Thursday, December 05, 2019



Climate Change: The shameful reality

The government has been congratulating itself over the passage of the Zero Carbon Act, which sets out long-term emissions targets. Meanwhile, Climate Action Tracker has the shameful reality: those targets are insufficient:

While New Zealand is showing leadership by having passed the world’s second-ever Zero Carbon Act in November 2019, under currently policy projections, it is set to miss its “insufficient” 2030 unconditional target by a wide margin, as it lacks the strong policies required to implement it. There is as yet no signal from the Government that it intends to submit an updated and more ambitious NDC by 2020.

[...]

The Zero Carbon Act aims to achieve net zero emissions of all greenhouse gases, except for methane emissions from agriculture and waste, by 2050. Methane emissions from these two sectors, which represent about 40% of New Zealand’s current emissions, with the lion’s share from agriculture, are covered by a separate target of at least 24-47% below 2017 levels by 2050, with an interim target of 10% by 2030.

While the Zero-Carbon Act recently adopted strengthens its former New Zealand’s 2050 target (halving its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050), excluding such a substantial share of emissions from the net zero goal lowers its ambition.


Thanks to the methane exclusion, our 2050 target is at the very top end of the "insufficient" range, verging on "highly insufficient". Meaning that it is not consistent with the UNFCCC target of 2 degrees, let alone the Paris Agreement target of 1.5°C. Instead, if everyone was as lazy as we are being, we'd be heading for between 2 and 3 degrees, if not more.

Our policies are also inadequate to get to those inadequate targets, but the Zero Carbon Act at least has some mechanisms to change that. But at best, we're headed for failure, while the government is patting itself on the back about its success.

We are not doing enough. We are not pulling our weight. The ambition of these targets needs to be increased, and we need policies to meet them. And that means rural New Zealand must do its share.

More secrecy

The government introduced a Racing Industry Bill today. As an urban who horse racing as pointless-to-cruel, and gambling as a tax on stupidity and/or hope, this isn't normally a bill which would interest me in the slightest, beyond grumpiness at more government money for a dying industry. But there is something there worth paying attention to: secrecy.

The bill reforms the racing industry. As part of this, it transfers some of the functions of the old Racing Industry Transition Agency to the TAB, which it rightly makes subject to the OIA (though weirdly, it does this with both a special clause and by scheduling it. Only the latter is necessary). But it also establishes a new Racing Integrity Board, responsible for compliance, integrity (including judicial functions), and animal welfare - functions which were partly the responsibility of the old Transition Agency, and partly of the industry-owned Racing Integrity Unit. The latter will be replaced by the government body to ensure an integrity system independent of the industry.

The Board is appointed by the Minister, funded with public money and enjoys statutory powers of entry and search. But unlike the old Transition Agency, it will not be subject to the OIA. An important component of the oversight system for a notoriously corrupt industry will thus be shrouded in secrecy.

This is not acceptable. This is a public agency, performing public functions and funded with public money. It should, like other such bodies, be subject to the Official Information Act.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019



A "coincidence"

When it was revealed that NZ First had tried to enrich itself from public office via the Provoncial Growth Fund, the Prime Minister assured us that everything was OK as Shane Jones, the Minister responsible for the fund, had recused himself. Except it seems that that recusal came very late in the piece:

Shane Jones' office received official documents about a forestry company's bid for public money five times over four months, but the New Zealand First minister only declared a conflict of interest on the day RNZ began asking questions.

[...]

Documents provided to RNZ show Mr Jones wrote to the prime minister advising her of his conflict of interests on 14 October - the same day RNZ lodged an Official Information Act request with his office.

Mr Jones has told Parliament that he was only "formally" made aware of the NZFFP bid to the Provincial Growth Fund on 14 October.

But answers to written questions lodged by National MP Chris Bishop show Mr Jones' office was sent documents mentioning NZFFP and its applications to the PGF on five occasions between 17 June and 9 October.

A spokesperson for Mr Jones said it was a coincidence that the minister declared his conflict of interests on the same day RNZ lodged its OIA.


And again, like his excuses before Parliament, if Jones isn't corrupt then he is trying very hard to look it. Because the natural conclusion to be drawn from this is that he wouldn't have recused himself if questions hadn't been asked. Which would have seen him hand over millions of dollars of public money to a company he knew all along was run by NZ First cronies.

This is an unacceptable standard for any government Minister. And like Winston Peters over NZ First's secret slush fund, he has violated the Cabinet Manual requirement to uphold and be seen to uphold the highest ethical standards. The Prime Minister should sack both of them. But she won't, because she needs their votes. And that act of political cowardice shows that she is willing to tolerate corrupt behaviour from her Ministers if it keeps her in power.

Member's Day

Today is a Member's Day, and probably the last one of the year. After the marathon of the End of Life Choice Act, most of the bills up for debate today are uncontentious. First up is the second reading of Chlöe Swarbrick's Election Access Fund Bill. This will be followed by the first reading of the cross-party Crimes (Definition of Female Genital Mutilation) Amendment Bill, which was introduced and pushed up the Order Paper by leave, and should enjoy unanimous support. Once that's out of the way, the House will move on to the gripping committee stage of Ian McKelvie's Dog Control (Category 1 Offences) Amendment Bill. It should then make a start on the first contentious bill on the order paper: the second reading of Rino Tirikatene's Electoral (Entrenchment of Māori Seats) Amendment Bill. As usual, there will be no ballot.

Worse than I thought

The Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee has reported back on the government's odious and tyrannical control orders bill. As expected, the fraudulent select committee process has made no significant changes (partly because they couldn't agree, but mostly because it was a stitch-up from the start, with no intention of ever listening to submitters). But in the process they've revealed that they expect the law to be applied far more widely than expected. While the committee dismisses fears the law could be applied to protestors, it then goes on to say:

Similar concern was expressed about clause 7, which states that a person engages in terrorism-related activity if they “facilitate or support the carrying out of terrorism”. We consider this wording appropriate. It is deliberately broad, so that those who knowingly spread terrorist propaganda — whether as part of a recognised terrorist group or less formally — could be considered for a control order. Labour Party and Green Party members were particularly concerned about informal terrorism, and spe-cifically white supremacist terrorism.

So the threshold for having your liberty removed, without evidence, trial or prosecution, is "spread[ing] terrorist propaganda". Which seems awfully low. And it this stage, it seems worth pointing out that environmentalists are often considered to be terrorists overseas, that Australia has passed laws against "vegan terrorists" (AKA "people who film farm animals suffering") and is using similar rhetoric against climate protesters as it desperately attempts to defend the coal industry. So, speaking or posting in support of such groups or causes could fall foul of such a standard. And given Simon Bridges' views of Extinction Rebellion, this seems like an accident waiting to happen.

As for white supremacists, the implication here is that visiting Nazis like Southern and Molyneux who spread racist hate would be gagged at the border, without evidence, trial or prosecution. I don't like Nazis, but that seems a bit extreme, and not the sort of thing that a free and democratic society operating under the rule of law should do.

If "spreading terrorist propaganda" reaches a criminal threshold, it should be prosecuted. If it doesn't, then there seems to be no justification for restricting someone's liberty on the basis of what they say. And if the government believes the law in this area is inadequate, then it should say so, and make a case for proper legislation - not pull a half-arsed, tyrannical workaround which is open to abuse and undermines the values it purports to protect. But I guess that, like gathering evidence, that would be actual work.

Sadly, it seems like the Greens are still supporting this odious piece of tyranny. And if they continue to do so, then you should not support them.

The cannabis bill and the referendum

Yesterday, the government released its draft Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, which will be put to a non-binding referendum at the next election. I'm not a drug policy expert, but Russell Brown is, and he thinks its pretty good. And pretty obviously, it will be a massive improvement on the status quo, which criminalises a huge number of people for mostly harmless private behaviour, while legitimising significant police intrusion, not to mention a total waste of resources. So, come referendum time, I will be supporting it.

Of course, there is still the problem that that referendum is non-binding, so no matter which way we vote, the government could just ignore it, or change the regime under us while claiming public support for their version. The government's process here is completely unsatisfactory. They clearly have an idea of what policy they want to put to the public, but lack the commitment to actually stand behind it or stand behind our right to decide on it. So as usual for this government we have bullshit half-measures: a non-binding referendum on a concrete proposal. Instead of wasting our time like this, they should do it properly: pass the law, with a referendum-based commencement clause - exactly as has been done for the End of Life Choice Act.

Climate Change: Alignment

One of the big problems in New Zealand climate change policy is the government working at cross-purposes with itself. It wants to reduce fossil fuel use, but encourages oil and gas exploration. It wants to reduce transport emissions, but then builds enormous new roads. The problem could be avoided if the government assessed all policies for their climate change impact. And thanks to the Greens, it is finally going to start doing that:

Major government decisions will be required to go through a climate change assessment, thanks to new rule.

A Cabinet circular instituted by the Greens means any legislation or government decision aimed at reducing emissions, or likely to greatly increase emissions, will have a mandatory "climate impact assessment" attached.

This will join mandatory assessments on how bills impact human rights, the Treaty of Waitangi, rural communities, the disability community, and gender equality.


Its an obviously good move, and one which has been too long coming. If we'd been doing this back in 2002, or in 1996, we wouldn't be in nearly the emissions mess we're in now. And the assessments will be publicly released, meaning that we'll be able to see whether the government is making decisions that reduce emissions or increase them - and hold them to account for it.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019



More bad faith

Last year, the government announced it was ending offshore oil exploration by no longer issuing new permits. The idea was that the industry would then die off as permits expired. Except almost immediately the government revealed its bad faith, by saying they would extend permits and alter conditions to keep polluters drilling - a threat they have followed through on. And now, their discussion document on the Review of Crown Minerals Act 1991 takes this further, with an entire chapter devoted to overturning existing permit restrictions, allowing exploration and drilling to continue.

At present, exploration permits typically have conditions requiring the permit holder to periodicly surrender some of the permit area. This is expected to result in 56% of the current permitting area being surrendered by November 2021, and 75% by April 2025. But the government wants to remove these provisions. They also want to remove provisions restricting the expansion of permit areas or permit durations, or requiring the surrender of all exploration permit area when converting to a mining permit. The upshot of these changes is to undermine the offshore exploration ban, by keeping the polluting offshore drilling industry going for as long as possible.

These changes need to be resisted. Submissions are open on the review until 27 January, and I urge everyone to make a submission (and also: oppose the "promotion" purpose, and support the removal of the Anadarko Amendment while you're at it). Details on how to submit can be found here.

This is bullshit, and our democracy deserves better

The government has said it will ban foreign donations to political parties and candidates, and will be introducing legislation to be passed under all-stages urgency this afternoon. While I agree with the goal, I don't see a particular case for urgency, unless the government is concerned about a flood of foreign money being snuck in before the ban comes into place (in which case, simply include a retrospective reporting requirement, and let the parties face the voters). And given the complexities (we allow anonymous donations of up to $1,500, while targeting foreign-controlled NZ companies and trusts is going to be fiddly), this seems like a move which needs serious select committee scrutiny. Otherwise, we're either going to end up with a cosmetic PR move, or a fuck-up. And the public deserves better than that.

Update: The bill is now online. It limits foreign donations to $50, and imposes a duty on party secretaries to "take all reasonable steps in the circumstances" to ensure that anonymous donations aren't from "overseas persons". Meanwhile, it leaves the definition of "overseas person" unchanged, meaning NZ front companies can still be used to run a herd of Mongolian horses through the law. This is bullshit, and our democracy deserves better.

Reforming the Education Acts

The government introduced the Education and Training Bill to Parliament yesterday. Its a massive bill, which replaces both existing Education Acts, as well as various other bits of legislation (including some which are still proceeding through the House). I'll leave the serious analysis to teachers and people who actually know about education policy at various levels. But there are a couple of interestign points. On the administrative side, it introduces a new dispute resolution system, with a chief referee and dispute resolution panels to resolve disputes between students and schools (this is presumably to reduce the workload of the Ombudsman and the courts). And while it retains the "close the school" dodge which allows legally secular schools to hold religious instruction, it now requires it to be explicitly opt-in (though in a later section, it seems to retain the old opt-out drafting, which will need to be fixed). This is a good step forward, but it is not enough, because these provisions (and the requirement for explicitly secular teaching) apply only to primary and intermediate schools; state secondary schools are not included, and so can still shove religion down their student's throats. If we're going to have this compromise, then it needs to apply to all state schools, not just some.

Also: the old requirement for teachers to take an oath of allegiance as a condition of employment - imposed after the sedition trial of Hatty Weitzel in the 1920's - has not been included. So no more patriotic bullshit, huzzah!

Monday, December 02, 2019



Loosening the purse strings

When Labour was running for election in 2017, it felt it needed to demonstrate "fiscal responsibility" and signed itself up to masochistic "budget responsibility rules". It was a fool's errand: the sorts of voters who demand fiscal responsibility are also the sorts of voters who believe that labour can never provide it and will never vote for them, while the rules prevented any real improvement in social spending. But now, finally, it looks like the government will loosen the purse strings:

The government plans to loosen the purse strings and spend up large on infrastructure - but the details are still some weeks away.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson flagged extra spending in his speech to the Labour Party's annual conference in Whanganui.

He said Cabinet had committed to a boost to infrastructure as part of the short to medium term spending plan.

"We are currently finalising the specific projects that the package will fund but I can tell you this - it will be significant."


And the first step - $400 million for school property upgrades - looks good. This is what Labour governments are meant to do: invest in New Zealand (as opposed to National, who run it down then flog it off to their cronies). And hopefully this will also signal a greater willingness to invest in social infrastructure as well, rather than just concrete and steel. Because it makes no sense to run huge "surpluses" while there are unmet needs - that's not "responsible", its simply stupid.

Climate Change: How to get there

Writing in Stuff, Joel MacManus looks at what we need to do to meet the Zero Carbon Act's targets. The core of it:

1. Convert 85 per cent of vehicles on the road to electric.

2. Eliminate fossil fuels from all industrial heating up to 300 degrees Celsius.

3. Double our electricity production, without using more fossil fuels.

4. Research and develop new technology that will reduce the amount of nitrogen that gets converted to nitrous oxide in animal urine.

5. Plant enough trees to cover any emissions gaps.


These are immense changes, but its not as hard as it sounds. We have maybe twenty years to do this, which is about the time it took for horses to be replaced by cars, or for intercontinental air travel to kill passenger liners, or for New Zealand to build most of its hydro dams. A gradual transition needs the government to have policies which push in the right direction, with rising carbon prices and increasing regulatory pressure on polluters. But we could go faster if we treated this as the civilisational challenge that it is.

Meeting the methane target is harder. On this, the article relies on magic bullet methane reduction technology. Which is the same cross-your-fingers-and-hope strategy farmers have been pretending to rely on for the past twenty years, and which has produced exactly squat. We can't afford to wait any longer to reduce emissions, so while a technological solution would be welcome, we need concrete ways of reducing pollution now. And that means reducing the herd: fewer cows, burping and shitting and pissing less. Farmers react to this idea as if its the end of the world, but its worth remembering that we had almost 20% fewer cows a decade ago, and less than half as many thirty years ago (which is the timescale we're looking at). How low we need to go depends on the final methane target, but either way, it doesn't need a mass-slaughter, just a gradual reduction in herd sizes with the business cycle. It is going to mean that farmers are going to have to move away from mass commodity production if they want to stay profitable, but they need to do that anyway, so we might as well use climate (and freshwater) policy to push it along.

We can do this. But we need the government to lay the policy foundations, keep up the pressure, and ratchet up ambition if it seems like we're succeeding easily. And we need them to do that for decades. Which means that we as voters need to make sure the political parties know we want them to do this, and that we will punish any backsliding viciously at the ballot box. And you can start that by sticking it to National next election.

Friday, November 29, 2019



New Fisk

The remembrance poppy is becoming a weapon against immigrants to Canada. We need to remember everyone’s contribution to the war
I talked to everybody I could in Syria, controversial or otherwise. That's how you find out the truth

Climate Change: Europe declares an emergency

The European Parliament has voted overwhelmingly to declare a climate emergency:

The European parliament has declared a global “climate and environmental emergency” as it urged all EU countries to commit to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The vote came as scientists warned that the world may have already crossed a series of climate tipping points, resulting in “a state of planetary emergency”.

Intended to demonstrate Europe’s green credentials days before a crucial UN climate conference in Madrid, the vote also ratchets up pressure on Ursula von der Leyen, the incoming president of the European commission, who declared this week that the EU would lead the fight against “the existential threat” of the climate crisis.


The next step of course is to follow this up with action: more ambitious targets, and tougher policies to reach them. Most of Europe has agreed to phase out coal, which is a good start, but they need to do a lot more.

Meanwhile, I'm once again asking: what about New Zealand? Where's our emergency? Because while its symbolic, symbols matter. They drive action, say "we are going to take this seriously", and enable the government to be held to account for failing to do so. So, why isn't prime Minister who famously declared climate change to be "my generations' nuclear free moment" pushing this here?

Wednesday, November 27, 2019



Leaving us with the bill

Two weeks ago, Malaysian-owned oil company Tamarind declared it was insolvent and went into administration after a failed offshore drilling campaign. Tamarind apparently specialises in buying oil fields at the end of their life and trying to squeeze out the last few drops of pollution. But part of their scam may also be leaving us with the cleanup bill:

The $155 million bill to decommission an oil field off the coast of Taranaki may end up being covered by taxpayers.

Tamarind Taranaki, which owns the Tui Field, went into voluntary receivership earlier this month, meaning the government could be responsible for plugging and abandoning its wells.

[...]

But the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment said in a statement that if the company was not able to cover the costs of abandoning the field, the entire bill may fall to the Crown.


There's an obvious parallel here with climate change (where the fossil fuel industry is also leaving up with the cleanup bill, despite having created the problem), and it ought to be a warning about the dangers of allowing these companies to operate in New Zealand. At the least, before they drill a single well, they should be required to deposit a bond covering the entire cost of cleanup with the government, to prevent them from pulling this sort of scam in future.

Climate Change: The task before us

Two weeks ago, the Zero Carbon Act became law. Right this moment, the Climate Change Commisison will be working on its initial budgets for 2022-25 and 2026-2030, and the UN has just given them a very clear steer:

Countries must make an unprecedented effort to cut their levels of greenhouse gases in the next decade to avoid climate chaos, the UN has warned, as it emerged that emissions hit a new high last year.

[...]

Global emissions must fall by 7.6% every year from now until 2030 to stay within the 1.5C ceiling on temperature rises that scientists say is necessary to avoid disastrous consequences. The only time in recent history when emissions have fallen in any country at a similar rate came during the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the financial crisis and recession, emissions in the US and Japan fell briefly by about 6% but soon rebounded.

[...]

Postponing action could no longer be an option, said Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP. “Our collective failure to act early and hard on climate change means we must now deliver deep cuts to emissions [of] over 7% each year, if we break it down evenly over the next decade. This shows that countries simply cannot wait.”

Without such urgent action the world’s fate would be sealed within the next few years as carbon would rise to such a level as to make dangerous levels of warming inevitable, she said. “We need quick wins to reduce emissions as much as possible in 2020, then stronger [commitments under the Paris agreement] to kickstart the major transformations of economies and societies. We need to catch up on the years in which we procrastinated.”


This is the yardstick by which the first emissions budgets under the Zero Carbon Act are going to be measured. If they're compatible with this trajectory, then all is good. If they're not - if they propose weaker cuts, action considered inadequate by the experts - then the Act will be a failure from the outset, and the Minister and the Commission can expect to have their budgets challenged in the courts and on the streets. It is that simple.

Monday, November 25, 2019



Giving the finger to Beijing

Hong Kong has been protesting for six months for, demanding democracy, human rights, and an end to police violence. Today, they went to the polls in district council elections - a low-level of government with virtually no power, similar to community boards in New Zealand. But while the positions themselves were fairly powerless, they could still be used to send a message and give the finger to Beijing. And that's exactly what voters did:

The anti-establishment reverberations from almost six months of street protests swept through polling stations across Hong Kong on Sunday, as voters in record numbers roundly rejected pro-Beijing candidates in favour of pan-democrats.

The tsunami of disaffection among voters was clear across the board, as pan-democrats rode the wave to win big in poor and rich neighbourhoods, in both protest-prone and non protest-afflicted districts and, in downtown areas as well as the suburbs.

Less immediately obvious was whether there was a generational divide in the way the people voted, but ousted pro-establishment district councillors suggested that young, first-time voters had been instrumental in dislodging them from their perch.

By 7am, the pro-democracy camp had gained a majority in at least 12 of the 18 district councils, taking 278 seats.

All councils were previously under pro-establishment control from the 2015 elections.


More recent results are saying the democrats have 333 seats to the establishment's 37, with less than a hundred seats to go. Its a very clear message from voters to their government, and to Beijing. The only question is whether the latter will listen.

National supports slavery

Meanwhile, while the government is planning to restore voting rights to prisoners, National is promising to turn our prisons into US-style slave-labour camps:

The Opposition is proposing compulsory education, training or employment for prisoners who are serving sentences of two years or more.

[...]

On Sunday, National Party Leader Simon Bridges said his was a party of law and order and would release its full discussion document on the law on Tuesday.

Part of that would include making the current opt-in system of working prisons becoming compulsory.


Compulsory work or you get punished? There's a name for that: slavery. And its illegal everywhere in the world, including New Zealand.

And lest anyone think this is hyperbole: prisoners in New Zealand are paid just 20 cents an hour. They have no labour rights, cannot join unions or strike, and their "employer" is not subject to the usual health and safety regime. This is not "employment" as normally understood, with contracts, rights, and transparent deductions for expenses, but a regime which uses the coercive environment of the prison system to extract forced labour from prisoners, while undercutting real businesses and driving free workers onto the dole queue. And the New Zealand government recognises this for foreign prisons, banning the importation of goods produced by prison labour. We need to recognise it domesticly as well.

National's policy is one part Trumpian performative cruelty, and one part keeping wages low for the benefit of their business cronies. It is abhorrent and immoral, and they should be ashamed of themselves for advocating it.

Erasing the infamy

Last year, the Supreme Court confirmed that National's prisoner voting ban - a law so shoddily passed that it brought Parliament into disrepute - breached the Bill of Rights Act. This year, the Waitangi Tribunal added that it also breached the Treaty of Waitangi. And now, the government has finally got the message and will reverse it:

Justice Minister Andrew Little has revealed some prisoners will be allowed to vote in next year's general election.

People sentenced to less than three years in prison will have their voting rights restored.

This will return the law to the way it was pre-2010, before the National-led government removed voting rights from all sentenced prisoners.

"We plan to make this change in an Electoral Amendment Bill before the next election, so that people sentenced to less than three years imprisonment can participate in the 2020 election," Little said.


Which is good, and what should happen when the courts find Parliament has breached its duty to follow the Treaty and the BORA. At the same time, it raises a number of questions. Most obviously, why they're not going the whole way, and restoring voting rights to every prisoner, rather than just going back to the status quo ante? Because the arguments for short-term prisoners being able to vote apply just as powerfully to long-term ones. But Labour is the government of half-measures, so I guess that's all we'll ever get from them.

And while we're at it, if the government is willing to use the Electoral Amendment Bill - pitched as an administrative tidy-up - to do this, why won't it also use it to reform the electoral finance regime and impose greater transparency? Or begin the process to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote? Both have powerful democratic arguments in their favour, and have also been demanded by submitters on the Bill. Or is the unjust status quo all we can ever expect from Labour?

Friday, November 22, 2019



New Fisk

I witnessed my first real battles and saw my first corpses in Belfast. It prepared me for the Middle East
Mike Pompeo scorns the law because powerful men like him never have to follow it