Tuesday, March 31, 2009



A democratic deficit in the supercity III

DPF has an interesting post about another aspect of the proposed Auckland supercity's democratic deficit: unequal voting power. The proposed council has 10 members representing wards, but as DPF points out, they represent wildly different numbers of voters:

  • Rodney 54,000/1 = 54,000
  • Waitemata 261,000/2 = 130,500
  • Waitakere 198,000/2 = 99,000
  • Tamaki-makau-rau 397,000/2 = 198,500
  • Manukau 387,000/2 = 193,500
  • Hunua 72,000/1 = 72,000
So, the vote of someone in South Auckland is worth only half the vote of someone out west, and a quarter the vote of the farmers of Rodney. This is British levels of malapportionment. And its even worse for the Maori representatives:
But even more out of kilter is the proposal for there to be 3/23 seats reserved for Maori - two elected by voters on the Maori electoral roll, and one appointed by mana whenua. But many Maori do not go on the Maori roll - only about 60% do.

Now population of Auckland is around 1.37 million. 11% of that is Maori which is 0.15 million. However say 40% are on general roll and 60% on Maori roll. So 0.09 million on Maori roll and 1.28 million on general roll.

Three Maori Councillors for 90,000 persons on Maori roll is one per 30,000. Ten Ward Councillors for those on general roll of 1.28 million is one per 128,000.

I support Maori representation in local government just as I do for Parliament, but it has to be on the same population basis as everyone else (something the Electoral Act gets right).

Not only is this malapportionment unfair, it is also completely unnecessary. It doesn't take very long mucking around with a spreadsheet to work out that by ditching at-large election and varying the number of councillors per ward, you can get central Auckland to within a 1.5% tolerance even within the tiny council size the report insists upon:

AuckCouncil

That doesn't solve the problem of Maori representation, of course - the two alternatives (one councillor representing 90,000 voters or two representing 45,000 each) are both significantly unfair (neither does it solve the problem of the voters of the Auckland CBD not being within any ward). Doubling the size of the council to about 45 members (one councillor per 32000 voters in central Auckland) largely solves this, but requires wards to be further subdivided to give a manageable field size, and still leaves significant malapportionment in rural areas. Either way, the Royal Commission's proposal is simply untenable on democratic grounds.

Fiji: no immunity for murder

One of the first actions of Fiji's military regime after the coup was to force the President to promulgate a decree granting them full and unconditional immunity from criminal, civil and professional proceedings for actions relating to the overthrow of the government. One of the concerns around this was that it would be used by military thugs who had killed people to get away with murder, and they have tried to do just that. But now the courts have ruled that there is no immunity for murder:

THE Immunity Promulgation of 2007 is only applicable to acts that led to the removal of officials of the legislative and executive arms of government, the High Court in Suva ruled yesterday.

Justice Daniel Goundar ruled the Immunity Promulgation does not immune [sic] anyone from prosecution for an offence of murder allegedly committed in the process of removing the officials.

For that reason, Justice Goundar said, Corporal Maika Vuniwawa was not immune from prosecution for the charge of murder.

The murder charge is over the death of Nimilote Verebasaga, who was taken to a military camp on January 5, 2007, and came out in a bodybag. Vuniwawa is accused of beating him to a pulp. And hopefully, this ruling will mean that there will finally be justice for his death.

The end of indefinite detention?

Since the mid 1990's, the New Zealand government has pursued a policy of indefinite detention without trial against those claiming refugee status or who cannot be deported from New Zealand. The policy was cruel, inhumane, and violated fundamental human rights; it was also completely ineffective, an exercise in pointless sadism. And following the outcry over the detentions of Iranian refugees Thomas Yadegary, Ali Reza Panah and Amir Mohebbi it seems to have been largely discontinued. On 23 May 2007, there were 51 people detained under the Immigration Act, the longest for more than three years. But according to documents released under the Official Information Act, that number had dropped to four on 1 March 2009:

2009detentions

(s59 allows someone to be detained for up to 72 hours pending the execution of a removal order; s60 (6) (a) and (b) require detention for those claiming refugee status after being served with a removal order, and those who are refusing to cooperate in their own removal)

So, a 90% reduction in the course of a couple of years simply because people started paying attention. I'd call that a success.

It may be short-lived, however. The government's new Immigration Bill - still on the Order Paper, though not a high priority - would massively extend detention powers and entrench the use of secret evidence in immigration cases. So having finally backed away from an evil and pointless policy, the government looks keen on repeating it.

Correction: Corrected basic maths failure.

And so it has come to this...

When the UK government passed anti-terrorist legislation giving the police more and more powers, people warned that it was only a matter of time before they were used against ordinary political protestors. And now it has happened. Overnight, five people in Plymouth were detained under anti-terrorist legislation in the leadup to the G20 summit in London. Initial reports - such as that from the Independent linked above - accused them of possessing "weapons, suspicious devices and suspected extremist material" (its repeated like a litany in that story). Later reports talked of "explosives". Clearly we have all been saved from a dangerous terrorist plot by extremists! But the reality turns out to be a little different:

Paul Netherton, Devon and Cornwall assistant chief constable, said imitation handguns and an imitation Kalashnikov, as well as devices made from fireworks, had been seized. The deactivated weapons were "not major" and "probably not even lethal".

Officers said they were investigating the possibility the group planned to attend the G20 summit, which they described as an "obvious line of inquiry".

A police source told the Guardian that initial inquiries indicate the five were "not planning a Guy Fawkes plot". "I think it was more designed to disrupt than injure or kill," the source said.

So, BB guns and firecrackers - both of which are legal in the UK. But it gets better. That "extremist material"?
Asked to clarify the nature of the material, Netherton said: "It's political, it relates to political organisations, it's not extreme but it's a different political view. It leads to motives and things like that."
And that's it. Holding "a different political view" is now prima facie evidence of terrorism in the UK. And to cap it all off, the search which led to all of this was sparked by... graffiti:
Netherton said the investigation was sparked when the 25-year-old man was arrested for spray-painting on a wall in Plymouth city centre. He would not comment on the nature of the graffiti.
So, spray-painting walls equals terrorism. Cthulhu knows what they think of people who protest in the streets.

This highlights perfectly the toxic recipe: anti-terror legislation plus a paranoid police force hostile to democracy equals protestors being equated with suicide bombers. It's dangerous to human rights, its dangerous to democracy, but its also a danger to the state itself. Because in western, democratic societies we have a particular view of states which equate protest with terrorism: they deserve to be overthrown.

Not good enough

So, Richard Worth has been given a "bollocking" and forced to resign his directorships and shareholdings over his conflict of interest between his business interests and Ministerial role during a trip to India. That's a good start, but its not good enough. With evidence emerging that Worth had deliberately misled - or at least conveniently "forgotten" to mention - the relevant business interests, it suggests that its not just an innocent mistake. And that means a telling off from the PM isn't enough. Instead, Worth should go. Conflicts of interest and Ministers abusing their office to feather their own nests are not something we can afford to be tolerant of. But clearly, the "party of business" feels differently.

Then there's this bit (as reported by the Herald):

Mr Key said he would not have sanctioned the trip if he had known Dr Worth was a director and shareholder in an aviation company which was in a joint venture with an Invercargill flight training academy.
But isn't it his job to know? The relevant facts are right there in Worth's statement of pecuniary interests [PDF], and are presumably in the equivalent Cabinet version as well. Does Key bother to read these? Or does he just turn a blind eye?

Monday, March 30, 2009



"Monitoring"

Earlier in the month, Minister of Labour Kate Wilkinson warned employers not to abuse their new 90-day fire at will powers, saying that the government would monitor how employers were using the law. So I was quite surprised to read this section in Parliament's annual financial review of the Department of Labour [PDF]:

The Employment Relations Amendment Act 2008 amended the Employment Relations Act 2000 to enable small and medium-sized employers to hire staff for trial periods of up to 90 days. We inquired about the impact of the recently passed legislation on the department’s workload. The department reprioritised its work programme to accommodate the additional work. Its focus has been on providing information to employers on the Act, and letting small employers know what they have to do to implement the new provisions. Only small numbers of inquiries have been received to date. The department has updated its online employment contract to provide the option of a standard clause. The department has no way of monitoring those who lose their jobs within 90 days, other than through the complaints procedure, nor has it the ability to report positive or negative impacts on the labour market. Outside of this administrative data, it will have access to data on the numbers of people returning to benefits administered by the Ministry of Social Development within a 90-day period.
(Emphasis added)

So, basically it has no way of telling whether the law is being abused or not. Some "monitoring". The warning was just spin, lies-to-children to get us to shut up and go away.

More hypocrisy

The government is planning to tax plastic bags in an effort to reduce their use.

I am now awaiting the cries of "nanny state!" and Libertarians screaming that the government will take their plastic bags from their cold, dead hands. But strangely, all I hear is deafening silence. Is it only "nannying" if the left does it?

(And for the record, I think National's plan is a good one. Plastic bags impose significant disposal costs on society. Those costs should be met by their end users: shoppers. The decision to target only supermarkets seems odd, but they are the key users, and the aim here is clearly to make sure shoppers clearly see the cost, rather than having it absorbed into other prices (which is what would happen if they applied it at the level of plastic bag producers/importers)).

A conflict of interest

That didn't take long. Having been a Minister for less than six months, National's Richard Worth is up to his neck in a conflict of interest scandal. According to the Dominion-Post, Worth took a holiday to India at his own expense to promote his own business interests, including overseeing the signing of a memorandum of understanding between an Indian aviation club and the Southern Institute of Technology to provide aviation training as part of a joint venture with one of his companies. So far, so good - there's nothing improper about that. But while there, he also spoke at a formal ceremony in his role as Internal Affairs Minister on... the benefits of New Zealand for aviation training. In other words, he was using his Ministerial position to tout for business, and so enrich himself.

Worth sees nothing wrong with this. Neither, apparently, does John Key. But its a clear mixing of Ministerial and personal roles, and a clear violation of Cabinet Manual guidelines which highlight the importance of appearances and propriety as much as reality. Where Ministers are concerned, the mere perception of a conflict is damaging to the integrity of and public trust in the government. Worth and the rest of Cabinet need to be reminded of that immediately. Otherwise, we are going to be seeing more, and more serious conflicts of interest from Ministers in the future.

Comparing FOI regimes: NZ vs Australia

(Cross-posted from Larvatus Prodeo, and aimed mainly at Australian readers)

A couple of years ago I wanted to trace the government's decision-making process on how forestry and agriculture would be included in its then-planned (and now "suspended") Emissions Trading Scheme. So I wrote to the Minister and asked. Within a couple of months (there was a screwup with the post) I had a thick binder containing every Cabinet paper and minute on the issue over the previous eighteen months - hundreds of pages in total. It cost me nothing.

This is not an unusual experience for me. What makes it possible is New Zealand's freedom of information law: the Official Information Act 1982.

The OIA was passed around the same time as Australia's Freedom of Information Act. But as the above story shows, it produces quite different results. Journalists, academics, lobby groups, opposition politicians and ordinary troublemakers like me are routinely given sensitive documents they would never be allowed to see in Australia. This allows us not only to build a better picture of what our government is doing - it also allows us to hold it to account.

There are two reasons for this difference. The first is a fundamental difference in philosophy. The OIA starts with a principle of availability:

"information shall be made available unless there is good reason for withholding it."

This broad statement shapes the entire Act, and gives it an entirely different structure from its Australian equivalent. The FOIA is class-based, defining types of documents that are exempt: cabinet documents, internal working documents, documents affecting enforcement of law and protection of public safety. The OIA, OTOH, is interest-based, identifying the interests which provide reason for secrecy: national security or foreign relations, privacy, legal privilege, "free and frank" advice, commercial sensitivity (and any of these latter reasons can be overridden by the public interest). One result is that the exemptions are harder to game - the government can't run everything through Cabinet to make it secret, and we've nailed down exactly what those interests are and when they apply (see for example the Ombudsmen's guideline on "free and frank advice" [PDF]). Another is that everything is potentially OIAable; its just a question of which interests apply at the time.

The second reason is that the government has generally got with the program and accepted the Act in the spirit is was intended. A public service that was suspicious and defensive in 1982 has transformed itself into one that is open and accessible. From being a threat, the possibility of advice being subject to an OIA request is now seen as a discipline by public servants: it makes them perform better. For example, here's Marie Shroff, former Secretary to the Cabinet and Clerk of the Executive Council, on the issue [DOC]:

If I, as a civil servant, write a Cabinet paper which I expect to be sought for public release I am going to be extraordinarily careful to get my facts right, to avoid trespassing into politics, to give comprehensive reasons for and against a proposal, and to think very carefully about my recommendations. My advice will therefore be balanced, accurate and comprehensive.

Ministers have been less accepting, but over the years the OIA has become embedded, and they understand they can't get away with hiding things. Its telling that while the Act includes a Cabinet veto on release, it hasn't been used for over twenty years; the government accepts that it is bound by the Act and the decisions of the Ombudsmen - even unto releasing highly sensitive costings of an election policy mere days before an election.

Some other differences:

  • The OIA covers "information" rather than "documents". So it applies to stuff even if it is not written down;
  • charging is the exception rather than the rule, and no charge can be made for deciding whether or not information can be made available. I've made almost a hundred requests, and I've been charged on only two of them (local government, under its equivalent legislation, is much worse at this).
  • The OIA has a shorter time limit - 20 days rather than 30, which is generally adhered to (Ministers get stick if their departments are slack on processing OIAs).
  • NZ's complaints mechanism is mana-based rather than legal. In Australia, you complain to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, and if you win, the government appeals to the High Court until you run out of money. In New Zealand, you go to the Ombudsmen, who cost nothing, and have both expertise in the Act and the mana to make the decision stick.

The NZ law isn't perfect - it doesn't apply to Parliament, or the courts, the time limits are still too long, and there's no real penalty for non-compliance. But it is highly effective, and has led to tremendous cultural change in government (here's SMH FOI blogger Rick Snell on the issue). While the changes promoted by Faulkner will undoubtedly be an improvement, Australia's legislation will remain lightyears behind the NZ model.

New Kiwi blog

Fickle Cycle.

Sunday, March 29, 2009



Justice for Bush's torturers?

When the Bush Administration adopted a policy of torture and harsh treatment towards suspected terrorists, they acted as if they had total impunity. They thought they could order their captives to be beaten, starved, frozen, subjected to "stress positions" and waterboarded, and that there would be no penalty for doing so.

They were wrong.

A Spanish judge - Baltasar Garz√≥n, the man who went after Pinochet - has just passed a case to the prosecutor's office. That case cites six top Bush Administration officials for creating the legal framework to justify torture and circumvent the Geneva Conventions. The officials include former Justice Department lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee, plus former White House General Counsel (and later Attorney-General) Alberto Gonzales, former DOD general counsel William Haynes, former under secretary of defence for policy Douglas Feith, and former Vice-presidential chief of staff David Addington. Yoo and Bybee wrote legal opinions purporting to justify torture; the others received and implemented them. There is a clear parallel with the Nuremberg "judge's trial", where Nazi jurists and lawyers responsible for developing and implementing legal policies which led to human rights abuses on a mass scale were held accountable for them. The same will hopefully happen to Bush’s torturers.

The case is expected to proceed and result in arrest warrants being issued. No-one expects the US government to extradite (Cthulhu forefend any US politician being held accountable for their actions, particularly by foreigners), but the existence of the warrants will be a significant limit on the freedom of these torturers. Like Kissinger, they won't be setting foot outside the US ever again. Beyond that, there's always the hope that opinion in the US will change. The struggle for international justice is long, and we've seen cases where people have woken up one morning and learned with horror that they will no longer be protected and that they will have to answer for their crimes. And hopefully that will happen to Gonzales, Yoo, et al.

Friday, March 27, 2009



More on SOE bonuses

This morning I posted about TV3's story on bonus payments at SOEs, suggesting that we might need a bit more information than TV3 has given us before leaping to judgement, and that there is a world of difference between rank and file employees receiving a small fraction of their salary in performance pay, and banker-style executive theft. Fortunately, some more information has since come to light. Two of the worst offenders - NZ Post and Solid Energy - in fact have performance pay for ordinary workers written into their collective contracts. So, some of the bonuses they pay out comes directly from delivering more letters or digging more coal, and goes to ordinary workers rather than fatcat management.

How much? According to a source, about 7,000 workers at NZ Post are eligible for the Business Unit Improvement Programme, receiving a maximum of $1,000 each a year (which is on the order of 3 - 4% of their base salary - not excessive at all). Doing the maths, that adds up to $7 million. But NZ Post paid out $20 million in bonuses. So where did the other $13 million go? Upper management - and tilted heavily towards the top.

Here's the kicker: in 2008, NZ Post reported an annual profit of $110.2 million, but passed on only $23.5 million in dividends to the government. So, their management thinks it is worth more than 50% of the amount it gives to us, its shareholders. This year their results are worse - the second half of 2008 saw flat profits and the half-year dividend cut to $6.9 million. As the bonus figures are likely to be calendar rather than financial years, this means that its management thought they were worth as much money as they gave to us, despite a truly terrible performance.

Executive bonuses are "justified" on the basis of performance. If management does well and makes more money for shareholders, they should be rewarded. But what we are seeing here is a management which takes a substantial fraction of its "improved performance" for itself, and then rewards itself for failure.

There is a word for this. That word is theft. NZ Post's management is stealing from us, its shareholders, and taking money which could be used to pay for our schools and hospitals to line their own pockets. Its board is violating its fiduciary duty to look after our interests and instead letting the executives loot the company and capture the profits for themselves. That is not just wrong - it is illegal - and the Minister should step in and do something about it.

A democratic deficit in the supercity II

Oh joy. Not only is the Royal Commission proposing to massively reduce democratic representation and stack the deck in favour of incumbents and candidates with name recognition - it's also proposing to do this under the least fair possible system: the block-vote. From the report (Ch 13, p. 325):

Based on the evidence it has heard, the Commission does not consider there to be any fundamental problems with the local electoral system. This is consistent with the findings of the Local Government Commission review in 2008, which concluded that generally the Local Electoral Act 2001 is achieving its statutory purpose of providing flexibility and uniformity, and allowing for diversity.

A number of submitters proposed that in future, councils should adopt single transferable voting. The Commission makes no recommendation on this, because it was not persuaded that the adoption of this voting system would assist in solving Auckland’s problems. It proposes that the 2010 local body elections in Auckland be held under the first-past-the-post system. The Auckland Council would not be precluded from changing to an alternative voting system in future, in accordance with the provisions of the Local Electoral Act.

What this will mean is that in 2010 Aucklanders will be expected to elect ten at-large representatives. Looking at DHB elections, the field people will be selected from will be around 40 to 50, and could be much higher - an unmanageably large number even at the lower estimates. The top ten candidates will be elected under FPP, which means a narrow plurality will be able to leverage itself into total dominance of at-large seats, and likely a majority on the council.

This is not a recipe for democracy. Instead, it's a recipe for a return to the old FPP dictatorship - one where 30% of the population gets to lord it over the rest of us and exclude us from power entirely by rigging the system in their favour.

Oh, and to just add a final perfectly-sculpted turd to the cake: they want to move to a four-year term in order to "reduce undesirable election year influences" (otherwise known as "accountability to the public"). So, fewer representatives, elected by less democratic means, for longer. Why didn't they just recommend the appointment of a hereditary Baron and be done with it?

But then it was a royal commission, so the fact that they've produced an elitist, undemocratic answer which would dramatically reduce accountability to the public really isn't that surprising.

A democratic deficit in the supercity

The report of the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance has been released, and is online here. Cutting through the crap, they are proposing merging all Auckland's councils into one body, led by a single mayor (who will not have airs of feudalism). As for the council, they are proposing a single council of 23 representatives (10 at large, 10 wards, and 3 Maori - one of which is appointed), supplemented by local councils with reduced powers in Waitemata, Waitakere, Tamaki-makau-rau and Manukau.

So, 23 representatives for the whole of Auckland. One per 50,000 people. About the same number as they have Members of Parliament (23 vs 22 - the difference is that one of them won't even be elected). This is simply inadequate and will lead to "representatives" largely out of touch with their constituents. Using at-large election will make it even worse, raising the cost of competing for a seat while favouring incumbents and candidates with name recognition. We already have regular complaints about the size of the field in DHB elections; the Royal Commission would impose that on our largest city, making its elections a joke.

(I haven't seen what electoral system they are recommending, but under such circumstances STV seems to be the only option. using the block-vote to elect half the council at large is a recipe for undemocratic outcomes and utter dominance by a small plurality)

In his press release Rodney Hide at least seems to have some concerns about representation. He's right to. This is a plan to turn our largest city into a virtual dictatorship. We should not stand for it.

Timid

During the 2007 election, the Australian Labor Party promised significant reform of that country's Freedom of Information Act. They've finally got round to releasing their specific proposals, and while its correct to say that it is the most far-reaching reform of freedom of information in Australia since the FOIA was passed in 1982, it seems very timid indeed from a New Zealand perspective. The full proposals (including both draft bills) are here, but here's how The Age described them:

Application fees will be scrapped, cabinet documents will be made available sooner and a pro-disclosure culture encouraged under a Rudd Government overhaul of Freedom of Information laws announced today.

Under the changes, announced by Cabinet Secretary and Special Minister of State John Faulkner in Sydney, all application fees will be abolished, and all charges for a person seeking access to their own information will be removed.

The first hour of decision-making time will be free for all FOI requests, and there will be a five-hour charge-free decision-making period for requests made by not-for-profit organisations and journalists.

Cabinet documents, which are currently kept secret for 30 years, will be available after 20 years, and the period for which cabinet notebooks are kept under wraps will be shortened from 50 to 30 years.

The fact that they charge for decision-making time - the time spent working out how to refuse a request - at all is an obscenity, no matter how much lipstick they stick on it. And while they're shortening the non-disclosure period for Cabinet documents, the fact that they have a blanket exemption at all undermines the entire Act. With a FOIA like this, you wonder how the Australians manage to hold their government to account at all (and the answer is "they don't").

There are some very welcome changes. Existing exemptions around business, research, the economy and confidential material are weakened and put on an NZ-style footing of presuming disclosure unless it would be contrary to the public interest (actually, we presume disclosure, and reasons to withhold may in turn be outweighed by the public interest). And it nails down some of the factors which need to be considered when judging where the public interest lies - and those which can not be. The latter include:

(a) access to the document could result in embarrassment to the Commonwealth Government, or cause a loss of confidence in the Commonwealth Government;

(b) access to the document could result in the applicant misinterpreting or misunderstanding the document;

(c) the author of the document was (or is) of high seniority in the agency to which the request for access to the document was made;

(d) access to the document could result in confusion or unnecessary debate.

"Unnecessary debate". What a lovely term. But the fact they're having to say this explicitly says a lot about the mindset of the Australian public service. Twenty-five years after the FOIA was passed, they're still hiding behind bureaucratic secrecy and terms like "unnecessary debate". It's practically British...

Justice for Binyam Mohamed?

In 2002, Binyam Mohamed was arrested in Pakistan when he was attempting to return home to the UK after a visit to Afghanistan. He was beaten by Pakistani authorities, hung from straps, and threatened with execution, before being rendered by the US to Morocco. There, he was tortured by having his penis and chest cut with scalpels. And all the while, he was asked questions clearly supplied by British authorities.

Now, the UK's Attorney-General has ordered an investigation into his torture, to find who in MI5 colluded in it and whether they should face criminal charges. It's good news, but at the same time, I am deeply cynical about the chances of success. The British establishment protects its own and holds itself accountable to no-one, especially the law. While MI5 has reportedly promised its full cooperation, in practice they will stonewall and deny investigators access to crucial evidence on spurious "security" grounds. And by making it a criminal investigation, the government has ensured that the focus will be very much on the individual agents at the bottom (who they can spin as "bad apples"), and ignore their suited superiors who ordered and sanctioned this collusion, or the politicians who made the decision to cooperate and collude with the US in torture and rendition, regardless of UK or international law. In short, its not enough. In addition to the criminal investigation, we need a Parliamentary inquiry to ensure that the actions of those at the top are laid bare and that they too can be held accountable.

Context

From the fuss being made over Helen Clark's nomination to head the UNDP, you'd think she was going off to head something big and important. And she is. But last night, I was shocked when I heard a reporter breathlessly mention the UNDP's total budget: US$5 billion, or about NZ$9 billion. NZ$9 billion for the entire world.

To put that in context, its just under an eighth of the NZ government budget [PDF], and smaller than our education, social development, or health budgets. We alone spend more money on any one of those things than the UN gets for the entire developing world.

Kindof puts it in context, neh?

SOE bonuses

You might think that I'd be condemning last night's revelation by TV3 that SOEs had paid out more than $46 million in bonuses last year - but I want more information first. The warning sign is this bit:

Most recently broadcast and telecommunications SOE Kordia paid $1.3 million in bonuses, but they do not enter the top five, headed by the New Zealand Post group, who paid $19.8 million to 10,000 employees.
(Emphasis added).

NZ Post's bonuses seem to be rather broadly distributed. There is a world of difference between rank and file staff getting a small fraction of their salary - say, $500 or $1,000 - extra if the company they work for has a good year, and the sorts of inflated executive bonuses seen in e.g. the banking sector. The former is profit sharing. The latter is theft. And unfortunately, TV3's story didn't give us enough information to tell which is going on here.

And that said, even if NZ Post is rewarding most of its employees, that $20 million won't be distributed evenly, and a large fraction - if not most of it - will be going to the people at the top. And that is something we should be concerned about. Yes, the private sector pays bonuses. But only because their shareholders are too weak and too powerless and too outvoted by large institutional investors with an interest in mutual back-scratching to stop it. But as much as their managers and the SOE Act might want to pretend, SOEs are not in the private sector, their shareholders - you and me - have higher expectations of their behaviour, and we have the power through the government to force them to comply. And we should. Every dollar given out to managers in the "performance pay" scam ("performance pay" in a monopoly; that's brilliant!) is a dollar that could be used instead to pay for schools and hospitals for the rest of us. We should insist that the money is passed on to the government in dividends, rather than stolen by the management team. And we should hold the government politically accountable if it is not.

Thursday, March 26, 2009



Climate change: "harmonization"

Brian Fallow has an interesting piece in the Herald today about the government's plans to harmonise our ETS with Australia's, in which he highlights an important difference between the two schemes. New Zealand's carbon market is completely open - people are free to buy and sell permits internationally in search of the best price. This is a fundamental design feature, a requirement both of the limited size of our domestic market (which, if closed, could allow "strategic behaviour" - market manipulation and fraud - by large polluters), and of the need to allow first forest owners and then polluters access to sufficient buyers and sellers of credits.

Australia's market, OTOH, is closed. while it allows permits to be bought into the system, it does not allow them to be exported. And this makes the whole idea of harmonization rather pointless. It's even more pointless when you recognise that they have a price cap built into the system - something which can only work in a closed market.

The Australians will be unwilling to change these aspects of their market. Which means that "harmonization" for us means surrender: scrapping our own ETS and joining their one as a giant trans-Tasman market. Our polluters will be happy with that, as it gives them both a further delay and a whole new bunch of politicians to lobby and special plead at (as if the Australian ETS isn't bad enough already). It is also likely to mean lower joint targets, as the Australians are fundamentally uncommitted to serious action on climate change.

So, even when taken seriously, "harmonization" is simply a stalking horse for inaction - inaction we cannot afford.

Don't get me wrong - in the long-term, we need to work with Australia and other countries to link up our respective markets and effectively form one global carbon market. But all that requires is agreement on units and on what third-party units and reductions will be accepted (required in order to prevent "laundering" of shoddy "reductions"). The decisions we have already made in these areas are already compatible with other markets (particularly the EU), and so we shouldn't need to delay the implementation of our scheme at all. Anyone who says we do is simply engaging in deliberate foot-dragging.

Tonga: not guilty

Five men, including a People's Representative, have been acquitted of sedition charges over speeches they gave in the lead-up to the 2006 riots:

A jury this afternoon at the Nuku'alofa Supreme Court found five men not guilty of sedition charges relating to the riots and destruction of Nuku'lofa, November 16, 2006.

Chief Justice Anthony Ford had last week discharged a sixth accused Siale Fihaki of sedition charges due to insufficient evidence.

The jury of seven men delivered their unanimous verdict in court at around 1:40pm this afternoon after deliberating in closed chambers for about 30 minutes.

The government has now prosecuted over a dozen people - including five sitting People's Representatives - for sedition over the riots, and every single one of them has been acquitted. I guess Tongan juries know political persecution when they see it. The question is what will the kleptocracy do now - will they bow to the public and install a truly democratic political system, or continue to try and cling to power through oppression?

The War On Terror is over!

Linguisitcally, at least. In an Orwellian move, it is now being called the "overseas contingency operations". Not that htis changes the reality on the ground at all: the US is still occupying Iraq, bombing Afghanistan, and murdering civilians in both. And as long as they are doing so, they will continue to serve as recruiters for terrorist networks.

No press freedom in Malaysia

The Malaysian government is feeling unpopular. After 50 years of total rule, the governing National Front coalition lost its two-thirds majority in last year's elections, and has recently come close to losing power completely after several parties have defected to the opposition. Their response has been unprecedented authoritarianism: more charges against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, arrests of bloggers, sedition charges against opposition MPs, and now a ban on two major opposition newspapers. No reason has been given for the ban, but the reason is clear: these newspapers are doing their job, with a consequent effect on the government's popularity.

Malaysia is formally a democracy. There are important by-elections scheduled for next month. But it is difficult to see how the people will be able to have a free and fair vote when the major voices of the opposition are effectively silenced. But again, that's the point... a party at the end of its political life is trying every trick in the book, regardless of legality, in order to cling to power. But given their tactics, we should all hope that they fail.

Reminder: Drinking Liberally

Drinking Liberally is on in both Wellington and Christchurch tonight:

When: 17:30, Thursday, 26 March
Where: Southern Cross Bar, Abel Smith St, Wellington
Who: Andrew Little on “the greater Labour movement and how it can mobilise and lobby against the current National Government”

When: 18:30, Thursday, 26 March
Where: Goodbye Blue Monday, The Lanes, Christchurch
Who: Therese Arseneau on “elections and prospects for future coalitions”

[Hat-tip: The Standard]

Wednesday, March 25, 2009



Czech government falls

The Czech Republic's centre-right government has lost a confidence motion by a single vote, after four MPs crossed the floor to vote with the opposition Social Democrats. The cabinet must now resign, and the President will appoint a new government which holds the confidence of Parliament. Looking at the numbers, that means a combination of Social Democrats, Communists, and the former ODS and Green MPs. Elections will only be held if three attempts to form a government fail.

This is highly embarrassing for the Czech government. Not only do they currently hold the rotating Presidency of the European Union - President Obama was about to pay them a visit. Now he'll be talking to a powerless caretaker - or a left-wing government.

Out of the mouths of fools...

Roger Douglas is useful for something: he says the things the government would rather were unsaid. For example, the other day the government announced that it had a long-term goal to give billions to the rich by slashing the top tax rate to 30%. Today, Douglas points out the obvious:

National's goal of a top personal, company and trustee tax rate of 30 cents in the dollar is laudable - but it must remember that there is no such thing as a free lunch, ACT New Zealand Finance Spokesman Sir Roger Douglas said today.

"It is pointless setting goals around tax revenue without first looking at the other side of the Government's accounts - the expenditure side," Sir Roger said.

"If we cut taxes without reducing the overall levels of Government spending, then the difference will need to be made up by future generations of tax payers.

"Get real New Zealand - you can't have tax cuts AND big Government," Sir Roger said.

(By "big" government, Douglas means the whole structure of publicly funded health, education, and a decent social safety net rather than leaving the sick, the out-of-work and the old to starve and die on the streets.)

According to Treasury's 2008 detailed model data, cutting the top tax rate to 30% would cost $1.6 billion a year. That's 6% of the total personal tax take, a huge budget hole. According to the Budget 2008 summary tables [PDF], that's more than we spend on the entire Ministry of Social Development; its more than we spend on the police, its more than we spend on courts and corrections combined. Slashing government revenue by that much when we are running enormous deficits is a recipe for bankruptcy. So why do we let the government pretend it can do it without gutting government services or lumping everyone with debt?

Ng on Earth Hour

Keith Ng has an excellent post up on this weekend's Earth Hour, pointing out that there are much better things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint. The mathematics is inescapable:

Blacking out the entire house for one hour every year = 420g reduction per year.

Replacing one lightbulb with an energy saving equivalent = 9,950g reduction per year.

So, rather than turning the lights out, we should replace them (especially considering that that's 10kg per year for the lifetime of the bulb).

He has a point - Earth Hour is mostly a symbolic exercise. But the real benefit comes from getting people to think about energy efficiency, to do that maths (or get someone else to do it for them), and make those changes. And hopefully, as a result of the publicity, people will.

He also has an extended rant about the "debate" over banning incandescent lightbulbs (or rather, setting a minimum energy performance standard) during the election last year. I also am appalled by the stupidity of National's running against this. It's a classic case of market failure - the market can't pursue the obvious solution of more efficient lighting because the costs are not transparent. Regulation is perfectly justified in such circumstances, even within the free market paradigm. But this was more a case of National seizing on something to whip up hate and demonstrate its anti-environment cred than any rational policy making. Unfortunately, thanks to their stupidity, we all get to suffer. Thanks, National!

Member's Day

Today is a Member's Day, and while the government is stealing an hour of Member's time to debate its Budget Policy Statement, at least they're not just going into urgency. The real business will start around 17:00 (or 17:30 if Question Time goes late) with the Committee Stage of the Wanganui District Council (Prohibition of Gang Insignia) Bill. The bill's sponsor, Chester Borrows, has an SOP which would specifically exclude tattoos from the definition of "gang insignia"; it will be interesting to see if it passes (and why weren't the Greens proposing this? Lift your game!)

Any time remaining will be filled with the rest of the Committee Stage of Darien Fenton's Minimum Wage and Remuneration Amendment Bill. Her latest proposed amendment is to add a schedule to the bill (complete with procedures to modify it through Orders In Council) listing political parties which support it; the aim is supposedly to force consultation (or an embarrassing statement that there wasn't any) on any future amendments, but it comes across as simply a ridiculous stunt. The public know which parties support the minimum wage - we can read the newspapers and look at the voting record. And we are quite capable of recognising when a government is acting in a high-handed manner and not consulting anyone (it is in fact the usual state of affairs). Its a pointless amendment which conflates the realms of law and politics and seeks to legislate political relationships, and I'll be quite happy to see it voted down.

We're still a long way from a ballot yet - at least three Member's Days at minimum, more if they drag their feet. But when they finally get down to first readings, the withdrawal of Craig Foss's (now redundant) Electoral Finance Amendment Bill and the delay of the Maori party's Foreshore and Seabed repeal means that we'll get one quickly.

Has Clark got the job?

The Herald reports that Helen Clark has got the job as head of the UN Development Programme. Good news if its true - Clark is a natural for that sort of work. But it will also mean a by-election in Mt Albert - our first since the Te Tai Hauauru by-election in 2004. By-elections used to be fairly common, with an average of almost one a year between 1945 and 1985. Now we get them once every five years. MMP plays a role here, reducing sharply the number of by-elections arising from resignation, but there's another reason too: MPs just aren't dying in office anymore...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009



Public relations replaces policy II

Earlier in the month the government announced that they were spending $1 billion on state highways. It was apparent from the original press release that this was purely an exercise in PR, and that there was no actual new funding, but now Labour's Darren Hughes has uncovered the real kicker: they'll be cutting the maintenance budget to do it:

“I am staggered to read the fine print of Transport Minister Steven Joyce’s transport announcement last week,” Darren Hughes said. “The Government plans to reduce spending on local road renewal, maintenance and operation by $75 million over three years, and spending on renewal and maintenance of existing state highways by $122 million over the same period.
So, the government gets a headline, we get potholes. You couldn't make this stuff up if you tried...

Robbing workers

The government's defence of their plan to allow employers to steal our holidays is to talk about "choice". Employees can "choose" to surrender their holidays in exchange for money, just as they can "choose" what they will be paid and what hours they will work. The comparison isn't facetious; its a direct illustration of the realities of the workplace: the employer has the power, and nine times out of ten they make the rules and impose them on employees. "Choice" simply doesn't enter into it.

But they're also suggesting that its not such a great deal for employers anyway. For example, John Key in his press conference yesterday:

Mr Key said he did not believe employers would do this because there was no great advantage to them as they still had to pay out the fourth week. He said the swap would probably be decided on an annual basis. Swapping a week's leave for the money effectively gives employees a 2 per cent pay rise.
This, of course, assumes that employers will pay what those holidays are actually worth. To which you really have to ask: why the hell would they do that? It's also worth pointing out that they already have to - if you don't take your full leave entitlement, they eventually have to pay you for it one way or another (when you move on or are made redundant, for example). So they're paying that 2% anyway. The whole point of this move is to let them pay less than that, by using the imbalance of bargaining power to force workers to "choose" to accept a token payment ($50, $100, $200, whatever) in exchange for that extra week. The whole point is to let employers rob workers.

Its just another example of how National is redistributing wealth upwards into the fat pockets of its rich friends. The rich get tax cuts; everyone else gets to work longer for less pay for their greater profit. As I said yesterday, it is class warfare - and ordinary New Zealanders are the targets.

Fiji: thuggery

Something funny has been happening in Fiji. Prominent people "who are vocal against certain developments on the political front" (in the tortured circumlocution of the Fiji Times) are having their cars vandalised and their homes firebombed. Over the last month five journalists, politicians, businesswomen and unionists have had their houses and cars stoned in the middle of the night. Then over the weekend the attackers escalated, attacking the homes of former army officer Sakiusa Raivoce and Fiji Times editor-in-chief Netani Rika with Molotov cocktails.

What these people have in common is that they all support human rights, oppose the coup and want a quick return to democracy. In Fiji, that now apparently makes you a target for the thugs of the military regime and its supporters.

The authorities are completely uninterested. The police drag their feet, the military is absolutely silent. The regime has so far refused to condemn the attacks. And their collective silence speaks volumes.

Hypocrisy

Back in 2006, the (then-Labour) government passed the Appropriation (Parliamentary Expenditure Validation) Bill, which retrospectively validated Parliamentary Services expenditure in the wake of a nonsensical, retrospective reinterpretation by the Auditor-General. The rabids in the sewer (and some supposedly outside it) preached revolution.

Today, the (now-National) government introduced the Appropriation (2007/08 Financial Review) Bill, which among other things retrospectively validates various items of unapproved, unappropriated expenditure.

Will we see the same outpouring of outrage from the sewer, or will they finally admit that such retrospective validations are standard procedure and happen almost every year? Hmmm, I wonder...

"Good faith"

It seems we have elected a starry-eyed moron as Prime Minister:

Prime Minister John Key says the "good faith" of employers means employees will not be pressured into cashing in their fourth week of leave.
And if you believe that, I have a cycleway I'd like to sell you...

And this from a member of a political movement which derides the left as "utopian" and which prides itself on its hard-nosed, reality-based cynicism about human nature. According to conservatives, humans are inherently Bad People who Cannot Be Trusted; hence the concern about "incentives" and their belief that anything smurfier than dog-eat-dog can never work. Except, it seems, when they are trying to sell us something. What sort of fools does he think we are?

As for his contention that employers who offer take-it-or-leave-it contracts will be prosecuted, it's simply laughable. Oh yes, there might very well be a clause in the law declaring it to be an offence (though good luck getting that past National's rabid anti-worker caucus). But there are significant evidentiary problems in bringing such prosecutions, and fundamentally they rely on workers being aware enough of their rights and sufficiently unafraid of getting fired-at-will to complain. Given the problems there already are with enforcing existing entitlements around holidays, that is an unlikely proposition, and I doubt the government is going to devote resources to running a public education campaign showing a boss - their prime support group - being stuck in the slammer for trying to steal his workers' holidays. "We'd love to, but we just can't afford it. There's a recession on, you know..."

It is simply insulting to be fed such transparent bullshit, and it speaks volumes about Key's utter contempt for the rest of us that he would spout it. He thinks we are total rubes. I guess that's what a four-month honeymoon of the media lapping up your every word does to you. But if he's like this now, imagine how arrogant and contemptuous he'll be after three years...

Monday, March 23, 2009



The end of guilt by accusation?

The government is expected to scrap s92A this afternoon, according to the Dominion-Post. Good. The law would have introduced a guilt by accusation regime into New Zealand, in violation of the rights to due proces and natural justice. Overseas, such laws are primarily used to squash competitors and silence dissent. This is not a law we need in New Zealand. It is not a law we want in New Zealand. And I will be very glad to see it dumped (though constitutionally, having decided not to bring it into effect, the government should move urgency to repeal it - that would be a justified case for urgency, as compared to their usual reason of "avoiding public scrutiny").

Update: And while I was writing that, the government has issued its press release, announcing that s92A will not come into force, but will instead be reviewed and amended.

Show your support for the minimum remuneration bill

Unless the government pulls urgency again, Wednesday will be a Member's Day, and Darien Fenton's Minimum Wage and Remuneration Amendment Bill will be before the House again. Darien has organised a vigil to show support for the bill:

When: 07:30am - 10:00am, Wednesday, 25 March
Where: Parliament Buildings, Wellington

You can sign up on Facebook here.

[Hat-tip: The Hand Mirror]

So much for democracy in Afghanistan

Great. Having overthrown the Taliban and established democracy in Afghanistan, the US is now planning to subvert it from within by installing its own unelected satrap "alongside" the elected Afghan president:

The creation of a new chief executive or prime ministerial role is aimed at bypassing Karzai. In a further dilution of his power, it is proposed that money be diverted from the Kabul government to the provinces. Many US and European officials have become disillusioned with the extent of the corruption and incompetence in the Karzai government, but most now believe there are no credible alternatives, and predict the Afghan president will win re-election in August.
The attitudes on display here by Afghanistan's occupiers are pure arrogant colonialism. Afghanistan's constitution does not belong to Afghans, but is to be remade at the whim of foreign occupiers. Democratic elections are to be ignored if the "wrong" person wins. The purpose of Afghanistan's government is to serve foreign masters, not its people.

And they wonder why the Afghan people are increasingly turning back to the Taliban. They may be abusive theocratic scum, but at least they're their abusive theocratic scum, rather than someone else's. And as we've seen countless times in Africa, that sense of ownership makes all the difference in the world.

Now they're stealing our holidays

The first act of the National Party on taking power in November was to repeal Labour's tax cuts to the poor and redistribute the money (plus some extra gained from reducing KiwiSaver entitlements) to their rich friends instead. Then they rammed the 90-day fire-at-will law through under urgency, stripping new workers of any employment protection and making every single one of us less secure in our employment. And now, to add insult to injury, they're planning on stealing our fourth week of annual leave as well:

The Government will let employers offer staff a cash payment to replace the fourth week of their annual holidays, reversing a crucial element of the previous Government's Holidays Act.

Labour's law made it illegal to pay cash in lieu of the holiday entitlement and union leaders yesterday predicted the change would result in most workers having to settle for a return to three weeks of annual leave.

The reason for that prediction is that, contrary to right-wing fiction, the employment relationship is not an equal one. Employers will simply demand that that fourth week be "cashed in" (likely for nothing), take it or leave it. And in a recession with growing unemployment and desperation, they'll be able to get away with it.

(As for the argument that this gives workers the "choice" to work, they already have it. Nothing says that people have to use all their leave. the fact that they do speaks volumes about the relative value we put on leisure versus work, and how much we value having control over our own time).

These policies follow a consistent pattern, and there's a name for that pattern. It's an old, ugly name, which we don't hear often in New Zealand anymore: class warfare. Normally that term is used as a pejorative for any attempt to increase equality or improve working conditions, but here we're seeing it from the opposite direction: National is waging class warfare against the vast majority of New Zealanders, seeking to redistribute society's wealth away from us and further into the pockets of its rich friends. Just like they did in the 90's.

New Fisk

I told him I admired his refusal to sign the death sentences

Sunday, March 22, 2009



An undeserved victory

Queensland went to the polls yesterday to elect a new state government. The state Labour party - in power for over a decade - was initially widely expected to sleepwalk to victory, then to defeat as the wheels came off their campaign, and then finally managed to pull a rabbit out of a hat somehow to win with a solid majority. But only because of Queensland's unfair electoral system. The results speak for themselves:

  • Labour got 42.7% of the vote, and 59.6% of the seats;
  • The Liberal-National Party got 41.1% of the vote, and 36% of the seats;
  • The Greens got 8.2% of the vote, and 0% of the seats.
So, just as under FPP, a tiny shift in the vote produces a massive shift in the result, while significant chunks of the electorate go entirely unrepresented. Like Western Australia before it, its a poster child for electoral reform. Preferential voting is not enough - Australia needs proportional representation.

Friday, March 20, 2009



A threat to our good name

Select committee hearings have begun on the government's draconian "three strikes" law, and MFAT has pointed out the obvious: that the law is a threat to our international reputation. New Zealand is a party to both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which outlaws arbitrary detention, and to the Convention Against Torture, which outlaws cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. In addition, we are parties to individual complaints mechanisms for both, which allow prisoners subjected to such treatment to complain directly to the relevant monitoring body. passing the law will eventually result in a complaint under one or other Convention, and almost certainly in an adverse report.

This matters. Our reputation as a strong advocate for human rights is a core underpinning of our mana-based foreign policy. Destroying it with this law won't just result in complaints - it will result in a direct loss of influence on the international stage.

ACT is of course outraged, highlighting the poor human rights record of some members of the UN HRC (the joys of international democracy) - but its not those countries we are concerned about. Rather it is the key upholders of human rights - the EU, Canada, and increasingly South America - which we will lose influence with. And given that influence is the only thing we have, that is serious.

(Oh, and someone needs to tell David Garrett that the US is not regarded as an international model for human rights - precisely because it practices the sorts of cruel punishments he advocates)

I'm glad I don't live in Australia

An update to the Australian internet blacklist story: stung by the revelation of their stupidity, the Australian Communications and Media Authority is now threatening people with ten year's imprisonment for distributing the list, while of course continuing to deny it is real.

I'm just glad I don't live in Australia.

Israeli soldiers admit to war crimes in Gaza

When human rights NGOs, the Red Cross, UN officials and ordinary people pointed out the obvious about Israel's recent indiscriminate campaign of murder in Gaza - that it was a war crime - they were dismissed by Israel's cheerleaders as victims of Palestinian propaganda or as anti-Semites (the default fallback for when the facts are inconvenient). Now another group is saying it: Israel's own soldiers:

Israel was last night confronting a major challenge over the conduct of its 22-day military offensive in Gaza after testimonies by its own soldiers revealed that troops were allowed and, in some cases, even ordered to shoot unarmed Palestinian civilians.

The testimonies – the first of their kind to emerge from inside the military – are at marked variance with official claims that the military made strenuous efforts to avoid civilian casualties and tend to corroborate Palestinian accusations that troops used indiscriminate and disproportionate firepower in civilian areas during the operation. In one of the testimonies shedding harsh new light on what the soldiers say were the permissive rules of engagement for Operation Cast Lead, one soldier describes how an officer ordered the shooting of an elderly woman 100 metres from a house commandeered by troops.

Another soldier, describing how a mother and her children were shot dead by a sniper after they turned the wrong way out of a house, says the "atmosphere" among troops was that the lives of Palestinians were "very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers".

But I guess they're "anti-Semites" too, right?

As the Haaretz editorial points out, these are not stories Israel can ignore or dismiss. Israel's own soldiers have no reason to lie about what they did. The IDF has of course promised an investigation, but that's simply the fox investigating the henhouse again. The only way there will really be justice for war crimes in Gaza is through a full international investigation and trial in The Hague.

Taking their money back

In the UK, the government flails helplessly over the issue of bailed-out banks paying huge bonuses and pensions to the executives and managers who bankrupted them. In the US, they take action. Not only have they capped executive salaries at bailed out banks; now their House of Representatives has passed a "bailout bonus tax" bill, imposing a 90% tax on bonuses paid by companies which have received federal bailout money. The bill still needs to pass in the Senate, but given the levels of public outrage - bonus recipients have reportedly been receiving death threats for their looting of public money - that's fairly certain. The US is taking its money back, and the creeps who stole it are lucky not to be going to jail.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, the government has announced it couldn't possibly do anything similar. There's no question of who their Labour party works for - and its sure as hell not the people.

Pay equity petition

Last month, the government shitcanned two inquiries into pay-equity in the public sector because acting on the results would cost money. In response, Labour MP Sur Moroney has launched a petition asking the House to call on the government to:

  • reverse its decision to scrap pay equity investigations for school support staff and social workers,
  • implement the findings of previously completed pay and employment equity reviews,
  • develop a strategy to eliminate the gender pay gap in New Zealand.

You can download a copy here. Download it, sign it, hand it round to your friends to sign, and post it back. This is our chance to show the government that we care about gender equality and that it is not negotiable. This is our chance to put them on notice. The more signatures we get, the stronger that notice will be.

[Hat tip: The Hand Mirror]

And more slash and burn

The government is slashing and burning again, this time at the State Services Commission. Their budget is facing a whopping 45% cut, and staff numbers are being cut by either 22 or 67 depending on which of the contradictory numbers you believe. With other restructurings, it has tended to be the higher figure, so they're looking at an almost 30% cut in staff numbers. This is beyond decimation - its the wholesale gutting of our chief public service watchdog. But with the government killing off state-sector pay equity programmes and deciding that it will sack Chief Executives rather than the SSC, I guess they just don't think they need it anymore...

Update: It seems the Dom-Posts headline 45% figure may be a tad misleading, as some fraction of it represents the shifting of the SSC's IT functions to the Department of Internal Affairs. Looking at the detailed appropriation [PDF], this represents about 33% of departmental output expenses, or about $20 million. The cancelled Government Shared Network represents 25%, or $15 million (I am not sure where the oft-quoted $28 million figure comes from, though it may include capital costs). It is unclear how much the recruitment and graduate intern programmes cost. Even accounting for the shift, they're looking at a massive cut to their core budget, and its pretty clear that they're going to be expected to (in the words of The Wire) "do more with less". An overworked and underresourced watchdog is simply not a recipe for a well-run state sector, and these sorts of massive staff cuts make a mockery of the government's "commitment" to preserve jobs. But maybe they can all work on John key's cycleway instead?

The problem with secret blacklists

Earlier today WikiLeaks published the Australian Communications and Media Authority's secret internet blacklist. By doing so, they once again revealed the problem with all such blacklists: false positives and mission creep. According to the ACMA's website, prohibited online content they should only be blocking material which is the equivalent of an offensive publication in NZ; hardcore pornography and violence; and ordinary pornography which is not access controlled. What they're actually blocking is a bit different:

Alongside child porn, bestiality, rape and extreme violence sites, the list also includes a slew of online poker sites, YouTube links, regular gay and straight porn sites, Wikipedia entries, euthanasia sites, websites of fringe religions such as satanic sites, fetish sites, Christian sites, the website of a tour operator and even a Queensland dentist.

Other Australian sites on the list are canteens.com.au ("Tuckshop and Canteen Management Consultants") and animal carers MaroochyBoardingKennels.com.au.

Oh no! Dental work! Tuckshops! Somewhere to put the dog over the holidays! Will someone think of the children!!!!!

As usual, people have no idea why they're on the blacklist or why the Australian government is defaming them in this way. None were contacted or warned, there was no hint of due process, and of course there's no guidelines on ACMA's website on how to challenge a listing. It's a perfect example of how secrecy and unaccountability lead to bad decisions. Blacklisting sites which expose the stupidity of the blacklist is just the icing on the cake...

Thursday, March 19, 2009



One state at a time...

New Mexico has abolished the death penalty. Only 35 more to go, and the US will be a civilised country...

What is "acceptable" child beating?

One of the aims of John Boscawen's repeal of the anti-child-beating law is to give parents certainty about what the law permits. While the bill itself has not been released - they're still working on the explanatory note - it is apparently based on Chester Borrows' failed amendments during the original law's committee stage - amendments which were ultimately rejected by his own party, and by the vast majority of the House when Rodney Hide put them up. It would, among other things, define what constitutes "reasonable force", and specifically excludes the use of any "weapon, tool or other implement". But while this disarms cracks about the old "rule of thumb", it still leaves a number of questions about what Mr Boscawen considers an "acceptable" use of force against children. For example:

Open hand or closed fist?
On the face, limbs, or torso?
Punching or kicking?
Throwing? Choking?
Crushing? Stomping?

Enumerating this list shows the reality behind Boscawen's bland legal statements. It shows the horror of what this law will permit (in a "loving", "caring" way, "for their own good", of course). And it shows the simple truth: there is no such thing as an "acceptable" level of violence against children, any more than there is an "acceptable" level of violence against women, or men, or old people, or anyone else. None whatsoever. Protection from violence is the most basic of all human rights, and the very reason for the existence of the state. We cannot deny it to criminals, we cannot deny it to children, and anyone who thinks differently is nothing but a sadistic monster.

The first rule of censorship is that you cannot talk about censorship

WikiLeaks is a public-interest website which makes leaked material freely available on the internet. In the past it has revealed information on psychological torture at Guantanamo Bay, a Pentagon analysis showing it is losing the war in Afghanistan, and insider trading at J P Morgan. At the moment its hosting leaked memos from Barclays Bank detailing the extent of their tax evasion - memos which have been suppressed by the UK High Court (ah, the joy of a free market in legal jurisdiction). In short, it does good work, exposing corruption and malfeasance in both the public and private sector and allowing those responsible to be held to account.

It also exposes the stupidity and evil of internet censorship by exposing filter lists - for example, Denmark's list, which included a Dutch transport company, and Thailand's, ostensibly for child pornography but every single site is marked "lese majeste". So obviously, its on the Australian government's list of banned websites. To censors, talking about censorship is itself cause for censorship. Australian websites which link to it could now face fines of A$11,000 a day for doing so. And the Australian Communications and Media Authority, the body responsible for creating and maintaining the blacklist, "has also referred the matter to the appropriate law enforcement agency".

You couldn't come up with a more perfect example of the evil of web censorship if you tried.

Update: Wikileaks has now posted the full Australian blacklist. No doubt they'll ban that too. The last thing censors want is for their decisions to be publicly scrutinised and debated.

Turning back the clock

That's the only way to describe ACT MP John Boscawen's decision to introduce a private member's bill to repeal the anti-child-beating law. And despite it being spun as an "amendment" by the Herald, "repeal" is the right word. According to Boscawen's press-release - and strangely unmentioned in the Herald piece - it would reintroduce a defence of "reasonable force" for parents beating their children:

The amendment will change the Act so that: it is no longer a crime for parents or guardians to use reasonable force to correct children; there are clear statutory limits on what constitutes reasonable force; parents and guardians have certainty about what the law permits; it is no longer reliant on police discretion for the law to be practical and workable.
In short, a child-beater's charter, which will license violence against children which we (well, everyone except David Garrett) would never tolerate against adults. Provided, of course, that parents use a rod no thicker than their thumb.

Meanwhile, I note that ACT has stopped using its old slogan "the liberal party". It was always false advertising - the only freedom they ever cared about was the freedom of the rich not to pay taxes - but I guess with creeps like Garrett and Boscawen on board it became completely indefensible. Which leaves them looking for a new one. "The reactionary party" is a bit too obvious (besides, I'm not sure how they feel about absolute monarchy). "Free market child beaters", perhaps?

Guest column: Complicity

By Iona.

I am upset.
I am concerned.
I feel sick.

Whichever of those gets your attention, I'm that one. Ignore the others. I am upset/concerned/sickened by the move to significantly increase double-bunking of prisoners in our prisons. Idiot/Savant on No Right Turn sums it up better than I can:

Quite apart from our obligations to run safe prisons under international law [...] allowing people to be beaten, brutalised, and victimised in prison - and indeed, establishing conditions which actively promote such treatment - rather undercuts the message of the law that that sort of behaviour is wrong.
There's no moral, ethical or crime-prevention justification for this policy change - it's all economics. When did the economy knock fundamental human rights the agenda? When did international law become a luxury?

When we allow this kind of thing to happen in our country, ordinary New Zealanders are complicit. The lawmakers are elected by the people, they represent us, and it's our duty as citizens to make them hear us and to demand accountability. Taxes pay for the prisons, whether those prisons are private or state-run, and for the Department of Corrections.

And, more directly, many of us are responsible because we have been jurors and may well be jurors again. Could you, in all conscience, declare someone guilty knowing that this meant they (or their cellmate) might well be beaten or raped? I couldn't. I will not.

Once a person is convicted, they have no control. They become the state's responsibility. They become our responsibility. To degrade prison conditions is brutal, offensive and inhumane. It's no secret that prison rape is rife in the USA and it happens here too. We should be taking every measure to stop it, not putting in place policies that are known to worsen the risk. Write to the Minister. Call an MP. Make an outcry.

What else can we do? Refuse to convict anyone for a crime where the punishment is imprisonment?

Because it's not about whether they're good or bad. It's not about whether they're guilty or innocent. When people are imprisoned, the punishment is loss of freedom. It should never be rape or other forms of torture. Rape is never okay.

This is about who we are - as communities and as a country. It's about our standard of human decency. It's about who we want to be.

Who funded the NZIER report IV

Back in January, we learned that Solid Energy, an SOE, has been subverting democracy again by using public money to pay for a report aimed at undermining the government's climate change policy. In a defence unworthy of a four-year old, they have claimed that they were not the only government department doing this - but refused to identify the other culprits. So, I've been using the OIA to try and find them.

The last of my OIAs has finally come in, and the search has been a total blank. We know it wasn't Timberlands, Mighty River Power, LandCorp or Transpower. Neither was it Treasury, Genesis Energy, or DoC. The Ministry for the Environment and Ministry of Transport have also denied any role.

Who does that leave? Meridian Energy? Nope: "Meridian did not contribute to any funding towards the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research into the economic impact of the emissions trading scheme". The Ministry of Economic Development? Nope: "The Ministry did not fund NZIER's research which resulted in the above report". The Ministry for Agriculture and Forestry? Nope: "The report you referred to... was not funded by MAF. MAF has not received any briefing on the report".

In short, all the prime suspects, all the departments and SOE's most interested in climate change policy and most likely to fund research into it, have denied any role in the production of the report. So where does that leave Solid Energy's claim - made in a briefing to then energy minister Trevor Mallard last year - that the research was funded by "a range of companies and organisations, including government departments"?

I asked Solid Energy this. Their response to my OIA was that they did not know which other government departments funded the research. Which begs the question: why did they make the claim to the Minister? I'm expecting an answer to that in the next few days.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009



Nazis invading Christchurch this weekend

According to my sources, the "Nationalist Alliance" - Kyle Chapman's latest neo-Nazi splinter group, the people who want to build themselves a "whites only" homeland in North Canterbury - will be holding a "white pride" rally in Christchurch this Saturday, at 11am in Cathedral Square. Which seems like a perfect opportunity to meet hateful speech with more speech. So, anyone want to go along and let them know what you think of them?

New Fisk

Why Avigdor Lieberman is the worst thing that could happen to the Middle East

Taking the government at their word

Over on Kiwiblog, DPF accuses me of dishonesty over my post on National's planned across the board spending cuts. His reason?

don’t know if he is deliberately misrepresenting the situation, or genuinely does not know the difference between identifying potential savings/cuts and automatically cutting them.
Neither. Instead, I'm taking the government at their word. In case anyone has forgotten, National - and DPF, and the sewer-dwellers now howling their agreement with his slur - spent the last nine years screaming about a "bloated" state sector, the "growth of bureaucracy", and of the need to end "a decade of excess" and cut "low-quality spending". Their response to the recession has focussed on highlighting the need to control debt - but not by forgoing tax cuts to the rich, you understand - which means spending cuts. Against this background, when their Minister of Finance issues a document demanding departments "identify the spending that delivers the lowest value for money", the natural conclusion is that they will follow through and actually cut it. Any other conclusion would simply be perverse.

That doesn't mean I expect departmental budgets to drop by the identified 5% or 10% - that will depend on how they reallocate funding to National's new projects (roads instead of road safety, for example). The full picture will become apparent in the Budget and from post-Budget OIA's. But I am at least giving National the benefit of assuming that they are not simply engaging in this as an expensive academic exercise. Which is apparently more credit than their official web cheerleader is willing to grant them.

Must read

Steven Price on the OIA and the Department of Corrections. Short version: Corrections seems to have an unhealthy culture of secrecy and a contempt for the law, and applies the OIA in a deliberately obstructive way in order to minimise oversight. Which is all the more reason for having it.

A "don't ask, don't tell" "watchdog"

The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security's report on the surveillance of MPs is now online here [PDF] (thanks to BZP for the link). The outcome - that there should be no more spying on MPs - has been widely reported, as has the Inspector-General's criticism of the SIS's "vacuum cleaner approach to collecting". What hasn't been noted is the way the I-G deliberately turns a blind eye to the key question of spying on MPs. After talking about the surveillance of Keith Locke, he goes on to note:

It would be idle to suggest that there is not information held by the Service in respect of some people who may have become Members of Parliament. The file or collection may exist for various reasons - because the Member was once considered to be of security interest, or was subject to vetting. As a precaution against leakage it has been the custom to transfer any file relating to a person who has become a Member to a special part of the Service's records with limited physical access to files. I have not looked at any apart from what was released to Mr Locke, so I do not know how many such files there are, how old they are, or what stage of the Member's life they might relate to. Mr Locke has suggested that a number of questions about these files should be considered. I do not think it is necessary to go into them to deal with the terms of reference I have been given. If a member wants to know if there is a file relating to him or her, the same recourse Mr Locke had is available.
(Emphasis added)

Right. So there are other files, but he is unwilling to investigate further to determine whether the surveillance was innocent or justified, or even how widespread it was (or is). Talk about "don't ask, don't tell". And this guy is meant to be our check and balance on the SIS? This "watchdog" isn't just blind - they're in bed with the people they're supposed to be watching!

Given the problems already uncovered within the SIS, the public deserves stronger oversight mechanisms than this.

Fiji: justice for Sakiusa Rabaka

In January 2007, a month after the Fijian coup, a group of men were detained by the Fijian army on suspicion of buying marijuana. They were taken to a military camp where they were stripped, beaten, and forced to rape one another. One of them, Sakiusa Rabaka, was beaten so badly he died. Today, eight soldiers and a former police officer were sentenced to four years' imprisonment for their role in the killing. There has been justice for Sakiusa Rabaka at last.

At least, justice of a sort. because while they were convicted and sentenced in a court of law - an opportunity Rabaka and his fellow victims never had - the judge downplayed the seriousness of the offending:

Justice Goundar said in meting out the sentence he took into account the fact the offences were not the worst of its kind and fell in the medium range of sentence for manslaughter and lower scale of the tariff for assault.
Right, so a systematic eight-hour torture session involving beatings and sexual assault is on the "lower scale". And the fact that the offenders were agents of the state is considered to be a mitigating rather than aggravating factor. It really makes you wonder what they would consider to be "serious"...