Monday, February 19, 2018



Time to lock the revolving door

Stuff reports that former National Chief of Staff Wayne Eagleson has become a lobbyist within months of quitting. He's the second high profile public official to do this recently, with former Labour Chief of Staff Neale Jones joining Australian lobbyists Hawker Britton in November. In both cases, these former public officials are seeking to leverage the knowledge and contacts they built up in their highly paid public careers for private profit.

Why do we allow this? Many other democracies don't. Australia, Canada, the USA and the European Union all have cooling off periods for public officials, preventing MPs and senior public servants from seeking to use their networks for private gain for up to five years. Such cooling off periods can be specific to issues in which the official worked (e.g. generals can't go and work for defence contractors, but can work for tobacco companies), or a general prohibition. The justification is to prevent the distortion of democracy, to prevent conflicts of interest and the abuse of knowledge and networks gained in public service for private gain, and to prevent post-retirement payoffs. All of which seem like something we need here.

(In fact, we have one provision: s15(2) of the Immigration Advisers Licensing Act 2007 prohibits former Immigration Ministers and officials from working as immigration advisors for 12 months after leaving office. So we recognise that there is a need)

Regulation of lobbyists was another key demand of the Open Government Partnership consultation which was ignored by the government. They're supposed to be working on a new OGP action plan this year, so this is an opportunity to get them to commit to it.

Fifteen

This blog turned fifteen last week, and my first post on it (about the run-up to the Iraq war) was on February 18, 2003.

Well, shit. That's a long time.

Things have slowed down here over the past few years as I've moved a lot of my commentary to Twitter. And they've been particularly slow in the past few months due to the post-election / holiday break from politics (and some of the big stories being about the personal lives of politicians - something I am resolutely Not Interested in). But I have no intention of stopping anytime soon.

Will they prosecute?

Over the weekend, farmers poisoned two Manawatu streams:

Stockyards are the most likely source of a significant discharge of animal effluent into Feilding waterways, the regional council says.

Residents have been told not to swim, wade or fish the Makino Stream and Oroua River because of the waste contamination.

Manawatu-Whanganui Regional Council staff last night discovered a significant amount of effluent being discharged into the Makino Stream near Rata Street.

The council's manager for strategy and regulation, Dr Nic Peet, said the discharge most likely came from the yards where sheep and beef sales were held every Friday.

He said the council was alerted by a call by a member of the public to its pollution hotline.

"There was a really obvious discharge via the stormwater system," he said. Staff traced it back to the stockyards and from there were able to have it stopped and shut off.


There's now a public health warning in place, because this pollution could make people sick. Which leads to the obvious question: will they prosecute? Because the discharge of contaminants to water without resource consent (which this doesn't appear to have had) violates the Resource Management Act. It is a criminal offence with a penalty of up to two years' jail and a $300,000 fine.

Or is Horizons just going to look the other way, just like they have on nitrogen pollution?

NZDF lied to us all along

When the New Zealand SAS raided two villages in Afghanistan in a revenge attack over the death of a kiwi soldier, they told us they hadn't killed any civilians. When Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson published Hit & Run showing that they had, NZDF claimed they were wrong. But it turns out that while they were making those claims of no civilian deaths, they had been sitting on intelligence reports saying the opposite:

The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) received intelligence updates within one or two days of the August 2010 SAS raid in Afghanistan that reported civilian casualties, including the death of a child, new Official Information Act documents reveal. This is what was written in the book Hit and Run but the NZDF had denied the whole book.

Hit and Run co-author Nicky Hager, who has been probing the defence force using the Official Information Act (OIA), says this is an important crack in the NZDF denials.

The 13 February 2018 NZDF OIA response admitted that five New Zealand military intelligence reports written after the SAS raid “mention the death of a child” and also injuries to a woman. The intelligence reports were dated 24 (two), 25 and 26 August 2010, the days following the 22 August 2010 raid, and 27 July 2011.*

The NZDF letter said the reports of civilian casualties were “unconfirmed” – but under international law and the NZDF’s own internal rules, the SAS should have thoroughly investigated any reports of civilian casualties during an operation that it had commanded. Instead, it appears they did not bother to investigate nor made any effort to help the victims.


So, they lied to us all along - and not for any reason of protecting lives or operational security at a critical moment, but to protect their own reputation and maintain public support for their dirty little war. And that fact alone should be reason enough to bring them all home and take their toys away forever - they have clearly shown that they can not be trusted to respect democratic control while involved in a war, so we shouldn't let them play their little war games until they have proven otherwise.

Friday, February 16, 2018



Our reserves are open for pillage

The Reserves Act 1977 is meant to protect our environment, by placing some areas off-limits for development. Except, it turns out that it doesn't. Where a reserve is owned and managed by local government, they can apparently let it be dug up for an open-cast coal-mine:

One of several legal attempts to block a new coal mining venture on the West Coast has failed, but campaigners say the fight to stop the mine is far from finished.

[...]

Forest and Bird fought a separate legal campaign over an earlier decision by Buller District Council to allow the mining company access to its Water Conservation Reserve.

The council then rescinded that decision after being threatened with legal action from Forest and Bird.

Rangitira replied by challenging that reversal in the High Court.

That case has now produced a verdict, and it went against Forest and Bird and in favour of the mining company.

The court argued the original approval of access - granted under the Crown Minerals Act - had higher legal standing than the Reserves Act that Forest and Bird had relied on to block access.


This follows straightforwardly from s109 of the Reserves Act in combination with s22(2) of the Interpretation Act 1999. While local councils are required to have regard to the purpose for which land is held, it can be balanced against other considerations such as supposed economic benefit. Which, given the usual quality of local government decision-making and its propensity for capture by large donors and special interests, means open pillage.

As for fixing it, I'd suggest repealing s109. Does any MP want to bring a member's bill?

The full decision is here.

...and on whistleblower protection

Abortion isn't the only area where Labour is moving to act on its promises. last year, the newly elected government suggested it would strengthen whistleblower protections. Now, they're doing that too:

Work has begun on a review of the Protected Disclosures Act 2000, Minister of State Services Chris Hipkins said today.

The Government is exploring whether the law and procedures to protect whistle blowers need to be strengthened. The review will start with a series of targeted workshops next week.

“Getting this right is critical to building public confidence in the integrity of government and business in New Zealand,” Mr Hipkins says.

“It is crucial that employees feel safe to report cases of serious misconduct. Anyone who raises issues of serious misconduct or wrongdoing needs to have faith that their role, reputation, and career development will not be jeopardised when speaking up.

“The first step in this review is to identify possible gaps and weaknesses in the current Act.”


There are a couple. Firstly, that whistleblowers can't go to MPs or the media if their reports are ignored by their proper reporting chain. Secondly, that (thanks to National) it is literally a criminal offence for staff in some departments (notably those with significant intrusive powers) to pass on evidence of wrongdoing. Thirdly, that it is not currently a criminal offence to retaliate against whistleblowers. All those things need to change. Hopefully this review will be the first step in that process.

New Fisk

In the cases of two separate holocausts, Israel and Poland find it difficult to acknowledge the facts of history

Labour acts on abortion

During the election campaign, Jacinda Ardern promised that if elected she would decriminalise abortion. Now Labour are taking the first step towards that, with a review by the Law Commission

Justice Minister Andrew Little intends to ask the Law Commission to update the archaic law on abortion, including looking at decriminalising it.

This morning, the Abortion Supervisory Committee (ASC)​ told Parliament that the 41-year-old law was impractical and made the difficult lives of women seeking abortion even more difficult.

The committee added that it had been years since it had seen any meaningful engagement from Parliament, including over three years since a minister had met with its members.


A review by the Law Commssion is a good idea - it will formally document how badly the current archaic law works, while examining more modern laws from overseas (e.g. Victoria). And it should give us decent draft legislation for any change.

The question is whether it will pass. In order to get enough votes, any bill will need substantial support from National, but their current leadership contest shows that even "liberals" like Amy Adams are grovelling to the Christian right and defending the status quo. That might not last - there's nothing as two-faced as a politician - but its a bad sign. There's also a real danger of wrecking amendments such as mandatory scolding "counselling" or parental consent requirements, which may undermine the right to abortion in practice. So we may end up with a great proposed law, which we can't pass due to too many National misogynists in Parliament. Though given the expected length of time for a review, it'll probably be the next Parliament which has to deal with this anyway, so we'll at least get a chance to fix that first.

Thursday, February 15, 2018



Extending the bright-line

The government has announced it will extend the de facto capital gains tax on investment properties:

Government is extending the amount of time for which investment properties must be held before their owners can avoid capital gains tax - despite a warning that it could be bad news for renters.

Revenue Minister Stuart Nash confirmed the "bright-line" test would be extended from two years to five in legislation working through Parliament.

"The extension of the previous government's bright-line test will help dampen property speculation and make homes more affordable," Nash said.

He said reducing speculative demand would help to improve affordability for owner-occupiers.


Good. Because the way the rich get to enjoy tax-free capital gains on property speculation, while the rest of us pay taxes on everything we earn, is unjust and wrong. Its good to see it limited. At the same time, it clearly doesn't address long-term speculation, or financial assets (which the ultra-rich own almost all off). Labour has punted that problem till next election. Hopefully they'll actually show some spine and implement a proper capital gains tax if they win, rather than continuing to protect the untaxed rich.

Dunne on the OIA

Despite no longer being in Parliament, former MP Peter Dunne is still writing a weekly column. And today, he has a few thoughts on the Official Information Act. Dunne's perspective is useful, because he's been on both sides of the Act, as a requester and as a Minister, so he's seen how it works from both ends. His conclusions are that the government plays games and that this needs to stop, and that the Act needs to be extended to cover Parliament (but not MPs) and the courts. But his way of getting there is just bizarre:

Therefore, it is time for a joint working party, involving the Ombudsman's Office, the news media, and the politicians (not just the government of the day) to be convened to prepare a new OIA that upholds its original principles and the good things about the current legislation, but which also modernises its scope, processes, and, if possible, operating culture in the light of contemporary circumstances. And then we should commit in these rapidly changing times, to carrying out a similar review every five years.

We don't need another review - everything Dunne suggests was recommended by the Law Commission review in 2012. What we've lacked since then is a government willing to implement its substantive recommendations. It remains to be seen whether the current government is interested in real change or not. But one sure sign that its not will be if it sets up another review.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018



Genesis lied on coal

Back in 2015, SOE Genesis Energy committed to shutting down the last two coal-fired units at its Huntly power-plant by December 2018. Of course, they lied:

Genesis Energy has pledged to stop using coal to generate electricity except in exceptional circumstances by 2025.

And it will stop using coal entirely by 2030.

The company has been criticised for using coal to generate electricity at its Huntly power plants because coal produces far more greenhouse gas emissions per therm of energy than gas does.


Of course, there's no mention that this is a repudiation of their 2015 promise, and one which will cause significant damage to the climate. And while they complain a lot about "security of supply", as Greenpeace points out, there are over 3 GW of renewable generation already consented (up to 850 of it by Genesis in one wind farm). But that stuff isn't being built because Genesis is still flooding the market by burning dirty coal in its hugely inefficient 70's-era power station.

If we are to meet our renewable energy targets and save the climate, we need to stop burning coal. And that means shutting down Huntly - permanently.

Oh FFS

Labour is considering dumping plans to put cameras on fishing boats:

Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash said many in the fishing industry were unhappy with the camera proposal and all options were on the table - including dumping it entirely.

One of Mr Nash's first moves when he became the Fisheries Minister was to put the brakes on the rollout of electronic monitoring of the commercial fishing fleet.

The former National government came up with the plan last year, saying it would protect the sustainability of fish stocks and act as a deterrent against illegal activity, like fish dumping.

But Mr Nash said National forced it upon the sector, and he was getting advice from officials on what should be done.

"There are certainly concerns in the industry that there hasn't been a proper process followed and a complete and utter lack of consultation.


...which is like a burglar complaining about a "lack of consultation" when people install burglar alarms. Because that is what is going on here: an industry which is 80% criminal and which has relied for decades on regulatory capture to get away with serious criminal behaviour is finally looking at being properly regulated. So naturally, they are squealing about it. The government should ignore that squealing, regulate the fuckers, and target the loudest for investigation since they obviously have something to hide.

...and I'd expect the Greens to be demanding this of their "partners". Because this is fundamentally about environmental crime, and the Greens should not let NZ First and Labour turn a blind eye to it like they did in the past.

National's legacy

The Salvation Army released its annual State of the Nation report today, revealing the mess National has left us in:

The number of food parcels being handed out at the Salvation Army's foodbanks has jumped 12 percent in the last year, according to the organisation's latest State of the Nation report.

Between 2011 and 2016, the Salvation Army was handing out about 56,000 food parcels a year.

Last year, that number jumped to 63,000 - helping almost 32,000 families - and the report's author, Alan Johnson, said they were not exactly sure what's behind the increased demand.


The report attributes this to National's housing crisis. While MSD has become more generous with emergency assistance, its not enough to offset the squeeze on renters (and MSD are vicious arseholes which discourages people from seeking or receiving the help they are entitled to).

This is National's legacy - mass poverty and inequality. And no doubt they'll spend the next three years pretending to care about it and complaining that Labour hasn't fixed in five minutes a problem that it took them nine long years to create and exacerbate.

Australia's biggest tax cheats

Big companies are supposed to be good for us, right? They make money and pay taxes, allowing the government to fund the stuff we need. Except in Australia, that's just not true: their largest corporations pay no tax:

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, one of the most prominent supporters of the Turnbull Government's proposed big business tax cut, presides over a company that hasn't paid corporate tax for close to 10 years.

The period roughly coincides with Mr Joyce's tenure at the helm of Australia's flag carrier.

Despite generating income of $106.4 billion, the flying kangaroo has avoided paying tax on that bounty since 2009, thanks to Australia's generous tax concessions, depreciation provisions and the ability to offset company losses against past and future profits.

New analysis by the ABC reveals Qantas is not alone — its tax behaviour is consistent with about 380 of Australia's largest companies. ATO corporate tax transparency data — confirmed in email exchanges with company representatives — reveals about one in five of the country's biggest companies have paid no tax for at least the past three years.


The article has a long, long list of large companies who pay nothing, preferring instead to launder their money and play complicated shell games to steal from the public. It includes airlines, banks, mining companies, and media giant APN (which owns the New Zealand Herald). Which makes you wonder whether this happens in New Zealand. It almost certainly does, but unfortunately, we'll never be able to prove it, because while the Australian Tax Office publishes an annual transparency report on how much tax is paid by big business, IRD considers whether corporations are stealing from us to be "private". Which puts them in the position of actively covering up for tax thieves. It also leaves us in the position of not being able to decide appropriate policy, because the public is actively denied the data necessary to judge the scale of the problem.

There's an obvious member's bill here to set up a statutory transparency regime, for an MP who wants to stick it to the tax cheats. Does anyone want to take it up?

Tuesday, February 13, 2018



Good riddance to Bill English

So, Bill English has resigned as leader of the National Party and will be leaving Parliament. Good fucking riddance. He's done a lot of shitty things in his career, and I'm glad to see the back of him. There's his role in pushing climate change denial as National leader in the early 2000s, which delayed real action on climate change until... well, we still haven't seen it, have we? There's his racist response to the foreshore and seabed case, which in turn helped push Labour down the racist path of dispossession. There's his constant battle to undermine abortion rights and women's health. And then, there's his own personal dishonesty in claiming to live in Dipton so he could get the taxpayer to pay for the house in Karori he actually lived in. Bluntly, the man was a racist and a thief, and the sooner he goes, the better.

NZ's history is secure

Over the xmas break, we learned that the British government was conveniently "misplacing" documents from its national archives - documents which detailed the crimes of empire or which might be inconvenient or embarrassing for the establishment in the future. The mechanism for this crude coverup is temporary loan back to the originating agency, which then somehow "loses" the embarrassing file (or in some cases, only the embarrassing pages).

(That's of course the stuff that makes it into the archive. The British government has also had systematic processes to stop records of their crimes being archived in the first place)

When I read this, I was curious: New Zealand has a statutory process for temporary return of archive material, so does anything similar happen here? I used the OIA to ask Archives New Zealand some questions about temporary returns and missing documents, and the response I think is one that can give us confidence that our history is secure:

The number of items temporarily returned to originating or controlling public offices differs each year based on demand. The Government Loans service processed 3,482 files for offsite loan during the 2017 calendar year. For 2016, a total of 3,408 items were issued; 4,166 items were issued in 2015. These numbers cover all of our offices (Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin).

[...]

We find that our government loans clients take the security of the items they borrow very seriously. There are 22 items listed as ‘Missing – Government Loans’ in our system.


I've asked for a list of those files, but the overall picture appears to be good. You'd expect a small rate of loss as part of the bureaucratic process, but this appears to be extremely small indeed. Unlike the UK, we don't appear to have systematic government destruction of our history. But I guess we have far less to be ashamed of...

Monday, February 12, 2018



"A lottery"

That's how UK immigration staff are describing their refugee decision-making process:

The British asylum process is a lottery and many asylum interviews are rushed, biased and resolved by “cut and paste” decisions by overworked Home Office staff, whistleblowers have told the Guardian.

Former staff employed in deciding asylum claims said some colleagues had a harsh, even abusive, attitude towards applicants, mocking them to one another and employing “intimidation tactics” during interviews.

As a result, the whistleblowers said, the asylum system was in effect a lottery, depending on the personal views of the decision-maker who picked up the file. They said some staff took pride in rarely, if ever, granting asylum.

[...]

“It’s just a lottery,” said another. “Because if you’ve got a caseworker who was particularly refusal-minded and was determined to catch you out then you’re going to have a hard time … There was one particular guy who had a reputation for never granting anything. He kind of took pride in that as well. On the one occasion when he did grant someone, I think someone brought him in a cake.”


It is difficult to see how this meets the requirements of international law, let alone administrative law requirements of fairness and reasonableness. But I guess if its dificult for people to get lawyers, then those requirements mean nothing in practice, and can be ignored.

Further on, the article talks about staff being required to process 225 applications a year - a rate which leaves them no time to properly read the cases, let alone make a good decision. Its reminiscent of the dystopian computer game Papers, Please, rather than the sort of thing you expect to happen in a civilised and functioning country. But I guess where refugees are concerned, the UK hasn't been civilised for quite some time, if indeed it ever was.

I'd like to think that New Zealand does a better job than this, but we've had the same budgetry pressures that the UK has had. Maybe its worth someone sending some pokey OIA requests about staff numbers, caseload, and expected work rates?

Worse than we thought

So, it turns out that National's housing crisis is much worse than we thought, with an enormous hidden pool of homeless people exiled from state housing, massive undersupply, and long-term consequences for health and our society. And fixing it is going to be far more work and far more expensive than Labour imagined:

Eaqub said the new Government was actually lacking ambition in the area - they needed to double the number of state houses and build 500,000 homes over the next ten years instead of 100,000.

He said the Government's budget responsibility rules were an unnecessary straitjacket which could hold the Government back from properly addressing the crisis.


The Herald version has some even blunter language about this:
Eaqub said investment was needed in infrastructure and housing such as the KiwiBuild programme yet the Government was restricted because of the fiscal responsibility rules.

He said the infrastructure issue could be resolved by "borrowing s***loads of money" and only a "fiscal idiot" would not have been borrowing money in the current climate or over the past decade.


So basicly we're going to need long-term and very expensive reinvestment to fix National's infrastructure deficit. And while the government is doing that, National will spend the entire time screaming about debt and taxes. Because fundamentally, National doesn't care about housing and everyone having a roof over their heads - that was clear enough from their policies. What they care about is rich people not having to pay for anything. Just like the local government morons who whine perpetually about rates while letting their sewage systems, roading networks, and other public infrastructure decay.

But it has to be done. The report makes clear that failing to fix this will cost us in health costs, education costs, and significantly in superannuation costs. Not fixing it is dereliction of duty. The good news is that building state houses is an investment: you borrow money, and you get an asset, which then rises in value and delivers social and economic benefits (e.g. reduced health costs). Eaqub is right: when interest rates are low, it is mad not to do that (even National accepts this, at least when it comes to interest-free student loans). The big problem is going to be the capacity of the building sector to deliver a mass house-building programme. So the government is going to have to do a lot of work building the capacity to build. The good news is that having permanent work from the government will remove the boom-and-bust cycle from the building market, and allow serious long-term investment to make it more productive. Assuming of course that a National government doesn't just come along and scrap the entire thing again.

The full report is here.

Bring them home and put them on a leash

Stuff has a piece this morning about research from human rights campaigner Harmeet Sooden about what NZDF is doing in Iraq. Sooden's full report is here, but the short version is that National expanded NZDF's mission from training to "advise-and-assoist", including planning and coordinating the combat missions of a force which shows no respect for human rights. Naturally, they did this secretly, and just two months before the 2017 election. NZDF has also been involved in a US program to collect biometric data from the Iraqi population (similar to the program the SAS was participating in in Afghanistan, exposed in Hit and Run), which given the Iraqi government's penchant for torture and sectarian oppression, has significant human rights implications (effectively, we're helping them compile a sectarian hit-list). Again, they did all of this in secret too. So, its the usual story: NZDF goes to fight other people's wars and lies to us about what its doing.

We have seen this again and again over the years - in Iraq during Bush's war, in Afghanistan, in the Arabian Gulf, and now in Iraq, and it has to fucking stop. We cannot tolerate a military which regards the people it works for - the New Zealand public - effectively as an enemy to be mushroomed, propagandised, and lied to. That is simply not acceptable in a democracy.

As for how, in the long-term we clearly need Parliamentary approval for any foreign military deployment. That automatically prevents mission creep and provides direct Parliamentary oversight. In the short term, the best way to stop NZDF misbehaving is to bring them home. Back in 2016, Labour promised to do just that, and withdraw kiwi troops from Iraq. The Australians (and presumably their American masters) are currently wanting us to extend our deployment (despite having declared victory over ISIS). We should resist that demand. And specifically, the Greens should put their foot down and demand it. After all, if they're going to be asked to compromise their democratic values as the price of getting along in government, they should get something for it. Ending our involvement in Iraq seems like a fair price for that stinky dead rat.

Friday, February 09, 2018



New Fisk

Israel's outrage over the Palestinian President’s new private jet is hypocritical