Sunday, May 31, 2009

New Fisk

You don't need colour to tell the brutality of war – but it helps

"Except for gays" in New Hampshire

Last week, the New Hampshire House of Representatives voted down a same-sex marriage bill because of a "conscientious objection" amendment which went far beyond protecting religious belief. Unfortunately, despite being rejected by the House, those amendments have been added back in in conference committee - and strengthened:

The new version, which is expected to come up for a vote Wednesday, adds a sentence specifying that all religious organizations, associations or societies have exclusive control over their religious doctrines, policies, teachings and beliefs on marriage. It also clarifies that church-related organizations that serve charitable or educational purposes are exempt from having to provide insurance and other benefits to same sex spouses of employees. The earlier version said "charitable and educational" instead of "charitable or educational."
The first part is absolutely uncontentious - so much so that you wonder why it is mentioned in law at all. The second is terrible. It means that any church-run organisation (and "charitable or educational purpose" means schools and hospitals) has a free hand to discriminate economically against same-sex couples generally. That isn't "conscientious objection", it's a license for bigotry - something which is immediately apparent if you substitute "mixed-race" or "black" into the language above.

The bill will go back to the House next week. I am hoping it will be voted down again. If the price of same-sex marriage now is this sort of explicit "except for gays" amendment to anti-discrimination law, it might be worth waiting a few years for public opinion to shift further so it can be done properly.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Hell freezes over

I agree with David Garrett that the failure to lay charges against the police officer who shot and killed Halatau Naitoko seems utterly incomprehensible:

"While not charging the officer concerned with manslaughter is probably justifiable, it seems incomprehensible that the officer is not facing charges under the Arms Act for failing to properly identify his target," Mr Garrett said.

"There are only two explanations as to how this tragic situation arose: either the bullet ricocheted and killed Mr Naitoko, or the officer aimed at and shot the wrong person by mistake. If the explanation is the latter then it is difficult to justify the announcement not to prosecute.

"In a country where hunting remains a popular pastime, target misidentification unfortunately has frequently resulted in many deaths - often the death of one friend at the hands of another. Regardless of the tragedy of such a situation in most cases - a prosecution goes ahead, and more often than not results in a conviction.

"So what happened to one law for all? Are there different laws for police using firearms? Why should hunters be held to a higher standard of care than the police? If there is any justification for different standards being applied, surely it is armed policemen who should be required to meet a higher standard of care?

Excuse me while I die of shock.

Killing superannuation

How much of a hole does National's "suspension" of payments into the Cullen Fund make? A whopping $35 billion:

“Closer analysis of Treasury’s figures by Labour has revealed that in 2031, when withdrawals from the fund commence, the fund will be short by $35 billion dollars,” Phil Goff says.

“It shows that on top of the shortfall of $19.5 billion of contributions to the fund, earnings and interest of around $15 billion will also be lost.

“This decision has effectively killed the Fund which many New Zealanders are relying on for their retirement.

The graph speaks for itself:

That's quite a hole - and if contributions are not restarted, it is likely to mean the death of New Zealand Superannuation as we know it. National just tried to kill your pension - and they weren't even honest enough to say it.

"Boy racers": what actually works?

The policy advice on National's proposed "boy racer" laws is a goldmine of information. For example, they have some details on what has actually been found to work in preventing and reducing illegal street racing. And it's not the sort of draconian measures favoured by Judith Collins:

Illegal street racing occurs to some degree in many locations throughout New Zealand. Local initiatives to combat illegal street racing and associated antisocial behaviour have often been successful, and have not resulted in the escalation of problems seen in Christchurch. Some examples of such action are outlined below.

Hamilton liquor ban and traffic calming measures

Hamilton City Council identified a portion of one of the city's avenues to be particularly attractive to illegal street racers due to its configuration (two lanes in each direction separated by a narrow centre verge with an ample roundabout at one end, and a parallel access road with a clear vantage point for spectators at the other end). This gathering place, referred to by illegal street racers as "T-straight", attracted hundreds of individuals from Hamilton and as far as Tauranga and Auckland. Antisocial behaviour (including damage to surrounding businesses) increased in line with crowd numbers and intoxication levels.

In 2007, Justice, via the Crime Prevention Unit, provided Hamilton City Council a one-off grant of $10,000 for a Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) assessment and actions to address alcohol and vehicle related crime in the city. as a result, Hamilton City Council instigated a liquor ban in the "T-straight" area and placed gates at the end of the parallel access ways (the gates are locked every Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights to prevent vehicles completing the "racing circuit"). Hamilton Police have been key supporters of these initiatives which have proven successful in discouraging illegal street racer activity in the area.

Tauranga Bylaw

In October 2007, Tauranga City Council passed the Traffic and parking Bylaw, known as the "boy racer bylaw". The Bylaw bans the congregation of people in vehicles, between the hours of 9 pm and 5 am, in 62 streets in the industrial areas of the city. the fine for breaching the bylaw is $750.

Tauranga Police report that, since the bylaw was passed, there has been a significant reduction in illegal street racer activity [One sentence withheld under s6(c) OIA - maintenance of law and order] Police suggest there are two contributing factors in the reduction of illegal street racer activity in Tauranga. Firstly, the Bylaw itself, as it was well publicised at the time of introduction and enforced by Police. Second, an illegal street racing incident led to the death of a member of the illegal street racer community. The death and the ensuing prosecution of two illegal street racers focused media attention on the issue of illegal street racers in the Tauranga community.

New Plymouth off-road facility

Following the death of an illegal street racer in New Plymouth, members of the illegal street racer community approached the City Council for support to develop an off-road facility to hold gatherings and to do "burn outs" in a controlled environment. Council staff were involved in the project which was also strongly supported by New Plymouth Police.

In October 2008, a lease agreement was negotiated with a local speedway, and money raised to lay down a concrete pad and develop safety measures. Larger events have attracted 1400 people and are held every two weeks. Police have a strong presence at events where everyone who goes onto the concrete pad is breath tested. Police have also increased enforcement action in traditional illegal street racer "hot spots", thus creating additional pressure to engage in the now legitimate racing activity.

new Plymouth Council staff report that, on the nights when events are held, there is a reduction in the number of illegal street racers at the traditional meeting points, including a significant reduction in rubbish and beer bottles. There has been no retaliation from the illegal street racers to the off-road facility initiative.

Manukau dedicated Police team

Most of the illegal street racer activity in Manukau took place near the airport. This led to significant complaints from airport management relating to illegal street racer activity, oil on the road, staff not getting to work on time for night shifts and visitors and tourists having access to the airport impeded.

A dedicated police team (Operation Sniper) was established two years ago to target illegal street racing. Both Manukau City Council and Police identify Operation Sniper as the key to managing illegal street racer activity in the area.

(Memo to Ministers of Justice and Courts on "proposals to address illegal street racing and associated antisocial behaviour", 20 February 2009)

The government's chosen measures, OTOH, seem to lead to this...

Some of these measures have human rights problems of their own - but nowhere near as serious as punishing the innocent. The common themes seem to be minor changes by local authorities, cooperation with street racers to reduce risk, and targeted policing. But none of that lets the Minister posture in front of a car crusher. And so policies which actually work - while apparently forming part of the government's response - take a back seat to the PR-driven draconian polices which won't.

More random budget thoughts

A few more random thoughts on the budget:

The more I look at it, the more I see it as a "do nothing" document. Yes, National's promised tax cuts to the rich were "deferred" (likely indefinitely, and a good thing too!) Yes, it "suspended" contributions to the Cullen Fund (more on that later). But apart from that, nothing really changed. It was a "continuation of the status quo" Budget, with even the centrepiece (if you can call it that, because its awfully small) home insulation package being an evolution of a Labour-Green policy. It spoke volumes that the biggest applause line in the whole thing was the statement that benefits, superannuation entitlements, and Labour's Working For Families package would all remain untouched.

(We have MMP to thank for this, I think. Under FPP, an election like 2008 would have produced an enormous majority, with all the arrogance that entails. But by ensuring the distribution of seats in the House reflects the actual votes cast, MMP has ensured that parties are acutely aware that it takes a shift of only a few percent to cause a change in government. Which means they have to keep their promises. National promised centrism, and so it has to deliver on that; otherwise they won't be saved by an unfair electoral system as they were in 1993).

But while National didn't do anything really bad (but see below), they didn't do anything good either. Most importantly, there is no package for jobs in this Budget. The government is simply going to leave the market to sort itself out - and if that means another hundred thousand unemployed and enormous suffering at the bottom end of the social scale, then so be it. It's a telling example of National's ideological belief that government can't or shouldn't do anything - and of the callousness of that ideology.

The "permanent money diet" caused by the reduction in the future spending allowance is going to cause serious and compounding problems. We saw it in the 90's - a "sinking cap" (no or sub-inflation increases) on government expenditure led to the running down and hollowing out of the health and education systems, not to mention the public service. It's the TransRail scam - buy something, then defer maintenance in order to milk it for profits. But eventually the bill for that comes due, in the form of rotting infrastructure and increased crime. National can probably get away with this for another two years. But after that, the problems are going to become increasingly obvious.

Currently National does not plan to restart contributions to the Cullen Fund until the government returns to surplus - a process which is expected to take about a decade. This will effectively wreck the fund, rendering it unfit for purpose and reducing it to a large pot of money, which future right-wing governments will then be tempted to raid for tax cuts to their rich friends. One of the first steps of any future left-wing government should be to restart those contributions, to ensure that future superannuation entitlements are protected.

Shameless IV

The UK's Parliamentary expenses scandal is now producing a steady bleed of MPs announcing that they will not stand at the next election, along with a frantic rush to the Lords by those fearing the judgement of the people. Meanwhile, one of those remaining (for now) - former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott - is clear about who is really at fault here: not the MPs who shamelessly (and sometimes criminally) rorted their expenses claims, but the media who put it before the public.

He should be the next to go.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Recovery for whom?

Bill English is spinning his grey Budget as "the road to recovery". But as The Standard points out, its figures are predicated on no real wage growth for New Zealanders for the next four years

Which begs an obvious question: recovery for whom? Certainly not ordinary New Zealanders...

The grey budget

What to make of today's Budget? The first is that the government did what was expected, cancelling its unaffordable tax cuts to the rich and suspending contributions to the Cullen fund in order to minimise its debt pathway, while announcing a few small spending packages (including John Key's laughable cycleway) to make it look like they were doing something. The pleasant surprise was the Greens' insulation fund - the increase is much higher than expected, and is something that will make a real difference. But apart from that, most of the spending announcements were in fact reannouncements of existing packages. But the otherwise thin speech [PDF] had to be padded with something.

The decision to suspend the Cullen fund is a mistake. There is nothing wrong with borrowing to fund a productive asset - and the Cullen fund is highly productive, making a positive return at the bottom of the recession. Giving it more money to buy stuff now while prices are low will lead to even higher returns in the future. But the government's desire for short-term cashflow trumps that, apparently. Instead, the fund will be given money only to "support local capital markets during the downturn" - in other words, to artificially inflate share prices to preserve the asset values of rich investors. Because we can't have them suffering, can we?

But the real sting is in the tail. Bill English has reduced the future new spending allowance - already reduced to a parlous $1.75 billion by Michael Cullen last year - to a pitiful $1.1 billion. Given that we need to allocate an extra $750 million to health and $500 million to education every year just to keep pace with demand growth, English is committing to making real and serious spending cuts next year if he wants to stay within that cap. And that's without even considering the increase in social welfare spending due to the doubling of unemployment by then. Next year will be a black budget. This one simply has the grey of the impending gloom.


Helping orphans in occupied Palestine is now officially "financing terrorism", according to the US courts. And if you do it, you can be thrown in jail for 65 years.

And Americans wonder why people hate them...

The end of the Minimum Remuneration Bill

Last night Darien Fenton's Minimum Wage and Remuneration Amendment Bill was finally voted down, all provisions having been stripped out at the Committee Stage. The bill would have closed a serious loophole in employment law, whereby unscrupulous employers can avoid paying the minimum wage by reclassifying their employees as "independent contractors". Such arrangements are widely used in the cleaning industry to pay wages as low as $4 an hour - less than a third of the current minimum wage. This is a gross violation of basic kiwi values of fairness. And by voting down the bill, National has made it clear that it thinks that abuse should continue. So much for "centrism"...

Impunity again

The police have announced that they will not be charging the officer who shot and killed an innocent civilian during a confrontation with an armed offender.

As I have noted before, we expect a high degree of care from the people we trust with guns, to the extent that accidentally shooting someone is regarded as careless pretty much by definition. Any ordinary citizen who shot and killed someone accidentally would end up in court, charged with either careless use of a firearm, or, in cases where there is a higher degree of negligence, manslaughter. This man will not, because he wears a police uniform. The message is clear: the police believe they are above the law, able to kill with impunity.

That attitude is not acceptable in a democratic society under the rule of law. We have already seen its horrific consequences in the police rape scandal and the multiple trials which arose from it, and we see it again every couple of months when the police cover for their own on assaults,abuses of power, drunk driving. This isn't just unjust - it reduces public confidence in (and hence respect for) the police and the law. And its time it stopped. Those who uphold the law also need to be subject to it. Otherwise, we live in a tyranny, not a democracy.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Equality loses in California - for now

Last year, the California Supreme Court ruled that the state's ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional, making it the second state in the US to allow full gay marriage. The bigots immediately launched a campaign for an "except for gays" amendment to the state constitution, and successfully passed Proposition 8 last November. This morning, the California Supreme Court ruled on the legality of Proposition 8 - and unfortunately it was not good news for equality:

he California Supreme Court today upheld Proposition 8's ban on same-sex marriage but also ruled that gay couples who wed before the election will continue to be married under state law.


Although the court split 6-1 on the constitutionality of Proposition 8, the justices were unanimous in deciding to keep intact the marriages of as many as 18,000 gay couples who exchanged vows before the election. The marriages began last June, after a 4-3 state high court ruling striking down the marriage ban last May.

This was expected, but it is still disappointing. But it is likely to be only a temporary setback. As the LA Times points out, there is already a new referendum campaign underway to repeal Proposition 8, and given the narrowness of Proposition 8's victory and the massive shift in public opinion between the passage of California's original gay marriage ban in 2000 and Proposition 8 in 2008, the question isn't whether we will win - but when.

A Green insulation policy

The government has released the details of its home insulation policy in the leadup to tomorrow's Budget, and its actually good. Currently home-owners earning less than $100,000 a year can get a grant of up to $1125 covering up to a third of the costs of installing insulation or energy-efficient appliances, or an interest-free loan covering the full cost. The government will apparently dispense with means-testing and increase the grant to $1500. The downside is that the loans will no longer be interest-free, but will instead be offered through a variety of providers, with the government as a facilitator. Since most people go for a grant rather than a loan, that's no real disadvantage - and it will likely mean more city councils operating solar (or heat pump) mortgage schemes through household rates (tying the cost of improving energy efficiency to the property, rather than the present owner - thus avoiding mobility as a disincentive), which is a Good Thing.

This is basically the Greens payback for their agreement with National. And given how little they have had to give away to get it, it seems to have been well worth it.

Home insulation isn't just an energy efficiency measure - it's a public health measure. And from society's perspective, it pays for itself in health benefits (reduced hospital costs, fewer sick days) alone. At present, it is criminally underfunded. Hopefully this policy will change that.

Member's Day

Today is a Member's Day, and now that the tiresome local business has been cleared away, it looks like we might finally see some progress. Unfortunately it is likely to be progress in the wrong direction, with both Darien Fenton's Minimum Wage and Remuneration Amendment Bill and Jeanette Fitzsimons' Resource Management (Climate Protection) Amendment Bill set to be voted down.

The good news is that a ballot draws nearer - it could even be tomorrow if the House moves quickly tonight. Otherwise, with the second readings being cleared away, there will almost certainly be one after the next member's day. The parties better have their bills in order...

Reminder: Drinking Liberally Wellington

Drinking Liberally is happening in Wellington tomorrow, with guest speaker Rob Salmond from the University of Michigan. Rob will be discussing political advertising by the left in New Zealand, as well as some Budget thoughts.

When: 17:30, Thursday, 28 May
Where: Southern Cross, Abel Smith Street

"Boy racers": why you should care

Firstly, they discard the entire idea of justice, instead seeking to curb street racing by punishing the innocent. If a person commits multiple street racing offences, they will punish them by taking someone else's car away and crushing it.

Secondly, it takes a car crusher to human rights, violating the freedoms of movement, association, peaceful assembly, and from unreasonable search and seizure, not to mention the rights to justice and the right against disproportionate punishment - all of which are affirmed in the Bill of Rights Act and in multiple international instruments our government has sworn to uphold.

No-one likes boy racers. They're loud, obnoxious, and a danger to cats. But justice and human rights are indivisible. We need to protect them for everyone, even people we despise, or we have no right to claim those protections ourselves. What the government is doing here is simply wrong, and we should stand up and tell them so.

"Boy racers": the details II

So, what's actually in the government's anti-"boy racer" legislation? Here's the details on the Vehicle Confiscation and Seizure Bill.

This is the bill which actually allows the crushing. It amends the Sentencing Act 2002 to insert new sections allowing for the confiscation and destruction of vehicles for a third street racing offence. It begins to get decidedly draconian when it introduces the Orwellian term "substitute for the offender". You see, Judith Collins thinks that at the moment

[i]llegal street racers are currently able to commit an offence in another person’s car and avoid the full force of the law
Her solution? Punish the person who owns the car, regardless of actual guilt. And so innocent third parties who own vehicles become (with the service of a legal notice) "substitutes for the offender", and if the offender doesn't actually own a car to send to the crusher, theirs will do instead. And if they no longer own a car, the "substitute for the offender" (fuck it, lets call them what they really are: scapegoat) can be banned from owning a car for 12 months, just to ram the point home that they shouldn't have not done that thing they're not actually on trial for (or even accused of doing).

Putting it like that shows the fundamental absurdity here: this law aims to punish people for things they are not even accused of doing. And that's not just absurd, but fundamentally immoral.

The second part of the bill allows vehicles to be seized and sold for unpaid fines, and extends the scapegoating mechanism to allow "substitute" vehicles to be seized and sold if the offender doesn't have one.

This isn't justice, it's a legal lynching. Unfortunately, the drafters of the BORA never considered that our lawmakers would throw the entire idea of justice - you punish the actual offender, and you punish them proportionately to the crime - out of the window and instead start vigorously squicking innocent third parties, and so there is no actual protection in law against this. The closest thing that applies is that it is by definition disproportionate - but that obscures the real horror of what is being proposed.

To put it in printable language, I am exceedingly angry about this. Our justice system may be flawed, it may get it wrong sometimes, but it at least tries. Collins doesn't think we should even bother. Her proposals would corrupt our police and justice system into a mechanism for handing out random "punishments" with absolutely no link to behaviour. It is as if she was sending the police out to beat random people on the street in response to burglaries. That is not justice, and if the system is going to do that, there is no point having one, and we might as well be back in the metaphorical State of Nature.

And why is the government doing this? So Judith Collins can get a few "tough on crime" soundbites. Again, I'd prefer our Ministers kept their impotence issues between them and their psychologists, rather than working them out in public by crushing our human rights.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

"Boy racers": the details

So, what's actually in the government's anti-"boy racer" legislation? The bills are now on the web, and here are the key details:

Land Transport (Enforcement Powers) Amendment Bill

Amends the Land Transport Act 1998 to give councils the power to ban "cruising" and create an ASBO-style enforcement mechanism to punish those violating them. The first interesting point is their definition of "cruising":

cruising means driving repeatedly over the same section of a road in a motor vehicle in a manner that—
(a) draws attention to the power or sound of the engine of the motor vehicle being driven; or
(b) creates a convoy that—
(i) is formed otherwise than in trade; and
(ii) impedes traffic flow
But this doesn't just cover obnoxious boy racers driving round and round the (Palmerston North) Square every Friday night; it also clearly covers "boobs on bikes" parades, as well as any form of motorised protest (for example, the "big rig" protest last year). The wowsers on the Auckland City Council will be rubbing their hands together with glee.

If a car violates the bylaw, the police get to sticker it with a 90-day warning notice. If it violates it again while under such a notice, the police must seize the vehicle. If the driver is not the owner, tough luck - while there is an existing basis for appeal on the grounds that the owner "did not know and could not reasonably be expected to know that the operator of the vehicle" would engage in illegal street racing, there is no amendment updating that to include contravention of an anti-cruising bylaw. The rhetoric from Collins in Parliament today has been about boy racers "escaping punishment" because they are not driving their own vehicles; her solution to that appears to be to punish the innocent.

As a side note, currently the police must impound vehicles only from disqualified drivers or severe repeat drunk drivers. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide whether "cruising" (as defined above) is on a par with such offences.

The bill makes some minor tweaks around licensing laws and suspensions, and prevents suspects whose vehicles are likely to be confiscated as a result of repeat offending (not just boy racing) from selling their vehicles (which is apparently a major frustration for the law). In the process, it also makes another nasty little power grab, amending the current requirement to give details to police officers to include not just your name, address and date of birth, but also your occupation and telephone number. Which is getting awfully close to "papers, please". And if the police don't like your answer - sorry, think it is false or misleading - they get to arrest you (though exactly what the offence justifying that arrest is is unclear - pissing off an authoritarian not technically being a crime in New Zealand). As Charlie Skelton pointed out in the conclusion to his recent series on trying to report on the Bilderberg meeting in Greece, the little things like this - "the power to ask, the obligation to show" - matter. They establish power and force subservience. And we should oppose them whenever they go beyond the bounds of what is strictly necessary for enforcement of the law. A policeman by the side of the road does not need to know what you do for a living, or your phone number. And they certainly shouldn't be able to drag you off to jail for refusing to tell them.

I'll deal with the other bill in another post.

Update: As multiple people have pointed out, the clause "driving repeatedly over the same section of a road" probably protects "boobs on bikes". But the truck protests - which drove round and round Parliament blocking traffic - would be covered, as would any similar action. And at the end of the day, I don't trust our local authorities - dominated as they are by authoritarians and wowsers - not to abuse this law. The definition needs to be amended to make it very clear that it does not cover protest action (and then boy racers will drive round and round The Square with "save the whales" and "fuck the government" plastered all over their cars. And good on them too)

"Boy racers": how many cars will they crush?

The government introduced its anti-"boy racer" bills to Parliament today, and in keeping with its "tough on crime" PR strategy, focused on the new power to crush vehicles, with Police Minister Judith Collins saying that "every new offence will bring [boy racers] closer to the crusher".

This raises the obvious question (again unasked by the Herald): how many cars do they plan to crush? The bill allows for confiscation and destruction after third illegal street racing offence. How many cars is that? Here's the estimate from their advice on the matter:

[In 2007] 10 offenders were convicted of a third illegal street racing offence within four years.
So, about ten crushings a year. In other words, the whole thing is nothing but a "tough on crime" PR exercise.

Unimpressed II

Back in April, the government announced that Cabinet had signed off on its proposed anti-"boy racer" laws. Naturally, I requested the relevant Cabinet papers from the responsible Minister. The decision had been made, the papers existed, so I didn't expect any serious problems getting them. Unfortunately, I was dealing with Judith Collins - a Minister who has already shown her contempt for the OIA. She waited until the end of her 20 working day response period, then told me she was extending it until 22 May for research, collation and consultation.

That excuse is believable in some circumstances - e.g. when they have to dig through the archives for material from five years ago. But for papers she had recently taken to Cabinet? Those documents are at her fingertips; the only decision she had to make was what to withhold. Or rather, how to prevent release (and thus analysis or criticism of the government's policy) until after the government had introduced the legislation...

I am, once again, unimpressed. Time for another complaint to the Ombudsmen. It won't result in my getting the information any sooner - it should already be in the post - but hopefully it will result in the Minister being firmly educated on what is and is not acceptable practice in handling OIA requests.

"Boy racers": The bylaw option

The government will introduce its anti-"boy racer" bill to Parliament today allowing for the impoundment and crushing of vehicles. It will also allow local authorities to pass "anti-cruising" bylaws, but the Herald story is light on the details. Fortunately, thanks to an OIA request, I have them.

The bylaw scheme is essentially the "vehicle warning notice" scheme the police initially demanded - the one which is worse than ASBOs. Local authorities can already pass such bylaws, and they have been effective in reducing street racing in Manukau City. But merely being effective doesn't get the government the "tough on crime" coverage they want, and so they want to replace the current penalty - a fine of up to $750 - with an ASBO-style scheme:

Those vehicles where the driver is given a notice for a breach of a bylaw that restricts access to certain locations during certain times (for the purpose of limiting illegal street racer activities) would have a warning notice attached. The warning notice will advise that if any driver of the vehicle is apprehended for another qualifying offence within a specified period (eg 3 months), the vehicle must be impounded for a period of 28 days.
(Memo on "Illegal street racing: disorder, vehicle warning notices, destruction and costs" [PDF], 6 March 2009; emphasis added).

Note the absence of any trial or hearing - if the police want your car, they take it. Note also that while it is not financial in nature, the punishment for breach of a bylaw - impoundment for 28 days - entails significant costs and inconvenience, which may be disproportionate to the offence. And that's just the beginning of the BORA problems:

The basic bylaw proscribing "cruising" is unlikely to raise any significant Bill of Rights issues when applied to the driver only. However, Bill of Rights issues arise when the owner of a "tagged" vehicle is subject to the proposed sanctions when the individual did not commit the qualifying offence.

To reduce the Bill of Rights concerns, there must be proper notice to the owner of the vehicle. In addition, there must be defences available to the vehicle owner that reflect an absence of wrongdoing (eg lack of knowledge). There may still be prima facie Bill of Rights issues with freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of association, freedom of movement, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, liberty of the person and the right to justice. If however the prima facie issues can be justified, there may be no inconsistency with the Bill of Rights.

It will be interesting to see if the government can do the legal gymnastics to justify this appalling violation of human rights, or whether they'll just ignore the BORA and pass it regardless. We'll find out at 2pm today, when the bill is introduced and the Attorney-General tables his s7 report, if there is one.

In the meantime, people might want to consider what will happen when we go beyond criminalising young people engaged in a dangerous activity (which is fair enough) to applying disproportionate punishments and treating them like terrorists. This is not going to encourage respect for the law, and unfair treatment of this sort may in fact encourage the sort of attack on police we saw in Christchurch.

Life in Palmerston

It seems I really do live in a superstitious backwater. But then again, should I expect any better from a city which deliberately erects a cross on top of its clock tower as a "screw you" to non-Christians?

Chosen insiders

Thursday is Budget day, and the government is apparently taking unparalleled steps to prevent any early leak of information:

Unprecedented security surrounds the release of Thursday's Budget amid fears that the details of a massive market-sensitive borrowing programme will be leaked.

As the Government racks up a mountain of debt, with big implications for interest rates and the dollar, the Treasury has introduced tough restrictions on who can get early access to Budget details.

Meanwhile, at the same time it is taking all these necessary steps to provide a fair market and prevent insider trading, the government has allowed international credit ratings agency Standard and Poors - a company which stunningly failed to manage its conflicts of interest over bank credit default swaps, and which is up to its neck in the current global financial crisis - a sneak peek at the budget. Security, it seems, only applies to us plebs - not to National's foreign masters.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A little less flexibility

Australian EconoBlogger John Quiggin has been running an interesting series on refuted economic doctrines. The latest part of NeoLiberalism to end up in the dustbin of history? The superiority of flexible labour markets:

According to the latest Eurostat data*, the unemployment rate in the US was equal to that in the EU-15 in March, and is now likely to be higher. Writing in the NY Times, Floyd Norris refers to the conventional wisdom that flexibility inherent in the American system — it is easier to both hire and fire workers than in many European countries implies that unemployment should be lower (at any given point in the business cycle) in the US than in Europe.
But reality seems to disagree. And its not hard to work out why. In a flexible labour market, when times are tough, you can just sack people - so unemployment goes up. But where workers are protected by e.g. redundancy pay, sacking people can cost more money than would be saved, so unemployment is lower in a recession than in a flexible market.

Does this increase overall unemployment? Apparently not:

Generally speaking, employment protection laws lower the variance of employment and unemployment but have no clear effect on the average levels.
In other words, greater employment protections means more stability and security for workers. Who'd have thunk it?

How does this apply to New Zealand? Well, thanks to National's Employment Contracts Act - barely modified by Labour into the Employment Relations Act - we have one of the most flexible employment markets in the world. And so our unemployment is skyrocketing with the recession. These are people's lives we're talking about - work is what pays for food in your stomach and a roof over your head - but they're being consciously sacrificed by a policy of successive governments which puts bosses' profits first.

(This should also make it clear that National's policy of increasing flexibility through the "fire at will" bill - essentially creating an underclass of temporary employees with no legal protections - is exactly the wrong thing to do)

That's not good enough. It seems that what we actually need is a little less flexibility. One step towards that was announced yesterday, in the form of Darien Fenton's bill for statutory redundancy payments. I don't expect it to pass even if it is drawn - National will simply vote it down - but it signifies a shift in the right direction from Labour, and its an important peg in the ground for when they are next in government.

Officially dead

The Central Plains Water Scheme is officially dead. Huzzah! The scheme would have flooded the Waianiwaniwa Valley, drowning local communities to provide a storage lake for Canterbury's thirsty cows. But after a preliminary decision last month, Central Plains Water has withdrawn its applications for resource consent for the lake, and will instead be pursuing a much more limited traditional irrigation scheme with much lower environmental impacts.

Farmers will no doubt be pointing to this as an example of problems with the RMA. But for the rest of us - the people who don't want to see great swathes of country drowned or rivers sucked dry to pursue inappropriate and environmentally unsustainable development for the profit of a greedy few - it is a victory and an example of the law working as it should.

Key says "fuck the people"

As I blog, an estimated ten thousand people are making their way up Queen Street in the rain as part of IHI Aotearoa's hikoi to demand proper Maori representation in the Auckland SuperCity. It's the largest protest in New Zealand in years, despite the bad weather. And Prime Minister John Key's response? A pre-emptive "fuck you":

Mr Key was asked on TV One's Breakfast show what he thought about the protest and the disruption it would cause.

"Obviously people have a right to protest and we respect that," he said.

"(But) I can't help but wonder if they are a little bit ahead of themselves."


"I don't think the hikoi of itself will make any difference really...we are going to go through the select committee process, that's not a white wash we are actually going to listen to what happens there. We are trying to work on getting an outcome that works for everyone."

So, people should sit back, shut up, and wait to see if National's special stacked select committee - which contrary to Key's view, is a whitewash (National doesn't need to listen because it has a majority) - produces a good outcome. And if it doesn't, then they should sit back and shut up because Parliament has spoken (and besides, it'll be too late by then anyway). It's hard to escape the conclusion that he thinks that ordinary people's input into the political system should be once every three years at the ballot box, and beyond that, they should shut up and do what they're told.

As for whether it will make a difference, Key can swear black and blue that he will not listen and that protest is a waste of time, but those people on the street today can vote. And with such a high turnout, National's Auckland MPs - particularly those in marginal electorates - should be running scared. By speaking up now, the hikoi has made it clear that an Auckland which excludes Maori will have electoral consequences. A sensible government would take heed.

Climate change: Spin. Don't spin. You choose


Via Hot Topic, a climate-change equivalent of those road-safety ads, highlighting the massive difference global emissions reduction policy will make. If we get a global agreement to reduce emissions, we're likely to limit the increase in average global temperature to 2.5 degrees. If we don't, the chances of that outcome become miniscule, and instead we're looking at around 5 degrees, with a ~25% chance of getting 6 degrees or more.

2.5 degrees is unpleasant but manageable; it means more droughts, water shortages, the spread of tropical diseases. I have trouble imagining what 5 degrees is like, but it will certainly mean major disruption to global food supplies and serious positive feedback. Since the models don't include positive feedback (as not enough is known about it), the "no policy" outcome is likely to be even worse.

So, which wheel would you rather spin?

New Fisk

When I look at the Pyramids, I wonder why I tire of Egypt
Biden's real mission is to stop Hizbollah

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Where are MP's financial interests?

While we are on the subject of Parliamentary transparency, here's an important question completely overlooked by the Herald in its rush to localise a foreign scandal: where are MP's declarations of pecuniary interests?

Under Appendix B of the Standing Orders, MPs are required to submit an annual declaration of their pecuniary interests. The declarations were due in at the end of February, and in previous years have been posted online by mid-April. But its now nearing the end of May, and there is absolutely no sign of them.

This isn't good enough. This is public information, and it deserves to be made public in a speedy fashion so that MPs can be held accountable.

Standing Orders set a 90-day deadline for publication of the annual register. By my calculation that deadline expires this Friday (May 29). So, where previous Speakers have published quickly, our new one is dragging things out until the last possible minute to get an extra few weeks of secrecy. I think that speaks volumes about his commitment to transparency.

Time for a transparent Parliament

The Herald this morning riffs on the UK's Parliamentary expenses scandal, highlighting the amount of money our MPs get in expenses and their conspiracy of silence around it:

Not a single New Zealand MP has agreed to disclose what they do with their expenses top-ups, taxi reimbursements and accommodation allowance, despite a dozen of their British counterparts losing their jobs over similar issues.


Parliamentary whips are required to cut off travel privileges to MPs who run up too many expenses, but Labour's Darren Hughes refused to say which, if any, Labour MPs had been so penalised.

National whip Nathan Guy failed even to return calls, simply emailing across a copy of the rules on expenses and allowances.

So, MPs won't talk, whips won't talk, and the Speaker thinks the idea of disclosure is "ridiculous". Which tells us straight out that we need some disinfecting sunshine on this issue. But worst of all, the voices we used to rely on to push for greater transparency have fallen silent:
Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons and Act leader Rodney Hide - the one-time "perkbuster" - both called for greater transparency.

But neither disclosed how much they had run up on travel, nor disclosed what they'd spent their expenses allowance on. Hide came closest: he said he had once put on drinks for staff, but did not give details.

I expect that from Hide - despite the Herald's claim, his party voted against greater transparency around MP's financial interests (it apparently being "their own business" whether they were being bribed or stood to gain from the legislation they were voting on). As for the Greens, I'm disgusted. Once upon a time, Rod Donald put up a member's bill to bring Parliament under the OIA. They should be continuing that push for transparency.

Contrary to Lockwood Smith's assertions, Parliamentary expenses are not an MPs private business. They are public business. It is our money, and we have a right to know what it is being spent on. The best way of ensuring that MPs follow the rules around expenses is to expose every last cent to public scrutiny. That's what the Scottish Parliament does - MSP's expenses are published in a searchable online database - and it sounds like a damn fine idea to me.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Election funding: the issues paper

The Ministry of Justice has released its issues paper [PDF] on election funding. Its well worth a read. The paper is part of a broader consultation process on electoral finance reform, and submissions on it could conceivably help shape the law (alternatively, National and ACT could already have decided what they are going to do, and use their easy majority to bulldoze through an illegitimate system which gives power to the rich and turns our democracy into a sham). There will be a series of public consultation meetings next month, and submissions are due by 26 June.

This is too important an issue to leave in the hands of self-interested party hacks and wannabe plutocrats. If we want a fair and transparent electoral system which allows all of us to have a say and ensures that our voices count equally rather than being drowned out by the rich few, we need to speak up about it, and loudly.

Rodney wants out

The Rodney District Council has decided that it wants no part of its namesake's dictatorial Auckland Supercity, and instead wants to become a unitary authority:

The council, which represents about 90,000 people, says it wants to have the functions of both a district and regional council instead.

The council has voted 8-3 to investigate that option and will consider making that proposal to a select committee hearing submissions on the super-city.

Here's a better plan: they could ask the people of their district instead, by holding a referendum under the Local Electoral Act. Do they want to be run from Auckland or not? Local government belongs to the people, and so they should get to decide.

The problem with this plan is that a referendum costs money, and so the Auckland dictatorship could veto it. But just think of the message that would send: an unelected gang of rich businessmen deciding that the people of Rodney - and by implication of Auckland - can't have their say on the shape of their local government.

(I should note that making a proper submission to the select committee will probably cost the Council a fair amount of money as well, and so is probably also subject to a veto by the dictatorship. Which would be an even worse message - not only would the people of Rodney be denied a direct vote on the matter; they wouldn't even be able to collectively voice their opinion to Parliament...)

Shameless III

"You're all just jealous"

That - seriously - is the response of a UK Conservative MP to public criticism of his claiming 90,000 pounds over four years from the taxpayer to maintain his country house in Devon.

He has now been forced to apologise and announce that he will be retiring at the next election - and rightly so. But his attitude is indicative of an entire political class which is completely out of touch with ordinary voters, and utterly shameless about its privileges. Its time to clean out the entire Augean stables on the Thames and make politicians accountable again - and the best way of doing it is by electoral reform.

For when the time finally comes

Inspired by Emma's post on same-sex marriage, here's a little something I whipped up last night:

Marriage (Equality) Amendment Bill

The Parliament of New Zealand enacts as follows:

1. Title
This Act is the Marriage (Equality) Amendment Act 2009.

2. Commencement
This Act comes into force on 1 April 2010.

3. Purpose
The purpose of this Act is to amend the Marriage Act 1955 to provide for same-sex marriage.

4. Principal Act Amended
This Act amends the Marriage Act 1955.

5. Section 3 Amended
Section 3 of the Principal Act is amended by inserting the following subsection after subsection (1):

"(1A) Two people may marry under this Act if they are of different or the same sex.

6. Schedule substituted
Schedule 2 of the Principal Act is repealed and the following new schedule substituted:

Schedule 2
Prohibited degrees of Marriage

1 Person A and person B are within the prohibited degrees of marriage if person A is person B's

  1. grandparent
  2. parent
  3. child
  4. grandchild
  5. sibling
  6. parent's sibling
  7. sibling's child
  8. grandparent's spouse or civil union partner
  9. parent's spouse or civil union partner
  10. spouse's or civil union partner's parent
  11. spouse's or civil union partner's grandparent
  12. spouse's or civil union partner's child
  13. child's spouse or civil union partner
  14. grandchild's spouse or civil union partner
  15. spouse's or civil union partner's grandchild

2 The prohibited degrees of marriage apply whether the relationships described are by the whole blood or by the half blood.

3 In this schedule, spouse and civil union partner includes a former spouse or former civil union partner, whether alive or deceased, and whether the marriage or civil union was terminated by death, dissolution, or otherwise.
(Compare 2004 No 102 Schedule 2)

And that's all we need to do. As I note on the project page for this bill, I don't think there's a majority for it in the present Parliament - people are still too nervous after civil unions and s59. But 2011 or 2014 are another story, and its good to have the bill lying around and ready to go for when the time finally comes.

Auckland oligarchy appointed

Rodney Hide has announced his appointments to the oligarchical board which will run Auckland's transitional dictatorship - and as expected, its dominated by businessmen:

Mark Ford, chief executive of the region's water wholesaler, Watercare Services, and chairman of the Auckland Regional Transport Authority is to chair the Auckland Transition Agency, as widely expected.


Accountant John Waller, who chairs the Bank of New Zealand and the Eden Park Redevelopment Board, and Wayne Walden, a former boss of Farmers Deka and former Maori Television chairman also join the agency, along with former Rodney mayor John Law and lawyer Miriam Dean, QC.

The message couldn't be clearer: Hide thinks goverment is "like a business", to be run "efficiently". Democracy apparently is a waste of time.

As for accountability, these people aren't elected by the people of Auckland, and they're certainly not responsible to them. They don't have to fear being held accountable by the people in democratic elections. instead, the only person they have to keep happy is the Minister. And when they screw up, the people won't get a chance to summarily de-elect them pour encourager les autres - instead they'll just glide on to their next fat business appointment, with a new bunch of "shareholders" to screw over.

Thanks to Hide, Aucklanders are now subjects rather than citizens in their local government. And while they can't hold the oligarch's democratically accountable, they can certainly do that to Hide and his enablers in the National Party. Something to remember for 2011...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

But is it enough?

A Manawatu man has been given a record fine under the RMA for illegally discharging farm effluent onto land, and "meaty smelling" waste into the Manawatu River. Ken Thurston was fined $140,000 for "deliberate and calculated" discharges aimed at saving money. But the question is whether it was enough to outweigh the profits he made from his pollution. And if it wasn't, its neither a punishment or a deterrant, but merely a cost of doing business.

Don Brash versus the laws of evidence

Poor Don Brash - still whining after all these years about his "stolen" (leaked) emails. And still utterly failing to understand that, unless the leaker comes forward, there is nothing the police can do about it. Why not? Because - contra 24, the police can't just beat answers out of people. Nor can they just kick in doors and search for stolen documents. In order to that, they need a search warrant, and that in turn requires showing a judge they have reasonable grounds to believe that said documents will be in a particular place. Absent something like a witness saying they saw them printing Brash's emails, or emails released to police showing that they had been corresponding with Nicky Hager about dropping off the latest "package", that's just not enough.

What about Hager himself? Brash contrasts the police's handling of Hager with its pursuit of a search warrant against TV3's John Campbell over his interview with the Waiouru medal thief. But while journalists can be ordered to reveal their sources, the threshold is very high, requiring a High Court Judge to balance the public interest in forcible disclosure against the public interest in both the communication of facts by the media and the ability of the media to access sources. That balance isn't clear in the case of Campbell, but it is clear in the case of Hager: I cannot imagine a judge forcing disclosure in a highly political leak case in which there was a high public interest in exposure and the alleged crime is so minor. And neither, I expect, can the police.

This isn't a "conspiracy", it isn't "political bias" - it's the simple laws of evidence. But Brash it seems would rather retreat into paranoia and conspiracy theories than accept that he was betrayed by someone in his own party and that they are (quite sensibly) keeping silent about it.

Winning hearts and minds

In the "war on terror", intelligence is crucial. So how do the British intelligence services recruit informants? By persecuting innocent people, labelling them terrorists, and then saying it will all go away if they agree to become spies:

After they were sent back to the UK, they were interviewed by MI5 officers who, they say, falsely accused them of links to Islamic extremism. On each occasion the agents said they would lift the travel restrictions and threat of detention in return for their co-operation. When the men refused some of them received what they say were intimidating phone calls and threats.

Two other Muslim men say they were approached by MI5 at their homes after police officers posed as postmen. Each of the five men, aged between 19 and 25, was warned that if he did not help the security services he would be considered a terror suspect. A sixth man was held by MI5 for three hours after returning from his honeymoon in Saudi Arabia. He too claims he was threatened with travel restrictions if he tried to leave the UK.

As with so much else in the war on terror, its not just wrong, it's stupid. There is no better way to recruit people to terrorism than persecute the innocent. MI5's thuggish tactics may come back to bite innocents in the future. But I guess they'll just see that as another excuse to demand more money and more power to pursue the war they themselves seem to be doing their utmost to provoke.

Gay marriage and "conscientious objection"

For the past month, I've been watching the progress of a same-sex marriage bill in New Hampshire. The bill was passed by both houses a couple of weeks ago, but the Governor sent it back demanding amendments to protect "conscientious objection" by religious groups. It was expected that the legislature would bow down and pass those amendments - but today the state House of Representatives voted them down 188 - 186. And its not hard to see why - the Governor's proposed language wouldn't just allow bigoted clergy to refuse to marry gay couples or bigoted churches to decide who and who is not allowed into their clubhouse; it would also allow religious groups to engage in widespread discrimination against gay couples in respect of the provision of goods and services related to marriages or the "promotion" of marriages (including - and this is explicitly mentioned - housing). And that is simply wrong. While same-sex marriage is important, it should not come at the cost of writing "except for fags" into anti-discrimination law.

This is likely to be an issue in New Zealand when the time comes to legalise same-sex marriage, as the bigots fight tooth and nail to preserve not just their right to hate, but their "right" to discriminate and victimise on the basis of that hatred. But our Human Rights Act is very clear: discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is prohibited, and that covers the provision of goods and services. In the case of marriage itself, this is presently a non-issue - those who object to Civil Unions simply don't become celebrants - but looking at the analogy of religious discrimination (which is similarly prohibited, but where some religious groups are bigoted and wish to discriminate against members of others) we seem to handle that without any trouble (partly because it is legally unclear whether you are employing the celebrant, or whether they are providing a service, but mostly I think because of mutual agreement. Who wants to be married by someone who objects to performing the service?) But in the case of a venue such as a church, religious groups are bound by the law: if they offer it openly to the public (rather than just to members of their club), they must do so irrespective of the religious beliefs or sexual orientation of the participants. "No atheists or queers" is as legally (and morally) objectionable as "no dogs or Irish".

Draconian but not secret

In the Herald this morning, Green MP Sue Kedgley criticises the new Auckland Transitional Authority's draconian powers:

"The transition agency has extraordinary powers that I have never seen in legislation before," said the Greens' local government spokeswoman.

She was particularly concerned about a clause stating the agency had to provide information to the public only "as it sees fit".

She's right that those powers - for example to over-rule decisions made by elected local governments - are extraordinary and draconian. But she's absolutely wrong about the secrecy. Section 24 of the Local Government (Auckland Reorganisation) Act 2009 is quite clear:
The Ombudsmen Act 1975 and the Official Information Act 1982 apply to the Transition Agency as if the Transition Agency were an organisation named in Part 2 of Schedule 1 of the Ombudsmen Act 1975.
Which in English, means the ATA is subject to the OIA, and obliged to provide information unless there is good reason to withhold it. Now, I think there will be implementation problems with this - the business executives Rodney Hide wants to appoint will have little experience with the Act and will come from a culture of secrecy rather than openness, and are thus unlikely to take their OIA obligations seriously or interpret its provisions correctly and in accordance with the Ombudsman's practice guidelines (a criticism which BTW can also be levelled at several new government Ministers). But it is simply false to claim that the ATA will be able to release information only "as it sees fit". They will not, and if they try, the Ombudsmen will correct their erroneous views.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Celebrity justice isn't OK

Last month, TV celebrity Tony Veitch was sentenced to 300 hours community service after being convicted of a vicious assault in which he fractured his then-partner's spine. The low sentence was the result of a plea bargain, which saw six other charges dismissed. But today, the police were forced to release the prosecution file to the media, including details of the other assaults Veitch is alleged to have committed. And they are utterly shocking:

According to the original police summary of facts, these other alleged assaults included Veitch:
  • Forcing her against wall and kicking her leg several times at her Orakei home.
  • Throwing Dunne-Powell onto a bed at the Stables Cottages in Northland. Veitch punched a wall, leaving a hole which needed repairs.
  • Throwing her onto a bed and pinned her down in a Novotel hotel room in Rotorua after Veitch MCed an event.
  • Chasing her upstairs at his St Heliers home, cornered her, then kicked her so hard she was unable to walk.
  • Pinning her to the bed and punching her in the torso at his home.
  • Grabbing her arms leaving bruises, then kicking her legs at his home.
No doubt this will see another round of minimisation from Veitch, but there is no other way to describe this but repeated, serious assault. And prosecutors cut him a deal? I cannot imagine that they would even consider it if the alleged offender was poor and brown. But justice is apparently different for celebrities.

Supercity hikoi


Auckland iwi are planning a hikoi next week to demand proper representation in the planned Auckland SuperCity:

When: Monday, May 25, 12 noon (or earlier - see below)
Where: Marchers will converge from multiple locations at the bottom of Queen Street, then march to the Town Hall and Aotea Square.

Full details are here. If you want to march from one of the other locations, then check out the earlier start times there (typically 9:30 or 10:30).

This isn't just about Māori representation - its also about democracy in the supercity, and the arrogant way the government is handling it. So if you care, make your voice heard.

[Hat-tip: The Standard]

Fiji: more detentions

Intelligensiya reports that Fijian lawyers Richard Naidu and Jon Apted have been detained by police, apparently on suspicion of running an anti-regime blog.

And this is the regime John Key wants to reward: one that will not allow its citizens the basic right to criticise their government.

Fiji: rewarding dictatorship

Earlier in the month, the Pacific Islands Forum responded to the Fijian regime's purported abrogation of the constitution by suspending it. The UN has reportedly decided that it will no longer employ Fijian peacekeepers, while the EU has cut off millions of dollars in sugar grants. Meanwhile, the New Zealand government has quietly relaxed the ban on sporting contact:

Mr Key said yesterday that New Zealand had "softened" its stance on visiting sports teams since National took power last November.

"New Zealand has been effectively softening its sanctions in relation to sporting ties and the travel of sports teams," he said. "To all intents and purposes, since we've been the Government we've been signing off on sports teams either transiting to New Zealand or coming to engage in sports activities here."

So, at the very time when the regime is getting worse, undermining the rule of law, freeing torturers and detaining anyone who reports it, our government is rewarding them. The ban on visiting sports teams wasn't much, but it did send a message (and one the government couldn't censor) that it was not "business as usual". But even that it seems is too much for National. They have a long and dirty history of cuddling up to dictatorship (they infamously supported South Africa's apartheid regime in the 70's and 80's, and John Key still "doesn't remember" where he stood on that), and this is merely a continuation of it.

[Hat-tip: Coup 4.5]

Cracking down on loan sharks

Over at Kiwiblog, DPF takes a look at Charles Chauvel's Credit Reforms (Responsible Lending) Bill aimed at cracking down on loan sharks and irresponsible lenders. The bill basically does two things:

  • enables the Governor of the Reserve bank to set a maximum annual rate of interest for loans; and
  • requires lenders to have a reasonable belief that the borrower is able to repay the loan.

In other words: ban usury, and make banks and lenders do their jobs and actually assess people for risk, rather than lending money to people who can't possibly pay it back. It's a good start in dealing with the problem of loan sharking, though as with DPF and Gordon Campbell I have some concerns that the Reserve Bank's maximum will become a target. But the bill certainly deserves examination by a select committee. And hopefully it'll get that chance after the next ballot.

(And I'm pleased to see that suddenly a lot more people are taking an interest in member's bills... a few years of work pays off)


Last week, Speaker of the House of Commons Michael Martin responded to the growing scandal around MPs shamelessly rorting their expenses by abusing those who dared to complain about it. Today he was forced to resign - becoming the first Speaker in over 300 years to be forcibly removed from office.

But its not enough. While Martin, as the enabler and aggressive defender of political corruption, had to go, the public understand very well that the problem is with the whole Westminster culture. And there is now a determined push for change. MPs guilty of rorting their expenses face calls for "prosecution, de-selection, dismissal, defeat and defenestration", "clean hands" candidates are springing up, and there is even a real push for electoral reform. New Zealand had a similar feeling of disillusionment and outrage in the early 90's in response to both parties betraying the voters to pursue a neo-liberal Revolution - and it gave us MMP. Hopefully something similar will come of the current outrage in the UK.

Meanwhile, Steven Price points out that this has only happened because in the UK Parliamentary expenses are subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Which both demonstrates perfectly the value of that transparency, and raises the question: isn't it time we imposed similar transparency on our Parliament? While I don't think our politicians come even remotely close to the level of systematic corruption demonstrated in the UK (for a start, they're properly paid, so there's less pressure), that's not the sort of thing we should have to take on faith. If we cant a clean, accountable Parliament, we need transparency. And if the politicians oppose it, we have to get new ones. It is that simple.

So much the worse for the law

On Sunday night, TVNZ's Sunday screened a look inside a typical New Zealand pig farm, showing pigs confined in crates, frothing at the mouth and chewing the bars. The images were so appalling that the Minister of Agriculture was forced to get involved, promising that the farm would be investigated. MAF officials completed their inspection today, and - unsurprisingly - have found that everything was in accordance with the law:

Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry investigators say a piggery belonging to a former pork industry board chairman is not breaking any animal welfare laws.

MAF investigations manager Greg Reid told Newstalk ZB the ministry could only take action if specific animals were suffering unnecessarily or if the pigs had untreated diseases.

To which the response has to be "so much the worse for the law". Seriously, if the law permits the sort of suffering and cruelty shown in the "Sunday" segment, then it is clearly inadequate and in need of strengthening.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Nomination day

Nominations for the Mt Albert byelection closed at noon today, and the Chief Electoral Office has announced the list of candidates:

  • Jim Bagnall/Independent
  • Ari Baker/Independent
  • John Boscawen/ACT New Zealand
  • Ben Boyce/The Bill and Ben Party
  • Simonne Dyer/Kiwi Party
  • Malcolm France/People Before Profit
  • Dakta Green/Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party
  • Rusty Kane/The Peoples Choice Party
  • Melissa Lee/National Party
  • Russel Norman/Green Party
  • Julian Pistorius/Libertarianz
  • David Shearer/Labour Party
  • Judy Turner/United Future
  • Anthony Joseph James Van Den Heuvel/Human Rights Party
  • Jackson James Wood/Independent
For those wondering, Malcolm France is a coordinator for ClimAction, the Human Rights Party are a couple of people pushing for greater recognition of economic, social and cultural rights, and Rusty Kane is a regular crank around the election circuit, though normally he runs as an independent rather than under his old "People's Choice" vehicle. Jackson Wood of course lives in Wellington.

"Boy racers": crushing our human rights

Back in February, in a typical authoritarian knee-jerk reaction, Police Minister Judith Collins proposed crushing the cars of boy racers and forcing them to watch. Yesterday I acquired the Ministry of Justice's advice on this proposal - and as with their advice on ASBOs, it is less than enthusiastic:

Justice has several concerns about the proposed changes to the Sentencing Act to allow routine vehicle crushing. The punishment may be disproportionate to the offence, and there may be issues with consistency between sentences if both high value and low value vehicles are crushed. There is also a question as to the appropriateness of crushing a valuable commodity of this kind, particularly when the car may be substantially owned by a finance company and this may result in a significant debt burden. Innocent third parties with an interest in the vehicle would also be unfairly penalised by crushing confiscated vehicles. In addition, the cost of storing and eventually crushing vehicles would fall to Justice. Currently funding is not allocated within Justice's baseline to accommodate these increased costs. This option is therefore not considered appropriate.
(Memo to Ministers of Justice and Courts on "proposals to address illegal street racing and associated antisocial behaviour")

Which sounds pretty much like "it's a crock of shit and it stinks". So you can see how it will end up. From the same memo:

However, due to the high level of publicity it has generated, Police consider work to further explore this matter is necessary and are leading further cross-agency work on this matter.
In the final memo in early March, Justice elaborates further on the problems:
  • Applying such orders to a limited class of offending undermines consistency and relativity between the sentences imposed for comparable and more serious offences. For example, it would be anomalous for forfeiture and destruction orders to apply to illegal street racing offences, but not to the more serious offence of vehicular manslaughter or careless use of a motor vehicle causing injury or death
  • Forfeiture and destruction orders would have different consequences in different cases. An offender who had a high value vehicle would lose a great deal more than an offender with a low value vehicle, even though they may have committed the same offence. In extreme cases, involving lower level offending and high value vehicles, it may even constitute a disproportionate penalty in breach of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.
  • Forfeiture and destruction orders would have an effect on finance companies. In many cases, the vehicle could be heavily financed and the companies would lose the security for the debt.
  • In the case of low value vehicles, Justice would have to absorb most, if not all of the costs associated with the orders. Justice would have to pay to store the vehicles until any appeals had been determined or the time for appealing had expired. it would also have to pay to have the vehicle crushed or otherwise dismantled. Unlike confiscation orders, where sale of the vehicle provides a larger sum of money, it would be difficult to recoup all of these costs when the vehicle is destroyed.
Despite this, the Minister still wanted crushing, and directed the Ministries of Justice, Transport and Police to develop a proposal to seize and crush vehicles where an offender has been convicted of two street racing offences in the past four years. It would be nice if Ministers could deal with their impotence issues in private, rather than crushing our human rights.


Public Address's Emma Hart systematically refutes the "arguments" against gay marriage. The only one that's left standing? Our politicians are too cowardly to push on with it. Given the shitstorm the previous government had over civil unions and then section 59, their wariness is understandable - but at the same time it is something we need to work to change. And it will change. Five years of civil unions has shown that the sky will not fall if we formally recognise gay relationships, and that it is in fact completely ordinary. And that sense will only grow as more time passes, and more comparable overseas jurisdictions (Sweden, Canada, the more liberal parts of the US) go the whole way.

I don't think anyone will bring a bill this term. But from 2011 on, when the smacking debate has died down, its open season on bigots.


How much will Justice Minister Simon Power's plans to deny New Zealanders a fair trial save? A paltry $20 million. Talk about penny-pinching. If it costs us $20 million to have an effective bullshit detector in our court system, an effective check on police and prosecutorial abuses, and for people to be able to have faith in the outcome because they collectively participated in it, then that is money well spent. And it would be nice if we had a "justice" Minister who cared enough about justice to agree...

"Kickstarting biofuels"

The government has announced an industry grant program with the aim of kickstarting biodiesel production in New Zealand. Of course, we already had a perfectly good means of kickstarting biodiesel production - and more importantly, getting the oil industry to upgrade its infrastructure to cope with an additional fuel blend - in the form of the biofuels sales obligation. But one of the first things National did on gaining power was repeal it. So instead of a clear, transparent market-based mechanism which set targets for the industry as a whole, but didn't favour any particular players, we now have straight-out industry pork propping up specific companies. It certainly shows the lie behind National's "more market" rhetoric...

This is not the policy of a party interested in promoting the widespread adoption of biofuels. It is instead the policy of a party wanting to use them solely as greenwash. The result will be that we are slow to adopt, meaning in turn both higher greenhouse gas emissions, and greater vulnerability to potential disruptions in fossil fuel supply. It is simply bad, shortsighted policy.

Monday, May 18, 2009

In defence of juries

Over the weekend, Justice Minister Simon Power floated the idea of doing away with jury trials in most cases in order to save money. It's an absolutely appalling idea, which would strip our justice system of a vital protection, and paradoxically lead to even more court time being wasted on appeals over whether the accused received a fair trial or not.

At the moment, anyone accused of an offence carrying a penalty of more than three months imprisonment can elect to be tried by a jury as of right. Simon Power wants to raise that threshold to three years. Among the crimes which would fall below the new threshold are common assault, childbeating, domestic violence, low-level theft and drug possession - the bread and butter of the court system. This move would reduce the number of jury trials by around a thousand cases a year - 60% of the total. But what we'd save in money and time, we'd lose in justice - and in public trust in the outcome.

Juries exist for two reasons. The first is to examine the facts, on the grounds that twelve pairs of eyes are better than one. The second is to ensure that the police and prosecution have done their job properly and prevent abuses of power. They are there essentially as a bullshit-detector - a vital protection in a democratic society. Limiting the right to trial by jury is thus a fundamental assault on our human rights. And no amount of money can justify it. If Power is truly concerned about delays in the court system, he should resource it properly to cope with demand, not undermine our human rights in the name of "efficiency".

Correction: clarified jury trial threshold.

"Boy Racers": Justice hates ASBOs

For the past two months, I have been attempting to extract information from the government on its proposals to use "cease and desist" orders against boy racers. Two weeks ago, I managed to extract the Police's initial list of demands to Judith Collins, which included an authoritarian plan to apply "cease and desist" orders to vehicles on suspicion, with no court, no hearings, and no requirement for evidence - a policy which is even worse than ASBOs. Today, I received the Ministry of Justice's advice on these proposals - and they utterly pan them. Here's what they had to say about the proposal to use ASBO-style "cease and desist" orders to target disorderly behaviour:

Justice officials recently met with Transport and Police officials to discuss the proposal to create powers for police to issue 'cease and desist' notices and the adequacy of the existing sections 3 and 5A of the Summary Offences Act (1981) (SOA) relating to disorderly behaviour and disorderly assembly respectively. This proposal is intended to target antisocial activity (rather than actual street racing) that may result where large groups of people congregate to watch, but not necessarily participate in, illegal street racing.

[Paragraph withheld under s9(2)(h) OIA - legal advice]

Justice agrees that section 3 as it currently stands is adequate, and can be appropriately used in response to situations such as those recently experienced in Christchurch.

Officials are concerned that 'cease and desist' has become a 'soundbite' catchphrase for tackling illegal street racers without understanding the implications of such a regimes implications [sic]. Such orders resemble the Anti-Social behaviour Orders (ASBOs) currently in place in the UK. Justice is concerned that failure to comply with such orders can quickly escalate and criminalise people whose original offences were relatively minor. In turn this escalation creates increased costs for enforcement agencies and courts.

Getting a 'cease and desist' notice could also become a 'badge of honour' and lose its deterrent impact. Anecdotal evidence indicates this is th case with Antisocial behaviour Orders (ASBOs) in the United Kingdom.

Justice also considers that the proposed cease and desist orders risk conflicting with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, and the status quo provides adequate tools for Police, without potentially impinging citizen's rights to free association and assembly.

Due to these concerns, [3-4 words withheld under s9(2)(g)(i) - free and frank advice] Justice officials recommend against cease and desist notices. Officials believe the SOA, used correctly, is a more powerful and appropriate tool.

(Memo to Ministers of Justice and Courts on "proposals to address illegal street racing and associated antisocial behaviour; links added)

The memo has a large section on "illegal street racing and successful local responses" (OMG! Evidence-based policy!), contrasting the success of Hamilton, Tauranga, New Plymouth and Manukau in dealing with "boy racers" by using liquor bans, a specific road closure, provision of dedicated facilities, and the use of dedicated teams (interestingly, deaths due to racing seem to play as much of a role as policy and policing in preventing it; people stop when they see their friends killed). And on this issue at least, the government seems to have paid attention - while further details of the "cease and desist" scheme have been withheld (something I will be challenging with the Ombudsmen), the final memo indicates that the Minister of Justice, Police, transport and Courts rejected those options, instead directing police to

review their existing operational approaches to managing illegal street racing and the anti-social behaviour associated with it and to ensure all legislative and other operational policing approaches are being delivered effectively.
It's a rare victory for sanity (really, boy racing does seem to be a Christchurch problem, exacerbated by thuggish policing). Unfortunately, its the only one. I have more documents on the proposals for car crushing and "vehicle orders", but they deserve posts of their own.

A freeze for some, but not for others

Air New Zealand Chief Executive Rob Fyfe has announced a pay freeze for Air New Zealand staff. Pay will be frozen for those earning more than $80,000 a year, while pay rises for those on lower salaries will be capped below inflation. Meanwhile, Fyfe himself is sitting pretty, having awarded himself an extra $1.5 million a year - $30,000 a week - just before this move.

(And remember, that's taxpapyer's money he's giving himself; that $1.5 million is money that could be given to the government in dividends and used to pay for hip operations...)

I guess its a pay freeze for some but not for others...

Truth through humour

(Stolen from the Hand Mirror)

None of my damn business

For the third morning in a row, sewage about Christine Rankin's marriage is splashed across the media. In some ways, she made this an issue herself, having highlighted her marriages in her initial interviews on the day of her appointment (yet another example of Rankin thinking its All About Her). But despite that, it's still wrong, for two reasons.

The first is simply liberal respect for privacy. Who Rankin screws, when, how, and whether its behind anyone else's back, is simply none of my damn business. I don't want to think about what goes on in her bedroom, and I certainly don't want her thinking about what goes on in mine.

The second is that it is utterly irrelevant. Contrary to the beliefs of Christian Conservatives, it is not the role of the Families Commission to be a "moral exemplar". Instead, their function is to be "an advocate for the interests of families generally" (and that means all sorts of families, not just straight married breeders). In addition, they have subsidiary functions of encouraging debate, promoting awareness, making recommendations, and conducting research into issues affecting families. It has very hard to see how the private lives of the Commissioners - who primarily have an oversight role - are in any way relevant to this.

There is more than enough in Rankin's background to justify opposing her appointment without having to get into Wishart-style panty-sniffing. By taking the bait, all the media have done is added another layer to her towering persecution complex - and shown once again that they prefer scandal and trivia over substance.