Thursday, July 31, 2008

Blatant discrimination

The IHC is complaining to the Human Rights Commission about discrimination against disabled persons in our education system. And if the list below is anything to go by, it looks like they have an excellent case:

IHC advocacy director Trish Grant said many disabled children faced unlawful conditions or effective bans, denying them the same access to the curriculum and isolating them from friends and classmates.

Examples included:

- Conditions limiting the hours disabled children may attend class or sending them home when teacher aides are sick.

- Access to extra-curricular activities such as school plays or camps being denied because of disabilities.

- Deaf children in classrooms without a teacher who understands sign language, despite its status as an official language.

- Parents being asked to contribute financially to keep their disabled children in mainstream classrooms.

- Suspension for disability-related behaviour, not misconduct.

The latter is blatantly discriminatory, and entirely unjustifiable. And if it is going on in our schools, then those schools and the Ministry responsible for overseeing them need to stop it immediately.

The complaint highlights the government's double standards on human rights. At the beginning of the month, the government was stroking itself over its decision to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Article 24 of the Convention requires parties to eliminate discrimination on the basis of disability in education, and to ensure that

(a) Persons with disabilities are not excluded from the general education system on the basis of disability, and that children with disabilities are not excluded from free and compulsory primary education, or from secondary education, on the basis of disability;

(b) Persons with disabilities can access an inclusive, quality and free primary education and secondary education on an equal basis with others in the communities in which they live;

(c) Reasonable accommodation of the individual's requirements is provided;

(d) Persons with disabilities receive the support required, within the general education system, to facilitate their effective education;

It would be nice if rather than merely talking about these commitments, the government implemented them.

Climate change: ...and waiting

Another week, still no mention of the Climate Change (Emissions Trading and Renewable Preference) Bill in the Business Statement. The Appropriations Bill takes priority, of course, since its a matter of confidence - but it would be nice to have some indication of when (if ever) this bill is going to be passed.

Democracy prevails in Turkey - but only just

For the past year, Turkey has been in the midst of a slow-burning political crisis, as the democratically elected Justice and Development Party (a moderate Islamic party) struggles for power with the authoritarian secular elite used to running the show. Things came to a head last week, when the secularists attempted to ban the governing party for supposedly plotting an Islamic state. If they had been successful, it would have forced early elections and banned the sitting Prime Minister and President from politics, effectively overturning the will of the Turkish people.

Fortunately, that's not going to happen - the Turkish constitutional court has voted for a fine, rather than a ban. So, democracy prevails - but only just. The ruling is seen as putting the government "on notice" that it may be shut down in the future, so its a suspension of the crisis rather than a resolution. But it does at least allow more time for Turkey's democratic culture to strengthen and grow deeper roots. Unless, of course, the army (Turkey's primary anti-democratic force) decides to intervene...

Carnival of the Liberals

The 70th Carnival of the Liberals is now up at Cult of Gracie.

Presidential candidates announced

Sadly, not really. But nominations have closed in the Republican Movement's mock-election for New Zealand's new head of state, and the initial candidates have been announced:

The nominees were ranked by the number of nominations received, with all but the top ten being eliminated. The candidates for the first elected head of State of New Zealand are (in alphabetical order):
  • James Belich
  • Jim Bolger
  • Sir Douglas Graham
  • Sir Robert Jones
  • Sir Kenneth Keith
  • Don McKinnon
  • Claudia Orange
  • Vincent O'Sullivan
  • Dame Kiri Te Kanawa
  • Sir Wilson Whineray
At first glance, there's an awful lot of knighthoods in there - suggesting either that at least some of those knighted in the past were worthy and didn't just buy their honours like Michael Fay, or that we have an exaggerated respect for the holdovers of feudalism. There's also some pretty good candidates in there, with Bob Jones (whose primary claim to fame is being rich and obnoxious) as an obvious exception. I'm also not sure what Wilson Whineray has done to deserve nomination other than play rugby; while I'm sure that's considered desirable by some segment of the population, I don't think its enough of a qualification even for a figurehead president.

Voting will open shortly, once they have candidate profiles up.

Freedom week

This week is Freedom Week, Amnesty International New Zealand's annual fundraising drive. The money they raise goes towards supporting their global and national campaigns (for example, on human rights in China, closing Guantanamo, and internet censorship), and on helping victims of repressive governments around the world.

The easiest way to help is to donate online, or by calling 0900 AMNESTY (0900 266 378) to donate $20. They'll also have street collectors out on Friday and Saturday. Alternatively, you can join here.

Please help Amnesty International speak up for those who can't be heard.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The difference between left and right

The Standard has a powerful reminder of the difference between left and right: the left works for the many, while the right works for the few. And there's no clearer example of this than the way the wage-share of the economy (that is, the portion of society's wealth which flows to ordinary people, rather than the tiny elite at the top) changes over time:

Under left-wing governments, the many get more. Under the right, we get less. The difference is due to employment law - and national's employment policies (90 days of "fire at will" and a restriction on union access and bargaining rights) are very much aimed at you getting less. Think about that when you vote this November.

The long-term trend (which can be pulled from table 1.1 of the full series here) is even more revealing; that share used to be more than 50% (and sometimes as much as 55%). So, we have a lot more ground to make up - and it's not going to happen under National.

This'll be interesting

Rodney Hide has complained to the Serious Fraud Office about Winston Peters' donations. This'll be interesting. If the SFO begins an investigation (and the Bob Jones donation would seem to be a prima facie case), then under the precedent she's set for herself in the David Benson-Pope and David Parker cases, she will have to stand Peters down for the duration, or face allegations of inconsistency and pandering. And either could cost her her government in the short or long term.

Meanwhile, I think John Key can just kiss goodbye any chance of a post-election deal with NZ First. But National clearly doesn't want one - again, they're aiming for majority government or nothing, and would love to drive Winston out of Parliament. But if they're unsuccessful in the latter (and remember, Winston feeds off persecution), this could backfire significantly in a few months time.


So, the Doha trade talks have suffered their annual collapse. Good. While I'm in favour of free trade, it must also be fair trade - and that was not on offer. Rather, the rich countries were engaged in their usual exercise of demanding even more one-sided concessions for doing things they'd already agreed to do (and which they would just welch on again anyway). Under those circumstances, the poor countries, led by India and China, were right to stand firm and refuse a bad deal.

What grates is that New Zealand has been on the side of the rich in this. We shouldn't be. Rather, we should be backing the billions whose lives are at stake here. When the rich world demands the right to drive peasant farmers - counterintuitively, the most efficient producers in the world - from their land by flooding markets with subsidised imports, they are demanding the right to impose famine, and putting profits before human lives. And that is simply wrong.

Members' Day

Today is a Members' Day, and for once there is no fluff to get in the way of real business. Labour have again postponed Darien Fenton's Minimum Wage and Remuneration Amendment Bill, so the Greens will have a clear run for the committee stages of Sue Bradford's Corrections (Mothers With babies) Amendment Bill and Russel Norman's Waste Minimisation Bill. And they will need it. With only three more Members' Days left, they are rapidly running out of time.

Fortunately, it looks like Bradford's bill will make it - it can easily complete its committee stage today, allowing a third reading on the 27th of August. But the Waste Minimisation Bill's prospects are less certain. It's a fairly complicated piece of legislation, and under the usual rule of one hour per part, the committee stage is going to take seven hours. They might get through half of that today if they hurry, but with the Corrections Bill eating half the available time next Members' Day, and the possibility of local bills popping up, its unlikely to complete its committee stage until early September. Which means that it will only pass if the House goes into overtime and sits in the first week of October - and doesn't eat that last possible Members' Day with last-minute urgency.

As for Fenton's bill, I expect the government will keep it on the Order Paper for as long as possible, and then adopt it at the last minute. It would make a perfect contrast with National on worker's rights just before the election.

Who the hell are they?

So, who the hell are the Bill and Ben Party? And do they have anything to do with these people?


The Electoral Commission has decided that the EPMU is not involved in the administration of the Labour Party, and thus allowed it to register as a third party under the Electoral Finance Act. Naturally, DPF - who attempted to silence them - is spitting tacks, but I couldn't really see the decision going any other way. Affiliation simply means that EPMU members are automatically Labour Party members (and thereby entitled to appropriate representation in the party's decision-making). If that is considered to be "involvement in the administration" of a party, then so is ordinary membership - something clearly at odds with Parliamentary intent.

Not that I expect DPF or the National party to see it that way; they simply see critics to be shut down by force of law, and an opportunity to posture about how evil it is that everyone gets to speak their mind on a level playing field (a complete abomination to the would-be-aristocrats on the right). And thanks to the EFA, National has a large pot of money they cannot legally spend trying to buy the election, which means they might as well spend it on legal fees. So, I fully expect them to challenge this decision again in court. Fortunately, given the clear parliamentary intent to only restrict candidates, financial agents, and party officials, and the requirement to interpret the EFA through the lens of the BORA, I expect them to lose.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


During the Clinton years, the right-wing smear machine put about a "Clinton Body Count", accusing him of involvement in various murders to cover up imagined crimes. Naturally, they now have one for Barrack Obama. My favourite - for its sheer insanity - is this one:

DARSANO RAHARDJO - Childhood classmate of Barack Obama when he attended a madrassa in Indonesia. Was found with his head cut off in a Jakarta alley way in 1970. Many children at the school attributed Rahardjo’s murder to the young Barack Obama. It was likely done as an initiation ritual, since Islam demands that a boy spill another’s blood before the age of ten to prove their loyalty to Allah.
Which explains why Islam supports polygyny. It's not a cultural holdover from the desert, no, it's because they intentionally kill half their male population at age 9. Can I have some of those drugs? They'd be quite useful next time I need to write some drooling insanity. OTOH, given where they lead, maybe not.

But what I really want to know is why doesn't Helen Clark have one of these? Surely our local sewer is deranged enough to come up with something?

(Hat tip: Larvatus Prodeo)

Progress in Tonga

Tonga's king has announced that he will surrender most of his powers, and in future act on advice from the Prime Minister. It's a good step forward towards UK-style constitutional monarchy, but it needs to be backed up with solid democratic reform, and soon. Otherwise, it will simply be a sham, with the king acting on the "advice" of unelected people he has himself appointed. But fortunately, there's progress on that front too, with the Tongan Parliament finally passing a Constitution and Electoral Commission Bill creating a commission to investigate reform and call a constitutional convention if necessary.

Will this be enough? We'll have to wait and see. But the spectre of the 2006 riots should be in the Tongan aristocracy's minds. If they don't offer a credible peaceful path to full democracy, then the Tongan people may create one for themselves, with far more bloodshed.

The end of mandatory detention

Since the 1990's, Australia has pursued a policy of automatically detaining all asylum seekers in an effort to deter refugee claims. The policy breached UNHCR guidelines, clearly violated the intent of the Refugee Convention, and attracted strong criticism from international human rights groups. Now, the Australian government has abandoned it. It's a massive victory for human rights, and another sign of how elections matter. Under Howard, Australia was a racist, xenophobic place. Under Rudd, its at least no longer government policy.

Is three months a trend?

Yesterday the Department of Statistics released its monthly overseas merchandise trade figures, showing the usual soaring trade deficit. This produced the usual press release from the Greens about the price of oil dependency. But while it's a point worth making, it's also missed something significant: oil imports appear to be decreasing.

I've been watching this for the past two months, ever since a mention on Larvatus Prodeo about a substantial drop in Australian fuel imports. Here's the long-term trend:

(Source: Department of Statistics, Overseas Merchandise Trade: June 2008, Table 9 [XLS])

There's obviously a lot of variability in there, but there may also be a trend: the average for the last three months (290 kT/month) is 10% lower than the long-term average (333 kT/month), and 20% lower than the equivalent period last year (365 kT/month). Some of this may be due to higher imports at the beginning of the year, but we may also be seeing high prices beginning to have an impact.

OTOH, a word of caution: while crude oil imports seem to have dropped, domestic production of petrol and diesel (which is where the oil ultimately goes) doesn't seem to have dropped at all. So, maybe we're just seeing the oil companies running down their stockpiles while waiting for prices to drop. I guess we'll just have to wait for another few months figures to find out.


Trustpower's 200 MW Mahinerangi windfarm has been approved by the Environment Court. While the project had been put on hold shortly after applying for consent due to the low dollar, that's unlikely to be an issue now. There's no news on when construction will start, but judging from other projects, it is likely to be generating within a couple of years.

Monday, July 28, 2008

New Kiwi blog

GBlog. It's an interesting idea - a group blog for members of the Green Party to talk to the electorate. I wonder how many other NZ political parties would be willing to risk going horribly off message by giving their wider membership this sort of open platform?

Can Labour win?

Therese Arseneau has a post on the TVNZ site on why Labour thinks it can win again. The chief reason? MMP. By making sure every vote counts equally, and removing the distortions which previously favoured rural-based National (to the extent that it "won" the 1978 and 1981 elections while receiving fewer votes than Labour), MMP has levelled the playing field (which is precisely why the right hates it and wants to get rid of it. A fair electoral system? It's practically communism!). Labour is also far better at the coalition game than National, which makes their position far stronger than it appears. But that said, they still need at least 40% of the vote to have a credible shot at a fourth term. Arseneau is silent about whether Labour can actually do this - she's saving that for her next column - but highlights a number of reasons which could give them hope.

As for me, I'm not sure, and in any case I think the more interesting question is "how National can lose". They're basically betting everything on a majority government, but as we saw in 2002, the electorate is rather averse to that idea (its one of the things we brought in MMP to stop). And while they're polling high, given their lack of credible friends, they don't need to lose too much in order to be forced to go begging to parties they don't like for confidence and supply. And if that happens, given their lack of coalition skills, they can pretty much kiss their policy agenda goodbye...

National secures Labour's legacy

For the past three years, National has criticised Working for Families, calling it "middle class welfare" which disincentivises work, and promising to repeal the scheme if elected. I guess we're now expected to just forget all that. National now supports the scheme and will not change it. And Oceania has always been at war with East Asia...

Jokes about the Orwellian flip-flops of political parties aside, this move has secured Labour's legacy. Working for Families was the most significant expansion of the welfare state in generations, and thanks to National's "small target" election strategy of agreeing with almost everything the government does, it will now be a long-term feature of our political landscape. Assuming, that is, that Key is sincere rather than simply telling us whatever he thinks we want to hear in order to gain power (and at this stage, it is worth remembering again Chris Trotter's reminder that National's MPs and ultrarich financial supporters did not join and fund the party so it could support left-wing social policy…)

It also raises the interesting question of where the money for tax cuts is going to come from. National is (as usual) promising a massive election-year bribe, while refusing to say how they will fund it. And they have steadily ruled out cuts to every programme that could. They won't cut KiwiSaver. They won't cut education. Now they won't cut Working for Families. Either they're lying somewhere along the line, or they plan to borrow - an irresponsible path which will saddle the New Zealander's of tomorrow with billions of unnecessary debt to pay for the greed of the ultrarich. This would be entirely in line with their metapolicy of looting the state for the benefit of their donors and cronies - but is unlikely to be popular with the people who will ultimately be paying the bills for that self-interested greed.

An interesting idea for the OIA

Open Secrets, the BBC's freedom of information blog, has a piece on What Do They Know, a UK site which facilitates requests under that country's Freedom of Information Act. Users sign up, pick a target government authority, and make their request online; WhatDoTheyKnow forwards it on, and automatically publishes the response when (if?) it arrives. It also allows people to browse responses by government authority, and communicate with other users researching in the same area. In the long term, it will also generate some performance statistics allowing the various authorities and departments to be compared.

The service is making waves in the UK bureaucracy because some officials don't like handing out information without a postal address, or if it will be shared. However, their Information Commissioner has been quite clear that a postal address is not required, and that an email address is an "address for correspondence" under the Act. Responses are also supposed to be applicant and motive blind [PDF], and they can't refuse a request simply because the information is intended for publication. Currently the service isn't seeing an enormous amount of usage, but hopefully it'll take off. And the UK will be better for it.

So, would such a service work in New Zealand? I don't see why not. There's no requirement in our OIA for a postal address or written communication, and many departments are quite happy to accept requests by email (they're also quite happy to just give you information without even having to mention the Act - an enormous cultural difference from the secretive UK). While some departments might be resistant, the culture of openness and expansive interpretation from the Ombudsmen mean there probably wouldn’t be any problems. The biggest problem would be getting people to use it. But there are definite advantages to this sort of collaboration and research tool, and I hope someone sets up an NZ version soon.

Shaking hands with a torturer

(Image stolen from 3 News)

Nice to know where our "human rights supporting" Prime Minister really stands on US torture...

Sunday, July 27, 2008

New Fisk

My days in Fleet Street's Lubyanka

Climate change: the heresy of pragmatism

The Visible Hand takes me to task over my recent post on what a regulatory solution to climate change might look like. They argue that a market-based mechanism such as the ETS is preferable to a regulatory one because it will be more effective, and that the problem with the ETS isn't too much of the free market, but too little. They then accuse me of "anti-market bias" for even contemplating the thought of a regulatory solution. Hardly. As should be clear from my previous posts on the subject, I largely agree with TVH on the strengths of market mechanisms. They find reductions policymakers haven't thought of, they're extremely flexible, they allow targets to be progressively reduced over time, and they instantiate the inherently fair "polluter pays" principle". I disagree with TVH's ideological claim that market mechanisms are always superior to regulation (IMHO that's an empirical question to be decided between the specific policy alternatives on offer - this market mechanism vs that regulatory scheme) - but that doesn't matter. I'm happy to accept that regulation is an imperfect solution for the sake of argument. Because at the end of the day, this isn't about whether regulation is better than the ETS - it's whether regulation is better than nothing at all.

The government is struggling to get the numbers to pass the ETS, and there is a real chance that it will fail. If it fails, then the government will almost certainly try and make it "fifth time lucky" with a market mechanism. but in the meantime, we'll be left with no policy. And on that front, we have two choices: we can repeat the strategy of doing nothing in the meantime - a strategy which has been a disaster; or we can implement a quick and dirty regulatory regime to control emissions from their most obvious sources while we work towards something better (and which incidentally provides some insulation against further failure).

IMHO the choice is obvious. An imperfect policy which is actually implemented is better than a perfect policy which never happens. And if such pragmatic thinking is heresy (or "anti-market bias") to economists, then so much the worse for them.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Asset forfeiture: reported back

The Law and Order Committee has reported back [PDF] on the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Bill. The bill would "reform" New Zealand's asset forfeiture law to a non-conviction-based regime, breaking down barriers between civil and criminal proceedings and allowing police to seize money, cars, homes and other valuables from people who have not been convicted of a crime (or worse, actually acquitted of one by a jury) under a "guilty until proven innocent" system with a lower burden of proof - Ahmed Zaoui standards of evidence. It's a bill every person who cares about justice and human rights should oppose.

Unfortunately, the MPs on the Law and Order Committee do not care about those things, and the bill has survived practically unchanged. There have been some minor tweaks to align it with the government's new organised crime agency (the forfeiture agency will be the police - though they won't get to keep the money, thank Cthulhu), and with current policy on Serious Fraud Office-style powers (powers to force suspects to incriminate themselves have been toned down and subjected to judicial oversight), but the rest of the bill is unchanged. The real issues around justice and human rights with this sort of system (summarised in my submission) have simply been ignored.

New Zealand will regret this. These powers are a recipe for injustice and police misconduct. They give the police real powers to punish on mere suspicion, and to victimise those who have the temerity to be acquitted of serious crime (something the police seem to regard as a mere technicality and a failure of the justice system rather than of themselves). Given that the police make mistakes (Arthur Allen Thomas, anyone?), innocent people will lose their homes, and possibly even their lives as a result of this bill. But politicians will get to posture about being "tough on crime", which is apparently all that matters.

If this is the sort of legislation Labour passes when in government, then they simply do not deserve to be in power.

How we should deal with torturers

While the New Zealand police are doing their best to protect a torturer, Argentina shows us how they should be dealt with. In 1977, during Argentina's "Dirty War", Luciano Menendez oversaw the disappearance, torture, and murder of four left-wing activists, who were held bound and drugged for a month at a disappearance centre before their bodies were dumped in the street to make it look like they had died in a gun battle with authorities. Today, he was convicted of that crime, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Its not justice for the hundreds of other people he had murdered (as usual in these cases, they focused on the four murders they could solidly prove rather than the hundreds he was actually responsible for), but its something.

This is how we should be dealing with torturers: arresting, prosecuting, and convicting them. Instead, our government is shaking their hand, while the police look the other way on their crimes. And we claim to have a good record on human rights...

Alliance list

The Alliance has released its party list. Despite reportedly having struggled to retain 500 members, they've managed to find 30 people to contest the list, suggesting they still have a strong activist base. Unfortunately, they're fielding only 15 electorate candidates - a move which is not exactly going to add to their visibility. As a party which has collapsed since its 90's heyday, they're going to have a real problem convincing people that they're a credible electoral option and not even being on the ballot paper in most electorates is not going to help with that.

Will the police enforce the law?

AUSA will today make a formal complaint to police accusing visiting US Secretary of State Condolezza Rice of war crimes and conspiracy to torture. New Zealand claims universal jurisdiction for both under the Geneva Conventions Act 1958 and Crimes of Torture Act 1989. So, will the police enforce the law and arrest this war criminal?

Given their reaction to the suggestion that she be subjected to a citizens arrest, I doubt it. Which makes it pretty clear that they are more interested in protecting the powerful rather than being a neutral enforcer of the law. And that attitude brings both them and the entire edifice of the law into disrepute.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Protesting Rice

Global Peace and Justice Auckland will be holding a protest on Saturday to make it clear that Condolezza Rice is not welcome in New Zealand:

When: Saturday, 26 July, 13:30
Where: Carlton Gore Road and Park Road, marching to Goverment House

This will be followed at 15:15 by a protest outside the Langham Hotel in Symonds Street, where Rice is scheduled to meet John Key.

Rice is a war criminal under New Zealand and international law. But somehow I suspect the police will be protecting rather than prosecuting her.

We should arrest this war criminal

AUSA is offering a $5,000 bounty to any Auckland University student who manages to make a citizens arrest of Condoleezza Rice during her visit here. For those who don't know, Rice chaired the policy discussions which led to the US adopting a policy of torture and approving the waterboarding of suspected terrorists. That makes her a war criminal, guilty of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. The discussions started when the CIA sought approval to torture al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah - approval which was granted. That makes her guilty of conspiracy to torture. Both are crimes under New Zealand law, over which New Zealand claims universal jurisdiction in accordance with international law. Which makes you wonder why AUSA is having to offer a bounty; instead, the New Zealand police should be arresting this war criminal at the border.

Climate change: ...and waiting

It's Thursday, and the Climate Change (Emissions Trading and Renewable Preference) Bill is still glaringly absent from the Business Statement. Instead, the government will be having an appropriations debate - perhaps in an effort to get NZ First's vote on a confidence matter out of the way before their donations scandal gets any worse.

Meanwhile, time is getting tight. It is now less than four months until the election, and there is a maximum of seven sitting weeks before Parliament must rise for the election (assuming that the final session flows on into the next week, and remembering that Parliament expires on October 7). The ETS will take at least a week to pass, and meanwhile they have a full Order Paper as well as other legislation (the Immigration Bill and the asset forfeiture legislation) which is similarly time-consuming just back or about to return from select committee which they will want to pass before the House rises. There's always the option of urgency, of course, but the window is definitely narrowing. And if its not passed before the election, then we'll have another six month delay, not to mention the very real risk that a national government will delay it further or gut it in order to pander to its polluting backers. And IMHO, that's simply not a risk we can afford to take.

Election funding: trying to prove the right right

When the government passed the Electoral Finance Act with its strict rules on third party advertising, the right screamed that this was a deliberate attempt to suppress free speech, and that groups seeking to highlight issues and set the political agenda in election year would be silenced or curtailed. It's bullshit - but sadly, the folks at The Standard are doing their level best to prove them right, attacking an EMA campaign against the government's KiwiSaver amendments as a breach of the EFA.

The problem is, it's not. In order to be considered an "election advertisement", material must "reasonably be regarded as" encouraging people to vote either for or against a candidate or party. The candidate or party need not be specified, but may be identified implicitly "by reference to views, positions, or policies that are or are not held". But while the ads take a strong position against Labour's policy, like the CAFCA postcards earlier in the month, they are very clearly aimed not at encouraging votes, but at encouraging people to lobby politicians on a specific issue. The Standard are of course free to join the National Party in arguing that that ought to be illegal. But I doubt any reasonable person (let alone the Electoral Commission or the courts, both of which will interpret the law through the lens of the BORA and the clear Parliamentary intent that this sort of advertising be excluded) would agree with them.

The Nazis are coming to Wellington

Back in 2004, our local Nazis descended on Wellington to wave the flag outside Parliament and protest against "the Assian Invasion campaign" [sic]. They're planning on doing it again this year, on October 25th.

Even Nazis have a right to free speech, but that doesn't mean their hate should go unchallenged. Anyone want to organise a welcoming committee for them?

Another NZ First slush fund

The interesting news in the Dominion Posts's story this morning that Bob Jones gave $25,000 to NZ First is not that he donated; rather, it's that it was never declared, instead being diverted into a party slush fund. Despite having written out the check directly to the fund, Jones seems to have been under the impression he donated to the party, and is reportedly concerned that it was used for another purpose.

(In his RadioNZ interview [audio], he makes it quite clear how corrupt the pre-EFA money laundering arrangements were; "every party" used trusts, but everyone involved knew that the donation was for the party. So, the trusts were purely there to circumvent disclosure and hide influence from the public).

The trust was "used sometimes to pay NZ First’s bills". None of this was declared either, either as an anonymous donation or an open one. While it is possible that bills paid by the Spencer Trust came to less than $10,000 in any one year, but if it didn't (and remember, Jones was unlikely to be the only donor), then it should have been declared. While Winston Peters may quibble, paying a party's bills is a donation (albeit in a roundabout fashion), and it needs to be declared. And that has always been the case - the old Electoral Act defined a candidate or party donation as including "money or of the equivalent of money or of goods or services or of a combination of those things", and this definition has been carried over into the Electoral Finance Act.

Unfortunately, the Electoral Commission can't do anything about any breach, as they have a six-month limit on prosecutions. But you'd hope that they would take this as a warning, and go over NZ First's annual return with a fine-toothed comb.

The good news is that if NZ First is still carrying on like this, it is illegal. Now, if money is passed on by a trust, the identity of the donor must be identified; if they don't disclose it, it must be treated as anonymous, and is capped at $1,000. If it is funded by multiple contributions, then the contributors must be identified as well. Failure to do either carries a penalty of a $40,000 fine. Deliberately colluding to make large anonymous donations is now a corrupt practice. If the trust wants to spend large amounts of money for electoral purposes in its own right, it must register as a third party (it hasn't) - which means it must likewise disclose its donations. So, either way, they're going to have to come clean. And given what we've been hearing in the last few days, it's about bloody time too!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Clark on Peters

I'm just listening to Question Time, and Helen Clark is getting the expected grilling about Winston Peters and his secret donations. Two interesting points:

  • Despite clear Cabinet guidelines about the declaration of interests and a separate (but sadly confidential) process for Ministers to declare interests, Clark insists that it is nothing to do with her, but instead a question for the Registrar of Pecuniary Interests. This is simply false; the question of whether Peters has failed to properly notify Parliament of his interests and the question of whether he has failed to properly declare and manage his interests as a cabinet minister are completely separate.
  • Clark says Peters can keep the money. Under s2.79 of the Cabinet Manual, gifts of more than $500 must be relinquished unless the Prime Minister permits them to be retained. According to Clark, the gift paid for a legal case which served a substantial public interest, and so she has no problem with it being retained. This isn't unreasonable, given the frequency with which MPs are involved in legal action, and it is nice to have it made clear.

Unfortunately, Clark entirely evaded the question of whether giving a minister $100,000 when you wanted a job from them created a conflict of interest. The answer is obvious, and it is shameful that she refuses to state it and stand up for proper standards in the executive.

The full transcript will be up on the Parliament website later today.

Public transport problems

The Herald yesterday reported that high petrol prices were forcing Auckland commuters to leave their cars at home and take the bus and train. Good news, except for one thing: existing public transport networks may be unable to cope with the demand, leading those new customers to write it off and go back to their cars. Truthseeker has an account of some of the problems here. Fortunately his bus company was eventually able to cope, but I'm not sure that all of them will have been able to.

All of which points to the need for a serious and sustained investment in improving public transport to meet higher demand in future. Otherwise, people are just going to be forced by the lack of real options to use their cars, with consequent effects on health and the environment.

Labour wins another argument

National has finally spoken out on what passes for its housing policy, and committed to maintaining non-market rents. I guess Labour has won that argument then. They've also committed to maintaining the existing state housing stock, while giving tenants (but not outside speculators) a "right to buy" - a policy I don't mind at all, particularly since any revenue will be used to fund further purchases. so, an essentially status quo policy - not what's needed, but a far cry from the wholesale selloff they did during the 90's.

The downside is that by refusing to commit to meeting the demand for social housing by growing the state housing stock, they're effectively committing to overcrowding, poor health outcomes, and all the other ills that come from people not having a proper home. Not to mention the continued subsidy of landlords through the accommodation supplement. But National probably regards the latter as a feature rather than a bug.

A small victory for freedom of information in Australia

During last year's election campaign, ALP leader Kevin Rudd promised to overhaul Australia's Freedom of Information Act to bring about greater transparency. Unfortunately, those plans seem to have hit some snags, and will be delayed for public discussion. But they will be doing one thing immediately: ending the ability of Ministers and senior civil servants to issue "conclusive certificates" that release of information is "not in the public interest". It's a small victory, but a significant one, which may help to end the culture of unaccountable secrecy in Australian government circles.

OTOH, it's clear that in Australia, it is culture which is the problem. The New Zealand government has an equivalent power to veto release of information by order-in-Council (in s32 and s32A of the OIA); the difference is that they don't use it (I think the last such use was in the 80's). Instead, we have a culture of relative openness and acceptance of the Ombudsman's review. And I think its primarily that, rather than the law, which really needs to change in Australia.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Self-serving, knee-jerk authoritarianism

The Police Association have issued their election manifesto crime policy "discussion document" [PDF], demanding (among other things) tasers, more police, immunity from private prosecution, permanent secrecy when they murder someone, an erosion of the right to silence, curfews, a lower age of criminal responsibility, and UK-style Anti-Social Behaviour Orders. It's the sort of self-serving, knee-jerk authoritarianism I've come to expect from them, issued in a blatant attempt to blackmail politicians into acceding to their demands for fear of being called "soft on crime" in an election year. And unfortunately, its working:

The Government is prepared to look at least one of the law and order policy ideas being put forward by the Police Association.

Police Association President Greg O'Connor this morning launched a policy document titled "Towards a Safer New Zealand".

It suggests investigating UK style antisocial behaviour orders, lowering the age of criminal responsibility, allowing DNA sampling of all arrested suspects, and penalties for defence lawyers who routinely contribute to court delays. Other recommendations include boosting frontline police resources and more amendments to bail laws.

Police Minister Annette King has already looked at UK antisocial behaviour orders and says they have aspects that are interesting.

An example of King's "thinking" on the issue can be found here. The short version is that she thinks it would be a good idea to let the police just make the law up as they go along. Be afraid, be very afraid. As for ASBOs themselves, I've posted on why they are a bad idea here.

It would be nice if we could get a police minister who remembered occasionally that what is convenient for the police is not necessarily desirable to society as a whole, and that police powers need to be limited and the police kept under constant scrutiny so that the rest of us can go about our business in peace. But apparently that's too much to expect. The best we can hope for is that King will no longer be police minister in November. Unfortunately, her expected replacement - Simon Power Chester Borrows - is unlikely to be much better.

Correction: The National Party police spokesperson is Chester Borrows, not Simon Power. Unfortunately, as a former police officer, he pretty much agrees with the Police Association.

Immigration Bill: reported back

The Transport and Industrial Relations Committee has reported back [PDF; large] on the government's Immigration Bill. And to be fair, they have improved it in at least one area: the torture clause (which would have required those claiming protection under the Convention Against Torture to prove that they faced greater risk than usual in their country, thus making it far easier to deport people to torture) is gone, replaced with clauses which more accurately reflect New Zealand's human rights obligations. Unfortunately, the rest of the bill remains virtually unchanged, and in some cases has been made actively worse:

  • It still allows the use of secret evidence in immigration decisions. Such evidence must now be "balanced", and include any information which might help the client, but as there is no effective way of policing it, the requirement is effectively a joke. Summaries must now be given, but they're a joke too. And if information cannot be summarised, it cannot (officially) be relied upon - but that doesn't stop it from effectively poisoning the well against a client, causing the Minister to view other evidence in a different light. None of these "safeguards" apply if the decision is discretionary, of course - and one of the "features" of the new bill is that it has significantly increased the number of such decisions.
  • The bill retains special advocates as a "safeguard" to represent clients in cases where classified information is used. However, they are still forbidden from talking to their clients after they have learned what the government wants to hide - a fact which prevents them from any effective challenge. They are a fig leaf for unfairness, nothing more.
  • The blanket ban on entry to someone deported from or refused entry to another country (for whatever reason, good, bad, or stupid) remains unchanged.
  • There is now a blanket ban on the courts granting bail to immigration detainees, to prevent them from "undermining" the law by applying the Bill of Rights Act. This means there is no effective oversight on the discretion of immigration officers to order detention.
  • The security clause is retained, allowing any non-citizen to be arbitrarily arrested and indefinitely detained on the (not effectively reviewable) decision of an immigration or police officer that they are a "risk to security" - even if they have lived here for decades.
  • The current system of indefinite detention is retained, with clauses added again to prevent the courts from "undermining" it by applying the BORA. There is now a presumption that detention will go on forever. And courts must still regard all classified information as accurate when deciding on detention, no matter how transparently false it is.
Basically, the bill has not been changed in any substantive way since its first reading, and as such, it is unsalvageable. It must be defeated. Please write to your MP today.

(Gordon Campbell has more here)

Another one bites the dust

Keith Ng has moved on to better-paying things. Bugger. I was looking forward to his serious number wonkery during the election; now I'll just have to do my own digging.

More wind

Contact Energy is planning a 177 MW wind farm in the Puketoi Range near Dannevirke. And they seem to have learned some important lessons from earlier projects - choosing a remote area and getting local landowners on side to ensure an easier resource consent process. They expect to apply for resource consent by the end of the year, and to have finished construction within five years.

(Remember that construction timetable. Now look at the Wind Energy Association's (incomplete) list of projects in New Zealand. Even allowing for severe delays, we are looking at an explosion in wind power over the next decade, and the projects on that list alone should be enough to see us reach a target of 90% renewable electricity generation).

Meanwhile, Mighty River is about to apply for consent for its planned windfarm in the Turitea Reserve near Palmerston North. I've posted on this in the past, objecting to the idea of digging up a reserve for anything, and to the corrupt dealings between Mighty River and the PNCC which has seen the latter - which remember will be responsible for granting any resource consent - awarded "progress payments" for advancing the project, something which smacks of the outright purchase of local government. The good news is that half the turbines will be on private land, and I have no objection to those at all. The bad news is that half won't, so I'll be objecting against it.


Former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic has finally been captured. As President of Republika Srpska, he is accused of ordering the ethnic clensing of Bosnians and has been indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. And hopefully now we'll finally see some justice for that.

How many slush funds does Winston have?

The Dominion Post this morning reports that NZ First has been receiving money from one of New Zealand's richest families, seemingly structured to avoid declaration limits. So far, so normal - this sort of corruption was par for the course before the Electoral Finance Act's lower thresholds and tighter disclosure rules, and the old Electoral Act allowed parties to be wilfully blind about where money was coming from in order to keep the identities of their backers out of public view. but then it gets interesting:

A special investigation by The Dominion Post can reveal that a series of donations from accounts linked to the Vela family - heavyweight operators in the racing and fishing industries - and totalling at least $150,000 were made to the party.

But NZ First sources say nothing like that much Vela money was deposited in the party's bank account.

(Emphasis added)

Which raises the question: how many slush funds does Winston Peters have? The prospect that Winston was operating a "leader's fund" (as it was euphemistically put) was first raised by Ben Thomas in the NBR last Friday (column duplicated on Tumeke). And again, it raises all sorts of disclosure problems. Its one thing to have your party donations laundered through a nominally independent lawyer; it's quite another when its the party leader doing it. And its another thing again if this money disappears into a black hole and is never declared in the party's annual returns.

This smells very bad, and someone needs to get to the bottom of it. In the meantime, I'm just glad that the passage of the EFA will have put a stop to it.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Immigration Bill: not looking good

The Immigration Bill was reported back from select committee today. Unfortunately, it hasn't yet appeared on the parliamentary website, but from Keith Locke's comments, it doesn't sound good:

"Too many decisions will be made on information kept secret from those affected," Mr Locke, the Green Party's Immigration Spokesperson says.

"Fourteen state agencies, from the Department of Corrections to the Ministry of Fisheries, will now be able to define information as 'classified' and not to be seen by the affected person.

"While summaries of secret allegations will generally be available, the agency producing them will be tempted to leave out anything which doesn't favour its own case.

"Special Advocates can be appointed but will be of limited usefulness to the affected people. They are not even trusted to talk to those they are advocating for, after they have seen any classified information.

And as if that's not bad enough, the committee has also moved to plug the "loophole" which has seen immigration detainees released from indefinite detention, by inserting an amendment that the length of detention cannot be considered a "special circumstance" in a bail application. Which means that when the government locks you up forever, you stay locked up forever, with none of this messy judicial oversight. Just like Guantanamo Bay...

This bill has to be defeated. You can start by signing the petition here.


Parliament now has an alert service. You'll need to register, but it can send updates on order papers, questions for oral answer, and select committees. Unfortunately, it does this at a specified time, so it won't help in telling me the moment the report on the Immigration Bill comes out.

Worthless assurances

For the past six years, the Bush Administration has pursued a policy of torturing suspected terrorists, cloaked in a fiction that techniques practiced by the Spanish Inquisition aren't torture, but merely "enhanced interrogation". Now, a UK Parliamentary Select Committee has drawn the obvious conclusion: that US assurances that prisoners will not be tortured are worthless:

In its report, the committee said: "Given the clear differences in definition, the UK can no longer rely on US assurances that it does not use torture, and we recommend that the government does not rely on such assurances in the future."

The MPs also challenged the government to check more actively that Britain had not been used by the Americans for so called "rendition" flights - when detainees are taken to countries where bans on torture may not apply.

This will have far-reaching effects. For a start, the UK is a party to the Convention Against Torture, which prohibits both extradition to torture and the use of evidence obtained by torture. Suspected terrorists facing extradition to the US to face terrorism charges - and there have been a few - will be able to challenge that extradition and the evidence which supports it - and the court will have to actually investigate, rather than merely take the assurance of the US that it "does not torture*" (* "except for waterboarding, strapado, electrocution and beating, because those things are only torture when done by non-Americans") at face value. And this will have a significant effect on international cooperation and the ability to prosecute and convict terrorists. So rather than making us safer, Bush's sadistic impulses have in fact endangered us again. Thanks, George!

Winston Peters must be sacked

The Prime Minister responded today to Winston Peters' admission that, contrary to his earlier denials, he had been $100,000 by Owen Glenn, calling it "embarrassing". It's a little more than that. Not only did Peters violate Parliament's Standing Orders on the declaration of gifts (something which Rodney Hide will be complaining about today) - he also violated Cabinet guidelines. The Cabinet Manual has extensive sections on Ministerial conduct and the acceptance of gifts. The short version: Ministers must clearly distinguish between their personal interests and their Ministerial roles, declare all pecuniary interests, and refuse all gifts except from close family members. This includes both cash and donations in kind:

Ministers who accept gifts worth more than the prescribed value must not only disclose them to the Registrar of Pecuniary Interests of Members of Parliament, but also must relinquish them, unless they obtain the express permission of the Prime Minister to retain them. Any gift accepted by Ministers may be relinquished to the Parliamentary Service to arrange appropriate display or storage. Gifts that Ministers receive from close family members need not be relinquished.
They can accept political party donations, but it must be made clear that the donation is accepted on behalf of the party, not on behalf of the Minister. In any case, Peters has denied adamantly that Glenn's $100K was a party donation, which means it was covered under the general gifts clause. He should have declared it, and then relinquished it. He did neither. And this is something no Prime Minister should accept. The Cabinet rules on gifts are there for a real purpose: to prevent corruption, and the perception of corruption. Peters has blatantly violated those rules, and for that he must either offer his resignation or be sacked.

Unfortunately, I rate the odds of the Prime Minister having a spine on this about as highly as I rate those of Parliament's "all powerful" (where do the journalists get that phrase from?) Privileges Committee finding that Peters violated Standing orders. The realities of MMP mean Peters has a gun to the Prime Minister's head - she can't fire him, regardless of his egregious behaviour, unless she wants her tenure as PM to end prematurely in a messy coalition collapse. Unfortunately, this means she and her party get to go down with him, because I do not think that the image of a PM permitting Ministers to receive donations in brown paper bags from people who want favours from them is one the public will accept.

A transit lounge?

According to Peter Dunne, New Zealand is "a giant transit lounge for Australia" because "nearly 20%" (19% - 19.6%, depending on how close one of their rounded figures is) of the New Zealanders emigrating to Australia were born overseas. It sounds compelling, except for one thing: that's actually lower than the equivalent proportion of the general population. According to the 2006 census, 22.9% of those ordinarily resident in New Zealand were born overseas. You'd think someone might have bothered to check that first, but who cares about facts when you're trying to whip up an election-year immigration scare?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Fiji: cancelling democracy

So it's official: Fiji's military dictator Voreqe Bainimarama has cancelled the elections he had promised to hold by March, ending any pretence of a return to democracy. His reason? Well, it's not because Fiji's electoral officials aren't up to it - a visit from the Pacific Forum last week showed they would be able to run an election next year if there was the political will. And it's that which is lacking - the dictatorship simply doesn't want elections unless it can dictate the outcome and make sure that the "right" people win. So instead, they're going to illegally change the constitution to gerrymander the electoral system and get results they want. It's sickeningly undemocratic - but then, so was holding a military coup in the first place.

As for the wider issue of the Fijian electoral system, no, I don't like it - but this is not the way to go about reform. Instead, Fiji should hold elections, and leave that question in the hands of legitimate, democratically elected civilian politicians, rather than military thugs.

New Fisk

When propaganda turns out to be fact

Friday, July 18, 2008


It turns out that Owen Glenn did give Winston Peters $100,000 - and that Winston "didn't know about it". The money was used to fund his electoral petition against Bob Clarkson, which really means it was to Peters in his role as a candidate. Unfortunately, it falls into a gap in electoral law - Peters wasn't technically a candidate at the time, the donation was made after the deadline for candidate returns, and in any case there was a six month limit on prosecutions. So, under the Electoral Act 1993, you could give a politician a hundred grand in a brown paper bag, and provided it wasn't between the time you were nominated and the time you were declared elected, no-one had to know about it. I'm glad we closed that loophole (or did we? There's a lot of wiggle room in the word "candidate" after all...)

But while Peters has escaped prosecution under the Electoral Act, he has exposed himself elsewhere. Since 2006, Members of Parliament have been required to submit annual returns of their pecuniary interests. These must include

a description of each gift (including hospitality and donations in cash or kind but excluding any donation made to cover expenses in an electoral campaign) received by the member that has an estimated market value in New Zealand of more than $500 and the name of the donor of each of those gifts (if known or reasonably ascertainable by the member)
Owen Glenn gave Peters, through his lawyer, $100,000 to cover legal expenses. Peters should have declared it. He didn't. Not in 2006, 2007, or 2008 [all PDF]. This is quite clearly a breach of Parliamentary Privilege under Standing Order 400 (h):
as a member, knowingly providing false or misleading information in a return of pecuniary interests
Peters knew his legal fees were being covered by donations. He says himself in the Herald article that he had been doing this since 1991:
He said that since 1991 he had been involved in 14 legal actions which had been partly funded through donations, and Mr Henry had "a firm policy" of not disclosing the source of donations.

"I have never been told the source of these donations but have personally met the shortfall which has amounted to many hundred thousands of dollars," Mr Peters said in a statement.

He knew there were donations, he didn't declare them. That's a clear breach of privilege. If a Member would like to lodge the complaint...

Not that I expect anything to really come of it. I have nothing but contempt for the Privileges Committee, a cosy kangaroo court where MPs vote on party lines and collude to overlook one another's indiscretions -even in a case such as this. But the rest of us ought to be concerned that a Member of Parliament has been receiving large amounts of anonymous cash for so long, without any sort of disclosure. Peters says everything is above board here, but the potential for corruption is blindingly obvious. And given that the Privileges Committee can't be trusted to do anything about it, its time we took the job off them, and gave it to the police. Who is giving money to our MPs and whether they tell us about it is not a private matter for Parliament, it is a public matter for the law. But the chances of our MPs voting to recognise that are about zero.

Climate change: the regulatory alternative

A while ago, Truthseeker asked why trade emissions credits anyway?, and suggested if the government fails to gain a majority for the ETS, we may want to try alternative, regulatory policies:

Legislatively mandating emissions reductions to an open and transparent regulatory schedule and NOT operating a market may actually be cheaper and ultimately more effective than an ETS.
I've already talked about why we have an ETS (short answer: a policy culture still suffering from a starry-eyed infatuation with markets), but I promised that I'd look at what a regulation-based climate change policy might look like. So, here we go.

The first thing to note is that in this area of policy, there is nothing new under the sun, and its all been thought of before. When climate change first appeared on the policy radar, twenty years ago (yes, its been that long), the government commissioned the New Zealand Climate Change Programme to look at possible policies. They reported back in 1990, with a menu of policy options that looks depressingly familiar to anyone considering climate change policy today. Energy efficiency, promoting forestry, negotiated greenhouse agreements, economic instruments, the RMA, even "extreme measures" such as shutting down Huntly or lowering the speed limit were considered. Our problem has never been coming up with solutions - they're obvious the moment you pause to think about them. It's been implementing them. And that makes regulation an attractive proposition, because its usually easier to do (and certainly easier to do piecemeal) than imposing a unified, top-down solution such as a carbon tax or ETS.

The second thing to note is that the current government has been far more willing than its predecessors to use regulation as a backstop to economic instruments. So we now have basic fuel efficiency standards for cars, basic energy efficiency standards, and a proposal to ban new thermal electricity generation. This is a good idea - because as I mentioned in my previous post, its not an either/or proposition. Good regulation can be an excellent supplement to economic instruments, and help drive improvements if the market won't.

So what regulatory solutions should the government impose to reduce emissions if the ETS fails? Here's my take, by sector:

Energy: The problem here is thermal generation, so the obvious step is to ban the construction of new thermal plants and force all new generation to be renewable (note that the government is trying to do this in the ETS bill - something they perhaps should have separated out so as to get it through piecemeal). Require some proportion of emissions from existing thermal stations to be offset by planting trees (I prefer native forest, but exactly what doesn't matter). But that's only half the problem - we need to reduce existing emissions as well. Here the answer is extremely aggressive energy efficiency regulation, on a par with California's (California has managed to keep its per capita electricity usage basically flat for the past twenty years, while the rest of America has grown by 50%). So, energy efficiency standards for all appliances, a much tighter building code, requirements to upgrade housing (and financial help to make it happen). It's all worth doing because the marginal generator in our electricity system is coal, thus every kWh we save directly reduces emissions.

Industrial: Put climate change back in the RMA, and require new factories to meet stringent energy efficiency standards (ironically, in the case of big polluters like HolCim and Tiwai Point, they do). Require some proportion of emissions from factories to be offset by planting trees. Exactly what proportion will depend on how deep a cut we want to make; 20% seems reasonable at first.

Transport: There are three ways to reduce transport emissions: reducing usage, substituting fuels, and improving efficiency. So, fund public transport properly to get people out of cars. Ban heavy trucks, and encourage the use of rail. Impose a mandatory sustainable biofuels requirement on oil companies to spur local production from sustainable sources. And finally, impose stringent fuel efficiency standards (again, look at California) on new cars, and improve the fuel efficiency of the overall vehicle fleet by refusing to warrant cars over a certain age which fail to meet rising minimum standards. The latter should cap emissions, while the former two policies gradually reduce them.

Agriculture: Require resource consent for farming (it is after all a polluting activity). Impose intensity restrictions, limiting the number of cattle you can have per hectare (this affects nitrous oxide emissions). Require the use of nitrogen inhibitors in fertiliser.

Forestry: Ban deforestation - no cutting down forests unless they are replanted (this is pretty much what the ETS does in practice).

Waste: This is already controlled by a regulatory means: the Resource Management (National Environmental Standards Relating to Certain Air Pollutants, Dioxins, and Other Toxics) Regulations 2004 require large landfills containing putrescable material to capture or flare the resulting methane. And it works well.

Solvents: Not important enough to worry about.

Some of these measures are almost certainly more effective than economic measures; if you want to ban deforestation, then the easiest way is to ban deforestation, not muck about with tradable certificates. Where they fall down is that they lack flexibility - its rare to want a total ban on something, and the hassle factor of thinking up all the exceptions can be significant. Still, in cases where we want close to a total ban (e.g. thermal electricity generation and deforestation) its hard to see what we gain by using a market. More importantly, if the ETS fails, I don't think we can wait to be fifth-time lucky with a market solution. What's important is that we reduce emissions now, not whether our chosen policy is perfect and cleaves to neo-liberal orthodoxy.

Election08 interviews Jim Anderton

Over on Election08, Scoop's Gordon Campbell interviews Progressive leader Jim Anderton. It's a pretty interesting interview, about Anderton's history with the Labour party and the future of the Progressives (he doesn't think it has one. Progressive Party members may be annoyed about that), but for me there were two highly interesting bits: firstly, that despite it being contrary to all their values, and despite Matt Robson having campaigned strongly in defence of Ahmed Zaoui, Anderton doesn't see any problems with the Immigration Bill. And secondly, Anderton gives a window into the current state of negotiations on the ETS, hinting at an earlier entry for fertiliser. This is important because it is key to getting the Greens on board - they want something tangible for their support, rather than just being treated as a doormat again - but the sticking point is getting it past Anderton, NZ First, and of course the farm lobby, who are still trapped in deep denial. It almost makes you wish for an EU border tax, just to kick the farmers onto the right side of the argument...

Climate Change: a new challenge for the US

In May 1961, US President John F Kennedy challenged his country to dream a bigger dream and put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Today, former Vice-President Al Gore launched a similar transformative challenge to the US: to end its dependence on fossil fuels and commit to 100% renewable electricity generation by 2018.

It's a big dream, which would reduce global carbon emissions by 8%, and likely spark a global energy revolution which would reduce them further in other rich nations. But is it achievable? Jerome at European Tribune (someone with strong experience in the wind industry) thinks "almost":

while 100% is probably unrealistic, it's not unreasonable to expect to be able to get pretty close to that number (say, in the 50-90% range) in that timeframe, and it is very likely that it makes a LOT of sense economically.
It would require a strong investment and some policy changes, but its certainly doable; all it needs is the policies. As for the benefits, because the cost of renewables is fixed at the time of construction, it would likely result in cheaper electricity prices for consumers as well as lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, doing this would require a President who isn't a tool of the oil barons. Fortunately, Americans will get the chance to elect such a president in November.


What's the annual cost of American inequality? 21,000 dead babies. That's one of the startling conclusions of The Measure of America: American Human Development Report 2008-2009. The report applies the methodology of the UN Human Development Index to America's states, congressional districts and cultural groups, exposing shocking disparities. Parts of the United States are thirty years behind the rest, while on key indicators of health and education, the US trails every other western nation (on life-expectancy, it trails Israel, Greece, Singapore, Costa Rica, and South Korea, plus pretty much all of Western Europe). But the most horrifying data is on infant mortality:

The U.S. infant mortality rate is on par with that of Croatia, Cuba, Estonia, and Poland; if the U.S. infant mortality rate were the same as that of top-ranked Sweden, 21,000 more American babies would live to celebrate their first birthdays every year.
That's absolutely staggering. Every single one of those deaths is preventable and avoidable. They happen because, despite spending more per capita on health care than anywhere else in the world, a sixth of Americans just don't have access.

The report (or at least its executive summary [PDF] - the main report is available only in hardcopy, at a price) makes a number of recommendations on how the US can improve its HDI ranking and reduce the inequalities in its society, including extending healthcare to all and investing in early childhood education. But I expect them to be ignored. After all, every True American (tm) knows that the measure of how great a country you are is not the substantive freedom and standard of living you provide to your citizens, but the size of your military and how many other countries you can bomb.

(Hat tip: The Guardian)

United Future's education policy

United Future released its education policy [PDF] today - a relatively hefty 12-page document packed with specifics. The contrast with National - which has made some vague promises of "change" but hasn't issued detailed specifics outside of a few very narrow areas - couldn't be more obvious.

As I'm not an educationalist, I don't feel qualified to comment on the specifics of UF's plan (any teachers out there want to take a detailed look?). One thing I do note though is that they strongly favour greater investment of resources in education, with lower student:teacher ratios in primary school, better working conditions for teachers, much greater funding for ICT, ESOL and students with disabilities, and the reintroduction of a universal student allowance. All of which is likely to be a real problem if they are successful in their desire to form a coalition with National post-election. In fact, with an education policy like this - one that seems to have been written by actual teachers, rather than economists - you really have to wonder what they think they have in common with National at all.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Against ACC privatisation

I feel I should blog about National finally announcing that it plans to privatise the worker's account of ACC, but I don't think I have much to add beyond what has been said by the The Standard, or indeed, the Prime Minister. The basic principle of ACC is "community responsibility", that we cover everyone and insulate them against the risk of accident by socialising the costs and to some extent cross-subsidising. And pretty clearly, that goes right out the window if we let insurance companies cherry pick the least risky customers. As for National's justifications that injury rates have risen, that employers pay the same regardless of their workplace accident record, and that entitlements "are not of high quality", the CTU has a detailed dismantling here. The short version:

  • Workplace accident rates fell 6% between 2002 and 2005;
  • Differential premiums create a strong incentive for employers to falsify records and deny that accidents occur, thus denying workers cover;
  • New Zealand workers get greater entitlements and are back at work faster than those in other countries.

And all of this is done for half the price it costs in Australia. Don't believe me? Check out the PricewaterhouseCoopers report [PDF]. It found that ACC's universal, no-fault, socialised model covered more people at lower cost and with less hassle than any alternative, and that

[d]espite competitive market pressures, comparative evidence from other jurisdictions suggest that administrative cost levels under private underwriting would be likely to rise to some extent.
In other words, kiwis would end up paying more for private insurers' inefficiencies and profits. Contrary to right-wing dogma, the market is not the best way to handle everything.

All of this is strong empirical evidence that privatisation would be bad for New Zealanders. But it would be very good for foreign insurance companies, who stand to profit by tens of millions a year from even a part privatisation. Which shows you where National's true interests lie: not in working for kiwis, but in looting the state for the benefit of its donors and cronies.

Prison slave labour comes to New Zealand

One of the nastiest aspects of contemporary American capitalism is its use of prison slave labour. A large captive population (mostly of Afro-American arrested for minor crime or drug offences, or incarcerated for life for trivial offences under "three strikes" laws) are forced to work for a pittance, with their services contracted out to major corporations. Prisoners don't have union, employment, or workplace safety rights, so costs can be kept low. And if they complain about their treatment, you can beat them in the head with a stick. This return to nineteenth-century employment conditions allows US companies such as Dell, KMart and IBM to stay profitable.

Now Labour has introduced this practice in New Zealand. Prisoners at Rimutaka and Auckland Region Women’s Prisons will be assembling photocopiers for Canon. While they'll be getting real training and learning real skills (as opposed to previous prison work schemes which have seen prisoners rented out as fruit pickers), according to a Corrections spokesperson, they will be paid between 20 and 60 cents an hour. As with previous prison employment schemes, they will have no labour rights, no employment contract, no effective means of dispute resolution, and no enforceable workplace safety standards. And of course, no right to strike for higher wages.

As for Canon, the press release claims they are paying "market rates" - but given the flexibility of the market, that can mean almost anything, and given the risks of the scheme, I think its fair to say that they would not be doing it unless it was far cheaper than the alternatives. So, they're profiting from the use of slave labour in New Zealand prisons. If they were doing it overseas, it would be illegal; the Customs Act prohibits the importation of goods made with prison labour. But by doing it here, they sidestep the law. As for Corrections, they get to pocket the revenue while not being exposed to the same labour and employment standards that private companies have to pay and while having all of its overheads funded by the taxpayer. Whichever way you look at it, it's simply obscene. And the fact that Labour - "the party of the workers" - is doing it is even more obscene.

I support prison employment or training schemes, but they should be handled transparently, with prisoners working voluntarily, paid market rates (possibly escrowed until release) with full labour rights, and not subject to any sanctions for refusing to participate. Any deductions for room and board should be made transparently, just as they are in the work-to-release scheme. But the way Corrections handles these schemes now is the opposite of this, and allows them to effectively rent out their prisoners as low-wage forced labour. And that is simply not something that should be allowed to happen in a civilised society.

Update: some people have asked whether prisoners really aren't allowed to join unions or take industrial action. That's certainly my understanding from the explanation Corrections gave me when I first looked at this a few years ago:

The provision of employment for inmates by the Department does not constitute a formal employment relationship. Rather the employment is part of skill acquisition and should be regarded as a training initiative. Inmates do not have, therefore, the same access as free workers to wages, rights and other remedies. They do have protections under Corrections legislation and regulations. Inmates are not employees of the Department and are not, therefore, subject to the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992. However, the Department will observe the provisions of the Act for all inmate employment activities...
No rights, no contract, no protections, and a token "incentive payment" in the place of a wage - they're slaves. And our government is contracting them out for the private sector's profit. We should all be ashamed of ourselves for letting this go on.

New Fisk

'Theatrical return for the living and the dead'

Reuniversalising the student allowance

I've long been in favour of restoring a universal student allowance. While the right finger-point about "subsidising privilege" (as clear a case of pre-emptive accusation as ever I saw), this relies on a rather outdated view of who participates in tertiary education. As any glance at the statistics will show, we are now in an age of mass tertiary education: 36.5% of 18-24 years olds were enrolled in a tertiary course in 2006, compared with 26.2% in 1997 (sadly I can't find earlier statistics on tertiary participation rates, particularly in the 1980's, but that gives a good example of the trend). Student allowances aren't about "middle class welfare", they're about supporting opportunity for all. But even if they weren't, the fact remains that under the current policy, many students who want to focus on their studies are forced to borrow for food. And that is simply intolerable in a civilised society.

So, it's good to see that the government is at least costing the option of reuniversalisation. What's not good to see is how quickly they're trying to back away from it. In an election campaign where they're struggling to win a fourth term, Labour desperately needs to give people a reason to support them. It can only do this by showing us a clear left-wing vision and going places National can not and will not go on worker's rights, equality, and social services. If they can't or won't do that, then they have only themselves to blame when they lose.

So would reuniversalisation be affordable? The upfront cost is $2 billion over four years, which would make it a hefty policy indeed. However, much of that money is spent anyway (at least on a cashflow basis) through the student loan scheme, and once this is accounted for, the cost shrinks to $728 million, or about $180 million per year. In good times, this would be significant, but perfectly affordable. But these aren't good times. More importantly, in their budget earlier in the year, Labour spent all the money, leaving them with a cap of about $750 million a year for new spending once health-sector growth is accounted for. This was intended to be a poison pill for a future National government, sabotaging their claim that they could afford massive tax cuts for the rich without either service cuts or more borrowing, but it also constrains Labour. $180 million is less than $750 million, but there will be other spending demands (not least the need for departmental budgets to keep pace with inflation); it could probably be done, but it would be the only significant thing they could do, their "one big idea" for an election campaign or a budget. So, in the short-term, Labour's incremental approach seems to be the best we can hope for (and the costing can be seen as a way for labour to make the case for this to its potential coalition partners, all of whom want to see the reintroduction of a universal student allowance).

Of course, none of this would be an issue if Labour hadn't cut taxes - and on this front I can't help but notice that the $180 million a year cost of a reuniversalised student allowance is only slightly less than the $184 million a year the rich gain due to Labour's shifting of the 39% tax threshold. So, when given a choice between funding opportunity for all and giving money to the rich, Labour chose the latter. Some "left-wing" government!

Carnival of the Liberals

The 69th Carnival of the Liberals is now up at Stump Lane.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Climate change: weak

Last week, the Australian government released the Garnaut Report, an independent analysis of climate change and climate change policy, which recommended the rapid implementation of a broad-based emissions trading scheme. A key recommendation of the report was that the government should not hand out free permits to polluters or ease the impact on householders by cutting fuel excise taxes.

Today, the Australian government released its response in the form of a Green paper [PDF] (summary report here; overview of preferred positions here). In it, they back away from Garnaut's strong recommendations. In particular, they propose cutting fuel taxes "on a cent for cent basis" to reduce the initial price impact, 90% free allocations for "emissions intensive trade-exposed industries", and 60 - 90% free allocations for "strongly affected" (but not trade exposed) industries (coal-fired electricity generation is expected to be the main recipient). The net effect of this will be to substantially weaken the effectiveness of the scheme (at least around transport), while repeating the same mistakes that allowed the European ETS to turn into a giant lolly scramble which delivered windfall profits to polluters.

Still, at least they'll be including the majority of their emissions by 2010. Whereas New Zealand will only just be getting started. Far from "leading the world", we're behind the Aussies - the Aussies! - on this. Helen Clark should be hanging her head in shame.

Oh, and one other note: while the Australians want to link with international markets, they won't be linking with us. They will accept CDM and JI credit, and CERs created under the Kyoto Protocol, but they will not accept any Kyoto Assigned Amount Units (AAU) before 2013 due to concerns about Eastern European "hot air". Since our scheme relies on AAU for international transfers, then New Zealand firms will not be able to sell their reductions to Australians. Neither will they be able to buy reductions from Australia - they will not be backing their Australian units with Kyoto credit or allowing them to be converted for international sale. So effectively the Australians are creating an isolated market for themselves, with a one-way flow of credits in. They're probably big enough to do that, but its a very different path from the (almost) open market New Zealand is proposing.