Monday, December 22, 2014

New Fisk

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

The perils of crony capitalism

Back in 2011, National, the party of wheeler-dealers, cut a nice little crony capitalist deal with their donors Sky City: Sky City would build a new convention centre in Auckland, and in exchange we'd relax gambling laws to allow them to suck more money out of the poor, and pick up the tab if the centre went over-budget. Doing the negotiation process, Treasury warned that this was a bad idea:

However, if Ministers wish to proceed with a contractual arrangement with SkyCity, Treasury considers that the difficulty of accurately assessing both the costs of the building and the revenue generated by the concessions will inevitably expose the Government to significant risks. These relate to both the information asymmetry between SkyCity and the Crown and costs to the Crown in respect of both negotiating the contract initially and then managing it over an extended period such as 25 years.

That warning has now come true:
Design improvements, a new five-star hotel and inflation have rocketed up the SkyCity convention centre's pricetag by as much as $130 million.

And while additional gambling concessions are off the table to meet any shortfall for the building, taxpayer funding is under discussion.

Sky City made a profit of $123 million last year, so its not as if they can't afford to cover the extra cost. But why would they, when the government has agreed to? Indeed, why bother to control costs at all, when any increase or overrun will be paid for by someone else? The incentives National wrote into the deal are terrible, and a perfect example of the perils of crony capitalism. As for how to deal with it, the answer is simple: walk away. If Sky City thinks an international convention centre is so profitable, they can fund it themselves. And if its not, they shouldn't expect us to subsidise their operations and their profits.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

John Key's war on P is a failure

Back in 2009, John Key launched a "war on P", in the form of his Methamphetamine Action Plan. An important part of the plan was regular progress reports, tracking the price, purity and availability of methamphetamine, so we could see if the police were in fact winning.

Today the latest report, for October 2014, was released. As usual, the government has tried to put a positive spin on it. But reading the actual report shows the ugly truth: five years on, there's been no change in those core metrics. Price, purity and availability are all where they were five years ago. Five years of intense policing has had absolutely no effect on anything, no effect on the problem. Which is pretty much the "war on drugs" in a nutshell: an endless, pointless waste of time and money which changes nothing.

I don't know what the answer to P is, but its very clear that this isn't working. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is insanity; time for a new approach.

Time to cut out the middle-woman

Four days before the Scottish Independence Referendum, the UK's supposedly neutral monarch intervened, telling the Scots to "think very carefully about the future". While cloaked as a "private exchange", it has now emerged that the whole thing was scripted by Downing Street:

Senior figures in Whitehall and Downing Street became so fearful that the Scottish independence referendum could lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom that the Queen was asked to make a rare public intervention in the final days of the campaign.

Britain’s most senior civil servant and the Queen’s private secretary crafted a carefully worded intervention by the monarch, as No 10 experienced what one senior official described as “meltdown” in the closing stages of the campaign after polls showed growing support for a yes vote.

The discussions between Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, and Sir Christopher Geidt for the palace, led the Queen to issue an appeal to the people of Scotland four days before the referendum in September to “think very carefully” before casting their vote.

She spoke out after senior Whitehall figures, who were apprised of David Cameron’s concerns that the yes camp was developing an ominous momentum in the final period of the campaign, suggested to the palace that an intervention by the Queen would be helpful.

So, rather than being politically neutral, the monarch was acting secretly as a mouthpiece for the government of the day, lending her status to their political cause. It is a gross violation of political neutrality, and it suggests that its time to cut out the middle-woman to prevent her from being used in such an abusive fashion in future.

The courts and the Public Records Act

Nicky Hager won an important victory in his case against the police yesterday, forcing discovery of the police's internal working documents about the decision to apply for and execute a search warrant against him. While some of the documents will be provided confidentially to counsel, the police's argument that their decisions were unreviewable wasn't accepted. The fact that they wanted to hide these documents, which will show how much consideration they gave to the issue of journalistic privilege, and whether they met the tests set by the court in previous cases on raiding the media, tells us that they probably have something very stinky to hide here. Which will now hopefully be exposed.

Meanwhile, buried in the judgement is a small grenade: the courts appear to be violating the Public Records Act.

[43] Mr Hager sought disclosure from the Manukau District Court of a copy of the file he anticipated would have been maintained by the Court in relation to the application for, and issue of, the search warrant. He also sought a document setting out Judge Malosi’s reasons for issuing the search warrant.

[44] Both requests are misconceived. Requests made to any person who is authorised as an issuing officer for the purposes of warrants under the SSA are not treated as proceedings by the Registry of any courts to which they might be delivered.

[45] Similarly, the response on behalf of the District Court is that there is no document in existence which records the Judge’s reasons for issuing the search warrant. That is entirely consistent with standard practice in which an issuing officer requested to consider an application for a warrant simply grants or declines the application. There is accordingly no discoverable document of that category either.

Section 17 of the Public Records Act requires every "public office" - including the courts - to
create and maintain full and accurate records of its affairs, in accordance with normal, prudent business practice

Not recording reasons for a decision, and indeed not keeping any file on it at all, appears to violate this obligation (not to mention making it difficult for higher courts to judicially review the granting of warrants). The Chief Archivist should probably be looking at this...

The full judgement is here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

No justice in the UK

Four years ago, G4S guards killed Jimmy Mubenga by restraining him inappropriately during a deportation - effectively asphyixiating him. But today, a British jury refused to convict them:

Three private security guards who restrained the Angolan deportee Jimmy Mubenga have been cleared of manslaughter by a jury at the Old Bailey.

The 46-year-old died after being restrained by the G4S guards on a British Airways flight on 12 October 2010. Terrence Hughes, 53, Colin Kaler, 52 and Stuart Tribelnig, 39, were accused of manslaughter by forcing Mubenga’s head down and restricting his breathing as the flight prepared to take off at Heathrow airport. The jury cleared them of the charges on Tuesday after a six-week trial.

The court had heard how fellow passengers said they heard Mubenga cry out: “I can’t breathe” as he was pinned down in his seat, despite already being handcuffed from behind with his seatbelt on.

The guards said in court that they had not heard him say he could not breathe and had not pushed his head down and forward towards his knees in a position known to risk asphyxia. They said they had been restraining him to stop him hurting himself or other passengers on the plane.

This is bullshit. Those guards were grossly negligent and used unreasonable force - a fact backed by the inquest into Mubenga's death, which found the killing unlawful. There was also suppressed evidence showing a string of racist "jokes" by the killers, which suggests they may have been less than willing to show Mubenga the duty of care he was entitled to. But hey, he was only a deportee, right?

There is no justice in the UK. Those who want it will have to make their own. Suing these racist killers and the company which hired them into the ground in a civil case would be a good start.

John Key wants arbitrary detention

That's the only conclusion that can be drawn from his comments today about the need to lower the threshold for detention:

Prime Minister John Key said the Sydney siege gunman highlighted the conundrum for authorities over protecting citizens against potential terrorism and over-stepping their powers.

He indicated the threshold for detaining people considered to be a security risk could be a credible area for review.


[T]he fact that someone was on a watch list did not mean they could be detained.

"I suspect they were on lists of people that could present a threat," Mr Key said. "But the threshold the authorities have to meet before they can detain someone is very high and for very good reason.

"That is the conundrum that the authorities face between over-using or over-exercising their power but on the other side is the declared desire the public will have to be protected."

Asked if the threshold for detention could be the subject of a comprehensive review beginning next year, he said: "That may be one credible area that they look at."

Currently the state can only detain you on conviction, while awaiting trial if there is good cause to suspect you will reoffend or fail to appear, if you are caught breaching the peace or committing a crime punishable by imprisonment, or if there is good cause to believe you have done the same (note that in law, an attempt or conspiracy is the same as commission of the offence, so they're covered for stuff planned but not actually done yet). That's the "threshold for detention": good cause. Lowering that by definition means arresting and detaining people where there is no good cause to believe they have committed (or are credibly planning) an offence. And that seems to be the very definition of the arbitrary detention prohibited by the Bill of Rights Act.

As for what this means: our spies are turning into a secret police, and our Prime Minister into a dictator. We need to de-elect both before it is too late.

The OIA Review

Yesterday, the Ombudsman announced that they had begun their review of OIA compliance. They'll be looking closely at 12 central government agencies, and surveying 63 more, as well as all 27 Ministerial offices. They'll also be soliciting submissions from the OIA users, including journalists, political parties, and members of the public.

The full details, including the list of target agencies, are here. The target list is interesting: Customs and ACC are presumably included because they're examples of poor practice, Justice and SSC because they're generally pretty good. I'm a bit surprised by the absence of EQC and CERA from the list, but possibly the Ombudsman thinks they have a good grasp of their OIA processes after the recent inquiries there (OTOH, that's apparently not the case with Ministry of Education, who have also been the subject of a recent inquiry which found severe problems with their OIA process).

Surveyed agencies are basically being asked for all their policies and procedures, written and unwritten, for handling OIA requests and complaints. They specifically highlight Ministerial consultation requirements in the unwritten section. Ministers are being asked a similar set of questions. Currently the Ombudsman simply seems to be asking politely, rather than exercising their powers under s19(1) Ombudsman's Act, but that should be enough. There is the potential for Ministers and Ministerial staff to try and lie about their procedures (I do not believe an NZ public servant would ever lie to the Ombudsman, but politicians and their pet hacks are a different story), which highlights the utterly derisory penalties for doing so. So that's one obvious think which needs to immediately change (but why would Ministers, who are the obvious targets of such a measure, prioritise it on the legislative schedule?)

As for the result, hopefully we'll see some solid guidance issued by the Ombudsman on the operation of the "no surprises" principle limiting Ministerial micromanagement which is currently corrupting the OIA process. Hopefully we'll also see some heads on spikes at Customs for their abuse of the Act.

As the Ombudsman says, this is about confidence in our public sector. We deserve to be able to trust our government. Hopefully the ombudsman will rein in Ministers so we can do so again.

New Fisk

Peshawar school attack: Massacre of the innocents born of ambivalence towards Taliban

This will go down well

Back in September, Mexican police arrested a group of 43 student teachers who had been travelling to Iguala for a protest against the local government. They handed them over to a local drug gang, who murdered them. Since the massacre, there have been protests across Mexico at the government's inaction and apparent collusion, which saw the Presidential Palace set on fire. Those protests are going to get worse. Because it turns out that the government - which has denied responsibility and pretended ineffectiveness - knew about the whole thing:

Mexican federal authorities had real-time information of an attack on a group of student teachers by corrupt local police, but did nothing to stop the disappearance and probable massacre of 43 people, according to new evidence published by the news magazine Proceso.

Based on leaked government documents, the new allegations are likely to further fuel public anger at the government of the president, Enrique Peña Nieto, which has insisted that federal authorities share no responsibility for the students’ disappearance.


According to the Proceso account, the C4 [Federal police spies - I/S] informed the head of the federal police unit stationed in Iguala when the students arrived at the city’s bus station at 9.22pm. About 20 minutes later, the C4 reported that gunfire had broken out, Proceso reported – the opening volleys of what turned into several hours of violence.

Anabel Hernández, one of the report’s authors, told MCS Noticias radio station: “When we see that the federal government and the state government were following the students since they left the college in Ayotzinapa, it becomes very difficult to think that everything else that happened was an accident.”

A government which colludes in the murder of its own citizens does not deserve to stand. Those involved need to be arrested and prosecuted for conspiracy to murder. Those who let them do it need to be forced from office. And Mexico should burn until that happens.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


The Human Rights Commission released its Annual report of activities under
the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT)
[PDF] today. This is a serious document, a core part of our monitoring regime to ensure that people aren't being tortured or subject to cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment in our detention facilities. And while they generally aren't, the gaps it exposes are horrifying:

  • The NZDF was criticised by the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture for the poor quality of its base holding cells (basically, a locked room with no toilet). Oddly, the Inspector of Service Penal Establishments - who is supposed to be monitoring those cells - thinks their job is to make excuses for NZDF rather than force them to clean their act up.
  • The Children's Commissioner is tasked with monitoring CYFS detention facilities, but is not funded to do so. They have extensive recommendations on the management of those facilities, aimed at shifting the culture towards de-escalating conflict and focusing on the needs of children. Reading between the lines, the current management culture significantly increases the risk of ill-treatment of children in secure CYFS facilities.
  • Corrections rejects 20% of all recommendations from the Ombudsman around prisoner care. Given that these are recommendations aimed at preventing torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment, that's simply scary.
  • Corrections is still detaining people in inhumane conditions in their segregation facilities.
  • Waikeria Prison's youth unit is filthy and substandard, with no effort made to educate or rehabilitate prisoners.
  • At Auckland Women’s Prison, male Corrections staff can perv at prisoners while they are showering using cameras. Corrections has rejected all recommendations to change this.
  • There are still mental health prisoners being restrained and subjected to solitary confinement unjustifiably.
  • There are still huge gaps in our monitoring of detention facilities - namely aged care facilities, dementia homes, and boarding schools. There is evidence of ill-treatment occurring in all of these.
So, while we're not torturing anyone, this isn't exactly a clean bill of health. And what's worse is that many of these problems, particularly around the privacy and dignity of prisoners, have been ongoing for years. We need to clean our act up, and fast.

No surplus

Its official: we won't have a budget surplus this year. But Bill English is still delusional:

The Government believes an OBEGAL surplus is achievable this financial year, despite Treasury’s latest forecast today predicting a $572 million deficit (0.2 per cent of GDP) for the year to 30 June 2015, Finance Minister Bill English says.

“These forecasts emphasise the unusual conditions the New Zealand economy is experiencing,” Mr English says. “Treasury is predicting solid growth, growing employment and low interest rates, which help New Zealanders to get ahead. But at the same time, falling dairy prices and low inflation are restricting growth in the nominal economy and government revenue.

“This is making it more challenging for the Government to achieve surplus in 2014/15. However we remain on track to reduce debt to 20 per cent of GDP by 2020.

“Although this latest Treasury forecast predicts a small deficit for the current year, we believe the strong underlying economy and responsible fiscal management can deliver a surplus when the final government accounts are published next October,” Mr English says.

I guess that's why National are suddenly ripping $200 million out of DHBs: because achieving their arbitrary political target is more important to them than people getting the healthcare they need. And they'll slash and burn whatever they have to to do it. But given a choice between proper healthcare and delaying meeting that arbitrary target by a year, the latter seems to be an absolute no brainer. The purpose of government is not to deliver accounting surpluses, but to provide people with the services they need. Thinking otherwise is simply insanity.

Australia bullies its own Human Rights Commission

The Australian Human Rights Commission has been a consistent critic of the Australian government's war on refugees, speaking out for refugee rights, trying to visit the victims of Australia's gulags, and holding an inquiry into children in immigration detention. And now they're paying the price: a 30% budget cut:

A rights advocacy group in Australia says it seems the government there is cutting funding to the Human Rights Commission because of the body's inquiries into its treatment of asylum seekers.

Human Rights Law Centre Executive Director Hugh de Kretser says funding for the Commission has been slashed by around 30% over the next three years.

The cuts follow the Commission's inquiry into children in immigration detention.

The message is clear: "independent" agencies which criticise the government will have their budgets slashed. They're a bully-state, intolerant of criticism.

Meanwhile, its worth remembering that John Key has made similar threats to our own Human Rights Commission over their opposition to this spy bills. So far he hasn't followed through on them. But the HRC's funding expires in June next year, which provides him with a perfect opportunity.

Sydeny, spies, and the police

That didn't take long: the Sydney hostage crisis was barely over and National party politicians were smearing themselves in the blood of the dead to "justify" their unjustified terror-law:

The MP who chaired the anti-terrorist legislation rushed through Parliament last week, Mark Mitchell, says the bill was "100 per cent" justified.

And he said he had had messages yesterday thanking him for the bill in light of the Sydney hostage crisis.

"It becomes a lot more real for people when it's three hours across the ditch."

(More similar blather from the PM here).

Because obviously, revoking someone's passport and restricting their freedom of movement for an extra two years without trial or any judicial oversight would have prevented this. As for the suggestion that additional surveillance powers might have, the hostage-taker was well-known to the police, who would easily be able to obtain warrants if they had had any inkling of what he was planning. This wasn't a lack of powers, but the fact that such attacks are pretty much unpreventable (or rather, the means of limiting them - massively better mental health care and massively reduced access to guns - are so long-term and mundane that they don't appeal to politicians). Sadly, those facts are no barrier to our power-hungry spy-servants in Parliament.

Meanwhile, the Sydney attack again made it clear who is primarily responsible for dealing with such matters: the police. And that would have been true even if the plan had been detected in advance. Which raises the question: why do we need spies, with special spy powers, when it is the police who keep us safe? Doesn't that simply create problems of pathological secrecy and failures of interagency communication which increase the chances of such an attack succeeding?

Public safety is a matter for the police. We don't need spies potentially endangering us by treating criminal suspects as an intelligence source. We should disband the SIS, and leave the job of keeping us safe to the people who actually know how to do it.

Monday, December 15, 2014

New Fisk

Once again language is distorted in order to hide US state wrongdoing

A pure power grab

When the government proposed extending the duration of passport revocations in its recent urgent spy bill, several people raised the obvious question: what was the justification? Why was it necessary? Had the government ever had trouble using the courts to extend a revocation?

Thanks to an FYI requester, we now know the answer: no, because they never tried:

No application to a Judge of the High Court has been made for an order to extend a cancellation of a New Zealand passport on the grounds of national security using the provisions of section 8A(3) of the Passports Act 1992.

So, there was no "problem" to be solved by the bill (though if the courts were rejecting extensions, it wouldn't be a problem with the courts, but that Ministers were revoking passports without justification). Instead, it was a pure power grab. The bill's shoddy Regulatory Impact Statement said that it was just too much hassle for them to prepare documents for the courts after a year. Even if we accept that at face value (difficult given that they also say that they would be preparing repeated documentation and ongoing risk analysis for the Minister in the case of any extended travel ban), the administrative convenience of officials is simply not a good reason for interfering with fundamental human rights.

Naturally, Peter Dunne buried this admission until after the bill had passed. But he voted for this legislation knowing that there was no case for it. People should judge him at the ballot box for that.

Friday, December 12, 2014

No freedom of speech in Myanmar

A kiwi has been detained in Myanmar for "insulting religion":

A New Zealand bar manager has been detained in Burma for using an image of the Buddha wearing headphones in a promotion.

Police said the promotion was an insult to the Buddhist religion.


The maximum penalty for attempting to insult, destroy or damage any religion is two years in jail, with another two-year penalty for those who attempt to insult religion through the written word.

If headphones are an "insult", you really have to wonder what they'd do to someone who denied their religion. And it really shows how such laws are a tool for religious control - a denial of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

New Fisk

It is our indignation, not that of the Arab world, that torturers fear. We are the bad guys too

Australia's absurd secrecy

In New Zealand, Ministerial expenses are proactively released and a matter of public record. Anyone can see where our Ministers have been, where they stayed, and (in many cases) what they had for dinner. Its considered a basic matter of accountability for their use of public money.

in Australia, its a different story. Over there, they think such basic information is a matter of national security:

The Abbott government is refusing to release documents detailing the cost and purpose of overseas travel by Coalition ministers, claiming they could "cause damage to Australia's international relations" if made public.

The government-wide clampdown comes after embarrassing details of Education Minister Christopher Pyne's lavish trip to London and Rome with his wife were revealed by Fairfax Media in September.

In a letter, the government leader in the Senate, Eric Abetz, refused a request to table correspondence between Prime Minister Tony Abbott's office and ministers concerning approval of international travel by members of the executive.

The blanket refusal has been made despite freedom of information officers in the Education Department seeing no impediment to the release of expense details of Mr Pyne's $30,000 trip to London and Rome in April.

This is a new low even for Australia: the Gillard government routinely released such information. But the Coalition favours secrecy so as to prevent stories about Ministers dining in expensive restraunts on the public credit card. And so miraculously, their political problem becomes a "national security" issue (stopping Ministers from abusing public money in this way appears not to have occurred to them).

In New Zealand, our government couldn't get away with that. They'd be laughed out of town, and the Ombudsman would tell them to obey the law and release. Australia lacks such checks and balances, which means that all they have are leaks.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The CIA are rapists

Among the horrors emerging from the Senate report into CIA torture: the CIA likes to anally rape its prisoners under the guise of "feeding" them:

CIA operatives subjected at least five detainees to what they called “rectal rehydration and feeding”, a medical practice applied with extreme rarity and known more colloquially as a nutrient enema, according to a Senate intelligence committee report released Tuesday.

The CIA forced the nutrient enemas on two detainees who attempted hunger strikes, a third who “partially refus[ed] liquids”, a fourth “without a determination of medical need”, and a fifth whose case details are not divulged.

Agency operatives had explicitly considered other methods of force-feeding, the report shows, but opted to subject detainees to rectal infusions at least in part because its officers considered them “a means of behavior control”. One medical officer wrote that “[w]hile IV infusion is safe and effective, we were impressed with the ancillary effectiveness of rectal of ending the water refusal.”


In the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a detainee who has confessed to being the architect of 9/11, the CIA’s chief interrogator ordered rectal feeding “without a determination of medical need”.


CIA records showed at least one detainee, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, suffered from an anal fissure, chronic hemorrhoids and symptomatic rectal prolapse after a rectal infusion. The Senate report also found that CIA leadership was notified of allegations that rectal exams were conducted with “excessive force”.

[Emphasis added]

This isn't about medicine - its violating people to enforce your power over them. And that's a crime, whether you're working for the government or not. Again, where are the prosecutions?