "Procrustean bed" and adopting something a little more like NoRightTurn's shared driveway comparison?

And the rest of the rethink? It's unfortunate that the handful of government Maori scholarships seems likely to take a hit, but I suppose if you raise a petty grievance, you get a petty response. The proposal to define what reference to "the principles of the Treaty" actually means in legislation is probably overdue. It makes a lot more sense than simply tearing the reference out of every law.

Overall, Don Brash might be right in declaring that the reorientation on Maori affairs and the Treaty will be "cosmetic", but as I've previously explained, I wouldn't expect National's practical response in government to be much more than cosmetic anyway. Labour is trying to do two things: reclaim the initiative, especially in terms of leadership (hence Clark's chest-beating in the last couple of days) and assure the public that it's listening. We'll see if it succeeds.

Assuming the new proposal emerges as expected, National's foreshore policy remains easily the most extreme of the Parliamentary parties'. According to Don Brash's Orewa speech, it would legislate to negate the Court of Appeal decision, take all of the foreshore (apart from that currently held by mostly Pakeha private owners) into Crown ownership, and revoke any customary title. No compensation would be considered.

The Act party, which has long seen the Treaty debate in terms of classical property rights, does not deny a customary property right in principle, but would, according to a speech late last year by Ken Shirley, hold that "where any established property right is appropriated by the Government in the public interest then compensation must be paid." And "to the extent that some limited customary use rights may still exist then those claiming such rights must, as necessary, be able to test those rights in Court and resolve disputes." Unlike National's absolutist stance, it appears to pay some heed to justice.

Anyway, it seems to me that if the phrase "u-turn" is to be brandished, it would be more properly applied to the backdown on the unpopular school network review process, which appears to have been ordered from the top. Martin Paolo of the Save our Schools Blog wrote to say he was "very disappointed" by my "shallow take" on the review process in saying the policy was "probably well-founded".

"There well may be a case for closing schools, but the approach chosen by Trevor Mallard created division, friction and opportunism amongst communities," Martin says in his response.

I can't comment on that, but the blog's masthead assertion that "most of the research would seem to indicate that small schools are far better for pupils!" deserves a look. Further down there's another reference to American research endorsing the virtues of small schools.

This is true, but we need to be clear on what a "small school" means in the American context: some studies put the benchmark at a roll of 300, others at 400. Even by the lower measure, three quarters of New Zealand schools qualify as "small". More than a third of our schools have rolls under 100, which could be seen as the benchmark for "small" here.

This isn't a bad thing entirely: an ERO report in 1999, on National's watch, found that "small schools tended to perform well on indicators concerning school climate and relationships". Unfortunately, on most other measures, including the ability to deliver the curriculum, it found our small schools performed badly.

Small schools are over-represented in the discretionary reviews triggered when schools fail to meet statutory requirements. Small schools, even though they can receive as much as twice as much funding per pupil as larger ones, suffer from consistently poorer financial performance than larger schools.

There is some evidence that in the primary sector the performance of very large schools starts to tail off, but the adverse impact of being too large does not approach that of being too small. According to a discussion paper by Martin Connelly in 2002, "larger schools systematically produce better results" in School Certificate exams.

The local research I've quoted comes from last year's background paper on school reviews, and thus might be seen as government propaganda, but it seems illogical to brandish American research conducted in a very different context and yet ignore our own.

The closure of any school will have an emotional impact, and under the review the impact was falling largely on rural communities: 43% of rural schools have rolls under 50, and 71% rolls under 100. Perhaps complaints about the execution of the review policy are warranted but the response seemed to become unduly personalised on Mallard himself, and unduly negative. (Ironically, another message on the blog, from a friend of Martin's, complains about proposals to explore the "school within a school" model which lies behind much of the demonstrated success of "small" schools in the US.)

I don't want to get into an extended argument about this, but Martin is free to respond with an explanation of how it should have been done. In the meantime, it simply seems excessive to me to depict the idea of consolidating schools as "a festering sore on the New Zealand educational system", and really hypocritical of the Act Party to be campaigning for the retention of inefficient public schools.

(BTW, I went to a primary school whose roll, from memory, reached 700. When I arrived at Burnside High, the roll was about 2200. My kids' primary school has a roll of about 350.)

Meanwhile, the local Sri Lankan community seems markedly less enthused about the campaign around the deported 16-year-old, and the media coverage of it, than some other New Zealanders are:

We, the Sri Lankan community in New Zealand have noted with a feeling of grave hurt and outrage, the unbalanced and inaccurate media coverage that has been taking place relating to the recent deportation of a Sri Lankan girl asylum seeker.

We are extremely distressed and disappointed by the wrongful and distasteful portrayal of the Sri Lankan culture and the people in these poorly researched and misleading media coverage.

Certain stories publicised by a section of New Zealand media, TV One in particular, have been neither fair nor factual. No serious attempt has been made to verify the facts from the wider Sri Lankan community living here.

We, as a small but well-regarded community of immigrants in New Zealand, wish to express our disappointment and disgust.

They're staging a protest march and holding a meeting on Saturday.