Thursday, May 05, 2016



Open Government: How to engage

The other day we learned that the government had (secretly) decided to delay submission of its Open Government partnership action plan, and that it was consulting on how better to engage with civil society. Since then I've been wondering what to tell them, other than "not the same shit you did last time".

The core requirement of the OGP isn't "consultation", but co-creation. That reflects the OGP's nature as a partnership - not just between states, but between states and their societies. Co-creation means not just that we're consulted, but that we have a real voice in the decision, that our voices are taken seriously. In practice, it means civil society being able to say which of the OGP's five "grand challenges" they want the government to focus on, and to suggest policies as possible commitments, and have these suggestions taken seriously. Which is a complete cultural shift from SSC's insular, top-down way of thinking.

As for how to do this, there's some good examples overseas. Romania, Australia, the UK. The core of each of these processes was multiple rounds of wiki-based engagement, coupled with workshops and public meetings to develop both preferred themes and specific commitments. SSC should adopt that model.

A core problem is a lack of time: SSC has started late, and even with the self-granted "extension", will have only 4-5 months to do multiple rounds of consultation, produce advice on which proposals are feasible, and gain political signoff from the government. That's a tight timeline, and in order to meet it SSC will have to involve other government agencies from the very beginning, and get them to prioritise the work. A senior Minister who made this a priority could do that. But one who isn't interested won't. So I guess we've got to hope that SSC's sudden change of timeline reflects some Ministerial interest, rather than merely being a desperate attempt to hide the fact that they haven't done the work they were supposed to.

Drawn

A ballot for a member's bill was held today, and the following bill was drawn:

  • Rates Rebate (retirement village residents) Amendment Bill (Ruth Dyson)

Its a boring but worthy bill, fixing up a wrinkle in legislation which means that people living in retirement villages (through e.g. a right to occupancy, effectively home ownership) aren't eligible for the rebate which retired people living in their own home get. I have no idea whether National will support it as a sensible idea, or try and vote it down out of sheer spite.

Correlated contents

Over the past few months, I've noticed a disturbing trend in Question Time of the Speaker being harsh on NZ First MPs. Their questions are interrupted, they can barely open their mouths on a point of order before the Speaker effectively accuses them of wasting his time (creating an adversarial air which is not conducive to the good order of the House), and barely a day goes by without one of them being thrown out for some imagined slight. So why is the Speaker so pissed off with New Zealand First?

Simple: they've vetoed his cushy retirement plan:

Behind-the-scenes jostling between National and NZ First may have dashed Speaker David Carter's chances of a plum diplomatic post to London.

Carter has long been thought the frontrunner to replace current High Commissioner to Britain Sir Lockwood Smith when his term ends early next year.

But it is understood NZ First is demanding that if in a position to get National across the line for a fourth term, then it would want Carter hauled back from the London posting should he have already gained it.

[...]

In a speech to students at Victoria University, Peters announced the party would block any "unsuitable" political appointees and require them to return home if it held the balance of power in government.


Like a knighthood, High Commissioner to London is seen as a political reward for services rendered: a few years living fat off the taxpayer and hob-nobbing with bankers and inbreds while making connections you can use in your post-Parliamentary business career. And its a common reward for former Speakers: Jonathan Hunt got it, as did Lockwood Smith. It shouldn't be that way, of course - its a serious diplomatic posting, and should be awarded on merit to a serious diplomat, not a loyal has-been - but that's the way National and Labour have always done it, as part of their corrupt, cosy, two-party arrangement. So, I'm glad to see NZ First saying they'll put a stop to it (OTOH, I'm also cynical enough to suspect that the reason Winston would recall Carter is because he wants that post for himself...)

As for Carter, allowing your decisions as Speaker to be influenced by personal animus over personal gain is inappropriate and debases the office. He should resign.

Progress on freedom of information in Australia

Imagine if the New Zealand government dealt with pesky OIA requests by trying to abolish the Office of the Ombudsman, then, when it found it did not have a Parliamentary majority for the move, simply defunded them and refused to appoint replacements when the incumbents retired?

That's what Tony Abbott did in Australia to the Australian Information Commissioner. The good news is that now Abbot is out, Turnbull has reversed that move:

An Abbott-era plan to abolish Australia’s privacy and freedom-of-information watchdog has been abandoned in Malcolm Turnbull’s first budget.

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has been allocated $37m over four years, a significant reversal of fortunes for an agency the government has spent two years trying to kill.

[...]

The new money likely means the FOI commissioner position, currently vacant, and the role of information commissioner, temporarily occupied by Pilgrim, will soon be permanently filled.


But while funding has been (partly) restored, its at a lower level than it was before Abbott's attack, and the office has effectively been crippled by two years of no budget. So, while freedom of information is no longer under a death sentence in Australia, it still seems to be on life support.

Cruel and degrading

The Chief Inspector of Corrections has launched an investigation after the Ombudsman complained about a prisoner being tied to a bed:

The Chief Inspector of Corrections has been called in after the prisoner was strapped to the bed following several self-harm incidents.

Tie-down bed restraints are available to prison staff, but can only be used following the approval of a medical officer and must be reviewed regularly.

It is understood several staff were uneasy about the treatment of the man, who was restrained on the bed by his ankles, wrists and head every night and unable to move.

During the day his restraints were relaxed, but he was watched by a large number of staff at every moment.


Reading the investigations terms of reference, it appears that the prisoner was in this situation, tied down every night, for two months. The charitable interpretation is overstretched, poorly-trained Corrections staff failing utterly to deal properly with a severe mental health issue that should have seen the prisoner transferred to an appropriate facility for treatment (something Corrections seems institutionally opposed to, and its not as if our mental health services are funded to cope with the huge number of prisoners with such issues). The uncharitable interpretation is that they unlawfully conflated punishment with measures to ensure prisoner safety. I'm sure the investigation will get to the bottom of that. Either way, though, this clearly constitutes cruel and degrading treatment, if not torture.

Such treatment is of course outlawed by the Bill of Rights Act and other legislation, not to mention international law, and the prisoner almost certainly has a strong case for compensation. But thanks to a gutless Labour party, they will never be able to receive any, even for what sounds to be a manifest case of ill-treatment such as this. Sadly, the effects of legally classifying prisoners as subhuman and outside the law on their treatment is beyond the investigations terms of reference. And the chances of any Corrections officer ever being prosecuted for mistreating a prisoner is about the same as that of police: zero.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016



Another amazing coincidence!

Returns of political party loans and donations are out today, and they expose another amazing coincidence in the National Party's donations. In 2015, the party received $15,800 in donations from Christine Che. By utter coincidence, Mrs Che was awarded a QSM "for services to the Chinese community" (a newsletter from the Auckland Justices of the Peace Association makes it clear that this is indeed the same person).

What an amazing coincidence! In fact, its amazing just how often this happens! But I'm sure that, like the PM's personal lawyer lobbying and getting policy changes, we shouldn't read too much into it.

"Highly ethical"

According to John Key, his personal lawyer Ken Whitney is "highly ethical". Yeah, right:

John Key's lawyer, Ken Whitney, was criticised by the High Court after creating a sham trust for a bankrupt property developer then failing to disclose it to authorities probing his client's insolvency.

When asked during cross-examination if he had concerns around setting up structures to allow a bankrupt to continue in business, Mr Whitney told the court: "No, not particularly. It's a common thing for people to do. It may not be morally as white as it could be but it's normal practice."


According to the article, Whitney lied repeatedly to the Official Assignee, and falsely claimed to have witnessed a signature. There don't even meet the ethical standards of lawyers, let alone ordinary kiwis. In fact, some but even call it criminal.

But clearly, Key has different definitions of "highly" and "ethical" from the rest of us.

Member's Day

Today is a Member's Day, and one where we should finally see some progress. While there's a local bill at the top of the Order Paper, and the final passage of Alfred Ngaro's Local Government (Auckland Council) Amendment Bill (No 3), there should be time to start on Andrew Little's Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill (No 2). This one will be a rela fight, since National doesn't have a guaranteed majority to defeat it. Which will force them to either make concessions on the bill's core subjects - requiring landlords to insulate and heat rental properties rather than providing cold, damp, slums - or face the prospect of the House legislating over their heads for it. And because it doesn't involve the government spending money, there's no chance of an unconstitutional financial veto.

I expect National will compromise and announce some half-measures for the budget. It won't be enough, but progress is progress, and a party extracting it from a right-wing government while in opposition is very good indeed. And, as with all of National's other concessions, it lays solid groundwork for real progress when they're finally de-elected.

If Little's bill is debated, there should be a ballot tomorrow. Hopefully we'll see some more good ideas from the opposition parties in that.

39,000 unemployed under National

The Labour Market Statistics were released today, showing that unemployment had risen again to 5.7%. There are now 144,000 unemployed - 39,000 more than when National took office. Their dismal record on this issue can be seen in this one graph from Statistics New Zealand:
UnemploymentMar2016

Aren't we supposed to be in "recovery" now? Wasn't the Christchurch rebuild supposed to demolish unemployment? Instead, even when the financial crisis is over, it just hangs around at just under six percent, forever. Because National prioritises low inflation and bankers keeping the value of their money over people having jobs. If we want to change that, we need to de-elect them and get a government who will prioritise jobs over banks, not banks over jobs.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016



Open Government: Delayed

For the past few months I've been highlighting the rapidly approaching deadline until New Zealand's Open Government Partnership second National Action Plan must be presented to the OGP. Now, quietly, the government has announced a delay:

The timeframe for when New Zealand will finalise its second national action plan for 2016-18 is being extended to allow time for wider engagement with New Zealanders and civil society organisations.

Feedback from the Independent Review carried out by the Open Government Partnership, available on the OGP website at http://www.opengovpartnership.org/country/new-zealand/irm, tells us that our engagement needs to be more inclusive.

To allow time to do that we will not be submitting our second action plan by the time it is normally due on 30 June 2016. The plan will be developed over a number of months and published by the end of October 2016.


And by "quietly", I mean quietly. There's been no press release or public announcement of this - just a link buried on a website which was not marked as updated - meaning that multiple people who have been watching this like a hawk for news didn't notice it for over a week. This is what the SSC calls "awareness raising".

So, the SSC is now consulting - not on an action plan, but on how to consult. The problem, of course, is that even with this delay, they will still be cutting things extremely fine to do a genuine co-creation process - they will have only four months to solicit whole-of-government policy proposals from the public, assess them for feasibility, and gain Cabinet approval for potentially far-reaching changes. That would be a difficult ask, even with the best will in the world - and given their past behaviour, I think we have good cause to doubt their commitment. Still, hopefully it does indicate change, and that we won't be getting another pre-determined action plan of pre-existing administrative initiatives rammed down our throats with a mockery of "consultation".

OTOH, it is also a high-risk strategy. While the government has talked of asking for an extension, past experience is that the OGP will enforce its deadlines. A country can be four months late before being given a warning, and the government may have interpreted this as a means of getting extra time. But if they're even a single day late on this, it will result in a second formal warning, and a likely suspension.

DoC on Wicked Campers

Nobody likes Wicked Campers. They're sexist dickheads whose business model is offending people. But offending people isn't illegal in a free and democratic society, and when Ministers make noises about cracking down on such people, it endangers freedom of speech for all of us. So when the media reported that the Department of Conservation was considering acting against Wicked - something which seemed to conflict with their clear legal obligations under the Bill of Rights Act - I thought I'd ask a few questions.

DoC's advice and communications with the Minister on Wicked Campers are here. The short version: the Minister of Conservation asked them if they could ban Wicked from their campgrounds, and they said "no". Instead, they suggested that local bylaws could be used where applicable, but pointed out that this wouldn't work either, and would likely lead to a rise in freedom camping. Their conclusion was that DoC was not the appropriate agency to deal with this issue. But while they addressed freedom of expression issues in the context of bylaws, there's no specific acknowledgement in the written advice of DoC's core obligation to act in a manner consistent with the BORA.

But there's also a smoking gun:
DoC-WickedCall

(And from that earlier news report, the internet team complied)

Just to make this clear: the Minister (through her office) directly called a tier-3 manager and asked them to fuck over a business (AKA interference in an operational matter). And they complied. From the context, this act was specifically performed as a punishment for speech the Minister did not like, and to the extent that DoC's website is effective in informing tourists (something I'm sure they'd want to claim) intended to and effective in inflicting commercial harm. Which is at least two lawsuits waiting to happen. And if Wicked sues and wins, the blame for that will rest firmly on this interfering Minister.

But this isn't just about Wicked. Because what Ministers can do to an unpopular foreign camper-van firm, they can do to anyone. Such as companies which criticise government policy, or companies which donate to rival political parties. You might want to think about that before mindlessly supporting Ministers using the machinery of government as a weapon against their political enemies.

Draw the obvious conclusion

Yesterday, John Key tried to put off corrupt lobbying by his personal lawyer Ken Whitney by saying that Whitney had "misrepresented" him. This raised obvious questions - such as whether Whitney would be sacked. Of course not:

Prime Minister John Key is sticking with his personal lawyer despite agreeing in an interview that the lawyer misrepresented him while lobbying another minister about a potential crackdown on the foreign trusts industry.

[...]

A spokesman for the Prime Minister said yesterday Mr Whitney was still Mr Key's lawyer.


How does this fit with Key's previous statement that "I don't deal with people unless they're highly ethical and they do things well"? Not at all. So which bit is false? Key's supposed high standards, or his claim that Whitney violated them?

Compass: Tax cheats

Surprise, surprise: it turns out that Compass, best known for endangering hospital staff by serving inedible slop to hospital patients, are tax cheats:

Compass New Zealand has lent its British-based parent millions of dollars while the fees and royalties it has paid to the UK have quadrupled over the last four years.

Tax experts have said such transactions are commonly used by multinationals to shift profits between subsidiaries to avoid paying tax.

[...]

Auckland tax consultant Terry Baucher described the loans as "unusual", especially given the interest rate of between 2.9 percent to 3.8 percent was a lot higher than what Compass would pay for borrowing money in the UK and none of the money had been repaid.


So Compass screws us at both ends: they take government money to deliver a service, then fail to deliver it to an acceptable standard. Meanwhile, they're using dodgy accounting tricks to avoid paying taxes on their profits (and telling the IRD something different from what they're telling their shareholders). Their contract should be cancelled, and they should be banned from further government business until the IRD has given them a clean bill of health. Our government should not be giving business to tax cheats!

Monday, May 02, 2016



Speaking for their masters

National is currently "consulting" on "national standards" for freshwater which are effectively a licence for pollution and allow rivers that will make you sick. But it turns out that even these weak standards are too much for National's handpicked dictators in Canterbury, who are arguing for the region's two most polluted lakes to be exempted altogether:

In a submission on the Government's consultation document, Environment Canterbury (ECan) said it would be "deeply concerned" if that [Ellesmere and Lake Forsyth being required to meet national freshwater standards - I/S] happened, as it could mean years of work would have to be revisited with "significant costs."

The clean-up of Lake Ellesmere is expected to take generations.

Existing initiatives to restore it have targets extending beyond 2035, and were the result of public hearings, governance agreements between councils and Ngai Tahu, and policies around land use and nutrient limits.

"All this work – the exhaustive scientific assessments, careful deliberation, and hard-won community agreement – would potentially be jeopardised," the submission reads.


Or, to put it another way: they'd have to meet those standards, and the farmers and polluters they work for would be upset. Meanwhile, while they're dragging their feet, Ellesmere is getting worse, while Lake Forsyth is poisonous and kills animals.

This is another reason why Canterbury needs a fully elected regional council: so that it represents the region's people, rather than just the National Party and their polluter cronies.

"Good character"

So it turns out the people the Overseas Investment Office approved to buy Onetai station (you know, the ones with the lovely Panamanian money-laundering lawyers) weren't just convicted polluters, but also money launderers:

Ministers approved the sale of Taranaki's Onetai station to a Panamanian firm whose treasurer was also a director of a company that Portugal believed laundered money for former Brazilian and Portuguese national soccer coach Luiz Felipe Scolari.

[...]

Gustavo Daniel Chaves Mantaras was one of three Uruguayan directors and the treasurer of Ceol & Muir, a Panamanian company set up with the help of law firm Mossack Fonseca to purchase Onetai station in 2013.

British company office records show Mantaras was also a director of Chaterella Investment Limited, now renamed Inmax International.

Portuguese prosecutors believed Chaterella was used by Scolari – who managed Brazil's football team during its humiliating 7-1 loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup – to hide millions of dollars from Portugal's tax authority.


Do we need any more evidence? These "investors" simply aren't of "good character", as required by the Overseas Investment Act. The OIO should revoke consent and force a sale.

But its clear also that we have a wider problem with foreign companies being able to be used to mask the identity of investors and effectively circumvent the good character test. This could be easily solved if we followed the UK and Australia in requiring companies to publicly disclose their beneficial owners - that is, who really owns and profits from them, rather than just which stooge is on the papers - in order to invest or operate in New Zealand. Unfortunately, it seems that despite a growing trend overseas, the government has not even considered this.

John Key on Ken Whitney

John Key assures the public he is not linked to the Panama Papers scandal, Stuff, 13 April 2016

Whitney was "highly ethical" and that was why he chose him as his lawyer."I don't deal with people unless they're highly ethical and they do things well."

John Key's lawyer 'misrepresented' him on foreign trusts industry, New Zealand Herald, 2 May 2016
Prime Minister John Key says his lawyer misrepresented him while lobbying another minister about a potential crackdown on the foreign trusts industry.

[...]

In a letter to then-Revenue Minister Todd McClay in December 2014, Mr Whitney said the Prime Minister had told him the Government had no plans to tighten the rules for the industry.

Speaking to Radio New Zealand this morning, Mr Key said this was a misrepresentation of what he had said.

Mr Key said that he had told his lawyer that he was not aware of any changes being planned by the Inland Revenue Department, and referred him to the minister for further discussion.


So, John Key's "highly ethical" lawyer is now "misrepresenting" him. So, was Key lying about him then, or defaming him now? Alternatively, if everything is as Key suggests, and he's not merely smearing him in an effort to distance himself from someone whose dirty dealings have made him look bad, it raises an obvious question: is Whitney still Key's lawyer now he has proved himself unethical, and if so, why?

Friday, April 29, 2016



Burned flesh on their hands

On Wednesday, a refugee in Australia's concentration camp in Nauru set himself alight in protest at his continued detention. Today, he died. And the scary thing is, he wasn't alone: six refugees tried to kill themselves on Nauru in the last week alone. That's how hopeless they are, that's how damaging Australia's policy of dumping refugees in offshore concentration camps is.

And that's the cost of Australia's vicious, inhumane refugee policies: dead people. Those who support those policies have the burned flesh of the dead on their hands.

Will the UK Conservatives be prosecuted for overspending?

On Wednesday, the UK Conservative party admitted that it had failed to declare tens of thousands of pounds of electoral expenses last election. Today, the Electoral Commission looks to be seriously considering prosecution:

Following months of investigations by Channel 4 News, the Electoral Commission has requested an extension to the time limit available to pursue possible criminal prosecutions regarding Conservative Party campaign spending returns.

Bob Posner, Director of Party and Election Finance & Legal Counsel at the Electoral Commission said, "The police and the CPS both have the power to apply to the Courts to extend the time limit on bringing criminal prosecutions for electoral offences to allow for full investigations to take place. We have requested that they consider doing this."

Representatives of the Electoral Commission and the Crown Prosecution Service will hold also hold a summit with a number of police forces to discuss the Conservative Party's election expenses next week.


My inner cynic says they won't. The UK police exist to protect the establishment. So, they'll look the other way on lawbreaking by that establishment, even when it undermines democracy (and while spying on democratic opponents of the status quo). As for the Electoral Commission, if they're dependent on that rotten police force for investigation or cooperation, its just not going to happen.

And the fact that you can quite reasonably think that is itself an indictment on the UK's democracy. People deserve to be able to have faith in their legal and democratic institutions, to believe that the powerful will be held accountable if they break the law just as the weak are. But in the UK, you simply can't. Their institutions are so corrupt and deferential to power, full of people who all went to the same schools and the same universities, fucked the same pig to join the same snob network, all scratching each other's backs and overlooking each others crimes (because you're all chums, and otherwise, the photos may be made public). Until that changes, their country is unreformable.

The Wicked campers decision

For the past two months, the public has been complaining about Wicked camper-vans' offensive slogans. Yesterday, the Office of Film and Literature Classification responded, by classifying three of the vans as "objectionable" - meaning that merely possessing them is punishable by a penalty of ten year's imprisonment. But note what the ban applies to and why: three vehicles depicting drug use involving cartoon characters, deemed likely to encourage drug use among children. Their sexist, offensive slogans aren't affected. So, while Paula Bennet is blustering and threatening Wicked to remove their slogans or "get out the cheque book", its simply hot air. Those vans aren't banned, and on any honest reading of the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993, aren't likely to be - because sexist dickheadery isn't grounds for censorship in this country.

Meanwhile, there's this:

Wicked could face a fine of up to $200,000 per offence if it continued to use them. Drivers of the vans could also be fined and police would be able to use their discretion in charging. Police were deciding on the level of consequences.
Or, to put it another way, the police are going to make the law up as they go along to avoid damaging New Zealand's tourism industry. But these are strict liability offences here, which Parliament has decided apply regardless of intent or knowledge. If the vans are banned, anyone currently driving them (or whom they are currently rented to) is commiting an offence (likely multiple offences). It's the police's job to enforce the law as written, and they should do so - not subvert the will of Parliament. And if people don't like that (because, let's face it, it's going to look awful when we bang up a couple of German teenagers and subject them to a show-trial because the stupid van they rented was suddenly classified underneath them), then maybe they should have thought about that before clamouring for the law to be twisted in this way.

(Meanwhile, the Department of Conservation is now a week late on my OIA request on their issues about Wicked. Once upon a time, DoC made OIA a priority and dropped everything to process them. Clearly that is no longer the case under a National Minister. Just another sign of how National has eroded open government and transparency...)

UK police spied on Green politicians - again

More revelations of police political spying in the UK - this time on Green party politicians:

A secretive police unit tasked with spying on alleged extremists intent on committing serious crimes has been monitoring leading members of the Green party, the Guardian has learned.

Newly released documents show that the intelligence unit has been tracking the political activities of the MP Caroline Lucas and Sian Berry, the party’s candidate for London mayor.

Some of the monitoring took place as recently as last year and seemed to contradict a pledge from Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan police commissioner, that the unit would only target serious criminals rather than peaceful protesters.

Extracts from the files show that the police have chronicled how the Green politicians had been speaking out about issues such as government cuts, the far right, police violence, and the visit of the pope.


Dangerous, radical stuff. Practically terrorism. Society clearly needs to be protected from these dangerous malcontents who seek to convince people peacefully, get elected, and change the law by democratic means!

Former Green mayoral candidate Jenny Jones gets it right: the UK police exist to protect the establishment. The Greens criticise, oppose, and ultimately threaten that establishment. And that is why they are targeted for political spying. But it is fundamentally undemocratic, the sort of thing you'd expect in a third world dictatorship, not a supposed democracy like the UK.