Thursday, January 24, 2019

Australia's sham anti-corruption body

Before christmas I was pleased to hear that the Australian government was planning to establish a federal anti-corruption commission. But it turns out that it was all a sham:

A former judge of Victoria’s highest court has attacked the Coalition’s proposal for an anti-corruption body, describing it as a sham designed to shield politicians and public servants from scrutiny.

Stephen Charles, a retired Victorian court of appeal judge, said there was simply “no justification” for the Coalition’s proposal to limit the commission’s powers when investigating the public sector. He said the proposal to not allow public hearings for public-sector cases – as opposed to investigations of law enforcement – made no sense. Nor did the proposed body’s narrow remit, the high burdens of proof needed to initiate an investigation, its inability to take public tip-offs and its lack of resources.

“We see this body, the [Commonwealth Integrity Commission], insofar as public servants and parliamentarians are concerned, as a sham,” he told Guardian Australia. “It’s not really an anti-corruption commission at all.

“It’s a body set up to shield parliamentarians and public servants.

Why would politicians want to set up a body designed to shield themselves from prosecution? I think the answer to that is pretty obvious, isn't it. The real question is why Australian voters tolerate a nakedly corrupt political establishment, rather than throwing them out on their arses.

Banning foreign donations

So, afte rewriting electoral law to reduce transparency over party funding, National's Nick Smith suddenly wants to ban foreign donations to prevent "foreign interference". It's pretty much a no-brainer, but what would it actually entail? At the moment, the law prohibits foreign donations above $1,500, but there are two obvious ways around it: making multiple "anonymous" donations below the $1,500 threshold, and using a New Zealand-based corporate shell to launder the donation. The first is easily fixed: reduce the threshold to a nominal level, and align it with the party and candidate disclosure thresholds, so that every non-trivial donation is publicly declared and subject to scrutiny. The latter would require effectively banning some or all corporate donations. There's a strong argument that the right to donate should be limited to natural persons - eligible voters - but people should also be able to do collectively what they are entitled to do individually, which suggests there should be some exemption for democratic, membership-based organisations such as incorporated societies and unions. while that is also potentially open to abuse, it seems a lot less so than at present, when anyone can set up a New Zealand company and use it to launder donations to whoever they wish.

Who'd have thunk it?

So, it turns out that the New Zealand Taxpayer's Union are simply a paid front for the cancer industry:

A right-wing lobbying group which has railed against cigarette tax increases and plain packaging laws in New Zealand counts a tobacco giant among its corporate funders.

The NZ Taxpayers’ Union has not disclosed its financial support from tobacco companies in its reports or press releases, with one public health academic calling on it to be more transparent about its donors.

The Guardian identified the relationship between the Taxpayers’ Union and British American Tobacco as part of its series on “the huge damage of the tobacco epidemic ... and the industry behind it”.

In an investigation into the ties between “free-market thinktanks” and the tobacco industry, the Taxpayers’ Union was identified as being supported by multinational firm British American Tobacco.

A British American Tobacco spokesman told Newsroom the company had been financially supporting the Taxpayers’ Union for three years, paying “a standard annual corporate membership fee”.

This is a basic conflict of interest, which could have been resolved by simply saying where their money was coming from. But that would have defeated the purpose: what British American Tobacco is paying for is "independence", the illusion that people who aren't paid by them advocate for their interests. And of course if they'd said "we take money from the cancer industry" on the bottom of a piece defending that industry's interests, everyone would have dismissed it for the hackery it is.

Meanwhile, I'm wondering: now that they've been exposed as intellectual mercenaries, will the New Zealand media continue to print the Taxpayer's Onion's PR? It will be an important test of whether they have even basic journalistic standards.

The Taranaki Oil & Gas Security Group

When the police released their report on their relationship with Thompson and Clark Investigations back in December, it contained an interesting revelation: two bodies associated with the oil industry, TOGs (Taranaki Oil & Gas Security Group) and MEJIG (Minerals Exploration Joint Intelligence Group) were actually established by government bodies or had government participants. I sent off some OIA requests, and I now have the first of them, from the police on TOGs, back. I had asked for a list of meetings attendees, and agendas. The police responded with TOGs' terms of reference (which included a membership list) and assorted meeting agendas, though its not clear if the latter are complete (police record-keeping being what it is). The identities of all non-police participants were redacted for privacy. The documents have been uploaded to DocumentCloud:

It is unclear whether the group continued to meet after September 2015, or whether the police simply don't have minutes.

Since the request was simply a preliminary one for dates and agendas, there's not a lot there, but there's already a few followups which people could make. For example, the "Crime Prevention Partnership Forum" mentioned in the December 2014 meeting sounds interesting, and might reveal more of these secret public-private intelligence-sharing groups. maritime NZ appears to have attended at least once, so they might have further information. Most amusingly, its shown that the police's whitewash report into TCIL couldn't even get basics like the date TOG was established correct (it says "early 2014", whereas the first police minutes held are from 2013, and that's very obviously not the first meeting). Which doesn't exactly inspire confidence in their ability.

I'll be doing followup requests, obviously. Meanwhile I'm still waiting to hear from MBIE about MEJIG.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

This is what Kiwibank is for

Newsroom has a story about a threat by Australian banks to hold our economy hostage if they are forced to behave responsibly:

The Government, the housing market and the wider economy will have to navigate this year around a land mine put in their path by the Reserve Bank. This potential explosion inside the housing market may be avoided or deflected, but if the big four banks want to hold the Government hostage they could go on a lending strike and ramp up mortgage rates in a way that slams house prices and the wider economy.

It's all about an arcane part of financial regulation that most voters and home owners will never have heard of, let alone politicians and business leaders: capital requirements.

The biggest story in the political economy at the end of last year that didn't get a lot of attention was the Reserve Bank's proposals in mid-December for New Zealand's banks to double their tier one capital levels over the next five years.

That would force the big four banks to put aside almost $20 billion in fresh capital, which would be the equivalent of retaining 70 percent of their profits each year for the next five years.

Those Aussie banks make mega-profits, which they suck back over the Tasman to their foreign owners. As pointed out, they could easily afford to comply with the government's requirements (which are about ensuring that banks can withstand economic shocks, like, say, a mad orange blob in the White House starting a trade war with China). But that would mean lower profits, so they are apparently threatening sabotage instead. which, the government should say "bring it on". Because this sort of shit is exactly why we have KiwiBank. If this hostile foreign cartel decides to start a capital strike, then the government can and should shovel billions of dollars at KiwiBank so it can simply step in and take all their business. And then we'll find out whether they're actually serious about refusing to make money in New Zealand, or whether its just the usual huff and puff from rich wankers used to getting their own way from chickenshit politicians.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

New Fisk

Bernie Sanders could be US president in 2020 – and this is what it means for Israel and the Middle East
The US media has lost one of its sanest voices on military matters – so let's hope William Arkin's absence is brief

Time for redistribution

Oxfam released a report yesterday pointing out that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Its the usual story, with the twist that New Zealand's two richest men increased their wealth by only slightly less than was stolen from the poorest 50% of us. Which is exactly the sort of shit Labour was elected to put a stop to. As for how, the answer is simple: tax the fuckers.

New Zealand used to have a highly progressive tax system, with rates of up to 90% on top earners. That was during WWII, when the government needed more money than usual, but in the postwar period, the top tax rate was generally 70%. Roger Douglas and his NeoLiberal revolution ended all that, and the result was an explosion of inequality, with the rich using their untaxed income to make even more money, while public services fell apart and they created a permanent underclass - problems the government then refused to fix because (by choice) it "had no money".

Other countries, like Sweden, Norway and Denmark, have much lower rates of inequality than us, while also having much better infrastructure, social services and standards of living. And they do it by taxing the rich and the companies that do business there, and using the money to provide social services and support those on lower incomes. In short, redistribution. We can and should do that too. As for cries from the rich's mouthpieces that their masters will leave and take their money with them, firstly, that doesn't seem to happen in Scandinavia, and secondly, insofar as its a result of real economic activity, the source of that money will still remain here to be taxed (it may just be owned by someone else).

So Labour, are you going to do this? Or is your entire pitch - government for the many, not the few - a lie?

This isn't justice

Robert Roper is a rapist and child abuser. In addition to raping his own children, he raped and harassed women at his workplace, RNZAF Whenuapai, crimes which the air force effectively covered up. After his conviction, one of his victims tried to sue the air force for failing to protect her - a case which necessarily involved Roper. And as a result of that, she now has to pay him $28,000. Not because she lost on the merits - the court explicitly found that she was repeatedly harassed and groped by Roper and locked in a cage by him - but because the law sets a time limit on civil claims.

The judge was clear that the law didn't give them any other option: the time limit means the case must fail, and costs must be paid by the loser. There are good reasons for these laws. But at the same time, this isn't justice. In fact, its the complete opposite. And it sets a terrible incentive for anyone seeking justice in the future, because if you lose, you may be bankrupted by your vindictive abuser.

As for what to do about it, there's a GiveALittle campaign here, which might help with an appeal or with paying the costs. But that's just a sticking plaster, and this seems like it needs a more systematic solution. And here, its worth noting that criminal law sets different time limits on prosecution depending on the severity of the offence, and that there's no time-limit on prosecution for serious crimes. It may be time to import that sort of thinking into civil claims for sexual harassment. The alternative is to allow the law to be known as an instrument of injustice, which directly encourages people to seek their justice by other means.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Places to go, people to be

Nothing from me today - I'm off to Wellington to participate in KapCon, Wellington's annual rpg convention.

Monday is a public holiday,so normal bloggage should resume Tuesday.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

A threat to democracy

People have also suspected that New Zealand's spy agencies saw people who wished to limit their powers, cut their budgets, or disestablish them as a "threat" to "national security". And it turns out they were right. According to former Green MP Keither Locke, the SIS has been forced to apologise to him after documents emerged showing exactly that mindset:

Last April I received a letter from Rebecca Kitteridge, the director of the Security Intelligence Service, apologising for the way I was referred to in internal SIS documents. She wrote that I had been described as a “threat” in speaking notes for a Joint Induction Programme run by the SIS and the Government Communications Security Bureau since 2013.

In the SIS documents I was identified as an “internal” threat because I “wish[ed] to see the NZSIS & GCSB abolished or greatly modified”. The documents labelled this a “syndrome”.

In her apology, Kitteridge said “the talking point suggests wrongly that being a vocal critic of the agencies means you are a ‘threat’ or a ‘syndrome’. In fact, people who criticise the agencies publicly are exercising their right to freedom of expression and protest, which are rights we uphold, and are enshrined in the Intelligence and Security Act 2017.”

But pretty obviously, these are not rights the SIS upholds. They have a long and dirty history of political surveillance, of which this is just the latest outrage. And their closed, cold war mindset and the iron law of bureaucracy gives them clear and ongoing incentives to continue to paint critics in this light. All of which means that it is the SIS, not its critics, which is a threat: a threat to our democracy. And the best way of eliminating that threat is to disband it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Why is NZ business opposed to behaving ethically?

In the wake of several high-profile cases of being bitten by the immoral behaviour of companies it has outsourced to, the New Zealand government is planning to impose a code of conduct requiring its suppliers to behave lawfully and ethically and not engage in corruption. Of course, Business NZ thinks that this is too onerous:

However, Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope said some businesses may just pull the plug on contracts with government departments if a new code of conduct is too stringent.

"If there are additional obligations and things they have to do in their business to meet standards, additional auditing of small to medium businesses, particularly if they're only a small supplier then they might say this isn't going to work for us," Mr Hope said.

So, just to get that clear, Business NZ thinks NZ companies not committing crimes is too much work. Nice to have that on the record. New Zealand businesses meanwhile might want to reconsider the wisdom of being "represented" by a body which publicly portrays them all as corrupt, unethical criminals.

What happens now?

This morning the UK parliament voted on Theresa may's Brexit deal - and as expected voted it down in the biggest defeat for a UK government in the democratic era. So what happens now? The problem is that no-one can tell. The UK has passed into political singularity, and no-one knows what might come out the other side.

There will be a formal confidence vote tomorrow, which it seems likely May will win - no-one wants her shit Brexit deal, but her supporters don't want an election either. But MPs are known to lie, and its not inconceivable that a few backbenchers grumpy about the outcome will decide to roll her. Meanwhile, May says her plan is to consult her party and its DUP (fanatic Northern Irish protestant) supporters and take their views back to parliament, but this goes straight back to her core problem: her own party doesn't know what it wants. Or rather, it is divided into two increasingly hostile factions who want incompatible things: a full-on hard Brexit to show Britain's greatness and superiority to Johnny Foreigner (complete with soundtrack of "Rule Britannia" as the clown car hurtles off the White Cliffs of Dover and into the sea), versus cancelling the whole thing and trying to go back to the status quo ante. But she's legally required to come up with something for parliament to vote on, within three days.

Whatever may comes up with, Parliament gets to vote on it, and amend it. But its unclear whether there's a majority there for anything either. It seems there's a majority against hard Brexit, but the UK parliament voting against that doesn't mean its not going to happen: its the default option, and the only way to prevent it is to agree something else with the EU. Who, having painstakingly reached consensus on the deal parliament just voted down, are unlikely to agree anything more generous. Ideas that there is a "better deal" if the UK just Speaks Slowly in A Very Loud Voice (or more likely, whines piteously enough) are simply fantasies. Likewise, the idea that they can join Norway or Lichtenstein in the EFA or Efta are fantasies, because the existing parties to those deals won't agree to it.

As for a "people's vote", that would require someone to decide what the options actually are. So, the same problem, on a different stage. Plus they'd probably fuck it up again by not making the decision legally binding (or as legally binding as they could, given that its a referendum on international relations).

What happens now? Nobody knows. But what has been exposed by this is the utter dysfunction of its political system, and the utter cowardliness of its major political parties in refusing to take a formal position for which they can be held electorally accountable on the most salient political issue in a century. Whatever happens, UK voters should do something about that. sadly, the UK's unfair electoral system is likely to prevent them from doing anything of the sort, and so these dysfunctional political inbreds will remain in power.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Fiji: Criminalising the opposition again

The Fijian government has introduced a Code of Conduct Bill, ostensibly setting standards for politicians and public servants and a body to receive complaints about them. But when you read the fine print, it turns out that its just a trojan horse for punishing people who complain about the government:

The bill lays out codes of conduct for public servants, politicians and judges as well as rules for a new Accountability and Transparency Commission which would enforce the code.

Under the bill, the commission must refer complaints it believes are malicious or politically motivated to Fiji's Independent Commission Against Corruption (FICAC) and anyone found guilty would be liable to a fine of up to $FJ10,000 or up to five years in jail.

The terms "malicious" and "politically motivated" were not defined in the bill, Mr Naidu said.

Here it is worth noting that any criticism of the government by the opposition is deemed "malicious" and "politically motivated" by the former. So, if they make a formal complaint, they can be jailed (and unseated, and barred from public office) for it. Which when you look at the actual power of the ATC - all they can do is report things to the Fiji "Independent" Commission Against Corruption, and they are not allowed to investigate issues which have been raised in the media or with anyone else first - then it seems that jailing people who make complaints is the whole point of the exercise. The net result? Rather than building trust and accountability, it erodes them.

There's more from Richard Naidu about the bill here.

Monday, January 14, 2019

The police keep on killing

The police killed three people in a pursuit in Christchurch last night:

Police said they began the pursuit after a vehicle was seen speeding in the city centre at about 11.13pm.

They said it is believed the car continued to drive at speed on Blenheim Road.

Police said they weren't in pursuit of the vehicle at this stage but laid spikes in an attempt to stop the vehicle.

The vehicle hit the spikes and crashed into a tree, catching fire, they said.

Police said all three occupants died at the scene. They were working to notify and support their next of kin and the staff involved.

So, just to be crystal clear, they decided to stop a vehicle using an inherently risky method, and people died as a result. And they almost certainly violated police policy in doing so. According to this 2016 IPCA report, road spikes are not to be used if "injury is likely to occur to the public, Police or the occupants of the fleeing car". Using them where there are trees to crash into means injury is likely to occur.

If you or I deliberately caused a fatal car accident in this manner, we would be charged and prosecuted. Isn't it time police officers who show a depraved indifference to lives of the public are subject to the same law as everybody else? Or are their egos, the blow to the confidence of arresting someone later when it is safe to do so rather than pursuing them like mad dogs, more important than human life?

Thursday, January 10, 2019

New Fisk

Judge Richard Goldstone suffered for turning his back on Gaza – but not as much as the Palestinians he betrayed
Trump vs Mattis: Watch out when men of war come to the rescue
The Ottomans were once humiliated by Yemeni rebels – today, the Houthis have done the same to Saudi Arabia

Taking back control

Brexit day is fast approaching, and the UK government seems to have no plan. Their deal is so despised that it will not pass the required parliamentary vote, while their contingency plans seem to rely on wishful thinking and ferries which don't exist (which is a perfect metaphor for the rest of the process). And so in a dramatic last-minute development, the UK parliament has taken back control over the entire process:

Theresa May’s room for manoeuvre should her Brexit deal be rejected next week was further constrained on Wednesday night, after the government lost a second dramatic parliamentary showdown in as many days.

An increasingly boxed-in prime minister must now set out her plan B within three working days of a defeat next Tuesday, after a rebel amendment passed on Wednesday.

There were furious scenes in the House of Commons, as the Speaker, John Bercow, took the controversial decision to allow a vote on the amendment, tabled by former attorney general Dominic Grieve.

A string of MPs, including the leader of the house of Commons Andrea Leadsom, repeatedly intervened to question the Speaker’s approach, with some accusing him of being biased against Brexit.

But parliament went on to back Grieve, as Conservative rebels determined to hand control of the Brexit process to MPs if next week’s vote is lost, defied the prime minister.

This prevents the government from running out the clock and forcing a no-deal Brexit by default (and from using that threat to try and force people to vote for its shit deal). But more importantly, thanks to some earlier procedural jockeying, parliament will be able to amend the response. So, they'll be able to instruct the government to withdraw the Article 50 notice (stopping Brexit), leave with no deal (something they've already demonstrated a parliamentary majority against, though they should formally vote on it), or grovel to Brussels for an extended deadline while they draft legislation for a binding referendum giving the UK public a clear choice between those two options. The problem is that no matter what they decide, the issue isn't going to go away soon: a chunk of the UK population (mostly old, white, and rural) rabidly hates the EU, and will see any reveral as a betrayal, and any confirmatory referendum as the public being forced to vote until they get it right (as opposed to the public being given a final say over the actual options on the table / being used as the final arbitrator because the political establishment is too dysfunctional to make up its mind). Worse, they've shown a willingness to murder people to get their way. So, the immediate results are likely to be unpleasant. And in the long term, the demon that Cameron let loose is likely to continue to cause trouble - at least, until demographics takes its course, and memories of Empire die out naturally. And the UK will be a much better place for that.

Something to be proud of

New Zealand is the world's 4th most democratic country, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit:

New Zealand remains the world's fourth most democratic country, while the United States remains a "flawed democracy", the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) says.

According to the EIU's 2018 Democracy Index, New Zealand is one of 20 full democracies in the world. As often happens with such lists, top places are dominated by Scandinavian countries, with Norway rated most democratic, followed by Iceland and Sweden, while Denmark is fifth and Finland eighth.

Canada and Ireland share sixth, Australia is ninth, Germany 13th, and the United Kingdom 14th.

The US was in 25th place, having dropped from 21st in 2017, although the decline was partly to do with improvements in some other countries, the EIU said.

This is good, but our score hasn't shifted at all since last year, and its something we can still do better on. OTOH, at least it didn't decrease, unlike the US.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

More government spying

The Herald has disturbing news this morning: MBIE has recently signed a contract to train its staff in using fake social media profiles to spy on people:

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has hired a security firm to increase staff skills in using fake social media profiles to gather intelligence.

Among the modules offered are harvesting information from social networks, creating back-stories for false online personae and creating dossiers on people and groups.

When informed of the training by the Herald, Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones said senior ministers would be briefed on the issue when they returned to work at the end of the month.

"Kiwis should be able to go about their daily business without the fear of bureaucrats peering into their social media," he said.

Jones is right. This sort of spying is intensely problematic. As highlighted in the Law Commission's Review of the Search and Surveillance Act 2012, simply using public information
has the potential to undermine the right to freedom of expression and other associated rights. It may discourage the public from engaging in debate and presenting opinions without fear of government interference. This is particularly likely if enforcement agencies use social media to monitor legitimate activity such as peaceful protest.

And that's just public information. Using fake profiles with detailed backstories suggests they are trying to capture people's private or friend-locked information, which is even more intrusive. But under the new "reasonable expectation of privacy" standard, it may also constitute a "search" under s21 of the Bill of Rights Act, and therefore be illegal without explicit statutory authority (which in turn, poses a legal threat to every case MBIE has used such information in). The Law Commission recommended that harvesting public information be covered by a statutory policy statement, setting out the purposes for which it could be done. They also suggested that using false profiles to access private, "friends-only" information be treated as a covert operation requiring a warrant. The fact that MBIE is doing this suggests we need such regulation as quickly as possible, to restrict such government spying to proper investigative purposes, rather than the current free-for-all.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Another "labour shortage"

Hawke's Bay apple growers are whining about a seasonal "labour shortage" and demanding they be subsidised by immigrant labour again. But the "labour shortage" is illusory - its not that there is a shortage of people to do the work, but a shortage of people willing to do it (in the hot, hot sun, in the middle of nowhere, with no job security etc) at the price employers are willing to pay. Which suggests an obvious solution: if apple growers want people to pick their apples, they should offer more money. Otherwise the fruit can and should just rot on the trees.

Monday, January 07, 2019

We need higher pay for local councillors

Everyone hates politicians. But sensible people recognise that they need to be paid - firstly, because they work hard for us, secondly, to prevent corruption, and thirdly, so that politics isn't the exclusive domain of the independently wealthy who can afford to do it as a sort of hobby. The latter is an underappreciated reason, but historicly one of the most important: we inherited our political system from the UK, where politicians were unpaid - a measure which would have excluded the vast bulk of the population even if they were allowed to vote (and this being Britain in the C19th, of course they weren't). Which is why "paid MPs" was one of the six demands of the People's Charter, along with universal suffrage and the secret ballot.

But while New Zealand got the message and pays its MPs (perhaps a bit too well, but better than the alternative), we haven't accepted it for local authorities. While large councils pay a decent salary, small councils effectively pay the minimum wage. And the result is what you'd expect: only rich people and pensioners can afford to do it, while young people and those with families are excluded. And the result is that their interests are excluded as well, while those of rich old people dominate. So public transport and playgrounds are sacrificed to keep rates low, while climate change is ignored because the rich old pricks either don't accept its reality or expect it to be someone else's problem (unless it threatens the value of their foolish coastal property investments, which case they will move heaven and earth to dump that cost on the young). And of course it sets a tremendous incentive for corruption, in bodies which perhaps have the greatest potential for profit (to point out the obvious, RMA planning decisions can be extremely lucrative, and that sort of corruption is pervasive in Australia).

This is a real problem. It undermines our democracy, and it results in poor, unrepresentative, and potentially corrupt policy choices. But fixing it would require accepting that local body governance was actually work, for which we should pay a proper wage rather than rely on potentially corrupt hobbyists. It would also require the status quo to yield some power. And that is not going to happen without a fight.