Monday, May 22, 2017



NZ Navy looking the other way on fraud?

The US Navy is currently prosecuting over twenty officers over a corruption scandal which saw them overpaying for port services in exchange for bribes and prostitutes. But there's a local angle on this: the New Zealand Navy used the same firm that was overcharging the Americans. But despite having been informed of the US corruption cases, they have no plans to investigate to see whether they were also overcharged:

The Royal New Zealand Navy paid hundreds of thousands of dollars over four years to a ship services company run by a man now imprisoned in the US for an enormous corruption and sex scandal, the Guardian has learned.

US prosecutors say Leonard Glenn Francis, known as Fat Leonard for his wide girth, had cheated its navy out of nearly US $34m — mostly through overcharging port services and providing gifts to personnel, including arranging sex parties.

The New Zealand navy has told the Guardian it paid a total of NZ$710,235.04 (around £370,000) to Francis’ company, Glenn Defence Marine Asia (GDMA), between May 2007 to December 2011 “for specific ship visits in South East Asia.”

The navy told the Guardian in previous correspondence that it had used a “range of services” in Singapore from bus hire to tug provision.

Responding to a freedom of information request, it added it had “not conducted an investigation into its relationship with GDMA based on the results of the US corruption investigation, nor is there an intention to do so.”


Of course not. Because if they investigated, they might find something, and that might damage the navy's reputation. Better to just stick their head in the sand. After all, its only public money at stake...

This attitude is simply negligent. It is also shameful. The New Zealand Navy has an obligation to the public to obey the law and be good custodians of public money. And that includes investigating where there is a suspicion of corruption and fraud. By refusing to investigate, they're telling us clearly that they're putting their interests ahead of ours. And that is simply not acceptable.

New Fisk

US air strikes in Syria: Why America really attacked pro-Assad militia convoy
Rouhani’s victory is good news for Iran, but bad news for Trump and his Sunni allies
Donald Trump’s speech to the Muslim world was filled with hypocrisy and condescension

Spy city

Wellington's latest plan to stamp out beggars: spy on everyone:

A 'big brother' camera and sensor network, used to tackle begging on Wellington's Cuba St, is set to be rolled out across the city.

[...]

The project focused on begging, rough sleeping, alcohol and psychoactive substance abuse.

An analytics platform collected data from new sensor technology and combined it with data held by agencies such as police, fire, emergency departments, ACC and the council.

This was then fed into a computer system that created a map with insights into day-to-day street level trends and patterns.

It also highlighted hotspots and provided real-time information to alert agencies to respond.

Video and acoustic sensors were used to count instances of begging, particularity at ATMs on Cuba St.

The information was fed to agencies that sent someone to remove and help beggars with social issues they may also have.


"Acoustic sensors" are what real people call "microphones". So what they're proposing is eavesdropping on street conversation, then having a computer pick out the conversations of interest. It's ECHELON for facespace! And while in this case the target conversations happen to be people asking for or giving money, it could equally be people complaining about politicians, or talking about their private lives, or discussing financial information - the platform allows all of that. And of course, because the system exists, then its accessible to the police in case they want to use it for investigative purposes as well (next step: using it to find drug users maybe?)

The idea that whereever you go in Wellington the council will be listening is simply creepy. And setting up their own total surveillance network (and providing guinea-pigs for foreign companies who probably want to onsell this tech to oppressive regimes) is well outside what most kiwis think local government is for.

Meanwhile, there are a limited number of homeless people and beggars in Wellington. The $125,000 they spent on the trial system would have made a huge difference to their lives. The fully operational system would make an even bigger one. But instead of actually helping these people, the council would waste money on spying on them (and on everyone else). Typical.

We are being ripped off on water

How badly are kiwis being ripped off on water? This badly:

Water bottling companies are paying an average 500 times less than ratepayers for each litre of water they're allowed to use.

A Herald investigation into water fees set by every regional council around the country found bottlers were charged an average $0.003 - or one third of a cent - per cubic metre of water.

Comparatively, in Auckland, Watercare charges $1.40 per cubic metre (1000 litres) for water piped to houses, while the rest of the country paid an average $1.60 per cubic metre.


This is, as the article points out, grossly unfair. A resource we get charged for is provided to foreign-owned bottling companies for free (unmentioned: farmers get it even cheaper). Who then sell it back to us for 300,000 times what they pay for it. I don't think we can get a clearer demonstration of how badly we are being ripped off than that.

This isn't acceptable. And the obvious solution is to charge commercial water users exactly what residential ones pay. Its not as if they can't afford it, or that it would destroy their business - paying the residential price for water would add all of 0.2 cents to a 1.5 litre bottle, which would be unnoticeable to the end user. But the revenue it would bring in to local councils and iwi would make a huge difference.

But the last thing National wants is for farmers to have to actually pay their way rather than freeloading on the rest of us. And so water companies will be able to continue ripping us off and price gouging for something they got for free as long as this government is in office.

Friday, May 19, 2017



A fundamental failure in the duty of care

Serco prison guards fundamentally failed to exercise a proper duty of care towards a prisoner, according to a report from the prison inspector. First, they didn't notice a serious assault for two hours. And then they ignored it:

A guard then checked on Mr Lightbody and found him totally unresponsive despite shaking him and shouting at him.

Both guards did nothing else initially. They sat at their base for 20 minutes, with one continuing to file while the other made himself a hot drink and ate a sandwich.

During this time, the prison wing's manager and supervisor left the unit. The supervisor told the guards that he was off for the next week and that it was up to them to "sort it out", the report said.

The supervisor denied being told of the assault.

Nurses were finally called, but the first arrived without an emergency first aid kit.

An ambulance was eventually called at 5.02pm, more than 2 hours 30 minutes after the attack, arriving 11 minutes later.


The victim ended up with brain damage and is suing Corrections for failing to exercise a proper duty of care. I think they've got a good case. But the report is also clear in blaming Serco's understaffing for the incident, and I'd hope that they're required to pay any eventual damages.

Meanwhile, its also a warning against the dangers or prison privatisation. Privatised prisons are inherently understaffed - its how they make their profits - and combined with prisons' inherent culture of neglect towards prisoners, its basicly a recipe for this sort of failure.

New Fisk

This is the aim of Donald Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia – and it isn't good for Shia communities

Wellington City Council's LGOIMA fail

Wellington City Council is so bad at handling requests under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act that it has been ordered by the Ombudsman to review its processes:

An independent public watchdog has ordered Wellington's mayor to review his council's procedures for sharing information with ratepayers.

This week, Ombudsman Leo Donnelly told Wellington City Council to review the way it responded to requests for information made under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA), and to remind its staff of their obligations.

The Ombudsman's ruling coincides with the council's formal review into its LGOIMA resources, which Wellington Mayor Justin Lester is keen to see.


The review comes after repeated failures to comply with the law and complaints that they were ignoring requests. Hopefully it will result in WCC getting its act together and treating LGOIMA as a fundamental obligation rather than "non-core business" or an irritant.

Thursday, May 18, 2017



This is what happens when you invite dictators to your country

Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is currently visiting the USA. This being the USA, Land Of Free Speech, naturally there are protests. Which get suppressed brutally by Erdoğan's security detail:

The United States has said it was voicing its “strongest possible” concern to Turkey over a street brawl that erupted between protesters and Turkish security personnel during Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Washington.

Police said the fighting outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence on Tuesday injured 11 people, including a Washington police officer, and led to two arrests for assault. At least one of those arrested was a protester.

“We are communicating our concern to the Turkish government in the strongest possible terms,” state department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

Video of the incident showed men in dark suits chasing anti-government protesters and punching and kicking them as police intervened. Two men were bloodied from head wounds as bystanders assisted dazed protesters.

[...]

Turkey’s official Anadolu state news agency reported that protesters were chanting anti-Erdoğan slogans as the president entered the residence after meeting Donald Trump to discuss the fight against Islamic State militants.

“Police did not heed Turkish demands to intervene,” the news agency said, and Erdoğan’s security team and Turkish citizens moved in and “dispersed them”.


Which is exactly what would happen in Turkey (or some shitty post-Soviet kleptocracy). But the US isn't Turkey, and people there still (in theory) have rights. Erdoğan's thugs appear to have committed a number of crimes, and they need to be arrested and prosecuted for them. If they have diplomatic immunity, they need to be deported immediately. Either way, the USA needs to send a clear message that visiting dictators can't behave like they do at home.

Harsh treatment

Australia's entire refugee policy is predicated on harsh treatment. By imprisoning refugees indefinitely and torturing them in island camps, they hope to deter others from seeking refuge in Australia. But the same mindset applies within the camps as well, with the Australian government deliberately imposing harsh living conditions in its Manus Island gulag in an attempt to force refugees to leave:

For more than a year, camp managers and security staff have waged a campaign to make Australia’s detention centre for refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island as inhospitable as possible, leaked documents reveal.

A plan drafted in early 2016 outlines moves to coerce those recognised as refugees into leaving the detention centre and accepting resettlement in Papua New Guinea, while pushing asylum seekers to abandon their protection claims and return home.

[...]

One plan mooted was to forcibly remove refugees and asylum seekers from the detention centre into the transit centre in a single day.

Planning documents that proposed “moving residents into accommodation with less amenity than they currently have” forecast the forced removal raised an “extreme” risk of violence and protests, and warned of the potentially “catastrophic consequences” of using the PNG police, whom Australian authorities describe as “not trained” for the relevant tasks.


The Australian government seems to be on the verge on implementing those plans. And the result will likely be a riot. The core problem is that the refugees do not feel safe in Papua New Guinea. Those who have left the camp have been beaten and assaulted by locals. The camp has been stormed and shot at. Refugees have been murdered. Against that background, Australia's plan to just throw people out by force looks like a deliberate policy to expose people in its care to ongoing persecution and endanger their lives. And that is simply immoral.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017



A self-inflicted "shortage"

The Bus and Coach Association is concerned about the lack of bus drivers:

There's concern a shortage of bus drivers across the country is set to reach an all-time high.

The Bus and Coach Association says it's struggling to find drivers, and it's meaning managers and workshop staff are getting behind the wheel.

Ritchies transport director Andrew Ritchie is normally behind the desk, but even he's been getting behind the wheel.

"At the moment it's sort of starting to hit a peak, it's just getting very very difficult," Mr Ritchie says.


Hmm. I wonder if this has anything to do with it? Or this? Driving a bus is badly paid and has poor conditions - and its getting worse due to the grasping bus companies underbidding on contracts and keeping their profits by driving down wages. Which hardly encourages people to become drivers.

In short, this is a "shortage" entirely of the bus companies' own making. They have the power to fix it themselves, and they should, rather than whining about it.

How it works in America

We think National's Alfred Ngaro is bad for openly threatening to cut funding if NGOs criticise the government? Here's how it works in the country National wants us to imitate, the USA: if the opposition opposes, the government cuts funding to public services in their electorates:

N.C. Senate Republicans were visibly upset with Democrats for prolonging the budget debate with amendments during an after-midnight session Friday morning.

As the clock approached 1 a.m., Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue was summoned to the front of the chamber to talk privately with Senate leader Phil Berger. The Senate had rejected five amendments from Democrats to fund their spending priorities, but each time one proposal was shot down, another one was filed.

Senate Rules Chairman Bill Rabon abruptly called for a recess, stopping the proceedings for nearly two hours. GOP leaders headed to a conference room with legislative budget staff, while Democrats – some surprised by the lengthy delay – passed the time with an impromptu dance party in the hall.

The session finally resumed around 3 a.m., and Republican Sen. Brent Jackson introduced a new budget amendment that he explained would fund more pilot programs combating the opioid epidemic. He cited “a great deal of discussion” about the need for more opioid treatment funding.

Jackson didn’t mention where the additional $1 million would come from: directly from education programs in Senate Democrats’ districts and other initiatives the minority party sought.


This is pretty obviously a gross abuse of state power. But that's just how it is in the USA, where government is a political weapon to be used by one party against another.

New Fisk

Even when wars end in the Middle East, superbugs and aggressive cancers caused by conflict attack

A bad deal

Bill English is in Japan at the moment to talk about reviving the TPPA. Meanwhile, his government has confirmed the worst: that they want to revive the deal-as-signed, complete with US IP bullshit:

The Government has confirmed that countries not signed up to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, including the United States, will be able to reap the benefit of concessions New Zealand has made on pharmaceuticals.

Yet New Zealand will not benefit from better access to the US market in return, because president Donald Trump pulled it out of the pact.

Ironically, the concessions on the way drug agency Pharmac operates were made to make the 12-nation trade deal more palatable to the US.


So, we pay all of the costs, and get none of the benefits, of a deal that was pretty marginal to begin with. So why are we doing this? It makes no sense at all. This is a bad deal, and one we should be rejecting.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017



The usual story

National is finally promising to tackle the housing crisis by building some houses, with plans to "build 34,000 new Auckland houses". Except that when you scratch the surface, its not all its cracked up to be. Firstly, those houses are being built by demolishing 8,300 existing homes, so the total is only 26,000. Secondly, it includes already announced and underway (and in some cases, built) projects in Tamaki, Northcote and Point England - so they're back to re-announcing old news to get a new headline. Thirdly, two thirds of those houses will be sold to speculators rather than being state houses - so we're looking at a program to bulldoze and sell off state homes. And finally, its over ten years, with a deadline on the never-never so National can avoid accountability - just as with their climate change, renewable electricity, and water quality promises. In short, its the usual story: PR as a substitute for policy, spin as a substitute for action. Because the goal isn't to fix the bloody problem, but simply to generate positive headlines.

And all of that said: every little bit helps, even National's pathetic spin-based half-measures. And by announcing this and conceding the principle that the government must build houses, they've enabled other parties to announce that they will build more of them, and keep them under state ownership. So its not a bad announcement - just too little, and too bloody late.

Starving students

The latest indecency due to tertiary education cuts: students are starving":

Tertiary students are "regularly going without food or other necessities" because they cannot afford them, according to a survey.

It found of the almost 2000 students at Unitec in Auckland, 17 percent are going hungry as they struggle to pay the bills.

More than half of all students and two thirds of Māori students said at some stage in the last year their income was not enough to cover their living costs.


The core problem here is that student allowances are unavailable, and student loan living cost components (under which students can borrow in order to simply eat: a perfect example of the student loan scheme's system of odious debt) are insufficient. Meanwhile, full-time study - something the government has encouraged by penalising part-timers - makes it difficult to hold down a part-time job. The net result is that students without rich parents in Remuera are struggling. Some will be failing because of that struggle - which is a huge waste of talent.

But hey, taxes on those rich parents in Remuera are low, right? And that's all National apparently cares about.

New Zealand is failing on children's rights

That's the conclusion of the 2017 KidsRights Index, which ranks us 158th out of 165 countries. The index is based on data compiled from UNICEF and under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (to which New Zealand is a party). Unlike other indexes, its scaling system doesn't allow good performance in some areas to compensate for poor performance in others. And looking at the data, the problem is that we do absolutely abysmally on legal recognition of children's rights, getting the minimum score in all six indicators for which data was available:

New Zealand’s record in the 2016 Concluding Observations shows six times the lowest score (on non-discrimination, best interests of the child, respect for the views of the child, enabling legislation, budget, and data). No maximum or average scores are on record. On three indicators the scores of 2016 stayed the same as they were in 2011 (respect for the views of the child, enabling legislation and state-civil society cooperation). On two indicators (best interests of the child and data) New Zealand’s scores improved from non-available to the lowest score. The scores on non-discrimination and budget dropped from an average to the lowest score. With no score available on state-civil society cooperation, which was also not present in 2011, the scores of New Zealand remain incomplete.

This isn't a good performance, and at least part of it is due to National's austerity. Hopefully the next government will be improving on it.

Monday, May 15, 2017



Market failure

New Zealand has a housing crisis. The government is in denial about this because it is ideologically wedded to a theory that the market perfectly matches supply to demand. Meanwhile, in reality, things are a bit different:

Only 7200 new residences were built in Auckland last year, barely half the number needed and only slightly up on the last two years, an expert says.

[...]

Freeman requested Auckland Council data on new residences completed based on code compliance certificates issued solely by the council and she said she discovered building numbers were falling far short of requirements.

"The numbers being completed are far less than those consented. Statistics from Auckland Council show that last year 7200 houses were built and 6520 and 5550 were completed for year end 2015 and 2014 respectively," she said.

Yet Auckland needed about 14,000 new residences annually, made up of houses, apartments, townhouses and terraced dwellings.

"Despite all the focus on housing in the last nine years, we are barely completing half the number we need," she complained.


There is a name for this: "market failure". And the solution is obvious to all: build more bloody houses. Its something the government has done before when the housing market has failed, and which was effective. But instead of doing that, National has been tinkering around the edges and trying to find ways to further enrich the useless property developers and landbankers responsible for this failure, rather than stepping in and fixing it.

But I forget: they're a government of landlords. And to them, people living in tents and caravans isn't a fundamental indecency, but a further opportunity for them or their donors and cronies to profit from our misery.

Time to end negative gearing

New Zealand has a housing bubble. One of the things driving this bubble is the ability of landlords to offset the losses of owning a property against their income, while collecting tax-free capital gains when they sell. Now Labour is promising to end that:

Labour is lining up property speculators by clamping down on tax loopholes to even the playing field in favour of first home buyers.

In a hard hitting speech to Labour's election year congress, leader Andrew Little said the loophole that let property speculators offset losses from their rentals against other income for tax purposes would be closed.

"Labour will close the tax loophole that allows speculators to claim taxpayer subsidies for their property portfolio," Little said.

"Right now, speculators can take losses from their rentals and offset that against their personal income. It allows them to avoid paying tax. This loophole is effectively a hand-out from taxpayers to speculators. It gives them an unfair advantage over Kiwi families."


Its about time. This tax break benefits speculators and rich landlords, while helping lock ordinary kiwis out of the housing market. While ending it won't solve the problem in and of itself - its a big problem and it needs to be attacked from multiple directions - it will help. And its something the government should have done years ago.

But I forget: National MP's own an average of 3.4 houses each, with Ministers owning 3.8. They're the people profiting from this rort. No wonder they want to keep it in place.

National: Party of bullies

Over the weekend National showed its true colours, with Associate Housing Minister Alfred Ngaro openly threatening to cut government funding for political purposes:

He even suggested Labour list candidate Willie Jackson could expect to lose Government support for his Manukau Urban Māori Authority interest in a second charter school, and its Whānau Ora contract should he "bag us" on the campaign trail.

"We are not happy about people taking with one hand and throwing with the other," Ngaro said.

"Do not play politics with us. If you get up on the campaign trail and start bagging us, then all the things you are doing are off the table. They will not happen."


He's since apologised (for being caught), but its worth remembering that National has form on this. John Key threatened to cut the Human Rights Commission's funding when they criticised his increased spy powers. Backbencher Shane Reti threatened to cut roading funding to critics during the Northland by-election. And of course there's this little gem from then-MP Tau Henare:


It seems to be a deep-seated belief in National that government funding is for donors and cronies, and that it should be deployed as a weapon to silence and bully critics. This isn't just deeply undemocratic - as Andrew Geddis points out, it is also illegal. And the fact that such statements have been made gives every critical organisation denied funding a prima facie case to have the decision overturned. But the existence of a theoretical remedy doesn't really help if your organisation will go bankrupt or have to lay off skilled staff in the interim, and so National will probably get away with its American-style threats. Unless we vote the bullying pricks out of office in September.

Friday, May 12, 2017



Cui Bono?

'Brexit boom' gives Britain record 134 billionaires, fuelling inequality fears, Guardian, 7 May 2017:

Britain has more billionaires than ever in what equality campaigners said was a clear sign the UK economy is only working for the few at the top.

There are now 134 billionaires based in the UK according to this year’s Sunday Times Rich List, 14 more than the previous highest total, as the super-rich reap the benefits of a “Brexit boom”. Fifteen years ago, there were 21.

The annual rich list showed that the wealthiest 1,000 individuals and families in Britain have combined wealth of £658bn, up from £575bn last year, despite fears that the Brexit vote last June would plunge the economy into a fresh turmoil.

“While many of us worried about the outcome of the EU referendum, many of Britain’s richest people just kept calm and carried on making billions,” said Robert Watts, the compiler of the rich list.


Brexit is already starting to make families poorer, Bank of England warns, Independent, 11 May 2017:
The impact of Brexit will contribute to a dramatic drop in real-terms pay this year, the Bank of England has warned, with average workers due to be left hundreds of pounds out of pocket.

Inflation will be higher than pay growth, the Bank’s Governor Mark Carney predicted – marking the first year since 2013 that workers have been hit by a real-terms cut in take-home pay.

Salaries will be almost £1,000 lower than forecast before the Brexit vote, ministers have been warned, and £320 down on predictions just three months ago.

The grim outlook, delivered four weeks before the general election, was “another sign of the Brexit squeeze”, the Liberal Democrats warned.


Brexit just seems to be another way to impoverish the many while transferring their wealth to the few. But I guess that's just how politics works in the UK now.