Friday, March 27, 2020



We are not America

When the government banned semi-automatic weapons in response to a terrorist atrocity, gun-nuts were outraged. Mired in toxic American gun culture, they thought owning weapons whose sole purpose was killing people was some sort of "constitutional right", a necessity for "defending themselves" against the government. Now, the Court of Appeal has told them in no uncertain terms that they are wrong:

A legal challenge by firearms owners to the Government's military-style semi-automatic weapons ban claiming New Zealanders have the right to bear arms under the Treaty of Waitangi was "doomed to fail", the Court of Appeal has ruled.

[...]

In the Court of Appeal's decision, released this week, Justice David Collins said: "We accept for present purposes that it was customary in ancient times for citizens of England to bear arms ... We do not need, however, to determine if the custom of bearing arms evolved into a common law right.

"An examination of the constitutional instruments relied upon by Mr Minchin quickly exposes the fallacy of his argument that New Zealanders have a constitutional right to bear arms."

[...]

"In this country, as in almost all countries, a citizen's ability to possess, own and use firearms is regulated by legislation ... There is no constitutional right to bear arms in New Zealand let alone the arms that are prohibited by the Amendment Act."


So that's that. Meanwhile, I am wondering how people who publicly argue that firearms are for use against the government and their fellow citizens meet the "fit and proper person" test for gun ownership. That is explicitly not what firearms are for in our society, and anyone who thinks that it is is a wannabe terrorist. They should have their licences revoked and their weapons seized.

Thursday, March 26, 2020



Using privacy law to prevent the death penalty

In 2018, El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey - two British citizens who had purportedly been stripped of their citizenship by the British government - were captured while fighting for Isis in Syria. The British government then conspired to hand them over to the US, and agreed to provide evidence against them despite the fact that they may face the death penalty. The UK Supreme Court has now ruled that that conspiracy was unlawful:

The government’s decision to cooperate with US authorities over the prosecution of two alleged Islamic State executioners without assurances that they would not face the death penalty was unlawful, the supreme court has ruled.

In a unanimous judgment that will have repercussions for US-UK relations, the court’s seven justices said the home secretary’s agreement to provide evidence about El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey breached data protection rules.

Delivering the judgment, Lord Kerr said that under the Data Protection Act transferring information in this context was contrary to law. He said: “Much of the information provided, or to be provided, to the US authorities consisted of personal data. It was common ground between the parties that provision of mutual legal assistance involved the ‘processing’ of such personal data falling within part 3 [of the] Data Protection Act.

“Such processing is only lawful where it complies with the data protection principles in section 34 DPA. I concluded that since the transfer of material to the US authorities without obtaining death penalty assurances was contrary to law, it followed that the first and second principles – requiring processing that is lawful and fair – were not met.”


Its a fairly weird way to approach what should be a straight-out human rights question. Opposition to the death penalty is meant to be a fundamental principle of UK foreign policy and UK law. But it turns out that there was nothing actually stopping a minister from handing over information which could see people executed. Now, there is. Unfortunately, though, it may be too late for these two men, who are still being held in US custody in Iraq.

So would this sort of collateral attack work if the New Zealand government engaged in such behaviour? Probably not. While the Privacy Act requires all collection of information to be for a lawful purpose, there's no explicit equivalent restriction on its disclosure. Instead, you'd have to rely directly on the BORA, which covers all actions taken by any part of the government, and includes explicit protection for the right to life. The courts don't really recognise "justified limitations" on that, so it is likely that they would rule disclosure of information which may lead to the death penalty as unlawful. Which seems much simpler than having to rely on privacy law.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020



An equitable way to support business

The Herald reports that the government is planning to lend billions of dollars to large businesses to keep them operating during the pandemic. As with mortgage relief, this is necessary: we need companies to stay in business, to reduce the economic damage and help things get restarted again when this crisis ends (and it will, eventually). But like mortgage relief, its also inequitable - a socialisation of losses when profits have been privatised. And that really doesn't taste good.

So what's the solution? The same as has been used for Air New Zealand: loans, convertible to equity. If a company pays it back, no problem. If it looks like they might not, the government takes an ownership stake, and shares in the profits when it is rebuilt (either in dividends, or as a higher price if it sells out). That way, businesses still get to keep working, shareholders still carry the can, and the public doesn't get rorted.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020



What about renters?

The government today announced the latest part of its pandemic relief package: a six-month mortgage holiday for people whose incomes have been affected by the pandemic. Which is great, because these people are going to need help, and that's what the government should be doing. At the same time, it raises an obvious question: what about the renters? A third of kiwis rent. Their rent goes to pay the mortgages of their landleeches. And when those landleeches have a government-backed mortgage holiday, its basicly free money for them, a wealth transfer from the poorest New Zealanders to the richest.

The poor should not have to pay for the pandemic. Instead, we should have a rent amnesty to match the mortgage amnesty, and a ban on evictions. If you agree, there's a petition on ActionStation here.

Transparency and the pandemic

Parliament will be leading by example and adjourning tomorrow after a special sitting to consider an epidemic notice and state of emergency. Day-to-day oversight of the government will be delegated to a select committee. But that's not the only overight mechanism. The OIA will still be law, and (so far) hasn't been changed under the epidemic notice, so you can still make requests - and they may be extremely valuable in providing transparency around the emergency decisions.

The Ombudsman has issued guidance to agencies about this, and will be triaging complaints to focus on those related to the emergency in order to provide that transparency. For requesters, the advice is to be reasonable. Agencies may have other things on their minds ATM, but also, people may be sick and simply unable to answer. Provided they call and ask for extra time (rather than simply being late), its usually not going to hurt to agree.

One way to solve the housing crisis

How much homelessness is caused by house hoarding? We're about to find out. The pandemic has destroyed tourism, which means that house hoarders who put their hoarded properties up as short-term tourist rentals are now offering them on the ordinary rental market:

Property investors are pulling properties from Airbnb to offer as long-term rentals instead.

New Zealand's tourism industry has come to a standstill as the country responds to the spread of coronavirus.

A spokeswoman for Trade Me said usually 6 per cent of Trade Me rental listings were offered furnished. But since March 14, when the self-isolation rules were first announced, that number had increased to 11 per cent.

"This puts the total number of fully furnished rental listings at double what they were at the time last year," she said.

"They are being advertised extensively across Facebook community groups at significantly discounted rents. Most come furnished and are often on six-month leases so that landlords have the option of putting the unit back on Airbnb if conditions have normalised again ahead of next summer," he said.


And of course, there's a huge concentration of them in Queenstown - one of the worst locations for the housing crisis. Now we're going to find out just how much of that scarcity is artificial, just how much misery is being inflicted for the profit of a tiny class of hoarders. And stopping that is something we might want to fix when this is all over.

Monday, March 23, 2020



We are all socialists now

Last week, the government announced a $12 billion initial package to support people during the pandemic. Today, the Reserve Bank is buying government bonds - effectively printing money - to keep up the money supply during the crisis. Normally such moves would have the right apoplectic. Instead, the National Party is calling for more, as are the business lobby groups.

The change in mindset is astounding. I guess we really are all socialists now. And hopefully we'll remember this when the crisis is over, and not just go back to business as usual.

Friday, March 20, 2020



Politics, the possible, and the pandemic

Whenever people demand real change from their politicians, we're told that "politics is the art of the possible". The implication is that change isn't possible, so we'd better just get used to the sucky status quo.

But now that there's a pandemic, a lot of things we were previously told weren't possible suddenly are. Raising benefits. Massively increased government spending. Renationalisations. Overseas, we're seeing mortgage and rent freezes, and UBI-style fixed payments to keep people's heads above water.

The implication is that these things, and others, were always possible, with political will. And that what was stopping them was the reluctance of politicians to do the work and upset the cosy status quo they benefitted from. When this crisis is over, we should remember that.

Thursday, March 19, 2020



Parliament and the pandemic II

As expected, the government has introduced a sessional order to allow Parliament to operate during the pandemic. You can read it on the Order Paper here, but the short version is that questions and motions can be filed electronicly, select committees can work remotely, and the the Business Committee can adjust proxy requirements (allowing more proxies than usual). The Business Committee includes representatives form all parties and operates by consensus, so this is a good, inclusive way of managing the House.

According to Stuff, the changes are expected to pass unanimously.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020



68-51

The Abortion Legislation Bill has just passed its third reading, 68-51. NZ First MPs bailed because their referendum amendment didn't pass, but there were plenty of MPs to provide a majority without them. The bill is a long way from perfect - most significantly, it subjects pregnant people who need a late stage abortion to the wagging finger of society, just like the old law did - but it is a massive improvement. And it'll be in force within a couple of days.

There's still work to be done - both in making it truly a medical decision, and in establishing safe zones to protect pregnant people from harassment by bigots. But Parliament has done a good job today. Except for those who voted against: they're bigots, arseholes, or both, and we should de-elect them all.

The Air New Zealand bailout

Stuff reports that the government is going to have to throw $2 - 3 billion at Air new Zealand to get it through the pandemic. Good. While international routes are basicly closed, Air New Zealand is a strategic asset which is vital to our tourism industry, not to mentioning airfreight. We need it keep functioning to ship in medical supplies, and we need it to still be there when this is all over, so it is entirely appropriate that the government steps in. And the fact that we'll end up owning more of it in the process is even better.

At the same time though, its worth pointing out: despite successive efforts at privatisation, we end up having to do this every 20 years or so. We sold it in the 80's, reacquired it as part of a $885 million bailout in 2001, sold it down again under Key in the 2010s, and now we're reacquiring it again. While that reacquisition protects the strategic asset - that's why we do it - it also protects the wealth of the parasites who have bought into this company, which doesn't sit so well. Given that we just keep having to do this, isn't it time we cut them out entirely and simply renationalised it completely?

The tiniest of teeth

Back in early 2018, as a shoddy legal tactic to try and avoid the prisoner voting ban being formally declared inconsistent with the BORA by the Supreme Court, Justice Minister Andrew Little floated the idea of greater legal protection for human rights. When the Supreme Court case didn't go the government's way, the idea stalled. But after blowing through yet another deadline, the government has finally introduced legislation to the House, in the form of the New Zealand Bill of Rights (Declarations of Inconsistency) Amendment Bill. The Bill implicitly recognises the power of the courts to issue such declarations, and adds a new section to the BORA requiring the Attorney-General to report to Parliament on any declaration of inconsistency. What happens after that is up to Parliament, but the explanatory note suggests they will be seeking changes to Standing orders to require a referral to select committee, a formal report back with recommendations, followed by a debate and vote on whether to accept those recommendations. As for what happens next:

Once the House has been informed about, has considered, and, if it thinks fit, has responded to, a declaration of inconsistency, the Executive can then consider its approach to initiating legislative change to remedy the inconsistency.
Constitutionally, this is the tiniest of tiny teeth. Hopefully, it will see MPs listen to the courts, and recommend corrective legislation to remove any inconsistency. And if not, at the least, it will require them to breach the BORA knowingly, willfully, and in public, so the electorate (or international courts if required) can take any required corrective action.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020



A good first step

Today the government announced a financial package to deal with the effects of the pandemic. So far, it looks good: an initial $500 million for health to deal with immediate priorities, wage subsidies for affected businesses, $585 a week from WINZ for people self-isolating who can't work from home, and a $25 / week increase in benefits. It looks good: it will hopefully help the tourism and hospitality industry to keep people employed rather than laying them off, while the benefit increase will see more money flowing into the economy. Most of it is short-term, meaning there will be more coming if the situation continues (as is likely), but the benefit increase is long-term, a permanent and welcome step up (though still nowhere near what is needed to restore benefits to pre-1990 levels). It is in short a good first step. Because the pandemics are not short-term events, more is likely to be needed. But the government has said clearly that its there and its going to help us get through this - that it is going to do its job for once, rather than abandoning us while bailing out the rich.

Australian SAS are war criminals

Australia's SAS deployment to Afghanistan has already produced allegations of war crimes. But now the ABC has been leaked video of one:

Four Corners has obtained video which shows a Special Air Service (SAS) operator shooting an unarmed Afghan man three times in the head and chest while he cowers on the ground.

His death took place within three minutes of the soldiers arriving in the village.

An Australian Defence Force (ADF) investigation later ruled the killing was justified because it was in self-defence.

The killing was one of a series of cases uncovered by Four Corners that may constitute war crimes.

A former member of the same SAS squadron, who was on the 2012 deployment to Afghanistan and has been shown the vision, described the killing to Four Corners as a "straight-up execution".


And there's more context from an SAS whistleblower here.

I have not watched the video, because I am not into snuff. But if the description is accurate, then this soldier needs to be prosecuted for murder. And the superiors who helped sweep it under the carpet need to be prosecuted for perverting the course of justice. Of course, that will never happen - the ADF will cover it up, as usual. And given the way Australia has been going, we'll probably see the ABC raided by federal police again, and prosecuted for exposing government secrets or some such bullshit.

And of course, there's an obvious question: the NZ SAS cooperates closely with its Australian counterpart. Have they been infected by this murderous culture? Have they committed similar crimes? And if they had, would any of them be brave enough to do the right thing and leak it?

Monday, March 16, 2020



Open Government: Another farce

The government is currently "consulting" on developing its fourth national Action Plan under the Open Government Partnership. But according to Andrew Ecclestone, they're making the same mistakes they've made in previous years:

First, unlike most government consultation exercises, there has been no ministerial press release inviting people to take part. Nor did the Minister attend the workshop, unlike his predecessor. This absence speaks volumes about the priority given by the Minister, and a lack of understanding about the opportunity these plans provide, to build trust as well as delivering on their agenda.

Neither did the State Services Commissioner issue a release, or ensure the current work to develop the action plan appears on the all-of-government Consultations Listing page.

As of 10 March the government’s OGP twitter account has only published a single tweet about these workshops – on 10 February.

This might explain why less than twenty members of the public and civil society representatives were present at this first workshop in Wellington (excluding members of SSC’s advisory panel).


They're also signalled that any changes to the OIA are off the table, because the Minister is still trying to decide whether to conduct a review. So they're trying to have a conversation about transparency, while specifically excluding our primary transparency tool.

Shit like this is why I refuse to waste my time on this process. People's time is valuable, and there is an opportunity cost to participating in consultations (if only that it precludes participating in a different one). it makes sense to put your efforts towards things where you will be listened to and your views considered, rather than things where you're just a prop so some official can tick a box. Sadly, Labour's entire "open government" platform seems to fall into the latter category. As for how they could change this, the Minister actually showing some leadership and stumping up some money so agencies can offer commitments beyond business-as-usual things they were going to do anyway would be a start.

Government matters

Like everyone else, I've been watching the not-so-slow-motion-anymore disaster of the pandemic, with varying levels of shock and horror. And watching the responses around the world, I'm once again glad to live in a country with a functioning (if underfunded) public health system and a competent government. We've been told for the past 35 years that government doesn't matter, that its an obstacle, that the best thing it can do is get out of the way and surrender its functions to the private sector. It was always a lie, and now we're being reminded of that in spades. The uS's privatisation of everything has turned it into a failed state where people are going to die en-masse. Here at least we stand a chance. But we're also going to see government resources deployed on a massive scale to support people's incomes and get us all through this. And hopefully, at the end of it people will recognise how important that ability is, and be willing to ensure it is all properly funded in future.

But its also about leadership. In the UK, the government's position is basicly to let the peasants die, to avoid economic damage (while the elite no doubt flees to their rural estates or to their money in some offshore tax-haven). In the US, Trump seems to alternate between denial and seeing it as an opportunity for grift, with a side order of pure fucking evil. Whereas our Prime Minister has made it clear that we are all in this together, that everyone's health depends on everyone else's, and that protecting us is the government's first priority. You see who politicians really are in a crisis, and as with Christchurch, Ardern has risen to the occasion. And we're lucky to have someone like her in charge at the moment.

"The most transparent government ever" again

When they were first elected, Labour promised that "this will be the most open, most transparent Government that New Zealand has ever had". But with another election coming up, its the same old bullshit:

A warning has come from the Chief Ombudsman to government departments over "dragging the chain" when releasing information during the 2020 election year.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier said he was putting agencies on notice - through his interview with the Herald - that he would start publicly calling them out if they didn't improve.

"This is an election year and I'm beginning to see ominous signs of agencies slowing down and dragging the chain in answers to me about complaints," he said.


Its unclear whether this is in response to Ministerial pressure, or just public servants instinctively defending their bosses. But either way the solution as the same: leadership from the top. To riff on former Ombudsman Beverley Wakem, the Prime Minister, Ministers, and Chief Executives need to send clear and public messages in support of OIA compliance, openness, and accountability. And if they don't, we can only conclude that they do not support those values - or the law. And we should hold them accountable for that.

Thursday, March 12, 2020



Drawn

A ballot for one Member's Bill was held today, and the following bill was drawn:

Its more pedophobic law and order bullshit from NZ First, targeted squarely at their frightened elderly voter base. And hopefully Labour will refuse to have a bar of it. Though given their chickenshittedness on everything else, I guess we can expect them to vote it to committee.

Ghost homes should be used to house the homeless

We have a homelessness problem in New Zealand. We also have 40,000 ghost homes in Auckland alone - properties deliberately left empty by hoarders, who just want to accumulate the tax-free capital gains. Writing in Newsroom, Cat MacLennan suggests looks at how we could use them to solve the homelessness crisis:

In New Zealand, the Government and Auckland Council are examining how vacant houses in the city could be used for the homeless or low-income workers. Mayor Phil Goff has spoken to ministers and says several thousand vacant homes could be pressed into service, perhaps for the Housing First programme, which finds shelter for homeless people, or for workers such as teachers, nurses and police officers who find it hard to obtain affordable accommodation.

We should look overseas to see what is being done there. Reoccupying existing homes is much speedier and cheaper financially than constructing new dwellings – in Scotland, for example, the average cost of renovating an empty property is between £6000 and £25,000, compared with the average new build outlay of £120,000.

In addition, it is less harmful environmentally to renovate than to construct from scratch.

A number of countries now tax homes left vacant for long periods. This raises revenue that councils can use for empty homes work but, more importantly, it is designed to nudge property owners into turning their houses back into homes.


Having houses lying empty in order to accumulate "wealth" while we have homelessness is simply vile. Taxing them is the least we can do. But if it continues, maybe we should look at simply seizing them under the Public Works Act for public use as state or emergency housing (and maybe homeless people should just start doing that themselves, UK-style). Houses should be homes, not investments.

The police's depraved indifference

Today's report from the Independent Police Conduct authority: Hamilton police chased a man into the Waikato River, then sat there in a boat and literally watched him drown:

Three police officers didn't do all they should have to rescue a man who subsequently drowned in the Waikato River, the Independent Police Conduct Authority says.

[...]

The Acting Inspector managing the search told the boat crew not to bring the man on board without first making a plan for doing so.

The officers on the boat took this to mean their role was limited to assisting with the search for him and did not plan for rescuing him from the water if needed.


And as a result, when they found him, in some difficulty, they just watched him drown. The IPCA found a moral obligation to help, but no legal one. I suspect the police would find very differently if the killers weren't wearing a uniform. If you or I did this, we'd be prosecuted for manslaughter or criminal nuisance. Isn't it time these officers were held to the same standard?

There are obvious parallels with police chases here as well. In both cases, the police set up a dangerous situation, which results in death or injury. And in both cases, they then blame the victim, and walk away. There is a fundamental mindset problem here, of deprioritising the lives of offenders and the general public. And that is simply not acceptable in a police force which is meant to protect everyone.