Friday, September 21, 2018



Victory!

Back in 2017, Greenpeace activists Russel Norman and Sara Howell protested against a foreign seismic survey ship as it explored for oil. The protest violated National's "Anadarko amendment", a law specifically outlawing protest against the oil industry at sea. But today, despite MBIE's efforts to persecute them, they were discharged without conviction:

Two Greenpeace activists who disrupted an oil exploration vessel have been discharged without conviction.

Greenpeace executive director Russel Norman and fellow activist Sara Howell appeared in Napier District Court in July to apply for a discharge without conviction after admitting a charge of interfering with an oil exploration vessel.

[...]

Judge Tompkins said if Norman and Howell were convicted they would receive a more serious penalty than Mulvay [who had been given diversion] "when all three were equally involved in exactly the same sequence of events".

The Judge said the gravity of the offending was low and the effect of convictions for the pair would be out of all proportion to the gravity of the offence.


But while this is an obvious victory, there's still a lot which needs to be done. Firstly, there's the matter of Thompson & Clark's involvement in the case, where they seem to have spied on Greenpeace for MBIE, acting as a Stasi-for-hire for the government - something which should not be legal in a democracy. Secondly, there's the Anadarko amendment itself. Its still on the books, but now that the case is over the government should repeal it immediately. Laws banning protest have no place in a free and democratic society.

Open Government: Business as usual

The SSC has released its draft Third National Action Plan for the Open Government Partnership. The idea of the OGP is that countries make concrete commitments of policies which advance the OGP's values of transparency, participation, and accountability, but New Zealand has always been half-hearted about that, preferring to offer business-as-usual policy or ambitionless pap. And unfortunately, the change of government doesn't seem to have changed this in the slightest.

There are twelve concrete commitments, grouped into three themes: participation in democracy; public participation to develop policy and services; and transparency and accountability. But about ten of those commitments are pretty obviously business as usual, or indistinguishable from it. So in the "participation in democracy" theme, the government wants to "improve engagement with Parliament", which is really just the ongoing work ParliamentTV is doing to expand its coverage. Its important work, and it matters, but its both stuff which is already happening, and not exactly ambitious. Its a similar story with their plans for an improved youth parliament, and for improved accessibility of secondary legislation: something we do anyway, with a few minor tweaks. The "school leaver's toolkit" could be novel, but is basicly a pilot, and we know its going to boil down to giving people an election enrolment form, kiwisaver form, and IRD number form and forgetting about them. Comprehensive civics education as part of the curriculum would have been a real commitment. This is just trivia.

The public participation theme is similarly a pilot, and if the OGP "participation" is anything to go by, all it promises is new ways to waste people's time. Trialing new participation models is all well and good, but at the end of the day there needs to be a willingness to actually set policy based on what the public says. Absent that, it is simply a scam and a waste of everybody's time, which undermines rather than enhances faith in government.

The transparency theme had the most ideas submitted, and the clearest public demand: what people want is reform of the OIA. What we're getting is a "commitment" to "test the merits" of a review (and as we've seen from the material around proactive release, this is going to be focused on covering politicians' arses rather than actually producing more transparency). They've also "committed" to proactively publish Cabinet papers - something they have been working on since February and which they announced on Tuesday, so its not really a commitment at all. There's a review of the government use of algorithms - announced in May, so business as usual; more transparency around government data stewardship (again, an existing process); and an "authoritative dataset" of government organisations and data (which has had a website for ten years, so its hardly new). Oh, and open procurement data, which actually means changing the licence and format on GETS.

There is nothing ambitious here. There is nothing remotely approaching the OGP gold standard of a star commitment. As for the Independent Reporting Mechanism's recommendations, they've pretty much been chucked in the trashcan. its just the same old business-as-usual bullshit we always get from the government on this. As for the 800 people who participated in this process and submitted ideas to it in good faith, it looks like they wasted their time. Again.

New Fisk

I asked Israel's only journalist in Palestine to show me something shocking – and this is what I saw

Fuck tax cuts

The government's Tax Working Group released its interim report yesterday, which supported some form of capital gains tax. But Finance Minister Grant Robertson today wouldn't commit to taxing capital gains, with the usual "not ruling it out, not ruling it in" bullshit. He wouldn't even say whether he supported it personally. But he did take the time to tease the rich with the prospect of tax cuts:

Tax cuts in the election year are possible, Finance Minister Grant Robertson said this morning.

While not committing to reducing income tax in 2020, Robertson didn't rule out the move in an interview with Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking.

Oh for fuck's sake. Robertson is meant to be a Labour MP. And Labour is meant to stand for ordinary kiwis. You know how you make ordinary kiwis better off? Raising wages (which Labour is doing, by increasing the minimum wage and improvements to employment law). You know how else you make ordinary kiwis better off? By providing decent public services which save them money and protect them from poverty. Schools. Hospitals. Housing. Childcare. Universities. Parental leave. Public transport. ACC. Pensions. You know what makes all of that impossible? Fucking tax cuts.

Like local body politics with its "low rates" mantra, our politics is cursed with a party which explicitly wants to shrink the state and destroy all those public services which make our lives easier, and a party which supposedly advocates better services, but in reality has no spine and won't stand up for them. And as a result, every time the government has been doing well financially and has some money it could do something useful with, it has given it away in tax cuts to the rich, rather than investing it in our people. Every fucking time. No matter who is in government. And that's why we have shitty schools and shitty hospitals and not enough state houses and starvation-level benefits and crippling university fees, rather than being a Nordic paradise.

Tax cuts are why we have shit public services. Tax cuts - particularly Labour's 1987 raid which slashed taxes on the rich - are why we have inequality. Tax cuts are good only for the rich. So why the fuck is a "Labour" Minister making noises about them? Maybe it's something to do with his $250,000 salary, which gives him a completely different perspective on life from the other 99% of New Zealanders.

Thursday, September 20, 2018



Good riddance

Meka Whaitiri has been sacked as a Minister for bullying her staff. Good riddance - there should be no place for bullies in cabinet. But there shouldn't be any place for them in the House either. While the Prime Minister cannot sack an MP, the Labour Party can throw people out. And given that all witnesses agree that Whaitiri "got physical" while yelling at her staff member, that's exactly what a party which purports to believe in workers' rights should do.

Better than expected

When the news emerged two weeks ago that the Tax Working Group had backed away from recommending a capital gains tax, I was angry. After all, producing such a recommendation was the purpose of the group, and imposing such a tax the purpose of this government. But the Working Group released its interim report today, and it turns out that they do support a capital gains tax - they just haven't worked out what it should look like yet:

Two ways of taxing capital have been proposed by the Tax Working Group, including extending the current income tax regime.

[...]

The group is proposing two options for taxing capital gain: any gain from the sale of assets taxed at roughly the marginal income tax rate, and the second a regime under which a portion of the value of certain assets would be subject to tax, for example rental properties, to be paid each year.

However, Sir Michael said neither of these options were actual recommendations.


Delving into the report, they're doing detailed design of the two options to work out which will work best, and it looks like they will in fact produce a recommendation at the end of it. Of course, the government (which is composed purely of rich people who will have to pay this tax) might still chicken out or put their own interests first, but its looking a lot more hopeful for progressive change than it was.

In the meantime, we can no doubt expect more wailing and piteous whining from the rich and the business community, who find the thought of paying their fair share for once erodes their "confidence". Which says rather a lot about their lack of ethics. Taxes are what pay for the safe society which allows them to do business. And if they want to dump the costs of that on other people, then they're simply parasites, and we're better off without them.

Doing the right thing

Back in May, the Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser revealed that the meth-testing industry was a scam, and that hundreds of Housing NZ tenants had been evicted from their homes under false pretences. Now, Housing NZ will be compensating its victims:

A report by Housing NZ into its response to methamphetamine contamination shows the organisation accepts its approach was wrong and had far reaching consequences for hundreds of people, Housing and Urban Development Minister Phil Twyford said.

“Housing NZ acknowledges that around 800 tenants suffered by either losing their tenancies, losing their possessions, being suspended from the public housing waiting list, negative effects on their credit ratings or, in the worst cases, being made homeless.

“Housing NZ is committed to redressing the hardship these tenants faced. This will be done on a case by case basis and the organisation will look to reimburse costs tenants incurred, and make discretionary grants to cover expenses such as moving costs and furniture replacement.

“They will also receive a formal apology from Housing NZ.


Good. The previous government intentionally made people homeless on poor evidence and fake science. They have an obligation to put things right. But I don't think it stops with Housing NZ. Private landlords also evicted people for meth "contamination". They should be forced to compensate their victims too. And then there's the meth-testing industry itself, which has turned out to be nothing more than a giant scam used to justify a vicious war on the poor. It would be good if they could be held accountable in some way.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018



An open and shut case

When Massey University Vice-Chancellor Professor Jan Thomas vetoed a speech by Don Brash on the Massey campus, she claimed it was due to "security". Now, an OIA request from David Farrar has revealed that she lied:

Thomas started discussing Brash's speech with colleagues on July 9 where she asked about options to not allow Brash to speak on campus and mentioned the "racist behaviour of Brash. She ended the email with, "would be good if we can cut off at the pass some how".

On July 10, Thomas sent another email saying the subject was on her mind.

"I would like to know what are our options re [regarding] not allowing politics clubs to hold event on campus - free to hold any event but not with any inference of support by university.

"Will hit the fan in the media if we go this way. However, racist behaviour of Brash - given te reo is a official language of NZ and we are a tiriti led university - can't be ignored."

On July 11, a Massey University staff member said there weren't grounds to say no to Brash speaking on campus and noted to Thomas that declining him "would present a very real risk of us being accused restricting free speech etc."

The vice-chancellor then replied, saying she was still "deeply concerned" about the matter asking if there was any mechanism the university could use to stop the event.


Which looks like an open and shut case that the cancellation wasn't really about security, but about Thomas simply not liking Brash's views. Those views are disgusting - Brash is a dirty old racist crank, a relic of the nineteenth century - but as a government institution, Massey is bound by the Bill of Rights Act and its affirmation of freedom of speech. It simply can not behave like this. As for what to do about it, Massey academic staff may wish to consider whether someone with such views is really appropriate to head an institution supposedly dedicated to free academic debate. And the politics club should be using this evidence to seek damages for the infringement of their right to receive information. And on the basis that bureaucrats don't learn unless you beat them, they should be seeking those damages from Thomas personally.

Grudging progress

After months of back-pedalling, the government has finally agreed to keep its promise and raise the refugee quota to 1500. But not until 2020:

New Zealand will lift the refugee quota from 1000 to 1500 within this political term, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced today.

“I’m proud that the Coalition Government has today agreed to make such a significant and historic increase to the annual quota of refugees,” Jacinda Ardern said.

“This is the right thing to do. It fulfils New Zealand’s obligation to do our bit and provide a small number of people, displaced by war and disaster each year, a place to call home.

“The quota increase will take place from July 2020. In the meantime, we will work to increase the number and spread of refugee resettlement and support services. We need to make sure we’re prepared for this change in policy.”


So, grudgingly and leaving it as late as they possibly can. While I'm pleased, this is something the government had to be dragged into doing. Which the opposite of the impression they gave during the election campaign.

So, what's the next step to push for? 3000? Which would still be less than half of Australia's per-capita contribution, and less than 5% of Sweden's. In other words: we can do much better, and we should.

Member's Day

Today is a Member's day. First up there is a local bill: the Muldoonist Tasman District Council (Waimea Water Augmentation Scheme) Bill to enable the Waimea dam. This has the support of everyone by the Greens, so unless it is found to violate Standing Orders, it will progress to select committee.

Following that there's a couple of second readings: Jan Tinetti's Education (National Education and Learning Priorities) Amendment Bill and Gareth Hughes' Consumers’ Right to Know (Country of Origin of Food) Bill (which despite the name, has been gutted in select committee so it won't actually do what's on the label). The House will almost certainly wrap up Alastair Scott's Land Transport (Random Oral Fluid Testing) Amendment Bill, and will probably make a start on Darroch Ball's Protection for First Responders and Prison Officers Bill. If that happens, there will be a ballot for one bill tomorrow.

Another OIA review

Yesterday's announcement that the government would be proactively releasing Cabinet papers had a buried lead: the government may be planning another review of the Official Information Act:

The documents revealed the existence of a Cabinet business committee paper produced last month which noted Little “intends to carry out targeted engagement to inform a decision on whether to progress a formal review of the OIA”.

Speaking to Newsroom, Little confirmed he was considering whether a full review of the OIA legislation was needed, or whether improvements could be made through non-legislative changes to departmental guidelines and policies.

“It wasn’t top of the priority list at the beginning of the year, but as we get to now embarking on a programme of proactive release then these things have come into sharper relief.”


But do they really need to? The OIA has been reviewed twice in recent years: by the Law Commission in 2012, by the Office of the Ombudsman in 2015, and by the NZ Council for Civil Liberties earlier this year. While none of them is perfect, these reviews contained useful proposals for reform, particularly around eligibility, oversight, coverage, and penalties. But despite public support by users of the Act, these recommendations have been ignored by successive governments. And now, instead of implementing them, Little is proposing another review.

Little's proposed review is a waste of our time. We already know what is wrong with the OIA regime and how to fix it. Rather than dragging his feet with yet another review, Little should actually do something to fix the Act. Otherwise, people might get the impression that he was trying to thwart change rather than enable it...

125 years

125 years ago today, the Electoral Act 1893 became law. The law allowed women to vote for the first time - back then a world first. Here's how it was reported in the Auckland Star:
SuffrageStar

[Auckland Star, 19 September 1893, via Papers Past].

It wasn't a full victory - women got to vote, but not to stand for Parliament - but it was a start, a start which made other change possible. There's still obviously a hell of a lot more to do around equality, the gender pay gap, and ending sexual harassment and violence, but all of that work would be much harder without basic electoral rights and the power that comes with them.

The anniversary is being celebrated around New Zealand today, as it is every year. Its something which has defined us as a nation and which kiwis are justifiably proud of. But on the 125th anniversary, its time to do more than that: we should make Suffrage Day a public holiday.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018



Netsafe defends freedom of the press

Last week, rich prick Ray Avery tried to use the Harmful Digital Communicatins Act to suppress media coverage about him. But approved agency Netsafe has rejected his complaint:

Internet regulator Netsafe has declined to pursue a complaint by entrepreneur Sir Ray Avery that Newsroom stories about him amounted to digital harm and harassment.

The publicly-funded agency, which is charged with mediating complaints of online bullying and harassment under the Harmful Digital Communications Act, told Newsroom today: "This complaint has now been closed at Netsafe."

It said the law was "not clear about how to treat HDC complaints as they apply to media, and there is limited case law from which to form our advice.

"Therefore we are not recommending you take any further action. We have recommended to Sir Ray Avery that if he wishes to pursue this complaint he has the option of applying to the District Court."

But this isn't over yet, because Avery has indicated from the start that that using the courts to suppress public-interest journalism is exactly what he intends to do. And while we can hope that the court will look at s14 of the Bill of Rights Act and interpret the law so as to be consistent with the right to free speech and freedom of the press and exclude public interest journalism, I would feel far safer if there was explicit protection. That would at least prevent rich pricks like Avery from trying it on, and forcing media organisations to rack up enormous legal bills defending themselves.

There is obvious scope for a member's bill here. I wonder if any of the "free speech loving" MPs in the opposition will take it - or whether the only speech they want to protect is that of racists and Nazis.

Belgium stands up for freedom of speech in Spain

Back in February, Spain sentenced rapper Valtonyc to three and a half years in prison for insulting the monarch. He promptly fled the country. Now, a Belgian court has refused to extradite him:

A Belgian court on Monday ruled that Spanish rapper Valtonyc should not be sent back to Spain, where he was sentenced to prison accused of writing lyrics that praise terror groups and insult the royal family.

The rapper, whose real name is Jose Miguel Arenas Beltran, was supposed to turn himself in voluntarily in May to authorities in Spain, where he faces prison sentences totaling three and a half years, but instead fled to Belgium.

"The judge has decided there will be no extradition and discarded all three charges," his lawyer, Simon Bekaert, told reporters near the court in the city of Ghent.

Bekaert said the judge ruled "there is no terrorism involved, there is no incitement of terrorism, so there is no question of a crime according to Belgian law." He said the judge also found that there is no crime to answer to over insulting the Spanish king and that no threat was made that could warrant extradition.


The Spanish government can still appeal, but success looks unlikely. Unfortunately, rather than accept that their laws are increasingly out of step with fundamental human rights, and will no longer be upheld or respected by other European courts (including the ECHR), Spain will probably double down on them and try and make them even more oppressive.

Proactive release

In a major victory for transparency, the government will start proactively releasing Cabinet papers:

Cabinet papers will be proactively released, Minister of State Services Chris Hipkins announced today.

The move is part of the Government’s wider plan to improve openness and reflects its commitment to the international Open Government Partnership.

The Cabinet papers will be released no later than 30 business days after a Cabinet decision. This process will be in place for Cabinet papers lodged from 1 January 2019, Chris Hipkins – who is also responsible for Open Government – said.

“This change is about being an open and accountable government.


On the one hand, this isn't that big a change - we already routinely have such releases when policy is announced. On the other hand, it is a huge step forward. In other parts of the world Cabinet material is tightly guarded (and this is then abused to hide other material), so we're displaying clear global leadership here. It would obviously be better if the timeline for release was aligned to the OIA's statutory 20 days, and I'll be interested in seeing the advice on why that wasn't done.

Of course, the problem with proactive release is that its grace and favour and cannot be contested except by filing another OIA making it clear that you want an unredacted copy (which may then be refused as the material "is already publicly available", even though the bits that you want are not). And this is clearly abused to hide material and steer the public conversation through selective release. One of the changes that needs to happen to the official information regime is bringing proactive disclosures under the Act and under the oversight of the Ombudsman, to prevent such abuses.

Monday, September 17, 2018



Bring them home

In 2016, Labour promised that they would withdraw kiwi troops from Iraq if elected. They lied:

New Zealand will extend its military presence in Iraq until June 2019, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced.

Cabinet signed off on five military deployments on Monday.

The deployment in Afghanistan has also been extended to September 2019 alongside three smaller peacekeeping missions.


Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are neither moral nor necessary. In Iraq, kiwi troops have been directly assisting the Iraqi army in a murderous war. The Iraqi government has declared its enemies defeated. So why are we still there? And in Afghanistan, Kiwi troops have been directly implicated in war crimes, which are now the subject of an inquiry here in New Zealand. In both cases, all our presence does is directly support the corrupt, murderous regimes in Baghdad, Kabul, and Washington. Instead of doing that, we should bring them home - now.

Predator-free Waiheke?

Over the weekend the government announced an ambitious plan to make Waiheke Island predator-free:

Waiheke Island is set to become the world's largest predator-free urban island under a bold new $11 million plan to rid the Hauraki Gulf Island of rats and stoats.

Millions of passengers visit the Auckland tourist destination each year and the head of Fullers ferry company says it will be extremely difficult to introduce biosecurity measures similar to those imposed on other pest-free islands which involve checking visitors' gear, ensuring food is in sealed bags and cleaning footwear.

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage will today announce plans to make the island, which is already free of possums, free of other pests by 2025.

This would enable North Island kākā, kākāriki, kererū, tūī, korimako or bellbird, piwakawaka or fantail, tūturiwhatu or New Zealand dotterel, ōi or grey-faced petrel and kororā or little blue penguins to breed safely and increase in number on Waiheke, she said.


While there's not a lot of money involved, this is a big, ambitious policy. It will also be a field-test for the wider goal of a predator-free New Zealand, and how to prevent rats spreading from urban areas into protected ones. But even if its not ultimately successful, and they end up merely vastly reducing predator numbers on Waiheke or restricting them to urban spaces, it will still have huge conservation benefits. And they can then take the lessons they learn and apply them to Stewart Island or the Coromandel.

No more charter schools

National's charter schools are now officially dead:

All 12 of New Zealand's charter schools have been approved for transition to state integrated schools.

It marks the end to a rather short era.

[...]

"We have worked with the charter schools to find a way forward for them within the state system and no existing charter schools are closing their doors," Education Minister Chris Hipkins said.

The last two schools to be approved for transition were Tūranga Tangata Rite in Gisborne and Waatea School in Auckland.

Te Kura Māori o Waatea will open as a year 1-8 state integrated school in 2019, and Tūranga Tangata Rite, which was not yet up and running, will open as a state-integrated school in 2020.


And that's that. No more second-rate, for-profit schools to exploit the poor with unqualified teachers and quack curriculums. Instead, they'll be required to have qualified staff, teach a proper curriculum, and be subject to the normal oversight of the Official Information and Ombudsman's Acts, just like any other school.

The police owe us some answers on Thompson & Clark

Back in March, the State Services Commission began an inquiry into government departments' use of Stasi-as-a-service firm Thompson & Clark. But there's one significant group which appears to have a deep and disturbing collaboration with TCIL which isn't covered by the inquiry: the Police:

There are calls for the inquiry into government agency links with controversial private investigation firm Thompson & Clark to be expanded to also take in the police, after a Stuff Circuit investigation exposed a long history of contact between police and the company.

"It's completely extraordinary that the police are not covered by the inquiry into Thompson & Clark," said Greenpeace executive director Russel Norman.

[...]

When police undertake surveillance there is oversight, from the judicial warrant system, for instance.

"Thompson & Clark don't go through any of those processes," says Norman. "They pay people who then turn up at groups and pretend to care about whatever the issue is and then if they're passing that information on to the New Zealand police without ever getting any proper judicial oversight of what the police are up to, that is very problematic."


The Stuff Circuit investigation makes a strong case that the police used Thompson & Clark to spy on animal rights activists, and has an admission from a police source that they shared a paid informant with them. And from reading the article, the police may also have lied on a search warrant application - a sworn statement to a judge - to hide the source of their intelligence. All of which is completely unacceptable. An investigation is necessary to uncover any police wrongdoing, as well as restore public confidence in the police. As for who should be tasked with getting to the bottom of it, it seems to fall within the ambit of the Independent Police Conduct Authority, and if it doesn't, then its covered by the Ombudsmen (the police being a specified organisation). But the IPCA would require someone to make a complaint, and may be reluctant to look at general matters of police policy - something the Ombudsman is generally far more willing to do. And I think people would be far more willing to trust the Ombudsman than the police's patsy "investigators".

Amnesty International has a petition demanding an inquiry. You can sign it here.

Friday, September 14, 2018



New Fisk

A murder in Aleppo shows the Syrian war is not over yet