John Key has announced the date of the election 6 months beforehand. Good. But while I welcome the increased transparency, wouldn't it be better if the decision wasn't in the hands of a politician and able to be manipulated for their advantage (as both Muldoon and Clark tried to do), and instead was fixed by law?
Monday, March 10, 2014
We like to regard Australia as a natural ally, our sibling-country which shares our outlook on the world. But it turns out they've been working behind our back to undermine our disarmament efforts:
The federal government led secret diplomatic efforts to frustrate a New Zealand-led push for nuclear disarmament, according to documents released under freedom of information laws.
Declassified ministerial submissions, cables and emails from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade show Australian diplomats worked energetically against nuclear disarmament efforts by other countries, because ''we rely on US nuclear forces to deter nuclear attack on Australia''.
A Foreign Affairs and Trade department submission endorsed by Ms Bishop last October argued that a nuclear weapons ban ''conflicts with Australia's long-standing position that, as long as a nuclear weapons threat exists, we rely on US nuclear forces to deter nuclear attack on Australia''.
Foreign Affairs and Trade head Peter Varghese bluntly observed that the New Zealand-led humanitarian initiative ''runs against our security interests''.
So much for natural allies. But its also interesting that the US doesn't feel it can lead the pro-bomb camp itself, and so dumped the job on one of its patsies.
Over the weekend, Labour leader David Cunliffe announced plans for a "digital bill of rights", to protect access to the internet and outlaw warrentless surveillance. Which is good, but then there's this bit:
"It would also guarantee freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion, while still outlawing hate speech."
This sounds good - but its actually an erosion compared to what we have at present. Those freedoms, whether offline or on, are currently protected by the BORA. But hate speech isn't outlawed in practical terms (there is a crime of inciting racial disharmony, but there was only a single prosecution under the 1971 Act, and the consensus now is that the BORA has made it almost impossible to prosecute). So that "still" hides a massive crackdown on online expression. It may be expression we don't like, that we find hateful and offensive, but that doesn't justify outlawing it, any more than it justifies outlawing rickrolling. Which means the answer to Labour's proposal has to be "no thanks". Protect freedom of speech unambiguously according to BORA standards or piss off.
And so what should be a hands-down policy win for Labour turns into a mess, because they took a good idea and poisoned it, in the process alienating the very groups the policy was aimed at winning support from. Heckuva job you're doing there guys. Good luck with that election-thing.
(See also: InternetNZ)
'Love' for PM spurs $105,000 donation, Stuff, 17 July 2010:
A top Auckland restaurateur has given $105,000 to the National Party, saying although he was too Right-wing for any political party, his "love" for the prime minister prompted him to do it.
Asked the reason for his largesse, restaurant owner Tony Astle said Mr Key was a customer he had known for several years.
"Well, I just love the prime minister. I've never really been a person to give money to parties, but I decided this time I would. We need them back again, we don't need those other pretenders."
Campaign donations favour the right, Stuff, 3 November 2011:
Antoine's Restaurant in Parnell, owned by outspoken John Key supporter Tony Astle, was the other National donor, giving the party $60,000.
It follows another $105,000 donation last June from the Parnell restaurant, where Mr Key and wife Bronagh are regular diners.
New Year Honours: Tony Astle ONZM, New Zealand Herald, 31 December 2012:
"It came out of the blue, really - I wasn't expecting it at all," said restaurateur Tony Astle of his award.
The 62-year-old owns the renowned Antoine's restaurant in Parnell, Auckland, which he opened with his wife, Beth, in 1973.
"I'm very excited about it, because, well, you don't expect these sorts of things when you're a chef," Mr Astle said.
Oddly, the final story doesn't mention the donations, any more than the current kerfuffle mentions the honour. You'd think its potentially relevant to the discussion.
Friday, March 07, 2014
After three years of disquieting revelations, the British government has finally ordered an inquiry into police spying:
The home secretary has ordered a public inquiry into the undercover infiltration of political groups after an independent inquiry confirmed that Scotland Yard had spied on the family of Stephen Lawrence.
Theresa May's decision came after an inquiry conducted by Mark Ellison QC found that the Metropolitan police planted "a spy in the Lawrence family camp".
In a dark day for the Met's reputation, May branded the revelations "profoundly shocking and disturbing", adding that "policing stands damaged today". She warned that the "full truth" had yet to emerge.
May's decision to order a public inquiry comes after three years of revelations surrounding the undercover officers who have been sent to infiltrate political groups over the past 40 years. Investigations by the Guardian have revealed how the spies routinely formed sexual relationships with the activists they had been sent to spy on and stole the identities of dead children to fortify their cover while they lived among campaigners in deployments usually lasting four or five years.
The question now is whether the inquiry will actually get to the bottom of things, or whether it will be the usual whitewash aimed at putting things on hold while public anger dies down. But with Doreen Lawrence holding the government's feet to the fire, maybe there's some chance of the truth emerging. OTOH, as Hugh Muir points out, the British state "does not self-correct". It cannot admit official wrongdoing, so it cannot ever fix it or prevent it from happening again. What's surprising is that UKanians continue to put up with this.
Those who support sedition laws justify them on the need to protect the state from traitors and terrorists. In practice, such laws are used to criminalise opposition to the government of the day. But in India, its gone from the evil to the absurd, with 67 Kashmiri students charged with sedition for cheering for the wrong cricket team:
The police in northern India have filed sedition charges against 67 Kashmiri students after some of them cheered for the Pakistani cricket team during a televised match with India on Sunday night.
The charges were filed Tuesday following an official complaint against the students by Manzoor Ahmed, vice chancellor of Swami Vivekanand Subharti University in Meerut, according to M. M. Baig, a Meerut police official. In addition to sedition charges, the students were charged with “instigating hate between two communities.”
And that's what sedition is at its heart: a means of enforcing public loyalty to governments which deserve none.
The charges have now been dropped, but the students have been indefinitely suspended from their university. Freedom of speech? Not in India.
Back in 2008 when he was running for Prime Minister, John Key promised us "a higher standard of government". When tested, that promise has been shown to be hot air - and Judith Collins' conflict of interest over endorsing her husband's company (which is also a major donor to the National Party) is no exception. As predicted, he's refusing to turn over the "advice" from the Cabinet Office saying that its all OK - which means that we cannot see if that advice stacks up, or even if its real. And then there's this bit:
"We have a set of rules which are always just a guideline anyway."
"Just a guideline": this is how Key treats our constitution (and the Cabinet Manual is part of our constitution, setting out the processes and norms of Cabinet governance). "A higher standard of government"? I think not.
Something I missed: back in December, John Key appointed former Wellington city councillor Chris Parkin to the Tourism Board. Parkin is an ACT hack, but had been in the hotel industry, so he could be considered qualified, except for this: he's a big donor to the National Party. In 2011, he gave them $55,000 (the Herald can't count, and only reported $53,000); in 2012, he gave them another $16,850. 2013 returns aren't out yet, but they may make interesting reading too. While Parkin might be qualified, giving a government job to someone who has given your party over $70,000 looks unseemly at best - and outright corrupt at worst.
Thursday, March 06, 2014
Last year, the Human Rights Commission released a report, Monitoring Human Rights in the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery, which found serious failures to uphold human rights - most notably the right to housing - in post-earthquake Christchurch. One of the key findings of the report - echoed regularly by media reports - was that "many people affected by the earthquakes continue to experience deteriorating standards of living and impacts on their quality of life that go beyond the immediate effects of the disaster".
Today in Question Time the government rejected that report and its findings:
DENIS O'ROURKE (NZ First) to the Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery: Does he accept the conclusion in the Human Rights Commission’s report Monitoring Human Rights in the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery that “many people affected by the earthquakes continue to experience deteriorating standards of living and impacts on their quality of life that go beyond the immediate effects of the disaster”?
Hon AMY ADAMS (Associate Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery) on behalf of the Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery: No, the Minister does not accept this conclusion as there are considerable programmes of work under way to improve residential conditions in Christchurch.
Those "considerable programmes of work" are clearly inadequate. Three years on, we still have people without homes, waiting on EQC or their insurance companies for repairs. And the government's response is to say that everything is fine, and when people point to their lived experience to show that that is false, to try and bully them into silence. People are crying out for help, and they've got their fingers in their ears.
This isn't good enough. Christchurch needs a government which will listen. And they won't get it from National.
Fijian dictator Voreqe Bainimarama has stepped down as head of the military:
Fiji's military strongman Frank Bainimarama has named a fellow 2006 coup plotter as the next commander of the country's military forces.
Bainimarama, who says he is retiring from the Fiji Military Forces (RFMF) to run in democracy-restoring elections this year, named Land Force Commander Colonel Mosese Tikoitoga to take over.
But while Bainimarama is out of the military, the military isn't out of Fiji. They still have over fifty officers embedded in the public service to ensure they retain control, as well as a constitutional clause authorising further coups whenever they feel like it. And on that front, giving command to one of their most thuggish senior officers, who ceremonially burned a draft constitution which would have properly restored civilian rule, is not a good sign.
Fiji has a long way to go before democracy is restored - not just elections, but prosecutions, and a complete culture change (and downsizing) of the military. And there's no sign at all of the latter happening.
Last week, Labour MP Ruth Dyson highlighted the case of Dot Boyd, an 85-year-old woman still waiting for EQC to make basic repairs to her home three years after the Christchurch earthquake. When confronted with a case like this, you'd expect the Minister responsible - in this case Gerry Brownlee - to promise swift corrective action to resolve the problem. Instead, Brownlee accused Dyson of "political manipulation" and laziness, claiming that Labour MPs had lodged only five requests for assistance for their constituents.
Yesterday, we learned that that was all a lie, and that EQC had given Brownlee incorrect information:
A humiliated Gerry Brownlee has apologised to Labour MPs he sledged over their workrate on behalf of earthquake victims and says he feels let down by EQC.
Brownlee confirmed yesterday that he had discovered that Boyd may be the tip of the iceberg after EQC identified a further 85 cases where vulnerable elderly people had been left in limbo while waiting on a decision.
He had also just learnt that Boyd's plight was raised eight months ago with EQC by Labour but no action was taken.
There are two points worth making here. Firstly and most obviously, something is seriously wrong at EQC. Either they deliberately lied to their Minister out of malice at MPs who had been criticising them, or they are deliberately undercounting (by requiring that they be classified as "formal") or simply losing complaints. Neither is acceptable, and heads need to roll for it. Secondly, there's Brownlee. He claims in the Stuff story linked above to have not believed EQC's number and queried it. Yet despite that, he went out guns blazing with a personal attack on MPs for daring to represent their constituents against his bureaucracy. That's a particularly ugly bully that we've got there, and one with a distinct lack of interest in the truth. Which invites the question: if he's so slack about the truth in political matters, where it could come back to bite him messily and damage his career, how much attention do you think he pays to it in his portfolio, where its merely other people's lives and homes and futures on the line?
New Zealand ranks 6th in the world for the rule of law, according to the World Justice Project's Rule of Law Index 2014. The full report is here, and our country profile is here. Digging deeper, we rank 2nd in the world for open government (because our laws are accessible and stable, and you can get official information on request), but the area which really drags us down is criminal justice. And that's not a problem of sentencing or any of the PR crap the "hang 'em high" brigade harp on about, but because our police are perceived as racist muppets who cannot investigate cases properly. Given their recent high-profile failures, the police really have no-one to blame but themselves there.
For the past two years the Senate Intelligence Committee has been investigating the CIA's use of torture and rendition during the war on terror. The CIA doesn't like this, because it potentially means jail-time for CIA torturers and their enablers. So they've apparently been spying on their own oversight committee in an effort to find out what they know:
The Central Intelligence Agency’s attempt to keep secret the details of a defunct detention and interrogation program has escalated a battle between the agency and members of Congress and led to an investigation by the C.I.A.’s internal watchdog into the conduct of agency employees.
The agency’s inspector general began the inquiry partly as a response to complaints from members of Congress that C.I.A. employees were improperly monitoring the work of staff members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, according to government officials with knowledge of the investigation.
So basicly they've gone rogue then. This is not something that can be tolerated if the US wishes to remain a democracy; those responsible need to be prosecuted, and those who should have kept an eye on them sacked. Above all, the CIA needs to be purged and brought to heel and reminded of who it works for: the US government, not themselves.
Wednesday, March 05, 2014
Last year we learned that the GCSB had been systematically breaking the law and spying on New Zealanders. In addition to a law-change to legalise the abuses, the Kitteridge report made numerous recommendations on how to bring the GCSB back into compliance with the law. And the GCSB is ignoring them:
Of 80 recommendations intended to fix the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), just 35 have been completed.
The first two reports released in June and September showed 34 recommendations had been completed.
The latest update from December - not released but supplied when sought by the Herald - showed just one new recommendation was met in the latest reporting period. It means a total of 35 recommendations have been completed with 45 to go and a June deadline looming.
For the first time, the progress report also included partially completed recommendations. It shows another 27 are in progress - leaving 18 recommendations on which there appears to be no progress at all.
John Key's response? Give them a free pass for this foot-dragging by simply extending their deadline for compliance.
This isn't acceptable. The GCSB has grossly intrusive powers, and we need to be confident that they are being used legally. The GCSB Director had the task of implementing this report, and he has failed to do so. He needs to be sacked, and replaced with someone who will implement it.
It is against Cabinet Manual rules to endorse any product. Labour MP Grant Robertson said there was a perception of a conflict of interest. "Ministers have to be up front. Perception matters.''
But Mr Key this afternoon said his office yesterday sought clarification from the Cabinet Office to ensure she hadn't broken the rules.
"They unequivocally came back and said no there's no breach."
A translation of a Chinese language report on Ms Collins' visit to the Oravida offices on the company's website says she tried the company's milk and "praised" it.
Mr Key said it was correct that Ministers shouldn't endorse products in their official business but the Cabinet Office didn't believe Ms Collins had endorsed the company's products.
The natural thing to do here would be to OIA the Cabinet Office to see whether they really did say that, and whether their reasoning stacks up. But there's no point, because the Ombudsman has ruled [para 54 - 57] that such advice is "inherently confidential", and need not be disclosed even when politicians use it as a shield in public. Apparently the (supposed) word of the "respected and impartial" Cabinet secretary should be enough for us. But that's just hierarchical obey-your-"betters" bullshit. In a democracy, we don't trust anyone. Trust is for suckers. We want to know that our politicians are behaving properly. That requires transparency. And where there is no transparency, where we are forbidden to know, we cannot trust, and we can only regard those politicians as guilty and corrupt.
The European Parliament has moved forward with plans to bust open trusts:
The ultimate owners of companies and trusts would have to be listed in public registers in EU countries, under updated draft anti-money laundering rules approved by the Economic Affairs and the Justice and Home Affairs committees on Thursday. Casinos are included in the scope of the draft rules, but decisions to exclude other gambling services posing a low risk are left to member states.
Under the anti-money laundering directive (AMLD), as amended by MEPs, public central registers - which were not envisaged in the initial Commission proposal – would list information on the ultimate beneficial owners of all sorts of legal arrangements, including companies, foundations and trusts. "If we had decided to leave trusts, for example, out of the scope of this new legislation, then it would immediately have made them a perfect vehicle for criminals wishing to avoid taxation or launder their illegal money into the financial system", Ms Sargentini noted.
EU member states would have to make registers "publicly available following prior identification of the person wishing to access the information through basic online registration", MEPs say. They nonetheless inserted several provisions in the amended AMLD to protect data privacy and to ensure that only the minimum information necessary is put in the register. For example, registers would show who is behind a given trust, but would not reveal details of what is in it or what it it is for.
The London money-laundering industry is of course going apeshit, presenting it as an attack on the privacy of ordinary citizens. But what it actually means is that the dictators and kleptocrats they service will be stripped of their anonyminity, allowing their assets to be identified, frozen, and returned to their rightful owners. Those dictators and kleptocrats will therefore seek to launder their money elsewhere - and that's the real concern of the UK press.
Meanwhile, given that we are also being used to launder money through the vehicle of "New Zealand foreign trusts", we need to do this too. Failing to do so is being a bad international citizen, and directly enabling tax-evasion and money-laundering.
Oh dear. Judith Collins went to China on a taxpayer-funded trip, where she took time off to endorse her husband's company, which is also a big donor to the National Party:
Judith Collins went on a taxpayer-funded visit to China last year. In her public role as Justice Minister, she was there to talk about our system.
But she was also welcomed into a New Zealand export company that her husband has a private interest in.
She says the purpose of her visit was "to actually have a cup of tea on the way to the airport".
Ms Collins' husband, David Wong-Tung, is one of three directors of Oravida – a milk and food export company.
On its website the company referred to her as the Justice Minister. It says she recognised the company's efforts, and "congratulated us on what we have achieved and encouraged us to continue".
Ms Collins also opened the company's Auckland headquarters last year, with Mr Wong-Tung standing behind her. She says it is not an issue that she was effectively promoting the company where her husband is a director.
Except it is an issue. Firstly, because the Cabinet Manual prohibits Ministers from endorsing or promoting companies. Secondly, because of the apparent pecuniary interest. And on both fronts, the Cabint Manual is crystal clear: appearances matter:
Ministers are responsible for ensuring that no conflict exists or appears to exist between their personal interests and their public duty. Ministers must conduct themselves at all times in the knowledge that their role is a public one; appearances and propriety can be as important as an actual conflict of interest. Ministers should avoid situations in which they or those close to them gain remuneration or other advantage from information acquired only by reason of their office.
While Collins pooh-poohs the idea of a pecuniary interest, on the basis that her husband is merely a director rather than a shareholder, the public are perfectly aware that when companies do well, directors tend to do well as well. Regardless of its dollar value, a conflict of interest apparently exists. And Collins needs to be held to account for it.
And while we're at it: perhaps she'd care to explain why she hasn't announced this conflict to Cabinet? I've trawled the available conflict of interest registers (2009-20, 2010-12, 2012-13), and there's no mention of it. An ethical Minister who properly managed her conflicts would have an entry for "decisions in respect of a particular company", or (better) "decisions in respect of milk exports to China" (because, again, the public would see her having any role in a Cabinet decision on such matters as being a conflict). There is not such an entry. You can draw your own conclusions from that.
Last year, in an effort to dig itself out of its PR hole over John Key's spy bill and cuts to recreational fishing quotas, National spun the wheel again and came up with "child harm prevention orders": civil orders punishing those acquitted of child abuse. Today, that plan is officially dead. Good. The orders were part of the odious program - started under Labour, and seized upon eagerly by National, who regard BORA-violation as a mark of good policy - of circumventing the necessary protections of the criminal justice system by using the mask of "civil" orders as criminal punishments (see: asset forfeiture, and a host of instruments since). They violated the fundamental principle of "innocent until proven guilty", as well as double jeopardy, freedom of movement and the liberty of the person. They were simply repugnant to justice, a means of getting cheap PR by undermining the human rights of every person.
Child abuse is terrible. But if we want to stop it, the police need to do their fucking job by building strong cases against suspects and convincing juries that they are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Civil orders give them an easy way out - the lower evidentiary standard allows them to be lazy. And where the human costs of getting it wrong are so high, that's not something we should tolerate or permit.
Tuesday, March 04, 2014
The International Court of Justice has ordered Australia to stop spying on East Timor:
Australia has been ordered to cease spying on East Timor and its legal advisers, in a landmark decision by the International Court of Justice relating to a bitter dispute between the two countries over $40 billion of oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea.
''Australia shall not interfere in any way in communications between Timor Leste and its legal advisers in connection with the pending arbitration under the Timor Sea Treaty of 20 May 2002 between Timor Leste and Australia; with any future bilateral negotiations concerning maritime delimitation; or with any other related procedure between the two states, including the present case before the court,'' ICJ president Peter Tomka said.
The ruling endorses a request by East Timor. It is a provisional measure until the case is concluded in the ICJ but is wide in scope, relating not only to the arbitration in the Hague and case before the ICJ, but also any other matter relating to the dispute over the Timor Sea reserves, which includes the huge Greater Sunrise deposit.
Its hugely embarrassing for Australia to have a binding ruling like this handed down against it (especially by such a large majority - the only dissent was from an Australian judge appointed by the current government). But more than that: international negotiations are a prime target for the Five Eyes spy network. And the ICJ has just said that spying on them is a breach of international law.
The next question is how the primary case (that the Timor Sea Treaty should be set aside due to Australian spying) goes. There won't be a decision on that for a year at least, but if it goes against Australia it will be another example of how spying blows back and spies are actually harmful to the "national interest" that their advocates carp on about.