Friday, July 03, 2015

The law, in its majestic equality, allows both poor and rich alike to access the courts

(With apologies to Anatole France)

Yesterday in Question Time the Greens' David Clendon took the government to task over legal aid cuts. National has cut legal aid funding by 15% in the last five years and reduced access, leading to a rise in clients who cannot afford lawyers representing themselves (which is both bad for them - the lawyer who represents themself has a fool for a client - and for the court system, as their inexperience leads to delay and disruption). But National doesn't think this is a problem, and certainly not one attributable to its cuts. And it insists that

the courts are open to those who wish to avail themselves of them

In other words, "let them eat cake". Which is I guess the answer we can expect from Ministers on quarter of a million dollar salaries about anything affecting real people.

Meanwhile, in the UK, we can get a glimpse of our future. Over there, the government has also cut legal aid, driven by the same relentless push for austerity and uncaring attitude to access to justice. The result? Yesterday, the lawyers went on strike:
Today is the first day of a wildcat legal strike across the country. Those who find themselves arrested will struggle to get legal aid representation. Within days, the courts system could grind to a halt.

It is happening across England and Wales. The strike will be followed in Merseyside, Greater Manchester, London, Devon, Leeds, Cardiff, Halifax, Derby, Birmingham, Sunderland, north and south Tyneside, Newcastle, Huddersfield, Dewsbury, Bradford, Hull, Kent and Reading. It's impact will be felt everywhere.

It is not technically a strike. Lawyers can't strike. Instead, meetings across the country saw solicitors and barristers gather together and come to individual decisions about whether they would back the action. It is a convoluted process with a complex way of refusing labour.

Basicly, they're refusing to accept legal aid cases anymore. Which means that people arrested will all have to queue for the services of already overworked duty solicitors, and will (if sensible) exercise their right to refuse to be interviewed without a lawyer present, meaning that they can't be interviewed at all. The courts will face similar blockages. If the strike holds, the entire system will fall over, because it essentially operates by goodwill.

That's only one part of the problem, but if New Zealand lawyers want to be properly paid for legal aid services, maybe they should try the same thing here?

New Fisk

Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

Another crony appointment

This morning Nick Smith appointed former National Party President and MP Geoffrey Thompson to the board of the Environmental Protection Authority. Naturally, of course, they don't mention those rather pertinent facts in his bio, referring only to his "central government" experience.

As with other appointments, he may or may not be qualified, but his political background makes it look like pure cronyism and casts doubt upon the integrity of the appointment process and the Minister.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Getting the message on Nauru

I've been watching with concern as the pressure created by acting as Australia's gulag guards has undermined Nauru's democracy. The destruction of judicial independence, the erosion of free speech and the right to protest, the suspension of opposition MPs and now their effective detention through the cancellation of their passports all show a clear trend away from democratic norms, driven by a desire by the Nauruan regime to avoid criticism and challenge over detention and corruption. And New Zealand is helping to pay for all of this - New Zealand aid money helps fund Nauru's yes-courts and the police who beat protesters and the prisons their opponents are stuck in. But that might be about to stop:

Foreign Minister Murray McCully has sought a meeting with the Nauru Government and indicated New Zealand's $2.3 million annual aid funding is under review because of growing concern about civil rights abuses.

A group of prominent legal university academics released an open letter to Mr McCully, in which they urge him to take a "more forceful approach" to Nauru and withdraw New Zealand aid funding for Nauru's justice department if the Nauru Government did not respond.

In a statement in response to the letter, Mr McCully said he had asked representatives of the Nauru Government for a meeting in Sydney next week.

"We take our responsibilities as a donor to the justice sector seriously, and we will be discussing our contribution with the Nauru government in light of recent events." New Zealand gives $2.3 million a year in aid to the justice and education sectors in Nauru. Of that $1.2 million goes toward funding its justice department.

Good. Because if Nauru is going to behave like a dictatorship, they can fucking well pay for it themselves. The only money we should be giving them now is money for new elections.

The UK gives up on child poverty

One of the few good things that Tony Blair did as Prime Minister of the UK was to legislate for a statutory target for the reduction of child poverty. This not only represented a commitment to eliminate this scourge, but it also ensured constant monitoring. But the current UK government wants to cut welfare spending, which will almost certainly make things worse. Their solution? Repeal the target and the reporting:

The government is to scrap its child poverty target and replace it with a new duty to report levels of educational attainment, worklessness and addiction, rather than relative material disadvantage, work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith has said.


The downgrading of the existing target comes before a big cut in tax credits, expected in the 8 July budget as part of a drive to cut the welfare budget.

The cuts to tax credits would have made it even harder to reach the old child poverty target by 2020, the target date set by Labour and the end point of this parliament. Although some MPs welcomed the attempt to focus on the root causes of poverty, the removal of the material income target was denounced by Labour as the obituary notice for compassionate Conservatism.

So, replace reporting about poverty with reporting clearly aimed at demonising the poor. Because that's what tories do. But its also clear that the government has simply given up, and that they have no intention of doing anything to help. The UK will be paying the cost of that for decades to come.

OIA review update

The Government Administration Committee issued its report on the 2015/16 estimates for Vote Ombudsmen, which included the usual horror story about how the Ombudsman's Office is bleeding staff (and institutional knowledge) due to poor pay. But it also had an update about the state of the Ombudsman's investigation into government OIA practices:

The impetus for this review has been allegations that the OIA process is being circumvented for a variety of reasons. We were interested to hear from Dame Beverley that she thinks the problem is due more to ignorance of the Act and inexperience in implementing its provisions, than maleficence. She
said that Ministers’ staff are in particular need of training as ignorance and inexperience of the Act leaves Ministers exposed. Dame Beverley also observed that those who know best how the Act should work are no longer with the public service. Looking ahead to the release of the ombudsmen’s report, Dame Beverley thinks that it is likely to recommend establishing a regular audit process. A review of guidance might also help with systemic issues or gaps in governmental agencies. She also expects considerable improvement in response times.

A regular audit process is a good idea. While OIA complaints have been rising, the vast majority of OIA refusals go unchallenged, meaning there is no effective review of them. Auditing responses would allow this review, and allow misunderstandings of the Act by public servants to be corrected.

Agency and Minister's responses to the OIA survey will be released later this year, followed by the Ombudsman's report and recommendations. I'm looking forward to both.

A step backwards for Tonga's democracy

Over the past five years, Tonga has gradually democratised, reforming its Parliament to increase the proportion of elected MPs, and removing unelected Ministers. It seemed like it was on the path to democratic government, where power is exercised by those elected by and accountable to the people, rather than an unelected elite who regard voters as "dirt-eaters". Not any more. Because the unelected monarch and his unelected cronies have just decided to overrule the people's elected government:

The Tonga Privy Council says the Government's plan to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women is unconstitutional.

King Tupou VI, with his Privy Council, was responding to petitions from groups in Tonga who have sought his help to stop the ratification process.

The reason it is "unconstitutional"? Because "the Council has not authorised ministers to sign the document". In other words, because the unelected king doesn't like it.

The ratification of CEDAW is a controversial issue in Tonga, thanks to religious organisations who oppose women's rights (and use the prospect of gay rights to whip up fear). The government will no doubt be held accountable at the ballot box for its decision, and that is right and proper in a democracy. But this monarchical fiat isn't, and its unquestionably a step backwards for Tonga's democracy.

As for the government's options, the UK Parliament ended such interventions by their monarch by the threat of cutting off their money (and ultimately, the implied threat that they'd end up like Charles I or James II: executed or exiled). Maybe its time Tonga's Parliament did the same.

GCHQ spied on Amnesty International

Last month, we learned that Britain's GCHQ had been spying - legally - on human rights NGOs. Both the organisations involved were small - the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the South African non-profit Legal Resources Centre. But now it turns out that the investigatory powers tribunal made a mistake in its ruling: they'd been spying on Amnesty International:

In a shocking revelation, the UK’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) today notified Amnesty International that UK government agencies had spied on the organization by intercepting, accessing and storing its communications.

In an email sent today, the Tribunal informed Amnesty International its 22 June ruling had mistakenly identified one of two NGOs which it found had been subjected to unlawful surveillance by the UK government. Today’s communication makes clear that it was actually Amnesty International Ltd, and not the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) that was spied on in addition to the Legal Resources Centre in South Africa.

The NGOs were among 10 organizations that launched a legal challenge against suspected unlawful mass surveillance of their work by the UK’s spy agencies.

“After 18 months of litigation and all the denials and subterfuge that entailed, we now have confirmation that we were in fact subjected to UK government mass surveillance. It’s outrageous that what has been often presented as being the domain of despotic rulers has been occurring on British soil, by the British government,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.

[Note: the surveillance itself was found to be lawful. However, GCHQ illegally retained data afterwards]

Amnesty is one of the biggest and best known human rights organisations in the world. And the IPT has just admitted that it is being treated as an enemy of the British state. Which speaks volumes about what sort of a country the UK is now, and how desperately its government and its spies need to be voted out and replaced by someone with a shred of ethics.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

An ideological exercise

Today the government introduced a new Social Housing Reform (Transaction Mandate) Bill. The purpose of the bill? To enable the government to sell Housing NZ's state houses out from under it, reducing its ability to provide them to people in need. It also redefines the objectives of HNZC to make it facilitate such sales, despite thei inconsistency with its other objectives.

So is this policy justified? This bit from the bill's departmental disclosure statement says it all:

That's right - they've done no cost-benefit analysis whatsoever. This is a purely ideological exercise aimed simply at degrading a core public service for the sake of it - the ultimate in wrecking behaviour. But isn't that so very, very National?

"A scientific view"

Back in May, the Our Seas Our Future campaign called for the government to phase out plastic bags The call was immediately rebuffed by Minister for the Environment Nick Smith:

However, environment minister and Nelson MP Nick Smith said plastic bags made up a "tiny portion" - 0.1 per cent - of total waste that goes to landfill and the government was "not giving any consideration to a ban nor do we think it's justified".

"I take quite a scientific view of issues of this sort and the advice is that plastic bags are a tiny portion of the waste stream and a tiny proportion of the overall waste problem," he said.

So what was the advice which led to such a strong, "scientific" conclusion from Smith? I asked, and yesterday I received the response. The total amount of advice Smith has received on phasing out or reducing use of plastic bags in the past five years? One document - a fragment of a briefing paper from late 2013. Which starts out by saying - without any evidential basis - that "the New Zealand Government does not consider that such a measure is practical or necessary". As for the scale of the problem, it has this to say:
The Ministry for the Environment does not hold any comprehensive data on the quantity of plastic bags in New Zealand and what proportion of the waste stream they make up.

In short, according to his own advice, Nick Smith appears to be pulling his figures out of his arse. That's his "scientific view".

What the report does show is that overseas levy schemes have been highly effective at reducing plastic bag use while raising a revenue stream for funding small environmental projects. Yes, its a small part of our environmental problems (and much less important than climate change and water quality) - but that doesn't mean its not worth doing.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Dear Parliament

(With the honourable exception of David Seymour and the four green MPs who voted against):

(Image stolen from Wikipedia)

While banning cyberbullying is a nice idea, your law goes too far, and almost all of you are too chickenshit to stand up and say it, even though you recognise the problem. So, fuck you. If you think this is a good idea, I look forward to the day when people start lodging complaints and private prosecutions about what you say to each other; maybe that will change your minds.

[While posted with the intent to cause serious emotional distress to thin-skinned MPs by hurting their iddy-widdy feelings, the law isn't in force yet, so this expression is still legal]

Achieving Better Public Services

Back in 2012, the National Government set itself some targets as part of its "Better Public Services" Programme. Among them was a goal to "reduce the recorded crime rate by 15 percent, the violent crime rate by 20 percent and the youth crime rate by 5 percent". Apparently they've been doing very well at this, with Police Minister Michael Woodhouse so pleased with progress that he has strengthened the targets to a 20% reduction in crime. Its a success story, a clear example of how targets drive performance.

Or maybe not. Because police statistics released by the New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse show something interesting:

Police conducted 101,981 family violence investigations in 2014. In only 37 percent of investigations was an offence recorded. This is down from 47 percent in 2008.

Isn't that amazing? The government sets a target to reduce crime, and specifically violent crime, and suddenly police are recording fewer offences in its most common category? Which sounds awfully familiar:
"Juking the stats ... Making robberies into larcenies. Making rapes disappear. You juke the stats, and majors become colonels. I've been here before."

And concerns about stat-juking aside, there's another serious problem here: resolution rates have dropped by roughly 10%, or 20% for sexual offences against adults. So, the police are recording fewer crimes, and solving fewer of the ones they do record. Which suggests that there may be a problem with resourcing here...

But not like this

The Justice and Electoral Committee has reported back on the New Zealand Flag Referendums Bill, and recommended it be passed with minor amendments. While the public commentary is focusing on the referendum structure - which is quite sensible as a way to focus choice - something important has been missed. Every other democratic exercise conducted in this country, whether it be a general election, local body election, or referendum, is subject to spending limits and expense disclosure to prevent the rich from buying power. There is no such clause in the current bill. Looking at the Ministry of Justice advice on the issue, they hedged their bets and presented Ministers with a range of options rather than the usual single preferred option. That said, they did have something to say about the government's chosen option of only requiring a promoter statement:

This option is not recommended. On its own, a promoter statement requirement offers few benefits to justify the costs and burden of applying promoter statements to referendum advertising. Unless combined with a registration requirement, information about promoters’ key office holders may not be accessible.

They recommended at minimum that promoters spending above a certain threshold be registered, and recommended spending limits and expense declaration if a tighter approach was desired. The government ignored them, instead choosing a regulatory regime seemingly designed to allow wealthy interests to spend unlimited money in secret in an effort to buy the outcome. Which casts doubt on the entire referendum process and the legitimacy of the result.

I want the flag changed, but that is increasingly being followed by "but not like this". I'm not sure at what stage my disgust at this entire process is going to win over my dislike of a colonial relic, but its getting close.

A new low for Australian corruption

How corrupt is Australia? This corrupt:

Mafia figures donated tens of thousands of dollars to the discredited NSW Liberal Party fundraising vehicle, the Millennium Forum, as part of an ultimately successful campaign to allow a known criminal to stay in Australia.

A senior Millennium Forum figure, who is already under investigation by ICAC for allegedly funnelling illegal developer donations to the NSW Liberal Party, also helped criminal Frank Madafferi's lawyer meet then immigration minister Philip Ruddock on the visa issue.

A year-long Fairfax Media and Four Corners investigation has obtained confidential documents that outline the Millennium Forum's role as the receiver of the Mafia money, raising more questions about the integrity of the nation's political donations regime.

Documents also reveal that Victorian Liberal MP Russell Broadbent hosted alleged Mafia boss Tony Madafferi, Frank's brother, for lunch in the parliamentary dining room and in his Parliament House office. Mr Broadbent also introduced Tony Madafferi and his associates to senior Liberal MPs including Environment Minister Greg Hunt.

Mr Broadbent, who has repeatedly refused to answer questions, helped organise, or attended, several fundraisers involving the alleged Mafia figure.

The Australian political system is rotten to the core, with multiple MPs jailed and perennial investigations of cash-for-access, cash-for-contracts, and cronyism. But taking money from organised crime seems to be a new low even for them.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Selling for the sake of selling

National wants to sell our state housing stock to Australians:

The Government is not ruling out selling a stake in the country's state housing portfolio to Australian interests.

Finance Minister Bill English said it was possible state houses could be sold to an Australian charity as the government looks to divest some of its housing stock to third parties.

Speaking on TV3s The Nation, English said Australians would be able to buy the State houses if they were registered as community housing providers.

A Gold Coast non profit charity, Horizon Housing, has expressed an interest after visiting New Zealand. It reportedly wants to buy 400 plus houses.

The Government has announced plans to sell a limited number of State houses to community housing providers to take on vulnerable tenants.

National's whole "selling state houses to charity" policy was always just shuffling the deckchairs in an effort to be seen to be doing something while really doing nothing, but this is even worse. At least with an NZ charity there'd be a commitment to helping New Zealanders, and any profits would be directed to that purpose. Selling to foreigners removes all that.

But then, the policy was never intended to actually solve anything. It was always selling for the sake of selling, to run down the state housing stock as part of National's gradual exit from fulfilling this core government obligation. And when this fails, they'll probably suggest something even crazier, like burning state houses down for the insurance or something.

New Fisk

Tunisia hotel attack: Backdrop to this slaughter is a history of violence against Muslims
Israeli disinformation sullies a rare moment of wartime compassion


While we were all celebrating the US Supreme Court decision on marriage equality, the IMF and Germany decided to pull the trigger on forcing Greece out of the Euro, revealing that those negotiations the Greek government had been engaging in and come close to betraying its own base on to find a compromise weren't for a permanent solution to Greece's debts, but just to kick the can down the road for six months, after which it'd be more knife to the throat "negotiations" for more austerity again. This wasn't what Syriza was elected to do, so they've gone to the people in a referendum. No-one knows which way that will go, but in the meantime Greece's slow-motion bank-run (driven by the uncertainty over negotiations, and one of the reasons for the Greek government's poor performance - you can't tax a cash economy) has gone hot, while the EU has tried to strangle Greece even further by capping the mechanism designed to prevent it.

So, basicly, the IMF and EU's efforts to be "tough" has driven the Greek economy even further into the ground, and provoked an effective referendum on default and Grexit. I'm assuming they don't want both of those things (since they involve bankers losing their money and politicians losing their pride), so heckuva job guys.

As for what happens next, faced with a concrete threat of departure and a decision in the hands of voters rather than politicians, the EU has finally offered debt relief. So maybe there'll be a better deal on the table by Sunday which the Greek government and people can accept. If not, and Greece is forced out of the Euro as punishment for debt, then I guess we'll know that it is bankers and not elected politicians who run the EU.

But either way, the fact that things have got to this point tells us that something is deeply wrong with Europe. The idea that you would crash a member country's economy with five years of crippling austerity is monstrous; to do it in an effort to repay debts which simply cannot be paid, and to keep doubling down on that mistake is just obscene. This should never have happened. People have died because of the IMF and EU's approach to Greece, and their negotiators should be held legally responsible for every one of those deaths.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

And that's that

Held: The Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-State.

That's the ruling of the US Supreme Court today on marriage equality. Its a great moment for freedom and human rights, and one we should all celebrate. And yet the ruling was only 5-4. Somehow, four of the US's most eminent jurists (well, three and Scalia, who is an unquestionable hack) talked themselves into thinking that the constitution doesn't mean what it clearly says it does, or that there's a secret "except for gays" clause in it or something. What the fuck is wrong with these people, and how the hell do they end up on the bench, let alone the US's highest court?

As for the bigots: you'll die, your hate and bigotry will die with you, and your kids will grow up in a different world, where the stuff you hate will be absolutely normal and unremarkable and people like you are regarded as sad fringe rednecks who live under rocks. And good riddance to you.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Much worse than I thought

As if the criminal provisions of the harmful Digital Communications Bill weren't already bad enough, it turns out they're even worse than I thought. How? Because they effectively ban serious TV journalism.

How? TechLiberty has already explained how they outlaw exposing politicians (or others e.g. serial fraudsters, criminals in hiding etc), and Tim Watkin has already pointed out what this means for journalism. The law only applies to "digital communications", which are defined as "any form of electronic communication", including "any text message, writing, photograph, picture, recording, or other matter that is communicated electronically". But here's the kicker: a consequential amendment to the Human Rights Act make it clear that the law considers radio and television to be "electronic communications", and hence "digital communications". Which means that when Paddy Gower exposes some politician's misdeeds on 3News, with the intent of informing the public so they can end his career, he could go to jail for it.

This law isn't just a threat to the internet - its a threat to our democracy. Our Parliament should not pass it.

[Hat tip: Graeme Edgeler and Thomas Beagle]

This law should not be passed

Yesterday Parliament began the third reading of the government's Harmful Digital Communications Bill. While well-intentioned as an attempt to prevent and punish serious cyber-bullying, the law is overbroad, vague, and criminalises speech which any reasonable person would wish to see protected. I would prefer that it did not pass, and was sent back to select committee for another go.

The core problem with the bill lies in the criminal provisions, which provide for a punishment of two year's imprisonment - below National's new jury trial threshold - for causing harm by posting [a] digital communication. The usual defences of truth and public interest do not apply. As TechLiberty has pointed out, this is so overbroad that it criminalises public interest political speech, such as exposing corruption or dodgy dealings by an MP. And as Tim Watkin pointed out yesterday, it applies not just to bloggers, but to journalists - leading to the ludicrous situation that a story would be perfectly legal if broadcast on TV or in a dead-tree newspaper, but punishable by imprisonment if posted on that media organisation's website. For the same content. To give a concrete example, Nicky Hager's The Hollow Men and Dirty Politics were unquestionably works of public interest journalism which should not be illegal in a free and democratic society. But if Hager had published them online rather than in hardcopy, he could be facing jail under this law. That's how bad it is.

While you'd hope that a judge would apply the BORA in such a case and interpret the law consistently with it so as not to outlaw public interest political speech, that's the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. People should not be charged for such speech. This law allows them to be, and therefore exerts a chilling effect. And that's why it needs to go.

In the committee stage of the bill, ACT and Labour voted for an amendment removing these odious provisions. They were voted down. I'm deeply disappointed that the Greens, who I normally regard as sound on freedom of expression, voted against. And I'd really like to see an explanation why they want to see journalists like Nicky Hager facing charges if they do their work online rather than in hardcopy.

(I should note that part 2 of the bill, which extends harassment law to the internet and makes various other changes, is absolutely unproblematic and should be passed. The problems are all in part 1).