Friday, February 27, 2015



"CIA or Gestapo tactics"

Earlier in the week we learned that the Chicago police department had been running its very own black site, where prisoners were disappeared, beaten, shackled, hot-boxed, and held without access to lawyers (or any other form of due process). It seems to be turning into a major political issue in Chicago, and rightly so. While the Chicago PD has a dirty history of torture and abuse (so much so that when the US needed torturers for Guantanamo, they hired a former Chicago police detective), the idea that torture is happening in America is a bit too much even for Americans. And with a mayoral runoff election now on the cards, there might be some chance of change (or, it could just be swept back under the carpet, like Fergusson and police violence generally. This is America after all).

But what got my attention reading all this was the reaction of one local politician:

Until this week, the Cook County commissioner Richard Boykin only knew of the warehouse next-door – like the mother – as a police facility in a struggling Chicago neighbourhood.

“I hadn’t heard of the sort of CIA or Gestapo tactics that were mentioned in the Guardian article until it was brought to my attention,” Boykin said in an interview outside Homan Square. “And we are calling for the Department of Justice to open an investigation into these allegations.”


[Emphasis added]

Yes, the CIA now has such a reputation for torture that even Americans talk about it in the same breath as the Gestapo.

(Those who don't like the comparison may wish to consider this 2007 analysis of the two organisations' techniques. The major difference between the two seems to be that the Gestapo were better dressed).

Spies begat terror

The big news from the UK today is that one of ISIS's executioners has been identified as a London man known who was being monitored by MI5. But in addition to raising questions about MI5's competence, its also raising questions about their role in his radicalisation:

Emails and other documents that emerged on Thursday also showed that security services had been tracking Emwazi since 2009, starting when he was refused entry to Tanzania, until the middle of 2013 when they informed his family that he had crossed over to Syria.

During that period Emwazi complained on occasion that he had been harassed by MI5, but the Kuwaiti-born Briton eventually disappeared before arriving on the world stage as the murderous public face of Isis in August 2014.

[...]

Asim Qureshi, the research director of Cage, an advocacy group working with victims of the “war on terror”, said Emwazi’s repeated detention and interrogation by the security services would have ended up making him susceptible to radicalisation. Cage had previously advised Emwazi when he was complaining about his treatment five years ago.

Emwazi was refused permission to enter Tanzania in August 2009, and he told Cage that he was put on a plane to the Netherlands where he was questioned by MI5. In a subsequent series of emails sent to Cage, Emwazi said the British officer knew “everything about me; where I lived, what I did, and the people I hanged around with”.

He said that he was asked to become an informant but refused – and the MI5 officer was alleged to have said that “life would be harder”.


There's no question that Emwazi was an extremist - that's why MI5 was interested in him. But in this case, as in others, their heavy-handed tactics seem to have made things worse, not better, and pushed him over the edge into murder. Its the war on terror in miniature, where the US/UK's abuses simply drive more people to terrorism. we've seen it over US torture, which is a recruiting poster for radicals. We've seen it over Iraq and Afghanistan, where the US invasion provided an endless stream of atrocities. And we're seeing it in Australia at the moment, where Tony Abbott's war on Muslims is fuelling rather than quenching domestic radicalism. And sadly, John Key seems to be marching us down exactly the same path. And the only people who do well out of such tactics are spies and terrorists, who seem to paradoxically need each other to survive.

National is laundering donations

On Wednesday I highlighted a disturbing trend in the 2014 election candidate donation returns, where National Party candidates were almost entirely funded from the party's head office - suggesting that the party was laundering donations to hide the identity of donors to local campaigns. Yesterday, National MP Jono Naylor (who has prior on hiding the identity of donors, then paying them off with big favours) effectively admitted that was the case:

National Party list MP Jono Naylor was the highest spender in Palmerston North - he declared $22,048.97 in expenses and $25,688.34 in donations. Naylor said the money was drawn from donations to the party's Palmerston North branch.

[Emphasis added. The donation from the National Party was his only declared source of funding]

So, to make that clear: people donate to the Palmerston North branch to support National's campaign there. That money is then given to the local candidate. Meaning that the donations aren't party donations, but candidate ones, and the party is acting as a transmitter and should be identifying the contributors.

I'm sure that, like the banks who facilitate tax cheating, the National Party has a lawyer who says its all legal. But its certainly not within the spirit of the law. And if we want to end this sort of scam, we need to lower the party donation disclosure threshold so it is equal to the candidate one: $1,500. That way there's no benefit in this sort of laundering.

Crocodile tears from Key

In the wake of yesterday's obscene MP's pay-rise, John Key has made his annual statement that he's not happy and wants to see the law changed:

Prime Minister John Key says he supports changes to the law driving the annual pay rises MPs receive, but say they don't want.

[...]

Remuneration Authority chairman John Errington yesterday said that the MPs were the ones who set the rules the authority followed in deciding the pay rise.

Key said MPs' salaries were at an appropriate level, and politicians needed to look at changing the law the Remuneration Authority acted under.


Which we can add to all his other annual statements where he says the same thing, but does nothing.

Its time for Key to put his money where his mouth is. He has a Parliamentary majority. He has control of the legislative agenda. He can make this happen if he wants to. If it doesn't happen, then it will be obvious why: because he doesn't want to, and all those annual statements of disquiet are just crocodile tears.

Thursday, February 26, 2015



The Spy Cables

There's been another major leak of intelligence material, this time from South Africa to Al Jazeera and the Guardian. As usual, it exposes more dubiousness from governments, from Netanyahu's outright lies over Iran's nuclear program to South Africa's State Security Agency spying on its own government. It also appears much of the intelligence circulating to support the 'war on terror" is outright fantasy, given creedance by politicians because someone has stamped it "Top Secret". And then there's the really dubious stuff: South Africa spying on its own citizens at the request of other nations, and spying on non-hostile nations just so they've got something to trade.

And again, it raises the obvious question: if this is how the intelligence world works, are "our" spies doing this? Is the SIS spying on peaceful New Zealanders because some dipshit foreign authoritarian doesn't like what they say (yes)? Is the GCSB spying on our neighbours, who we quite like actually and want to get along with, because the US is interested in them (almost certainly). Such quid pro quo arrangements have nothing to do with our national security, and appear to be well outside our spy agencies' functions, and would therefore be illegal. But our intelligence oversight bodies are forbidden from investigating operational matters, or focused on process, rather than policy - which means that they don't provide oversight of this sort of thing. Which means the spies get to run riot.

No freedom of speech in Turkey

Merve Buyuksarac is a Turkish model. Last month she shared a poem satirising Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on her Instagram account. Now, she's been detained, and is facing two years in jail:

A former model and Miss Turkey could face up to two years for social media posts that prosecutors have deemed to be critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A lawyer for the model Merve Buyuksarac said today that an Istanbul prosecutor is demanding she be prosecuted on charges of insulting a public official. A court will decide whether to start proceedings.


The idea that you can't mock or satirise elected officials seems peculiarly authoritarian. But that's pretty much Turkey in a nutshell. They're not a democracy, and won't be until their leaders stop pretending they're still Sultan.

John Key on MPs' pay rises

Most MPs resigned to their 1.4pc pay rise, Dominion Post, 25 December 2010:

Prime Minister John Key urged restraint over the setting of politicians' pay this year but most MPs seem resigned to the boost in their salaries which, they are quick to point out, was decided independently.

Mr Key was consulted by the Remuneration Authority – the independent body that sets politicians' pay – and said given the circumstances restraint should be shown.

"He argued there should be a nil increase for MPs, or if there was any increase, it should be in the band of other public-sector pay settlements," a spokesman for Mr Key said.

The authority decided on a 1.4 per cent rise backdated to July and a one-off payment of $2000 to cover the decreased use of MPs' travel subsidy. The rise boosts Mr Key's salary to $400,500 and a backbencher's to $134,800.


Mana outrage over MPs' $7000 pay rise, New Zealand Herald, 17 November 2011:
Prime Minister John Key said we was also disappointed with part of the decision to increase MP's pay.

He said he was happy with the 1.5 per cent increase because that was roughly in line with what the rest of the country got, but he said there was little need for the $5,000 to compensate for the scrapping of the travel allowance.


Key tips pay jump for MPs, New Zealand Herald, 22 October 2013:
Prime Minister John Key has hinted the Remuneration Authority is lining up a good pay rise for MPs this year, saying he had been consulted on the proposed increase and had told the authority he believed only a small, if not zero, pay rise should be offered.

Mr Key would not reveal what the proposed increase was or what he had said but hinted it was above the rate of inflation.

"But bluntly, I'm not in favour of big pay increases for MPs. If it was my vote, it would be no pay increases, but I don't get that vote."

He said there might be a valid argument for low increases to an MPs' salary to keep pace with inflation. "That would be the top end. But I don't buy the argument that they're out of whack with the rest of the private sector or the public sector." Inflation over the 2012/13 year was 0.7 per cent.


John Keys hints he'll change law on MPs' pay rises - but he'll still take today's hike, New Zealand Herald, 26 February 2015:
Prime Minister John Key says Parliament may change the law on how MPs' pay rates are set in the future, but he won't turn down a pay rise expected today.

He told reporters this morning that he wrote to the Remuneration Authority early this year urging it not to give MPs a pay rise at all this year, but the authority had given them a pay rise anyway.


Forgive my scepticism, but I'll believe it when I see it. Every year, John Key says MPs' don't need a huge pay rise, and even threatens to change the law. But he never does, except to hide the setting of MPs' perks behind the Remuneration Authority blame-sink as well (which, surprise surprise, resulted in another big increase). Its amazing how powerless the Prime Minister is on this, when he can ram new spying powers through in less than a month and pass a law to pillage the conservation estate overnight. You'd almost get the impression that he didn't really care, and was just saying what his pollsters had told him we wanted to hear...

Pigs at the trough

New Zealanders are struggling. Wages increased only 1.8% last year, and 40% of workers didn't get a wage rise at all. Benefits are static, capped at the level set by Ruth Richardson in 1990. The minimum wage increased by a measley 50 cents.

And meanwhile, our MPs are helping themselves to a $10,000 pay rise. While telling us all to "do more with less".

(Oh yes, its technically the Remuneration Commission giving them the pay rise. Which they set up for that purpose in an effort to hide what is really going on. But everyone knows its a scam to dodge blame, and no-one believes MPs' insincere claims that they are absolutely helpless to change the rules they wrote to give them endless huge pay-rises. They're not helpless here, they just choose to be so they can keep on raking in the cash).

Its obscene. Its hypocritical. And its a perfect example of everything that is wrong with our political system. Like the bankers, our MPs get paid well regardless of their performance. Their incentive therefore to improve the lot of the rest of us is negligible. They're simply not in the same boat. And with taxpayer-subsidised mortgages (now with less transparency!) and taxpayer-funded sluch funds, they grow further and further apart from the people they purport to represent.

MPs need to be well-paid to prevent corruption. And they are, and have been for a long time. But there's no need for them to be paid like bankers. There's no need for them to be in the top 1%. And there's certainly no need for guaranteed pay rises. Instead, their pay should be linked to the median individual income. And if they fail to increase it, thereby improving the lot of every kiwi, then they shouldn't get any more. Its that simple.

(We can also file this under "earning their reputation", part I've-lost-fucking-count-now).

Wednesday, February 25, 2015



More political corruption in the UK

Last night in the UK, intelligence and security committee chair Malcom Rifkind stepped down, and announced that he would be leaving Parliament at the upcoming election. Why? Because along with Labour's Jack Straw, he'd been caught on video offering to use his Parliamentary influence in exchange for cash (Straw has yet to resign. The shameless war criminal is also shameless about corruption). He's not the first British MP to be caught this way, and sadly he won't be the last. Why? Because as the LibDems' Julian Huppert points out, British MPs are effectively insulated from their constituents, to the extent that they no longer feel any accountability towards them:

At the crux of this failure is our electoral system. Safe seats generate complacency. They give many MPs the opportunity to sit back, knowing they’ll get re-elected again and again. This was captured crudely by a Labour MP recently: even if “a raving alcoholic paedophile” were selected as a candidate, he said, his seat would still be kept.

And it is often in safe seats where some MPs find they have enough time to take on two jobs. Suddenly they believe they don’t need to respond to casework or do the work in parliament. They are above all that – and why shouldn’t they earn £5,000 a day at the end of their careers?

[...]

The problem is far starker when we have MPs working for private interests. We just can’t allow members to work part time for a consultancy, part time in parliament. That’s plain wrong. The inevitable result is that organisations will exert unacceptable influence on parliament.


Besides the obvious requirement of electoral reform, his solution is to ban MPs from holding second jobs except in exceptional circumstances (he uses the example of medical doctors needing to stay current), preventing them from laundering cash-for-access deals through outside employment. Its a good idea. Sadly, I can't imagine Britain's corrupt MPs ever voting for it. Too many of them have their noses in the trough, or hope to. Until there is electoral reform, the only way Britain's democracy can be reformed is to bulldoze Westminster and all its corrupt little pigs into the Thames.

The latest election donation scam

Back in 2007 the then-Labour government passed the Electoral Finance Act. One of the key provisions of the Act was to end the National Party's practice of laundering party donations through trusts. While supposedly hugely contentious, this provision - and the rest of the Electoral Finance Act structure - was retained when National "repealed" it in 2009.

Why is this relevant? Because 2014 election candidate returns were released yesterday. And they show that the practice hasn't really ended. Instead, its shifted to the candidate level, with the National Party as the laundry.

Take a look. National candidate after National candidate gets tens of thousands of dollars donated by the National Party. Often, these are their only donations. These donations are clearly made up of contributions from donations to the National party. But no contributors are identified. Clearly National thinks that these donations have not been made specifically to be passed on to specific candidates - or that no-one can prove it. But Jami-Lee Ross's $25,000 returned donation from Donghua Liu - declared in his return, and indeed the only donation he declares from outside the National Party - shows that "Cabinet club" donations are in fact given to specific candidates, and that they do know where the money comes from. Which makes all those large donations from the party look very dodgy indeed.

The scam here exploits the declaration threshold between parties and candidates. Candidates must declare any donation over $1,500, but parties only have to declare donations over $15,000. So, donate to the party, six months later it gets passed on, no-one has to declare anything, and no-one knows who an MP is beholden to or how much for. It may be entirely legal - because MPs with no interest in transparency wrote the law to suit themselves - but its not transparent and doesn't provide confidence in our electoral system or that our MPs are not secretly doing favours for donors.

As for how to fix it, its simple: lower the party donation threshold to $1,500, the same as the candidate threshold. Then no-one will be able to escape scrutiny for large donations.

(I should note: the Internet Party did this too, but its pretty clear where their money come from. Labour's local electorate committees also donate to their candidates, but in much lower amounts; it seems to be a case of localised fund-raising from small donors rather than centralised funding from big ones).

Counterfactual: What would Labour do?

Part of National's "justification" for sending kiwi troops off to die in another American crusade in Iraq is that "Labour would have done it to". Here's DPF:

not for one second do I think a Labour Government would have said “No, we will be the only country in Western World not to contribute in a military sense to defeating ISIL”. Which means that their rhetoric this week is just opposition, because they don’t actually have the responsibility to make a decision.
And (more cynically) Dim-Post:
I’m not as outraged at Key and National as most people on the left, because I think that if Labour were in government our commitment to the latest US/UK adventure in Iraq would be pretty much identical. The marketing would be different: our troops would be providing ‘humanitarian aid': painting schools, standing up for women’s rights, and so on, instead of National’s more paternal ‘training the Iraqi army’ pretext. But I just can’t see a Labour PM saying ‘no’ to Obama.
There's a certain truth in this: when push comes to shove, Labour are chickenshits and bow to the US. But it also ignores the elephant in the room: MMP.

To point out the obvious, Labour's most likely coalition partner in any future government is the Greens. Who have non-violence as a core part of their party ethos, massive membership backing for that, and (unlike the Alliance) a Parliamentary team who work for their membership rather than themselves. So, if a future Labour Prime Minister stands up and says "we want to send troops to fight in another pointless foreign war to cosy up to the US", the Greens will say "goodbye" and topple the government - and have the full backign of their membership in doing so. Trying to finesse it as "non-combat" troops delivering "humanitarian aid" (as in Iraq 2003) will see the same result if the US is involved. The only troop deployments which won't result in an immediate confidence crisis for the government will be those which are truly non-combat, overwhelmingly backed by the UN and international law, and (most importantly) not backed by the US or its NATO / Five Eyes proxies. UN peacekeeping, in other words.

Labour may be chickenshits. But above all, they're appartchiks. They won't give up their Ministerial salaries and perks to fight someone else's war (and indeed, if they're toppled, they won't be able to; constitutionally you can't deploy troops in caretaker mode except in extreme and dire circumstances like being invaded). And they won't want to enter a Labour-National grand coalition (and surrender half of those salaries and perks to their enemies) every time the US wants to fight another war (which is pretty much all the time ATM). So, the answer to the counterfactual question of "what would Labour do" is act self-interesedly in the face of Green power and not send troops.

Of course, for this to happen, the Greens need to have that power. Better get working on it.

New Fisk

Egypt coup: Leaked tape proves defence minister tried to conceal Morsi’s true location in military prison, say forensic scientists

Member's Day

Today is a member's Day, the first one of the year. And its an important one. First up there's the second reading of the Manukau City Council (Regulation of Prostitution in Specified Places) Bill, which is the Christian right's latest attempt to recriminalise prostitution by the back door. A select committee has recommended that it not be passed, so it'll probably fail. In which case on past behaviour I expect they'll just waste more of Auckland ratepayer's money trying again next year. Second is the third reading of the Parental Leave and Employment Protection (Six Months' Paid Leave) Amendment Bill. Sadly, despite the departure of Mike Sabin to spend more time with his lawyer, this will fail - while the vote will be 60-60, that's a loss. Still, its close and shows that the opposition can work together on this issue.

Once the main events are over, there's the second reading of Kennedy Graham's Register of Pecuniary Interests of Judges Bill, followed by the second reading of Tracey Martin's Social Security (Clothing Allowances for Orphans and Unsupported Children) Amendment Bill. The House is unlikely to get further than that, which is good as it gives John Campbell more time to build the (already pretty overwhelming, unless you have more than $50 million and live in Remuera) case for the the Harawira / Turei "feed the kids" bill.

There's still plenty of first readings stacked up on the Order Paper, and we're still at least a month from a ballot.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015



A predetermined decision

John Key has just made his statement to Parliament on the deployment of troops to Iraq. While other parties were allowed two hours to "comment" on it, there was no vote - and National explicitly denied leave for one. In those comments, every party other than National and ACT expressed opposition to the deployment - and even ACT expressed strong scepticism, before voting for it anyway (I guess its a habit for them).

The government's "case" was to appeal to our outrage against ISIS, and stoke fear that they posed some "threat" against New Zealand. It was the usual torrent of clichés, "standing up for what is right", "our share of the burden". You could turn it into a drinking game. And they didn't convince anyone (except ACT, kindof, maybe).

What is clear from today is that this deployment does not have the support of Parliament. It is National's decision alone (and in fact, John Key's - because his caucus sure as hell weren't consulted). When kiwi troops have their heads sawed off on live TV, the blood will be on their hands.

What's also clear is that there is widespread support for foreign troop deployments to require explicit Parliamentary authorisation. While the current majority for it is only temporary, the breadth of support across parties suggests there will be a majority after the next election. It would be good to see parties commit to that with actual policy.

Protest against the war on Thursday

Peace Action Wellington is holding a protest against Key's war in Iraq this Thursday:

When: 17:00, Thursday 26 February
Where: Cenotaph, Wellington

Meanwhile, the government is planning a big patriotic wank for the Anzac centennial. I think they've just ensured that its going to be hotly contested.

The hollowing out of the Labour Party

Party returns of election expenses are out, and the big news is that the Greens outspent Labour:

Labour spent half as much as National on last year's election campaign and was outspent by the Greens for the first time.

Parties' election advertising expenses were released yesterday and show Labour spent $1.27 million - slightly less than the Green Party on $1.29 million and half the National Party's $2.6 million.


Which means that the Greens had more money than Labour. And this isn't due to a massive increase in the Greens' fundraising (yes, they spent half a million more than they did last election, but still less than they did in 2008), but due to Labour's spending declining. Big donors have abandoned them because they're not in government and unable to deliver policy in return, while small donors have switched their support to the party which actually advocates for the left. Which is going to make them even more beholden to corporate money in the long term, and correspondingly less appealing to their traditional voters.

DPF has his usual dollars-per-vote breakdown here.

TICS kills innovation

When National passed the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Act 2013, submitters warned them that the law's onerous notice requirements - which require that network operators ask the GCSB for permission before making any changes to their networks - would stifle innovation.

That fear appears to have become a reality:


Tech Liberty has a good explanation of what this all means:
So this is a statement by the CEO of a government owned company whose purpose is to "establish and operate the Advanced Network in order to promote education, research and innovation for the benefit of New Zealand" saying that they can't do the research and development work they need to do because the bureaucrats in the NCSC at the GCSB are holding them back.

Apparently the NCSC were willing to help, but the law was inflexible enough that making any significant change - like you might want to do quite frequently on an experimental network - was going to require the full notification and authorisation procedure. When asked for an exemption the reply was that this would be extremely unlikely to be granted.

Apparently Google has also been involved with research and development into SDN in New Zealand. We've been told by multiple sources that they were so annoyed by the TICSA's requirements and the NCSC's administration of them that they have closed the New Zealand section of this project and redeployed the hardware to Australia and the USA. This can only be seen as a loss to New Zealand.

So, the GCSB's obsession with "network security" (which, thanks to Snowden, we now know means "making sure people don't plug the backdoors we use") is killing research and driving tech companies out of the country.

Thanks, GCSB. Great job you're doing there. I hope you're really proud of yourselves, protecting us from these "threats".

Not reassuring

The Inspector General of Intelligence and Security finally released their annual report today, a mere seven months after it was due. One obvious point is that she takes the job far more seriously than her predecessors, who tended to issue 5 or 6 page summaries of complaints (example). By contrast, we have a thorough explanation of the Inspector-General's work, from which we can actually judge whether the oversight regime is sufficient. Not to mention a treasure trove of information about the actions of "our" spies. For example:

  • SIS's slow vetting procedures appear to have interfered with the establishment of IGIS's office and their recruitment of staff. Vetting is their core function, but apparently it still takes months.
  • IGIS currently has an own-motion inquiry into the SIS underway "which arose from the regular inspection of intelligence warrants [and] is the first Inspector-General inquiry into the “propriety” of particular activities of an intelligence and security agency". Which sounds as if SIS are abusing their powers. Unfortunately, as its "operational", all the details are classified, and we'll only be getting a summary at the end of it. Its unclear whether the victims of any SIS impropriety will be informed of the violation of their rights so they may take legal action against the spies.
  • Because they'd only been in the role for seven weeks, the IGIS can not certify that GCSB and SIS are complying with their legislation.
  • The SIS have no internal compliance framework or internal audit staff. They have no mechanism for self-reporting failures to their management or to IGIS. While they are apparently working on this, the picture is of an agency which does not really care about whether it complies with the law.
  • IGIS reviewed 10 interception warrants and 48 access authorisations from GCSB last year. Assuming that these were all in force, it appears that the number of access authorisations has almost doubled since 2013. They're spying on a lot more computers than they used to be.
  • IGIS's discussion of warrantless interception powers gives two examples of their use: Waihopai and "the interception of high frequency signals of ships or other radio operators". But the implication is that if they apply to passive SIGINT then they could be used to intercept cellphone traffic (which is radio signals). While the GCSB is forbidden to use warrantless powers to intercept New Zealander's "private communications", as I highlighted on Friday, how they interpret that term in relation to cellphone encryption could be crucial.
  • GCSB reported violating its warrants and illegally intercepted private communications three times in the last year. In all cases the breach of the law was covered up from the public and the evidence destroyed. If you or I had done that, we'd be facing jail.
  • IGIS's "review" of warrants does not actually involve reviewing decisions, only the process. So, they're not actually checking to see whether warrants are justified. Some "oversight".
while this is far more information than we've had before about oversight of "our" intelligence agencies, its not exactly reassuring. And while the IGIS is obviously trying, the fact that she refuses to review warrants for justification means that she's not really a watchdog so much as a PR fig-leaf.

Monday, February 23, 2015



Sky City tried to cheat us right from the beginning

So, it turns out that Sky City's surprise "cost overrun" on their crony-deal convention centre was their plan all along, and that the government knew about it from the beginning:

Ministerial advice provided to Radio New Zealand shows the Government was told 14 months ago that SkyCity could not find a way to build the centre for the $402 million price tag, to which it had agreed.

The extensively blacked out reports provided under the Official Information Act span a 16-month period, and also show major changes in the design during a year of negotiation between the Crown and the casino operator.

The parties had agreed in May 2013 that SkyCity would build a 3500 seat national convention centre, at its own cost of $315 million.

In return, the Government would extend its casino licence by 35 years and pass legislation allowing an expanded casino operation.

When the deal was signed in July 2013, the agreed price had risen to $402 million. The required legislation passed with a one vote majority in November 2013.

Just four weeks later, in December, officials from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) told Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce that the casino operator had advised for the first time it would not be possible to build the centre as proposed for that price, nor had it been able to come up with an appropriate alternative.


They also changed the design so that we would be getting a smaller convention centre, instead focusing on a new hotel to be built on former TVNZ land. Its hard to escape the conclusion that the whole thing was a shake-down, an attempt to get as much money and land from the government as possible while providing as little as possible in return. But really, do we expect anything different from the gambling industry?

This should be a warning to future govenments not to make these sorts of deals - because the business partner will screw you, and use your public commitment to the deal succeeding to screw further concessions out of you (or provide less for the same price, as has been done here).

But what really bites is that the government has known about this for fourteen months, and kept silent about it. They've been lying to us the whole time! And that's just not something we should accept from them.

Fruit flies and austerity

Foreign fruit flies are rampaging (OK, buzzing quietly) through Grey Lynn, putting our $6 billion horticulture export industry under threat. The government is likely to spend tens of millions on a response. So how did we get here? As 3News' Brook Sabin points out, its because the government has systematically cut frontline biosecurity. Sabin highlights cuts to staff numbers and container inspections. He attributes this to the government viewing biosecurity as "red tape" and wanting to speed things up for cargo and passengers - and that's certainly a factor. But there's a bigger picture here, around cuts and austerity.

Since coming to office, the government has tried to cap government spending, handing out sub-inflation increases to pretty much everyone. So, from 2010 to 2014, border biosecurity monitoring funding went from $75.1 to $80.4 million - a 7% increase vs inflation of 9%. Against that 2% cut in real terms, international visitor numbers rose from 2.53 to 2.86 million, an increase of 13%, while international cargo imports [infoshare - you'll need to poke it] rose from 41.9 to 50 million tons - an increase of 19%. So, our biosecurity staff are being expected to do ~15% more work with 2% less funding. And that's simply not sustainable. The cost is that mistakes happen, bugs get through, and then we have to spend tens of millions on expensive cleanup efforts, while imposing huge disruptions on people's lives. Or kiss our export industries goodbye.

Still, it could have been worse: it could have been foot and mouth disease. But given the cuts, that's probably only a matter of time...

Meanwhile, with starved government departments leading to major service failures, its beginning to feel like the late 1990's all over again...