Friday, October 24, 2014

Freedom of information: A good idea from India

One of the better ideas for freedom of information implemented overseas is disclosure logs - agencies posting requests and responses publicly, allowing performance to be monitored and reducing repeat requests. This is widespread in Australia and the UK, but poorly implemented in New Zealand. But now India has taken the idea a step further, with a single, nationwide disclosure-log:

All Indian government agencies have been told to post online their replies to Right to Information Act requests by the end of the month.

The ministry overseeing the administration of the Indian RTI Act on Oct. 21 announced a new website feature that will allow placement of replies on the RTI Online system.

Agencies were instructed to contact the Department of Personnel & Training (DOPT) for directions on the system upgrade. A one page memo by Sandeep Jain says the goal is to implement the policy by Oct. 31.

[Requests which include personal information won't be included]

The utility of the system will depend greatly on searchability and how good agencies are at tagging releases. But these are not difficult problems. And the advantages are huge. For a start, it will enable the collection of national statistics, not just about numbers, but also about the amount and type of information released. It will also allow appeal authorities to spot problems - e.g. if an agency is consistently misinterpreting the law, or making dubious withholding decisions. And of course its a huge benefit to journalists, academics and historians examining government policy.

We should do this here. It wouldn't require a law change, just a decision by the government to develop (or acquire) the software and fund the server. And the improvement in openness would be tremendous.

Christchurch's rebuild should be decided by Christchurch, not Wellington

Radio New Zealand has an appalling story this morning about the government's interference in the Christchurch rebuild over the new District Plan. Normally district plans are decided by elected local councils accountable to the voters who will live under them. But National has been using its extraordinary CERA powers to impose one from Wellington - and threatening to simply legislate for one if the council resists:

The email finished with a threat from the minister.

" should be noted that the Council should not consider the current track of a truncated process under the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act the only option. An incoming government will always have the option of special legislation to create a standalone plan process for Christchurch as was done for the first Auckland unitary plan. I would urge the Council to carefully consider the relative risks and merits of proceeding with the current track."

This was a reference to what happened as part of the Super City legislation, where the Government required a new district plan for the whole region to be in place within three years and where the Government set the terms for how the new city should operate.

This is simply an affront to democracy. Christchurch belongs to the people who live there, and they should decide what it looks like. The only reason for National to bully the Council in this way is if their preferred options would not be approved by the people of Christchurch - which simply highlights why they should keep their nose out of it.

Turning a blind eye to corruption

As we are constantly reminded, New Zealand consistently leads the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index as the "least corrupt country in the world". And as we are increasingly becoming aware, that reputation may be undeserved. Today there's another nail in the coffin of that image, with a new report from Transparency International showing that we are dragging our feet on enforcing the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention.

We're not alone in this - most of the Convention's parties are similar unenthused about stopping their companies bribing foreign officials. But the real shame is that we are behind even corrupt Australia in our enforcement, being rated only as "Limited Enforcement" versus Australia's "Moderate". Our investigations into corruption by our companies go nowhere, while key legislation has been left to rot on the Order Paper. The Companies and Limited Partnerships Amendment Bill, designed to close the loophole which, among other things, allows foreigners to establish NZ companies for use in money laundering and fraud, has been before the House for three years. Its headline Organised Crime and Anti-corruption Legislation Bill hasn't even had a first reading. You'd almost get the impression that policing their corrupt corporate mates just isn't a priority for the National Party.

Political interference at Maori Television

A government-owned television channel arranges an interview with a former opposition MP, but the government-appointed CEO spikes it. Something from Russia or Cuba maybe? No - according to Hone Harawira its happening right here in New Zealand:

“[Maori TV CEO Paora] Maxwell also gave an undertaking that the changes were purely operational and that there would be no political interference in the decisions made by the News and Current Affairs Division.

“Well … that undertaking has lasted just one month, with Maxwell telling Native Affairs staff that there was no way he would allow me to come onto Native Affairs final show of the year, set to go to air live on Monday 3 November.

I had already been invited by Native Affairs to feature in the show alongside other ex-MPs, Tau Henare and Shane Jones (see emails below), but when Maxwell found out he called in the Native Affairs team and told them point-blank that I would not be allowed on the show. No problems with Henare, no problem with Jones, but no way for Harawira.

[Emphasis added]

Its not the role of the chief executive of a public broadcaster to interfere in editorial decisions. But that's exactly what National's crony CEO is doing, and specifically for political purposes. It appears the concerns about Maxwell - that he was appointed to gut Maori TV and turn it into a cheerleader for the establishment rather than a journalistic watchdog - were fully justified. But its hard to see how Maori, or the public, are well-served by the corruption of their public service broadcaster. Maxwell has to go, before he does any more damage.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

More police misconduct

Another day, another IPCA report - this one into a police officer who unjustifiably set a police dog to savage a surrendering suspect:

A police dog was set on a man who had his hands in the air in what is described as ''an excessive use of force and unlawful'' by the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA).


''The officer's use of his dog in this instance was an excessive and unlawful use of force,'' Independent Police Conduct Authority chair, Judge Sir David Carruthers said.

"Given that the offender was standing still with both hands in the air and making no attempt to resist arrest the deployment of the dog was unnecessary. There were other, less harmful tactical options available to the officer which he should have used rather than deploying the police dog," Sir David said.''

In a statement, assistant police commissioner Allan Boreham said they accepted the report's findings.

''We need to get our judgement right every time when using force, notwithstanding the hundreds of incidents our staff respond to every day,'' he said.

The officer involved would be ''subject to employment actions reinforcing police policy and the importance of good decision-making around the appropriate use of dogs and other tactical options,'' Boreham said.

Its good to see that the police accept the findings. But notice what's not on the table: prosecution. If a member of the public set a dog on someone, they'd be in court, and possibly in jail. So why isn't this uniformed thug? It appears that the police are still suffering from the mindset that they are above the law, and still committed to protecting their own no matter what they do...

No freedom of speech in Turkey

Musa Kart is a Turkish cartoonist. In February he published a cartoon criticising Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's cover-up of a corruption probe. Now, he's being prosecuted for it:

Turkish prosecutors have filed an indictment against a famous cartoonist working for the Cumhuriyet daily over a caricature he drew criticizing then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's attempts to cover up a graft probe that shook the country late last year, seeking up to nine years and 10 months in prison for the cartoonist.

Cumhuriyet reported on Monday that according to the indictment filed by the İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor's Office, Erdoğan filed a criminal complaint against cartoonist Musa Kart for insulting him and slandering him via the media in a caricature that was published in the daily's Feb. 1, 2014, edition. The press bureau of the prosecutor's office initially ruled that there were no grounds for legal action over the caricature. However, upon objections from Erdoğan's lawyer, the Bakırköy 14th High Criminal Court ruled that the cartoon went beyond the boundaries of criticism and revoked the initial decision. The indictment filed afterward calls for a prison sentence of up to nine years and 10 months for Kart. The court will begin to hear Kart's case on Oct. 23.

Meanwhile, the targets of the corruption probe which inspired the cartoon have been allowed to walk free. The message is clear: in Turkey, corruption is not a crime - but criticising it is.

Freedom of information: How it works in Norway

While we're all wailing and gnashing our teeth about the corruption of our Official Information Act, the Open Government Partnership has a great piece on how Norway does it better. Key to their approach is proactive publication of the metadata of all government documents, down to the lowliest email:

Norway’s Freedom of Information Act cuts across state, county and municipal governments. It interfaces with the Archives Act and Noark [the Norwegian Archival Standard] by requiring administrative agencies to keep and publish a register of metadata daily to an online access portal, the Offentlig Elektronisk Postjournal (OEP). The OEP, a central access point for government information, enables users to search all records across government for a given issue and make requests easily and rapidly. Anyone, anywhere in the world can request access to records through the OEP. See

Under the Act, government documents, including email, are available for access as soon as they are produced, received or transmitted by a central government agency unless there is a legal restriction. About one fifth of the records, classified for security reasons, are not listed in the register. Agencies have five days in which to respond to information requests, via the OEP or direct to the agency. They provide the documents by email, fax or regular mail, normally within two to three days.

By the end of 2012, the OEP contained over five million registry entries published by 105 government agencies. It processed about 20,000 information requests a month: 50% from journalists (50%), 28% from citizens and businesses, 21% from public employees and 3% from researchers.

The Government is considering the possibility of providing direct access to full text documents through the OEP to make administration more open and transparent and enable government agencies to work more efficiently. There is significant potential for linking records to data to support data traceability and enable reliable Open Data.

The result is that people can see what the Norwegian government is doing virtually in real time.

I would like to see such a system (and Norwegian response timelines) here. But can we really imagine any of our political parties standing up for our democratic rights and volunteering to make themselves more accountable to us? It would be like turkeys voting for christmas - they won't do it unless we force them to.

[Hat-tip: Andrew E]

National lets Shell drill illegally

Back in 2012, National passed the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Act. At the time, they made a lot of noise about how this was the first legislation to properly protect the EEZ, and that it would lead to a higher level of protection than the existing Continental Shelf Act. So, have they actually enforced the law? Yeah, right:

Shell Todd Oil has drilled two wells off the coast of Taranaki without marine consent, the Green Party says.

Official Information Act (OIA) correspondence between the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) and the Greens -- released to the media tonight -- show the EPA inspected the company's Maui oil wells in May this year.

The authority concluded that in two instances Shell Todd Oil Services Ltd (STOS) did not comply with Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) regulations.

"[T]he two activities are considered to be in breach of section 20 of the EEZ Act and were undertaken without a marine consent," the EPA said in a response to OIA questions from the Greens.

Breaching s20 is a strict-liability offence carrying a penalty of a $10 million fine. But National seems to have just let that slide for its mates in the drillign industry. The message is clear: the law applies only to little people, to us peasants. Under National, corporate criminals get a free ride.

Justice for Nisour Square

On September 16, 2007, Blackwater mercenaries ran amok in Nisour Square, Baghdad, indiscriminately firing at civilians. 17 people were killed and 20 injured. Today, a US jury has convicted them of that crime:

Three security guards working for the private US contractor Blackwater have been found guilty of the manslaughter of a group of unarmed civilians at a crowded Baghdad traffic junction in one of the darkest incidents of the Iraq war.

A fourth, Nicholas Slatten, was found guilty of one charge of first-degree murder. All face the likelihood of lengthy prison sentences after unanimous verdicts on separate weapons charges related to the incident.

The weapons charge alone carries a 30-year sentence. OTOH, courts in other Iraq war crimes cases have been reluctant to impose serious sentences even for cases of outright murder. Failure to do so again will simply reinforce the need for an international court to provide justice for America's victims.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Auckland's disturbing panopticon

Earlier in the month, we learned that Auckland was planning to install a creepy panopticon, complete with ANPR and facial recognition, for vague and undefinied purposes. This produced a flurry of OIA requests via FYI, and one of them (for advice from the Privacy Commissioner) has come back. The picture it paints is disturbing. According to the Privacy Commissioner,

  • Auckland Transport is unclear about the purposes of the surveillance and what it will be used for;
  • want to share the cost with police, which raises the spectre that police are using AT to install a city-wide ANPR network by the backdoor;
  • have some entirely innocuous uses for it e.g. counting queues at traffic lights to adjust light phasings, detecting pedestrians so they can trigger a crossing;
  • want to use ANPR to collect trafic statistics. You can use it for traffic time statistics simply by logging the time it takes for a vehicle to pass between two points, but this raises privacy concerns if the data is retained. Worse, they want to use it to monitor traffic-flow "e.g. 10% of cars leaving from point A travel to point B; 30% travelled to point C etc" which raises more serious concerns, since it is actively tracking people's movements;
  • they also want to use ANPR to prevent non-residents parking in resident's parking areas; something which raises very serious privacy concerns (since they're matching vehicles to where people live).

The widespread use of ANPR raises real concerns, and while there are some good uses for it (and traffic-flow stats sound pretty useful), it hinges crucially on how long data is retained for. If data is immediately anonymised ("car1", "car 2" etc) or dumped the moment a vehicle passes the next point or within an hour, its fairly harmless. But if its retained for any longer than that, then what we really have is a widespread databasing of innocent people's movements. And once it exists, it will be used for other purposes - not just by police (who already request camera info, will request ANPR data if it is collected, and already pressure e.g. telecoms companies to retain data for longer than necessary to facilitate access), but by others. The idea of council staff using ANPR to track the movements of their abused partners, or selling the information to debt-collectors, or leaving it open to hackers to exploit and poke through at will is a nightmare. But its what will happen if we collect this. The best way to protect our privacy is not to collect information in the first place, and to destroy it the moment its purpose has passed.

Judith Collins' two-tier OIA service

Back in August, we learned that sewerblogger Cameron Slater was receiving extraordinary OIA service from then-Minister of Justice Judith Collins, in one case receiving a response to a request within 37 minutes. But it wasn't just extraordinary for its speed; from OIA records OIA'd via FYI, it appears that Slater's OIA requests were not even logged.

According to 3News, Slater's afterhours OIA for a letter the Minister had only just received was handled on December 21, 2012. Here's the relevant section of the logs:

Slater's OIA request doesn't appear. Which is highly unusual and suggests it was handled outside the normal process.

Slater's 37-minute OIA doesn't appear either, but two similar requests do:

(Thanks to @LostArcNZ for the excerpts and the legwork)

Neither matches either the final request - for correspondence since August 2012 - or the date of response: 12 February 2013. Its possible that the first request could be the relevant one, but then you have to ask why Collins' staff put the wrong response date in.

What's going on here/ It's pretty clear Collins was operating a two-tier OIA service: one for the public (official, logged, slow), and one for her pet sewerblogger (unlogged, lightning fast, with special tips on what to request and likely distorted release decisions). That's a gross abuse of power as a Minister, and to the extent that she politically profited from it, a corrupt use of official information.


This week we've seen the Prime Minister desperately trying to cover up his war plans by pretending that Obama's war-planning meeting was just a "regular" meeting of defence partners which we just happened to be attending. Over on Kiwipolitico Pablo has already told us why this is bullshit, and last night the Chief of Defence Force effectively said the same:

The Chief of Defence and the Prime Minister have been caught at odds as they prepare to send troops into Iraq.

Lieutenant General Tim Keating has admitted a meeting he attended with US President Barack Obama about the war against Islamic State was extraordinary. That's despite John Key claiming it was regular.

Lt Gen Keating was in Washington DC for a meeting of military chiefs, with Mr Obama taking charge.

"The President arriving is not regular; it's quite an extraordinary event," says Lt Gen Keating.

But then he tries to cover for the PM by saying that the NZDF had no clue that Obama would be attending. Which isn't exactly credible either. This isn't some surprise visit to a children's hospital; its a planned diplomatic event. And if our Chief of Defence Force isn't aware of what's happening at the events he's going to, then he shouldn't be representing us at them.

Are the police using ANPR to target the disabled?

The media this morning is full of stories of the paralysed man caught driving using a walking stick to reach the pedals. Its good that he's off the road, but there's one point in the story which raises questions:

The driver was caught at an automatic number plate recognition checkpoint this morning.

He had held a learner licence since 2002. He also had two passengers, neither of whom were licensed to drive.

So why was he in the ANPR database? Did he have a prior record of dangerous driving (which might justify inclusion), or are the police automatically classing disabled drivers as dangerous and databasing them as such - in which case there's a serious discrimination issue? I think we deserve some answers on this, and fast.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Security Council and free trade

Last week, New Zealand won a seat on the United Nations Security Council. And over the weekend the New Zealand business community made it clear what they wanted from the position:

A business director says New Zealand's new seat on the UN Security Council will help push free trade agreements through more quickly.

New Zealand's ten-year campaign to win a two-year seat on the body came to fruition yesterday in New York.

The Foreign Affairs Minister, Murray McCully, said having a place on the Security Council will enable better discussions on trade with other countries.

Grant Thornton Consultancy's tax director Greg Thompson said this would help advance free trade deals.

How? The UNSC doesn't have jurisdiction over trade. The only way this is going to happen is if New Zealand corruptly abuses its new position - a position we should be exercising to protect world peace - in order to gain benefits for ourselves. This would be deeply unethical, and the fact that the New Zealand business community is proposing it tells us everything we need to know about their lack of ethics.

National's failure on housing

A year ago National passed the Housing Accords and Special Housing Areas Act 2013. In his speech introducing the bill, then-Housing Minister Nick Smith laid down some clear targets:

It is an ambitious agreement, and sets out a plan to consent 9,000 homes in the first year, 13,000 homes in the second year, and 17,000 homes in the third year. That will have us consenting three times as many homes over the next 3 years as have been consented over the last 3 years.

Its now been a year since the bill was passed, so how many houses have actually been built under it? Five. And according to the Herald, the total number of consents issued is 294. The government is making excuses about this being a long-term project, but whichever way you look at it, they've failed to meet the targets they set for themselves. Which makes you wonder whether those targets had any basis in reality, or whether they were just chosen to sound good in a speech.

Monday, October 20, 2014

John Key on Iraq: A timeline

No New Zealand forces to Iraq, says Key. Stuff, 18 June 2014:

Prime Minister John Key has ruled out sending special forces soldiers to Iraq as the United States mulls options in response to the unfolding crisis there.

Speaking in New York, Key said the New Zealand Government was looking at what humanitarian aid it might provide as tens of thousands of Iraqis have been displaced by a violent takeover of parts of the country.

He said it was high unlikely New Zealand would put "boots on the ground" in Iraq in terms of combat troops.

"We're not a country out there looking for a fight," he said.

PM ponders NZ role in fight against Islamic State, TVNZ, 29 September 2014:
The Prime Minister is seeking advice as to how, and if, New Zealand could help out in the fight against Islamic State terrorists.

The United States hasn't specifically come to New Zealand for help - although John Key admitted that's likely to be because National is only in caretaker government mode.

He says he's just "being cautious" by seeking further advice and anything beyond humanitarian support is something the government would have to "carefully consider".

Key: SAS could join Isis fight on ground, New Zealand Herald, 30 September 2014:
Asked whether he would send military personnel if requested, Mr Key said: "I can't rule out that there won't be because what you can see around the world is countries being asked to give support."

As far as sending SAS personnel, Mr Key said: "I can't rule that absolutely out, but what I can say is that I'll get advice and we'll see how that goes, but it would be my least preferred option."

SAS in Iraq unlikely - Key, 3 News, 13 october 2014:
Mr Key told Radio New Zealand this morning that while he was reluctant to rule any type of involvement in or out at this stage, a combat role was unlikely.

"As to the SAS physically going into a combat role up against the ISIS... I would have thought that would be at the very outer edge of what we'd be wanting to do," Mr Key said.

Islamic State fight: PM ramps up talk of troops in Iraq, Stuff, 20 October 2014:
New Zealand troops could soon be following their Australian counterparts to Iraq to train Iraqi security forces, with Prime Minister John Key confirming that was "definitely an option".

At this rate, we will Always Have had Troops In Iraq by the end of the month.

New Fisk

With US-led strikes on Isis intensifying, it’s a good time to be a shareholder in the merchants of death

National doesn't care about crime by the rich

National likes to make a lot of noise about benefit fraud. Meanwhile, they've buried a report into the social costs of economic crime:

At the beginning of last year the then Minister for the SFO, Anne Tolley, was reported as saying that a number of Government ministries had been working for two years on a report quantifying the cost of economic crime and it would be presented to Cabinet in the near future.

But the report did not make it to Cabinet and was not released.

Radio New Zealand obtained a draft copy of the SFO's report under the Official Information Act. The methodologies that would have made it possible to calculate the total costs were redacted.

However, Radio New Zealand has also obtained a copy of the report with the estimated costs of the various types of economic crime included - which put the total cost of economic crime at between $6.1 and $9.4 billion.

To put this in perspective, in 2006 Treasury estimated the total cost of all crime in New Zealand at ~$9.1 billion (this includes about a billion for fraud). So, fraud by the rich costs us about the same as all the burglaries, drug deals and murders combined.

Its easy to see why National buried this. Tax fraud costs us ~$2 billion a year. White collar fraud across the private sector costs us ~$3.2 - $5.1 billion. These activities are carried out overwhelmingly by National's donors and cronies, and are vastly larger than the ~$80 million of estimated welfare fraud. Keeping us in the dark reduces the risk of being held accountable for this failure, reduces the pressure for them to act against their friends, and allows them to focus on kicking the poor. And if the cost is that the state is robbed of the sort of revenue which would allow it to end child poverty, well, they don't really care about that.

New kiwi blog

On The Left - a collective of lefties.

Habemus Parliament

So, a month after the election, we finally have a Parliament. Good. meanwhile, people seem to be noticing that the associated ceremony - white wigs, fancy dress, oaths of allegiance to a foreign monarch - isn't very kiwi (and tomorrow, with its "black rod", will be even worse. Seriously, the "gentleman usher" sounds like a Buffy villain). Wouldn't it be nice to have ceremonies which reflected the values and constitutional realities of modern New Zealand, rather than C18th Britain?

One of those value clashes is the oath. MPs are required to swear allegiance to the queen and her successors. This causes problems every year with MPs who believe it is more appropriate to swear allegiance to the Treaty of Waitangi, or the constitution and people of New Zealand rather than a foreign millionaire. Our Parliament's way of handling this recently - effectively to ban all dissent - is simply white supremacist bullshit, a denial of our diversity and our democracy. It has to change. The quicker we do away with this colonial, feudal relic, the better.