Friday, August 01, 2014



Is the GCSB tapping all our cables?

So, at the same time the GCSB was planning to inflict their new spy-law on us, they were being visited by an NSA technician to discuss installing undersea cable taps:

The most instrusive and powerful tools in the United States' electronic spying armoury were being lined up for installation in New Zealand last year, according to a document obtained by the Herald.

An engineer visited a GCSB base near Blenheim in February 2013 to talk about setting up a "Special Source Operations" site.

The SSO is the division of the United States' National Security Agency which carries out cable tapping and has vast resources to trawl and capture massive amounts of internet content and electronic communication.

[...]

The GCSB has refused to say whether it went ahead with plans to install the SSO site.


So, are the GCSB tapping our undersea cables and unlawfully reading all our foreign internet and phone traffic? They refuse to say. If they were obeying the law, they would simply say so, so that refusal speaks volumes.

Breach of contract

When National set up charter schools, they promised that they would be more accountable, and that contracts were a better means of enforcing standards than the usual school system.

Only if they're enforced:

“The Whangaruru contract online shows that the school must have a minimum of 70 per cent registered teachers. However, the staff record that our offices have shows that only one of the nine staff has a current practicing certificate.”

“The school’s students are being short changed by the National Government – a government that continues to pretend that it cares for our challenged students.


Sounds like this charter school is in breach of its contract. Which means that the government must enforce the penalty clauses in their contract - assuming there are any. If they can't or won't, then the school must be closed down. Otherwise their promises of "accountability" mean nothing.

Sadly, I think the chances of the government actually doing what is required here are nil - partly because it would be an admission of failure from the government, but mainly because the entire policy is about shovelling money at chosen cronies with no oversight. But I live in hope that politicians might actually do what they say they will do, rather than treating the public and our democracy with blatant contempt.

Spying on their masters

After being caught red-handed the CIA has finally admitted spying on the US Senate Committee which is investigating them for torture:

The director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan, issued an extraordinary apology to leaders of the US Senate intelligence committee on Thursday, conceding that the agency employees spied on committee staff and reversing months of furious and public denials.

Brennan acknowledged that an internal investigation had found agency security personnel transgressed a firewall set up on a CIA network, which allowed Senate committee investigators to review agency documents for their landmark inquiry into CIA torture.

Among other things, it was revealed that agency officials conducted keyword searches and email searches on committee staff while they used the network.


There's a name for this: contempt of congress. Not to mention attempted perversion of the course of justice. But holding the powerful or government institutions to account for their crimes is Not The American Way (that's clear enough from their torture "investigation", which wasn't allowed to happen until the prospect of criminal charges were taken off the table). So Brennan and the torturing, spying criminals under him will keep their jobs (not to mention stay out of jail), and then everyone will act shocked and surprised when they go on to torture people and subvert American democracy in future.

New Fisk

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

The judiciary doesn't take electoral crime seriously either

That's the only conclusion which can be drawn from John Banks' laughable sentence for filing a false electoral return. A hundred hours of community service and an evening curfew for deliberately attempting to undermine our democracy? Well, that will encourager les autres to comply with the law in future, won't it?

Let's be clear here: Banks has received a slap on the wrist because he is rich and white. The sentencing discussion was full of the usual code, calling the offending "an aberration" (Banks was clear that it was his usual practice) and referring to his long career of "public service", all the usual code for "this criminal is like me so I will go easy on him". And so the severity of the offence was talked down while establishment sympathy for the offender was made clear. And then judges wonder why we think they are systematically biased in favour of the rich...

But the worst thing is that this is precedent-setting. Banks is the first person prosecuted under this law, and the first convicted. And Judge Wylie has now set a sentencing bar so low that Parliament might as well not have bothered. The only mitigating factor is that Banks has at least finally been convicted - meaning he will be remembered in history for being the first MP in almost a century to be stripped of his seat for criminal behaviour. But that's not enough. Judge Wylie has let us down today, and our democracy is worse for it.

Thursday, July 31, 2014



Murray McCully's taxpayer-funded pissups

Today was the last day of Parliament before the election, so naturally the government used it as cover to dump the quarterly Ministerial expenses reports. The media picked up pretty quickly on Tim Groser's $300 dinner of foie gras, (endangered) Chilean Sea Bass, and a $95 bottle of Central Otago pinot noir, perhaps because it was on the first page. meanwhile, I've been wading through Murray McCully's receipts - all 197 pages of them. McCully's a serial offender, with a habit of putting vast quantities of booze on the taxpayer's tab. Sadly, he hasn't changed a bit. Right there at the beginning (on page 6) we have him billing us to drink Absolut Vodka in his lonely hotel room. And it all goes downhill from there...

Ministers have developed several tricks over the last few years to hide dubious expenditure. Last time, they simply "lost" detailed receipts for expensive dinners, perhaps because they knew what we'd think of what they showed. McCully has a new strategy: charging it all to his room. His hotel bills are full of large charges for Hotel restraunts, far more than normal. And we know he's not eating in them, because he frequently presents receipts for boozy delegation dinners on exactly the same day. He's also not dining with his staff, because they're billing their own meals separately.

In one case (p. 24), he racks up more than US$1,000 of "bar/restaurant" charges in a single night, with no explanation to the taxpayer of what its going on.

In another case (in Trinidad), he spends twice as much on booze as he does on his room, but calls it "accommodation expenses".

He's also started dumping his drinking bills on MFAT, as this receipt shows.

The meals that we do see show a large amount of expenditure on alcohol. In Singapore, he has some crab-burgers and $200 of booze, and calls it a delegation "dinner". At Millbrook Resort in Queenstown he catches a quick "lunch" with his PPS: $71 of food, and $172 of wine.

And remember, we're paying for this.

This isn't acceptable. No private business would let its staff drink on expenses like this, and we shouldn't either. If McCully wants a piss-up, he can pay for it out of his $268,500 salary.

(I should note that once again, other Ministers were overwhelmingly responsible in how they spent public money. With the exception of McCully, transparency appears to have significantly improved Ministerial behaviour).

The Māori Party and slave-fishing

In the early C19th, when William Wilberforce was camapigning to abolish slavery in Britain's colonial posessions, he met with strong opposition from the British establishment. Few of his opponents were bold enough to say that they actually approved of slavery. Instead, abolition would be "impractical". It would be bad for business and bad for the empire. The abuses which the abolitionists had highlighted were exaggerated and not widespread (there's a great example of this in the Earl of Belmore's speech on the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 here).

The Maori Party's contribution on the Fisheries (Foreign Charter Vessels and Other Matters) Amendment Bill, which abolishes slave-fishing in the New Zealand fishing industry, fits perfectly with this long tradition:

We know that the changes may mean that some iwi will no longer be able to operate. Big companies are better able to absorb the costs of changes, but those iwi and other operators who fish low-yield catch, cannot. There is a real risk that it will threaten their business, no matter how small they are. We believe that the Māori fisheries settlement must be durable. The Crown must act in good faith to ensure that we as Māori have a fair opportunity to catch up with our industry counterparts.

[...]

Iwi leaders told us, as they did also to the Ministers and anyone else who bothered to listen, that the alleged breaches of human rights issues—the widespread abuse that was being discussed—was never proven in an inquiry. It was their absolute belief that the legislation that evolved was an approach that was sort of like a sledgehammer to a peanut. They always knew that there could have been a far more effective approach to resolving issues than what was eventually developed.


In the end, they supported the bill. But its clear that they didn't want to, and wanted to keep slavery on charter vessels for a few more years for the profit of their big iwi backers. And that is simply an appalling position to take.

(Still, it could have been worse. When the UK abolished slavery, it compensated slave-owners for the deprivation of their "property" - compensation Britain's elite former slave-holders are still benefiting from today. At least we didn't see our Parliament approving a similar deal of compensating people we should be prosecuting for obeying the law they should have obeyed all along).

Fiji: The law means nothing II

Last month, we saw how Fiji's electoral law works in practice, when the supervisor of elections was instructed to register dictator Voreqe Bainimarama's "Fiji First" party despite the name being similar to that of the wound-up One Fiji - an act clearly contrary to the regime's Political Parties Decree. And now we're seeing the other half of that unlawful decision:

The Fiji regime leader's political party, FijiFirst, has objected to the registration of the proposed OneFiji party, saying it is likely to be confused with or mistaken for FijiFirst.

Fijilive reports a complaint to that effect has been lodged with the Elections Office by the party's general secretary Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, who is also the elections minister.


So, they steal another party's name, then they object when that party tries to register. And because Sayed-Khaiyum is the supervisor of elections' boss, their "complaint" carries the force of an instruction.

This is how it works in Fiji: there's no rule of law, just the whim of the dictator and his cronies. And when that happens in an election, I think its safe to regard the entire process as a sham.

Unbelievable

Why didn't Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully act sooner in the Malaysian diplomat case? Because he couldn't be arsed reading his email:

DAVID SHEARER (Labour - Mt Albert) to the Minister of Foreign Affairs: Did his office receive an email at approximately 5.00 pm (New Zealand time) on 22 May 2014 advising that the Malaysian Government had refused to waive diplomatic immunity in Muhammad Rizalman’s case; if so, when was that email opened?

Mr SPEAKER: Before I call the Minister, my office has been advised that this answer may be longer than normal.

Hon Dr JONATHAN COLEMAN (Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs): As the Minister has already said publicly, one staff member from his office was copied into an internal Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade email on 22 May. The email reported that the diplomat had returned to Malaysia in light of a decision by Malaysian authorities to decline a request for a waiver of immunity. The staff member did not open the email when it was received, as she was travelling at the time with limited communications capacity and was not the usual contact point for such reports. The email was identified in June, when correspondence was reviewed in the office.


Coleman refused to answer a subsequent question about exactly when in June the email was opened, from which you can draw your own conclusions about how late it was.

Naturally, the "independent" inquiry into this won't be looking at the Minister or his slackness. Instead its a strapped chicken aimed firmly at MFAT officials, who will be blamed unfairly for their Minister's failure to do his job. But its crystal clear who is at fault here, and who the public should be holding to account.

The last day

Today is the last day of Parliament for the term. After spending the morning on non-controversial legislation - including apparently the anti-slave-fishing bill - the House will have its last Question Time and then an adjournment debate. And then they'll be off to campaign for the election.

The big triumph here? No last-minute urgency. No "wash-up". Extended hours and growing public dislike of urgency has put paid to that. Instead MPs have cooperated to ensure the vital but non-controversial stuff gets passed without abusing the Parliamentary process, or the public's trust. Hopefully it'll be a permanent change.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014



Scrapped

Wellington City Council has scrapped its "alternative giving" campaign. Good. As the article notes, the campaign was an expensive failure, with $40,000 spent to raise just $3,500 for the homeless. But despite that, its architects are still trying to pretend it was a success:

Despite the lack of tangible results, the council is defending the cost of the campaign, saying it helped raise "public awareness" about begging.

Councillor Paul Eagle, who chairs the community, sport and recreation committee, said the campaign had been stopped while the council assessed its impact - not because it hadn't worked. "If I thought it was a complete mess, I would tell you, but I don't."

The council would be briefed on its impact in the next few months, but Eagle believed it had helped to reduce begging. "I do think it is money well spent."


[Emphasis added]

Which nicely illustrates the real goal: to sweep away the poor, under the guise of "helping" them.

Bribery

So, it turns out that the government blew $240,000 on hosting eleven oil company executives for a four-day junket during the 2011 rugby world cup. In Parliament today Energy Minister Simon Bridges admitted that $22,000 of that spending was on food and drink. That $500 per executive per day - more than ~45% of New Zealanders earn in a week.

Bridges is defending this grotesque extravagance as a successful "investment". Lets unpack that: in order for it to be considered successful, it would have had to have persuaded those oil executives to invest here. Isn't there a name for that?

Australia's corruption cover-up

Wikileaks strikes again:

A sweeping gagging order issued in Australia to block reporting of any bribery allegations involving several international political leaders in the region has been exposed by WikiLeaks.

The prohibition emerged from a criminal case in the Australian courts and applies throughout the country. It was issued by the criminal division of the supreme court of Victoria in Melbourne "to prevent damage to Australia's international relations that may be caused by the publication of material that may damage the reputations of specified individuals who are not the subject of charges in these proceedings".

The Australia-wide gagging order is a superinjunction, which means it also contains a clause insisting that the terms of the order itself should remain secret. It was issued on 19 June and states: "Subject to further order, there be no disclosure, by publication or otherwise, of any information (whether in electronic or paper form) derived from or prepared for the purposes of these proceedings including the terms of these orders."


The suppressed order is here. Wikileaks' commentary is here. Basically, the government has ordered the cover-up of their biggest corruption case - one apparently involving the bribery of leading figures in Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia - as a matter of "national security". Because that's what that phrase means now: the global elite covering up for each other's crimes.

Superinjunctions are an affront to open justice. They're used by the privileged to stop us peasants from sniggering at them and by governments to cover up their crimes. Fortunately, the internet gives us a free market in legal jurisdiction, making such instruments worthless. And we should use it to publish every such self-suppressing injunction until judges get the message and stop issuing them.

A bottom-up plan for inequality

Labour released its "work and wages" policy today. The headlines? Abolishing the 90-day law and increasing the minimum wage by $2 to $16.25 an hour by April 2015. Those are fairly obvious ways of delivering to their core constituency, but there's more: imposing a "good employer" requirement on all government contracts, and running a commission of inquiry into industrial relations, which will (eventually) mean a rewrite of the Employment Relations Act.

Overall, this looks to be a significant move to tackle inequality and the low-wage economy. Traditionally, we've done this by supplementing low incomes with government transfers, but that breaks down when wages are so low that you need schemes like working for families to keep the middle classes afloat. Increasing wages, both directly through the minimum wage, and indirectly through the ratchet effect and better employment law, achieves the same effect from the bottom up. It costs the government a lot less, but the downside it its potentially more unstable - people recognise immediately if a government is cutting their working for families payments (which is why National has been very careful about doing so and is instead just eroding them through inflation), but they're not so quick to notice when it effectively cuts their wages by strengthening the power of employers.

And on the gripping hand: all these policies did last time Labour was in government was stop the rise of inequality. If we want to see it actually drop, we need stronger measures, such as sharply more progressive tax rates. Labour is not committed to those measures. What they're offering is a more tolerable business as usual, not change.

"Improving"

End-of-Year process positive for Novopay, Steven Joyce, 17 January 2014:

Minister Responsible for Novopay Steven Joyce says a 100 per cent completion rate for schools involved in the End-of-Year process and an accompanying low error rate are tributes to the hard work done by school administrators and Novopay staff and contractors.

School payroll improving again, Steven Joyce, 26 March 2014:
“Pay Period 26 was back below the 0.5 per cent acceptable steady state error rate as defined by the Novopay technical review. Transactions volumes also dropped from around 30,000 in the previous pay period to 23,000. It shows the system is settling down again after the high volumes and high error rate of the last three pay periods connected to the Start of Year process,” Mr Joyce says.

School pay continues improvement, Steven Joyce, 23 April 2014:
The latest Novopay complaints reports confirm the system is settling back into a more consistent and steady state after the busy start-of-year period.

[...]

“The performance of the school payroll in Pay Periods 1 and 2 were back well within the 0.5 per cent acceptable steady state error rate as defined by the Novopay technical review and compares favourably with the same pay periods last year,” Mr Joyce says.


Update on school pay performance, Steven Joyce, 20 May 2014:
The latest Novopay complaints reports show the school payroll system is maintaining a steady performance.

Pay Period performance steady, Steven Joyce, 25 July 2014:
Latest figures show the school payroll system maintained a steady performance for each of the last four pay periods.

[...]

“All four pay periods were well within the 0.5 per cent acceptable steady state error rate as defined by the Novopay technical review, which is pleasing,” Mr Joyce says.


Government-owned company to take over school payroll, Steven Joyce, 30 July 2014:
New Zealand's school payroll service will come under Government management in October of this year.

After lengthy negotiations, the Ministry of Education and the existing school payroll provider, Talent2, have settled both on the amounts payable by Talent2 towards the costs of remediating the Novopay service and a new operating model for the school payroll system.

The new model involves a new government-owned company taking over the operation of the payroll service, and Talent2 licensing the core Alesco software to that company.


So, after a year of relentlessly up-beat press releases about "improvement" and "progress", suddenly we're looking at a government takeover (and one which involves continuing to pay Talent2 $9 million a year for software which clearly does not perform to specification). So, were they lying to us all along? Or is it just that some Cabinet Minister's relative didn't get paid? Either way, how can we trust anything the government says about its performance?

This ought to be a warning against outsourcing: it doesn't work, and we end up paying to clean up the mess. Sadly, the government is unlikely to view it that way.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014



The OIA and the Statutes Amendment Bill

Back in February the government introduced a Statutes Amendment Bill to make numerous "technical, short, and non-controversial" amendments to legislation. The bill included several amendments to the OIA and LGOIMA which I thought fell into that category. The bill was reported back today, and those amendments have been tweaked. But it turns out there was controversy there: in the Ombudsman's submission, they note that Judith Collins hadn't bothered to consult them about any of it:

We note with concern that we were not consulted on the proposed amendments to the Official Information Act in this Bill.
Because why would you bother to consult the agency primarily responsible for interpreting and enforcing the OIA about changes to that legislation?

The Ombudsman highlighted several problems with the amendments around legal professional privilege (which, while I don't like the strength of the existing withholding ground, I have to agree with; legal privilege is about advice as well as actual court proceedings). They've also suggested tweaks to the clauses about replacement requests. And the committee, being smarter than Judith Collins, has adopted all of those changes.

Meanwhile, while finding that submission, I also came across one from Science New Zealand, who attempted to abuse the Statutes Amendment Bill process to make major and highly controversial changes to limit access to the OIA. Fortunately the committee were having none of it. So who is Science New Zealand? They're a lobby group for CRIs, structured as an incorporated society. Which conveniently means I can't OIA them to monitor their anti-OIA agenda, because such bodies are not covered (if they were a company, they'd be a multi-parent subsidiary Crown Entity; if the owners were local bodies of CCOs they'd be a CCO. Their structure is highly convenient to say the least). We've had such unaccountable pseudo-government lobby groups before, and they were brought under the Act by the threat of a member's bill; clearly the same needs to be done here.

How to make farmers clean up their act

Order them to stop milking until they've fixed their effluent problems:

A Thames farming company has been hit with a $47,000 fine and ordered to stop milking until it fixed the overflowing effluent system at its Kopu farm.

The order came from Judge Jeff Smith in sentencing Tuitahi Farms Limited in a decision released from the Auckland District Court last week.

The company was convicted on four environmental offences under the Resource Management Act and fined $47,250 for offending, which the judge said had "long term and insidious" effects.

Tuitahi Farms has since upgraded its effluent system and has resumed milking.


Which tells us that this is an effective tactic for enforcing compliance. Of course, there's still the wider problem that monitoring is weak (and the council which caught this farm has recently suspended their aerial monitoring programme) and prosecutions rare - but if they notice you're polluting and decide to take it to court, there's at least an effective ambulance at the bottom of that cliff.

National's roads are pure pork

Last month the government announced it would be spending $212 million on regional roads. Every single one of the priority projects (and eight of nine lower priority projects) is in a National-held electorate, which suggested immediately that this was pre-election pork-barrelling. But now thanks to Rob Salmond and the OIA, that suspicion has been confirmed:

But local MP Bill English – who has no Ministerial responsibility for transport – requested and received two NZTA briefings in 10 days about [the Kawarau Falls Bridge]. And, lo and behold, the project has received the blessing of the normally tight-as-a-drum Minister of Finance, Bill English. It is now at the head of the queue.

English has made sure that, despite its low efficiency and low benefit cost ratio, taxpayers will spend up to $25 million on his Kawerau Falls Bridge anyway. Who wants to take bets on the name of the new bridge?

Similar Ministerial interference is likely elsewhere, too. Nick Smith in Nelson has long been an advocate of the Nelson Southern Link, despite the Environment Court rubbishing it in 2004 and NZTA panning in 2014 (Cost: Up to $50 million. Benefit cost ratio “0 to 2,” page 32.).2 And Anne Tolley in Gisborne is getting the now infamous “let's replace the Motu bridge we’ve only just fixed” project (Benefit cost ratio "0 to 2", page 32), which even the Gisborne council and local truck drivers think isn't a good idea.


They're also spinning the benefit-cost ratios; the Kawarau Falls Bridge (BCR 1.1) is classified as "1 to 3", which is just a little misleading. And if they're doing that to something which barely breaks even, the ones classified as "0 to 2" are probably all below 0.5.

These roads are basically pure pork. They are assessed as costing more money to build than they will ever produce in benefits, even using NZTA's infamously overoptimistic assessments. But they've been approved because National MPs and Ministers want to be seen as delivering something for their electorates before the election. So much for assessing needs based on merits.

New Fisk

It's not just radicalised Islamists - what about foreign fighters who flock to the other side?

How we should deal with rorting MPs

Prosecute them for theft:

Former parliamentary speaker Peter Slipper tried three times to have criminal charges thrown out of court following claims he misused his travel entitlements during several trips to some of the Canberra region's most prestigious wineries.

But three days spent wining and dining in 2010 caught up with Slipper in the ACT Magistrates Court on Monday when he was found to have been dishonest in using almost $1000 in Cabcharge vouchers to pay for hire car travel to the wineries.

Chief Magistrate Lorraine Walker found Slipper had acted dishonestly, and that he had knowingly caused a risk of loss to the Commonwealth.


Instead, we do the opposite: when Claudette Hauiti rorted her parliamentary expenses by sticking private travel and a holiday to Australia on her charge card, Parliamentary Services covered it up for her. We still don't know how much she stole, only that she was such a persistent offender that they took her card off her. And the message that sends is that MPs are above the law and not accountable to the public.