Friday, July 22, 2016

Another giveaway for farmers

Marlborough District Council is currently considering a water transfer mechanism to allow more efficient use of water. But there's a problem: it might lead to greedy farmers selling water:

A new proposal to share water between rural landowners could lead to people cashing in on their water-short neighbours.

The enhanced water transfer proposal would allow for the free transfer of water between Marlborough farmers and grapegrowers without having to apply for a lengthy and costly resource consent process.

Grapegrowers in the region say the move would unlock water that was allocated but unused, cut bureaucracy and boost economic development.

But there are fears it could lead to water being bought and sold, with the council having no powers to stop it.

Which wouldn't be a problem if they were paying for it in the first place. But they're not. Water is free, an implicit subsidy to our rapacious agricultural industry. Allowing consent-holders to onsell it would be effectively privatising a public resource, and channelling the profits into the hands of farmers rather than the public. And that's just not acceptable.

Though "privatising a public resource and channelling the profits into the hands of farmers rather than the public" is effectively what happens ATM, its just that they sell milk or wine rather than water. But they're externalising the cost of a key input, getting it for free from the public. And that's not acceptable either. Farmers use our water for commercial purposes, and they should pay for that. Anything less, and we're effectively letting them steal from us.

Voting until they get it right

The UK Labour party is currently in the middle of a leadership contest between the choice of the parliamentary party and the choice of the members. Normally, you'd expect such a contest to be resolved by a vote. But UK Labour's MPs have pledged to force the membership to keep voting until they get it right:

Jeremy Corbyn’s critics warned that they will wage a “war of attrition” until they force him out of his job after he suggested that Labour MPs who refuse to back him could be sacked by local party activists.

Senior Labour MPs rejected Mr Corbyn’s plea to rally behind them if he defeats his challenger Owen Smith in the September leadership election. They told The Independent they are prepared to trigger another leadership election next year – and even a further contest the following year. Many of the MPs who have quit the Labour frontbench because they have no confidence in Mr Corbyn will not return if he defeats Mr Smith.

One former shadow Cabinet member said: “There will be a process of attrition. Most of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will not serve under Jeremy. His position is untenable. The sooner he realises that, the better.” Another Labour MP said: “If we don’t win [the leadership] this year, we will do it again next year and, if necessary, the year after. At some point before the next general election, he will go. The only question is when.”

Which really makes mass de-selection of sitting MPs the only option. Parties belong to their members. And if MPs won't accept that, and announce that they will refuse to accept the decision of the membership, then they should be shown the door. It is that simple.

New Fisk

Erdogan has military troubles of his own, but he still defends the Ottoman army over the Armenian genocide

The police should not be able to circumvent the law like this

New Zealand prides itself on being a civilised country when it comes to law enforcement. As part of this, people questioned by police enjoy some basic protections: the right to silence, the right to counsel, the right to know why they are being questioned. We have these safeguards to prevent injustice: to reduce the risk of false confessions to police, and to limit the ability of police to stitch up innocent people.

The police have been told that they can ignore all that, if they're willing to spend enough money on it and call it an "undercover operation".

There have recently been two cases which have used the "Mr Big" technique, where suspects are "recruited" into a criminal enterprise (actually a network of undercover police officers pretending to be criminals), and then eventually subjected to an interrogation in order to be able to become a full member. The interrogation is coercive, it implicitly involves detention (suspects are taken to a distant part of the country by their "criminal" associates and implicitly threatened with punishment if they leave), and of course it is conducted without the benefit of counsel or any procedural safeguards. It places strong incentives on suspects to tell the interrogators what they want to hear, meaning that it encourages false confessions. If the police did this openly, there would be no question that the evidence would be inadmissible (and the officers responsible would be disciplined or sacked). But a majority of the Supreme Court have found that it is legal. As one of the dissenting justices noted, the police should not be able to ignore our human rights by taking off their uniforms and pretending not to be police. These are official police actions, paid for with public money. The protections of the Bill of Rights Act and of our legal tradition should therefore apply. To allow otherwise is to allow the state to break its own rules by a subterfuge. And if they are allowed to do that, why should we obey them?

[See also: Andrew Geddis on the Supreme Court decision]

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Climate change: The cost of fraud

Radio New Zealand reports that Treasury advised the government to bring agriculture into the ETS after the latest review. but in the process, they bury the real news: that the government's poor decisions around allowing use of fraudulent Ukranian and Russian emissions reduction units in the ETS has put us on the hook for between $3.8 and 7.5 billion in additional costs between 2021 and 2030.

The bad news is contained in a Treasury aide memoire to climate change Ministers. In it, Treasury notes that allowing the use of cheap fraudulent units has led to New Zealand businesses stockpiling 140 million NZ units - roughly three years worth of net emissions. These units can be surrendered in the future to meet ETS obligations, but the government can't use them to meet its future climate change obligations (presumably because the Kyoto Assigned Amount backing it is no longer valid, thanks to our refusal to sign up for Kyoto II). Which means it will have to cover those emissions itself, by buying units on the open market at an estimated price of between $25 and $50 per ton. Which adds up to a hell of a lot of money.

The good news is that they expect the phase-out of the two-for-one deal to increase demand in the ETS and soak up some of this stocpile. But even then, they expect at least 50 million units (a liability of $1.3 to $2.6 billion) to be hanging around after 2020. And presumably they'll be facing the same problem, though on a lesser scale, in meeting New Zealand's 2020 target as well.

Which is presumably why the government is so reluctant to surrender the profits of its fraud: because they need those units to meet our 2020 target.

(Treasury's overwhelming goal remember is to avoid the "threat" of increased expectations, that is, actually being expected to do something about climate change).

How it works in Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister, Peter O'Neill, is facing a confidence vote tomorrow. So naturally, now is the obvious time to pay every government MP US$900,000...

A Papua New Guinea Treasury source has revealed that the government has ordered a payment of US$900,000 to each government MP at the so-called 'Alotau retreat'.

The national broadcaster NBC reported the source, who wishes to remain anonymous, said the Finance Department was instructed to make payments ahead of tomorrow's vote of no-confidence in prime minister Peter O'Neill.

MPs who converged for the talks in Alotau and committed to support Mr O'Neill were in line for the payments, which were to be provided under the District Services Improvement Programme.

Officially, these funds are supposed to be used by MPs (but only government MPs, mind) to improve infrastructure in their districts. But what it actually is is a slush and bribery fund. And even if applied to their intended purpose, it still directs public spending to the government's supporters, effectively imposing a political test on the receipt of public services.

This practice is simply corrupt. Sadly, its the way politics works in PNG.

Open Government: The next steps

Back in April, the SSC "announced" (by an update buried on its web-page) that it was delaying New Zealand's Open Government Partnership Action Plan in order to further engage with the public. It called for submissions on the process, which closed at the end of May. Now, almost a month later, they finally sem to be moving ahead.

The big news is that SSC has contracted out the entire process to a private company, Engage2. Which is so new, it doesn't even have a proper website yet. But they have produced a (draft) engagement plan, which someone has thoughtfully supplied me with.

The timeline for the plan is here. The key part is that public input will happen next month, mostly through an (unspecified) online engagement mechanism, though there will be "co-design" events in Auckland and Christchurch. We'll have two weeks to "co-design the NAP vision", and then another ten days to "co-create recommendations", including through a "co-creation workshop" in Wellington at the end of August. Which is the right sort of language, but far too short a timeframe for meaningful public input and consideration. And while they're talking the talk, given that they're allowing all of a month afterwards to consider public input, there's no real time to meaningfully consider and assess the results of that process. Meaning that it is all likely to be a waste of time anyway, because significant policy change (or even anything they weren't planning on doing anyway) is essentially ruled out by the timeframe.

But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe, having displayed bad faith on this issue for the last two years, SSC has finally turned over a new leaf. Maybe they've assembled a high-powered policy team behind the scenes to quickly assess, cost, consult on and develop public suggestions, so they can present a plan to Ministers (and to the OGP) which accurately reflects the expectations of civil society, rather than a pile of pre-determined and pre-existing policies like last time. But I doubt it.

Sending the wrong message

US Vice President Joe Biden is in Auckland today. As part of this, he is being greeted by a guard of honour at Government House. This isn't specific to him - we do it for every foreign dignitary. We get a bunch of soldiers to line up so that people can look at them, presumably in the hope that they'll be impressed with New Zealand's military might and how bright and shiny those soldiers are (its no surprise that this tradition originated in the era of absolute monarchy, when kings treated their armies as personal toys, and war as a sport).

What message does it send to greet visitors like this? That we're about war, soldiers, and militarism (oh, and British). This is exactly the wrong message for a peaceful, democratic nation in the south Pacific to send. We should do away with this archaic, militaristic crap, and just stick with the Pƍwhiri instead.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Grovelling to the hegemon

US Vice President Joe Biden arrives in Auckland tonight, and in anticipation of his visit, the Civil Aviation Authority has declared a "no fly zone" over central Auckland until he leaves. The prohibited area includes Auckland hospital, so if you're unlucky enough to be in a serious accident and require airial evacuation to Auckland, tough shit - some self-important foreigner's safety is apparently more important than yours. If this is the price of US VIP visits, then I'm thinking that its not worth it. Sorry, but the "prestige" have having some foreign would-be overlord show his face here isn't worth a single life.

I'm also wondering whether Biden's bodyguards are armed, or whether they will be obeying New Zealand law and leaving their guns at the border. I can't really imagine the latter, but there seems to be no statutory authority for foreign protection staff to carry guns (and I don't think we'd want them to be either; our police are trigger-happy enough, but Americans are another level entirely). So, are they just ignoring the law? Sadly, I think the police will refuse to answer, even though its a basic question of accountability. But if the police won't answer, maybe someone should ask Biden...?

Medical neglect of prisoners is a crime

Yesterday I blogged about Serco's medical neglect of a prisoner of a prisoner under their care, and pointed out that it almost certainly constituted cruel and degrading treatment in terms of the Bill of Rights Act and Convention Against Torture. I also highlighted that this isn't an isolated incident: Corrections has very poor standards for supplying medical care to prisoners, and in one case left a man to literally rot in his own excrement. If you've been paying attention to the news today, that phrase should ring alarm bells, because there are people currently being prosecuted for manslaughter for doing that to an elderly relative. And poking around shows that Serco's behaviour is likely criminal.

Section 151 of the Crimes Act 1961 criminalises failing to provide the necessities of life where it leads to death. Section 195 is a parallel clause which imposes a peanlty of 10 years imprisonment for

intentionally engage[ing] in conduct that, or omits to discharge or perform any legal duty the omission of which, is likely to cause suffering, injury, adverse effects to health, or any mental disorder or disability to a child or vulnerable adult (the victim) if the conduct engaged in, or the omission to perform the legal duty, is a major departure from the standard of care to be expected of a reasonable person.

[Emphasis added]

Section 195A covers staff who know about such neglect and don't do anything to stop it.

What's a "vulnerable adult"? "A person unable, by reason of detention... to withdraw himself or herself from the care or charge of another person." Prisoners are "vulnerable adults". Which means that the routine denial of medical care by Corrections and its contractors is a criminal act, and should see those responsible - the managers who deny medical care, and the ordinary guards who know of this neglect and don't do anything to stop it. So why aren't they being prosecuted? Is the government really saying that this is the standard of care a reasonable person would expect be shown to a prisoner?

Less transparent than Australia

New Zealand likes to pretend we're not corrupt. But our system of disclosing political donations is backwards, with a high disclosure threshold, and only annual disclosure of most donations. One of the consequences of this is a deep suspicion of politicians, because we just can't tell who is buying them and who they are beholden to.

Meanwhile, in Queensland, they've just moved to real-time disclosure:

Information on political donations in Queensland will be published live from early next year, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has said.

The Government will work with the Electoral Commission of Queensland (ECQ) on the real-time updates for a list of state and local government electoral donations.

Ms Palaszczuk told Parliament during the estimates hearings that the electronic system would be set up by January 1 and go live by the end of February.

They've also lowered the disclosure threshold from $12,800 to $1,000. The reason, of course, is corruption - Australia has a serious corruption problem, with politicians routinely being jailed for doing favours for donors. This makes that sort of behaviour much harder to hide. New Zealand doesn't have that sort of problem (in part because zoning decisions are the responsibility of local government, in part for cultural reasons), but that's no reason to be complacent. And it burns to be left behind in transparency by corrupt Australia. Shouldn't we be trying to lead the world on this, to show we're as clean as we think we are? Or are we happy to continue a regime which may be allowing corruption to fester in secrecy?

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The cost of the housing bubble

The cost of Auckland's housing bubble? Teachers can no longer afford to live there:

A primary school teacher says he has been driven out of Auckland by the high cost of housing, and the city's principals are worried he's not alone.

Joe Carey has been teaching at Kohia Terrace School in Epsom for the last 18 months but is set to start teaching at Highlands Intermediate School in New Plymouth next week when Term 3 begins.

He and his fiancee Vanessa wanted to start a family but could not afford to continue living in Auckland, he said.

"You get paid the same if you work in Auckland as you get paid anywhere else, but the cost of housing [elsewhere] is a lot cheaper."

And they're not alone. Schools in Auckland are increasingly having trouble filling positions because people just can't afford to live there.

And it won't just be teachers - it will also be affecting nurses, caregivers, retail workers, pretty much everyone the entitled landed Boomers rely on to lead their lives. So either they'll need to start paying a lot more for everything, or see vital services become unavailable.

There's a name for this

As if Serco wasn't bad enough with its strapped chicken statistics and fight clubs, they've also been medically neglecting prisoners:

The cellmate of a cancer-stricken elderly prisoner was forced to clean his friend's gangrenous toes with toilet paper after the prison failed to provide adequate care.

Details of the incident, which happened at Auckland's Mt Eden Prison in 2013 while it was managed by the multinational company Serco, were revealed in a report released by the Health and Disability Commissioner.

As well as failing to treat the prisoner's toes, the report slams Serco for failing to provide painkillers and denying him a wheelchair despite there being two available.

The man died later in the year.

The descriptions in the article are graphic and distressing, and its clear from them that this man's neglect constituted cruel and degrading treatment in terms of the Bill of Rights Act and Convention Against Torture. Denying medical care is a basic failure of the duty of care owed by the state - and its contractors - to those in its care. And when it results in pain and suffering, loss of dignity, and worsening health, it becomes cruel and degrading. And Serco and its management need to be held to account for that.

Not that Corrections is much better, mind. They neglect prisoners too, leaving them literally to rot in their own excrement. Because while the government purports to have a duty of care, in practice they systematically ignore it. And because prisoners can't vote and aren't allowed to protest or talk to journalists or exercise the sort of democratic countermeasures which we see this treatment ended outside prison, they're able to get away with it.

Britain's new Prime Minister is a wannabe mass-murderer

Given her history of authoritarianism as home secretary, we knew that Theresa may, the UK's new Prime Minister, would be bad news. But one of her first acts in office has been to announce her desire to commit mass murder:

Theresa May has declared without hesitation that she would order a nuclear strike to kill hundreds of thousands of people if she thought it was necessary.

The Prime Minister gave the blunt reply during a parliamentary debate on the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons programme, which many suspect was staged by the government for the sole purpose of drawing attention to the rift between Jeremy Corbyn and a majority of Labour MPs.

Ms May was challenged by the SNP’s George Kerevan, who asked: "Are you prepared to authorise a nuclear strike that could kill hundreds of thousands of men, women and children?”

Ms May replied with one word: “Yes.”

In a civilised country, this would be seen as making her unfit for office, if not mentally unwell. But in the UK, still nostalgic for its bloody and criminal empire, its seen as being "strong". Ans so MPs obediently lined up to commit themselves to wasting a fortune on weapons whose sole purpose is mass murder, while denouncing anyone who recognises it as foolish and immoral as foolish and immoral.

Still, there's a positive side: May has also given the Scots yet another reason to leave. Because there's simply no hope for a peaceful, nuclear-free Scotland as part of the UK.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Dereliction of duty

We have a homelessness crisis in New Zealand, with people forced to live in cars because they can't afford a roof over their heads. Meanwhile, Housing New Zealand has abandoned an entire suburb of state houses in New Plymouth:

In 2008, 28 state houses were demolished in Marfell and, in 2012, 20 more families were moved out to make way for a redevelopment that never happened

Housing New Zealand has just demolished four more units but it still has about 30 vacant properties in the neighbourhood.

Contractors today boarded up windows and started filling skips with rubbish following a spate of theft and vandalism attacks.

Housing New Zealand has no future plan to re-open these houses - instead, the only option they are considering is to sell them. Meanwhile, they have a waiting list for state housing in the area, and people are going homeless.

Letting state houses lie empty while people are in need is sheer dereliction of duty on Housing New Zealand's part. They should do their job, make these houses habitable, and let people use them. And if the government doesn't want to, we should get a government which does.

Free Ashley Peacock!

Ashley Peacock is being tortured by Capital Coast District Health Board. A patient in one of their mental health facilities, he has been held in seclusion for five years, kept confined in a 10 m-square room with just a mattress and a urine bottle, locked up for long periods arbitrarily, and not allowed outside. His treatment has been found to constitute cruel and inhuman treatment by the Ombudsman and is illegal under New Zealand law. But despite this, it hasn't stopped.

Peacock's family have now started an online petition calling on the Minister of Health to intervene to end this torture. You can - and should - sign it here. No-one should be treated like this in New Zealand, and it needs to stop now.

Meanwhile, the Herald has OIA'd the last few years of Crimes of Torture Act reports from DHBs, and found that Ashley Peacock is not alone: he is just one of four cases of cruel and inhuman treatment uncovered by the Ombudsman. Which is four cases too many. Again, no-one should be treated like this. And if our mental health system is doing this, it is not fit for purpose. It needs to stop, and those responsible need to be disciplined, fired, and/or prosecuted. There should be no place for torturers in our health system.

New Fisk

Turkey's coup may have failed – but history shows it won’t be long before another one succeeds
Hollande's promise to respond militarily to the Nice attack just continues the West's vicious circle of terror and war

Coups are wrong. So is the death penalty

Over the weekend there was a failed coup attempt in Turkey. Like many people, I don't like the current Turkish government, which has attempted to suppress the media and silence criticism. But I like the idea of overthrowing it by force even less. Like it or not, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP party are democratically elected. The only legitimate way to get rid of them is by voting them out at the next election - something which almost happened last year.

In the wake of the coup we've seen disturbing photos of people beating captured soldiers. We've also seen calls for the reintroduction of the death penalty, and the government likes the idea, with Erdogan promising that those responsible for the coup will "pay". In the process, they're giving a perfect example of how the death penalty is about sadism and revenge, not justice.

The death penalty is monstrous and barbaric. Reintroducing it would violate Turkey's obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR. Applying it retrospectively would violate basic standards of justice and make Turkey a pariah nation.

Those responsible for Turkey's coup deserve justice. But no-one deserves to be executed. Turkey should stay civilised and resist these calls for a return to barbarism.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Climate change: Britain goes denialist

Earlier in the week, the British government was warned that climate change would have a severe effect on their country, leading to floods, heatwaves, and water and food shortages. New Prime Minister Theresa may's response? Abolish the government department dealing with it:

The decision to abolish the Department for Energy and Climate Change has been variously condemned as “plain stupid”, “deeply worrying” and “terrible” by politicians, campaigners and experts.

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to move responsibility for climate change to a new Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy.


The news came after the appointment of Andrea Leadsom – who revealed her first question to officials when she became Energy Minister last year was “Is climate change real? – was appointed as the new Environment Secretary.

So, an outright denier appointed as environment secretary, and climate change policy dumped in the basement of the department for business and pollution. Having dumped Cameron, the Tories are returning to form.

Why we need to stick it to landlords

Writing in the Herald, Brian Fallow argues that the real cause of the housing crisis is the landlord in the room. Landlords - speculators by another name - are the marginal buyers in the housing market. And the prices they pay are not set the returns they can get from rents, but by rational expectations of tax-free capital gains, which are in turn driven by poor policy settings:

The combination of high investor demand and rampant house price inflation is no coincidence. It reflects the toxic interaction between how the tax system and the banking system view the purchase of rental properties.

For the taxman, the landlord is in business and entitled to deduct all the costs, including interest, incurred in earning taxable rental income.

For a bank, the landlord is someone borrowing against the security of a dwelling and banks are generally happy to lend as much as the Reserve Bank allows.

But few other businesses can gear up their balance sheet to the same extent. Few other investors can enjoy the same benefits of leverage in a rising market, amplifying the increase in their equity until they are ready to collect their tax-free capital gain.

As a result, landlords are buying 40% of houses for sale in Auckland - and up to 80% in some areas. And they're driving real home buyers, who don't enjoy their tax advantages, out of the market.

Tackling this requires both eliminating the tax advantages and restricting credit to speculators. The first is easy - eliminate negative gearing and impose a comprehensive capital gains tax. The second is harder as higher loan-to-value ratios aren't going to impact landed Boomers who have paid off their original homes. And unfortunately, by reducing demand, either could lower house prices - an anathema to the Auckland investment property-owning National Party. But if we don't stick it to landlords, then the alternative is that New Zealand becomes a society of landlords and tenants, rich people and peons. In the nineteenth century, the Liberal Party made sure that didn't happen to us, by breaking up large estates and strangling New Zealand's wannabe landed gentry at birth. We need a government that will do the same to our landlords - and fast.