Tuesday, May 05, 2015

The UK supports electoral reform

With the UK on track for its second indecisive election later this week, the public mood has shifted to favour electoral reform:

A majority of people support electoral reform amid growing fears of chaos after Thursday’s general election, according to a survey for The Independent.

Politicians in all parties admitted there will be a renewed debate about voting reform if the first-past-the-post system produces the stalemate suggested by the opinion polls. Only four years ago, Britain voted by 68 to 32 per cent in a referendum against a switch to the alternative vote system.

Pollsters ORB, who questioned more than 2,000 people between May 1-3, found that 61 per cent believe the system should be reformed so that smaller parties are better represented in parliament, while 39 per cent think it should remain as it is, with MPs chosen directly by their constituents.

Men (63 per cent) are slightly more likely to support change than women (59 per cent). There is majority support for electoral reform among all age groups, although 18-24 year-olds (68 per cent) are more likely to back change than those 65 and over (52 per cent). Reform is endorsed by all social class groups and in every region of Great Britain.

The UK's unfair electoral system will produce unfair results on Thursday, while failing to produce the single-party government its defenders support it for. Which means there's no longer a shred of a case to retain it. Time to throw it out and use a fair system instead.

Australia's lapdog censors the internet

Last week Nauru cut off access to Facebook. First they denied it, then when Facebook confirmed the block they conceeded that some social media sites may have been blocked "temporarily" as part of a pornography crackdown. As for the real reason? Australia and refugees, of course:

A ban on Facebook in Nauru was implemented at the request of the Australian Government to assist its Cambodian resettlement policy, a refugee advocacy group says, citing an anonymous source.


Pamela Curr from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said that one of her contacts within the Nauruan community told her the Australian Government was behind the ban.

"My contacts are telling me that this was done at the request of the Australian Government," Ms Curr told Radio Australia's Pacific Beat program.

"They said that the Australian Government is anxious to get a group of people going to Cambodia and they are concerned that the people on Nauru are in contact with advocates in Australia who they believe are talking them out of the Cambodian option."

So, Australia decides that its plans to illegally render refugees to yet another country would go easier if people couldn't organise to oppose it, and requests that freedom of speech be limited in Nauru. And the Nauruan government, like obedient little lapdogs, complies. Just another example of how Australia's Pacific gulag policy has destroyed Nauru's democracy.

The cost of the ex-PMs travel rort

How much does the former MP's travel rort cost us? We don't know, but we do know how much it costs for former Prime Ministers: over $100,000 a year:

She lives in New York, but former prime minister Helen Clark still claims about $20,000 a year in domestic travel from New Zealand taxpayers.

And Jim Bolger, who has not been prime minister since 1997, spent more than most of today's working MPs between 2011 and 2012, when taxpayers forked out $51,500 in travel expenses for him and his wife.

The travel allowance for former premiers allows them, or their spouses, free internal flights, cars, trains, ferries, and chauffeur transfers for the remainder of their lives.

The total cost to taxpayers is more than $100,000 on average each year. For most former prime ministers, , the benefit is on top of an annuity payment of between $19,400 and $48,500 each.

In the case of former PMs there's some justification for funding travel - they still occasionally do official duties, and the travel funding of future former PMs will be limited to that. But these former PMs enjoy unlimited travel, usable for any purpose they want. And they shouldn't. There's no justification for it and it is simply a waste of public money. The fact that so many of them simply refuse to talk it simply adds insult to injury. They're spending our money, and they should be accountable for it publicly. As for the long-term solution, they've parasitised us enough; we should cut off their travel and limit it only to official purposes.

British politics jumps the shark

Serious UK political stories are now indistinguishable from The Onion:

Ed Miliband has unveiled a giant stone slab inscribed with Labour’s six election pledges – and vowed to have it installed at Downing Street if his party wins the general election.

Speaking in front of the 8ft 6ins-high piece of limestone, the Labour leader said he would keep the stone “in a place where we can see it every day as a reminder of our duty to keep Labour’s promises”.

Labour said the stone came as part of an effort to rebuild the public’s trust in politics, after the issue was highlighted by a series of pointed questions from the audience during last week’s final TV debate on BBC Question Time.

Like a pledge card, except it gets to be a public eyesore rather than discarded in the trash. But exactly how writing their promises on a more durable medium will make them keep them is left unexplained. Kindof like exactly what "an NHS with the time to care" actually means. Because at its heart, this is just more of the same - promises so vague that they are empty. Its not a covenant with the electorate, but a PR exercise covering a licence for politicians to do whatever they want.

If Miliband really wanted to rebuild trust in politics, he'd avoid such PR games, and instead simply do what he says he will, and explain to the public if circumstances mean that he can't or if he changes his mind. But there's no headlines in that, and it takes actual ongoing behavioural change, rather than a photo opportunity to "draw a line under the issue".

Monday, May 04, 2015

Change the flag

The bill for a pair of referenda on changing the New Zealand flag hasn't even passed the House yet, but the change the flag campaign has already started:

Change the NZ Flag has launched its campaign to encourage New Zealanders to get involved in helping the country choose a new flag, that is for New Zealand and from New Zealand.

"Change the NZ Flag is an independent, non-political, design-neutral society that is committed to building support for, and involvement with, the flag change process," says Change the NZ Flag spokesperson Lewis Holden.

"New Zealand has the unique opportunity to pick a flag that represents the modern, proud and independent nation that we are today, and it’s important that Kiwis take this once in a lifetime chance to have a debate on how we represent our national identity to ourselves, and the world."

I support them - we should have a flag of, by, and for New Zealand - not a foreign imperial relic. One that represents who we are, rather than who we were. And that's a decision we should all be able to have a say in.

Time to end child poverty

After winning the election last year, John Key made a clear promise to the electorate that he would end child poverty. Now, ActionStation is running a petition campaign calling on him to follow up on those words

Grassroots campaigning group ActionStation has teamed up with UNICEF, Child Poverty Action Group, NZ Council of Christian Social Services, members of the the Equality Network and Tick for Kids partners to launch a petition calling on the government to take real action on child poverty in Budget 2015 by treating all children equally and boosting the incomes of the poorest families in New Zealand.


“The time for that action has come. says Elliott, “In less than a month the Government will release the 2015 Budget, and what our members want is a broad political consensus, with support from all parties, for a Budget that will end poverty for New Zealand children.”

“One in five children in New Zealand live in poverty is not only a national crisis, but also an entirely avoidable one,” says Elliott. “We know what it would take to turn around the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Zealand children living in poverty, and we have the resources to make it happen. What we need is political courage, grounded in strong public support, and that’s where our members come in.”

You can sign the petition here.

New Fisk

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Court cases and conflicts of interest

Over the weekend we learned that the brother of a Cabinet Minister is facing sex charges. But this morning, John Key announced that the unnamed Minister would not be standing down:

A Cabinet minister whose brother is facing indecency charges will not step down, Prime Minister John Key says.


Key said the minister had notified the Prime Minister's office about the situation as soon as they were made aware of the issue.

"I sought extensive advice on any next steps and the very clear advice I received was that there was no conflict of interest and that the issue can be appropriately managed," Key said.

Cabinet ministers were not responsible for the actions of their family members, he said.

And he's right, they're not. But there's still the potential for a perception of undue influence over the court process. But unless the Minister here holds a justice-sector portfolio - courts, police, justice, attorney-general - there's no perceived conflict of interest and no reason for them to step aside. There's an obvious parallel here with Labour's Carmel Sepuloni, who stood aside as opposition social development spokesperson when her mother was being prosecuted for benefit fraud - but that was always a tenuous claim of a conflict (really, what could she do about it?), and aimed more at robbing the government sleaze machine of ammunition than at preventing a real conflict of interest. And even here, the precedent wouldn't apply if the Minister is outside the justice sector.

We don't know which Minister it is, but I'm comfortable with them retaining their position if they're in an unrelated portfolio. If OTOH they're a justice sector Minister, then Key (and the Cabinet Office) has displayed an appalling lapse of judgement.

Friday, May 01, 2015

The Electoral Commission hates freedom of speech

During the 2014 election campaign the Electoral Commission banned a satirical music video (and the song it related to) on the basis that it was an "election programme" and an "election advertisement" because it might persuade people to vote against the Prime Minister. The decision was ridiculous, and effectively outlawed virtually all political satire, either broadcast or written, and it was naturally overturned by the High Court last month as being inconsistent with the BORA-affirmed right to freedom of expression. But now, the Electoral Commission is challenging that ruling:

The Electoral Commission today filed papers with the Court of Appeal seeking to clarify the meaning of “election advertisement” for the purposes of the Electoral Act following two recent decisions of the High Court that appear to take different approaches to the legal interpretation of its meaning. The Commission is also seeking to clarify the meaning of “election programme” under the Broadcasting Act.

“Clarification is needed to ensure the Commission is able to provide advice and guidance to parties, candidates and third parties on their obligations in respect of electoral matters,” says Robert Peden, Chief Electoral Officer.

The inconsistency? Climate voter is an election advertisement while Planet Key isn't. But that's not an inconsistency, but recognising that satire is different from soliciting votes. And while the Electoral Commission needs to be able to provide clear advice to people on what is an election advertisement and what is not, its unclear why they couldn't simply get Crown Law to get them an opinion (and publish it) rather than threatening the public's freedom to satirise politicians again.

Another victory over zero hours contracts

McDonalds has bowed to the inevitable and agreed to end zero-hours contracts:

McDonald's and Unite Union have reached an agreement that will see the end of zero hour contracts.

Workers at the fast-food chain will be guaranteed 80 per cent of the average hours worked over a three-month period.

Unite National Director Mike Treen called the agreement "historic".

"Now all the of the major fast food chains have committed to ending zero hours. This is the culmination of a decade long campaign for secure hours by Unite Union," he said.

I guess they figured out that being vocally labelled the only fast-food chain still to use this exploitative and abusive practice wasn't going to be good for their brand - or their bottom line.

So, what's next? Retailers?

New Fisk

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: the Emirates enigma - who's really in charge?

More fear and loathing in the UK

Today's fear and loathing from the UK election: Labour leader Ed Miliband declaring that he will never do a deal with the SNP:

There will be no Labour government if it involves a coalition or a deal with SNP, Ed Miliband has said.

The Labour leader said he "couldn't be clearer" there would be no deals between the parties.


With polls suggesting Labour could lose a number of its seats to the SNP on 7 May, Mr Miliband was repeatedly asked whether his party would work with Nicola Sturgeon's party.

"I am not going to have a Labour government if it means deals or coalitions with the Scottish National Party," he said, ruling out a so-called confidence and supply arrangement.

"It's not going to happen... I couldn't be clearer with you."

He added: "If the price of having a Labour government was coalition or a deal with the Scottish National Party, it's not going to happen."

Which probably plays well with English voters who view the Scots as a subject people, but makes a rod for his own back. Because while the two parties are still pretending that majority government is achievable, and acting as if they will be restored as elected dictators like they used to be, the polls are clearly saying that its not going to happen. And while Labour won't have to deal with the SNP to form a government - the Scots will back them on confidence and supply over the tories any day - they will have to deal with them on policy. And by ruling out any cooperation upfront, they both make that job more difficult, and allow themselves to be portrayed as liars when they bow to the inevitable. Really, these people have no fucking idea how a mixed Parliament works...

(There's some comments here from the Guardian's Martin Kettle about the realities of government without a single-party majority, but the advice - that Labour should just play chicken with the SNP on every policy - is simply stupid, and the suggestion that the SNP pre-emptively forswear another independence referendum really shows that he still thinks the world revolves around Westminster, whereas the SNP's revolves around Holyrood).

And again, if being the foreign ogre used to scare racist English voters into line is what "better together" looks like, the Scots are better off out of it.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

This stinks

In 2014 the UN high commissioner for human rights commissioned a report into allegations of child sexual abuse by French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. The report confirmed that the allegations were true, with graphic reports of the rape and sodomy of starving and homeless young boys by the soldiers who were supposed to be protecting them. But rather than acting on the report, the UNHCHR buried it. When someone blew the whistle and passed it to French authorities so they could investigate crimes by their soldiers, the UN tried to sack them:

A senior United Nations aid worker has been suspended for disclosing to prosecutors an internal report on the sexual abuse of children by French peacekeeping troops in the Central African Republic.

Sources close to the case said Anders Kompass passed the document to the French authorities because of the UN’s failure to take action to stop the abuse. The report documented the sexual exploitation of children as young as nine by French troops stationed in the country as part of international peacekeeping efforts.

Kompass, who is based in Geneva, was suspended from his post as director of field operations last week and accused of leaking a confidential UN report and breaching protocols. He is under investigation by the UN office for internal oversight service (OIOS) amid warnings from a senior official that access to his case must be “severely restricted”. He faces dismissal.

The treatment of the aid worker, who has been involved in humanitarian work for more than 30 years, has taken place with the knowledge of senior UN officials, including Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the high commissioner for human rights, and Susana Malcorra, chef de cabinet in the UN, according to documents relating to the case.

This absolutely stinks. And it stinks in exactly the same way as the Catholic Church's systematic coverup of child-sex abuse by those within its ranks does. In both cases, a powerful organisation has put its reputation ahead of justice. But as the Catholics learned, and the UN is going to find out, covering this sort of thing up is far worse, and taints the entire organisation as co-conspirators. And the UN, of all institutions, should be fucking better than that.

GCHQ's spying on lawyers broke the law

At the end of 2013, we learned that Britain's GCHQ had been spying on the lawyers of a man they rendered to torture in Libya. Today, the investigatory powers tribunal ruled that that spying was illegal:

GCHQ, Britain’s national security surveillance agency, has been ordered to destroy legally privileged communications it unlawfully collected from a Libyan rendition victim.

The ruling marks the first time in its 15-year history that the investigatory powers tribunal has upheld a specific complaint against the intelligence services, lawyers have said. It is also the first time the tribunal has ordered a security service to give up surveillance material.

The IPT says GCHQ must destroy two documents which are legally privileged communications belonging to a former opponent of the Gaddafi regime, Sami al-Saadi, who was sent back to Libya in 2004 in a joint MI6-CIA “rendition” operation with his wife and four children under 12.

The tribunal, chaired by Mr Justice Burton, ruled that GCHQ must give an undertaking that parts of those documents must be “destroyed or deleted so as to render such information inaccessible to the agency in the future”. The agency has to submit a secret report within 14 days confirming that the destruction has been carried out.

Good. But shouldn't those responsible for this illegal spying also be being prosecuted?

Meanwhile, its worth remembering that the IPT has only ruled because we learned about this abuse. But GCHQ operates in total secrecy. While they now have rules protecting legally privileged communications, that secrecy means that we have no way of knowing whether they're actually following them. And with no individuals being held accountable, there's simply no incentive for them to do so.

New Fisk

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

For a lower voting age for the flag referendum

The Justice and Electoral Committee is currently hearing submissions on the New Zealand Flag Referendums Bill, which might one day give us a new flag. And one of the submitters has suggested allowing children to vote in it:

New Zealand could be recognised as the first country in the world to give children the vote, starting with the flag referendum.

The Justice and Electoral select committee heard from submitters on Thursday about the referendum and their views on whether a new flag is needed.

Michael Gibson told MPs that all school-age children should be given the vote and be involved in the decision-making process.


He said giving children aged 5-and-over a vote on the flag referendum would be "giving a vote to those who will be living the longest with the consequences".

He's got a point: its their flag too; shouldn't they (or at least as many of them as we can possibly accomodate) have a say in it?

I've long advocated for a lower voting age on democratic grounds. While five may be taking it a bit far at present, the flag referenda would provide a perfect testbed for a lower voting age. And this would have useful spinoffs as well - after all, someone who enrols at 16 for the referendum will still be enrolled when they're 18 for the next general election. Since our declining turnout is in part a story of youth non-enrolment leading to a pattern of non-voting, it may also help reverse that trend.

New Zealand once led the world on democracy. We're not world-leaders anymore - Brazil, Argentina and Austria have beaten us to lowering the voting age - but the least we can do is be fast followers. This is an opportunity to give young people the say they deserve. And we should take it.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A ludicrous proposition

When is a worker not a worker, and not subject to the basic protections of the Minimum Wage Act, Employment Relations Act, and Health and Safety in Employment Act? Apparently, when they're Chinese. At least, that appears to be the position of MBIE and the New Zealand government in the case of KiwiRail's foreign contracted workforce:

Workplace Relations Minister Michael Woodhouse is satisfied that Chinese rail engineers contracted by KiwiRail are probably not subject to New Zealand law.

On April 17 the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment released its investigation into alleged mistreatment of the workers employed by a Chinese company to remove asbestos by locomotives used by state-owned KiwiRail in Lower Hutt.

Last August Labour's Trevor Mallard, the MP for Hutt South, alleged that the workers were earning well below minimum wage, and colleagues were so concerned they were providing them food and hosting them for meals.

The report cleared the Chinese company, CNR Dalian Locomotive, of any wrongdoing, but the ministry admitted that both the employees and employer had blocked its attempts to gain wage records.

"[I]t is more than likely New Zealand employment law does not apply to these workers as they are based in China and here only temporarily for work," the ministry said.

Bullshit. They're not here overnight, or for a one-week trip. They're working here, in New Zealand, for months. And when they work in New Zealand, they should be entitled to the same protections as the rest of us: the minimum wage, holidays, sick leave, protection against discrimination. We adopt this position at sea, both for coastal shipping and for fishing vessels. We should demand that land-based workers enjoy the same protection as well. And unions shouldn't have to take the government to court to enforce protections this basic.

Boycott McDonalds

McDonalds has walked away from negotiations with its workforce about ending zero-hours contracts:

Fast-food giant McDonald's has walked away from negotiations aimed at scrapping controversial zero hour contracts.

The snag in negotiations with the Unite Union comes after hundreds of fast-food workers and supporters took to the streets earlier this month to demand more secure working hours.

Burger King, Hell Pizza and Restaurant Brands -- which operates KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and Carl's Jr -- have all moved to ditch the so-called zero hour contracts.

That leaves McDonald's, the country's biggest fast-food company with 9000 workers, as the only major restaurant chain to retain the contracts.

Zero-hours contracts are immoral and exploitative. They offer workers no security while keeping them in virtual peonage. No decent business should use them. And no decent person should provide their custom to the indecent businesses which do.

New Fisk

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The death penalty and legal cooperation

Indonesia murdered eight convicted drug smugglers this morning, including Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. It was a barbarous act, a symptom of a legal system focused on sadism rather than justice. It shows that Indonesia is not the sort of country we should call a friend, or encourage New Zealanders to visit. But it also raises serious questions about the degree of cooperation on law enforcement matters we can have with them.

We already have limits. New Zealand law allows the government to refuse extradition in death penalty cases. While that seems weak, the subsequent affirmation of the right not to be deprived of life by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act - a right to which there can be no "justified limitation" - strengthens it significantly, effectively turning the "amy" into a "must" (though it would still be good to have that set in statute, just to remove any wiggle-room for the government). But extradition isn't the only form of legal cooperation. In 2011 the NZ Police signed an "Arrangement on Cooperation in Preventing and Combating Transnational Crimes" with Indonesia. While the text isn't publicly available, it likely includes information sharing on crimes such as international drug smuggling. NZ Customs likely have similar arrangements. The problem is that given Indonesia's demonstrated use of the death penalty, sharing information with them on death penalty offences or people accused of such crimes is almost certainly illegal.

Why? Because the BORA applies to all actions "by the legislative, executive, or judicial branches of the Government of New Zealand", regardless of where they take place. And the right to life isn't restricted to New Zealanders, but applies to all persons. The net result: providing information or assistance to overseas agencies which would reasonably result in them being arrested, convicted, and executed violates their right to life and therefore violates New Zealand law. In Indonesia's case, that means that we simply cannot talk to them about drug smuggling, or any other crime for which they have the death penalty, anymore.