Friday, July 29, 2016

Open Government: Another strapped chicken

The New Zealand Government, through engage2, is currently running a public engagement process around New Zealand's Open Government partnership second national action plan. One of the concerns about this process is that it is a strapped chicken, a box-ticking exercise designed to lend a veneer of "consultation" to a pre-determined agenda.

Sadly, that appears to be true. I received AN OIA response from the State Services Commission today to some queries about the demise of the OGP Stakeholder Advisory Group (who appear to have been summarily dismissed after suggesting some ideas for the action plan). Included in it was an email from al Morrison, who is now in charge of SSC's OGP program, about future proposals for the OGP. And it included this bit:

So, just to make that clear, SSC has already decided what the agenda is for the action plan. So much for "co-creation". The current engagement process around themes appears to be a waste of time.

It gets worse. Because when you delve into SSC's Direction and Priorities for System Stewardship Plan, what you find is Big Brother. It is all about legitimising and using the Integrated Data Infrastructure - the system that cross correlates your tax information with whether you have had an abortion - to push its social investment agenda. So, the major theme that the SSC wants to put in the OGP plan is the utter destruction of our privacy and the transformation of New Zealand into a data surveillance state.

My first reaction to this news is to say "fuck that" and walk away. Participating in the "engagement process" is a waste of my time which lends it legitimacy. The problem is that this is something we need to speak up against. And if we don't, it'll just slip through unnoticed.

So, rather than walking away, I suggest we actually engage. And if the government tries to use the OGP to push Big Brother on us, we make it clear that we do not think that this is what open government is about, and that it is an abuse of the OGP process. It might not work, but it at least will lay the groundwork for the IRM to agree and kick us out in 2017.

Something fishy in Christchurch II

Back in May I highlighted something fishy going on at Otakaro Ltd. Otakaro is the government's delivery vehicle for the Christchurch rebuild. But in May, Christchurch reconstrution Minister Gerry Brownlee allowed it to change its constitution, removing a requirement that its board keep "full and accurate minutes are kept of all proceedings" and explicitly allowing it to repudiate its own minutes. More recently, I've been made aware that Otakaro, a government-owned company responsible for billions of dollars of government assets and expenditure on a major government project - has been exempted from the Public Records Act. Which means that it is no longer required to

create and maintain full and accurate records of its affairs, in accordance with normal, prudent business practice...

[From the documents I've OIA'd from the Chief Archivist, it seems that this exemption has caused a bit of a headache, since it means that Otakaro cannot legally be transferred public records formerly held by CERA. Its enough of a headache that they are apparently investigating "amending [the] PRA 2005 by order in council". Its not clear whether that is to bring Otakaro and similar crown-owned companies under the Public Records Act regime, or whether it is to legalise the at-present unlawful destruction of public records. I'm poking into that further...]

The problem? As a company named in Schedule 4A of the Public Finance Act 1989, Otakaro is subject to the Official Information Act. Obviously, that's pretty meaningless if it is not required to retain official information so it can be requested.

And the kicker: I asked Otakaro if they have a document retention / archives policy. Their answer? Of course not.

So, just to make that clear, a government-owned company responsible for billions of dollars of government assets and expenditure on a major government project and subject to the OIA is not required to create and retain proper records and has no policy for doing so. You'd almost think they didn't want people to look at what they were doing...

Suing the victims

On Monday, we learned that the Northern Territory government tortures children, hooding prisoners in its juvenile detention centres, strapping them in "restraint chairs", beating and tear-gassing them. The public release of the graphic video (which the Northern Territory government had had for over a year) forced the Australian government to announce a royal commission to inquire into the abuses. But now, unbelievably, the Northern Territory government has doubled down on its abuse by suing their victims:

The Northern Territory government is countersuing two boys who were allegedly abused at the Don Dale detention centre.


The NT government is taking steps to countersue two of the boys who were teargassed, the ABC reports.

However, the counter-case is not to do with the tear-gassing incident but with alleged damage caused during an escape attempt. The ABC is reporting that the NT Government will be seeking $160,000 in damages from two of the boys, for damage caused to the facility during the escape attempt.

Pretty obviously, this suit would not be happening if the mistreatment had not been exposed. Which makes it very clearly an act of bullying and intimidation - if you report abuse we will bury you - and PR. By painting their victims as undeserving, the Northern Territory government hopes to limit the political fallout. Its a disgusting abuse of power by an authoritarian torture state. But I guess that's Australia for you...

New Fisk

Qatar exerts huge control over British business, but it could be heading for an ‘Arab autumn’

Even the rich support capital gains taxes

Ten years ago, capital gains taxes were a "third rail" of New Zealand politics, dismissed as a fringe idea advocated only by parties like the Greens. Now, after years of patient advocacy and a multiyear housing crisis, even the rich support them:

Mainfreight executive chairman Bruce Plested has advocated a capital gains tax to take the steam out of an overheated housing market and urged the government to treat teachers as "true professionals" paid on the basis of performance.


Plested said the price of housing in New Zealand "is another glaring problem", with the average house in Auckland now costing 10 times the average household income, which is above the ratio of three-to-five times average income that is the globally accepted norm.

Unprecedented immigration, low interest rates and a trend for the well-off and those nearing retirement to return to invest in the Auckland housing market had resulted in Auckland being one of the world's most expensive housing markets. Profit expectations were driven by "the perception and reality ... that upon sale, the gains made would be capital gains non-taxable," he said.

"Not taxing capital gains on the sale of assets causes distortion in buying and investment decisions," he said. "There is no reason that New Zealand should be different from Australia, UK or the US in taxing capital gains on housing. If this tax needs to be introduced progressively over say a two-year period, it will alter buyers' and sellers' behavior and perhaps pave the way to solving New Zealand's housing problems."

Its a sign of how far the political consensus has shifted that Plested is arguing for this, and it opens up enormous space for the left to both correct the housing bubble and act against inequality. After all, why stop at housing? Shouldn't we tax capital gains on shares and company sales as well?

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Policy failure

A couple of months ago, stories about people living in cars after being forced out of state housing and force dinto debt by WINZ hit the headlines. Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett responded by announcing a policy to pay people to move out of Auckland. It was the usual National Party cynicism - the policy had already been announced back in January, so it was just a spin job aimed at creating the impression of action rather than the real thing. So how well has this policy worked in practice? Badly:

The Government's $5000 offer to flee Auckland grant is off to a slow start with just 12 families taking it up after the first month - one of which was homeless.

In total, $54,508 has been paid out, covering things like moving costs, bond, rent in advance and letting fees for the dozen families - collectively consisting of 32 people.

Assistance has been approved for a further 10 applicants pending confirmed moving dates and verification of costs - that'll move 20 more out of Auckland.

It turns out that people aren't actually that willing to uproot their lives and abandon their friends and support networks just because it is convenient for the government for them to do so. Or, to put it another way, people aren't arbitrarily mobile "labour units" to be shoved whereever Paula Bennett wants them to go. Who'd have thunk it?

New Fisk

To understand the Islamist beheading of a French priest, we must remember what happened 20 years earlier

The rich steal from us again

So, it turns out that rich people are using private snob schools to cheat on their taxes:

The issue was first raised by Inland Revenue (IRD) in 2014 when they sent out an alert warning taxpayers that the practice of claiming private school fees as donations to collect tax rebates was unlawful.

Both IRD and Minister of Revenue, Michael Woodhouse, confirmed "a number of investigations" have been conducted.


But IRD wouldn't detail how widespread the issue was or how much money had been illegally collected in tax rebates by parents, saying it would compromise their investigations.

This appears to be enabled by the schools themselves, which set large fees, but then charge high "voluntary donations" as a substitute. Of course, the "donations" aren't really "voluntary", but just a fee by another name - but calling it that allows the parents to falsely claim a tax deduction and steal from the public. Just another example of how the rich rip us off. Its simply criminal, and both the tax cheats and their enabling school management should be prosecuted for it.

Meanwhile, I'm wondering whether any of ACT's charter schools are running this scam...

Wednesday, July 27, 2016


This morning, Green co-leader Metiria Turei said what everyone knows is true: that house prices need to drop if we want to avoid a catastrophic crash and/or a fundamental change away from being a home-owning society. Somewhat predictably, Labour has denounced this as "irresponsible". Pretty obviously, its not - its what we need to do. So why are they doing this?

Simple: like National, Labour is in thrall to the landed Boomer vote, and they don't want to piss off these entitled arseholes before the election. So, they'd rather have a house price crash than tell people that prices can't go on rising forever.

But its worse than that, because while seemingly advocating for an eternal bubble and calling any mention of it having to end "irresponsible", Labour is pursuing exactly the same policies the Greens are to deflate it. Capital gains taxes. A mass affordable home building program. Eliminating tax breaks for landlords. This is exactly what the Greens want to do. Its just that, unlike the Greens, Labour doesn't want to be open about their policy goal.

That's not just irresponsible, it is actively deceitful. And that is simply not acceptable from a political party.

Why does the "mother of Parliaments" hate parents?

The UK Parliament is sometimes called "the mother of Parliaments" due to its influence on democratic traditions across its former empire. So its ironic then that it actually seems to hate parents and impede them from being MPs:

Writing in Tuesday’s Daily Record, the member for Aberdeen North, who was one of the cohort of first-time SNP MPs elected in May 2015, described the often comical difficulties she faced when she was left with no choice but to bring two-year-old Rebecca and five-year-old Harris to her place of work.

“The chief issue is the ridiculously archaic voting system. MPs have to physically be present to vote … As the division bells rang to signal [an unexpectedly early vote on Wednesday], both my children were on the toilet. I’m sure ‘hurry up’ is the last thing anyone wants to hear during a bowel movement, but they both took it fairly well,” Blackman writes.

“I did make them run afterwards though, and I made it into the division lobby with only moments to spare.

“I also took them through the lobby with me. This is definitely not supposed to happen. But I have yet to work out what the house expects us to do with small children who are not allowed in the lobby. How do I explain to a two-year-old that she has to stay with adults she has never met so I can vote? The system is nonsensical and overdue for reform.”

There's more - sessions decided on short notice, no proper childcare, and archaic rules preventing "strangers" in committees (leading to the censure mentioned in the article) or in the House. And its like this not for any decent reason, but because the UK Parliament's rules were established in a time when political power was wielded exclusively by old men who had their children raised by nannies and packed off to boarding school at age five, and now its Tradition which Cannot Be Changed. But the result is to make it difficult-to-impossible for MPs who are parents to fulfil their duties as elected representatives.

The establishment loves that - parents would probably do silly things like thinking of their children's futures (and whether they will have one at all) rather than Keeping Britain On Top by imposing austerity, shovelling money at banks, and promising to murder 100,000 people. But the UK's citizens should not. Other parliaments (e.g. in New Zealand) enable parents to be MPs. Isn't it time Westminster caught up, rather than being stuck in the eighteenth century?

Challenging Australia's anti-refugee gag-law

Australia has a problem: it tortures refugees in its Pacific concentration camps. But that's not the problem - the problem is that people talk about that torture - and by exposing the regular and consistent abuse and mistreatment of refugees, expose the Australian government to public criticism (not to mention crimes against humanity charges under the Rome Statute). So last year, they solved this problem by criminalising revealing any information from the gulags, on pain of going to prison. But now, that law is being challenged:

Australian doctors will launch a High Court challenge to controversial laws they say gag them from speaking out over child abuse and other threats to asylum seekers in detention centres.

Lawyers for the doctors in the case, due to be filed on Wednesday, will argue that the court should declare invalid laws that threaten detention centre staff with two years' jail for disclosing information about conditions they observe behind the wire.

Doctors for Refugees, represented by the Fitzroy Legal Service, said the case will question if the secrecy provisions breach health professionals' constitutional freedom to engage in political communication – in this instance, highlighting and debating the effects of the detention regime on their patients.

Under a law, if a doctor (or anybody else) reports a rape or child sex abuse happening in a concentration camp - something that happens with disturbing regularity - they can go to prison. If they report on risks to their patients' health, they can go to prison. If they report on substandard camp conditions which endanger patient safety, they can go to prison. This makes it impossible to fulfil their professional duties, not to mention being a contravention of the right to freedom of expression. And it is very obviously utterly self-serving, designed solely to prevent criticism of the government or information which might cause the public to reject its cruel and vicious policies.

However, that doesn't mean the case will be successful. Australia is virtually alone among modern democracies in lacking any legislated human rights protection. It has no Bill of Rights Act, and the only protection for freedom of speech is an implied right read into the Australian constitution from its clause requiring representative democracy. And the consequences of that can be seen in the authoritarian nature of Australian politics and the regular attacks on human rights that occur there.

No matter which way this case goes, Australia needs modern human rights protection. Australia needs a Bill of Rights Act.

Making it worse

We currently have not just a housing crisis, but a homelessness crisis, with people forced to sleep in garages or in cars due to unaffordable rents and gouging landlords. So naturally, National thinks that it is a perfect time to sell more state houses:

Hundreds of state and council homes north of Wellington that are almost all occupied are to go on the block for sale, with prospective buyers being lined up this week.

The government and Horowhenua District Council are looking to sell off 364 houses in a plan that will have information sessions for potential buyers held in Levin and Wellington this week.

The homes are almost all occupied, and their tenants are mostly the elderly, single people or single parents.

While they're officially seeking a community housing provider to purchase them, in the past almost all interest has been from banks and property developers. And their plan will be to improve the value of their new asset by booting out those tenants, bowling the houses, and building new palazzos for sale at a profit. Or just selling the existing home to speculators. Either way, it means people being made homeless, and the safety net which should protect them being removed.

This is not how you solve the homelessness crisis. Instead, it is how you make it worse. But National doesn't care about that. Instead, all they care about is getting out of the state housing business, wrecking the state's ability to help people by flicking it off to their cronies at bargain-basement rates. It is both corrupt and destructive. But isn't it so very, very National?

The unpalatable truth

The Greens' Metiria Turei said the politically unspeakable today: that she wants house prices to drop:

Auckland housing is unaffordable and a responsible Government would have a sensible plan to reduce house prices over time, while protecting families with mortgages, the Green Party said today.

“The simple fact is that housing in Auckland is totally unaffordable and if we don’t take action to bring house prices down, we will have a whole generation of people locked out of ever owning their own home,” said Green Party Co-leader Metiria Turei.

“In around 10 to 15 years’ time, we’d like to see families on the median household income buying their first home for about three to four times that income – not 10 times like it costs now.

Note the time-frame. This isn't about suddenly bursting the bubble, crashing house prices, burning the boomers' "wealth" and blowing up the banks. Instead, it is about avoiding that. Because on current policy settings of pandering to speculators, a burst and crash is exactly what is going to happen.

The problem is that the policy window to do this is very narrow. Infometrics expects the bubble to burst in December 2017 - just a few months after the next election. If the government wants to stop this, it needs to act now. But when they're in thrall to selfish landed boomers and so many of them own Auckland investment properties, that just doesn't seem likely.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Targeting the camp-guards

Speaking of Australia and torture: the company which runs Australia's refugee concentration camps in PNG and Nauru has been formally warned that its directors and employees could face prosecution for crimes against humanity:

The company that has taken over the management of Australia’s offshore immigration detention regime has been warned by international law experts that its employees could be liable for crimes against humanity.

Spanish infrastructure corporation Ferrovial, which is owned by one of the world’s richest families and the major stakeholder in Heathrow airport, has been warned by professors at Stanford Law School that its directors and employees risk prosecution under international law for supplying services to Australia’s camps on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

“Based on our examination of the facts, it is possible that individual officers at Ferrovial might be exposed to criminal liability for crimes against humanity under the Rome Statute,” said Diala Shamas, a clinical supervising attorney at the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School.

This seems perfectly justifiable. The decision to torture refugees is a political one, made by the Australian government (so every Minister and official who has been party to or helped implement that decision is also on the hook). But Ferrovial and its employees are the ones actually performing that torture on the ground, ensuring that they are detained indefinitely in cruel and degrading conditions (and occasionally waterboarding them). And that's something the company can and should be held responsible for. And while they can claim to be "only following orders" from the Australian government, I'm not sure that doing Nazi impersonations is really a good defence or PR strategy.

Meanwhile I'm wondering when we'll see former Australian immigration Ministers indicted and dragged to The Hague for this. Because they deserve to be, and they need to be, to make sure it never happens again.

Australia tortures children

Yesterday we got to see how Australia treats its children in prison. And its not pretty:

Disturbing footage has emerged of a 17-year-old boy, who was one of six boys tear gassed at a juvenile detention centre near Darwin, Australia, being strapped to a mechanical restraint chair.

The footage is part of a catalogue of evidence obtained by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)'s Four Corners programme of the repeated assault and mistreatment of boys at youth detention centres the Northern Territory.

The vision shows prison officers strapping a 17-year-old boy, identified as Dylan Voller, being handcuffed, hooded and strapped to a mechanical restraint chair for almost two hours.


The shocking footage also shows the teenager being thrown across his cell, kneed and knocked to the ground, repeatedly stripped naked and also kept in solitary confinement.

The teenager was among six boys tear gassed at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Berrimah, near Darwin, in August 2014.

This is Abu Ghraib stuff, and a clear violation not just of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, but also of the Convention Against Torture. The Australian government has already announced an inquiry, but given that some of it is their own CCTV footage which they've had for over a year, you have to wonder why they didn't do that when it first came to their attention. And of course the real test is prosecutions. Children have been tortured. Will the torturers end up in court? Will they be jailed if convicted? If not, it is hard to view this "inquiry' as anything other than a British-style PR-exercise, aimed at dissipating public anger while ensuring that nothing really changes.

New Fisk

It is 10 years since UN peacekeepers were killed in southern Lebanon – and it could happen again now

The cost of a predator-free New Zealand

Yesterday the government announced a plan to make New Zealand predator-free by 2050. Unfortunately, the amount they committed to achieving this goal - a mere $26 million over five years - was laughable for a challenge the Prime Minister himself described as "New Zealand’s Apollo project". So how much would it really cost? An article in the Herald in 2013 paints a sobering picture:

The cost of national eradication would be gradual, but likely, ultimately staggering. Cleaning out Rangitoto/Motutapu, even after possums and wallabies had been dealt with, cost $3.5 million, and by extrapolation the sum for the rest of the country has been put at $24.6 billion.

More recently, a project to eradicate just mice from the 22 square km of the Antipodes Islands - the million dollar mouse project - will cost $3.9 million. Extrapolating that to the 268021 square km of New Zealand would give a cost of $47.5 billion.

More hopefully, there's a 2015 paper which estimates the cost at $9.04 billion over 50 years.

One thing all of these estimates have in common is that they are in the billions. And even on the cheapest of them, the government would need to be spending a solid quarter of a billion dollars a year to meet its target. Instead, it is spending around two percent of that.

What really sucks is that it didn't need to be this way. National has $26 million to spend over five years, and (on the 2015 estimate) that's about enough to eradicate predators from Stewart Island. And if they'd announced that as their target, and clearly allocated it resources commensurate to the task, I'd have nothing but applause for them. Instead, we have a bad joke, a PR exercise aimed at getting cuddly tuatara headlines with no real followthrough. Spin and bullshit, just like everything else they do.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Predator free?

Today the government announced a new goal to make New Zealand predator-free by 2050. Its a bold ambition, and one worth supporting. But when you poke into the details, it starts to look a bit sketchy.

They do at least understand that there's going to be some hard work involved. Initially, the plan will focus on eradicating introduced predators (meaning rats, stoats and possums; Moonbeam is safe for now) from offshore islands while expanding predator suppression (meaning aerial 1080 campaigns) and onshore fenced "islands". Unfortunately, their way of doign this is with a public-private partnership. Yes, a flagship conservation strategy, and its just a way to channel money to government cronies while paying too much for services. I'm also unsure that their initial investment of $26 million over five years is even remotely commensurate with the scale of this problem, and I suspect that DoC will have some juicy advice on how much it will really cost. Still, even if its nowhere near enough for the task, and parasitised by National's cronies, more money is welcome.

The really amusing bit is the long-term. Their policy includes the line that by 2025,

we will have developed a breakthrough science solution capable of removing at least one small mammal predator from the mainland entirely

Leaving aside the questions of whether they're promising biological warfare on rats and stoats, to introduce a new predator to eat them (because we know how well that worked out in the past), or just to build a better mousetrap, this isn't policy so much as wishful thinking. Its the policy equivalent of "I will win the lottery", or maybe "Baby Jesus will ride in on a sparkly unicorn, wave his magic wand, and make this problem disappear". In other words, not real. If this is their policy, then it is simply not going to happen.

(Well, unless they couple it with a $50 million a year increase in science funding for possum-specific plagues, feral cat breeding programs, and advanced mousetrap design. But that's about as likely as them not awarding this PPP to a collection of their donors and cronies, and it not delivering worse results than DoC would have got by doing it in-house...)

National has form on this sort of wishful-thinking-as-policy. In case anyone has forgotten, their 2009-10 economic policy, intended to "close the gap" with Australia, boiled down to "we will dsicover oil". This is no different. And its simply not credible. While I support the goal, New Zealand deserves a government which actually presents credible plans for achieving it, rather than this sort of underpants-collecting nonsense. And we won't get that under National.

Open Government: This is not how you do openness

On Friday evening, during dump hour, the State Services Commission "announced" its formal engagement process for its (late) Open Government partnership Second National Action Plan. I say "announced", because in their usual fashion, there was no actual publicity, just a hard to notice link on a buried corner of its website which only sad tragics like me read. The good news: there'll lbe an engagement process (as mentioned last week) with workshops etc. It even has a timeline, according to which we are already in "stage 2", raising awareness. How are we supposed to "raise awareness"? One of their suggestions is to "follow @OGPNZ on Twitter". What happens if you try and do that? Uh-oh...

This is how the government does "openness": with a protected Twitter account which will only provide information to its friends. The message is clear: they're not really interested in engagement at all. And if that isn't the message they wanted to send, well, too late - they've fucked it up. Again.

Heckuva job they're doing there. Great use of public money.

Meanwhile, if you're still interested in open government despite SSC repeatedly slamming the door in our faces, they also suggest emailing to "stay up to date". I gues I'll do that and see what happens.

Managing to the target

National has campaigned hard on healthcare, setting targets for waiting times for elective surgery and fining DHBs which fail to meet them. Now this has had the entirely predictable response: DHBs are managing to the target by keeping patients on secret waiting lists:

District Health Boards struggling to meet the government's goal of a four month waiting time for treatment are being accused of hiding patients on "phantom" waiting lists.

But the government said there were no "virtual" waiting lists in the health system.

The claim comes as latest DHB figures show 45,000 patients sent to a hospital specialist were turned away in 2015 - 3000 more than the previous 12 months.


"Because we haven't got the workforce capacity to actually deliver on that in our public hospitals, there's quite a bit of - I'll use this term loosely - rorting going on, where some patients are actually put on what they call a virtual list or a suspended list. It's like picking up a number of patient files and just putting them on a shelf somewhere," he said.

The government denies that this is happening, of course, but they would. Meanwhile the stats indicate that it is, as do numerous health professionals. And I'll believe them over a health minister with a strong incentive to lie any day.

This was an entirely predictable outcome. In theory, the NeoLiberal public management method of targets and incentives encourages agencies to meet those targets. In practice, it is almost always easier to game the system than meet the target honestly. And so we see Serco directing employment assistance to those who don't need it, and UK emergency departments employing "greeters" so they can tick the box saying that the patient has been seen by someone. The structural logic is the same; why would we expect New Zealand agencies to behave any differently?

The net effect of all of this is to lie to the public about how good the health system is, while continuing to deny them care in practice. That's exactly the sort of dishonesty National was campaigning against when it established targets. But if you're unwilling to spend the money required to ensure that everyone who needs help gets it, lies are all you've got. Personally, though, I'd prefer a properly resourced health system which is there for us when we need it.