Saturday, June 30, 2007
Friday, June 29, 2007
One of the central myths of New Zealand climate change policy is the difficulty in reducing agricultural emissions. It's loudly proclaimed by the dairy industry whenever anyone points out that they effectively enjoy a $300 million a year subsidy from the New Zealand taxpayer, and it has formed a central plank of climate change policy since at least 1999. But as the Sustainability Council points out, it's simply not true. The dairy industry has options available which would significantly reduce dairy emissions at negative cost. And these options can likely be applied to the wider agricultural sector as a whole to produce even greater savings.
Their report, A Convenient Untruth: Towards a lighter agricultural footprint [PDF], summarises research on nitrification inhibitors. These inhibit the breakdown of nitrogen from animal urine and fertiliser in the soil, thus reducing emissions of Nitrous Oxide, a very powerful greenhouse gas. According to current research on their use on dairy farms, nitrification inhibitors reduce N2O emissions by an average of 70%. If every dairy farm in New Zealand used them, we could reduce emissions by 3.7 MTCO2-e a year - or 18.5 MTCO2-e over CP1, almost half of our expected Kyoto liability. And because they also promote pasture growth, dairy farmers would make a profit by doing so.
They also suggest another technology: "standoff pads" - basically keeping cows on a patch of sawdust for most of the time during winter. This reduces emissions by reducing the amount of nitrogen excreted; it apparently pays for itself by allowing the waste to be collected and used as fertiliser.
So why aren't farmers using these techniques? Partly, its because they're new. But mostly, it's because the profits to be made from them are so small as to not be worth the hassle (yet another nail in the coffin of the theory that we are omniscient rational economic actors). So how do we get around this inertia in the system? One option is to stick a price on agricultural emissions, thus providing farmers with a far greater incentive to reduce them. But given the difficulty of measuring those reductions, it would be more effective to regulate, by requiring resource consents for farming (a highly polluting activity which is currently exempted) and making nitrogen reduction a condition of consent through a National Policy Statement or the planning system. Unfortunately, and in another example of New Zealand's longstanding ideological preference for market-based solutions, the government seems to be going for a variation on the first, less effective option.
This morning's Herald reports that President Bush may visit New Zealand. Please Cthulhu no! I do not want that fucker in my country, and neither do I want the associated mobile police state the Americans demand whereever he visits as protection for his vanity.
The only reason we should be allowing Bush near New Zealand is so we can arrest him for war crimes. We have universal jurisdiction over grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, including torture or inhuman treatment, or the wilful deprivation of the rights of a fair and regular trial. We should use it.
This isn't just a question of smaller userbases. According to the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs, 15% of New Zealanders between the ages of 13 and 45 had used party pills in the last twelve months. That's just over 250,000 people. If BZP was even half as dangerous as alcohol, we'd be seeing dozens of attributable deaths a year. Instead, we see none. A consistent and evidence-based approach would suggest adopting a more relaxed policy for a drug which is demonstrably much, much safer.
Unfortunately, BZP is taken predominantly by young people, who can't afford to buy politicians, and who therefore apparently aren't entitled to consistency.
I'd avoided reading the Listener this week because of the picture of Princess Diana on the cover. But in amongst the lifestyle crap, including an inane piece on a reader's poll from six years ago, there is a serious piece by Matt Nippert following up on his earlier expose of unethical (and possibly illegal) investments by Crown Financial Institutions. It seems the government had invested $14 milion of taxpayer's money in British arms manufacturer BAE Systems. I say "had" because it's probably worth a lot less now, given that the share price dropped 11% on the news that they were being investigated by the US Justice Department for the same corrupt deals that Tony Blair deliberately turned a blind eye to "in the national interest". But despite the fact that it is now the subject of two separate investigations on both sides of the Atlantic, the New Zealand Superannuation Fund is not considering divesting from this corrupt corporation. Which really does beg the question: just how vile and criminal does a business have to be before the NZSF will refuse to taint our money with it?
Unfortunately, the NZSF refuses to say (though looking at their existing investments - tobacco companies, gambling, arms dealers, Halliburton, oil companies with poor human rights records, oh, and companies which support genocide in Sudan - you have to wonder whether they have any restrictions at all, or whether it's just "fuck the morals, does it make any money"). The good news, apparently, is that they're working on it, and will have some guidelines by the end of the year. The sooner the better, IMHO.
Thursday, June 28, 2007
Looking out my window, the creeper which is gradually taking over the back fence is flowering. The plum tree is blossoming like it was spring. And the apple tree, which has only just shed its leaves, is sprouting new ones.
Walking back from town, the Pohutakawas are flowering, in the dead of winter.
Something is out of whack.
Labour MP Charles Chauvel - who apparently was young once - has come out in support of lowering the voting age, or at least of seriously considering it. Rather than the pedophobic attitudes displayed by Winston Peters, he
prefer[s] to take an optimistic view, that by educating and enfranchising people at an earlier age, we may well be able to reverse the alarming trend of decreasing young voter turnout and encourage those affected by political decisions to have a voice in making them.
And if you have even a trace of democratic sensibilities, that is something you should want to encourage.
Hopefully Chauvel will manage to persuade his caucus colleagues. But he'll need to persuade a lot more than that if the bill is to have any hope of becoming law.
Well, that was unexpected: yesterday afternoon, the Manukau City Council (Control of Graffiti) Bill passed its second reading - despite a strong message from the Attorney-General that it violated the Bill of Rights Act, and clear recommendation [PDF] from the Local Government and Environment Committee that it not be passed.
According to George Hawkins, this is because the government has changed its mind, and now realises that the council is "leading the way". But a look at the vote tells a different story: The bill passed 108 - 10, with only the Greens and Maori Party voting against (both ACT and Taito Phillip Field were absent) - which means the government couldn't have stopped it if they wanted to. So, they seem to have voted for it purely to avoid the humiliation of a defeat.
The upshot is that in addition to seeing a bad law passed for Manukau (one which will also create a precedent for a patchwork of local criminal jurisdictions with different laws for each), we may also have just seen the demise of the left's "blocking majority", at least on "law and order" issues (of which there are a fair few before the House - including Ron mark's excreable Young Offenders (Serious Crimes) Bill). Our country may be about to become a much nastier place. And we'll all end up paying the price for it.
In the Guardian today, novelist Ben Myers asks "is the internet killing proper research?" Once upon a time, researching for a novel required would-be authors to spend weeks or months in libraries going through books. Now, they just go to Wikipedia:
Wikipedia means no more hours spent in dimly-lit library backrooms, shoulder deep in dusty books. Research has now been boiled down to a few hours on a laptop at a crumb-flecked table in an overpriced coffee shop.
This may not necessarily be a good thing.
For starters, Wikipedia is an ever-changing and resource reliant on the accuracy of its contributors (who, for all we know, cut and paste their facts from other websites) and the moderators who police the site. It has made for some amusingly false and libellous accounts.
Against which can be said that Wikipedia has been found to be about as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica. So it's not the accuracy of the sources that has changed; rather its the amount of research that people do. In the past, someone who started and finished their "research" with the Britannica would be considered to be a poor researcher. Now, apparently, the equivalent (done online) is both commonplace and acceptable, at least outside academia.
Why has this occurred? Partly I think its true that the internet has produced a narrowing of focus - it's portrayed as containing everything that's worth knowing, and therefore it follows that material which isn't online is not worth knowing. But beyond that, I think there's another culprit: Google. Google gives researchers the illusion of completeness - it can find everything the internet knows about a subject. Unfortunately, it ranks it in order of popularity rather than relevance, and the signal to noise ratio can be rather low. Even if its not, people are faced with a flood of information of unknown relevance, with the result that most don't go beyond the first three pages of search results.
(Whereas in the old days, they'd just sit there staring at the card catalogue. Which would at least spare us from the results...)
Despite all that, you can do good research over the internet. You can learn an awful lot about New Zealand climate change policy, for example, without having to go near a library (though that helps too, becuse not all of the key documents are online). But you need to know what you're doing, where to look, and above all keep in mind that the net does not know everything yet, and that it is just one information source among many.
Over the past six months, I've noticed a significant deterioration in the comments section. The demise of the Sewer and crackdowns on other left-wing blogs have resulted in an influx of trolls, who have established a toxic and abusive atmosphere and progressively drowned out those commenters who actually have something interesting to say. I knew this was a possibility when I first established the facility, and frankly I am surprised it has taken so long.
While I could screen all comments, I have neither the time nor the inclination to do so, or to deal with the resulting recriminations. As I have repeatedly said, I have better things to do with my life than waste time dealing with trolls. But neither am I willing to accept seeing them turn my comments section into a sewer, or my blog into a platform for their preferred style of partisan shitflinging, bullying and abuse. So, I'm simply pulling the plug on them. If they want to engage in that sort of behaviour, then they can do it elsewhere.
Some of you may be unhappy with this decision. I'll simply point out that this is my blog, and that if you don't like the way I run it (or what I say on it), you are perfectly free to start your own.
Finally, I'd like to thank all of you who made useful and insightful contributions over the last few years. It was good while it lasted, and its a shame that the trolls have ruined it.
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Yesterday in the House, National MP
Jonathan Coleman Nick Smith abused Judith Tizard by implying she was a witch and telling her to get back on her "broomstick". For those like DPF who seem to be having a problem understanding why this is so offensive, here's a hint: "witch" is the traditional term for an uppity woman. It is thus a denigration purely on the basis of gender, the misogynist's equivalent of the racist's "nigger" or the homophobe's "faggot" (which DPF's spiritual kin likewise attempted to defend by attacking those who objected to their use as "thin skinned"). Civilised people don't use such terms today - but then, we already knew Coleman wasn't civilised, didn't we?
For those who still don't understand, just turn it around. How would DPF and his misogynist commenters react if male MPs were routinely abused by being referred to as "rapists"? They'd be squealing. The hypocrisy - and misogyny - couldn't be any clearer.
Correction: As DPF points out in the comments, initial reports that it was Jonathan Coleman were incorrect. In fact, it was Nick Smith (who I'd have thought would know better).
Tony Blair resigns at 14:00 GMT. I can't wait to see the back of him.
Unfortunately, it looks like he'll be appointed by the "quartet" as a special envoy for peace in the Middle East. Given his stunning track record there (invading Iraq, working to prolong Israel's war against Lebanon in the hope they could actually win), this is simply obscene, so obscene that I'm surprised anyone can even voice the idea with a straight face. But morally blind obscenity pretty much encapsulates the West's entire approach to the region, so perhaps it shouldn't be surprising at all.
The Dead Roo pointed me at the Blasphemy Challenge - record a YouTube video including the phrase "I deny the Holy Spirit", and get a free atheist DVD (or if you're not American, a much cheaper one). You can see some of the responses (including those from outraged Christians) here.
How you feel about this will obviously depend on your view of atheism. Those who want to profess their lack of faith or piss off the Christians will leap at it, and I can see the appeal in that. But I'm simply not that kind of atheist any more. Religion is simply irrelevant to my life, except insofar as those with imaginary friends try to impose them on me (which fortunately doesn't happen very often in New Zealand). Sure, I deny the holy spirit, just as I deny the flying spaghetti monster, fire-breathing dragons, ghosts, Great Cthulhu, or any of the other fictional props which form a backdrop to my preferred entertainments. But I don't waste my time thinking about it on a daily basis. That's no reason not to do it, of course, but going to the effort of recording a video saying so just seems to be caring too much about something which doesn't matter to me in the slightest.
Australian Aborigines angered by John Howard's transparent attempt to use them for wedge politics are fighting back - by threatening to close Uluru to tourists. Meanwhile, others who remember the abuses of the Stolen Generation are simply going bush. And I can't really blame them. After over two hundred years of genocide, racism, oppression and neglect, there's a significant distrust of the federal government - and John Howard's policies haven't done anything to reduce it. Here's one example of how it's "helped" the community of Mutitjulu:
Five years ago, when local and visiting youths addicted to petrol fumes regularly terrorised this community, elders say they could not even secure funding for street lights to make the place safer. When concerns emerged that a man was endangering children, they could not get help from authorities to remove him. He is long gone, but despite this - and the arrival of fumeless Opal fuel and a rehabilitation effort that doused the petrol sniffing crisis - a "national emergency" now summons police and military.
"We look up to the Government to help us," Donald Fraser said yesterday. "Now the Government has become a camel, and kicked us out."
In one of the many intricate dramas complicating the political story of the Howard intervention, Canberra tossed out the Mutitjulu community administration eight months ago and replaced it with a Perth firm. But a month ago locals succeeded in dumping the firm through an appeal to the Federal Court. "Why has the Government taken this radical action immediately after the Federal Court finding?" Harry Wilson asks.
In an case, Fraser says, the people are frightened of the federal police coming "because we do not know what they look like". They know their police, he says, and are confident about them. According to Fraser and Wilson, and Bob Randall, a senior elder, Mutitjulu has atrophied in the months since the Government assumed nominal control. They point to the new child care centre next door to the meeting place, closed for the duration. They complain that the education of teenagers at the community college has been compromised by the failure to fix accommodation for boarders, forcing the disruption of teaching as the students are rotated through limited beds.
Work programs, including rubbish clean-ups and the collection of wood to warm homes during freezing desert nights, have stopped. "John Howard has done a Robert Mugabe on our citizens," says another local, Mario Guisette. "He has called martial law on his own citizens."
If a government takeover means losing your essential services, then you can't really blame people for resisting it.
Despite the attempts of racists to spin it that way, opposition to Howard's plan is not about protecting abusers. It is about dignity, respect, and control over their own communities; about getting actual assistance with real problems, rather than having them used as a shoddy excuse for another land grab.
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Today in Parliament, National's Gerry Brownlee attacked the government's biofuels sales obligation as imposing an excessive cost for emissions reduction compared to other options. Partly, this was based on bad numbers - Brownlee derived his cost by dividing the $125 million capital cost by the 1 million tons of CO2 saved over the five year Kyoto First Commitment Period, which straps the chicken by completely ignoring future savings. But apart from that shoddy exercise, there's also the interesting fact that a biofuels obligation is official National Party policy [PDF], and that back in February, Nick Smith was complaining that the government wasn't implementing it fast enough!
It would be nice if the National Party would make up its mind where it stood on this issue. Does it support biofuels or not? Because it can't have it both ways - at least not if it wants to retain any credibility with the electorate.
Parliament's Standing Orders Committee is proposing new rules for the upcoming live broadcast of Parliament. Reading their report [PDF], many of the changes are good - the cameras will now no longer be limited to focusing on the Speaker or the Member with the call, but will also be allowed to show reaction shots, as well as some wide-angle shots of the chamber. However, they will be explicitly forbidden for using images for the purpose of "satire, ridicule or denigration" - and violating the rules will become a contempt of Parliament. So, broadcasters could face a Star Chamber of MPs and be fined, forced to apologise, or even imprisoned at the pleasure of the Speaker for reporting accurately the fact that sometimes our elected representatives sleep on the job, make obscene gestures, or generally abuse each other like children.
Talk about setting the fox to watch the henhouse. Like the absolute monarchs of old, our elected representatives are resurrecting lese majeste to protect their overinflated egos from being punctured by their
subjects voters' displeasure at the vulgarity of their behaviour. They are abusing their power to protect themselves from the political consequences of their own behaviour. And that is something we should not allow. The recent abuse of Parliamentary Privilege shows that a sovereign Parliament is just as dangerous as a sovereign monarch. It's time we emasculated it.
(Oh, and it appears that this image will now be considered a contempt. I await my summons from the Seargeant at Arms)
The Justice and Electoral Committee has called for submissions on the Crimes (Repeal of Seditious Offences) Amendment Bill. Two copies, by Tuesday, 17 July 2007, to:
Justice and Electoral Committee
Or you can make an electronic submission using the form here.
Making a submission is not difficult - it can be as simple as writing a letter saying "I support/oppose the bill" and giving reasons why. If you're not sure, check out the Clerk's online guide here [PDF].
Monday, June 25, 2007
The New York Times reported over the weekend that the White House is close to closing Guantanamo. Here's hoping. At the same time, we should remember that the problem with Guantanamo isn't the camp itself, but the legal environment those detained there are subject to - a legal environment which allows people to be detained arbitrarily and indefinitely on "evidence" which is charitably described as "laughable", subjected to a Kafkaesque mockery of the judicial process, abused and even tortured, in violation of international law. Merely closing the camp and moving the prisoners elsewhere without changing that legal environment would simply be perpetuating the problem, not ending it. Instead, the US must not only close Guantanamo, but end the "legal black hole" by ensuring that its prisoners are either charged with a recognisable crime and prosecuted before a fair and independent court under normal standards of evidence, or released.
Gordon Brown is now officially the leader of the UK Labour Party - and he's already signalling a more leftward direction. Meanwhile, the deputy leadership election (conducted under preferential voting, though with a grossly undemocratic "electoral college" system which saw the vote equally weighted between the party's three "estates" of members, affiliates, and MPs) has seen the left triumph with the election of Harriet Harman, who had opposed the renewal of Britain's nuclear arsenal and called for higher taxes on the super-rich. In another poke in the eye for Blair, his preferred candidate, Hazel Blears, was the first eliminated. Jon Cruddas, the left's preferred candidate, came third, and it was the transferred votes of his supporters which saw Harman elected. Which I think tells you where the Labour Party's members and affiliates stand on Blairism...
But despite all this, Tony Blair is still Prime Minister, at least for the next two days. Hopefully he'll spend them pondering his rejection by the grassroots and wondering what he could have done to retain them. But somehow, given his arrogance and antinomianism, I doubt it.
Hopefully he'll get a very rude goodbye from Downing Street.
It seems I'm unsuitable for children.
This rating was determined based on the presence of the following words:
- torture (5x)
- death (4x)
- murder (3x)
- drugs (2x)
- piss (1x)
Meanwhile, DPF is only a "PG".
(Hat tip: Larvatus Prodeo)
Sunday, June 24, 2007
Saturday, June 23, 2007
Lord Goldsmith, the British Attorney General (in)famous for changing his advice on the legality of the Iraq war and for covering up massive corruption by BAE, has resigned. I'll echo Blairwatch in saying "don't let the door bang your arse on the way out".
So, who's next to go?
Friday, June 22, 2007
In 2001, Australian Prime Minister John Howard used the Tampa crisis and "children overboard affair" to whip up hysteria and hate against refugees and win an election (the sordid details of which are recounted in Wilkinson and Marr's Dark Victory). Now, with another election around the corner, he's doing it again, this time with Aborigines as his whipping boys. Under the pretext of curbing child sex abuse, Howard has declared a "state of emergency" in Aboriginal areas of the Northern Territory, banning alcohol and pornography, introducing compulsory medical examinations and limits on welfare, introducing market rents for housing and stealing Aboriginal land. Very little of this has anything to do with child sex abuse (much of which is perpetrated by white miners), and some of it - notably the introduction of market rents for housing and the abolition of the permit system for entry to Aboriginal land - seems grossly counterproductive. The rest is simply a horrificly authoritarian paternalism, designed more to grub support from former One Nation voters than to do anything serious to assist the plight of Australia's indigenous people. But then, since when has Howard (or most over Australians, for that matter) ever really given a rat's arse about them?
Unlike the refugee "crisis" of 2001, there is a real problem here. A recent Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse [PDF] turned up some appalling practices, fuelled by poverty, despair, alcoholism and government neglect. However, Howard's proposals bear little resemblance to the recommendations of that report (as reproduced by Polemica here). Instead, he's just tarring all Aborigines as pedophiles, blaming the victims, and then dropping the knee for good measure. Club Troppo sums it up well with the following:
Today is a day of shame in Australian politics. Everyone deplores the appalling incidence of violence and child sexual abuse in indigenous communities. But there simply isn’t any quick, magical solution. The policy Howard has just announced is worse, more racist and more wildly impractical and misconceived than anything Pauline Hanson ever spouted. Kevin Rudd’s meek, kneejerk endorsement of it is almost as disgusting, and marks him unfit to lead Australia. At least Howard has the guts to announce policies of his own, however repugnant and ill-considered.
It would be nice if Australia's politicians would treat their indigenous people as full and equal citizens, rather than as political footballs to be villified and used as a focus for vicious wedge politics. But I don't see it happening as long as there are overt racists like Howard in charge.
Trustpower's 72MW Wairau river hydro scheme has been provisionally granted resource consent. The scheme is a dog technically - an Aqua-style big, stupid canal diversion scheme with no storage capacity, in an area which is already subject to regular droughts, and which is expected to get significantly drier in the next fifty years as a result of climate change. And it poses some significant risks to the environment, notably to the habitat of the endangered black tern and to the general environment of the river itself. Braided rivers like the wairau need variable flows, and the worry is that the diversion will smooth them out too much. However, those concerns have been somewhat mollified with the conditions the Marlborough District Council have imposed, including that it have no significant impact on endangered species and that changes in river flows "be no more than what would occur naturally". A lot will hinge on the precise interpretation of the latter, and it may very well end up in the Environment Court, but at first glance if these conditions are actually met then I don't see any reason for the project not to go ahead. Other than the technological aesthetics, that is (really, hydro without storage? isn't that missing the point?).
Climate change minister David Parker has given us the first hint of the government's new climate change goal. unfortunately its not very impressive. Under the Kyoto Protocol New Zealand has promised the international community that we will reduce our net CO2-equivalent emissions to 1990 levels by 2012. According to last year's Projected Balance of Units, we are likely to exceed that traget by 41.2 MTCO2-e over 5 years. Parker's goal is to halve that, to a deficit of around 20 MTCO2-e. So, despite promising no growth in emissions, we will in fact be delivering a 7% increase. We will cover it through international emissions trading, of course, at a cost of around NZ$300 million (if you believe Treasury; twice that is more likely) - but it still leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
This is where seventeen years of no policy and lowering the bar has left us: in a $600 million hole, having to buy emissions reductions on the international market. If we'd acted early, we could have spent less money than that shifting our emissions profile, reducing our costs while ensuring that the benefits flowed to New Zealand rather than Russia or China. But its too late for that now.
Finally, thanks to the current dairy boom, Parker is concerned that we may not meet even this lax target - which again shows the importance of tackling agricultural emissions if we are ever to get this problem under control. But I'd say that the ball is entirely in his court. And if he delivers a lax policy which allows a higher level of emissions, then he can hardly complain about the outcome.
Global Peace and Justice Auckland will be holding a protest tomorrow against the continued detention of the "Iranian Five" - five Iranian refugee claimants who have been detained without charge or trial for over a year. One, Amir Mohebbi, has been in prison now for almost four years, and faces indefinite detention at the pleasure of the Minister of Immigration, without any trial or conviction. This is simply wrong, and our legal system should not support it.
When: Saturday, 23 June, 13:00 - 14:00
Where: Mt Eden Prison.
While I support Sue Bradford's effort to lower the voting age to 16, unfortunately, it seems she forgot something. That something is s268 of the Electoral Act 1993, which entrenches certain clauses of the Act against amendment or repeal except with the approval of either 75% of Parliament or a referendum. Among the protected clauses are:
Section 74 of this Act, and the definition of the term “adult” in section 3(1) of this Act, and section 60(f) of this Act, so far as those provisions prescribe 18 years as the minimum age for persons qualified to be registered as electors or to vote
These are of course the exact clauses part 2 of Bradford's bill seeks to amend. So, unless she can get a 75% majority of the House (which in practice means the support of both National and Labour), her bill as it stands is a non-starter.
Fortunately, with the bill not even in the ballot yet, it can be re-written. The obvious change would be to amend it to provide for a referendum (the appropriate provisions can be lifted from the Electoral Referendum Act 1993, or from Keith Locke's Head of State Referenda Bill), with a contingent commencement clause similar to that used in the Electoral Act. This has the sour note of having people voting on other people's voting rights, which is no more acceptable in the case of young persons as it would have been in the case of women, but if its the only way to do it, its the only way to do it.
(Hat tip: Graeme)
Thursday, June 21, 2007
Trawling through my spam folder, I disovered that the latest variation of the Spanish Prisoner / lottery scam is to claim that you've randomly (by lottery, in fact) been awarded a large grant from Amnesty International.
These people really have no shame.
Following the success of her Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act, Sue Bradford has another project: lowering the voting age to 16. This is already producing the expected sneers from Herald readers (all over 16, from the look of it), but I think its an excellent idea. To understand why, we need to delve into the basis of democracy.
Firstly, though, we need to deal with an obvious canard. Contrary to the claims of conservatives who talk grandly of "the public interest" (which somehow always coincides with the interests of the rich), democracy is not about making good decisions. What constitutes a "good" decision depends very much on what your goals and interests are, and its clear that there's no broad agreement on that. Instead, it is a system for making our decisions - decisions we as a society can own. It is not a system for aggregating information and reaching a rational decision about what we should do - it is a system for moderating conflicting interests without the need for a messy civil war.
The moral basis of this system rests on two assumptions: firstly, that people have interests, and secondly, that no-one's interests count for more than anybody else's. The first is simply a recognition of fact. The second is a statement of fundamental moral equality, and can be taken as axiomatic or justified on the basis of consistency (if I want my interests to count, then I must agree that everyone else's do as well). Note that there's nothing in here about rationality, or about age - if you have interests, you should count.
In practice, all states have adopted arbitrary age limits on the franchise. However, the moral egalitarian basis of democracy has produced an unrelenting downward pressure on those limits, which has seen them fall from a generally accepted age of 21 to the now generally accepted standard of 18. And the pressure is still there. As education systems improve, and the young become more independent, then the age should be lowered.
(I should add at this stage that the inability of modern democratic systems to properly represent the interests of children and young people is a well-known flaw. Because they cannot vote, they have no effective voice, and it is particularly easy for their elders to pursue policies which unfairly impose costs on them. Running deficits, using finite resources, and allowing pollution are three general examples. More specifically, there's the American policy of conscription during the Vietnam War (which targetted people who could not then vote), and New Zealand's own student loan scheme, which imposed costs on future tertiary students so that their parents could enjoy lower taxes. A lower voting age will make these sorts of abuses more difficult).
New Zealand has traditionally taken an expansive attitude towards the franchise. We were one of the earliest countries to abolish property qualifications for voting, and the first country in the world to have full universal suffrage. We extend full voting rights to residents, on the basis that they too have a stake in our society. And I think the time has come to extend it to young people as well. 16 year olds have interests, and those interests should be counted.
The Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act comes into force today, so as from today it will be illegal to beat your children for the purpose of correction. More limited force is still allowed, for example to save a child's life, but the old-fashioned smack as punishment is now unacceptable. And the children of New Zealand breathe a sigh of relief...
Despite the ravings of the (socially conservative) police union, the police seem to have done a good job of interpreting the law. Inconsequential smacking will be recorded, but is unlikely to result in a prosecution unless the parent is making a habit of it. Any use of a weapon or kicking, or repeated smacking, is no longer "inconsequential". So, you can lose your temper and give in to frustration, but if you do it repeatedly or smack out of some distorted parenting theory that regular beatings, like Brussel Sprouts, are good for children, then you'll end up facing charges. And I don't have a problem with that at all. All members of our society deserve to be protected from violence, and that includes violence by those who are supposed to care for them.
The 41st Carnival of the Liberals is now up at World Wide Webers.
From discussions here and at the symposium, even I think there's a strong case for raising the candidate limit and introducing some fairness into the broadcasting regime (which currently seems designed to hobble smaller parties). And hopefully we'll see some action from Parliament in those areas.
- Banning anonymous and trust donations (over the disclosable level)
- Higher penalties for breaches of the Electoral Act
- Having parties as well as individuals liable under the law
- Increasing the cap for electorate candidates
- Having the broadcasting limit incorporated into the overall spending limit
- Simplifying the number of agencies involved with elections and complaints
- Better transparency on third party campaigns
There are also areas of disagreement as well, but I disagree with DPF about some of them. From my reading, there seem to be strong Parliamentary majorities (meaning everyone bar National and ACT) for significantly lower donation limits, extending the spending cap, and limits to prevent circumvention by third parties. There's some quibbling over the details - should third parties be allowed $60,000 or $150,000? - but the basic agreement is there and I have no doubt that something will be able to be worked out. The only stuff there seems to be real disagreement on (as in disagreement over ends rather than means) is public funding and consultation.
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Statistics New Zealand has released the income data from last year's census, which includes the following graph about changes in personal incomes:
I think this speaks for itself about the effects of a Labour government. Increases to the minimum wage and in income redistribution through the tax system have seen people move out of poverty and up the income scale. The median income has risen from $18,500 to $24,400 - an increase of 32%, well above the 13% rise in the CPI. Compare this with the effects of the 80's and 90's "reforms", which saw the median income fall and people actually made worse off in real terms for the sake of the ultra-rich. As an ordinary New Zealander, who cares about the incomes of real people rather than just those of the ultra-rich, I know which policies I'd rather live under.
Gerrymandering is a political evil we are generally free from in New Zealand. Our electorate boundaries are set by an independent Representation Commission, which while it has party representatives on it, is constrained in the criteria it can use in deciding electorate boundaries, and seems to produce fair results. In addition to that, the advent of MMP means electorate boundaries matter a lot less anyway.
Things are rather different in the US. While it varies from state to state, the general rule is that boundaries are drawn by the politicians themselves, who shamelessly use their control of the process to stack the system in their favour. Traditionally, this has seen bipartisan gerrymanders, where incumbents collude across party lines to preserve their majorities and produce uncompetitive races. More recently, we've seen more overtly partisan gerrymanders, as parties (particularly Republicans) try and leverage their control of state legislatures into a permanent lock on power at a state or federal level. This behaviour is now so entrenched that in the US it can be fairly said that the voters don't choose their representatives - rather the representatives choose the voters!
If you want to see how this corruption works, there's a nice interactive example online: the redistricting game.
Over on Frogblog, Green party co-leader Dr Russel Norman highlights some of the details of Canada's election funding regime. At the beginning of this year they brought in new laws which barred donations by foreigners and corporations, set a C$1,100 / year donation cap, and extended the deadline for prosecuting violations to ten years. Strangely, the Canadian party system has not yet collapsed under the administrative load, nor have the parties gone bankrupt (arguments made by the National party against similar moves here).
This is what we should be doing here. Unfortunately, form the leaks, Labour's policies may not live up to Helen Clark's rhetoric.
The Independent this morning points out an interesting consequence of Gordon Copeland's defection and decision to vest a free proxy on legislative matters with National: it means that National (with the Greens, Maori Party and ACT) now have the numbers to repeal the Foreshore and Seabed Act. While they previously took a stance against repeal (unsurprising given their reason for opposing the bill was that it gave too much to Maori), the ability to utterly humiliate the government in a core policy area (and build bridges with the Maori party) may cause them to reconsider that position. OTOH, I really wonder how it would look to National's supporters given that they raised racist hell over the merest thought that Maori might be able to have their day in court, just like anybody else.
Petitioning Parliament is one of the final means of recourse in New Zealand. Anyone of any age, or even corporations, can petition Parliament for redress or asking it to undertake a specified course of action. And people do - in the past month people have presented petitions on the government's "20 hours free" policy, on the proposed ban on BZP party pills, on the New Zealand Superannuation Fund's poor investment ethics, and on taking a foreign policy stance against religious discrimination against Christians. Once received petitions are sent to the relevant select committee, which may summon witnesses and seek submissions before making recommendations. Most of those recommendations are variations of the same sentence: "the committee has no further matters to bring to the attention of the House". But some do result in concrete recommendations, and even those which don't help inform MPs of the public mood on a subject.
How well does Parliament do at handling these petitions? One of my readers has crunched some numbers. 314 petitions have been presented since August 2002 (the start of the last Parliament). of those, 251 have now been reported back to the House. The median time for a report back is six and a half months, and 75% are dealt with within a year. However, these numbers vary significantly between committees, as shown in the table below:
|Committee||Number reported||Number outstanding||Median time (days)||Upper quartile time (days)|
|Transport and Industrial Relations||21||2||93||197|
|Justice and Electoral||27||1||214||380|
|Law and Order||19||1||307||407|
|Local Government and Environment||28||8||154||443|
|Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade||19||3, plus a group of 22 from the same person||284||1088|
(All figures since August 2002. Only committees which have received more than five petitions this term are shown individually).
So, if you're planning on petitioning the Foreign Affairs Committee, you should plan on waiting a while (though to be fair, much of this dates from the previous Parliamentary term, and things have improved now that Peter Dunne is no longer in charge).
Whether you think these stats are acceptable depends on the value you place on petitions and the workload of the select committees. But personally, I think it would be good if committees could deal with them within a year of receipt. As voters, we surely deserve that much courtesy from our politicians.
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
The Crimes (Repeal of Seditious Offences) Amendment Bill passed its first reading unanimously tonight and has been sent to select committee. However, not all parties were wholehearted in their support. New Zealand First explicitly hedged its bets, citing fears of seditious Muslims (who seem to have replaced "asians" as the demons d'jour among the old and racist). Meanwhile, National seems to have changed its mind over the weekend, with Simon Power also hedging where Chris Finlayson and (IIRC) Richard Worth had previously offered wholehearted support. The bill will still pass anyway - there's no question that it has the numbers - but it depressing to see parties sacrificing a fundamental freedom of speech issue to preserve their ability to pander to racists and bigots.
Meanwhile, thanks to Hone Harawira, I seem to have been Hansarded for the first time. Score!
Since September 11th, the US has maintained a (now-infamous) "no fly" list of suspected terrorists forbidden to board an aircraft. Now, the Canadian government is making the same move. Unlike the Americans, the Canadians will have an appeal mechanism so people can be removed from the list, and unlike the Americans they are unlikely to use the list to target the political enemies of the government of the day (that sort of thing being less tolerated in Canada than it is in the Home of Freedom). But that doesn't mean its not a problem. While the list itself is small - reportedly only 500 to 2,000 names - the fact that names are not unique identifiers means that there is an enormous potential for false positives - tens or even hundreds per name. This will see thousands of innocent Canadians whose only "crime" is having a name which is similar to that of a suspected terrorist effectively forbidden to fly. And that is simply not acceptable in a free and democratic society.
That apparently is what United Future's former MP is being called around Parliament. And he deserves it. Not because he jumped parties (something I regard as part of the normal political process), but because like Kopu he wants to continue to collect his MP's salary while not actually bothering to be there. Instead, he thinks that the "tremendous public support" he has received permits him to spend his time away from Parliament building his party, and that he can represent his constituents by not being there.
This wasn't acceptable when ACT was doing it, and its not acceptable for Copeland either. If he's not going to bother to turn up, then he really shouldn't be an MP at all.
The commerce committee has reported back [PDF] on the government's Major Events Management Bill, and recommended that it be passed. They've made some minor changes - in particular a welcome clause excluding "commuications of personal opinion made by a natural person for no commercial gain" from the definition of advertising (meaning people can wave their "[sponsor] sucks!" flag outside the Rugby World Cup without being arrested) - but the thrust of the bill, establishing "clean zones" in which unauthorised advertising is forbidden, remains.
As I said when this issue first came up, if sponsors want a monopoly on advertising within x kilometres of a venue, they have a very simple solution available: pay for it. But I really don't see why the government should be getting involved to support them. Event managers can promise "clean venues" all they like, but this is creating a clean city - something which simply is not theirs to sell.
The committee also recommended that the amendments in Supplementary Order Paper 106, establishing draconian penalties for pitch invasion, be included. Only three people submitted on it, so if anyone is displeased, perhaps they should have spoken up at the time.
One of the better ideas to come out of last week's Transparency International / VUW Institute of Policy Studies symposium on The Funding of Political Parties and Election Campaigns was the idea of convening a citizen's jury to consider the issue and make recommendations. Unfortunately, it was immediately rejected by the politicians present (with the honourable exception of the Greens' Dr Russel Norman). However, given their comments, it is clear that most of the politicians and party hacks had little idea of what exactly they were rejecting: both NZ First's Doug Woolerton and ACT's Gary Mallett confessed that they had no idea what a citizen's jury was (Mallett seemed to think such a body would be directly elected), while Labour's Mike Williams said that we already had such a body and "it's called Parliament" (a view echoed by Judy Kirk). These views display a fundamental ignorance of what a citizen's jury actually is. So, I thought I'd try and explain it.
At its heart, a citizen's jury is a largish random representative sample of voters. They're given an issue to explore, administrative support and expert advice, and told to think about it and produce a report. They may hear evidence or request written submission from the public, or confine themselves to judging between expert testimony depending on the subject. In other words, it is much the same as a Royal Commission or select committee inquiry, except with a much larger number of ordinary people in the place of experts or politicians. The model seems particularly suited to subjects with a large degree of public involvement and ownership, such as electoral systems or constitutional issues.
A concrete example is the Ontario Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform, which recently recommended that that province shift to an MMP electoral system. The Citizen's Assembly documented their entire process (here [PDF]), and its quite interesting reading. First, they appointed a chairperson, a former politician and family court judge, responsible for facilitating meetings and dealing with the administrative side of things. Then they used a process of successive random selection to select one member and two alternates from each of Ontario's ridings (electorates). The members were balanced as to gender, and provided a rough demographic cross-section of the adult population; all had agreed to participate and were aware of the substantial time commitment which would be required of them. Meetings were held on weekends, and members were paid for their services.
Members first went through a six weekend "learning phase" in which they were briefed by a team of academics on the merits and flaws of various electoral systems (they were also assigned reading - effectively they were given an extramural course in political systems). The briefings and reading material were made available on the web so as to inform the broader public for the subsequent consultation phase of public meetings, oral presentations, written submissions, and focus groups. Here the members were split up, and so had to summarise information and highlight evidence for others, but were also assisted by the secretariat and by use of the web. Finally, there was a six weekend deliberation phase, in which they pulled it all together and decided on their recommendations, which will be put to the public in a referendum. The entire process seems to have worked well, and resulted in broad public involvement in and ownership of a decision of vital public interest.
The chief benefits of the system are that it is democratic, participatory, and avoids blatant self-interest from political parties (something you want to avoid in e.g. deciding on electoral systems). There's no reason why we couldn't use such a model to decide the long-term shape of our electoral funding laws and ensure that it reflects the interests of voters, rather than politicians.
Monday, June 18, 2007
On Friday I attended the Transparency International / VUW Institute of Policy Studies symposium on The Funding of Political Parties and Election Campaigns. I've already blogged about the morning session, from political scientists, here.
The afternoon session was turned over to representatives of political parties. Unlike the morning, which was informative and interesting, it was mostly a disappointing exercise in partisan political hackery, in which politicians and party officials spouted their talking points for the (absent) media with little effort to engage in the debate. The effect was more akin to intellectual spam than a two-way conversation - something made quite obvious by National Party president Judy Kirk spamming herself across the room during the lunch break - and IMHO they contributed little to the overall event.
Steven Joyce (former National party General Manager) basically defended the status quo. While claiming that he wanted to see anonymous donations curbed, he then defended the current $10,000 disclosure threshold as perfectly reasonable, and opposed any attempt to lower it. He called the Coalition for Open Government's suggested $500 threshold a "ridiculously low" level of support - which I think says more about his utter disconnection from the vast majority of voters (to whom $500 is a substantial amount of money) than anything else. On state funding he was simply self-contradictory - he first said that funding should mirror public support and pooh-poohed the idea of equal funding as implying that all parties were of equal merit, then complained about the current broadcasting allocation rules because they mirrored public support (in particular, National's lack of public support at the 2002 election). When later called on this during the questions, he suggested that the problem was that the broadcasting allocation looked at historical levels of support rather than current polling - but its hard to imagine him not screaming bloody murder if National had been given funding consistent with its dismal polling in 2002. Amidst all the hackery, he did make one interesting point: that he thought the next election would be fought in cyberspace, via YouTube and email campaigns. This style of campaigning is more or less free, meaning that it would be uncontrolled under current laws (and that's without even getting into the jurisdictional issues).
Richard Northey (former Labour MP) gave a presentation so boring it almost put me (and much of the audience) to sleep. This may have been intentional, as somewhere in there he advocated getting NZPost to run elections, on the basis of the excellent work done by the Electoral Enrolment Centre (somehow, outsourcing a vital democratic function to corporate control, even if the corporation is state-owned, doesn't seem like a good idea to me). He also dropped the bombshell that an "anonymous" donation was one where a businessman handed you a large check and said "I'm anonymous" (the Electoral Act disagrees). But he also made some interesting points about the duration of spending caps. Back in 1984, when he was running for Parliament, the then $5,000 limit paid for everything a candidate might need - hoardings, newspaper ads, flyers, direct mail, a voter tracking system, and the drinks to celebrate / drown your sorrows afterwards. Now, the $20,000 candidate limit may not, particularly in large rural electorates with five seperate nespapers. If you had raised more money, then you would spend it before the three month limit, on preparing the ground - something we are seeing more and more of in recent elections. His conclusion was that a three-month limit was more suited to an era when there were "short, sharp" election campaigns, rather than the modern age of the "permanent campaign".
Doug Woolerton (NZ First MP) laid out his party's position - support for greater disclosure, opposition to state funding - and noted particularly that the candidate spending rules needed to be clarified as soon as possible in the wake of the High Court ruling in the Peters-Clarkson electoral petition. He also whined that the Auditor-General's report into parliamentary spending meant that Parliamentary Services was "paralysed" and was refusing to sign cheques for advertising any more - a comment which generated the only media coverage of the symposium.
Dr Russel Norman (Green co-leader) presented his party's position, which is generally similar to that of the Coalition for Open Government. He was also enthusiastic about the idea of getting a Citizen's Jury to resolve the long-term shape of our electoral funding regime.
Dr Whatarangi Winiata (Maori Party President) gave a long-winded and tangled speech which lost the audience even more thoroughly than Richard Northey. He displayed a basic ignorance of the legal framework which wasn't exactly encouraging. If it was supposed to illuminate where the Maori Party stood, it failed utterly.
Murray Smith (United Future VP) gave a broad speech, focusing more on his party's view of the general principles which should underpin the law, rather than specific policies. However, he did reveal a few: he supported imposing a spending cap of $100,000 on third-party campaigns, and opposed distortions in the funding regime which favoured larger parties over smaller ones (for example, the broadcasting funding regime, which not only gives larger parties more, but also handicaps small parties by forbidding them from spending as much as the larger ones). He also suggested allowing greater discretion in the use of broadcasting funds - for example, allowing parties to spend them on newspaper advertising rather than solely on TV or radio.
Gary Mallett (ACT) expressed his disappointment that we were even having a debate on the topic, and gave an absolutist rant about freedom of speech. This was neatly countered by Therese Arseneau in the questions, where she pointed out that freedom of speech around elections must be tempered by the principles of political equality and popular control - values ACT does not give a rat's arse about.
Judy Kirk (National Party President) echoed the National party's talking points, declared that we needed a "permissive regime" around donations, and opposed extending the spending limits to cover the whole of election year (translation: she has a pot of money and she wants to use it). She also argued that the penalties for breaching the law were too low, and supported smaller parties getting a larger share of broadcasting funding.
Mike Williams (Labour Party president) reeled off the Labour talking points, which were pretty much what has been leaked so far. Nothing new there either.
One interesting point emerged from the subsequent floor discussion. Right-wing parties expressed strong concerns about the politicisation of the funding rules, and clearly feared that the new regime would explicitly set out to disadvantage them. However, they were also united in their rejection of a citizen's jury - a democratic mechanism which would remove the potential for politicisation by putting the decision where it belongs: in the hands of the people. You could see this as ignorant - some of those parties were utterly clueless about what a citizen's jury would involve - or as merely stupid. Or you could see it as very revealing: the right may hate and fear the left, but at the end of the day they're still politicians and can be bargained with and bought off. Whereas real democratic control might actually result in some real change...
When news of the appalling abuses at Abu Ghraib was first reported, the Pentagon assigned Major General Antonio Taguba to investigate. Taguba's investigation was thorough, and his report made clear his view that what had gone on was both illegal and immoral, and that those responsible deseved prosecution. For his pains, Taguba was sidelined, then forced to resign. Now, he's talking to Seymour Hersh, and the picture he paints of complicity and deceit by both the military and the Bush administration is not a pretty one. If the US took its claim to thoroughly investigate and prosecute torture seriously, then there's no doubt that Rumsfeld, Miller and Sanchez (as well as their various minions and footsoldiers) would all be in the dock for war crimes. Sadly, America applies its justice only to the weak...
The Sudanese government has agreed to allow UN peacekeepers in Darfur. This will see the number of peacekeepers more than double, from 7,000 to at least 17,000. It's not enough, and too late the save the lives of the estimated 400,000 killed so far by the Sudanese authorities or their janjaweed proxies, but it's some small progress at least.
Actually, I think this is a nice example of the false consensus effect in action. Everyone Tamaki knows is a right-thinking theocrat, so of course the majority of the population must support theocracy.
Sunday, June 17, 2007
Only ten days to go until Tony Blair leaves office. So, what do people think he should get as a retirement present?
Personally, I favour a one-way ticket to The Hague. But the unctuous little weasel will probably award himself a knighthood...
Last week the Ombudsman released a report [PDF] on the transport of prisoners by the Department of Corrections. It paints an appalling picture of the inhumane conditions prisoners are routinely subjected to when being transported between prisons, or between prisons and courts. While most journeys are short, prisoners are crowded into unlit, poorly-ventilated metal boxes, exposed to extremes of heat and cold, with no provision for their basic human needs (e.g. water or toilets), and with no ability to contact guards if anything goes wrong. On hearing of these conditions, my first thought was how they compared to the conditions under which we are allowed to transport animals. The answer is "very badly".
The minimum conditions for the transport of animals are laid out in a code of recommendations issued by the Animal Welfare Advisory Committee. The code aims at meeting five basic requirements for animals being transported:
- freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition,
- the provision of appropriate comfort and shelter,
- the prevention, or rapid diagnosis and treatment, of injury, disease or infestation with parasites,
- freedom from distress,
- the ability to display normal patterns of behaviour.
I'll deal with each of those requirements in turn.
Freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition: Animals must be provided with drinking water prior to transport, and must be provided with adequate food and water on long-haul journeys (anything over ten hours). Corrections provides prisoners being transported with a packed meal on long trips, but water is not usually provided. One prison allows prisoners to take a single paper cup for an entire journey (which usually spills); others leave it to the discretion of guards or allow it only at rest stops 2 - 3 hours apart. In hot weather, this can lead to significant discomfort and possible health problems. Despite bottled water being widely available, it is apparently seen as a "security risk".
Appropriate comfort and shelter: Animals must be provided with appropriate shelter from heat, wind, and cold during transport. Prisoners are transported in poorly ventilated metal boxes with neither heating or air conditioning. The small size and close conditions of the boxes turns them into sweat boxes in summer, while the metal construction means that prisoners freeze in winter. While some prisons provide blankets in cold conditions, others regard them as a "security risk", even for low-security prisoners.
Prevention of injury: Drivers transporting animals are required to inspect stock within 30 minutes of departure, and every 2 hours throughout the journey. They must stop and provide assistance on becoming aware of a problem. While Corrections requires that prisoners be kept under surveillance at all times, the design of the vehicles used makes this impossible. As a result, guards are unaware of health problems, or of violence among those in their care. Liam Ashley was murdered during transit, and the guards were completely unaware of the situation until they found his corpse on arrival. While Corrections could fit panic buttons to allow prisoners to summon help in the event of a medical emergency, these are regarded as a "security risk".
Freedom from distress: In addition to the above requirements (which prevent distress from starvation or environmental conditions), animals must not be overcrowded. Corrections packs prisoners in in cramped conditions, such that they must sit facing each other with legs interlocking in some vehicles. Stock trucks must be driven steadily, without rapid acceleration and braking, and with careful cornering to avoid placing sudden loads on the animals. Drivers transporting prisoners are subject to no such requirement, and prisoners report being bounced around like toys and sliding into one another on the bare metal seats. The lack of windows and ventilation aggravates motion sickness, and frequently results in prisoners vomiting in transit, sometime son one another. Finally, Corrections does not usually provide toilet facilities or adequate rest stops - meaning that prisoners on long journeys or with health problems can be subjected to severe discomfort and humiliation.
Normal behaviour: Animals must be able to travel in a natural position with sufficient space and headroom. As previously mentioned, prisoners are crowded in, and on long journeys must endure up to twelve hours in cramped conditions with no ability to stretch or significantly change posture. Prisoners are denied the ability to exercise or stretch their legs, even when stopped in secure facilities such as police stations or other prisons.
These are just some of the highlights, but the thrust is clear: if animals were transported with the same disregard as prisoners, people would be prosecuted for it. Apparently, though, standards are lower for human beings.
Members of the "hang 'em high" brigade will no doubt point out that we are talking about prisoners, with the implication that this mistreatment should be seen as part of their punishment. That is wrong. As John Belgrave pointed out when releasing the report, it is the deprivation of liberty which is the punishment, and that prisoners are still entitled to be treated humanely and with dignity and with regard for their safety (something Corrections seems to have a callous disregard for). I would add that no New Zealand court has sentenced prisoners to be exposed to extremes of heat and cold, to starvation or thirst, to be forced to piss themselves or to be beaten, intimidated or even murdered by other prisoners. The vicious, vindictive and sadistic are of course free to push for the law to be changed to permit such sentences - but they are not permissible de jure at present, and we should not allow them to be imposed de facto through the neglect and incompetence of those responsible for running our prisons.
Saturday, June 16, 2007
Parliament has decided to keep its opening prayer, after a survey of members showed no great desire to change it. IMHO religion is not something that can be morally inflicted through democracy - advocates of the current prayer only have to ask themselves how they'd feel about Parliament opening each day with the shahadah or a Black Mass to see that - but for practical purposes it means the issue is dead for this Parliamentary term.
Since the politicians are pretending that this is just about the traditions and management of the House, rather than a symbolic imposition of state religion, I think the next step is to get them to formally vote on it at the beginning of the next term to decide the issue for that Parliament. That will at least make it clear that this is a conscious choice of Parliament, and have the added advantage of forcing MPs to go on-record with their views about freedom of religion, so they can then be held to account for them.
Friday, June 15, 2007
Mainpower is proposing a small regional windfarm at Mt Cass in North Canterbury. It's currently in the preliminary stages, and they're unsure yet whether they will be going for 15 or 25 MW (it depends, among oher things, on turbine prices and whether they can expand on to a neighbouring property). But either way it will be a nice addition to their portfolio, and a good example of the way regional windfarms can be used to take some strain of the national grid.
Hot Topic, who will be able to see it from his veranda, isn't sure yet about how he feels. Personally I think turbines spinning lazily in the sun in the background are quite pretty - but some people's milage obviously varies.
Today I attended the Transparency International / VUW Institute of Policy Studies symposium on The Funding of Political Parties and Election Campaigns. It was a well-attended event, with around 65 people at its peak, including several MPs, various political scientists and commentators, and various party presidents and officials. It also saw five bloggers - myself, DPF, Bryce Edwards, Zippy GoNZales, and Russel Norman (technically there as a party official, but since he also does Frogblog he officially counts as one of us). In fact, the bloggers outnumbered the journalists (two from Radio NZ, one from NZPA) - which unfortunately seems to be par for the course on this important public issue.
The morning sessions were given over to the political scientists, the afternoon to the politicians. I'll save the latter for another post (probably once I've recovered and caught up a bit).
Dr Paul Harris: (former chief executive of the Electoral Commission) gave the opening address. He summarised the overall goals of campaign finance laws - deterring corruption, promoting a level playing field, promoting competition, limiting overall spending, and promoting transparency - and noted that different democracies balance these goals in different ways according to their needs. In New Zealand we've regulated candidate spending for these reasons for over a century - the first law on the matter was in 1895 - though party spending has only been regulated more recently (in 1993, following the decision to move to MMP). Problems with the 2005 election show a clear need for reform, but there are disputes over who should design the rules, and over whether we need a full public inquiry.
Dr Helena Catt (current chief executive of the Electoral Commission) reviewed New Zealand's current legal framework as contained in the Electoral Act 1993 and Broadcasting Act 1989. In doing so she highlighted some of its problems. These included the three-way split of responsibility among the Electoral Enrolment Centre (who everyone agrees does an excellent job), the Chief Electoral office and Electoral Commission; the High Court ruling in the Peters - Clarkson election petition, which has significantly altered the ground around what counts as an election expense and how expenses are apportioned with parties; the slightly different rules for candidates and parties (candidates apparently aren't allowed to do negative advertising, but can spend their own money on broadcasting); and the confusion resulting from having seven different bodies responsible in some way for handling complaints.
Dr Joo Cheong Tham (University of Melbourne) gave a fascinating talk entitled Lessons from a 'Relaxed and Comfortable' Country: Money and politics in Australia (or how not to regulate political finance). This delves into the details of election financing in Australia and uncovers some startling problems - the biggest of which is not the lack of laws, but the fact that they have been made irrelevant by the complete normalisation of corruption in the Australian political system. In Australia, federal parties openly sell access, and the government auctions meetings with ministers ($10,000 to meet Tony Abbott; $12,000 for a night at the opera with Helen Coonan). Parties have funding organisations for businesses, at which companies pay for "off the record" briefings and boardroom lunches, and companies sign up to them in order to receive government contracts (and are told to by parties because their competitors have and otherwise they will miss out). And all of this goes on despite there being a ban on anonymous donations and a disclosure regime similar to our own (though it was significantly stronger until 2005, the problems go a bit deeper). The reason is that Aussie politicians have no shame, and as Tham points out, the best disclosure system in the world won't help unless that is fixed - the sunshine may be let in, but the smell remains.
There's a lot more in Tham's paper, about the use of Parliamentary funding and gross abuse of government advertising, for example, and I'm hoping it shows up on the web sometime. Alternatively, perhaps some of the other bloggers in attendance could focus on some of the other bits?
Associate Professor Raymond Miller (University of Auckland) introduced the next section on "lessons from the past and comments on the Labour-led Government's reform proposals" with two pleas: tat we take into account the effect of state funding on party membership and activists, and that we involve the wider public in the process. He suggested the idea of a citizen's jury - as recently used in Ontario to decide on electoral reform - in the place of a (more traditional) Royal Commission. It was an idea that kept cropping up for the rest of the symposium.
Associate Professor Andrew Geddis (University of Otago) gave an overview of problems with New Zealand's current system, which generally mirrored his PQ paper [PDF; go off and read it]. Along the way he made an interesting point about the level of our candidate (as opposed to party) spending limits - they haven't been adjusted since 1993, and may now be too low. He was also concerned that the current rules around third-party campaigning encourage negative or attack advertising - as otherwise spending must be counted against an allied party's cap. Finally, he also expressed real concerns about enforcement, particularly the ability of the police to do the job properly 9something which again there seems to be widespread agreement on).
Steven Price (Coalition for Open Government) had been hoping he'd have a bill to critique by now. He didn't, so instead he gave a quick overview of the Coalition for Open Government's proposed solutions. This was followed by an analysis of the material leaked to the media about Labour's proposals. Here he echoed the usual criticisms about how Labour was developing its policies (in secret, without public input, and without broad political agreement). He also criticised the proposed disclosure threshold of $5000 as being too high and the proposed increase in penalties (a doubling of the fine for a corrupt practice from $4,000 to $8,000) as being far too modest. As he has often pointed out, you can get seven years in prison for stealing a TV - surely an election is that important? Paradoxically, he was worried that Labour's proposed $60,000 limit on third party spending was too low - that it would not be sufficient for a group to run ads in all major daily newspapers. I'd like to see some costs here, but if that's correct, then it does need to be higher. While I want third parties to be controlled to prevent them from trying to buy elections by flinging millions of dollars around, the spending limit should be set to prevent abuse - not to prevent anyone from getting a message across.
Part 2 to follow...
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Fiji's military regime has expelled the New Zealand High Commissioner, Michael Green, and given him four days to leave the country. As for the reason, while initial reports are that strongman Commodore Bainimarama was incensed by Green getting a good seat at a rugby match, the real objection seems to be to his advocacy of New Zealand's opposition to the coup - that is, to his doing his job as a diplomatic representative. Unfortunately for the regime, shooting the messanger won't change our position.
The government is talking about consequences, but I'm not sure what can be done. Evicting Fijian diplomats would be equally petty, while members of the military regime are already subject to travel bans and aid has already been cut off. Unless we're going to escalate to trade sanctions (something NZ governments have been reluctant to do), it's difficult to see what can be done.
Light bloggage today, as I'll be travelling down to Wellington to attend the Transparency International / VUW symposium on The Funding of Political Parties and Election Campaigns. Obviously this means there won't be anything tomorrow until I've had a chance to type up my notes.
The Crimes (Repeal of Seditious Offences) Amendment Bill is scheduled for its first reading today right after Question Time. It will be interesting to hear the speeches on that, and see whether any party will vote against it.
Meanwhile, yesterday's Member's Day went slower than expected, but still saw the final demise of the New Zealand Day Bill, and of Tony Ryall's Local Electoral (Repeal of Race-Based Representation) Amendment Bill. So it seems there is still a blocking coalition for bad, racist legislation.
And for those who care, the unpleasant duty of appointing new members to the Abortion Supervisory Committee is third up, and is likely to be debated right before dinner. While the freaks will make a lot of noise, I expect the vote itself to be a formality (though again I think it will be interesting to see which way National goes).
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
A sign caught my eye while I was in town today. It proudly proclaimed that the local Fisherman's Table (a mere 30km from the sea, and 75km from the nearest source of fresh fish) had been voted the Manawatu's best restaurant. For the third year running.
These hicks wouldn't know good food if it hit them in the face.
Looking at the Order Paper, it seems Parliament has an unpleasant duty ahead of it tomorrow: the appointment of new members to the Abortion Supervisory Committee. Governments have tended to avoid this because it gives fruitcakes like Bill English and Gordon Copeland an opportunity to spout off about the evils of abortion, and nobody really wants to sit through that. But as the ASC currently has no members, and this is likely to become the subject of court action, it has to be done. I expect the political parties are either drawing straws for who has to hang around and make up quorum - or using it as a punishment.
Of course, there is a way of avoiding this unpleasantness - or at least avoiding having to do it all again in a few years time. Its clear from the smooth operation of the system in their absence that the Abortion Supervisory Committee serves no useful function other than as a sop to radical Christians whose day has frankly passed. It should be abolished, and replaced with abortion on demand. And if this causes Gordon Copeland to die of apoplexy in the chamber, then so much the better.
Four and a half years after he arrived in New Zealand, two and a half years after he was released on bail, and almost a year after it was originally scheduled to begin, Algerian refugee Ahmed Zaoui is finally going to get a hearing on the Security Risk Certificate which resulted in his imprisonment. Unfortunately, despite not dealing with classified information (that will be dealt with under a kafkaesque set of procedures which will see Zaoui forbidden to know the evidence or even the allegations against him), that hearing will be held in secret, and the media barred.
This is simply unacceptable. We all know the saying: "justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done". Public hearings are vital to maintaining public confidence in the integrity of the justice system. They allow both expert observers and the wider public to assess whether the presiding officer is giving the accused a fair hearing, and whether the "evidence" presented passes the laugh test. In other words, they're a way of keeping the system honest, and letting us see that the process is not a stich-up. The Inspector-General's hearings are not a criminal trial, but the same principles apply. If they are held in secret, we will have no reason to have confidence in the outcome, and every reason to view them as a modern day Star Chamber.
Parliament is back, and today is a Members' Day, which should see them finally clear away some of the members' bills which had collected on the Order Paper during the section 59 debate.
Peter Dunne Judy Turner's New Zealand Day Bill is likely to be disposed of in short order, as will the Kerikeri National Trust Bill (which has been waiting for its second reading since 1995). After dinner there'll be Tony Ryall's Local Electoral (Repeal of Race-Based Representation) Amendment Bill and Pita Paraone's Treaty of Waitangi (Removal of Conflict of Interest) Amendment Bill. The numbers on these are likely to be much tighter, and they will be an important test of the new shape of the House; with Labour, the Greens and the Maori Party likely to be against them, whether they fail or proceed to select committee will really come down to Taito Phillip Field. It will be interesting to see whether he stays true to the people who elected him, or sides with the racist right out of spite.
Unless there is an attempt to talk out the clock, Parliament should be able to make a start on Rodney Hide's Regulatory Responsibility Bill. This will leave four bills available for first reading. So, there won't be a ballot, but with no bills due back from committee, there will probably be one after the next Member's Day on the 27th.